Wednesday, November 8, 2017

A Beginner’s Guide to Taiwanese Opera (Les Isles)

No interpreter is needed to enjoy Taiwan’s gorgeous mountain scenery, and the island’s culinary delights excite the palate even if you can’t speak a word of Mandarin. Getting to grips with Taiwanese opera is far trickier, however — and not just because it’s performed entirely in the local language known as Minnanhua or Taiwanese.

Like the better-known Beijing form, much of the movement in Taiwanese opera is symbolic, rather than realistic. The audience is expected to understand that a performer wringing his hands is expressing anxiety, for instance, and that hands clasped behind one’s back indicates
bravery. Operas are performed to the accompaniment of traditional instruments, such as three-stringed banjos, four-stringed lutes, and bamboo flutes. Gongs and drums punctuate dialog and provide cacophonous backing for the sessions of acrobatics that represent combat.

In 21st-century Taiwan, Beijing opera is confined to a handful of high-brow venues. By contrast, Taiwanese opera can be found in temple forecourts and small-town parking lots. Those who travel around Taiwan may well stumble across a Taiwanese opera in full swing, part of the celebrations for a deity’s birthday.

Shrine performances are often low-budget affairs...

Les Isles is the relaunched inflight magazine of UNI Air. The complete article (which is pretty short) can be read online here.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Neiwan Branch Line: Riding Back in Time by Train (Travel in Taiwan)

The first time I experienced the Neiwan Branch Railway was on another assignment for Travel in Taiwan, nearly twenty years ago. I thereafter rode the train to Neiwan once more, but that was long before the line’s closure, renovation and reopening in late 2011. So when the magazine asked me if I’d like to go back, my eagerness to see if the area had changed spurred immediate acceptance.

Even better, the editor wanted me to write something about downtown Hsinchu (新竹), one of my favorite Taiwanese cities. Hsinchu is usually thought of as a citadel of high-tech industry, which it is. But it also has some of the island’s finest traditional architecture, as well as a catalog of tasty local delicacies every bit as good as Tainan’s

On a glorious sunny day, with an unusual spring in my step, I walked from Hsinchu High-Speed Railway Station to the adjacent Liujia Station, which is operated by Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA). The construction of Liujia Station and 3.1km of new tracks was a key reason for overhauling the Neiwan Line. Commuters can now get from the HSR stop to the heart of Hsinchu in just 19 minutes.

Before boarding the dian-che (電車, “electric car”) to Hsinchu, I bought a one-day, jump-on/jump-off ticket valid for both the Neiwan and Liujia lines. These passes (which cost NT$95 for adults, NT$50 for kids and senior citizens) can also be purchased at Hsinchu TRA Station and some other stations, including Taipei. Sightseers heading straight to Neiwan should get off at the next station, Zhuzhong (竹中), and make sure they wait on the right platform. If you’re heading into the city from Liujia, as I was, there’s never any need to change trains.

Assuming you’ve come from Taipei (no more than 35 minutes by HSR) or Taichung (even quicker), and the Neiwan Branch Line is your main objective, you’ll probably not want to spend more than a couple of hours in the city. Fortunately, a bunch of interesting sights are within 15 minutes walk of the TRA station. I made a beeline for the City God Temple (aka Du Chenghuang Temple, 都城隍廟). The obvious route to this perpetually bustling place of worship takes you right past Yingxi Old East Gate (迎曦東門城). The gate is all that remains of the protective wall that once surrounded Hsinchu...

The complete article is in the November-December issue of Travel in Taiwan.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Blogging for the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area

This year I've been traveling frequently to the eastern counties of Hualien and Taitung to write about places and attractions chosen by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration. Perhaps my favorite has been the bicycle trail between Yuli and Fuli, but Ruisui (the first time I rode an electric scooter) was also fun, and I'm always happy to write about Japan's architectural legacy in Taiwan. All of these articles, and several more about the East Rift Valley, are on my Bradt Taiwan blog.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Laksa Origin Debate, Borneo Edition (Roads and Kingdoms)

I had done a bit of research about Sarawak laksa before arriving. Not that I was any the wiser. Depending on who you believe, the most authentic pastes have 20, 30, 36 or even more components, among them garlic and lemongrass, as well as various spices.

It’s often said the first laksa vendor in Sarawak—a Malaysian state on the northwest coast of Borneo—was a Cantonese man who moved to Kuching from Indonesia at the end of World War II. He gave or sold his recipe to a Cantonese lady, who may or may not have passed it to a Mr. Tan who, in the 1960s, made a fortune selling factory-made “Swallow” brand laksa paste. None of these creation myths mention the other forms of laksa eaten in Malaysia and Indonesia. Mr. Tan’s product—and those of the imitators which soon appeared (one called itself “Eagle,” another “Parrot”)—made preparing laksa at home a great deal quicker and less laborious. Inevitably, it was a huge hit among Sarawakians living far from their home state. 

I had done less research about politics. But it seems many in Sarawak are unhappy with their place in the Malaysian federation...

The published version of this article is quite a bit shorter than the piece I sent in. In the original I made some references to Taiwan, comparing its so-far frustrated efforts to ensure its autonomy/independence, to Sarawakian discontent with the political status quo in Malaysia. To read the complete published article, go here.

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.