Scribbles in the Sand

All About My Life in Taiwan


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Chinese New Year

Kaohsiung 高雄 is the second largest city in Taiwan, located in the south of the island, just below the tropic of cancer.  Because of this, the temperature upon arrival was much more like the south of France in summer and a nice change from the current cold temperatures in Penghu, (15Degrees).

Fiona and I left first, and after a ridiculously short flight of 40 minutes, were picked up by her 2nd uncle and son of 34.  It was already around 4pm, so the city looked beautiful in the evening light as we made our way to B and Q, ( yes they have them here).

From here we were taken to the family’s tofu factory outside of the city where we met up with Fiona’s older cousin and her family.  Their flat is on the top floor of the factory and the husband had one of the more impressive sound systems I had seen including a valve amp and around 5 different CD/DVD/Blue ray gizmos.  They also had an exercise machine in the shape of a horse’s saddle which you sat on and jiggled you about.   There were various different settings including gallop, canter, trot, and something akin to a camel or elephant.

We met a lot more of the family here, and headed to a restaurant for the evening meal.  The restaurant had an old train carriage outside which had been built into the establishment.   It was also the end of year do for the tofu factory so there were about 7 large tables set out, and boxes of wine on each.  Course after course came out, including some lovely, small battered balls which turned out to be squid beaks, and then a giant roast duck to follow.  I was given slabs of breast meat which is considered to be the worst cut of meat here.  They were laughing that I only wanted the breast meat, and joked that they sell that to the foreigners and keep the best bits for themselves.  I was the one laughing.   A karaoke set up was sat in the centre of the restaurant, which meant that we were accompanied by badly made backing tracks and wailing for most of the night.

In the evening we headed to Fiona’s old family home in Cishan which is a town 1 hours drive from the city and famous for its banana’s.   The house is an original Japanese building from around the time when they colonised taiwan, and is very pretty and interesting.  We didn’t stop here for long, and were soon back in the car and travelling to the new family home owned by her aunt, just outside the town of Cishan in the country.

This new house was a giant 3 storey building which had plenty of rooms to sleep in.  The next morning I woke and looked out at beautiful blue skies and a blazing sun.  The house also has its own rice paddy and banana plantation next door which made it look very exotic and asian.  After breakfast we went back to the original family house in cishan and did some cleaning of the house which is part of the tradition of chinese new year.  After this we headed out into the town to get some ice cream from a famous shop with two of fiona’s female cousins from Taipei.  I had the local speciality of banana ice cream and then went rather over the top by having a coffee with a ball of ice cream on the top.  The stalls were all being built at this stage ready for the coming two weeks of chinese new year.  After a brief look around, we headed back and played a few hours a Mahjong.  I’ve not played since the summer in France, so took a bit of time getting back into it, and it was especially difficult as I had to learn a whole new vocabulary of words for naming the tiles.

My brain had to work overtime converting all the symbols  into numbers, and then converting them into speech, all before the other player took the tile i wanted.  After the games, I spent half an hour going through the tiles over and over, naming them in chinese as quick as I could, knowing that I would be playing a lot more of this in the coming days, and could potentially win or lose literally 10’s on NT $.  Fi and her cousins had bought a box of chicken feet at the market and a bag of chicken head combs.  Both were chewy with a hint of chicken flavour, but in my mind, not worth the effort of chewing.

While we’re on the subject of weird things that I ate, I have also tried pigs ears (chewy), stomach lining (surprisingly nice), intestine (nice but doesn’t look great), squid mouths (yummy but crunchy), sea cucumber (looks like a vegetable but pretty flavourless), chicken testicles (small, soft, and similar to tofu and not tough like I was expecting), and fish sperm (large and again similar to a fishy tofu).

Throughout chinese new year we were treated to some amazing cooking by big uncles wife, with each meal being a banquet of food with plates and plates of dishes being set out on the table.  Because there were so many of us, (around 15 for meal times) we would often stand around the table while others were seated, dipping into the various dishes.  They tried to trick me with the chicken testicles, saying they were tofu sausages, but I could see through this charade straight away.  Still, I ate them without much bother and actually quite enjoyed them.  I think they were quite impressed by this, and I made a point of showing my new found skill at eating weird things by asking for more.

