Getting festive: Dragon Boat Races

Another crowded bus trip, another day of festive exploring! This time we were squeezed into a bus on the way to Lukang for the Dragon Boat Festival. We were really excited, as we had to miss the event last year, and as the bus trundled the thankfully short distance from Changhua, we prepared for a day of sunny skies and rowing races.

The festival is an annual event that takes place on the fifth day of the fifth month in the Chinese calendar, and is most famous for the rowing races that are the holiday’s main focus. Watching the races is so popular, the holiday in Taiwan extends over multiple days, meaning a long weekend for exploring, watching races, and eating rice dumplings!

There are a few stories around the origins of the festival’s traditions, but the one we’ve heard the most here is the story of Qu Yuan. He was a famous poet who died in 278BC, according to legend by drowning himself. The story goes that he was exiled from his homeland, after couselling his lord not to make war with the neighbouring Kingdom of Qing. On hearing that his homeland had been invaded and taken by the Qing, he threw himself into the Milou River. The people nearby were so upset by this that they apparently raced out in boats to retrieve the body, throwing sticky rice balls into the river to keep the fish from eating the poet’s body. As a result, today teams of rowers compete with one another in races, and people all around Taiwan eat tasty zongzi, rice dumplings wrapped in leaves.

We arrived in Lukang and set off on foot to the river where the races were happening. After finding our way past Molu Lane again, we made it to the bridge over the river. The area has been purpose built for the event, with cement grandstands, curved viewing platforms, and a field for a small market. The afternoon was hot, and so we headed for the market to get some late lunch and something to drink. We got some fruit teas, but had no luck finding the Zongzi the festival is famous for! We settled for a variety of Taiwanese market usuals, and made for the stands.

The races were fun to watch. Each one is a head-to-head of two teams, racing to the finish, or sometimes to fling a floating flag into the air first. The boats, unsurprisingly, are made to look like dragons. They really looked quite cool, and as the sun set and they lit up in changing colours. The races were quite festive, especially as evening fell and the stands filled up. Winners were cheered as they rowed back to the start, and some of the races were very close. We watched for a few hours, drinking tea or beer to stave off the golden late afternoon heat. And as it started to get dark, we made our way back to the bus terminal and from there to Changhua.

The Dragon Boat Festival is one of the most popular in Taiwan, and seeing the races on such a beautiful afternoon and evening was really wonderful.

The long haul #4: Tainan

As we gradually make our way through our wish list of places to visit, Tainan was the last of the city destinations (for now… the list keeps changing all the time). While it doesn’t exactly trigger the radar of tourism hotspots in Taiwan, there is a lot to see in Tainan, especially for history enthusiasts! The local government is also working to make English the ‘second official language’ of Tainan, and a list of “English Friendly” businesses was given to us when we checked into our hotel!

The city is roughly divided into two sections: Tainan proper and the Anping District, where they keep all the history. Tainan itself is one of the prettier cities we’ve visited, but it isn’t easy to get around in. Plans for a metrorail were abandoned due to lack of funding and the shuttle buses just aren’t quite able to provide the same blissful feeling of ease and comfort as the underground systems in Taipei and Kaoshiung. However, we highly recommend Anping as an interesting, tourist friendly and easy-to-get-around place. Now on to the highlight reel:

We arrived in Tainan late on Saturday morning and made a bee-line for Anping. The shuttle buses do a fine job in this respect. Getting to Anping was really straightforward, and as the whole area is one sprawling tourist attraction, even getting off at the wrong stop is easily remedied on foot.  We started out at the Old Tait & Co. Merchant House, a former Dutch colonial era building, which has been converted into a museum about the history of Anping (essentially a long list colonisations by different countries). The old house is right next to one of the most famous attractions in the area, the Anping Tree House, a huge, abandoned warehouse which has been almost totally overgrown by Banyan trees, to the point where some areas are more tree than building.

Having explored the alien horror movie-esque Tree House, we began strolling along the pretty cobbled street towards the other sites in the area. This led us down a long narrow street lined with street food stalls of every description. As Tainan is a port city, there is a lot of seafood to be found! One of the first things we tried was a mountain of brightly coloured shaved ice, in various fruity flavours. There were also a dozen or so people handing out free samples of prawn crackers, not unlike the ones we remember getting at Chinese restaurants when we were children. We also found some mysterious spiral shaped fried pastry things which were stuffed with green onion – mysterious yet absolutely delicious – and some coriander peanut brittle, a famous creation in the area. Tragically, we did not buy any of the famous brown sugar cake, but we watched a few demonstrations of the unique cooking methods and tried a small sample, which was also delicious!

