hong kong run

Posted: May 15, 2015 in hong kong

I know, I know. It’s been too long without a blog again. I can only blame life, which continues to move along at top speed leaving me little time to update you guys on everything that goes on in said life. These days, work is mostly to blame. We’re two months from semester’s end, and as I have daban I’ve got a graduation to plan and execute, in addition to 32 in-class hours and all attendant prep and grading outside the classroom. Hardly an ideal time to take a vacation.

love me some Hong Kong.

love me some Hong Kong.

On the other hand, it’s an excellent time to take a breather and avoid burnout. So I’m going to China! Heading back “home” to Beijing this afternoon for eight days, and I’m beyond excited. I’ve been cleared to enter the Land of Red again, though getting my new visa was anything but easy. Constantly changing visa laws always make it difficult to gauge the current situation on gaining entry, but I did some research and nailed down what I thought was a simple, efficient plan.

For obvious reasons, there’s no Chinese Embassy in Taiwan, so I’d have to use a third-country option to get my hands on a visa. It would cheaper to fly to Hong Kong and apply in person with China’s Foreign Ministry than to send my passport out using a Taiwan-based agent, so I booked a flight for a Friday morning in late April, thinking I’d apply for the visa that afternoon using the rush service, collect it a day later, and be back in Taipei by Sunday night. And I’d get to chill in Hong Kong for three days, to boot.

But, wait. Two years out, and I already seem to have forgotten who I’m dealing with. Nothing’s easy when it comes to China, and my visa wasn’t about to become the exception. After a lot of back and forth and paper shuffling and showing all my previous Chinese residency permits, I was told the only visa I could possibly be issued was the new reciprocal ten-year, unlimited-entry type – and that it wouldn’t be ready until Monday evening.

I gritted my teeth and changed my flight, immensely grateful to HK Airlines for not slapping me with a fee, since I was about to hand over a hefty chunk of change to the Chinese government. I frantically Lined and called coworkers back in Taiwan to find subs to cover my Monday classes. Next, I whited-out my Taipei company and address on my visa form and replaced them with false American information, since Chinese visas must be applied for outside of China (and yes, where the Foreign Ministry is concerned, that runaway, self-governing little island is indeed still a part of China). I finally jumped on the good old A11 to Causeway Bay, checked into the same old place I always stay in Hong Kong, and spent a miserable four days worrying whether my visa would actually come through.

Just kidding.

Sure, I was stressed about the visa, but I still had an amazing long weekend because HONG KONG. I love this city. It’d been almost eight months since my last visit, and the last couple times I’ve been I’d mostly just met friends and eaten and shopped for essentials that we don’t have in Taipei. No matter how long or short I’m in the city, I always make time for a stroll along the TST because THAT SKYLINE. An even more stunning view of the city can be found from atop Victoria Peak, though, and when Saturday dawned clear and blue, I knew I wanted to go take in the city view from above. I should do this every time I’m in HK because it’s an incomparable sight.

love this city, love this view.

love this city, love this view.

Hong Kong from Victoria Peak.

Hong Kong from Victoria Peak.

end of April, but chilling this high up.

end of April, but chilling this high up.

can't get enough.

can’t get enough.

I stayed up there until after dark because the night view is stellar.

I stayed up there until after dark because the night view is stellar.

Hong Kong also has some incredible hiking trails, especially on the outlying islands. I decided to take the five-hour Dragon’s Back loop on Hong Kong Island, and ended up at Big Wave Bay in Shek O, where I spent a few hours reading on the beach.

trekking through bamboo jungle.

trekking through bamboo jungle.

I like hiking in HK because many of the trails run beside water, and offer views of the city as well.

I like hiking on Hong Kong Island because many of the trails run beside water, and offer views of the city as well.

just a lil r and r.

just a lil r and r.

lunchtime.

lunchtime.

definitely elements of Britain here.

definitely elements of Britain here.

mid-levels in central. thanks heavens for the famed escalator system.

mid-levels in central. thanks heavens for the famed escalator system.

I love riding the trams with open windows.

I love riding the trams with open windows.

HK's neon lights.

HK’s neon lights.

my second favorite skyline.

my second favorite skyline.

I spent Sunday with a friend from Beijing that I hadn’t seen in almost two years. She lives in Shenzhen now, a relatively easy trip into Hong Kong. We met up in Central and took a ferry over to Lantau Island, where we spent the afternoon chilling in Tai O before heading back to HK Island for some Tim Ho Wan and night sights. By the time Monday rolled around, (you know, the day I should have been working), I was in full vacation mode. I took a book and some writing and went to the Starbucks on the TST to just sit and stare across at the skyline for hours.

the beauty of HK.

the beauty of HK.

...

 

I caught a late afternoon bus out to the airport, where I discovered my worrying had been for nothing. I have been issued a TEN-YEAR UNLIMITED ENTRY visa to China. I’m set for the next decade. Even though I argued against it at first, I realize that this is actually completely in my favor. A single-entry Chinese visa applied from HK was running me USD300 anyway. For only $150 more, I can go in and out of China whenever I want, as opposed to paying the fee and going through this entire hassle again.

a HK pharmacy window.

a pharmacy window.

Got a flight in a couple hours and nothing’s packed… stories from China to come!

Roads in Taiwan are somewhat of a free-for-all, particularly in the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods on the outskirts of Taipei where I do a lot of driving. Hello, Sanchong. Major highways to city blocks to back alleys are crowded with heavy traffic, borderline anarchic drivers, and a random assortment of obstacles that even the most careful driver is hard-pressed to avoid. I’ve had my share of near misses, though I’ve yet to actually hit anything. I mean, unless you count the time I drove into a post on the sidewalk meant to prevent people from driving on the sidewalk.

this is my bike.

this is my bike on a jaunt outside Taipei. the only thing I have to worry about running into here is a cloud.

