Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Dec 11 2016

Of Rights and Rambles

This weekend has gone non-stop. It started Friday night when I piled my instruments onto the 650 bus to Liuzhangli so I could make a gig with the ramblers at Bob’s. And not just the Muddy Basin Ramblers, but famed bluesman Rambling Steve Gardner as well, who flew in from Tokyo for the Tiger Mountain Ramble on Saturday. We met Steve at the Yokohama Jug Band Festival a couple of years back, and we’ve stayed in touch, always prodding him to make a trip over. The gig was a riot, and Kat served up tasty meat pies, potatoes and pizza afterwards.

After hauling my ass out of bed Saturday morning, I put on some Rambler-approved clothes and again hauled my instruments out and took the subway to Ximen, where I stashed them so that I could proceed unhindered to the Marriage Equality event on Ketagalan Blvd. Even though it was just starting, huge streams of people were joining from all directions. It was difficult to get into the crowd; I haven’t seen that many people there since the Sunflower protest, so I mostly just walked around the periphery. Suming gave a short speech and sang, and there were other performers with the MCs on the stage.

It was heartening to see so much love, hope and idealism, a real contrast from the previous anti-marriage-equality protests, which were mostly driven by hate and spite as well as stacks of cash from American Christian groups. For one thing, the anti-equality protests were much smaller than reported, even though the churches bussed entire congregations up to Taipei, and populated mostly by middle-aged people; so many of them were dressed in white and wearing masks that it was alarmingly similar to a Klan rally in all but name; “Straight Power” was pretty much the theme, and people there would throw their hands up in front of their masked faces when I raised my camera to take a shot. A good 10-20% of the protesters were actual Christian clergy, priests and nuns in full garb. One tall Western priest stood by one of the “praying” priests, and I managed to not enunciate my hope that he would get deported for taking part in the protest.

But that would never have happened, as the Christians (who claim homosexuality is a “foreign influence, oblivious to the fact that Christianity is much more of a foreign influence than homosexuality ever was), carted in an Australian woman who has some kind of personal vendetta against her parents, Katy Faust, to actually address the Legislature on what she clearly knows nothing about. The appropriately named Faust has no expertise on either homosexuality or Taiwan, yet not a single lawmaker saw the obvious violations of the actual law that her visit incurred. The media hasn’t really been on board with Reality either, e.g. articles like this from Focus Taiwan, which calls the event a “concert” that only “thousands” attended, even though official estimates run from a quarter million and up, and highlights claims of “bullying” of Christians on the subject.

As I was wandering around the East Gate and up the road toward the Presidential Office, it occurred to me that these people, not just the people at the marriage-equality protest, but other similar groups like the Sunflowers, et al, are the very people who were targeted by government forces during the White Terror period. Forward-looking people, people with inspiration and ideas for the future. In the awful times after 2/28, all of us would have been on those lists.

And who would have been writing those lists? The people who showed up in white robes and masks to protest equal rights.

I would have liked to have stayed longer, but I had to go retrieve my instruments and head over to the Tiger Mountain Ramble, where we were playing in the late afternoon. The mountain road was apparently so difficult to navigate that my cabbie shushed me when I tried to tell him where the place was. “Don’t talk to me!” he said. “I’m trying to concentrate on these GPS coordinates!” He found the place despite this.

The ramble was a little behind schedule when I got there, putting my stuff away and greeting friends. The cloudy skies threatened rain, and someone had started a bonfire. Steve presented me with a lovely gift: His photobook, from his days as a photojournalist on the theme of the American South, specifically the people of Mississippi, entitled Rambling Mind. It is a beautifully printed, large-sized book, one of only a handful left from the print run. The photos inside are wonderful as well…it’s a real treat, and I’m so happy to be able to add it to my collection.

It started to rain as we climbed the metal steps of the mobile stage and began our gig. It was a raucous affair, and most everything went right. There was much dancing in spite of the rain, which got heavier as we played. Afterwards we had to slog through the mud to get back to the storeroom, and everyone was huddled around the former temple for shelter. I was tired after a day of walking around as well as the show, so I packed up and headed down the mountain on foot, pulling my cart behind me. I met one of the other bands on the way, and they said some very nice things about our show, and I returned their compliments.

This morning (Sunday) I had to head out again, this time to lead my photography students on a walk around Keelung. We met up in front of the train station at 10 a.m. to find a large gathering of Indonesians, including dancers, martial artists and singers, as well as stalls selling food and attire, and a stage. It was all very festive; I bought three nice new hats, but we couldn’t stay long; we had to catch a train to Keelung.

Of course it was raining, because Keelung. We got off at the brand-new train station, which is worlds nicer than the awful old station, which itself was…much more awful than the old Japanese station. Some people were a bit peckish, so we had some food at a breakfast shop where the owner told us how to get to the big KEELUNG sign at the top of the hill. “You go up,” he said helpfully.

So we went up, following alleys, complimenting one household in particular on their delicious-smelling curry rice and dodging the scooters that would occasionally charge up the steep slope. One of these was a Gogoro electric scooter, with no less than two people on it. Impressive.