Our next stop was the Anping Fort, also called Fort Zeelandia. The fort was originally built by Dutch settlers to watch over the merchant houses in Anping. It was then taken over by Chinese settlers and then by the Japanese settlers. There is a watch tower in the fort which you can climb up to look out over the city, and a portion of the massive original outer wall still stands, and the combination of different architectural styles makes the whole area very pretty to walk around in, even if you aren’t into the history.

Close to the fort is a temple to Mazu – one of many tributes to the goddess who protects sailors. The temple itself was very beautiful, with all the usual levels of detail and bright colours, but outside the temple was an special treat: Sun Wu Kong the trickster god, dancing around, collecting money to fund his next trip into the underworld (maybe). Of course we gave him some money, and in return he taught me the art of balance, which I suck at! From the temple, we continued our meandering until we found ourselves in a beautiful park under a giant statue of Mazu, looking out over the harbour. It felt like we had walked into a diorama for some utopian future project. Children were flying kites and chasing bubbles, dogs were playing together, young couples were having picnics, all under the smiling gaze of  Mazu.

Naturally, we followed this up by stopping to look at a naval destroyer anchored in the port. You can actually go onto the ship to look around, but by this time our feet were tired and so we just sat in its shadow and ate our lunch.

Our last stop in Anping was the Eternal Golden Fortress. This military fort was commissioned by the Chinese rulers and built by a French architect to defend against pirates and other sea-based threats. The fort is surrounded by a moat with only one way in and out, through a big archway which opens into the former training grounds, now a big grassy courtyard. This isn’t the kind of place you can spend hours, but it is interesting to look at the old canons and see how the fort was designed for visibility over the sea and defensibility (defendability?).

Having made our way back to Tainan, we checked into our hotel and then set out to find some dinner. Our plan had been to head for the Garden Night Market (not actually a garden), but on the way we found ourselves very near to Shenggong street, a walking district which now hosts trendy craft shops and liberal arts students with old fashioned cameras and asymmetrical haircuts. Here we found a lovely restaurant/bar/cafe/shop thing, run by a young Burmese couple. First of all, the shop was called Do Right Coffee and Green Kitchen, which sounded like a win right off the bat. The style of the shop was casual and homey, with the cafe and bar in the front, and if you are looking for food you simply go to the kitchen at the back, see what the chef is cooking and choose what you want. All the food is vegan, and there is a fridge of eco-friendly craft beers from around the world, as well as a really interesting menu of coffees and teas. We did eventually get to the night market too, which despite not being in a garden, was a surprisingly pleasant experience. Normally, I hate night markets because of the sheer volume of people in a confined space, but the Garden Night Market has multiple entrances and exits, wider pathways and loops around on itself a number of times, creating a good flow of people and preventing that claustrophobic feeling that other night markets have.

We may have over done the walking a little because the next day we both felt distinctly tired and just a little bit grouchy, but we had things to see! Outside of Anping, sight-seeing requires a little more effort as points of interest are much further apart, and the shuttle buses are a lot less helpful here! One of the main things to see in the Chihkan Tower, also known as Fort Provintia (yep, another fort. The Dutch settlers were a little obsessive). This fort was meant to connect this part of Tainan with the Anping district to strengthen Dutch influence in Taiwan, except that it was also captured by the Chinese settlers, and the story continues! The building is now a temple to the god of learning and is often visited by students about to write important exams.

The largest and more famous Grand Mazu Temple was closed for renovations, so we weren’t able to visit it, but this did give us more time to explore another walking district where we tried Thai milk tea (green tea with condensed milk, yum!), waited in a long queue outside a famous ice cream shop but eventually gave up, and bought some cute Studio Ghibli figures. From here, we visited the Blueprint Culture and Creative Park, a small stretch of old street which has been closed off and turned into a very pretty boutique shopping district, with striking murals on the walls, and a cool mix of modern  art and old architecture.

Our final stop, before our legs gave out, was the Tainan Confucian Temple, the oldest temple to Confucius in Taiwan. It’s one of the most famous temples in Taiwan too, and is right next door to a former martial arts academy built during Japanese occupation, which is now not open to the public, but still very beautiful to look at.

