Sunday, April 29, 2012

Touring Taoyuan: A Day in Daxi Township

This Sunday, we got up at the crack of dawn to accompany three busloads of our co-workers and their families on a group tour of Daxi township in Taoyuan County. Taoyuan County is just southwest of Taipei, and Daxi was about a two-and-a-half hour bus ride for us from Taichung. 

Our first stop of the day was at this flower farm/petting zoo/DIY recreation area. Confused? Everyone who signed up for the trip had the option of baking cookies, potting flowers, or customizing bath salts. B signed us up for cookies, and it was not quite what we expected. We were seated around empty banquet tables in the second-floor dining room of a European restaurant at the “farm”, then everyone was given a tray, a pair of disposable plastic gloves, and a lump of shortbread cookie dough with what looked to be some sort of herb or tea leaf mixed in. Our task of baking cookies consisted of breaking the dough into pieces and molding it into flattened shapes to put on the baking tray. I made lots of love hearts and some weird banana-shaped pieces to fill the gaps on the tray, while B was more ambitious with a little shortbread man. When we came back an hour later to pick up the cookies, we were delighted to smell and taste them - the mystery herb stirred into the dough turned out to be lavender! A delicious little treat for a long morning without our usual Sunday brunch. 

While we’d been waiting for the cookies to bake, we explored the “farm” where there were rows of flowers and photo ops as well as a small petting zoo. The ponies had seen better days, but there were lots of fat, happy goats, some snoozing rabbits, and a huge turkey. We met the group for lunch at a big hall where we shared tons of Chinese dishes, like warm cucumbers in a gingery sauce, bamboo, cold chicken, spicy beef with peppers, steamed fish, and prawns.  

After lunch we went to the Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park, where over 100 statues of Chiang Kai-Shek were relocated from schools and public areas all over Taiwan when the DPP were in power. We walked through the park and ended up on a path through a densely forested area that led to a lush pond inhabited by black swans. We were standing with a buddy looking out into the water when our area director, who had come on the tour with us, walked by and asked if we’d seen the mausoleum. Mausoleum?! Just a five minute walk down the path, we almost missed seeing the mausoleum of Chiang Kai-Shek in his former summer home. We weren’t comfortable taking photos of the building with so many armed guards around, but we did do the silent walk around the perimeter of the pretty courtyard to see his black marble coffin under a portrait of the late KMT leader. There was also a sign indicating that we should bow to the portrait - eep. I managed a curt head nod, but it was a little awkward reading the sign, then noticing the guard who was watching us read the sign. I’ve never visited the mausoleum of a Generalissimo before! They don’t put this stuff in the etiquette books! 

After everyone got their fill of CK-S statues, we got back on the bus and made a couple other stops - one at a famous bakery to buy fresh milk nougat as well as some gigantic cream puffs filled with peach-flavored custard (which didn’t last long enough to take pictures, sorry) and then again at a famous snack street on a very old road in Daxi. It started raining heavily just in time for this stop, and we all sloshed through the puddles up some stone steps to the street - it was beautiful. The street was lined with temples, shrines, and beautiful old stone and brick buildings. It had a lot of standard Taiwanese snacks, but there were also a few local delicacies. Apparently the specialty of the area is dried bean curd (basically dehydrated tofu), and there were also some locally made shrimp crackers which are Brett’s favourite - we had to stock up and buy two bags. I also had some egg waffles which are a favourite of mine! Brett noticed a vendor selling a cut of pork which I’m not sure how to name - it’s basically a piece of the leg? Maybe ankle? Very fatty, and with the bone in, but tastes like ham. When you buy it, they slice it up nice and small, then put it in a little plastic snack box with some packets of mustard and pickles. They even threw in the bone. It cost NT$250, but after a few bites we knew we’d hit the jackpot! We took that home and saved it for split pea soup, which Brett has been cooking as I write this. 

We had a lot of fun in Daxi, and it was really nice to get out of the city for the day. This weekend also marked the completion of one whole year in Taiwan, which we’ll post about later in the week!

