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.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The speed of government

Back in 2014, I noted that my letter of appointment to Kaohsiung City Government's Bilingual Living Environment Commission arrived in March, long after the appointment took effect. I've only just received the equivalent notification for 2017 (shown on the right). The letter is dated April 27, but again tells me my term as a commissioner runs from January 1, 2017 to December 31 (in 2018, as it happens - this time it's a two-year appointment). But it doesn't matter: The commission's mission is almost complete, and Kaohsiung can be proud of its provision of bilingual information. 

My other work for the city government is copy-editing for the Information Department. This is almost always interesting, as it brings to my attention interesting places which otherwise might never cross my radar.     

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Taking it easy in Taichung (En Voyage)

Quiz time: Which city is Taiwan’s second biggest? Most people would nominate the maritime metropolis of Kaohsiung, and by some criteria that’s a logical answer. However, Taichung not only already has more inhabitants than Taipei (2.77 million versus the capital’s 2.69 million), but is also expected to overtake Kaohsiung in terms of population within a few years. It’s time, perhaps, to stop thinking of central Taiwan’s economic and cultural powerhouse as the island’s “third city.”

Taichung has lots of people, and there’s a lot going on, but it also has plenty of space. Amid its 2,215 square kilometers, visitors can find dozens of spots where kicking back is the done thing. For the artistically-inclined, National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts is a must-see. Except for special exhibitions, admission is free, and the third floor features works by Chen Cheng-po, Li Mei-shu, Richard Lin and other important Taiwanese artists. 

From the museum, a 15-minute walk along Linsen Road brings you to Natural Ways Six Arts Cultural Center. The two buildings here formed part of a prison between 1937 and 1992 - yet they’re utterly gorgeous, and possibly the region’s finest relics of the 1895-1945 Japanese colonial period. The current name of this edifice honors the six disciplines Confucius regarded as essential to a good education.

Taichung’s other major exhibition space is quite different, and an especially good place to take children. In addition to geo-science and biology, you’ll learn about herbal medicine and Taiwan’s Austronesian indigenous minority. Make sure you’ve enough time for the adjacent botanical garden, the highlight of which is a soaring conservatory. The interior recreates a tropical rainforest ecosystem, complete with a waterfall and gurgling creek. 

Taichung City Government stitched together a number of green spaces to create the 3.6km-long Calligraphy Greenway, a broad strip of trees, grass and public art that links the two aforementioned museums. In the streets nearby, you’ll find many of Taichung’s best restaurants and most inviting coffee shops.

Because many Taiwanese are busy working or studying during the daytime, and few hope to acquire a suntan, you’ll see far more people in the city’s parklands after dusk than when the sun is shining. Public spaces bustle as late as ten o’clock in the evening, delighting visitors eager to make the absolute most of each day.

Anyone who goes to Fengle Sculpture Park expecting museum-style classicism is in for a shock...

To read the whole article, get a copy of the April issue of EVA Air's inflight magazine. The photo (which I took) shows Taichung Prefecture Hall.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Speeding Ahead (Taiwan Review)

When services launched January 5, 2007, the high-speed rail revolutionized travel between the north and south of Taiwan. Running at up to 300 kph, the bullet trains shortened the journey time between Taipei and Kaohsiung cities from roughly five hours to less than two.

As it enters its second decade of operations, the 350-km line can claim a host of achievements. The system has been expanded since its launch, now servicing 12 stations in northern Taiwan and along the heavily populated west of the country. Ridership increased from 30.58 million in 2008 to more than 50 million in 2015 and again in 2016. In December last year, it carried its 400 millionth passenger.

The high-speed rail is also noted for its service quality and reliability. Over the past decade, the system has maintained punctuality records in excess of 99 percent, while operator Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp. (THSRC) said that annual passenger surveys indicate satisfaction rates for equipment, ticketing and station facilities of above 90 percent.

To celebrate its 10-year anniversary, the company in January launched the Taiwan High Speed Rail Museum in the northern city of Taoyuan. Featuring 19 themed exhibitions, a driver’s cab simulator and interactive displays, the museum draws the curtain back on the line’s design and construction as well as its contributions to the development of the nation’s economy, tourism industry and transportation network.

Premier Lin Chuan said at the museum’s opening ceremony that the system is an outstanding example of public-private sector collaboration. “The success of the high-speed rail underscores the flexibility and management expertise of Taiwan companies, as well as the government’s commitment to supporting projects bolstering the nation’s industrial prowess.”

According to THSRC, it is the only company without railway construction or operational experience to have built a high-speed rail line, completing the world’s largest build-operate-transfer (BOT) project in six years while effectively controlling costs. As the bullet trains are based on those used in Japan’s Shinkansen high-speed rail network, THSRC employed dozens of foreign technicians and drivers in its early days. The company said it is working toward autonomy and localization of materials in terms of operations and maintenance, explaining that its goal is to fully master the technology and help raise the level of Taiwan’s railway industry. When passenger services began in 2007, the company’s workforce was around 3,100. This figure has since grown to more than 4,300 due to factors such as increasing passenger volumes and the opening of additional stations.