We paused at the big KEELUNG and then proceeded up to the platform at the top of the hill, caught our breath, and then went back down again, this time taking a different, more circuitous route. Eventually we found ourselves back to the main road behind the station. We crossed over the old blue pedestrian bridge that’s been there forever, and walked towards the Miaokou market, where vendors were hauling their stalls out into the rainy streets. It’s always difficult to lead these photowalks because I remain a firm believer in the benefits of solitary ventures. “I’m just showing you this place and some of the possibilities,” I often find myself saying. “You can come back on your own sometime and really see it!” It might seem odd for me to be telling this to native Taiwanese people, but they almost always have never really been to the places I take them, or, even if they have, they never really noticed what was there. I think it works; several of them have come a really long way in their photography, which makes me happy. And after this rather fucked-up year, I appreciate such things more than ever.

posted by Poagao at 9:39 pm  
Aug 10 2015

Weekend storm

Typhoon Soudelor crossed Taiwan on Saturday. Some were hoping for a day off on Friday, but aside from a bit of wind and rain it wasn’t too bad that day. I bought a big bottle of water as well as some bread, fruit and sandwiches on my way home from work to prepare. The typhoons in recent years, aside from Morakot a few years back, haven’t been much to talk about. Nari also caused a lot of flooding with massive rainfall, but those two storms were particularly damaging due to the length of time they stalled over Taiwan rather than outright fierceness.

Soudelor, however, was projected to pass over the island quickly, and although it was strong, it was supposed to be over quickly, and the central mountain range tends to scrape the bottom from under such systems quickly enough to render them fairly toothless by the time they reach the more populated west coast of the island. I figured we’d get some interesting weather on Saturday and that would be it.

The wind and rain picked up on Friday night, and the storm’s eye made landfall early Saturday morning. The rainfall was impressive, but the wind was truly alarming. Though the Water Curtain Cave is located in a relatively wind-free part of the building, my balcony was still a mess, and my ears were popping when the gusts shook the building. We’re talking about a large, 19-story concrete building, so that’s not a small thing. I went up to the top floor to get a view of the river, which was as high as I’ve seen it in years, but fortunately not threatening to spill over the flood walls or threaten the restaurants on the other side. I spent most of the day finishing up my Vietnam photos and uploading them, but I did venture out in the afternoon. It was still raining, but I knew an umbrella would be useless due to the wind, so I wore my trusty TVBS raingear that has proven to keep my dry in the fiercest of storms.

The wind, I must say, was impressive. I had to duck into the fruit shop to avoid being blown down the street by a particularly strong gust, but I made it over to the bridge, which was not only bucking, as it tends to do in high winds, but actually bending sideways, which I hadn’t really seen it do before. I ventured out onto the bridge for a short time, but the wind was just crazy strong, tree branches were flying around in a manner completely unbecoming for such large pieces of wood, so I retreated.

And the wind did not die down, but kept its intensity as the storm took a slanted path southwest across the island. The Central Mountain Range was apparently slacking off, because Souledor emerged into the Taiwan Strait nearly as strong as it had been when it landed, and then turned promptly north again, as if it missed us and wanted to come back. The wind blew on and on, into the night, hours and hours. We lost electricity for a couple of fractions of seconds, resetting everything in the apartment, but the building’s backup power systems kept everything going for the most part. When I went back out in search of something hot for dinner, I noticed that besides my building and the two other high-rises next to it, the entire area was blacked out. Fortunately the vegetarian place downstairs was open for business.

I went to sleep on Saturday night to the sound of the shrieking wind, but it had died down by Sunday morning, though the weather was still grey. The state of the park downtown where I usually go to practice tai-chi was no doubt unsuitable for practice, so I headed out along the riverside, taking pictures as I went. Just north of the highway bridge, a man in a blue poncho was grabbing tiny fish from underneath a devastated cable TV box, despite warnings from a security guard. Other men fished in the muddy, torrential waters of the river. The paths were covered with mud and dead fish. The dead fish stank, but the aroma of freshly broken foliage was able to overcome most of the stench.

xizhoufloodingI walked northwards to the Xizhou Community, home to many aborigine residents. The upper part of the little village was ok, but the lower part had been completely inundated. Trucks and other earth-moving equipment were digging out metric tons of mud, and stacks of ruined furniture and other things were piled on corners. “Careful walking in the mud!” One of them called to me. I was treading carefully, mindful that the mud could be hiding anything from broken glass to snakes. My sandals made sucking noises as I pulled them out of the ankle-deep muck with each step with an effort, but they held up as I made my way across the village, avoiding the places where the mud was soft enough to really sink into.

The bathtub-ring-like line of detritus on the shores showed clearly how far the water had risen, below which the grass was swept and brown. Older people in ponchos and straw hats combed the banks for things they could salvage. I was becoming very hot and thirsty from trudging through the mud, berating myself for not bringing any water with me.

I passed the failed temple by the highway, blocked up by parked buses, and through another sea of mud to the Yangguang Sports Park, or rather, the large field of mud where the Yangguang Sports Park used to be. Thankfully I was able to buy some water there while I was waiting for an elderly gentleman to wash the mud off his bicycle. I then washed as much of the mud off my feet and sandals as I could before continuing over the pedestrian bridge. Helicopters were flying constantly back and forth from Xindian to Wulai, airlifting supplies to stranded communities there.

