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:)

It’s one of my favorite times of year – Chinese New Year! We’re approaching midnight here, having finished a huge meal and just come in from a ride about Taipei to see some fireworks. I’m now fending off more food, while waiting for the fireworks to increase in number and noise. Not much longer until the Year of the Goat or Sheep or Ram… or whatever.

So Happy New Year to all you guys in Taiwan and across and around the world.

just back from a ride about Taipei to see some fireworks. now fending off more food while waiting for midnight.

just back from a ride about Taipei to see some fireworks.

gorgeous lanterns strung for New Year's.

gorgeous lanterns strung for New Year’s.

dang, I love this country

Posted: February 14, 2015 in life in taiwan

Shoot, has it already been a full month since I’ve returned from America? Rest assured, I’m still alive, though you wouldn’t know it if you’d been depending on blog updates. Oops. As today also marks a milestone of sorts, I thought I’d try to get back in the habit of regular posts and picture updates.

It’s been four years to the day since I moved abroad.

Four years. Is that crazy, incredible, strange, amazing, or what? I mean, four years ago I boarded a flight to Beijing expecting to return to the states after a year. I never expected to fall in love with Asia. I never expected to spend two and a half years in the Chinese capital before moving across the strait to Taiwan.

In honor of the 18 months I’ve now spent in Taipei, here are 18 things I love about this wonderful country.

1. The people. Taiwanese are hands down some of the friendliest and most generous people I’ve met in my life. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been touched by the kindness and hospitality of both friends and complete strangers who are willing to give me directions, recommend a dish, chat me up in Chinese, explain Taiwanese cultures and tradition, and just generally help me through life in a foreign country. I feel completely at home in Taiwan because of the earnest and kind people I run across every day.

2. City life. Taiwanese cities are generally bustling and have that perfect level of on-your-toes chaos. My city, Taipei, is a colorful blend of modernity and tradition, with Western comforts balancing out the lure of the East. Temples and lively food markets stand side-by-side with shopping malls and business districts, and a modern, forward-thinking people somehow hold onto traditional customs and beliefs. I’ve not been bored once over the past year and a half in Taipei because there’s always someone or something to see or do.

my city for the time being.

my city for the time being.

3. My neighborhood. Sure, Taipei is a modern world capital, but it’s got its rough and tumble side too, and my neighborhood in Sanchong District wonderfully represents what I like to think of as uniquely Taiwanese grit. Betelnut in abundance, five people on a scooter, weekly temple parades, gangsters, tiny shops where bargaining is accepted and expected, gambling dens. Sanchong ain’t called the ghetto of Taipei for nothing, and I love the frontier spirit I encounter every day when I walk out my door.

4. National parks and city parks. Taiwan makes excellent use of its natural beauty, and it’s easy to leave the urban hustle and bustle behind for a day biking in one of Taipei’s parks or riverside trails, or a hiking or riding trip into the surrounding mountains. And since Taiwan is a small island, venturing farther afoot to another city or scenic area for a weekend away is no big deal. I really enjoy getting outside to more rural and natural areas, and Taiwan’s small cities and villages are gold for adventurers bent on uncovering it’s rich cultural heritage and natural wonders.

5. North Coast. Taiwan is an island nation, and a small one, so I’m always within striking distance of the coast. I’ve biked the coast of Taiwan from Taipei down the east coast and all the way around the southern tip up to Kaohsiung, visiting various beaches along the way – all gorgeous. My favorite bit, though, remains the stretch of North Coast between Danshui and Fulong. I love going up for a ride, and I can see either sunrise or sunset depending on where I choose to cruise. I’ll never tire of that coastline.

sometimes if I can't sleep I go up riding along the north coast. can't miss a beautiful sunrise:)

sometimes if I can’t sleep I go up riding along the north coast. can’t miss a beautiful sunrise:)

6. Temples. Temples everywhere. Taiwan is crammed with Buddhist and Taoist temples, and many that combine the two religions with other indigenous beliefs. There are the famed tourist temples, of course, and then smaller neighborhood temples, as well as tiny family altars and shrines. I can’t go two blocks without seeing one tucked away down an alley, and I love it. Temples in Taiwan are hives of activity, with people coming to baibai and offer gifts, and the surrounding air is heavy with fragrant incense. I can sit in a temple for hours and just watch the goings-on.