Taiwan’s roads might appear lawless, but there actually is an orderly flow to traffic that most people somehow understand and take in stride. Who am I to interrupt things by stopping at a red light or making a two point left turn? Just kidding, but my reflexes aren’t. While the de facto rules of the road are quite similar to any in America, the traffic conditions are vastly different – it’d be unthinkable that a few regulations not go to pot when some 15 million motorbikes are factored into the mix, along with any number of these hazards:

Blue trucks of death: Taiwan has countless small pickup trucks, many boxed, all painted blue, and all my personal worst enemy. They’re usually driven by construction workers wired on the nut and Taiwan beer and smoking cigarettes. I’ve had countless close calls with these blue death traps, because they’re small enough to weave in and out of the bike lanes to gain a few car lengths, and brash enough to bump a few scooters aside to do it.

one of Taiwan's ubiquitous kamikaze trucks.

one of Taiwan’s ubiquitous kamikaze trucks.

Taike: Gangsters and their henchmen, and even wannabe gangsters, should be avoided at all costs. I’ve seen enough of these guys in my neighborhood to easily identify them now, and I give wide berth to large black vehicles or late model scooters pimped out with LED lights. They drive like maniacs, plus you just never know with lawless, helmet-less sorts. Also, taike are a solid nine on the creeper scale. I can’t count how many times a muffler-less bike has pulled up next to me at an intersection and, instead of blowing through the red-light per taike driving protocol, the rider actually stopped – to gawk at the white girl invading their hood. I’m pretty sure my foreign face would act as a deterrent were I ever to have an issue with one of these guys, but I’d rather not find out.

Miaohui: Since most god parades are organized by above-mentioned gangsters, it’s wise to stop and wait for the dancing pagans to pass by or to just choose another route. Miaohui might last a while, and who knows what sort of reaction you’d provoke by zooming around the procession in an attempt to get to the front. There’s also a strong possibility you might drive into a fireworks display in the middle of the road, since temple workers don’t much care where they strew boxes of roman candles and long red lines of firecrackers.

don't cross these guys.

don’t cross these guys.

Funeral processions: This is another event that one would be wise to avoid driving through, especially since 70% of Taiwanese funerals hire strippers and you’d be liable to drive into something while you were watching the spectacle. Plus, it’s just plain rude to crash someone’s death parade and, if my Taiwanese friends are to be believed, terrible fortune and bad favor from the gods.

Tented events: Some are funerals as well; others are temple fairs or rallies or who even knows what. I’ll be driving down the street, usually a smaller back one, when I suddenly run smack up against a large tent obstructing more than half the road’s width for a good 500m or so. Not gonna lie, a time or two they’ve come up so suddenly that I’ve been unable to slow down and swing out into the opposing lane past the tent, and instead had to zip along the inside wall of the tent and out the other end. I considered grabbing a chicken leg off a table of food one time as I blasted past, but fortunately I realized at the last second that it was an offering to the temple gods watching me tear up their temporary residence.

strippers atop jeeps make their way through my hood.

pole dancers atop jeeps make their way through my hood.

Garbage trucks: It’s not so much the trucks that I need to worry about. These not only move at a snail’s pace, they also play classical music to alert me to their presence on the road. No, it’s more the people who come flying out of doorways and alleys and from behind parked cars with bags of garbage and recycling. They won’t let a scooter come between them and tossing their trash, so I constantly have to watch out that I don’t mow down some little old lady standing in the middle of the road flagging down the truck with her bag of vegetable scraps.

Freelance recyclers: I’ve seen these guys roam expressways and small lanes looking for scraps of recycling to pile on their wheeled contraptions and drag around town. Another part of Taiwan’s terrific trash tribe, they tend to be of the older generations and moonlight their way around the city as garbage pickers who sell their findings back to the city for cash. They’re dicey to drive around because in spite of their geriatric pace they make unpredictable maneuvers into moving traffic.

this dude roams around my block.

this dude roams around my block.

Roadwork: Well, duh, you’re thinking, that’s an obvious one. But it’s worth mentioning because road construction in Taiwan manages to scare the crap out of me every. single. time. I’ll be driving along and see a crane or whatever ahead and maybe slow it down a bit, and then almost drive off the road when I see robotic mannequin dressed in high visibility gear and waving glowsticks. These figures are so lifelike it’s not until I’m almost on top of them that I realize they’re robots, and without fail I lose my cool for the next twelve blocks.

a robotic construction mannequin.

a robotic construction mannequin.

Stray dogs: In Sanchong, where I live, there are mutts running around everywhere. They may or may not belong to someone, and are no trouble at all to the general public, but they do randomly appear in front of my bike or dash across the street with no warning. I’ve swerved more times than I can count trying to avoid toasting these buggers.

Election demonstrations: For whatever reason, whether tradition or lack of common sense, it’s quite popular to hold election rallies (and set oneself up as an easy target) in the middle of the road. Should you happen upon an opposition candidate, you could easily putter past shouting insults and then burn out of there. And heaven only help should you inadvertently end up in the middle of a scooter brigade demonstrating through the district in support of some candidate. Never fear, these crews are easy to spot beforehand, since the bikes cluster up and trail flags and banners and there’s usually some guy yelling into a megaphone.

election campaigners on scooter.

election campaigners on scooter.

Tissue hander-outers: Were I ever so inclined to accept all proffered packs of tissues overlaid with various advertisements, I’d not have to buy TP for a year. These sorts usually lie in wait on street corners with stoplights so they’ll have a captive crowd on which to ply their flyers and freebies. They’re most definitely not the greatest at timing the red lights, though, and often just as I’m about to turn my throttle and peel away, one of them jumps in front of my bike and waves an ad in my face. Flower sellers also make the grade with this one.