Chinese new year is so long that i’m not quite sure of the major days in the festival, but it started on the 23rd, and runs for something like 2 weeks, ending with the lantern festival.  The first few days include cleaning the house and preparing for it, while the wives usually spend it with their husbands family.  Then there is the main meal, a few days in, which is traditionally cooked at home and is a chance for the entire family to get together with relatives coming from all over the country to join.  There are several pi pi? events which involves praying to the family’s ancestors and various deities.  Most houses will have a shrine set up, and it’s normal to have incense burning for the entire duration of new years.  On the day of the feast, we did several prayers to the shrine using incenses sticks then burning paper money in a metal bin outside for the gods.  This bit is fun although it can’t be good for the environment.  Fireworks and bangers are also set of throughout the  period, and you couldn’t go 20 mins without hearing a bang.  At night it felt like being in a war zone, but it was amazing to look out at the nights sky and be able to see fireworks every few minutes.

After the family meal we played more Mahjong, this time with a pro family member who could guess the tile just by touching it.  I had practiced this, but could only guess the family of tile.  Despite his clearly superior skills, I managed to win 5/8 of the games and am considering a new found gambling career.

One evening we drove to see some of Mei’s old school friends.   We were lead upstair into an outdoor attic which was adorned by thousands of CD’s, empty liquor bottles, and a gigantic Karaoke set up.  Before diner was even served, the men were cueing up  songs they wanted to sing.  It was pretty cold at first, but once food was served and several shots of white spirit had been drunk, I was much warmer, and close to singing. Luckily, the English section of the book was filled with songs I had never heard of, or were ridiculous christmas songs.  I was even persuaded to have a little dance with the host’s wife. 

The next day the entire family took a trip into the countryside to visit the gave of their grandfather.  It was a large plot on a steep hillside which was a bit of a trek up.  The scenery was similar t0 how I would imagine Vietnam to look like, and Rambo wouldn’t have looked out of place here.  It was amazingly sunny with little wind or humidity, but did result in me having a red face and arms for the big meal in the evening. After an hour on the hillside doing more pi pi for the ancestors and serving him a meal of fruit, green tea, and lighting a cigarette for him to smoke, we burnt some more paper money and then returned home to read, relax, and gamble.    

In the early evening, Iona and I were driving to the auntie and uncle’s duck farm which had thousands of white geese, ducks, and loads of cute goslings.  We retuned home to the entire family having congregated.  This was the first time that they were all in one place, and there must gave been around 5o men, women, and children.  The meal was held at the big house out the back, next to the rice paddy..  There were about ~6 large tables laid out and they had employed some caterers for the event.  There were many great dishes, including some of the largest prawns i’ve seen, and it is normal for each person to go round each table and say Happy New Year and then down a shot.  I was pretty tired of saying 新年快樂 by the end. The meal was rounded off by a slideshow of old family pictures which Fi had scanned, and then we had some singing from Iona which resulted in lots of the women crying.  

The last few days saw some of the family go back to their homes, and we stayed on, living between the old japanese house and the big house in the country.  There were loads of cute children around, and it was my first experience of actually holding a small person, which made me feel all paternal.  The days would be spent reading, playing Mahjong, or entertaining the kids, something which is especially easy.  Fiona got them all dancing while I shouted out commands of what to  mime, and then I taught the kids how to juggle (unsuccessfully), do my magic rope trick (successful) and my one card trick (successful).  I’m even going to appear in the kids winter homework for having taught them magic.  In the evenings we would make the short walk to the street festival which was packed each night, filled with food stalls, and games.  I had a go at darts,and shooting a BB gun into ballons but only won a rubbish key chain.

It was an amazing experience, and I felt immediately at home with her family who were all extremely nice to me.  My skills at Mahjong meant that I was sufficiently entertained and got to interact with all the  family members a lot.  The scenery was beautiful, and reminded me of the Dordogne, and it is a shame that Penghu is just above the tropic of cancer, but I hear that the summer time is unbearable so i’ll just have to wait for it to get warmer here.   Apologies for all the mistakes. This post is a bit of a monster.