Although Tainan was not the most convenient city to visit, it was definitely worth it. If you are a history buff like Brendan, Anping is like Christmas town, and if you can get the hang of the buses, or don’t mind spending the money on taxis, Tainan itself is a lovely city to be in. It’s quieter than Taipei, but doesn’t have that massive, sprawling, overwhelming feeling of Kaoshiung. Also, the push to make English ubiquitous could make it a fantastic tourist location in the near future!

Daytrippers #6: Jiji

Another long weekend, another trip out to somewhere new! This time we joined forces with a bunch of our teachers and made our way inland to the small Nantou township of Jiji. Word to the wise, get your tones right on this town, or tell everyone you were visiting the male anatomy on your trip.

To get to Jiji you need to make a train switch at Ershui station, changing onto a specially decorated little train that takes you on a special line to the township. Each compartment has its own decor theme – some with animated cats, others with aliens named after the train number (Mr 10 and Ms 01 for train DSC1001). Because it was a public holiday the train was quite full, but the scenery was green and pretty and the trip not too long.

Out at the station, we were greeted by an old puffing steam train photo opportunity, and the town’s famous banana rolls. As with many small Taiwanese towns, Jiji takes its local crop and runs with it: you can get banana ice cream, banana milkshakes, banana smoothies, and these crisp banana rolls. They are delicious! We left with a whole box to enjoy at home.

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For once we were really lucky with the weather – a sunny day that wasn’t too hot. It was perfect for Jiji’s outdoorsy activities. We started with a walk to the town’s major site of interest. A massive earthquake in 1999 shook the town, and the large temple collapsed dramatically. The remains have been left as a reminder of the devastation alongside the new temple.

The juxtaposition of the beautiful and detailed new temple alongside the similarly impressive and tragic-looking ruin was powerful. This sombre atmosphere was aided by a busker on a guitar picking a tune somewhere between traditional Chinese and mournful blues. Trees and plants grow through the gaps in the building, and many of the upper floor’s sculptures now glare out at eye level.

After our stop there we rented some bicycles and cycled around the township a bit. This is definitely a popular way to see the area, and we saw many families renting four-seater tandem bicycle-car-contraptions. We went with more conventional bicycles and whizzed around the town’s outskirts, through a graveyard, and up a hill. It was really pretty!

After our cycle ride, we had to make a choice of Jiji’s other outdoor activities: go-karting or paintball. After a group vote, we settled on the former. For a really good price, we settled into our karts and hit up the track. We had a mix of skill levels, and none of us were really counting our laps and tracking who came first. Nonetheless we had a blast flinging ourselves around the track for what felt like a really long time! With one kart struggling to get going, and the usual competitive ‘unintentional’ ramming, we had a lot of fodder for banter as we made our way back to the train station.

We did a fair bit of sightseeing, and Jiji is definitely a place to go with a group to try out the many activities on offer, from paintball to animatronic singing bear rides, to go-karting and cycling. It was also lovely getting out of the not so green Changhua city and up into a more mountainous and green spot!

The long haul #3.5: Spirited away in Jiufen

I could barely contain my Studio Ghibli fanboy excitement as we thundered up the winding mountain road to the small town of Jiufen, about an hour out of Taipei. We had caught an express train out of Taipei to Ruifang, where we were greeted by a collection of costumed teddy bear statues (including the least scary vampirate, Zeus, and Einstein) while we figured out which bus to take. While the trip was about 15 minutes from Riufang station to Jiufen, the speed-racing and liberally honking bus driver wanted us to use that time to fully consider our own mortality. We almost kissed the sweet solid ground at our stop, before making our way to our B&B.

Jiufen is a pretty famous sightseeing spot in Taiwan. It’s a historic gold mining town, with many of its old buildings still intact. If you, like me, love Hayao Miyazaki’s films, you’ve seen the heart of Jiufen in Spirited Away‘s winding and confusing stairs, towering ancient bath house, and overall feeling of wonder. Miyazaki, like so many others, visited the town and came away inspired by it. The town itself was built during the Japanese occupation, and so it’s architecture has a strong Japanese style in the old district. The old tea house (faithfully recreated in the Amei Tea House in the centre of the town) was one classic example – and Miyazaki drew on it for the bath house in Spirited Away.

