Monday, 19 January 2015

migrating southwards

Pidgeon coop above a house
Kim sends us off with sweet potatoes to snack on.  Our road inland takes us north beside a wide river, one of many that cross the western plains and drain the central mountainous region.  The rivers are low at this time of year but in the rainy summer season they must be bursting.  Sometimes the banks are built up to protect the land.  Huge amounts of silt and rock are left behind in the river bed.  We head to Meinong, an old Hakka settlement, and camp in someone's fields, between two stands of young trees.  The next day we continue inland towards the hills which, as Hans had described so accurately, just seem to leap upwards like a wall above us.  We have come to Maolin to look for the purple butterflies that migrate en masse from the north to winter in the warmer valleys here.  At the visitor centre we can charge our pc, get online, and get hot and cold filtered water.  We like the visitor centres in Taiwan.

The purple butterflies settle in about a dozen valleys in the area and are only one of the two known mass winter migrations of butterflies - the other more famous one being in Mexico.  We have both recently read Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behaviour so are intrigued to see the phenomenon.   Following a tourist trail we come across the butterflies basking in the sunshine and flitting about us as we walk along.  They appear out of nowhere, perfectly camouflaged with their brown underwings when they are still, but bursting into vivid colour when they open out their wings and fly.  It's really quite magical.

Can you spot the butterflies?

There's a wonderful back country road that takes us southwards to the coast, passing through palm and pineapple plantations before we enter a long stretch full of forest, all planted out.  The trees are varied but all regularly spaced and there's so much forest that we wonder why it's here.  None of the plantations are fenced and make perfect wild camping.  Many of the villages we pass through are predominantly aboriginal.  It's a Sunday and there are plenty of daytrippers about and cyclists.  When we stop for a picnic a family stop to chat.  The man runs a cram school and invites us to visit and talk about our trip to his students.  The cram schools are big business here.  I remember Eddie in Xiamen telling us how competitive Taiwan is and it seems that if you want your child to do well in their education the accepted thinking is to push them into cram schools, private classes, after school.  I don't envy the children.  We are going in the wrong direction to accept the offer, but don't know how to disappoint the man.  We swap e-mail addresses and say we'll get in touch.

a lovely spot with evening karaoke from somewhere nearby and then reveille broadcast before sunrise at a nearby army camp

Down on the coast, on the main highway, we pass a group of cyclists going in our direction.  They are travelling light and riding road bikes, with all the lycra etc. and a support bus.  They had stopped for a break and when they catch up and overtake us one of them chats for a while.  I ask where they have come from.  They left Taichung yesterday.  How about us?  Er, well, we were in Taichung about three weeks ago.........

Spot the pineapple: 

look hard

Down on the southern tip of Taiwan is Kenting National Park.  Here the central mountains taper out and the coast has white sandy beaches, some primeval forest, protected areas and the country's third nuclear power station.  It's a holiday area and in January it's not busy at all.  But it ain't half windy, mum.  We finally find shelter from gusting winds in an orchard of unidentified bushy fruit trees that are only two metres high at most.  We can't identify them because they bear no fruit.  But they are tailor made for sheltering in and we can just fit the tent in a tight gap and then lie awake at night listening to the wind batter across the land.  Now, is this the mini-typhoon that Kim mentioned the other day?  In the morning the wind is still buffeting and gusting and we pack up and wobble back to the main road and seek refuge in a 7-11.  What we like about convenience stores is how convenient they are.  We grab a table and unpack our breakfast things, cups etc. and start munching.  There are hot water dispensers to make drinks and toilets to dispose of them later on.  Of course all these facilities are provided for customers, not hobo cycle-tourists, but the staff don't seem to mind and anyway, we're here for the day so eventually we buy something to eat.  The wind never lets up and we watch as locals wobble past on their scooters.  Potted plants roll around the carpark like spindrift on the beach.  Four old guys come in and spend the day here too, chatting and eating throughout.  It's all quite community-spirited.  Happily the temperature stays warm and towards sunset we decide to head back to the same camp spot because we know we are guaranteed shelter.  But again, the roaring wind keeps us awake.   Next day the wind seems to have eased so we nosey on down the coast, stock up on food, and head out to a little sandy beach that Ang Lee used in the Life of Pi.  On our way there about ten buses pass us, and when we reach the beach there are another five still parked up.  To our dismay someone is driving up and down the sand on a stupid noisy buggy while a bunch of people huddle together at a loss as to what to do at this tourist attraction.  It's rather disappointing but maybe it will be nicer in the morning.  We find a very sheltered spot to camp in some bamboo - a relief after the two previous nights until the big fat mosquitoes attack - and then in the middle of the night there is a rainstorm that absolutely hammers down on the tent.  We are quite amazed that we remain completely dry throughout for the raindrops are heavy and thunder down on us.  Gayle finally gets back to sleep with earplugs.  By morning the sky is clearing and the sun is soon out to dry out the tent and sure enough, the beach is peaceful and quiet when we return and Gayle has a swim, her first in the sea since we left Greece.