As I crossed the bridge, I noticed a man in a yellow shirt with a white bag, from which he was dumping something into the river. He then trudged back towards some puddles along the riverside and bent down, grabbing something from them. I watched him for a while, curious as to what he was doing. Eventually I realized that he was rescuing fish that had been trapped in the puddles during the flooding, putting them in the bag and releasing them back into the river.

rescueThe sight warmed my heart. What a contrast to those supposed “Buddhists” who buy fish and fowl that have been trapped just for that purpose to “release” in order to “do good deeds.” This man, I figured, was the real deal.

On the other side of the river, hardcore cyclists were struggling to push their bikes through the mud. I walked through the neighborhood of Xiao Bitan, circling downed trees that had crushed the occasional parked car. Men with chainsaws were out, reducing each felled tree to a pile of wood stacked neatly on the corner. Shops and restaurants were already back in business. One in particular smelled very good, but the prices on the menu stopped me at the door.

The glass doors to the smoking room outside the Xiao Bitan MRT station had been blown in, but fortunately remained unshattered. I took the subway to Gongguan, where I had a nice lunch at Sababa as I usually do on Sundays. Then I took a bus out to Banqiao to meet Chenbl, who is taking a summer massage course out there. I’ve taken that bus, no. 311, twice, and each time it has impressed me with how reckless and unprofessional the driver has been. Sudden starts and stops, breathtaking acceleration, rapid lane changes, and a refusal, every. single. time. to stop at the stop where I want to get off. No matter when I push the button, the bus just sails on to the next stop. I hate buses in general, give me a train or a boat any day, but the 311 gives me cause to hate them even more.

On my way to the school I took a wrong turn and found myself in a dead-end alley that reminded me not a little of Nocture Alley from Harry Potter. A woman who apparently worked in the area asked me in a rude tone, “Who are you here to see?”

“I’m just looking for a place, not a person,” I replied to her accusing stare.

Chenbl had just gotten out of class, and the assistant teacher gave me a nice head massage as I had the beginnings of a headache, probably from dehydration. Though it was cloudy, the day was hot and muggy. We walked west from the school, crossing though a mean, lonely industrial area, then under an overpass and into an interesting neighborhood around an old restaurant in front of a temple. The place felt friendly and open compared to the sooty darkness under the overpass, where I imagined dwelt all kinds of shady characters, even though rats ran up and down behind the restaurant. Beyond the temple were hillside cemeteries, but we didn’t proceed that way as Chenbl felt dizzy from all the ghosts there.

The sun was setting as we walked by a school, getting directions from some of the students playing basketball there, and then up Minxiang Street to the Global Mall. Which was packed. The day before, 8/8, was supposed to be Father’s Day, but due to the typhoon nobody had gone out. They were now making up for it and how; every restaurant in the place was packed. We managed to find a table in the food court to partake of some mediocre Japanese fare, but my head was throbbing and I just wanted to get home. Fortunately there was a shuttle bus from the mall to Banqiao Station, from which we took the subway back, Chenbl to his home downtown, and me back to Xindian.

posted by Poagao at 12:21 pm  
Mar 02 2015

A return to work, post-dream

Today is the beginning of Proper Work, after the Chinese New Year and 2/28 Holidays. I spent the break with the flu, drunk on medicine, half in a dream state. I spent last night battling desperate nightmares, the kind that last until you’re convinced they are real, more real than the life you’re actually living. Now it’s cold and windy, and the streets are deserted, as though nobody’s really in the mood to start up again. I know I’m not.

Friday morning, however, the sun was out, and I thought it would be a good idea to take the crazy bike out for a spin, though the wind was taking things seriously. I went down to the basement, took the dust covers off the seat, and hauled my red ride up to street level to pump the tires before setting off, north as always (there are no paths south, not really). Riding was nice, though tinged with an eerie feeling that comes when the wind is at one’s back; I was pedaling but I didn’t feel any real motion. The riverside parks were crowded with holiday-makers enjoying the fine weather, so I wasn’t going that fast anyway.

At one point I swerved onto a divergent path to avoid crashing into another bicycle, and found myself looking at a massive array of men with cameras sporting huge lenses, spread out in a u-shape in front of an oddly shaped log and a bunch of grass. There must have been 50 or 100 of them, all staring intently through their finders, their motors whirring away at dizzying frames-per-second speeds. Many were decked out in full camouflage, including their huge 600mm lenses. It was quite the spectacle, and I really wanted a photo of them all, but when I edged towards the front of them on the side, several of them waved me off, even though I was dozens of meters away from the log they were photographing. I crept behind the trees behind the log, and even more of them shouted at me to get the hell out of their shots, even though there was no physically possible way I could have been in any of their shots.

“Didn’t you see the bird?” One of them asked me as I returned to the group, most of whom were glaring at me with the utmost distaste, this yokel who was RUINING THEIR WORK. I managed not to wonder aloud how, after spending untold fortunes on equipment, anyone could possibly remain so ignorant of the concept of depth of focus. Instead I managed to grin like an idiot and ask them about the bird. What kind of bird was it? “It’s an Angry Bird!” I was told, i.e. one of those little red birds made famous by the game.

“But how did it get here?” I asked.

“It, uh…escaped!” one of the photographers said.

