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Shanghai

December 18th, 2015

What good things can I say about Shanghai? Hm. Well it has a really nice museum full of ancient pottery and paintings and writings. Very similar to the British Museum, but with only Chinese exhibits. I spent a rainy Saturday afternoon there.

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The rest of the city is not worth bothering with. Where to start? The worst thing in Shanghai is the constant stream of hawkers and scammers who come up to you offering fake watches and “massages”. They are everywhere and they do not leave you alone, especially if you are male and by yourself. Maybe I was paranoid because I’d been reading up on the huge number of scams. The best advice seems to be to ignore anyone who approaches you on the street speaking English, which leads to the second problem…

If you are learning Chinese, Shanghai is the worst place you can go to practice. Want to try ordering some bubble tea in 普通话? Don’t bother, no one cares, everyone speaks English and you are wasting their very precious time. This is actually the complete reverse of my experience in Taiwan (and other nearby parts of China later) where people seem genuinely happy if you manage to stumble out even a few words. The best example was when I was trying to buy a train ticket to leave. The ticket office for foreigners is in a different building on another street, because reasons. When I finally found it and queued up I proudly said “我要一张票去苏州!” and the guy just shouted “PASSPORT!” and pointed to the price on the screen. Typical.

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Shanghai has a nice enough skyline, which is quite impressive considering it was all built in the last few decades. Do you know what’s under that TV tower? An Apple store.

Around Sunday lunchtime I decided to cut my losses and move on to Suzhou where I was going to spend the week at a contract manufacturer and finally meet up with some of my colleagues. I wish I’d done this sooner as rather than the drab Slough-esque industrial wasteland I’d been led to believe, Suzhou turned out to be surprisingly pleasant.

Train Valley

December 16th, 2015

I’ve been playing this game Train Valley a lot recently. It’s a train puzzle game where you build tracks between stations and then madly switch the points around to route trains to their destinations while avoiding crashes.

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I think it really captures the aesthetic I was going for with my somewhat moribund Train Game. The puzzle mechanics are really fun though – wish I’d come up with it!

Signage

December 16th, 2015

Caution! Crabs crossing here!

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They are like International Rescue but less ambitious.

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Civilisation should always be cautious.

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Taitung and Ludao

December 13th, 2015

I was doing really well updating my blog with my adventures in Taiwan but ground to a halt once I got to China. 🙁 Anyway, for the final bit of my week off in Taiwan I headed further south to the city of Taitung. There’s not an awful lot to do here and the main attraction is getting on the boat to Ludao off the coast. Still there’s sufficient touristy activities to fill a day, including a temple with an oversized pagoda and geriatric karaoke, some pleasant parks, and a “national prehistory” museum.

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Taitung is another place in Taiwan with an odd romanisation: it’s written 台東 which is pronounced more like “tai-dong”. On a related note, it’s also an example of the total lack of imagination the original settlers of Taiwan had in naming cities. 台 is short for Taiwan and 東 means east. In the name of the capital 台北, Taipei, 北 means north. There’s also 台南, and 台中 with similar meanings.

History lesson time! On the train from Hualien I saw some farmers burning the grain chaff in their fields just like in the character 秋 “autumn” which is made of 禾 “grain” and 火 “fire”. Taiwan can be very traditional in some ways.

For my last full day I took the boat to 绿岛 Ludao “green island”. The harbour itself is quite a fun place to visit, with a lively fish market:

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The crossing is notoriously rough. Everyone I talked to and everything I read mentioned this. It’s possibly a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy: the one thing you don’t want to think about on a rough crossing is other people throwing up. The day was calm but the boat did bob up and down a lot. I think it would be fine for a short period but the journey is 50 minutes after which even I was feeling a little queasy. The boat was well prepared however, with plenty of sick bags stuffed in every seat pocket and dotted around the cabin. You could go outside for some bracing sea air, which was better in some ways and worse in others. Shortly after I took this photo the guy next to me vomited into a bin.

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November on Ludao seems to be the off season, and there wasn’t a whole lot going on. The thing to do there is apparently to bomb around on a scooter, but you need an “international” drivers license for that, so I couldn’t, which is probably for the best. I wandered around a bit, had a look at the lighthouse, and then ate some fish.

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The ferry only sails once a day so I was a bit paranoid about missing it on the way back. Being stranded on a desert island in the pacific sounds fun, but in practice would be very annoying.

To get back to Taipei I took an exciting internal flight on this little propeller plane! After not raining since Sunday, Taiwan’s weather finally reverted to form.

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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.

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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.

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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?!).

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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.

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

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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 line’s 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Atmospheric

November 5th, 2015

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

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Amersham

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:

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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.

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