Amanda and the lavender cookies
Not that pretty to look at, but they were pretty delicious.
Ta See Blooming Oasis [大溪花海農場]
There were a number of fields with flowers and there was also a small petting zoo.
Amanda at Ta See Blooming Oasis [大溪花海農場]
Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park & Chiang Kai-shek's Mausoleum [慈湖陵寢]
We ran into our friend Denton who was also on the trip.
Amanda at Cihu Memorial Park
Lake next to Chiang Kai-shek's Mausoleum
Dasi [大溪] Snack Street
Dasi [大溪] Snack Street

A Year to the Day

April 28th marked the anniversary of Amanda and my arriving in Taiwan. It is strange to think that 365 days have passed by so quickly and even stranger to to think that our teaching contracts will finish in a little over 100 days.

To mark the milestones of being so far and yet so close to home, we decided to post something of a retrospective to cover our most memorable moments, most and least favorite things about Taiwan, as well as what we are most eagerly anticipating about returning to Canada. (As it’s a lot of ground to cover, I’ll be helping him out with this one - A) Here goes... 

Most Memorable Moments 

1. Dragon Boat Festival

This was our first taste of Taiwanese holiday spirit. We never would have known about it if we hadn’t happened to walk along the Love River just a few days before (on one of our many trips to Carrefour looking for sheets, no doubt!) The brightly coloured boats, the snacks, the crowds, and the beautiful weather all made for a perfect long weekend. 

2. Xiao Liuqiu

Almost one year later, Xiao Liuqiu remains one of my favorite memories. Our friend Stanley booked our accommodation which was a huge help because the hotel staff were very apprehensive about communicating with us when they discovered the guests that they were expecting were non-Chinese speaking foreigners. In spite of their apprehension, the hotel was great and the staff were really friendly. We lucked out with the weather and the views were spectacular. Although we suffered a little for the blue skies - I think Amanda had at this point already endured one or two of my midday sun +30C “death marches” but she was still finding them insufferable. Despite our lobster-red sun burns, Amanda agrees that it was all worthwhile for Xiao Liuqiu.

3. Singaopore

On our visit to Singapore this summer, we experienced some of the hottest weather, the friendliest hosts, and the most overpriced cocktails we’ve enjoyed all year. We spent time with our then-landlord’s family as well as with the family of a good friend and colleague of Brett’s. We tasted durian, visited one of the best zoos in the world, took a cable car over the city - and I held a lethal snake. All in a day’s work! 

4. Taipei 101 (台北101 / 臺北101)

Taipei’s most recognizable landmark is Taipei 101. The building apparently stood as the world’s tallest from 2004 until the opening of the Burj Kalifa in 2010. Some of my favorite photos taken in Taiwan, have been taken from the observation deck of Taipei 101, and from a lookout on Elephant Mountain (re-posted below). I sincerely hope I have the opportunity to return to that lookout one last time before we leave Taiwan, for a sunrise perhaps.

5. Paragliding in Puli

Our paragliding trip to celebrate a friend’s birthday couldn’t have gone better. We enjoyed a night in a quaint, rural cabin, and spent the next day relaxing in the mountains of Puli while each of our party took turns soaring overhead. Brett absolutely loved it, and has been pestering me to get back out there this summer! 

6. Chinese New Year Banquet

Amanda and I were very fortunate to be invited to join our good friend Stanley and his family to celebrate Chinese New Year’s Eve and the start to the Year of the Dragon. CNY is the biggest holiday in Taiwan and so we were lucky to have a full week off work, during which we returned to Kaohsiung. It was a great cultural experience and we are really grateful for the hospitality that was shown to us by Stanley’s family. 

7. Lantern Festival

We celebrated the Lantern Festival both in Taichung and in Kaohsiung with my mom during her short visit to Taiwan. We saw tons of beautiful lanterns, watched a lengthy and impressive fireworks display, and visited with friends we rarely get to see - all while enjoying a very comforting visit from my mom! 

8. Friends we made

About one month after arriving in Taiwan, Amanda and I decided to attempt to make some new friends via advertising for a “language exchange” on a classifieds website popular amongst foreigners living in Taiwan. We were both a little apprehensive and nervous prior to first meeting the people who we would later become good friends with. We both considered, “what if they turn out to be crazy?” and perhaps the same was wondered of us. As it turned out, the friends we made were probably the best experience we have had in Taiwan.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Gaomei (高美) Wetlands and a Driving Lesson at the Port

On Saturday, after a hearty brunch, we headed towards the Taichung Port for part 2 of my scooter driving lessons. (My first attempt was too embarrassing to blog about - mostly a lot of screaming while I drove in straight lines back and forth across a cemetery parking lot).

