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Hualien and Taroko Gorge

November 17th, 2015

At the moment I’m staying in Hualien, a town on Taiwan’s Pacific-facing east coast. Yesterday was blazing hot, and I was feeling a bit tired from the long train journey down here so I spent a lazy morning exploring the town.


There’s not a whole lot to do here, as most of the attractions are out in the countryside. In the afternoon I rode the tourist shuttle bus around the “East Rift Valley”. It wasn’t particularly exciting, but the views were pleasant and I stopped off at Liyu lake which was quite tranquil.


I may be halfway round the world, but the pedalos give it a very British atmosphere. Except it’s not normally above 30 degrees in November in Britain. I had to walk around under an umbrella like an old woman.

The main event in Hualien is the nearby Taroko Gorge national park. Taroko Gorge is the worlds deepest marble gorge. And I think also the deepest gorge I have ever seen, following swiftly on from Sunday’s tallest waterfall. The views are gorge-ous (get it?!).


On the bus to the park I had a conversation of sorts in Chinese with a slightly cranky old gentleman. I probably understood less than 10% of what he was saying – it didn’t help that he was wearing a surgical mask – but he seemed not to mind. He talked very animatedly about aeroplanes, particularly after I said I was from 英國; English planes are his favourite. Sadly he told me Taiwan has no English planes, only American planes. Japanese planes are OK, but Chinese planes are VERY BAD. In fact, everything from China is bad. I was feeling a bit out of my depth, aeroplanes not featuring heavily in many Chinese language textbooks, so I tried asking some more standard questions “你住在花莲吗?” (he does live in Hualien), “花莲怎么样?” (it’s a very nice place). But mostly he wanted to talk about planes. I felt quite proud afterwards: it’s the most foreign language success I’ve ever had!

The national park itself seems to be set up mainly to cater to the coach loads of day trippers who want to walk along an easy 1km path, take a few selfies, and wander back again. Unfortunately if you want to do any of the more adventurous trails you have to apply for a permit at least a week in advance, and even then there are complex rules and bureaucracy. So I had to stick to the tourist trails. But I decided to do it in a slightly non-conformist way by riding the shuttle bus all the way to Tianxiang at the top and then hiking down the mountain road doing all the little trails as I came to them.

The total distance was about 13 miles, which was quite easy-going despite the heat, because it was all downhill. The road was actually fine to walk on, as there was always a path along the side and I got to appreciate the amazing views that people whizzing past in their cars couldn’t. Not that there was much traffic until late in the day anyway.


Every now and then you come to a fun excursion like this wobbly suspension bridge, or a number of small Buddhist shrines.


Tomorrow I’m off to Taitung, the last stop on my Taiwan mini-holiday.

Pingxi and Shifen

November 16th, 2015

Yesterday I went exploring on the Pingxi branch line which visits a couple of interesting towns into the mountains on the east coast. You can get an all day pass for just 80元. The train was crazy-busy though: turns out this a popular thing to do on Sundays!

First I rode up to the towns namesake, 平溪 “Pingxi”. The primary attraction here is the nearby mountains. But the village itself is pleasantly quaint and rural, with some market stalls in the centre.


Nearby there are some hiking trails leading up into the mountains. There are three main peaks, the names of which I unfortunately forgot to jot down. None of them are that high – the highest is a about 450m – but they are all quite steep and dramatic.


The trails are along steps cut into the rock with ropes to help you up and stop you plummeting to your death. It’s actually possible to scale that rock pinnacle in the distance by means of a dubious looking metal ladder. When I got there a group of pensioners had just come down and an old lady was encouraging me to go up but I kept saying “不要,太高了!” which she seemed to find amusing.

It was raining lightly for the whole day, which normally would be a bit of a downer but since the temperature was in the high twenties it made hiking up the mountains possible without collapsing from heat exhaustion. I think it makes for more atmospheric photos too.

The next stop on the train was 十分 “Shifen”. It literally means “ten parts”. You might remember I visited a village called 九份 “Jiufen” the last time I was in Taiwan which means “nine parts” and is not too far away. However I’m still none the wiser about what they are parts of, or why they use different “fen” characters.

Shifen has two major attractions: sky lanterns and a huge waterfall. The main “street” of the village is actually the railway track with stalls on either side and crowded with people. The track is used for launching these oversized sky lanterns which people can purchase and write messages on the side.


There was one launched every few minutes. Every half hour or so this has to stop and the track evacuated as the train passes through. I have no idea where they end up: presumably someone has to travel round and collect them afterwards. I did however see a few floating down the river later on.

A few kilometres downstream is a huge waterfall. I have been trying to remember if I ever saw a larger one, and I don’t think I have. Next to it is a “waterfall park”, which contains a few walks to different vantage points.


