Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Branching out by train (En Voyage)

Once you know a spine of lofty mountains runs almost the entire length of Taiwan, the island’s rail map makes complete sense. The busiest stretch of railroad runs from the northern port city of Keelung, through Taipei and then southward to the cities of Taichung, Tainan and Kaohsiung. Near Keelung, another line goes east en route for Hualien and Taitung. The rail system didn’t go all the way around the island until 1991, when the completion of 36 tunnels and 158 bridges in the space of 98km finally made it possible to ride a train from the southwest to the southeast.

Look more closely at a rail map of Taiwan, and you’ll notice that, while no railroads go across the middle of the island, a handful of branch lines do penetrate the interior. The best known of these is the narrow-gauge Alishan Forest Railway, which climbs from 30m above sea level in Chiayi City to an altitude of 2,216m. 

Taiwan’s other branch railways share the same gauge (1,067mm or 3 ft 6 in) and rolling stock as the main line. Instead of linking major urban areas, they provide access to more bucolic corners of Taiwan. Rather than carry commuters on weekdays, they shuttle sightseers from one quaint little town to another.

Business or family commitments keep many foreign visitors close to Taipei, so we’ll start in the north. From downtown Taipei, it’s possible to get to Ruifang – where the fun really starts – in around 45 minutes. There, travelers can buy a day-pass for the Pingxi Line and begin to explore.

This 12.9km-long spur was built so the area’s seams of coal could be more easily exploited. Mining dominated the local economy between 1918 and the 1980s. Since then, trains have transported tourists eager to view rugged landscapes, visit the impressive waterfall at Shifen, or launch sky lanterns at Pingxi (where I took the photo here). Painting your wishes on the side of a lantern (a wire frame covered with paper, and propelled upwards by the heat of the wick burning inside) then watching it float into the distance is very much the done thing.

If you’re the kind of person who’d rather not retrace his steps, take a bus from Shifen or Pingxi to Muzha near Taipei Zoo, then the metro back to your hotel. But if you still have a few hours of daylight, think about returning to Ruifang and jumping on a train to the end of the Shenao Line...

To read the complete article, get a copy of the August issue of En Voyage, EVA Air's inflight magazine.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Exploring Taiwan by Bus (Taiwan Business Topics)

Taiwan has more than 41,400 kilometers of freeways, expressways, highways, and urban and local roads. Despite the popularity of cars (ownership reached 322 vehicles per 1,000 people in 2014) and especially motorcycles (676 per 1,000 residents), much of Taiwan is served by regular public buses. For visitors and expatriates who find local driving styles unnerving, or who lack confidence when it comes to navigation, the bus network offers dozens of interesting options.

On commuter routes in Greater Taipei, buses do get crowded. Elsewhere, the chances you can snag a window seat to better enjoy the views are usually excellent. Each year, more and more buses display their destination in English as well as Chinese. All buses are air-conditioned; the prohibition on eating and drinking while aboard city buses in Taipei, Kaohsiung, and some other places does not apply on long-distance services. However, on some routes – notably the 6506 and 6739 – the vehicles are too small to have onboard restrooms. The 6506 also has the most expensive fare of the routes described in this article – NT$564 if you stay on from beginning to end.

It is possible to travel by bus from within 700 meters of Fugui Cape, Taiwan’s northernmost point, to 1 kilometer or so from the monument that marks the island’s southernmost point, near Eluanbi Lighthouse in Kenting National Park. With a bit of luck, the trip can be done in under nine hours with just three transfers.

North-south travel is a cinch, but those who hope to take a bus between Taiwan’s western plains and the east coast have very few options. On the western side of the Northern Cross-Island Highway (Highway 7), buses only go as far as Lower Baling. Each day, there are three services from Daxi, one from Taoyuan, and one from Zhongli. On the eastern side, Yilan-Lishan buses (two services per day in either direction) stop at Baitao Bridge, the intersection of Highway 7 and Highway 7甲. The distance between Baling (a popular place for "herping") and Baitao Bridge is just over 39 kilometers, so walking from one to the other is hardly feasible, even though the scenery is excellent.

Until 1999’s 9-21 earthquake, buses plied the length of the Central Cross-Island Highway, from downtown Taichung to Lishan and through Taroko Gorge, terminating in Hualien City. The road has since been reopened – but only to private vehicles driven by residents of Lishan, and they are allowed to use it only at certain times each day.