7. Miaohui. God parades come tearing through my ‘hood once a week on average. They’re loud, smoky, crowded and snarl up traffic – and I love them. The temples send out processions to celebrate gods’ birthdays, for pilgrimages to other temples, and to bless the homes and businesses around the neighborhood. The god parades include sedan chairs and trucks to transport the holy statuary, temple dancers, bands, fireworks, dragon and lion dances, and rituals that somehow manage to terrify and excite me at the same time.

temple dancer in my 'hood. can never get enough of these spectacles.

temple dancer in my ‘hood. can never get enough of these spectacles.

8. Ghost Month. Taiwan has a whole month dedicated to spirits on the prowl, and special care is taken of deceased ancestors and to placate any spare ghosts that may come around. The sidewalks become obstacle courses of burnt offerings, tables are laid out covered with food and gifts, the temples are way more crowded than usual, and my entire neighborhood smells like incense 24/7. There are more temple parades and ritual than normal, so… a lot. I thoroughly enjoy this time of year; it’s really easy to see traditional religion being peacefully blended with everyday life.

9. Cultural festivals and holidays. Days off are great, and they become even greater when filled with parades, costumes, traditional food, fireworks, and incredible rituals. Seems like there’s always something going on in Taiwan, from Chinese New Year to Lantern Festival to Tomb Sweeping Day to Dragon Boat Festival to Matzu’s Festival to Hungry Ghosts to Mid-Autumn Festival to National Day, and they’re all filled with entertainment and fun. I love seeing the fireworks during New Year and I plan to race dragon boats again this year. At some point I will make it down to the Beehive Festival to don a helmet and get bombed with fireworks. Let’s face it, Taiwan is a good time year-round.

10. My scooter. Apart from being one helluva good time, Suzi transports me back and forth to work and volunteering and church and friend meetings and jaunts out to the mountains and coast. Having my own wheels lets me explore areas not directly adjacent to MRT stations or major bus routes. I’ve come to know Taipei streets and places ridiculously well, to the point where I know five ways to get to a place, and I can credit that to zipping all over on my sweet ride.

I mean, look at this baby.

I mean, look at this baby.

11. Public transportation. Though I rarely use it, I truly love it. Asian MRT systems are clean, speedy and well-appointed in general, and Taipei’s is no exception. It’s expanded a good bit over the past year and a half and can take me within striking distance of anywhere in the city. Taipei also has an excellent bus system that’s pretty easy to figure out. Going farther afield in Taiwan, I have the option of normal TRA trains, the high-speed rail, or any number of long distance buses. It an easy country to get around quickly and comfortably.

12. 7-11. Where you can pay your bills, order a coffee from the cafe, buy concert tickets, do your banking, use the ATM, print photos and documents, purchase lottery tickets, ship packages and have packages delivered, buy booze, pay your traffic tickets, do some drugstore/junkstore-type shopping, and have a five-course meal. Did I mention this is all 24/7? Sevens (along with Family Marts and Hi-Lifes) are located at least three to a block. Score another for convenience.

13. Markets. Nightmarkets, whether large open-air bazaars out in a field or city blocks crammed with vendors, bustle with vendors and locals seeking dinner, and offer some of the best food and entertainment in Taiwan. Wet markets, where I buy my produce and odd sundries by haggling and fighting (I still haven’t worked up the courage to buy from my local butcher, though). Electronic markets stuffed with reasonably priced anything-with-a-cord. The jade and flower markets. I could go on.

14. The food. This could and should be a list all its own. Mango shaved ice alone justifies Taiwan’s standing as foodie heaven. Even I, who hate seafood and pig feet and innards and probably about half of what makes up the Taiwanese diet, am amazed by the many delicious meals at my disposal. Dumplings and wontons and buns, danbing, all kinds of noodles, Taiwanese biandang, hot soy milk with youtiao, douhua with my choice of toppings, luwei from street carts, nights out at rechao – hey, I even like stinky tofu. (ps – I realize you guys have no clue what I’m talking about now, so I promise a food post in the near future:)

the best danbing I've ever eaten.

the best danbing I’ve ever eaten.

