Sunday, September 24, 2017

Mud, water and sweat: A cyclist's perspective on Luoshan

On a blistering hot morning at the beginning of what is technically autumn, we arrived in Luoshan (羅山), a corner of Hualien County's Fuli Township (富里鄉) that's famous for its waterfall, a mud volcano, and organically-grown rice. It's an exceptionally beautiful part of the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area.
I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it again in the future: Anyone planning to ride a bicycle in Taiwan should make themselves sun-proof, even if the sky looks cloudy. This day was one of the sunniest in a long time, and I could well believe the UV levels were dangerously high, as is sometimes the case in east Taiwan. A hat and long sleeves, as well as protection for your neck and hands, is essential. Bring a large bottle of water.
Much of the cycle route is flat, and motorized traffic is never heavy. Throughout Taiwan, road surfaces are almost always well maintained.
If you can make it up the hill to the car park for the waterfall, you'll enjoy some excellent views. The distance from the visitor centre is a little under 4km but the gradient is not to be underestimated. Unfortunately, both of the short hiking trails which approach the actual waterfall are out of commission; the authorities hope to rebuild them using eco-friendly materials rather than concrete. 
If the hill looks too daunting, do at least push on to what's called Luoshan Mud Volcano. 'Muddy spring' would be a more accurate name - there's no cone - the pool here is very pretty. From it, you can look up to the waterfall.
Luoshan Mud Volcano lacks the visual impact as the mud-spewing domes at Wushanding in Kaohsiung. It's beguiling, nonetheless. At the time of our visit, three vents were visible, the oldest of which had been active for five years. Typhoons and earthquakes sometimes shut off a vent, leaving the gas and slurry to emerge somewhere else. Looking closely at the nearer of the two circular pits in the photo below, it was just about possible to make out bubbling caused by methane rising to the surface.
Because the mud volcano has altered local soil chemistry, some unusual plants thrive nearby. One is wild ginger lily:
Another is elephant ear, a poisonous relative of the humble taro:
Every township in Taiwan has a government-backed farmers' association which helps local agricultural businesses by marketing their products, advising on how to add value, and investing in equipment (such as industrial fruit-drying machines) which are too expensive for individual farmers. Some associations are far more savvy than others, and Fuli's seems to be among the more enterprising and innovative. 

The association's showroom on Highway 9, about 500m north of the Luoshan turnoff, is an impressive size. Ice cream and hot coffee are sold here, as well as big bags of local ponlai rice. It's no wonder the showroom is a popular rest stop for cyclists on long-distance rides, such as this gentlemen. He told us he was part of a large group nearing the end of a seven-day west-to-east adventure. 
The fields next to the showroom are given over to flowers and public art. This Easter Island-like sculpture gained its colour from a coating of rice husks:
For some photos of this area in less summery conditions, see my 2014 blog post.

This visit and blog post were sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.