Before Typhoon Morakot wrecked the road in the summer of 2009, a daily bus carried hikers from Tainan to Tianchi on the Southern Cross-Island Highway. From there, some walked or hitchhiked the 25 kilometers to the aboriginal community of Lidao, where they either stayed the night or boarded a bus to Taitung City.

Despite these natural disasters, visitors who have no interest in driving a rental car or hiring a car and driver can still enjoy Taiwan’s glorious alpine scenery. Parts of Yangmingshan, Shei-Pa, Taroko, and Yushan national parks can be reached by bus, as can Taiwan’s most famous high-altitude resort, Alishan...

The complete article is online, right here.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Taitung by Train (Travel in Taiwan)

Sheltered from the busy, populous parts of Taiwan by massive mountain ranges, Taitung County is a charming rural part of the island where life is slower, the fields seem greener, the air fresher. This is a region where you want to slow down, rewind, take a deep breath, and regain your energy.

The East Rift Valley is one of Taiwan’s most important geographical features. Squeezed between the island’s mighty Central Mountain Range and the lower, yet still impressive, Coastal Mountain Range, the valley is also known as the Longitudinal Valley, or – because it sprawls across parts of Hualien and Taitung counties – the Huatung Valley. It’s around 150km long, but in places the hills on either side are no more than 4km apart.

Three rivers drain the valley. The Hualien River flows northward into the Pacific below the city of Hualien. To the south the Xiuguluan, Taiwan’s No. 1 whitewater-rafting venue, cuts eastward through the coastal mountains. The southward-flowing Beinan emerges from the Central Mountain Range and flows into the ocean on the north side of Taitung City. Thanks to plentiful water, agriculture thrives throughout this thinly-populated region and a great deal of rice is grown.

Because the only railroad between Hualien and Taitung is in the East Rift Valley (there’s no coastal line), the valley’s main attractions are accessible even to those who’ve no wish to rent a car or a motorcycle or take local buses. Careful planning is advisable, however, because Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) services are not so frequent here as in the crowded western half of Taiwan.

The TRA’s bilingual website is a good place to start. You can not only ascertain departure and journey times, destinations, and fare prices, but also pull up a complete list of trains stopping at a particular station.

A willingness to ride a bicycle will greatly expand your horizons – and there’s often no need to hire a set of wheels, because many hotels and B&Bs loan bikes to their guests.

In this article, we’ll look at attractions around six stations in the southern part of the East Rift Valley and further down to Taitung City and beyond, starting at Chishang, the most northerly station in Taitung County, and ending with Zhiben, which faces the Pacific Ocean. Zipping back and forth by train won’t cost you much; a one-way ticket between Chishang and Zhiben is never more than NT$122. Oftentimes it’s necessary to change trains in Taitung City, however, which is between 39 and 75 minutes from Chishang, and about 12 minutes from Zhiben.

Since the Japanese colonial period, the township of Chishang [where both of these photos were taken] has been renowned for the quality of its rice. If you stumble off the train feeling famished, within minutes you can be enjoying a meal including the flavorful local rice at Chishang Riceball Museum...

To read the complete article, get a copy of the July/August issue of Travel in Taiwan, or go to this webpage.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Herping and other Nocturnal Adventures in Taiwan’s Forests (Taiwan Business Topics)

When the temperature rises and rain falls, the life forms that inhabit Taiwan’s forests become more active. Some expatriates might loathe Taiwan’s sultry summers, but for snake aficionados Bill Murphy, Hans Breuer, and Dane Harris [pictured right, handling a snake], the season has definite advantages. All three spent many years in Taiwan before they began to appreciate the size and diversity of the island’s serpentine population.

“I’ve been interested in wildlife my whole life, ever since my grandmother used to explain the flora and fauna during hikes,” says Wisconsin-born Bill Murphy. “For the first decade I was in Taiwan, I’d occasionally see a snake, but I wasn’t particularly interested in them to the exclusion of other wildlife. Taiwan is an area of unusually fecund biodiversity. In the hills, I’ve come across flying squirrels, ferret badgers, pangolins, giant moths, glass lizards, rhinoceros beetles, barking deer, and Swinhoe’s pheasants.”

One day, Murphy was walking his dog, Ulysses, on Tiger Head Mountain in Taoyuan, the city where he has lived for most of the past quarter century. “I came across a large snake eating a toad. I had a video camera with me and recorded the incident,” recalls Murphy. He posted the video on a discussion website, where it caught the attention of Hans Breuer, a German then living near Sanzhi in New Taipei City.