Before even starting on the wonderful small town, it’s worth talking about our amazing host. We found our B&B at the edge of the town, looking right down into a gorge that ran right to the sea. After tenatively pressing what we hoped was the doorbell, a husky voice called from somewhere above that he’d be down now. We were greeted by Uncle Xie, who waved us in and excitedly checked up after our health. Uncle Xie was everything you could want from a host. He was friendly, usually soft spoken except for his excited “yaaaah” when we agreed with anything you said, and full of advice on the way to have a wonderful trip to Jiufen. He organised us breakfast (traditional Taiwan style o-nigiri and warm soymilk), and even lent us umbrellas so that ours could be packed away dryly for the trip home. His weathered face and Buddai-like earlobes really made him feel like a larger-than-life character like Uncle Iroh from Avatar: the Last Airbender.

With Uncle Xie’s battleplan for taking in all of Jiufen, we set out to find the famous staircase that cuts through the centre of the town. The eaves of the old buildings are lined with red lanterns that lead you up the many, many stone steps into the town itself. We were even accompanied by a funny little dog that led our way. It really felt like the universe was giving us the full Ghibli experience, and that the dog was going to be some magic spirit guide. He wasn’t, but he did take us all the way up to Jiufen’s old ironworks turned restored Japanese-style tea house and historic cinema.

Lanterns, cats, and stairs were all in absolute abundance, and it is very easy to wander the twisting paths around the town for ages, never entirely sure what you will see if you leave the tourist-filled stairs and Old Street. After taking the necessary classic photos, we decided to try and find the smaller gold mining museum in the town itself (more on the other museum later). This was a challenge that saw us stumble across the entrance to one of the old mining tunnels and a kind of spooky statue park.

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Us, basically.

Doubling back we tried again to get to the museum and found ourselves almost back where we started. And then, doubling back again (quadrupling back?) we ran right into the museum. Sadly, the usual English guide wasn’t around, so we could only look at the displays. However, the museum gave out fantastic tourist maps with history and info written by the ex-miner who started the museum, and this really helped us to get around without getting lost so often.

Jiufen has lots to see. The Shenping Theatre was the first large movie theatre in Taiwan, built to supply entertainment to the miners, and to keep them from the Korean House up the street (apparently a significant example of Jiufen’s old red light district). There was even a film being shown (with no English subtitles unfortunately), as well as a recreation of the concessions stand.

Just a short way up the famous stairs from the theatre is Amei Tea House, a recreation of the old tea house that used to stand at the top of the hill. Because of its connection to Spirited Away we HAD to go there, and it was well worth what seemed at first a pricy NT$300. With the mountain cold and the persistent drizzle, the warm interior was a welcome escape. We were given a window table looking down to the sea and over the mountains west of the town. One of the waitresses taught us waiguoren how to brew tea in the traditional way, a methodical process that was really theraputic. We first had to warm the leaves, teapot and cups. Then we brewed and strained the tea, and had to do some sleight of hand before drinking. You start by pouring into tall and thin cups which you cover with the drinking cup. You then flip them around and slowly lift the thin cup, breaking the vacuum and filling your drinking cup. This thin cup is for smelling the steam, and then warming your hands – a real necessity! We were given enough high mountain oolong leaves to brew ourselves into oblivion, as well as a number of nibbles including some tasty green bean paste cookies, thin black and white sesame crackers, sugar coated preserved plums, and small lumps of mochi.  It’s definitely not to be missed!

By night, with the red lanterns aglow the Ghiblifeel intensified as we found our way down from the old cemetery and miner’s monument, past temples, and to the other must-see in Jiufen: the old street market. The similarity to the ghostly market of Spirited Away was palpable, as you smell food being cooked all around. Since it was a holiday weekend, the market was very full of other hungry sightseers, but we found our way to some very tasty food, including ice-cream and shaved peanut brittle rolls that were really delicious. The market is an interesting mix of traditional handicrafts, including many ocarinas, leather being worked in the shops, and even custom-made wooden shoes, as well as general market gewgaws and commercialized stalls peddling the ubiquitous Totoro keychains. We did find a famous cat, who adopted a store’s owner (not the other way around). Other unusual sights included an ocarina store shaped like an ocarina, a gallery of really creepy looking masks, and a window display of studio Ghibli characters, eerily lit behind misty glass. In spite of the crowding, the market was a lot of fun to visit, and perhaps on a quieter night it would be easier to navigate through the bookending photo opportunities that cause a traffic jam. But, since it is Jiufen, there are also countless side streets and stairs (of course) to help you get into and out of Old Street more easily.