Monday, September 4, 2017

By bike through the rice fields of Chishang

Chishang in Taitung (臺東縣池上鄉) has been renowned for the quality of its rice since the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945). During the period of Japanese control, rice grown here was supplied to the Japanese royal family in Tokyo. It's also an area of exceptional beauty, in part because the power lines and utility poles that pepper much of rural Taiwan don't get between you and the landscape. Farmers believe the shadows cast by cables and pylons interfere with the rice's natural growing cycle, and have been successful in keeping them away from the paddy fields which create Chishang's most memorable scenes.
All things considered, Chishang has to be one of the best places in Taiwan for recreational cycling. There's hardly any traffic and the roads are well maintained.  
In English, the township's bicycle path has the straightforward name, Chishang Bicycle Trail, but it's worth spending a moment understanding its name in Chinese: 池上環圳自行車道 means 'the bikeway that goes around the irrigation ditches.' Even though east Taiwan has less extreme wet-season/dry-season differences than the western half of the island, irrigation is essential if local agriculture is to prosper.  
The bikeway is 17.4km in length, so it presents a bit more of a work-out than other bike trails in the region. As elsewhere, tandem bikes and four-seaters are also available for renting from the businesses near Mr. Brown Avenue, a spot made famous some years back by a TV commercial for Mr. Brown (a range of canned coffees made by the company that also produces Taiwan's world-beating Kavalan Whiskey). Some tourists opt for tandem bicycles or four-seater pedal-powered machines.
EVA Air is one of Taiwan's major airlines. What is its connection with Chishang? Since 2013, the company has been partnering with Chishang's farmers' association and promoting Chishang rice on its planes. If you flew into Taiwan on EVA, there's a very good chance you ate rice that was grown in Chishang.
Chishang isn't the only place in east Taiwan where the authorities have decided public art made from old bicycles enhanced the landscape. I'm not convinced, I have to admit.
Below: Not the aftermath of a road accident, but tourists trying to get some good photographs, and also enjoying the strange sensation of lying down on a public road (something highly inadvisable in other parts of Taiwan).
If you've plenty of time and energy, take a look at this blog for a detailed account of exploring the area by bike. Even if you've no intention of emulating the blogger, do check out his photos and video clips. Dapo Pond (大坡池, below) is certainly worth a detour. A nearby and very popular food business specializing in the production of tofu sheets takes its name from the pond.
Chishang Pastoral Farm Resort (池上牧野渡假村) is just over 3km southwest of Chishang Railway Station; if you’re driving or cycling, follow Highway 9 towards Taitung and follow the signposts. The resort belongs to Taiwan Sugar Company, one of the largest landowners in this region, even though sugar production in Taiwan has dwindled to almost nothing. During the 1980s, the 125 hectares of ex-plantation was converted first to beef production and then to tourism. 

One of the attractions here are the Mongolian-style yurts and banners. Mongolian dishes, such as fried lamb, are available, but younger visitors will probably be more interested in the animals which are kept here, including zebras, gazelles, llamas, camels, and pygmy hippopotamuses. The resort has a breeding program in cooperation with Taipei Zoo.   
As well as a camping area, the resort has 58 guestrooms for two, three or four people. Prices range from NT$2,000 to NT$6,200 depending on room type and whether you're booking for a weekday or a weekend/national holiday. Room rates include breakfast, admission to the resort, and parking fees, according to the resort's Chinese-only website.  
This blog post was sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration. Once again, I would like to express thanks to Cheryl Robbins for sharing several photographs with me.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Qing loyalists in Hsinchu?

In Hsinchu the other day, I popped into a traditional bakery across the road from the Du Chenghuang Temple. I'd visited this part of the city four or five times before, but never before had I noticed that the tall building that houses the bakery (and a cinema, incidentally) bears Chinese characters which mean 'hundred-year-old shop.'

Intrigued, I went inside. It's the flagship store of Hsin Fu Jean (新復珍, 6 Beimen Street; open: 08.00-22.30 daily), a maker of sweet and savoury delicacies that's been in business since 1898. The staff are friendly, and generous with free samples. Their signature product is a flaky pastry called Chu-chan Cake (竹塹餅), which happens to be the old name of Hsinchu. (Zhuqian would be a more standard spelling than Chu-Chan; back then, most people spoke Holo, and would have pronounced it Tek-kham.) The filling is mostly ground pork, but it's the zesty green onions that make this baked delight especially memorable. The company also sells walnut cake, mochi, and rice puffs.

When I got home and looked more carefully at the leaflets the staff had given me, I noticed something odd. The business was described as having been founded in 1898, the 24th year of the Emperor Guangxu (光緒) of the Qing Dynasty. Yet at that time Taiwan was part of the Japanese Empire; it was the 31st year of the reign of Emperor Meiji (明治天皇). Perhaps the family which founded the bakery was especially loyal to the Qing, or had reasons to despise the Japanese...

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Delectable sheets of soy

Tofu and soy sauce are common and quintessentially Taiwanese foods, and a great deal of the feed given to Taiwan's livestock is soy-based. This commodity is now as important to the country's food system as rice – yet almost all of the soy consumed in Taiwan (whether by humans or livestock) is imported from the US, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina.
Uncooked, unprocessed soybeans are a light yellow. Good quality water is essential for the production of soy foods, and one reason why Daxi in Taoyuan has become synonymous with dried bean-curd, also known as dòugān (豆干). A lot of the beans imported into Taiwan are, of course, turned into soy sauce:
East Taiwan has far fewer people and far less industry than the western half of the island, so it's reasonable to assume the groundwater in Hualien and Taitung counties is pretty good.