“Hans asked me if I wanted to go out ‘herping’ with him some time. I’d never even heard the term before! He explained what it meant, and soon enough I joined him for a hike on a local hill, and then later we went road-cruising at night,” says Murphy. “A whole new world opened up for me!”
Unlike Murphy, Breuer was fascinated by snakes as a youngster. But, readily admitting to being the type of person who has “obsessions, not hobbies,” he says that his interest fell by the wayside when he discovered blues guitar at the age of 15.

The businessman, who first arrived in Taiwan in 1989, traces his adult mania for snakes to a revelatory experience a decade ago. “From 2000, I got into carnivorous pitcher plants. At one point, I had about 300 of them in my greenhouse. Then, in 2007, I went to Kuching [in Sarawak, Malaysia] to attend a pitcher-plant conference. While there, we went out to the jungle to see the plants in a natural setting.”

Breuer had never before seen pitcher plants in their natural habitat. “Seeing something in the wild, rather than a zoo or a greenhouse, is massively different,” he says. He got rid of his pitcher-plant collection and took up nature photography. Soon afterward, a professional herpetologist belonging to the same photography club invited Breuer to go out and look for snakes. His enthusiasm for serpents was immediately rekindled, and between 2007 and 2011, when he relocated to Kuching on a semi-permanent basis, Breuer went out herping up to five nights each week, often with his sons.

The best months for herping are May to late October, and not just because the temperatures are higher. Rain brings out insects, insects bring out frogs, and frogs bring out snakes. According to Breuer, damp ditches are especially good places to search for snakes.

Inside Yangmingshan National Park, Breuer was once confronted by a park ranger. “I managed to convince him I wasn’t catching snakes so I could sell them to collectors in Europe,” he remembers. On several occasions, he came across Taiwanese people catching snakes for profit. Breuer points out that when such people are asked about the size of snakes they have seen, the answer usually comes in terms of girth, not length, “because they see the snakes as food.”
The reaction of Taiwanese hikers to snakes sometimes dismays Breuer. “I remember one family who saw me photographing a snake. The mother screamed, and the father started looking around for a stick he could use against the snake. The teenage boy looked terrified, but his young sister showed curiosity rather than fear,” he says. After several such experiences, and seeing the strongly negative attitudes toward snakes in rural Sanzhi, he decided he should try to educate the next generation. By the time many Taiwanese reach their teens, he says, they have been “brainwashed” into fearing snakes.

Pitching his presentation as a safety lecture, he reached out to scores of schools and spoke to about 12,000 students before leaving for Malaysia. In a 90-minute program, he explained the role of snakes in forest ecosystems, then brought out a couple of non-venomous snakes which the youngsters were allowed to handle. “There’s no margin for error with potentially venomous snakes,” he stresses...

To read the complete article, go here. The photos above are courtesy of Dane Harris, Ryan Hevern and Hans Breuer. Murphy and Breuer's website Snakes of Taiwan is recommended.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Quoted in Taipei Times

Friend and noted explorer/blogger Richard Saunders asked me for my thoughts on Taiwan's wild hot springs, and the way they're often disfigured by hotels which pipe out the water for their own guests, or by visitors who 'modify' the work of Mother Nature. His article appeared in today's Taipei Times and can be read online here.  

Monday, June 12, 2017

KH Style

KH Style is the recently redesigned and relaunched bimonthly newsletter published by Kaohsiung City Government. For this issue, I edited articles on a vintage clothing store, a wetland popular with birdwatchers and a secondhand bookstore. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Island, the Harbor and the Bay (En Voyage)

Three very different places, each defined by water. Fisheries have made Donggang the busy town it is today. Dapeng Bay, one of Taiwan’s largest lagoons, is in fact saltier than the adjacent ocean. And 15km of brine separates Xiao Liuqiu, a 6.8km2 island inhabited by 12,400 people, from “mainland” Taiwan. All three are within striking distance of Kaohsiung, and very popular with day-trippers. But this trinity could easily fill a weekend, especially if you have an interest in ecology and a hankering for fresh seafood. 

Southwestern Taiwan is easy to get to, and easy to get around. The southern terminus of Freeway 3 is less than 1km east of Dapeng Bay, and frequent buses link Donggang with central Kaohsiung. Ferries from Donggang make the 30-minute crossing to Xiaoliuqiu several times a day, and once on the island it’s possible to rent a 50-cc scooter or electric bike.