Tamsui and Beitou

November 16th, 2015

I’ve got a whole nine days off between last week working in Taipei and another work trip to China the week after next. So I’m using the free time to do some exploring of other parts of Taiwan.

I started off on Saturday by heading to the northern end of the red metro line which is a place called Tamsui. The in Chinese the name is 淡水 which means “fresh water”. This seems to be a lie however, as the water is very salty, being at the mouth of a river. Also the romanisation is a bit weird, in Pinyin it should be “Danshui”. Hmm.


The waterfront has all sorts of stalls selling snacks and drinks. Feels a bit like an English seaside town, but there wasn’t a bingo hall. In finally got round to trying the 仙草 immortality liquid I saw the last time I was here. It’s a bit odd: there are jelly bits in it that I think come from the grass.


The town was apparently where the first settlers from the mainland arrived, and also where Europeans set up trading posts, so there’s quite a few bits of colonial era architecture around.

On the way back I stopped off in Beitou, which is famous for its hot springs. The biggest one, below, is apparently hot enough to cook eggs. Although this is now banned.


Where to buy tea in Taipei

November 13th, 2015

The last time I was in Taipei I bought some Oolong tea from an old lady on a market stall near the Longshan temple. When I got home and tried it it was sooo good. It’s a lot lighter than normal Oolong tea and tastes kind of… buttery. The tea is rolled up into tiny balls that expand to whole leaves, not shredded like normal tea. The packaging was rather nondescript – it just says something like “Taiwan Oolong Tea” on it – so I worried I would never be able to buy any more.

So now I’m back in Taipei I thought I’d see if the stall was still there and stock up. And it was!


For the benefit of anyone else in the area who wants to buy good cheap tea, it’s located here, in the market at the crossroads on Guangzhou Street, not the “tourist” one which is a bit seedy.

Here’s today’s haul. Three packets for 500元 – about £10! Bargain.


The lady on the stall is very friendly. There’s limited choice so you can’t go too far wrong even if you hardly speak Chinese like me. She gave me her business card! Maybe useful for future tea dealings.



November 5th, 2015

It was really foggy last Sunday evening. This is outside a block of flats near Uxbridge.




October 29th, 2015

Time to go adventuring from my new house. The cool thing about where I live now is that I’m right by a canal and country park despite being (almost) in London. So I get this sort of thing right outside:


This Sunday I went exploring along the canal for a bit and then headed into the Chilterns towards Amersham which is the furthest out the Metropolitan line goes – zone nine!

Lovely autumn colours at the moment. The part after the canal was a bit less interesting, mostly because it clouded over.



October 17th, 2015

Moving is so stressful! Anyway it’s mostly over now and I’m try to catch up with things I forgot to blog. In this case it’s a walk I did one September afternoon while I was staying with my parents. From their house to Rye, the next town along the coast.

At first it’s very hilly until you get out of Hastings and then it’s dead flat all the way along the coast. In fact, I think the Romney marsh may be technically below sea level. Here I am walking along the embankment that keeps the sea out.


Later on I reached Rye harbour which I think is quite picturesque and I’ve featured on this blog several times before.


Hong Kong

September 27th, 2015

After returning from Taiwan I was to enter a period of homelessness, so to prolong my trip for a bit I spent the weekend in Hong Kong. In contrast to Taipei, which as far as I can tell is perpetually cloud covered and usually raining, Hong Kong was very hot and sunny both days I was there. On Sunday I had to resort to wandering around with an umbrella up. I probably looked silly but at least I didn’t burn.

I spent most of Saturday afternoon wandering around Hong Kong island. The area around Wan Chai, in the photo below, is busy and interesting. I guess the stereotypical thing you expect from Hong Kong. Going further west you end up in the financial district. This was very shiny but totally deserted: much like the Docklands or City at the weekend.


On the edge of the central park I stumbled on the Museum of Tea Ware. The exhibition was good, if you like teapots, but the gift shop is a dangerous place for your wallet – luckily my suitcase was already mostly filled by this point.

Next to the park there’s a funicular railway going up to Victoria Peak, the local mountain. It’s supposed to be a good place to watch the sunset, and as one of my mottoes is “you can’t spell funicular without ‘fun'”, this seemed like an excellent activity. Unfortunately the queue to get on the funicular was several hours long and stretched around the park. So instead I just got a taxi and arrived in time to take some sunset photos.


On the top of the mountain there’s a shopping mall with an outside viewing gallery. This is looking east towards the actual peak. On the other side you get some great views over the city. Shame about the building works going on at the time.


Once I got down I hopped on the ferry to the mainland and wandered along the waterfront.