One business making the most of East Taiwan's advantages is Dah Chi Bean Curd Sheet. There's an English sign outside the premises at 39-2 Dapu Road, Dapu Village, Chishang Township. If you need to ask a local for directions, show him/her the Chinese name 大池豆皮店, pronounced in Mandarin Dàchí dòupí diàn.

Travellers who read Chinese will likely guess Dah Chi ('big pond') takes its name from a nearby geographical feature. As the crow flies, Dapo Pond is less than 500m away.
The production process is, on the face of it, quite simple. Nevertheless, considerable skill and patience are required. When soy milk is boiled in an open pan, a film forms on the surface (if you've ordered piping hot soy milk at a Taiwanese breakfast shop, you'll have noticed how quickly the film appears). Some people just stir the film into the liquid, but tofu skin artisans like the staff at Dah Chi collect the yellowish film and hang it up for to dry.

The boss rises at four each morning to grind soybeans and begin boiling the milk.
Visitors don't come here merely to witness soy-sheet production. In addition to selling the sheets to households and restaurants in the area (many people use it to wrap rice when making sushi), Dah Chi sells deliciously fresh fried soy sheets (NT$65 per serving), sweetened and unsweetened soy milk, and bean-curd pudding.
Business hours are 6.30 in the morning until 6 in the evening, or earlier if they sell out. This kind of food is usually eaten for breakfast, so it makes sense to come here before you begin your day's sightseeing. At first glance, the fried soy sheets (above and below) could be mistaken for another Taiwanese favorite, the scallion pancake (蔥油餅).
Bean-curd pudding, sometimes called tofu pudding (pictured below) is known as dòuhuā (豆花) in Mandarin. It's often flavored with unsalted peanuts, honey, adzuki beans, or syrup. It makes for a tasty breakfast or dessert.
Some Taiwanese consumers avoid genetically-modified organisms, so many food producers (among them Dah Chi) highlight the fact they use non-GMO produce.
One soy-based delicacy that isn't available at Dah Chi, but which you must try at some point during your stay in Taiwan, is stinky tofu (chòu dòufu, 臭豆腐). If you'd like to try it while in Chishang, see this Chinese-language blog entry for directions to a stinky-tofu eatery near Dah Chi. In night markets throughout Taiwan, stinky tofu often comes served with some spicy sauce and pickled cabbage, like this:
All but the first, second and last of the photos accompanying this blog post were taken by Cheryl Robbins, a leading authority on tourism in Taiwan's indigenous areas. The post was sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Luye and Longtian by bicycle

Taitung is probably Taiwan's most unspoiled and scenic county. Of its 16 divisions (one city, two urban townships and 13 rural townships), perhaps the most attractive is Luye (鹿野鄉). Wherever you go in this township, which covers almost 90km2, you'll see both flat land and steep mountains.
At the time of writing, the population was just under 8,000, divided among seven villages. Many tourists focus their energy on Longtian (龍田), because almost a hundred years ago it was selected by the Japanese colonial authorities for development into a model immigrant village. The newcomers were Japanese eager to leave their overcrowded homeland. The policy was not a great success, however. Many migrants soon left the east, preferring the greater comfort and convenience of the big cities in Taiwan's west.