Betelnut spitters: This is nothing like China’s culture of spit, and though I would once have claimed that no excuse on earth justifies hacking up a loogie and hocking it whenever and wherever you please, I guess a mouth full of red betelnut juice is an exception. These guys are generally careful about where they spit, and usually try to aim for a sewer or into a cup. But what’s a guy to do when he’s got both hands on the throttle and brakes of a scooter? I despise driving next to an old geezer hopped up on the nut who decides to let fly with a mouthful as he’s whizzing down the road.

Food vendors: These are generally carts, some with motors and some without, that have the ability to sell fruit, roast nuts and sweet potatoes, steam buns, and cook bowls of noodles and random animal parts. They park on curbs around the city to hawk breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I make full use of their drive-up services, but trouble starts when they bang up and start hauling those rattletraps home. The motorized ones rarely go above 10mph, the pushcarts cut back and forth across city blocks without warning, and I’m 110% sure I’ve never seen one with a light on it. PS, driving through a night market? The first time I made it through one without accidentally bumping someone… well, I’ll let you know when it happens.

a street full of vendor carts. others are built onto the back of motorized tricycles.

a street full of vendor carts. others are built onto the back of motorized tricycles.

Cameras: Well, of course you should worry about getting a letter in the mail with a terribly unglamorous photo of yourself and your license plate. That’s how I was nailed for my first speeding ticket. What’s more dangerous than driving in an area where you’re unaware of existing cameras, though, is driving among people knowledgable that big brother is watching and then squeeze the brakes with little warning in order to suddenly conform to the posted speed limit. If you’re not alert, you’ll ride right up the back of another bike.

Shade stops: Hey, the tropical sun is hot. To execute a proper shade stop, you must be approaching a red light or a light about to turn red and then, upon realizing that the area you would normally stop is in direct sunlight, pull over into the nearest patch of shadows along the curb until the light turns green. Fellow motorists who dread skin a shade beyond lily-white will join you until a large group of bikes blocks anyone getting past the shade of trees or buildings and through to the front of the pack.

Buses: Though they’re equipped with side lights to let you know they’ll be pulling over, it’s still anyone’s guess as to when a bus will cut full-speed into the next lane to make it over to the bus stop in time. Also, much as in China, the biggest vehicle in sight holds the trump card, purely thanks to its ability to muscle others out of the way. Buses pretty much top the pecking order, which goes something like this in Taiwan: Bus > truck > gangster vehicle > taxi > police car > normal car > motorcycle > scooter > bicycle > pedestrian.

may look charming, but this bad boy won't hesitate to rewrite grandma and the reindeer.

may look charming at Christmastime, but this bad boy won’t hesitate to rewrite grandma and the reindeer.

Taxis: Also worth a mention, as I’ve personally almost been taken out twice by these idiots. In fact, the only time I’ve ever seen a hint of road rage here is when one of my Taiwanese friends flipped the bird at a taxi driver who almost ran us up the curb while we were driving through Taipei on his scooter. And rightly so, because these guys will stop at nothing, including murder, to collect Ayi and her fare from the opposite side of the street.

Cyclists: I’ve been on this end quite often myself, so I know where these guys are coming from. I can attest that bicycle riders consider themselves more or less free from all rules of the road, and blow through intersections or veer into traffic from time to time. The thing about cyclists is that they move more slowly than scooter riders, and the latter need to be careful when overtaking a guy pedaling his way across town.

Pedestrians: On the road, you may ask? But a lot of Taiwan is tiny little back alleys that have no sidewalks. And a lot more of Taiwan is nice roads with sidewalks that double as car and scooter lots, and are jam-packed with street vendors and chess players and vegetable sellers and hell money fires and motorcycle mechanics, forcing pedestrians into the street. Scooterists also utilize sidewalks as righthand passing lanes, a driving technique that lends itself to high-speed window shopping and, taken a step further, to the possibility of nationwide drive-thru 7-11s.

Scooters: Size relegates them low on the totem pole, sure. But for the same reason, scooters are able to drive just about anywhere: between lanes of traffic going any speed, on the sidewalks, to the front of traffic jams, and around these many various obstacles. My fellow scooterists run the gamut from helmet-less youths with a death wish; to moms with three kids piled on; to grizzled grandpas able to lane-split with the best of them. I’ve learned a few hard and fast rules apply when you ride in this category.

-If you believe, you can achieve: When I got a Costco membership last year I quickly discovered that there is no limit to the amount of schtuff you can pile on a scooter and still make it down the road at a reasonable clip. I’ve seen families of four plus the dog and five bags of groceries on one bike; two construction workers each holding a canister of plaster with two roped on and back and one nestled in between the driver’s feet; any assortment of loose pets that may or may not jump off and run around at red lights; a guy with at least two hundred cabbages hanging in plastic bags off every side of his ride; people driving with one hand while balancing a bicycle on the back; and many more situations of clown car caliber.

a less-than-prudent approach to transporting the kids.

a less-than-prudent approach to transporting the kids.

-Red light? Proceed with caution, for unless you’re in a major city these are merely suggestions. Slow down, look eight ways, and keep going through the intersection once you’ve confirmed there is no cross traffic or any cameras (devilish laughter is optional). It’s also illegal to turn right on red, so be sure to slow down and check for cops before hanging a right.

-Make gangster lefts: After eighteen months of careful observation, I realize I was played the fool when I got my first ticket for making a simple left turn. Scooters cannot legally turn left at major intersections, but instead must proceed to the marked scooter box which is in front of cross traffic stopped at the red light. Turns out there’s a much more effective and sneaky way to complete the maneuver, which can take an eternity should you approach at a red light, wait for it to change, and then have to wait in the box for the crosslight to change too. It’s much easier to morph into a cyclist for the time it takes you to zip over the crosswalk to your left and then wait for a break in traffic to u-turn.