For self-driving visitors, the bay makes a logical first stop. Half an hour for a leisurely circuit of the lagoon is probably enough, unless it’s dusk - an especially delightful time of day to be here - or one of your party is a birdwatcher. The six artificial wetlands which fringe the bay are avian magnets, especially during the winter. Fish farms left fallow draw Mallards, Black-crowned night herons and Black-winged stilts.

Dapeng Bay has emerged as one of Taiwan’s foremost watersports venues, and large yachts can access the lagoon and its marina thanks to Taiwan’s only folding vehicular bridge. If this sail-shaped, cable-stayed structure isn’t the bay’s most photographed feature, that badge surely goes to “oyster shell island” - the result of oyster farmers dumping unwanted shells at the same spot, year after year. Like an artificial reef, this  accumulation attracts and shelters fish.

And why the remarkable salinity? For most of the year, evaporation exceeds freshwater inflows. Also, because salt is heavier than water, it tends to sink and linger, rather than wash out through the bay's narrow mouth.

Visitors more interested in eating sea creatures than seeing them swim should head to Guangfu Road in downtown Donggang. Gourmets applaud the town’s “three culinary treasures” - bluefin tuna, sakura shrimp, and escolar roe. The availability of the first, which makes for divine sashimi, peaks in early summer. The second is usually served shallow fried and lightly seasoned on white rice. At its best, the third is truly symphonic. Eaten thinly sliced and cold, the roe abounds in subtle, almost cheese-like, tastes and textures.

The King Boat Festival is Donggang’s triennial media moment. The next edition of Taiwan’s most famous and spectacular ritual boat-burning is scheduled for October 2018. Expect dignified rites at several locations before a rough-and-tumble rush down to the beach where the climactic conflagration takes place. 

Travelers to Xiao Liuqiu board the ferry near Donggang’s Huaqiao Market, around which there are several seafood eateries, and disembark at Baisha’s little harbor. From there, it makes sense to move in an anti-clockwise direction, stopping first at the photogenic geological anomaly called “The Vase.” You’ll likely be tempted to wade out toward it, but do so only if you’ve something on your feet - shards of coral litter this and most of the island’s other beaches. 

As you work your way along Xiao Liuqiu’s north coast, and then around its southern end, explore every cave and trail you come across. Most attractions are free; one admission ticket covers them all. Place names like Mountain Pig Ditch and Black Ghost Cave obviously weren’t contrived to attract tourists, but each spot offers a good view, and sometimes also an intriguing backstory. The fewer the people, the better your chances of seeing crabs scuttle across the path. Look out to sea, especially late in the afternoon, as that’s when green loggerhead turtles come closest to the shore. 

Xiao Liuqiu’s oldest building overlooks Sanfu Fishing Harbor. The gorgeously delipidated Tai Mansion, which isn’t open to the public, dates from the 1820s. Formerly home to one of the island’s most prominent families, it’s said by some that when the harbor’s breakwater was built, the location’s fengshui was irrevocably disturbed, causing the family to scatter.

Continuing southwest, one comes to Geban Bay, also known as Venice Beach. This sublime cove appeals to both romantics and scientists. The former come for the sunset, the latter to marvel at foraminifera, five-pointed star-shaped shells of organisms less than 1mm across. (The local authorities forbid the collection foraminifera, other shells, pebbles or sand as souvenirs.)

Many sightseers treat Xiao Liuqiu as a full-bodied day excursion, but there’s a lot to be said for staying overnight. The most compelling reason is the chance to join an after-dark ecotour of the intertidal zone and see some of the hundreds of marine species recorded in the shallow waters. A knowledgeable guide will show you curiosities such as rock-boring urchins, ink-squirting sea hares, sea cucumbers, starfish, and bioluminescent plankton. 

Alternatively, bring your snorkel and roll out your beach blanket at any spot that looks inviting and safe. Just remember that the entire island is made of coral, which can be very sharp when it breaks, and that you shouldn’t touch any sea creatures. They won’t enjoy it, and if it’s a rock-boring urchin, neither will you.

Congestion and over-development have never blighted Xiao Liuqiu, and its tourism industry has always been driven by grassroots entrepreneurs. Overnighting on this gem of an islet is one of Taiwan’s finest slow-travel experiences.

This article appears in the print-only inflight magazine of EVA Air, May 2017 edition. The top picture was taken in Donggang's Donglong Temple, the house of worship which organizes the King Boat Festival. The lower picture shows Tai Mansion on Xiao Liuqiu.