On our second day, helped again by Uncle Xie’s advice, we climbed aboard another deathbus to get to Jinguashi mining museum. This is another part of the Japanese-started gold mines, and it has reconstructed buildings made from the original materials (as far as possible) to show how the miners lived during the Japanese occupation and afterwards. There was also a lot of information about the large house built to accommodate the Japanese Crown Prince (who never got to visit), and a section of old mine tunnel that for a very cheap NT$50 you could get a hardhat and walk through. Most of the visitors go to see the immense gold brick in the final museum building, but it is really worth taking the time to explore the mine compound area and see the scenery and other buildings, including a special art gallery dedicated to the miners, and the sections of museum with artifacts from the miners, including items from British POWs who worked the mines in terrible conditions during WWII, as well as a large gold orb that had been illegally smelted and hidden by some of the town’s inhabitants.

Jiufen really was a wonderful town to visit, from the calming teahouse to the exhausting up-and-down stairs, to the bustling market. I was worried I had overhyped myself, but I wasn’t disappointed at all, and it was sad to say goodbye to Uncle Xie and to see the town disappear past our taxi windows – three bus rides had given us a reluctance to risk an unlucky number four!

Sidequest to strawberries: Dahu Township

We have been surprisingly busy over the first two months of the New Year, and this is the first report back from our many missions around Taiwan. The early part of the year is a time full of events, most notably the Chinese New Year period. In amongst all of that, though, is a small side adventure we went on.

North of Taichung, in Miaoli county, is a strawberry farming hotspot that produces a bounty every year. The farms in the area grow strawberries that can get really big, and it’s a popular activity to go and pick your own. From what we’ve heard and read, the best time to go is considered to be February and March, and so we squeezed in a trip up that way before the chance slipped by.

Getting to Miaoli county is the easy part, with many trains heading up to Miaoli Station every day, we had our pick of local and express trains. From there, we needed a bus up to the rural Dahu township. The bus station is hard to miss, and with only a few bus routes from there it was much less difficult to get a bus than we’d anticipated. All it meant was waiting in the slightly windy bus terminal for ours to arrive, and then we were on our way up into the scenic mountains.

The township of Dahu is pretty small, with most of the activity happening at the Dahu Winelands Resort, marked out by an unmissably big strawberry statue. From there everything was strawberry themed. EVERYTHING. In the market and stores you can get strawberry and marshmellow skewers, strawberry pork sausages, strawberry wines, vodkas, and even whiskys. Even the trashcans are strawberry shaped.

Singing the Beatles, we made off to the strawberry fields that stretch (almost) forever outwards from the resort. The fields immediately surrounding the market were quite busy and already starting to look less fruitful, so we wandered around until we found a quieter farm. Each farm site has some baskets and scissors available, and we were directed to the fields to start collecting. Some fields are off limits, to prevent over-harvesting, but regardless of this we were able to harvest a lot of strawberries without getting in anyone’s way. You pay by weight at the end of your picking session, so it’s really up to you how heavily laden your basket should be by the end of the day.

After picking our berries and having them weighed, we wandered the market trying the various strawberry-related things on sale. The weather was windy and quite cold by Taiwan standards, so we gave the ice-cream a skip in favour of sampling the insides-warming strawberry whisky and wine.

One thing that I have to mention is the frustratingly inflexible Taiwanese market salesperson attitude to special offers. It doesn’t really seem to matter if you want or need to take the special offer. If there are three options, say strawberry wine, vodka, and whisky, and there is a specific combo special, you can stand on your head and yell that you don’t want the special offer, as that’s all you can get. Mainly, I think it is a language barrier problem. We talked in circles in the conversational equivalent of Sisyphus’s punishment.

Seller: “There is a special offer. You can take two of number 3 and one of number 2 for discount.”
Us: “But we only want one number 1, and one number 3.”
She thinks for a moment, considering our bizzare refusal of the generous deal.
Seller: “Ok, for you. There is a special offer. You can take two of number 3 and one of number 2 for discount.”
Us: “But we don’t want the vodka. We want the whisky and the wine. Number 3 and number 1 only.”
She ponders again, placing a hand first on the wine, then the whisky.
Seller
: “Ok.” She pauses. “There is a special offer. You can take two of number 3 and one of number 2 for discount.”

After an eternity, the sun seeming to set, rise, and start setting again, we wound up paying and leaving, with two of number 3, one of number 2, and not even one bottle of strawberry wine. Whether they had run out, and only had the display taster bottle left is a mystery our Chinese skills can never solve.