15. Fresh fruit. Mangoes. Pomelos. Starfruit. Watermelon. Passionfruit. Buddha’s head. Coconuts. Persimmons. Dragonfruit. Chinese pears. Lychees. Pomegranates. Wax apples. Longans. Strawberries. Jujubes. Guavas. Tangerines. Papayas. Of course, we also have your standard apples, oranges, grapes, bananas, etc. Heck, you can even have durian if you really want it. The only fruits I’ve found difficult to find are fresh berries, aside from blueberries, but no matter since Costco stocks a bag of frozen raspberries, blackberries and blueberries! Taiwan is a fruit-lovers paradise.

couldn't wait to get home and eat this sucker.

couldn’t wait to get home and eat this sucker.

16. Freedom. Maybe I feel this one more after those years in China, but I love Taiwan’s freedom of speech, press, expression, etc. People here actually speak their minds and challenge the status quo, rather than cluelessly believing what a government tells them. I witnessed the Taiwanese zeal for democracy firsthand during the student protests last year, and I’ve had many talks with my Taiwanese friends about their opinions on local and international politics. I also have been so blessed to worship freely in this country, and have found one of the greatest groups of like-minded friends of which I’ve ever been a part.

17. Affordability. Taiwan’s cost of living is a huge plus, both literally and figuratively. I’m paid a good salary with attendant raises and bonuses, and taxed 5%, most of which I get back in my yearly return. The cost of living is minimal to my pay grade; I’ve chosen to rent in a cheaper, more traditional area, food is cheap if I eat locally, and since I drive rather than use the MRT I don’t spend much on transportation. I’m sure being a tightwad doesn’t hurt when I’m trying to take care of expenses, save, and travel. Also, for paying into Taiwan’s tax system, I get access to the nation’s universal health care system, one of the best in the world.

18. My job. Sure, the hours are long and the extra work is killer, but that’s the life of a teacher, and I’ll take it. And when the tradeoff is seeing my little munchkins run up to me every day with smiles and “I love yous,” and watching them learn and grow, it all seems much easier. Thanks to my kiddos, I love almost every minute I’m in the classroom, and thanks to my coworkers, the time spent working outside of class is pretty good, too.

in which Caspar and Lucien visit the fire station.

in which Caspar and Lucien visit the fire station.

There are a million other things to enjoy about this country, but suffice it to say I’ve fallen in love with the lifestyle and culture.

gods, gangsters, and gunpowder

Posted: December 17, 2014 in life in taiwan

 

The biggest and best miaohui (god parade, as I like to call it) came roaring through my neighborhood a couple weeks ago. This one was a little different in that it lasted all. the. livelong. day. I accidentally drove through it on my way to church Sunday morning, and when I came back in the late afternoon the gods and ghosts and dancers and dragons were still circling the streets. Their last lap was some sort of grand finale involving lion and dragon dances, temple rituals, and a procession of the gods. Oh, and fireworks. So many fireworks.

dragon dancing in the morning.

dragon dancing in the morning.

I had a great vantage point. since I drove right through the procession and then stopped on its edge to watch for a while.

I had a great vantage point. since I drove right through the procession and then stopped on its edge to watch for a while.

yeah, I was late for church.

yeah, I was late for church.

temple tapestry.

temple tapestry.

...

drum corps.

drum corps – could you imagine banging away like this for hours on end?

lion dancers.

lion dancers.

...

...

I have no idea.

I have no idea.

yet another dragon dance team.

yet another dragon dance team.

arriving back later that afternoon, I saw my street looked like a warzone.

arriving back later that afternoon, I saw my street looked like a warzone.

a truck with poles was driving around, and dancers were up there doing their thing.

a truck with poles was driving around, and dancers were up there doing their thing.

I loved watching them jump around the flip through the air - on a moving vehicle.

I loved watching them jump around the flip through the air – on a moving vehicle.

of course, the gods made an appearance. as they walk, they swing their arms back and forth... don't get too close!

of course, the gods made an appearance. as they walk, they swing their arms back and forth… don’t get too close!

temple dancers.

temple dancers.

painted face.

painted face.

fireworks up and down my street.

fireworks up and down my street.

the road is strewn with garlands of firecrackers, and once their lit, a wave of fire breaks down the street. following closely behind come temple workers dancing a god in a sedan through the carnage.

the road is strewn with garlands of firecrackers, and once their lit, a wave of fire breaks down the street. following closely behind come temple workers dancing a god in a sedan through the carnage.

best way to watch a parade in Taiwan? just pull up on your wheels, and drive away when it's finished.

best way to watch a parade in Taiwan? just pull up on your wheels, and drive away when it’s finished.

pretty decent fireworks show.

pretty decent fireworks show.

love it!

love it!