-Dress to impress: Whether it’s a jacket worn unzipped and backward to ensure maximum wind flow or a fabric mask that covers your mouth, neck, and shoulders, you must be properly attired if you’re a true Taiwanese scooterist. It’s well worth your while to attach oven mitts to your handlebars to protect your hands from undesirable weather and to invest in long socks to cover your arms. Anything kitschy is appropriate, though I believe there are bonus points for Hello Kitty. The only contribution I’ve made toward looking stylish on my bike is a helmet, which happens to be required gear in my part of the country. Oh, and I also wear my old face mask from China when it’s cold… oh my word, I’m turning Taiwanese.

novia demonstrates a proper Taiwanese scootering ensemble. not my bike or, thank goodness, my helmet.

novia models a proper Taiwanese scootering ensemble. not my bike or, thank goodness, my helmet.

-Honk that horn: Horns are rarely honked maliciously or in retaliation. Rather, they’re tapped as a courtesy, just to let others know you’re blowing through an intersection five seconds after the light turned red or that you’re passing and nobody better get in the way. Doesn’t matter whether you’re huandao-ing Taiwan or riding two minutes down your block for dumplings: use your horn to announce your presence when turning corners, blowing through night markets, and passing through all yellow and red lights.

It didn’t take long for me to adjust my riding modus operandi to survive and thrive. My scooter is to me, as most people’s are to them, an essential part of daily life, and dodging kamikaze drivers and weaving around temples gods is all part of it. I ride a fine line between aggressive and defensive driving, and have mastered split-second reactions to all the vehicles and people and oddities I encounter in the hubbub of Taiwanese traffic. There’s not a more challenging or exhilarating way to get around.

my handlebars and helmet watch the start of a lovely sunset.

my handlebars and helmet watch the start of a lovely sunset.

Happy Easter! Happy Tomb-Sweeping Day! Yes, this year the Chinese festival noted for ancestor veneration and the tending of family graves falls on the same day as the Christian holiday that preaches an empty tomb and a risen Lord. This is my ninth Easter Sunday away from home and family, and yet, wherever I am in the world, I’m able to celebrate the resurrection with wonderful believers who are joyful in their faith.

The Western traditions of Easter pass with little fanfare here in Asia, but Qingming Festival is widely celebrated. The main idea of Tomb-Sweeping holiday, as it is dubbed in English, is to take time to remember and honor departed ancestors, preferably by visiting and tending to their burial sites. Families pray, clean tombs, burn incense and hell money, and bring offerings to aid their families in the afterlife. Taiwanese worship and send gifts to the dead year-round, and Qingming’s demonstration of devotion is an extension of the belief that one’s ancestors have the power to directly influence present fortune or misfortune.

Two different holidays, born of two different cultures and religions, somehow similar in their remembrance of death and the life-affirming celebration of springtide, yet marking such a great contrast and such a great need for the gospel. As many people across this country make their way to the gravesides of their loved ones to worship and care for them and to reflect on the lives they led, Christians around the world gather to worship the living Christ and to celebrate the One who conquered the grave on our behalf. The Easter message of a God who is able to deliver from death becomes solemn when around us people offer superstitious worship to those who have no ability to influence their lives.

roadside graveyard near taidong.

roadside graveyard near taidong.

I’m in the midst of a rather delightful and long awaited four-day weekend. We had Friday off for Children’s Day, and because Qingming falls on Sunday this year we get Monday off as well. I made good use of my Good Friday, spending the day tearing around Yangmingshan on a motorcycle. Yangmingshan comprises various peaks and valleys, all with their own unique attractions. We went to see the calla lily fields at Bamboo Lake (no lake to be had, just a name), and Xiaoyoukeng, an old volcano that still spits sulfuric gases into the air. I love riding down the backside of Yangming Mountain down to Jinshan – it’s a fast, twisty ride that will have you hanging from the bushes if you’re not careful. After a bit of time spent along the north coast, we went back up the mountain to Datunshan in time to catch a beautiful sunset.

riding high above the clouds.

riding high above the clouds.

high, twisty roads.

high, twisty roads.

calla lilies are grown up on yangmingshan.

calla lilies are grown up on yangmingshan.

xiaoyoukeng, a dead volcano.

xiaoyoukeng, a dead volcano.

tombs in jinshan. these burial places are more like shrines and are the types visited on Tomb-Sweeping holiday.

tombs in jinshan. these burial places are more like shrines and are the types visited on Tomb-Sweeping holiday.

and a beautiful day for riding my favorite north coast.

and a beautiful day for riding my favorite north coast.

sunrise atop datunshan, one of yangmingshan's peaks.

sunrise atop datunshan, one of yangmingshan’s peaks.

...

...

the tail end of sunset.

the tail end of sunset.

And, since I know I’ve been slacking in the posting department, I’ll share a few more pictures of things I’ve been up to besides blogging. And working. Always working these days. The majority of March was freezing cold and rainy, which made it feel colder still. We had a week of really nice weather temperature-wise, and now the past week and a half or so has seen us transition right into summer – high eighties and sunny and beautiful.

before Holi Taipei.

before Holi Taipei.

during Holi Taipei.

during Holi Taipei.

after Holi Taipei.

after Holi Taipei.

Sunday night shrimping with these wackos.

Sunday night shrimping with these wackos.

oh look, we actually caught one. and no, I wasn't going to be the one pulling it off the hook.

oh look, we actually caught one. and no, I wasn’t going to be the one pulling it off the hook.

with our catch.

with our catch.