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Travels in Taipei

Apologies for the extremely long, and mistake riddled blog, but I wanted to get my travels about Taipei onto paper before I forget.  Now i’m off to Kaohsiung for Chinese New Year.

We set off from Devon almost two weeks ago after an amazing christmas where I managed to catch up with lots of my friends in London for New Years and see my family at home.  We left it too late to book a decent train up to London so ended up getting on a £12 Megabus to Victoria which took about 4 hours, but wasn’t too bad really.  We stayed at our brother’s house in Crouch End, having taken “Simon Pegg’s” bus from Finsbury park to his door.  He lives in a nice leafy area of London just on the corner of Alexandra palace.  We had a relaxing few days there in order to sort our resident visas at the Taiwanese embassy. 

View from Ali Pali

Knowing that it was the last time we would be eating western food, our diet consisted of fish and chips, battered sausages, giant italian pizzas, lebanese cuisine (delicious) and bacon sandwiches.  The application for residency went smoothly enough despite the frosty attitude of the people working there.  We paid our £44 and a day later collected them without any mishaps.  We met up with John Saxby after this, and did a day trip around London, visiting the Science museum and dinning out at the aforementioned lebanese restaurant. 

Our flight to Hong Kong was at 845pm, so we set off in good time, leaving the house at 445pm, and taking the Victoria line all the way south which was easy enough despite having to lug our giant suitcases up and down flights of stairs.  I actually enjoy long haul flights quite a lot as it’s a chance to watch lots of movies and not feel guilty about it, and there is a constant supply of food and drink from the nice asian ladies of Cathay Pacific.  I highly recommend the noodles that they serve throughout the night.  I managed to watch Drive with Ryan Gosling, which I though was good but not as special as what i’ve been told and read about.  I can’t remember the other movies which either means i’ve got dementia, they were not very good, or the free red wine and reduced oxygen level impinged my memory.  We landed in Hong kong which was a first for me, having only been with Cathay this once.  It was very muggy and overcast, but you could see plenty of mountains enshrouding the airport.  Here out connecting flight to Taipei was delayed by 1h30 which would mean it was be a push to get to our hostel on time before closing.  Luckily the flight was only as long as the delay, and we were soon on a kuo kuang bus (國光) from Taoyuan airport to the city centre which takes around 50 minutes.  Here we hailed a cab and made our way to http://www.taipeihostel.com/  which was the top hit on google and seemed nice enough. It’s located centrally, on a back alley and just a few meters walk from Shandao Temple station.  We couldn’t find the actual hostel at first, poking our heads into long empty corridors deserted but for a cockroach, but I gave reception a call, and she said they were on the top floor of the building. We put down a 500NT (£10) deposit  and paid for our two night stay up front, which worked out at 1300NT for the two of us (£26).  Our room was located on the very top of the building, which had a nice roof garden and decked area with washing lines and plants all around.  The actually room was pretty grotty compared to the pictures on the website.  There was a double bed wedged into one half of the room, adorned with a yellowed duvet.  Laurie assured me he had stayed in far worse places in Morocco, so we laid out his throw, and got a good nights sleep.  A warm shower the next day made me feel a lot better, and we headed out into Taipei.

It was the day of the presidential elections, so we saw cues of people placing their ballots as we made our way to the underground.  The MRT is an amazing tube system compared to London, but this is understandable given it is much newer.  Each station is immaculately clean, and it’s easy to navigate around the city.  Each train is on time to the second, and the best thing is that it is amazingly cheap to use.  We got an Easy card (like an oyster) and topped up by 200 NT (£4) and managed to get almost 2 solid days of transport out of it.  Laurie had downloaded a Taipei city guide on his Android, so we used this to visit some of the sights, including the fine art gallery,  the modern art gallery, (both highly recommended, 50NT ticket price), 

part of Chiang Kai shek's Memorial.