The long haul #3: Taipei

Last week we actually took time off from work, like real grown-ups who can take leave and stuff, and headed up to Taipei for four days. A few of our colleagues were puzzled by this because “you can do Taipei in a weekend”, so they couldn’t understand why we’d use precious leave to just go a few hours north. Yes, you *can* do Taipei in a weekend but you’d be a total zombie by the end of it! Having done a packer-jam trip to Kaoshiung, which made every minute at work the next week feel like an hour, we wanted to take a longer, slower trip to Taipei. You know, the kind of trip where you actually have time to sit down to eat. Because there is a LOT to do in Taipei!

Before I really get into our full itinerary, I have to take a moment to rave about the fantastic public transport in Taipei, in particular the underground metro rail (MRT). Basically, our trip would have been a thousand times less fun without the super speedy trains, the handy lockers where we could store heavy bags at almost every station, and the frequent (and slightly death-defying) city buses which saved us from miserable walks in the rain. Also, apologies for the occasional lack of photographs. It’s a lot easier to take photos from under an umbrella using a phone, than an actual camera, but phone photos don’t look great on a computer screen!

Our first day was a classic tourist day. Our hotel was conveniently situated within easy reach of two major tourist attractions: Chiang-Kai Shek Memorial Hall and Taipei 101, with the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Garden and Da’an Forest Park in between. The Sun Yat Sen Memorial Garden is a lovely, Japanese style garden, complete with cherry trees, a pagoda and giant koi fish in peaceful lily ponds. There is also an old house which seemed to be a museum, but it was closed when we went, so we aren’t really sure. From there we set off for Da’an Forest Park, which has the prettiest MRT station, with bronze frogs lounging on lily pads set into the floor, and a view over a small pond and water fall. The park itself would have been a wonderful place for a scenic stroll, had it not been raining torentially! Even so, we got a fair amount of bird watching done around the small lake, and rain-soaked squirrels are the funniest things! We also visited the beautiful amphitheatre, where a group of teenagers was practising for something, and walked through the wonderland of a playground, complete with roller rink, brightly coloured jungle gyms and slides, and a big open area for riding bikes and trikes.

Our next stop was the famous Taipei 101! Ask any young Taiwanese child what’s famous in Taiwan, and they are guaranteed to say Taipei 101 – partly because it’s name is the same in Chinese and English. Our intention had been to ride the high speed elevator to the viewing deck and get the full tourist experience, but due to the rain the top half of the tower was shrouded in cloud, and we didn’t really want to spend NTD600 to look at clouds. There is also a Starbucks on floor 85 which you can visit for free, but this requires you to book an appointment a day in advance, which we had not done. I mean really, it’s a Starbucks, not Gordon Ramsay… Who would think to book ahead for Starbucks?? So we snapped some pictures of the building itself, and looked at the cool modern art outside, and then set off for our last stop: The Chiang-Kai Shek Memorial Hall. The hall itself is enormous, and striking with two huge white staircases leading up to it, and a royal blue roof topped with gold. Housed within the hall is statue of CKS, not dissimilar to the Lincoln Memorial statue I have seen in so many movies. The statue is flanked by two royal guards, and there is a changing of the guards ceremony every hour, but as we arrived at 16:15, we didn’t really want to wait to watch it. We were very lucky (and quite smart) to visit the memorial on a week day, as it is apparently a madhouse on weekends! This allowed us plenty of time to take photos, look at the beautiful garden surrounding the building, and feed the fish and terrapins in the pond.

(Disclaimer: To be honest, I had no idea what the memorial was about, or even that Chiang-Kai Shek was a person, and I realised later that what I had thought was the CKS Memorial Hall, is actually the National Palace Museum *sigh*.)