Have a happy Easter together:)

There’s no better way to see this country than from a bicycle seat, I thought to myself as I booked it down the western coast to Kenting. The weather was bright and sunny, the ocean on my right was blue and inviting, and the mountains were behind us. Whenever I wanted to take a breather or stop to see a roadside stand or a scenic view, I could pull right off and take my sweet time. After crossing the mountains in speedy fashion, we’d chosen to change course and continue riding south along Taiwan’s western coast for the short 30K cycle to Kenting.

looking inward along the coast. absolute beauty.

looking inward along the coast. absolute beauty.

Upon arrival, we discovered that lodging was in short supply (it was Chinese New Year, after all), and had to ask around a bit before hitting the jackpot, a lovely two bedroom suite with a massive bathroom and rooftop access. We took long showers and collapsed on the two lovely beds for a bit before conceding that it was best to get out and explore. Kenting is a beach and party town, and there’s a decent nightlife. We took a few hours to go round the night market – another of those large, spread-out southern ones I so enjoy, very unlike the city block markets of Taipei, though just as crowded.

kenting, from our hotel rooftop.

kenting, from our hotel rooftop.

lovely water, even on a cloudy day.

lovely water, even on a cloudy day.

pretty psyched to be beachin' it up.

pretty psyched to be beachin’ it up.

The next morning, with our extra time giving us leave to cover more mileage, we decided to explore Kenting National Park by bike, and headed all the way to Eluanbi Lighthouse at the southern tip of Taiwan. There are really nice trails along the water and through the bush in the park. After a few hours spent wandering around, we returned to pick up our bike bags and set off once more.

the beauty of southern taiwan.

the beauty of southern taiwan.

yours truly.

yours truly.

these people are amazing.

these people are amazing.

...

stunning coastline.

stunning coastline.

eluanbi light.

eluanbi light.

hahahahaha.

hahahahaha.

located at Taiwan's southernmost point.

located at Taiwan’s southernmost point.

...

This time the goal was Fangliao, a small town about 60K north – there in time for dinner, we thought, but life has a way of changing the best-laid plans. The first thirty kilometers were great fun. Taiwan’s western coast is an easy ride, mostly flat and right along the Strait. There was a lot of traffic this particular afternoon, and countless cars tried to muscle their way up the highway via the bike slash scooter lane. We took great delight in riding side by side, more slowly than usual at times, to prevent cars from driving up the bike lane.

food trucks on our way out of town. they open up for the night market crowd in the evenings.

food trucks on our way out of town. they open up for the night market crowd in the evenings.

much needed rest stop, and bathroom break haha.

much needed rest stop, and bathroom break haha.

one of countless roadside stands selling locally grown produce. near Taidong it's shijia, and along the road from kenting to kaohsiung it goes from onions to wax apples.

one of countless roadside stands selling locally grown produce. near Taidong it’s shijia, and along the road from kenting to kaohsiung it goes from onions to wax apples.

Alas, when we reached the town of Fengang, with 30K yet to go, we dropped into a 7-11 for snacks and realized Katy was nowhere in sight. Her phone wasn’t charged, so we had no way of calling and finding out what was happening. Just when we were starting to really worry, a scooter came driving up the road – with Katy on the back and her bike wheeling along next to it. She’d gotten a flat a ways back, and some kind Taiwanese gentleman had scraped her off the side of the road and brought her to Fenggang.

I, ever paranoid about situations such as our current one, had a patch kit, albeit no clue how to use it. Because of the national holiday, there were no bike or mechanic shops open, and just as I was about to YouTube how to change a bike tube, a couple of bikers on a round-Taiwan trip pulled off to assist in the repair. People like these are why I never worry about wanting for anything in Taiwan. The kindness and generosity of strangers reaches no bounds.

katy's bike being repaired by two generous strangers.

katy’s bike being repaired by two generous strangers.

Looking on the literal bright side of things we saw a majestic sunset off the coast as we rode the rest of the way into Fanggliao. Upon arrival, I made tracks for the first convenience store I saw, where the staff must have seen my desperation and kindly let me use the bathroom back in the storage room. When I emerged, Alex, Katy, and Julia had been hailed by an old geezer on a scooter who wanted the down low on what a group of foreigners were doing in his town. The soul of hospitality, he insisted that we follow him around Fangliao in search of a room for the night. As aforementioned, I’m all about Taiwanese helpfulness, but I swear this guy had us ride another 10K as he drove all over jabib trying to find us a place to stay. We finally said we’d like any old place near the train station, and the guy helped us to find a cheap hotel right in the center of town.

incredible sunset off the western coast.

incredible sunset off the western coast.

pictures do no justice.

pictures do no justice.

...

Our nighttime wanderings allowed us to note a route out of town, as well as a big temple we wanted to visit along the way. We woke early and grabbed a roadside breakfast, toured around and then absolutely punched it 60K north to Kaohsiung. Alright, we had multiple break times along the way, cause that’s how we roll, but we did make decent time. While it’s always nice to find a Seven to crash in for fifteen minutes, sometimes they’re just not around when we need a breather (what? you can’t find a 7-11? in Taiwan? I know, shocking). Often we just drop the bikes on the side of the road and stretch out on the grass or pavement for a while. We’ve definitely had people slow down to ask if someone was injured or whether we needed water. My preferred stopping points are temples along the way. You’re never far from a temple in Taiwan, and they’re great places to relax, explore, pray, and get some water.

breakfast time.

breakfast time.

fangliao temple.

fangliao temple.

rest stop.

rest stop.

watchful dragons.

watchful dragons.

...

the most famous maze temples in fangliao.

locals only, brah. betelnut and smokes.

locals only, brah. betel nut lips.