“Really.” I stared at him. He looked nervous.

“Yes.”

“It just ‘escaped’ on its own, eh?” Without having its wings clipped and tossed out onto a log in the park so that all of these frauds could “discover” it in a “natural state” so they could sell the prints to magazines for vast sums they could use to buy even longer lenses, no doubt. Amazing, but not surprising.

I left them to their fun and continued riding up the river, eventually passing the “Water Taxi” docks that proclaimed that the three times the boats left were all in the late afternoon due to the holidays, and up to the Dahan River, where I explored the new Crescent Moon pedestrian bridge, which is very nice, providing access to the old street and temples near Xinzhuang MRT station, a historic area that has witnessed a great deal of inter-tribal strife over the years.

I’d forgotten to bring lights for the crazy bike for night-time riding, so I decided to head back, against the wind to the comfort of home. I’d also forgotten sunscreen, which was unbeknownst to me etching a tan line where I wore my do-rag across my forehead. The wind and clouds made the trip back a low-key affair. The crowds of photographers were still snapping away at their “prize”, several hours later when I passed them on my way home.

Back at the Water Curtain Cave, I quailed at the idea of another night at home. So I called up Chenbl, who was spending the day in Gongguan, to meet up for dinner at the steak house on the second floor of Taipei train station. We’ve gone there many times, and while the service level goes up and down, the streak’s usually good. Also, they have the best creme brule this side of Paris. People staring (more than usual) at me on the subway alerted me to the dual-toned nature of my face after the day’s riding in the sun.

That was Friday. On Saturday, I met up with Xiao Guo and Chenbl at Dapinglin to take the bus to Longtan, the town where Chenbl’s mother grew up. Traffic was bad, as a cold front was threatening the last day of the holiday, and everyone was on the road trying to take advantage of the remaining hours of sun. But eventually we disembarked in downtown Longtan, which Chenbl says looks nothing like it did when he was little and the place was an idyllic farming town with potable water and buildings still not covered with billboards. One of these building’s outrageously awful design was apparently despite the billboards. When I wondered what the hell was up with it, Chenbl said, “Oh, that was designed by children on a whim.”

“Really? Isn’t that somewhat…irresponsible?” I said.

“How so?”

“I mean, aren’t there construction regulations, safety…uh, things?”

“Oh, well…that was a long time ago.”

We walked over and noted the awful construction techniques, the rotting wooden beams encased in concrete, the purposeless minarets and turrets, the trees growing through the structure. It was amazing it hadn’t collapsed yet. Nobody officially lived there, though there were signs of a previous restaurant and some farmers still using it.

We walked through abandoned fields and up old streets, Chenbl talking about How Things Used To Be when he was a little kid exploring the alleys four decades ago. As he told the tragic story of one of his neighbors being hit by a train, a man walked up who turned out to be the unfortunate neighbor’s father. “Geez, I hope he didn’t hear me talking about his son,” Chenbl whispered after we escaped the awkward conversation.

We ended up buying lottery tickets next door to the temple, which is now protected from the elements by a giant white sail contraption that looks as if the whole thing is about to take flight. The old parts of the town looked like they might have been nice places to live back in the day, or at least they did in my drug-addled imagination.

A very good lunch was had at a traditional Hakka restaurant while the staff gossiped about us at the next table. We then made our way out to the park surrounding the town’s eponymous water feature, where Chenbl’s aunt sings for passersby as a professional street performer. She’s very good. Chenbl is a very good singer himself, but his aunt is in another league altogether. We sat and listened for a bit as the sun warmed the lake and everyone around it. Chenbl’s aunt kept trying to get us to come down and sing something, and eventually Chenbl got me on stage to sing a Taiwanese song, Hai-bo-long, in a duo with his aunt. It was a lot of fun.

The weather had other plans, however, wiping the sun away just as we decided to take a walk around the lake. The sun vanished, the temperature dropping several degrees. By the time we arrived back at the stage, a lovely summer day had become dark and cold. Chenbl’s aunt bravely kept the crowd warm with music, and even got Chenbl up to sing. She also got a couple to come up and perform, the woman singing and the man playing a copper-colored trumpet with some decent amount of skill considering the plummeting temperatures. But rain was falling now, and we abandoned the show to board a bus to Xinpu. Chenbl and Xiao Guo had going on all day about getting some bantiao noodles there, but we were too late; everyone was trying to get back home now that the good weather was gone. The bus driver informed us that traffic was backed up to an incredible degree; we’d never make Xinpu. He let us off in Guanxi, where we were turned away from one popular restaurant before we managed to have some decent noodles (“Though not as good as Xinpu,” Chenbl kept saying). Mist was falling, and most of the stores were resolutely closed. Aided by friendly Hakka residents who let us dash into their bathroom for a quick piss, we managed to board another bus back to Taipei. Fortunately by that time traffic wasn’t too bad, with only a few red streaks on Google Traffic marring the route on my iPad, and in only a couple of hours we were marveling once again at the towering high-rises of New Taipei City (I still can’t stand that name; it is the cause of endless confusion in headlines to this day). Xiao Guo jumped off in the middle of Banqiao for some reason, and we caught the subway from the West Gate.