a cleverly composed photograph that makes it look like we are all alone
We are dawdling around a bit, at a loss as to whether to push on or hang back for better weather and a a little more beach time.  The last three nights of broken sleep have hit us hard and while I'm suffering from a reoccurrence of a bad back, Gayle has developed a hacking cough that's gone a bit Belgian (i.e. phlegmish).  We've just done a bit of laundry at the visitor centre (this wasn't a service they actually advertised) and both had a stand-up wash in the disabled toilets when five minutes later, riding through Kenting village, we are greeted by a woman on a scooter who inquires if we're looking for a room.  We are quite easily persuaded to take one of hers for a couple of nights rest and recovery.  
a cleverly composed photograph that makes it look like we are all alone

The beaches are empty but there are a few tourists around, they just don't seem to spend long at the beach.  We notice a group of young women who turn up, start taking lots of selfies and then group together for shots of themselves jumping up into the air or splashing in the surf as the waves crash onto the sand.  Photos are taken non-stop for twenty minutes and then they leave.  We also watch three mums with their toddlers.  Mobile phones are held out and the poor children are photographed ceaselessly for almost an hour while they are pushed towards the sea to stand awkwardly looking around.  The mums make no attempt to play with their kids - it's astounding.  And then there's us two who just lie there with hardly any clothes on acting as if it's hot when in fact it's only about 25oC and then splash around in the sea - madness, utter madness. 

a cleverly composed photograph that makes it look like we are all alone

It might have been a mistake to check the weather forecast because we learn that the next day the winds will pick up again with force 7 gusts.  My back is still bad and I'm walking like a hermit crab.  Gayle is suddenly nauseous and has to make a call on the Big White Phone - an act which miraculously leads to a quick and full recovery but leaves her looking slightly appalled.  So we decide to stay a bit longer.  And besides, the room we have taken also has a bathtub in the bathroom.  It's unspeakably decadent.

Friday, 9 January 2015

when smoke gets in your eyes (and up your nose)

The coastal road we take down to Kaohsiung is fairly quiet.  It's a Sunday and there are people out for bike rides.  We detour around what looks like a nuclear power station before stopping for a picnic lunch in the shade of a tree down a side road.  It's hot and sunny.  This is mid-winter? 
such a friendly woman
A woman comes over from her house and offers us water.  She wants us to come into her house for a rest, out of the sun.  We've got fresh bread for our lunch but she looks unimpressed.  She brings us guava and grapes and then sweet potato - the latter is a national vegetable.  This one is bright purple.  It tastes fragrant - like a flower.  We are embarrassed by her spontaneous kindness - she brings us iced teas and insists we sit at a table by her house.  We chat a little - unlike China, many folk in Taiwan our age can speak English and it makes for much easier interaction - and the whole episode makes us feel happy to be here.