After passing through so many small towns and villages, it was nice to be in a big city again. We shipped our bikes off to Taipei straight away, and then had several hours to tour around the city before hopping a seven hour bus back home. Luckily, we had one day of the official public Chinese New Year holiday left, and I spent the majority of it lounging around my apartment doing absolutely nothing.

formosa boulevard subway station.

formosa boulevard subway station.

one of the most beautiful in the world, it's a must-see if you're in kaohsiung city.

one of the most beautiful in the world, it’s a must-see if you’re in kaohsiung city.

cool and gorgeous at the same time, huh?

cool and gorgeous at the same time, huh?

dat hobo lifetsyle, y'all.

dat hobo lifetsyle, y’all.

Way to start off the new year right, I thought as I sat on the floor of a train bound for Taitung. It was only 7am and I was sandwiched between Julia and the side of the car, with a bag hangar poking my neck and a vow to not use the bathroom even though I was really regretting that early morning coffee. My friends Alex and Katy were slouched against the wall looking similarly thrilled with the prospect of the four and a half hour journey ahead of us. We had walked the length of the train until we came to a handicapped car which had a large section of open floor space ready to be staked out. I stared enviously at the old lady who had brought a collapsible stool with her and wished I hadn’t stayed up celebrating quite so late the night before.

train travel in Taiwan on major holidays. and, honestly, pretty heavenly compared to even a soft sleeper in China.

train travel in Taiwan on major holidays. and, honestly, pretty heavenly compared to even a soft sleeper in China.

Because 初一 (chū yī), or the first day of Chinese New Year, is a day to go visiting relatives, a lot of people who had spent New Year’s Eve in Taipei were now heading south to hometowns and family gatherings. We were once again stuck with standing room train tickets, not actually the worst scenario since it’s possible to get anywhere in Taiwan within a short time, but definitely not the greatest since we planned to jump on our bikes the second we arrived in Taitung.

The plan was to bike from Taitung, located on Taiwan’s eastern coast, to Kenting at the southern tip of Taiwan, and then around and up to Kaohsuing on the west coast. We had vague goals of where we’d like to end up each night over the course of the four-day trip, but things change, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

looking forward to roads like this... sadly, they sloped upward for many kilometers of the journey.

started off from Taitung with lovely roads like this… sadly, they soon sloped upward for many kilometers of the journey.

Upon arrival in Taitung, we went to shipping and picked up our bikes. It was one in the afternoon before we hit the road, and we wanted to make it sixty kilometers to Dawu before dark, so we stopped off for a quick lunch in Seven and punched it. Looking at maps I’d guessed the route was hilly, but some of it was a lot more mountainous than I’d thought. It was also beautiful, the weather was great for riding, and, as always, we received plenty of encouragement from passing motorists – thumbs up out car windows and “加油’s” from the back of motorbikes. It was also somewhat satisfying to bike more than 5k past a long line of standstill traffic heading northward along the coast. On a two-lane road, they were absolutely trapped and I sailed past them in the other direction with no small amount of glee.

somewhere along the beginning of our route.

somewhere along the beginning of our route.

roadside altars, not uncommon along the route.

roadside altars, not uncommon along the route.

...

this lovely flat roads...

this lovely flat roads…

soon into these less lovely less flat roads.

soon into these less lovely less flat roads.

one of my favorite parts about biking around Taiwan is riding through the many small townships along the route. 500 meters and we're through on the single road that runs straight through town.

one of my favorite parts about biking around Taiwan is riding through the many small townships along the route. 500 meters and we’re through on the single road that runs straight through town.

other bikers we met along the way.

other bikers we met along the way.

my trusty wheels.

my trusty wheels.

traffic backed up kilometers upon kilometers.

traffic backed up kilometers upon kilometers.

At dusk, with 15K or so to go, we happened upon a lone cyclist heading back up the road to Taitung. Rather negatively, he told us that we ought to turn back and spend the night in the last small town we’d passed through. The road ahead was quite hilly and there were no lights (there never are along mountain roads in Taiwan), and he said that we had a tough two hours riding ahead of us. Turned out he was right, but his attitude gave us the fuel we needed for a grueling couple of hours along the hilly coast toward our goal. The last four or five kilometers were some of the most terrifying riding I’ve ever done. Huge lengths of Highway 9 are narrow, winding two-laners that run right along the Pacific Ocean on one side and hug the mountains on the other. The road occasionally cuts inland a bit to pass through a small town, but there are some desolate stretches and this was one of them. It was pitch black by this point, and since we were riding south, that meant we were up against the mountain – or would have been were it not for the foot-wide ditch that divided the mountain from the road. I couldn’t see a two feet in front of me, and I was terrified that one inch in the wrong direction would land me in the ditch and I’d be finished. The occasional car was a blessing and a curse, since headlights illuminated the road for a minute but then left my eyes to readjust to the darkness. I kept veering out into the center of the road, but that was also dangerous, since speeding cars came upon us too quickly to stop when they saw bike lights. It was like riding a tightrope blind.

I was never so happy to get to the bottom of a mountain as I was that one, especially since the township of Dawu was right there waiting for us. I ran across the main road of town to ask a copper where there might be a guesthouse, and he pointed out a bikers’ hostel just down the way. We scored a room with some double beds and as it was only about 7pm decided to head out for a night on the town, which consisted of a single road lined with homes and some shops. After dinner, the only thing to do was buy some fireworks off the side of the road and light them up… in the parking lot of the police station, though that wasn’t clear until daylight. Whoops.

fuel.

fuel.

haha.

haha.