The trip made me feel I should spend more time exploring the area around Guanxi and Xinpu. Some other time, I suppose. There’s nothing like exploring a new place to jump start flagging dream states.

 

 

posted by Poagao at 1:11 pm  
Jun 20 2011

A full weekend

I’d thought that the Muddy Basin Ramblers were meeting up at the Red House Theater in the West Gate District at 1:30 in the afternoon before our 2:05 show at a benefit concert for Japanese tsunami orphans, and I therefore proceeded to enjoy a leisurely morning at home, slowly getting my things together, before realizing that we’d actually arranged to meet at 12:30. One mad dash and a NT$300 taxi ride later, I was behind the theater going through a quick practice with the band, minus Conor who was already on stage with another band.

The show went well, but it was over too quickly. It seemed like we’d barely started before we were playing our last song as the hosts came up on stage. I was taking apart the washtub bass when one of the hosts, a woman, grabbed the tub and held it up for the audience to see. “This is what he’s been playing, if you didn’t notice!” she said. She then asked for a quick demonstration. Now there’s a sentence to boost my search ratings.

We were going out to celebrate David’s birthday that night, so I hung around and listened to the other bands, which included a Japanese family of ukulele players who performed some hits from Miyazaki movie themes like Spirited Away and Totoro. Adorable, if somewhat out of tune. One of the younger kids lost the beat halfway through one song, and within two measures the rest of the family switched to accommodate him. We had planned to find a spot near the Chungshan Hall for a little street performance, but Sandy and Thumper bailed early. A South American group got on stage and played such wonderful mariachi-style tunes I wanted to jump on stage and play along, but I refrained.

Eventually I tired of the booming sound, however, and walked out to the square where the old roundabout and park used to be before they made a boring intersection out of it, and stood in the same spot for about half an hour, just looking at people and things. Everyone had a camera, everyone was taking photos except me. The Golden Melody Awards, which I attended with Chalaw a few years ago (we didn’t win, but he won the next year), were taking place that evening, and one of my favorite bands as well as a friend, Matzka, was up for several awards. I knew from previous experience that he and his band were probably walking down the red carpet at the venue as I stood watching people in the square. Matzka would win the best group award that night. Not bad.

Night fell over the Red House Theater as all the bars and clubs fired up and filled with bears and other demographics. We walked over to the Calcutta. Slim was sloshedly vociferous the whole way. The food wasn’t bad, better than Tandoor, I felt, though I’m not a particular connoisseur of Indian food. David and Robin told tales of their recent honeymoon in Paris, of all the wonderful sights and sounds I missed when I was there, such as Belleville and the bars where Django Reinhardt and Stephan Grapelli played. The Leica Forum is going on there at the moment, attended by many a wealthy photographer (and probably some good ones, too, he said, trying not to sound too bitter).

The others were heading to Bobwundaye after dinner for some jamming, but I had an early start coming up on Sunday, so I reluctantly declined even though I was itching to play some more.

I was awake at 7:20 a.m. the next morning, grabbing the Invincible Rabbit and heading out into the already-brilliant sunshine, across the bridge and onto the subway to Taipei Train Station, where I met up with Chenbl, Terry, Lulu, Sean, his girlfriend Lily and her cousin, who were visiting from Hong Kong. Sean just got his master’s degree from Qinghua University in Disney Studies.

We caught the train to Keelung, traveling along the various construction sites and through the industry, through the mountain range and into the port city in about 40 minutes. Chenbl just failed to catch the bus out to Peace Island, so we waited in the hot sun, shooting irritated-looking passengers. Terry had an even more formidable beast than the Rabbit, a 1Ds, while Lulu, I think, had a 50D. A new liner was docked in the harbor, the Star Aquarius, bigger and nicer than the Star Libra I took to Okinawa. I wondered where it was bound for..Singapore? Hong Kong? Across from it was the Cosco Star that we took to Xiamen a few months ago. It looked small and dirty next to the Aquarius.

We caught the next bus out to Peace Island, which is located across a short bridge up near the mouth of the river. The area by the entrance is still under construction, as it was this time last year when I last saw it. The sun was glaring off the newly laid concrete, and a guard languished deep inside the shade of his shelter at the gate of a military base. We walked out to the rocky coast, where some messy picnickers were lighting fires and consuming bottles of tea. I climbed up on the rocks to get close to the sea, delighted to hear the wonderful sound of the water sluicing through the various crevices.

We walked up the coast and inland to a small group of houses whose occupants no doubt rely on hot, sweaty tourists for their livelihood. A group of aboriginal children surrounded us, trying and failing to guess who among us was Taiwanese and who wasn’t. “You’re the only real Taiwanese here,” I told them. The kids were apparently big fans of the hit TV show Rookie’s Diary, and weren’t entirely convinced that I knew Ye Da-tong, Lai Hu, Luo Gang, and Yang Hai-sheng, and I thought it was a shame that my friend Fu Zi-cun, who played Yang Hai-sheng and who is not a bad photographer himself, didn’t come along this time. He’s busy filming a new series down south though, and couldn’t make it.