Taipei 101

Chiang kai-shek memorial hall, and then headed to Ximen district which is packed fully of cinemas, clothes shops and young people.  In the evening we go the tube to Shilin night market (Jiantan stop) which is famous for its outdoor food stools.  There were thousands of people lining the streets cueing up for giant chicken steaks and other tasty treats.  After walking around the night market for an hour, jet lag set in and we headed back to our hostel to watch Trailer park boys and sleep.   

The next morning we checked out of the hostel and put our bags into lockers at the airport, freeing us up for the day which was a relief.   We headed back to Ximen district tobuy some clothes for our role as teachers.  Laurie managed to get a couple of pairs of decent chinos for a great price, but sadly they didn’t quite have my size, and it would have taken a day for them to customise. 

Ai WeiWei's Bicycles.

Before our flight home we got on the tube intending on visiting the national museum which is out of town, but being short of time, we got off a few stops early (Yuanshan station) and walked across the beautiful park to the fine art museum.  The first exhibition was my kind of stuff.  It contained all of the best tech to have come out of Taiwan, so we had top of the range Giant racing bikes, amazing PC’s, flat screens, USB’s and hard drives mounted in persepex boxes.  We then went into the proper gallery and saw artwork by Ai Weiwei including his giant bicycle statue which was impressive and smelt just like a bike shop.  We treated ourselves to a meal in the Gallery cafe which came to £10 a head, me having a gorgonzola pasta and he an italian seafood dish, with cheesecake and coffee to follow. 

We rushed back to the airport in the evening to check in for our flight to Penghu.  However, when we got there the departure board was slowing filling up with red

boxes as flights got cancelled due to bad weather.  This was surprising considering the weather in Taipei was lovely.  Our flight was the last to be cancelled, so we asked the desk if they could book us into a hotel for the night.  They had a big book with all the hotels and prices, and we opted for a medium range one which looked fairly classy. We decided to treat ourselves after two nights in a dingy hostel, so opted for the VIP suite which was only a few more hundred $’s more expensive.  A short taxi ride later and we were in the lobby of a swanky hostel and soon in our luxury room (it had a kettle and everything).  I had two showers it was that good, then sunk into my ultra comfy bed to watch the Taiwaneseelection results.  Fiona was extremely nervous, phoning me up telling me to watch the results live.  Luckily her party won and president Ma gave a speech in the pouring rain, which we really should have gone to, but for the nice warm beds which were too good to leave.  The next morning we went downstairs to have our first hotel breakfast in Taiwan, which is a weird mix of rice, vegetables, and meats, that is in no way different to what they eat for lunch or dinner.  We checked out at noon, maximising time spent in hotel, and dropped our bags off once again at the airport.  

Taiwanese Breakfast

Our flight wasn’t until the evening, so we looked on laurie’s app once again and headed for the mountains.  We got the tube to the end of the line, which took us through some amazing scenery south of city, arriving at Taipei zoo stop.  We had a choice between the zoo and the cable cars into the Maokong valley and decided on the later.  Again, this was extremely cheap and was the same price as the standard tube ride, using our Easy cards to swipe in.  The cable car took 30 mins each way and went up and down over several high mountains .  It was pretty scary, especially when it went past the pylons that hold up the wire because it suddenly shudders and swings, and when you look down it’s a long way.  

Maokong Gondola

We could see giant bee hives in the canopy below, and equally giant bee’s flying past our cabin. Taipei 101 stood majestically in the distance and the zoo could been seen from below.  Once at the top there was the chance to go on and trek the mountains or visit the famous Maokong tea house, but we were pressed for time and got the next cart back with some Japanese tourists.

I’m glad I got to see taipei again, and this time I felt much more at home, knowing my way around a bit better.  Last time I came in July which meant the weather was pretty uncomfortable and sticky, but this time it was perfect.  It was also good to show Laurie around before returned to Penghu.  I was sad to leave.

Today I leave for Kaoshung to visit Fiona’s extended family at their family home somewhere in the mountains.  It lies just below the tropic of cancer so we’re expecting a different climate which should be much warmer and “equatorial”.

Fine Art Gallery