The next morning, we rose early and while I’d love to say we also shone, we were dreading the day of mountains ahead of us. After breakfast we knocked off an easy 10k down the coast before Highway 9 ran us straight up into the mountains and across Taiwan to the west coast. This is where things changed for the absolute better. We had about 40k over the mountains, and after several hours of hard riding and temple pit stops, we cleared 1200 feet and what appeared to be a peak. I’ve learnt to expect that a downhill stretch will just bring another uphill slog, so I made sure to thoroughly enjoy flying six or seven kilometers down the mountains and the leisurely ride through a deep valley that followed.

and the road goes ever higher.

and the road goes ever higher.

about 800 feet up from sea level here.

about 800 feet up from sea level here.

thank heavens for temples along mountain roads. I think we were at this one for at least an hour.

thank heavens for temples along mountain roads. I think we were at this one for at least an hour.

lovely place for a pit stop!

lovely place for a pit stop!

I mean, they even supplied lucky new year's candy for weary travelers.

I mean, they even supplied lucky new year’s candy for weary travelers. totally wiped out their brown sugar sucker supply.

another self-appointed "rest area" somewhere along the mountain road.

another self-appointed “rest area” somewhere along the mountain road.

hobo-ing it up.

hobo-ing it up.

hipster much?

hipster much?

And then, suddenly, we saw the ocean in front of us. I pulled up at the side of the road and waited for my comrades, who’d maybe actually used their brakes. We looked back and forth at each other and the sign above us that said we’d arrived at Route 26, which definitely runs down the west coast. Amazingly enough, we’d crossed the mountains in no time at all, and now were left with plenty of daylight to bike our way down to Kenting, Taiwan’s southernmost point.

beautiful valley riding.

beautiful valley riding.

just a little excited that we'd reached the west coast much, much faster than anticipated.

just a little excited that we’d reached the west coast much, much faster than anticipated.

To be continued…

Two weeks before Chinese New Year, my friend Julia and I realized that neither of us had been on a bike in over a month, a situation not exactly conducive to riding one for four days straight over the upcoming holiday. With the intention of whipping our sorry selves into shape, we shipped our bikes south and hopped a bus from Taipei down to Taichung late Friday night after work.

The plan was to bike from Taichung through Changhua and on to Lugang, then turn around the same day and bike back to Taichung in time to catch a train back up to Taipei. In theory, it was doable – 80K roundtrip would even give us a few hours to explore Lugang before biking back. In reality, we got lost five miles in and wound up going in circles around Taichung’s HSR station for a solid hour before we figured our way out of the city. Shortly afterward, we took a wrong turn and biked through an apparently off-limits police precinct, where two huge black dogs came tearing after us. The fact that Taiwan doesn’t have rabies was my sole consolation as I biked for my life. Fortunately, the amused and bemused police were kind to us two dumb foreigners, calling back the dogs and opening the locked gate for us to continue on our way.

gorgeous temple that we took a breather at while passing through Changhua on the way to Lugang.

gorgeous temple that we took a breather at while passing through Changhua on the way to Lugang.

I've learned always to look UP in temples.

I’ve learned always to look UP in temples.

...

rural town life, taiwan.

rural town life, taiwan.

Aside from going back and forth over the same bridge three times somewhere in Changhua Country while trying to figure out which direction we needed to go, the rest of the trip went more or less smoothly. We spent a few hours in Lugang, an old town that’s not on the beaten path for many tourists. It’s quite small, and can be easily covered on foot, so we locked up the bikes outside a temple on the main drag and took off for an afternoon of exploring and eating our way through the old alleys that curve through the town.

zhongshan road runs through downtown lugang.

zhongshan road runs through downtown lugang.

tons of temples in this little town.

tons of temples in this little town.

offerings brought to baibai.

offerings brought to baibai.

I really liked this temple's doors.

I really liked this temple’s doors.

looking out from within the temple.

looking out from within the temple.

Neither of us were keen to return to Taichung, because even though we’d only seen it in the dark and while riding around the city limits in circles, we both thought it was a dump (I’ll get back there one of these days to see if Taichung actually has anything to offer). Instead, we biked our way back to Changhua, shipped the bikes and bought train tickets, and then cabbed it over to the “Big Buddha,” apparently Changhua’s claim to tourist fame. A couple hours on the train later, and we were home by 11pm that night, a well-spent Saturday.

big buddha at baiguanshan.

big buddha at baiguanshan.

and can you guess what the railway shipper guy has in his crates? BUNNY RABBITS.

and can you guess what the railway shipper guy has in his crates? BUNNY RABBITS.

tidbits from taipei 九

Posted: February 27, 2015 in tidbits from taipei

Well, thank goodness for holiday weekends. This one is giving me time to finish up this post, which was begun several days ago. Tomorrow is the 2/28 holiday, so we’re given today off as well, and since Chinese New Year was late this year the government vacation days just ended this past Monday. Woot for three day workweeks!

As I locked my apartment this morning, I realized I’d forgotten to flip the chunlian I had hanging on my door. It was a simple one, a decorative red and gold paper diamond into which was cut a single Chinese character, “chun” (meaning spring). I’d plastered it up there a few weeks prior, upside down per tradition, and now I was six days late turning it around. Chunlian can be either single characters of luck and fortune or poetic couplets on longer strips of paper with themes of springtime and renewal. Those with auspicious meanings are generally hung upside down because the Chinese word 倒 (dào, upside down) sounds like 到 (dào, arrive). Turning the chunlian right side up in the New Year symbolizes the arrival of fortune and spring. In my defense, I’d just come home from four days biking the day before and welcoming spring wasn’t really on my mind so much as collapsing with my pillow, but I definitely flipped that character right side up before I left my house again.

painting calligraphy to create a chunlian at the new year's market.

painting calligraphy to create a chunlian at the new year’s market.

various chunlian on a wall in my neighborhood.

various chunlian on a wall in my neighborhood. black or gold painted on red paper is standard.