The kids were playing around on a laundry rack comprised of a bamboo stick on two poles as we talked to them, and suddenly the bamboo stick, which was obviously quite old and moldy, broke. Almost immediately an old man in a white shirt came rushing up, yelling at this travesty, and the kids scattered. The old man took off his shoe and threw it at the kids several times, cursing them. At one point he actually got his hand on one of them and raised a heavy club to hit him with, but Terry stopped him, saying, “There’s no need for that.” I wondered if we would see that old man in the Apple Daily some day.

We walked down to the nearest bus stop and, 15 sweaty minutes later, caught a bus back to the train station, where we’d arranged to meet up with the Taiwan Photo Club, or at least part of it. Craig and Selina were there, of course, as well as Josh Ellis, Gillian Benjamin and a few others. They were waiting at the Starbucks on the harbor, and we had a quick lunch at the Burger King next door, enticed by the free ice cream sundaes, before boarding another bus out to the Fairy Cave.

I don’t think I’d ever been to the Fairy Cave before. Flocks of birds swarmed around the cliff face above the cave’s entrance, which was accompanied by ever-shy monks and a great deal of religious paraphernalia as the cave contains several temples. It was cool and misty inside, and several side caves branched out from the main one. One of the side branches became quite narrow, and some people came back claiming it was impossible to get through. I tried it, and though I had to crouch over and turn sideways, both the rabbit and I managed to get through fairly unscathed, though my shoulders were scrapped and muddy. Inside was another altar enveloped in a heavy mix of mist and incense that an ancient fan in the corner failed to alleviate.

We explored the neighborhood around the cave, waking up dogs and cats and a strange kind of wasp that attacked Josh because it really didn’t want to be on Facebook. Then Chenbl led us on a long trek across the valley and up another hill to a nice view of the sea right next to a power plant. As we recovered from the climb, which included the toxic fumes of a house painted entirely in tar the owner probably won in a game of majhong and didn’t want to waste, a lone paraglider sailed over the smokestacks of the powerplant, his shadow flitting across the field overlooking the sea.

The walk back down was much easier, and we luxuriated in the air conditioning of the rickety bus back downtown. Terry, Lulu, Sean, Lily and Lily’s cousin had to leave; the rest of us crossed the bridge over the other side of the tracks. A couple of aesthetic homeless men populated the bridge, lit by the late-afternoon sun in a way that even I couldn’t resist taking a shot, though I generally don’t like to take too many such shots. Craig was taking phone pictures the whole time, unburdened by a heavy DSLR. Probably a smart move considering the heat and all the hills we were climbing that day.

We wound our way through the steep alleys and stairs, passing and occasionally photographing the local residents. One man sitting on his scooter smoking glared at me as I took his shot. “Sorry,” he said, pointing to his cigarette. I refrained from pointing out that he would look just as thuggish without the cigarette, and walked on.

The whole of Keelung was laid out in the light of the approaching sunset as we reached the big KEELUNG sign, whereupon the mosquitoes decided that Chenbl was the only really delicious person on the site. Everyone except Craig and Selina climbed up to the top of the hill for an even better view. Josh and I stood atop the summit, on a circle of an old structure, noting the approaching clouds and thunder that meant it was surely raining in Taipei. The Aquarius had departed, off to wherever it was headed, a voyage of good food, swimming pools and gambling. The Cosco Star would be heading out later that evening.

Rain began to fall as we descended the hill, often going in circles as Chenbl tried to make the walk more interesting. We recrossed the bridge, noting that the homeless men had changed positions, and walked over to the Miaokou Night Market, which was mostly closed due to construction work. I didn’t see anything I liked. The harbor city was taking on its nocturnal form, its nights darker than those of other cities, its streets and alleys closer, wetter. I was game for more exploration, but I could feel the group’s gravitation towards the train station and our comfortable homes, so I went along, telling myself, another time: Keelung will still be there.

posted by Poagao at 12:01 pm  
Mar 01 2011

Three Days in Kaohsiung

It’s been a long slog through this winter in Taipei, so when I realized that a three-day weekend was coming up, I decided to go as far south as the bullet train would take me. Of course, on the Saturday morning of my departure, the weather in Taipei was actually brilliant and warm. But I’d already gotten tickets, and I needed to get out of town in any case.

I picked up my ticket at the main station, pleased to find myself upgraded to business class for the first time due to a shortage of regular seats, around noon, and a few minutes later I was ensconced in my purple velvet seat next to a woman who was toilet training her child with a cute book of photos of various animals pooping in a non-threatening manner. We departed, and the faster the train went, the better I felt. Faster! Faster! I thought as we sped away south. As usual, it was a smooth, solid ride. Shortly after departure a foreigner approached the lunchcart lady looking for a vegan lunch. Halfway through a bite of Yoshinoya pork rice, I looked up to discover that it was my friend Maurice, famed thespian and advertiser of air fresheners extraordinaire. “Maumph!” I called, my mouth full. As we were chatting about what a coincidence this was, a thickset, black-clad Aborigine man with dreads and sunglasses came stomping up the aisle. Of course, this was none other than my friend Matzka, followed by the other members of his band. They, it turned out, were playing a gig in K-town that night, at the new performance space near the Fisherman’s Wharf district.