Day two got off to a shaky start as our efforts to buy coats in the morning were severely disrupted by everything only opening at 11am. This lead to us basically riding the MRT in circles for almost an hour trying to decide what to do, and then eventually getting a coffee, buying a coat and FINALLY setting off for Taipei Zoo. While zoos aren’t necessarily our favourite thing ever, Taipei Zoo has put a lot of work into helping endangered animals, raising awareness about environmental issues, and rescuing local animals which have been hurt or abandoned. All causes we can get behind! The zoo is big and sprawling, and if you want to actually take time to look at everything, you can easily spend half a day there. As every school in Taipei was on tour that day, we prioritised some exhibits, and others we just peeked into and moved on. There is an amazing range of animals at the zoo, divided into seven main areas: animals indigenous or endemic to Taiwan, other east-Asian animals, animals of the Americas, African animals, the reptile house, the bird house, and the insect house. There are also special areas for the pandas, the koalas, the hippos, and the cranes. The zoo is a bit of a labyrinth, and the map isn’t the most helpful, but if you follow the paths and don’t try to get clever and take short cuts, you can meander quite comfortably and see everything. There are also well written info boards by each exhibit, which are very interesting and sometimes very funny! Having defeated the minotaur that was a million school children screaming in unison, we left the zoo and walked five minutes down the road to the Maokong gondola, a 4 km long cable car system which takes you high into the mountains above Taipei city. There are two kinds of cable car: glass bottomed, and not glass bottomed. Naturally, we went for the glass bottomed option! Who doesn’t love to see the ground shrinking alarmingly right below their feet? The ride up probably took about 30 minutes, but the car is so quiet and the expanse of the forest below is so great, it feels like much longer. At the top most station there are a number of tea houses and cafes, which were very welcome in the cold rain. A spirit guide cat with crazy eyes and only half a tail, led us to a cat-themed tea shop, where we ordered two pots and sat in the warmth until it started to get dark outside, and we headed back to the cable cars to ride back down. While we couldn’t see the trees anymore, the city lights were equally beautiful from so high up!

Day three was a cultural day. We started out at the National History Museum, which had a number of special exhibits on show, including different forms of fresh flower arrangement, the works of Jiang Mingxian, a famous Taiwanese ink painter  who specialises in semi-minimalist landscapes, and special historical artifacts from an excavation site in Henan, China. The museum itself is quite small, but well laid out, and not overly stuffed with too many items. However, from there we headed to the National Palace Museum, which was an absolute overload of things to see and read and listen to… and maybe remember… maybe. This museum is massively popular with foreign and local tourists alike, and Taiwanese tourists have literally zero regard for personal space, so a lot of time was spent trying to move through the museum via the quietest exhibits, leaving large gaps between the group ahead of us, while trying to move faster than the group behind us. Thankfully, like so many things in Taipei, the museum is huge, so it was always possible to find an escape route when an exhibit got overcrowded. There are displays to suits every interest: rare books and documents, jade artifacts, religious idols and paraphernalia,  glass ornaments, pottery, jewellery, royal treasures, calligraphy and paintings. The audio guides were at times very helpful and interesting, and also infuriatingly vague – spending ages talking about the firing techniques used for Ming Dynasty vases, but not explaining how they made the fish brown and the leaves blue using only one type of pigment. Having a tour guide would have been very useful in such cases, and as most visitors are Chinese-speaking, the English tour groups were very small and would have been a pleasure to join! Oh well. We collected a bunch of pamphlets to read later and accepted there was no way to take in all that the museum had to show without feeling like our brains would explode!

Our last day in Taipei was slower and far less intellectual! We accidentally found ourselves in line to get into one of the most trendy breakfast restaurants in the city, Toasteria. Nope, we’ve never heard of it either! But the building was painted a lovely shade of blue and the industrial chic decor looked cool, and it wasn’t until we were already inside that we realised just how famous it actually is. We had a wonderful breakfast, which set the day up well, and then made our way over to the youth shopping district. There is a famous historical building called The Red House, which houses a craft market. Unfortunately the famous part of the building was under construction, but the market was still going on. We browsed the handmade crafts and clothes, bought a bunch of cute things we didn’t need, and made our way across to the Xinmending pedestrian way, which is referred to as Taipei’s Harajuku. It’s basically a number of colourful interconnected streets lined with shops and stalls, selling exactly the kind of stuff young people want to buy – from designer sneakers, to character tees, to Pokemon key rings and knock-off Louis Vuitton handbags, with a liberal sprinkling of street food stalls and movie theatres! The streets were fairly confusing, but we did our best to explore everywhere. The rainy weather kept the crowds to a minimum, which made it a lot easier to browse, but also made the shop keepers extra desperate to sell to anyone who paused for even one second at their door. While we didn’t buy anything wildly exciting here, we were able to pick up some things we’d been wanting for ages, like brown tights and non-knitted scarves. Had we not had to travel home by train, I’m sure I could have bought something from every shop, but the idea of carrying a thousand bags through Taipei Main Station was too horrifying!

Our final stop of the trip was the 228 Peace Park, which commemorates the people who stood up to the oppressive KMT party in the 1940s, and were violently put down. Now the park is a memorial to human rights in general, with flower beds dedicated to LGBT rights, and modern art installations dotted throughout in honour of important historical figures and events. 228 refers to February 28 1947, the day on which the government massacred protesters. As we were there on February 27, the park was full of marquees and flower arrangements in preparation for the memorial ceremony the next day, and a choir and orchestra were practising/performing for a small crowd in the amphitheatre. The beautiful background music and the bustle of people made our visit feel very special (auspicious?), and it was a wonderful way to round off our trip.