I find people back home don’t really grasp the magnitude and importance of Chinese New Year both in public and private life. Many Westerners think CNY, like January 1st, is a single day of revelry. Most definitely not. The traditions and celebrations extend even past the weeklong government holiday, during which many businesses, shops, and restaurants close, and people travel about the country to visit family and friends. Each day of the Lunar New Year has a purpose that should be fulfilled, up until the fifteenth day when the holiday culminates with the Lantern Festival.

There are also dos and don’ts depending on how auspicious the given zodiac year is. I was born in the dragon year, and I remember how stoked locals were while celebrating back in 2012. Many people planned to marry, have a baby, buy a house or whatnot because of the fortune associated with the dragon. This is the year of the Goat (or Sheep or Ram, should you prefer), and it’s not regarded quite so highly among those who would stake their fortune on a zodiac animal. The confusion among English speakers over what to call this year was quite amusing, because there’s really no such worry among Chinese speakers over which animal should come out ahead. In Chinese, sheep is 绵羊 (miányáng), goat is 山羊 (shānyáng), and ram is 公羊(gōng yáng). And the animal for the New Year? Just 羊. Locals see no reason to distinguish between them, and so I see sheep and goat and ram decorations around the city.

weiya.

weiya.

The few days before Spring Festival were busy ones, what with finishing up pre-holiday work and getting my CNY spirit on. We had our company 尾牙 (wěi yá), or year-end banquet. As per tradition, there was a lot of food, drink, weird performances and boring speeches. Thank goodness my boss is so laid back – he laughed the following Monday when he told us we’d managed to sneak out during the company president’s speech. Whoops. I also went to the 年貨大街 (niánhuò dàjiē, new year’s market) twice with some friends, both to do some holiday shopping and to revel in the festive atmosphere there. This is where people go to buy all their new year essentials: snacks, red envelopes, chunlian, lucky candy, gifts, and more. I celebrated New Year’s Eve with a friend, eating dinner with his family and driving around to look at fireworks, and then hopped a train south on New Year’s Day to begin a four day cycling trip. More to come on that:)

New Year's decorations.

New Year’s decorations.

an old vendor hawks some kind of nut.

an old vendor hawks some kind of nut.

one of my favorite shots ever. decorations at nianhuo dajie.

one of my favorite shots ever. decorations at nianhuo dajie.

grandpas buy some snacks.

grandpas buy some snacks.

lucky candy!

lucky candy is always bountiful at this market.

and we had a four hour train ride coming up, so...

and we had a four hour train ride coming up, so…

a girl stirs 珍珠 (zhēnzhū), the pearls or tapioca balls that are often added to teas by popular demand.

a girl stirs 珍珠 (zhēnzhū), the pearls or tapioca balls that are often added to teas by popular demand.

a lot of people ate squid on a stick, it seems.

a lot of people ate squid on a stick, it seems.

just a couple of friendly bros.

just a couple of friendly bros.

nuts for sale.

nuts for sale.

decorations and lucky candy.

decorations and lucky candy.

overhead market decorations.

overhead market decorations.

年糕 (niángāo), or rice cake, is traditionally eaten at New Year's.

年糕 (niángāo), or rice cake, is traditionally eaten at New Year’s.

New Year's market.

New Year’s market.

The sixth day is back to work for most people, and today was my first day teaching after a week of public holiday. It was good to get back to it and see my little hooligans again, though the mountains of work after a week off and now facing a new semester were less welcome. While driving to work I had to dodge firecrackers sparking along the street as businesses reopened after a six-day break during the new year holiday. When stores and restaurants open for the first time in the new year, it’s important to do away with any lurking ghosts, evil spirits, bad mojo or what have you, so people light firecrackers to scare them off and offer plenty of incense and gifts to ensure the gods’ benevolence.

Work continues to keep me plenty busy. My schedule’s changed a bit this semester, and I now have two kindergarten classes – my favorite 6-year olds in the morning, and a brand new class of youngsters in the afternoon. I also teach upper level English several nights a week. I’m still volunteering at the orphanage, too. I wish I could share some pictures of the kids – we have 8 infants now – but it would be a bit dangerous, I think. One of the little babies, about five months, has the longest black hair that sticks straight up in a natural mohawk. It looks awesome and hilarious at the same time. I recently became a member of my church here (or, should I say, an associate member – that commits me to my church here, while also allowing me to keep my membership in church back home). I taught Sunday School a while back, and I’d like to get involved with the program again. I’m also keeping on studying Mandarin – though I have no time to enroll in classes, I forge ahead in my reading, writing, and grammar texts; bother my local friends; and meet for language exchange every week. And, of course, I get plenty of speaking practice on a daily basis.

And the most exciting news of recent weeks – I’m going back to Beijing! A whole week in May to revisit my old home, and to see friends and favorite places. My biking buddy is going with me, and we’ll take our bikes with as luggage. We’ve just booked tickets on a great deal, but now comes the sticky bit – VISAS. I’ve never had to apply for a visa to China before, as my company applied for the working visa on which I entered the country, which was then converted to Z residency status. I was never one of the horde of expats running over the border for a visa renewal every couple months, a good thing indeed, though it means I gained precious little experience dealing with China immigration. And now, living in Taipei means the situation is much more complicated than it would be were I living in the states because Taiwan, of course, has no Chinese embassy. So where, you ask, am I supposed to procure this visa? Well, looks like a trip to Hong Kong is in the cards – guess I’ll turn into one of those border-crossing expat types after all, albeit as a third-country applicant. There’s a rush service that gets the deed done in a day, and I have zero qualms about chilling in Kowloon for a weekend. So I’ve booked a flight for late April, called up a friend to come over the border form Shenzhen for a meet up, and have started to contact China friends to let them know I’m coming. Preparation and prayers, people.

here's another lantern pictures, because I fell in love with this display:)

here’s another lantern pictures, because I fell in love with this display:)