As we passed Taoyuan and Hsinchu, the scenery outside was obscured by fog. This wasn’t right, I thought. The weather’s supposed to be good all around the island all weekend. An hour and a half later, we’d reached Kaohsiung, where the sun fought its way through the haze that covered the city. I accompanied Maurice and his friend to Central Park Station, from which we walked towards their hotel, the Ambassador. Maurice was voicing his concern that I didn’t have a hotel booked as I snapped pictures of people’s houses and the dogs that defended them.

I left Maurice at the hotel and headed towards the Yancheng district, stopping to be interviewed by a student about Kaohsiung’s tourism infrastructure, and then wandering towards the harbor, where I lounged around until I noticed that my phone, which had been charged on the train coming down (one of the perks of business class is electrical outlets in the seats), was rapidly losing power. I found a cafe to charge it, but it seemed to take forever. I read a book and pushed thoughts of the iPhone4’s expanded power capacity aside.

The sun had set by the time I’d gotten the phone charged to a quarter of its capacity. I walked towards the harbor mouth, taking the subway to the Sanduo Shopping District, where I met a friend, John Lin. We had dinner at a cafe, Donutes or something, where I could charge my depleted phone once again. After we left, I saw a man unloading stuff from a van, and, as is my wont, I tried to grab my camera before realizing that I’d left it at the cafe. Fortunately, everyone in the place was waiting for the 5D mark III and didn’t want to bother nicking the old version. We went out to the wharves to catch Matzka’s show, which was brilliant as usual, passing the fireworks display on our way back downtown. I found a business hotel near the Sanduo district and checked into a swank room for NT$1800 a night, luxuriating in the clean sheets and towels and large-screen TV. Sleep that night was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

On Sunday I met Chenbl and Ray, who had come down on separate trains that morning, as well as Professor Wu and his friend Ah-he. Professor Wu teaches art and is responsible for the slew or contacts adding me on Flickr whenever he uses one of my photos in his classes, and Ah-he is a budding photographer from Tainan. His Minnan is classic Tainan style, effortless in a way most Taipei people have a hard time emulating. We piled into the professor’s van and headed out to the sandy landscapes of Moon World (“For all your lunar needs!”). Moon World is a bit less stark these days, thanks to encroaching vegetation growth, but it was entertaining nonetheless. We wandered amidst the formations, taking photos and chatting. The dust was bothersome, however, very fine and unfortunately very breathable.

On the road back we told ghost stories and laughed at the remote positioning of the metro stations in the middle of empty fields, obvious plots by land speculators with connections to the city government. So far the MRT had been packed whenever I’d been on it, but I was told that it was usually rather empty. A shame it had to be so poorly designed. We had lunch at a mutton shop, and then headed back into town to Lotus Lake, near Zuoying, where we walked around the edge of the lake. Then we headed out to Xiziwan to watch the sunset from atop the pier. The temperatures dropped rapidly, and the ocean wind made me wish I’d brought a jacket. Still, the sight of the great ocean-plying freighters moving majestically into and out of the harbor were worth the trouble.

After the sun disappeared into the darkening sea, we piled into the van and joined a long cavalcade of cars heading back to the city. Escaping meant heading through the campus, up the mountain to a vista just below the Martyr’s Shrine. A large group of Japanese tourists were waiting for the fireworks at 7 p.m., but aside from a few aaaah and ooooh-provoking pops, none were forthcoming. It turned out that the fireworks were at 9, and the group left, disappointed.

Dinner was fried noodles with special sauce. A-he had to go back to Tainan. The rest of us went up to Professor Wu’s creatively messy apartment to view some of his amazing artwork. By this time I was tired from the cold and the dust.

Monday we went back to Lotus Lake, where we met John at the Confucius Temple, which was closed, before walking around the lake a bit more, exploring some of the ancient houses in nearby alleys. Chenbl was caught photographing a strangely acting carrot vendor, and we struck up an awkward conversation. Later we skirted the navy base where Chenbl had done most of his military service, before heading back to the Yancheng District, where we hiked up to the old British Consulate overlooking the harbor mouth. It was probably hell there at times, I mused as I examined the old structure, its verandas and wooden plank interior, but sometimes it must have been a really cool posting.

We descended the hill again to talk with some residents of the old buildings. One old woman was heating bathwater with a wood-burning stove while her middle-aged daughter tended plants on the roof. Nearby, we talked with two old men, obviously friends. One was from mainland China, while the other’s family has been in Taiwan for generations. They sat outside an old warehouse that had been converted into small but usable living quarters. It smelled of cat piss.

Walking up the road, we settled on a deck right by the edge of the harbor mouth to watch the ships again as the sunset before walking back to the docks filled with private yachts. John had to leave, so Ray, Chenbl and I caught a bus to one of the bridges across the Love River, where we watched the fireworks. It was an impressive display, far better than the ones I’d caught glimpses of through the clouds in Taipei.

The Hanshin Department Store shuttle took us back to the Sanduo District, where we had a delicious dinner of sushi and other Japanese food under the few stars that remained visible amidst the glare from the lights of downtown. Our train (regular class this time) was at 9:30 p.m., so dinner was a leisurely affair, though the waiter kept messing up our orders.

I slept most of the trip back. It was good to get out of town.

posted by Poagao at 10:48 pm  
Nov 21 2010

Hong Kong, day 3

Our friend Marquis took us to a Hong Kong breakfast place on the second floor of a building on the same alley as the Bottoms Up club from the Man with the Golden Gun. I like breakfast in booths. There’s just something attractive about the idea, especially in a Bond-film related alley. And the food wasn’t bad either.