Special events: Lantern Festival 2017

We were very boring during the long time off for Chinese New Year, but to make up for it we made sure to see the 15 day celebrations off at their big final event, the Lantern Festival. It falls on the first full moon of the lunar new year, and this year the official celebration was set up in Yunlin and was the biggest one so far.

The Lantern Festival has a long history, and in Taiwan it’s still very possible to do the very traditional style, where red paper lanterns, often with wishes written on them, are released on masse into the night sky. The most popular spot to see this is in Pingxi. The official festival, however, is a more modern take more akin to an incredible light display, concert, and fair. A huge space around Yunlin’s High Speed Rail station was set aside to show off a fantastic display of lights and symbolic lanterns, tying the new LED-fuelled spectacle to the tradition of releasing sky lanterns.

Getting to the festival was a challenge. The traffic going into the festival was insane, with taxis, cars, and buses all flooding in from all directions. The shuttle buses did have some stretches of dedicated roads, and we regretted not trying to get on one at the local train station instead of going by taxi. To save time and money, we hopped out not far from the festival entrance and walked alongside the road. Many other festivalgoers had the same idea, and the excitement built as the bright lights grew distinct and morphed into signs for the festival. Every island down the middle of the road was decorated, with trees wrapped in LED lights pointing the way. Eventually we passed the full-to-bursting parking lots and under a red gateway of lights into the bustle of the festival.

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On every side there was something to see. At the entrance there was a stage celebrating Taiwan’s indigenous aboriginal cultures, including singing and dancing, and lanterns in the shape of people in the traditional dresses of each group. From there, we wandered amid ever more complex displays of light and art. We passed beneath a giant illuminated pirate ship, and saw moving animatronic dragons and vikings (definitely not loosely based on a popular Dreamworks movie), animals, and abstract shapes.

These lanterns were all made from a kind of polygonal framework supporting coloured fabric that would be placed over bright lights. Each then would glow from the inside, and the lantern-sculptures could be impressively complex, some even articulated to move. There were even whole temples to many different gods, as well as a number of impressive and fully-lit Buddhist temples and even a small Christian church complete with light-up saints. Alongside these displays were large stages where smaller performances were held. Each time we thought we were drawing near to the main event stage, it turned out to be yet another, bigger ‘small’ stage!

Naturally as it is the year of the rooster, the festival’s theme drew on roosters, other birds, and especially the mythical Fenghuang (or Chinese phoenix) as a motif that was visible all around. The centerpiece of the festival was an enormous phoenix, standing high above the main stage (something that helped us to finally find it!). Every 30 minutes, the performance onstage would subside so that the massive lantern blast a psychedelic light-show from within, set to dramatic music as the phoenix rotated and flashed a million different colours. It was amazing, and we were right below it when the display began! The other major attraction was an immense pavilion made entirely of paper lanterns stretching way into the air. These two displays really captured the blend of traditional and ultramodern that the Festival was trying to achieve.

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Of course, the festival also boasted a night market – this is Taiwan of course! The food section was really crowded, as we’d expected, but we still managed to get some fantastic Indian food from some exchange students making money selling delicious samoosas and Indian tea. Finding somewhere to sit was a challenge, as the press of people spilled out into the eating areas as well. We eventually found a street-side stone bench to sit on and quickly eat our food.

What we didn’t account for was the really long lines for getting back on the shuttle buses out from the festival. When we got to the bus area, the lines were already snaking back and forth and around and back again, with no real guidance as to which line was to get onto which bus going where. After trying to find the right queue and failing twice, we eventually squeezed our way to the front of the queues and then followed the right one back to its end, which happened to be at the centre of the world’s slowest whirlpool of people.

Needless to say, the wait that we would have had was going to make us miss the last train back to Changhua. Thank goodness for the HSR station being just a minute away from the buses. Not long after we got our tickets and were waiting for the next ultra-fast train to race us home, loads of other people had the same idea and the train filled up quickly as well! Nonetheless we were comfortable and back home in not too long at all!

The Festival was a wonderful event, and it was interesting to find out about the ways in which the city managed to Green up such an electicity-heavy event with school children riding bicycles to generate electricity in the days leading up to it as only one innovate example. We had a blast seeing all the amazing lanterns and displays, and we would really recommend trying to see the Festival next year!