The Japanese authorities laid out a sensible grid-pattern of streets. In this sense, the village is quite different to many rural settlements in Taiwan, which developed without any sense of urban planning, influenced by the precepts of fengshui. As in other migrant settlements, there was a clinic, a police station, and a guidance office providing farming and technological assistance. 
The most convenient place to rent a bike is A-Du's Shop (阿度的店, pictured below) at 232 Guangrong Road, about 100m east of Longtian Elementary School. The shop's telephone number is (089) 550-706; the opening hours are 8:30 am to 6 pm every day. The range of vehicles available for hire includes four-seat electric-powered carts.
Tourists can follow Longtian Bikeway (龍田自行車道), 7.2km of designated bike paths, or just wander freely. Bilingual signs make finding your way around quite easy, but you'll likely have to come to a complete halt to read the rather small English words on signposts like these.
For many, the highlight of the bikeway is Wuling Green Tunnel (武陵綠色隧道, below), a stretch of road shaded by 60-year-old Indian Almond trees. Drive/ride with special care here, as some tourists like to lie down on the road surface to better appreciate the trees.
Wherever I go in Taiwan, I seek out Japanese-era landmarks and architecture. Luye Shrine (鹿野神; 308 Guangrong Road) is a Shinto place of worship, built in 1923 using funds provided by one of the Japanese-owned companies then dominating Taiwan's sugar industry
As with many other overtly Japanese structures, this building was demolished after World War II. The foundations remained in place, however, and the shrine (pictured above) was rebuilt in 2014.
Whether you're riding a bike, driving a car, or taking advantage of the #8168 Tourist Shuttle Bus (go here for route and schedule information), do get yourself to Luye Gaotai (鹿野高台, "Luye Plateau") as the views, like those above, never disappoint. Part of this tableland is given over to tea cultivation; another part is a launchpad for paragliders.
The township government is especially proud of the tea, pineapples and lychees that grow here, but the humble banana also thrives.
Anyone with an interest in nature should take a look at the Yulong Spring Eco-Trail (玉龍泉生態步道), which begins across the road from Shengan Temple (聖安宮), a small shrine in the lovely village of Yongan (永安). The trail goes down to a creek that's exceptionally rich in insect life. It's also possible to continue hiking to Luye Gaotai.
This blog post was sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Revisiting Guanshan's Bicycle Trail

Completed in 1997, Guanshan Bicycle Trail (關山自行車道) was one of the first tourist-oriented bike paths in Taiwan. Its stunning success (a reported 700,000 visitors in 2001) inspired other towns around Taiwan - notably Meinong in Kaohsiung - to create their own bike-tour routes. Judging by the number and size of the bike-rental businesses I saw when passing through the town earlier this year, it still attracts a good number of tourists keen to enjoy the scenery and fresh air while getting a some exercise. 
The 4m-wide bikeway is certainly family-friendly. The first time I was here, my wife and I managed to complete the 15.2km-long circuit without any difficulty, even encumbered by our then-infant son.
The first five photos with this blog post are from our first visit several years ago. With one exception, the second batch is from earlier this year. Nowadays my son has the muscle and stamina to pedal his parents around, instead of the other way around!
A key part of the circuit is the 32-hectare Guanshan Water Park (關山親水公園, pictured below), down by the Beinan River. Some people come here to watch birds or to row a boat. According to this webpage, the patch of land used to a dumping ground. You'd never guess it from its current impressively tidy appearance, and the park certainly deserves some of your time... 
...but you get far better views from the highest part of the bike trail, near the road that leads up past fields of millet and stands of mahogany to the indigenous community of Zhongfu (中福).
Hats are essential, even if the weather isn't so bright you need for sunglasses. From more than one personal experience, I know it's possible to get sunburned through murky cloud.
Guanshan's population is slightly over 8,700 people. In the language of the indigenous Amis people, who are now outnumbered by Taiwanese of Hakka origin, it was known as Kinalaungan. Within the downtown, there's a Police History and Culture Museum (關警史蹟文物館; open Tue-Sun 10-11 and 3-4 only; enter through the police station at 27 Zhongzheng Road; 中正路27號), part of which occupies the original one-story station, built in 1932. Over 200 items are on display but there’s hardly any little English labeling; nonetheless, the riot gear and cells need no explanation. 
Even if the exhibits hold no interest for you, you'll likely agree the garden if a lovely place to relax for a little while. The photo above comes from this Chinese-language blog, where you'll also find more than dozen other excellent images of the police museum.
As in Luye and other popular biking spots in the east, the range of vehicles available for hire includes electrically-powered bikes and three-person pedicab-type carts.
Apart from the occasional eagle high overhead, the most interesting fauna you'll likely see are water buffalo cooling off in the creek at the bottom of the valley.
Where do you go once you've completed the bike trail and you still have time and energy? Whether you're starting from Guanshan or Chishang, it makes sense to push on across the river and then to Wanan Elementary School Zhenxing Branch Campus (萬安國小振興分校) at the 11km marker on Road 197. The campus, just under 6km from Guanshan Railway Station, features indigenous-themed murals and several gorgeous banyan trees. Whether you approach from the north or the south, getting here means a little hill climbing, but there’s almost no traffic on this road. 

This blog post was sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.