It was quite a long drive to the Port, and when we were almost there we noticed a family on a scooter in our vicinity who had some beach toys with them. We decided to follow them and see what sort of beaches might be in our area! We weren’t disappointed. We found ourselves on some vast, deserted stretches of highway surrounded by rows of enormous, white wind turbines. The ocean breeze and the smell of the sea made the hot day so much more bearable! Eventually, we came to the Gaomei (高美) Island wetlands; a flat, sandy intertidal zone home to tons of crabs and sea birds. We hung out near a small snack street where vendors were selling fresh seafood, sweet grilled sausages, and lots of sandals and water toys! We also saw a temple surrounded by pristine rice paddies. The temple seemed to have been in the midst of renovations when the construction site was abandoned. We weren’t really sure what the circumstances were of its construction/renovations, but it had some spectacular stonework.

After we’d taken a look around Gaomei, we drove back past the windmills to Taichung Port for my driving lesson! Brett had already shown me the basics the previous weekend, and after a little more instruction this time, things went really smoothly! It felt pretty natural! Brett was a very patient teacher even after I insisted I needed to drive in circles around the parking lot about fifteen times before I was ready to go home. If you ever need someone to teach you to drive a scooter, Brett comes very highly recommended!

This weekend was bittersweet, however - we had to say goodbye to a couple of friends we’ve grown close to as they began their return trip home. It was sad to see them go, and I hope we’ll see them again in the near future!

Gaomei (高美) Wetlands and wind turbines
Gaomei (高美) Wetlands
Amanda at Gaomei (高美) Wetlands
Unfinished Temple at Gaomei (高美)
Amanda's Scooter Lesson
Zoom zoom!
Beep beep!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Sunday Drive

Long time, no see! I wish I could say we’ve been too busy to blog, but the sad truth is that we just haven’t been up to anything blog-worthy lately... until this past weekend! We both woke up on Sunday feeling invigorated and neither of us had a heap of homework to grade, so we bought a bag of dried mango slices (my new favourite snack) and drove east.  

We headed out of Taichung on LeYe Rd. B selected our route because it went out towards a temple he’d noticed on Google Earth and we had no idea what we were doing or where we were going, we just knew we wanted to get out of our neighbourhood. I wouldn’t even be able to tell you how long we drove for. We just kept going out until the sun started to set, and then we turned around and went back into the city for dinner. It was a very leisurely drive - we stopped in a few places to take photos, have some bites of mango, and just enjoy the beautiful, mild weather.

There was some sort of small, orange-coloured seasonal fruit being sold in boxes along the side of the road, and as we passed through a few small townships (though I wouldn’t be able to tell you where we were - the English signage really peters out as you get away from the center of Taichung) the smell of fruit and flowers took over where the smell of smog and sewage left off. We saw vendors selling tidy pyramids of wax apples, old men washing their dogs in the warm afternoon air, and ladies older than my grandmothers walking along the side of the highway completely loaded down with heavy grocery bags.

The most impressive part of our day was when we saw the temple we’d been searching for, or rather the cluster of buildings housing several temples inside. We were drawn in immediately by the front structure which featured some wicked dragon sculptures. It looked a little weathered, but the interior courtyards were very well-maintained. There were lots of stray dogs loitering around the nearby stinky tofu vendor hoping for a handout, which makes me wonder if we’re going to start seeing more of them again as the weather warms up. It’s also apparently the season for lots of tiny white and pale-yellow butterflies! They were in abundance wherever we saw flowers, which was pretty much everywhere as soon as we got out of the city! 

The last thing we did before heading back into town was to drive up towards a waterfall hiking trail to check the area out, and I think we’ll go back another time for a hike when we get an earlier start! It was just a perfect, warm day. I’m so ready for summer to be here! 

This is a random temple we came across.
Amanda and the random temple
The main purpose of our drive was to visit 護國清涼寺 (I think this is "Temple of the Protector, Qingliansi").
Brett outside 護國清涼寺
The temple was pretty quiet. It was great getting to explore without having any crowds to contend with.
There were a number of swastikas decorating the temple. The left facing swastika (卍) in Chinese culture represents eternity and Buddhism.
We came across a bridge that was decorated with a number of religious flags and lanterns.