Yeh Kuang-shih (葉匡時), a professor at the Graduate Institute of Technology, Innovation and Intellectual Property Management at National Chengchi University in Taipei who served as minister of transportation and communications from 2013 to 2015, said that the system has delivered significant benefits since its launch. In particular, he noted that it has helped promote economic and social decentralization, encouraging more people to move to the northern cities of Taoyuan and Hsinchu as well as central Taiwan’s Taichung City. “It has also reduced traffic congestion, and thus pollution, in the western corridor,” Yeh added.

According to data presented at the High-Speed Rail and Sustainability Symposium at the University of California, Berkeley, in November 2012, between the line’s launch and 2011, the percentage of intercity journeys along the western corridor conducted using private cars decreased from 78 percent to 70 percent. In the same period, air travel fell from 3 percent of all journeys to a negligible amount. With regard to energy consumption per passenger-kilometer, the system uses a fraction less than the conventional trains operated by the Taiwan Railways Administration, barely one-third of that of buses, less than a quarter of that of cars, and an eighth of that of airplanes.

Initially spanning eight stations, the system has added four additional stops in the last two years. New stations opened in Miaoli, Changhua and Yunlin counties at the end of 2015...

The entire article can be read online, here. Both photos here were taken at Hsinchu HSR Station, and are courtesy of Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Chugging along the coast (Travel in Taiwan)

Taiwan is an island, but it’s easy to ignore the sea which surrounds it. Many visitors fly into Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport and head first for Taipei. After taking a look at Sun Moon Lake, Alishan and Tainan, they may not glimpse the ocean until they reach Kaohsiung's Former British Consular Residence. A good number make sure their itinerary includes Kenting National Park and/or Taiwan’s gorgeous east coast, but it takes a special effort to see any of the west coast.

It can be done, however. And thanks to Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA), there’s no need to rent a car. For over 100 years, the TRA has provided essential and inexpensive transportation throughout the island. The high-speed railway (HSR), launched in 2007, now handles a lot of north-south traffic, but tourists often use TRA services to get to places like Keelung and Hualien.  

Not all of the TRA expresses which zip north to south follow the same route. Just outside Zhunan in Miaoli County - an hour and a half down-island from Taipei - the main line bifurcates. One set of tracks takes a more direct southward route, through the booming metropolis of Taichung. Another less-traveled railroad follows Miaoli County’s coastline, and it’s to this area I was sent recently by Travel in Taiwan.

Whether you tour coastal Miaoli from north to south or the other way around may depend on what you have planned for the end of the day. Getting from Zhunan to Miaoli HSR Station (from where it’s 43 minutes to Taipei, and a mere 17 minutes to Taichung) is a cinch, thanks to regular TRA services to Fengfu (travel time: 10 minutes), the stop adjacent to the bullet-train station. But in this article we’re going south to north, because we like to begin with a full stomach. 

Yuanli (35 to 48 minutes from Zhunan, NT$61 to 85 one way) is an excellent place to enjoy the morning markets which are still a key feature in urban areas. Less than 100m from Yuanli’s railway station, a block bordered by Weigong Road, Tianxia Road and Datong Road is crammed full of vendors. Some sell vegetables, others sell fabrics. The range of hot and cold snacks is enticing. One especially popular option is the glutinous, pork-filled disks at Jinguang Meatballs (open daily 8 am to 9:30 pm).

In the days of yore, triangle-rush weaving underpinned Yuanli’s economy. The industry is celebrated at Triangle Rush Weaving Exhibition Hall, 5.5km southeast of the station. 

One stop and six minutes north of Yuanli lies Tongxiao. Stopping here is recommended, as both fresh-air freaks and history buffs can indulge their passions in Hutoushan Park. 

This isn’t the only place in Taiwan literally called “tiger’s head mountain.” There are others in Taoyuan, Nantou and Tainan - surprising when you consider that the sabre-toothed tigers which once roamed Taiwan were extinct long before humans settled the island. At Tongxiao’s Hutoushan, the reward/exertion ratio is very much in your favor. The top is just 700m from the railway station, and even if the weather isn’t absolutely clear, you’ll be able to see up and down the coast, and inland across foothills as far as the majestic peaks of Shei-Pa National Park.

First, you’ll see the remains of a Shinto shrine (pictured above) built in 1937 by the Japanese authorities then ruling Taiwan. After World War II it was preserved, but rededicated to heroes of the Nationalist Republic of China (ROC), the government which reclaimed Taiwan in 1945. Despite earthquake damage and modifications which reflect postwar political correctness (among them a Chinese Nationalist “white sun” emblem on the roof), it retains considerable elegance.

A little further up, what was once a military lookout post is now shaded by an immense concrete lotus. In Buddhism, the lotus flower is a symbol of purity, so this is perhaps an attempt to counter the site’s military atmosphere with peaceful sentiments.

At the very top of hill, there’s a monument which since 1945 has celebrated Taiwan’s return to the Chinese fold, but which was originally erected by the Japanese to mark a crucial moment in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. 

Getting to the next railway station takes just five minutes, but as the gap between services on this stretch of railroad often exceeds an hour, do carry with you a list of train times. These can be found on TRA’s bilingual website...

To read the full article, go here and scroll forward to page 57 of the electronic version of Travel in Taiwan's March-April issue.