The next day I was feeling a bit citied-out so I decided to go exploring further afield. First I took the train out to a place in the New Territories called Ping Shan near the border with China. There they had a local “historical trail” which visited a couple of old buildings relating to the Tang clan who were the first to settle in the area.

In the afternoon I got the train to Lantau, the other big island in the Hong Kong area, and from there a long cable car up to a place called Ngong Ping in the mountains. This place is mostly famous for its giant Buddha.


The village itself is a bit touristy but they had a nice tea shop and you could wander around some quiet trails in the area. Here’s a photo of the big Buddha with some humans to compare. It really is the biggest Buddha I have ever seen.


The big mountain in the background is Lantau Peak. I really wanted to hike up it, but the trail is quite long, I wasn’t properly attired, and it was 35 degrees. So instead I only went to the base of it. These guys had just come down: bet they had fun!


Coming down on the gondola you get some really good views of the mountains and the airport. There’s a path running all the way under the cable car: doing the peak from sea level in cooler weather would be a fun day out. Apparently there’s also a quaint traditional fishing village on the other side of the island which I didn’t have time to visit. Lots to do if I ever go again!


Taiwan Again

September 20th, 2015

So after I got down from the mountain I decided to go exploring on the other side of Taiwan. I took the train – 火车 “fire vehicle” 😀 – to Keelung which is a harbour on the Pacific. My tourism leaflet suggested I visit the nearby former gold mining town of Jiufen. So I did just that with the help of a bus.


Jiufen is written 九份 which literally means “nine parts”. There’s a village nearby called 十份 “ten parts” but I’ve no idea what the etymology is. The roads are very steep and winding and the houses cling to the mountainside. In the centre there is a lovely traditional market where I bought some mysterious edibles to take back home.


Also in the market I found a bubble tea shop which claimed to have been founded by the inventor of bubble tea himself. This may have been liemaking to justify charging twice the normal rate, but I’m never one to pass off a bubble tea opportunity…


Oh how I love bubble tea. I have to try very hard to limit myself to no more than two per day. This is difficult in Taipei because there are vendors on every street and it is sooo cheap: maybe 40元 or about 80p a cup. Maybe one day it will catch on in England too.

After I got back to Keelung I did a bit of exploring there too. They were having an “autumn ghost festival” and there were lots of these pretty lanterns everywhere.


There are night markets everywhere in Taiwan. Taipei has about ten squizillion of them and obviously Keelung had one too. But this one was huge and completely packed with people. It’s almost exclusively a food market and is apparently quite famous outside Taiwan. So I wandered around and looked at the foods which ranged from edible to “a bit weird” – pig’s blood soup? – perhaps fortuitously I’d already eaten in Jiufen so didn’t sample anything. The whole market carried the unique aroma of “stinky tofu”, a Taiwanese street snack that’s yet to penetrate the western market. Although on this trip I found the smell almost bearable, so next time I might be up to trying it…


The rest of the week I had to spend working, but as my colleagues were being boring and either sleeping or working in the evenings I got to go out and do a bit more exploring.


September 4th, 2015

Just because I’m in foreign parts doesn’t mean I can’t go adventuring at the weekend! Also the great thing about being in Taipei is that it’s surrounded by mountains. So Sunday morning I got the bus from just outside the hotel and 40 minutes later was in Yangmingshan national park. The bus stops about 500m up where there’s a visitor centre and a very helpful park ranger who explained all the trails thereabouts. Apparently many are currently impassable due to a recent typhoon knocking over trees. By the way “bus” is one of my favourite Chinese words: 公共汽车 literally “public-collective steam vehicle”!

I decided to try hiking up to the highest peak in the area, 七星山 or “seven star mountain” at 1100m – the ranger seemed quite impressed I could read it from the sign: minor win. 😀

The trail was only about 5km long but it was steep. It was steps like this almost all the way:


Calves ached quite a lot the next day. The western side of the mountain was covered in this dense jungle which was so noisy: I never figured out whether it was birds or insects chattering.

At the summit the weather deteriorated somewhat. You are supposed to be able to see the pacific, all of Taipei, and a range of volcanoes. But that day there was nothing to see but cloud. :-(


Rather than walk back down the same way I headed off the opposite side of the mountain towards another trail head. There’s a very handy and delightfully named “itinerant bus” that travels around the national park collecting hikers. So I rode that back from a place called Xiaoyoukeng.

The eastern slope is very different to the western. Because it’s exposed to the winds from the Pacific it is covered in grassland rather than jungle. But most curiously, it is peppered with volcanic sulphur vents!


You can actually feel the heat of the steam coming out of the ground. Unfortunately my clothes stank of sulphur all the way back.