Riding into Kaohsiung we get lost.  We stop to ask the way and the man we ask shakes his head.  He looks at our map - contrary to our understanding, we're not even on it.  When we explain where we are going he replies "Too far, too far!" and hops on his scooter and leads us through a series of tricky junctions before pointing us down a road and waving us goodbye.  Just as we arrive at Kim's appartment she hails us from the other direction.  She apologises, but she is just off to get her bike, which she left at the shops. The doorman has the key to her flat and instructions how to find it.  Kim is our third host in Taiwan and it suddenly occurs to us that everyone we stay with has to go off somewhere else.  Do we need to wash more often? 

Kim is a retired English teacher and she returns just as we have managed to get all our panniers and bags into her appartment - a small but perfectly designed flat that looks Japanese in style.  She explains that she's rarely here these days.  In the past few years she has been travelling a lot.  It's great to stay with couch-surfing hosts who have used it themselves when they travel, but Kim explains that she prefers to use Helpx.  This way she stays longer in one place and gets to contribute in return for food and lodging.  She has travelled and volunteered extensively and while we stay with her she regales us with some of her experiences.  We are interested as it's something we have considered but never done before.  Kim tells us that she feels quite bad about it because normally she never has to work hard, perhaps because of her age.  Kim's in her sixties but you wouldn't know it. Her stories are so good we suggest she should write a book about it.

the smart "Love River" promenade

Kaohsiung is Taiwan's second city and has a grungy industrial feel to it.  Kim leads us through a network of backstreets and lanes around her home on the outskirts of the city. Her place is surrounded by fields and light industrial plots - small workshops, warehouses, that kind of thing. It's a microcosm of how the land is being used all over Taiwan.  This island is incredibly mountainous with over 100 peaks above 3000 metres.  Add to this is the problems that earthquakes, typhoons and landslides create and you become aware of how land use is a particularly important issue in Taiwan.  More and more farming land is being used for industry.  Or housing, Kim tells us, although who they are building for she is unsure.  Taiwan has a falling birth rate.
spotted at the FedEx depot where we collected another replacement Thermarest mattress

Cycling around we realise how the city has spread beyond its original plan, enveloping the outlying heavy industrial zones and incorporating what were once villages and small towns into the urban mass.  There are some green spaces and the cycling is not awful as there's always a lane for scooters.  But the air is not clean and the worst cause seems to be the scooters.  And the traffic lights.  Sometimes it seems that every junction has lights.  Cycling along you can look ahead on a straight road to over twenty sets of lights.  What this means is that you end up with a lot of idling engines at red lights at junctions with no traffic on a green light.  And as Kim points out, the scooter exhausts all point upwards towards your nose.  This is in stark contrast to the clean electric bikes of China's cities, where motorbikes and motorscooters are banned.  Talking about the pollution Kim also mentions that in the winter a lot of dirty air comes over form mainland China.  But in Taichung they have a coal-powered power station that, according to one study, emits more CO2 than the whole of Switzerland.  This is a crowded island.

Kim thoughtfully brings us lots of Taiwanese snacks and treats to try each day.  Like most Taiwanese, she says she has no sweet tooth, but we discover sweetness in many dishes.  Sadly for us, the biscuits and chocolate in the shops are both expensive and lousy.
However, we have discovered the joy of buffet restaurants where you can load up a plate, usually with one meat and three veggie options for around £1.50.  These restaurants are easily found in the cities but the trick is to get there early when the food is fresh and hot.  It seems that lunchtime in Taiwan begins at 11.30am and teatime (or dinner) is around 5.30pm.  Many people take the food home - it's a real take-away country.  To stock up for our onward journey there is Carrefour to provide us with normal bread (i.e. unsweetened) and luxuries like couscous, tomato puree, fresh coffee and croustillants aux fruits (that's crunchy museli but it sounds so much better in French).  Wha-heyy!!