The weather was still nice, murky air but cooler than yesterday. As we walked across an intersection I donated HK$5 to a charity; the girl wouldn’t take the money directly and pointed mutely at a slot in her bag. Clever. A block later, just after I’d taken a photo of a newsstand, I turned down one of her charity co-workers. Just as I walked away I heard someone behind cursing me. It wasn’t the charity worker, however; it was the newsstand lady. Over on the docks, an American family, all dressed in the same plaid, was taking family photos and having a miserable time getting everyone just so for a photographer who seemed to be a relative.

The Star Ferry over to Central was wonderful as usual. As we crossed, a large ocean liner sidled into the harbor. We then spent an hour or so stalking the many overpasses. One security guard came out and said we could only photograph from half of the overpass, as apparently his company owned the other half. I watched a beautiful photo opportunity pass from the wrong vantage point as a bicycle rider slipped in between two trams. Hoping Chenbl had been in the right place, I asked him if he got the shot, but he hadn’t seen it. Oh, well.

We took the series of escalators up the hill past the trendy shops and slick restaurants filled with blonde people, and then walked back down through the various alleys. Other than the 84-year-old umbrella-maker who was in the Guinness Book of World Records, just about everyone resisted having their photo taken. I was shouted at several times, and was on the receiving end of more glares than I could count. More than once I actually wished I had a Leica with me, just for the quieter shutter.

The weather turned overcast and cool as we prowled the alleys, and we took the subway to Mongkok to meet up with Sean, Lily, Miao-miao and my old W&L classmate Victor Cheung, who runs a photo workshop in Kowloon these days. We had a table full of dim sum, but I forgot to eat most of it as the conversation was so interesting.

After lunch we took the MTR on our way to Tai-O. The subway, as always was crowded. One thing I’ve learned during this trip is that Hong Kong feels a lot more crowded than it used to. Whereever you want to be, someone’s already there. Wherever you are, you’re in someone’s way. Also, the escalators are really fast. I guess they have to be in order to keep up with the demand without playing human dominoes.

Tai-O, an old fishing village, was interesting once we got past all the touristy bits. Most of the houses are metal structures on stilts, and everyone was having dinner as we walked through the bridges and alleys. I got yelled at a few more times. I suppose one gets used to it. Also, Cantonese does sound a bit harsh even in normal conversation. One woman was doing a pretty good Louis Armstrong impression while shouting at her husband.

The moon rose over the nearby hill as Shawn, Lily and I checked out a monastery that turned out to be closed. The water pipes over the canals next to bridges had little barbed wire webs on them, but I couldn’t figure out what for. The gaps were too large to stop rats, and a cat could jump over them easily. Some other animal I’m not aware of, no doubt.

The bus ride back to the MTR station was wild, more like a fighter jet simulation than a bus ride, and we were all feeling ill afterwards as we had dinner in Sham Shui Po. Then it was farewells for the night, though Tsim Sha Tsui is still rocking as I type this at 1:08 a.m.

posted by Poagao at 1:05 am  
Sep 19 2010

Looking back

I’m just finishing up the last edit of the English-language version of my book detailing my time in the army, so I thought it would be appropriate to go down to the place where I spent the majority of my military career, Da Ping Ding in Miaoli, to take a look around. Chenbl and I set out on a 9 a.m. train; the once-mighty Ziqiang Express seemed old-fashioned and lackadaisical in comparison with the ultra-modern bullet train system, but the bullet train does not stop in Miaoli. A typhoon was on its way, but I was banking that Saturday would be tolerable, weather-wise.

We got off at the station, which seems to be at the edge of town, far off from the little downtown area. Miaoli is comprised basically of two parallel streets. Back in the day, the Miaoli buses heading up the mountain towards Sanyi left frequently, but now only the Hsinchu buses seem to leave with any regularity. We got on one and creaked across town; it was just the two of us until we stopped at the bus station in the real downtown to pick up passengers.

Up the mountain, to Shangnanshi. The base, though long abandoned, was still standing and covered with dense foliage. The last time I was up there civilian guards had been posted at the gates, with motion sensors set up inside, so after getting off the bus we headed for the East Base’s back gate, where I knew of a few places one could sneak in. The holes in the perimeter were still there, but the areas just inside were so overgrown that we had to hack our way through some pretty thick trees and vines to get to the main base road.

Once inside, I was momentarily disoriented at the sight of the shell of a building, all the windows gone and the ceiling tiles hanging down. Then I realized that it was the old Guard Company mess hall, and that I’d even had my picture taken standing in front of it. Just behind it was the cliff from which I’d enjoyed the view over the valley below when I got a break from washing dishes after meals.

I was wary of guards and stray dogs, often stopping to shush Chenbl’s usual incessant commentary; he was convinced nobody was around, but I wasn’t so sure. We walked past familiar buildings and signs to the Guard Company barracks, the quads in between buildings covered in dense, jungle-like overgrowth, the windows gone and the rooms empty. I found the place I’d lived in so long ago and sat on the spot where my old bunk was, remembering what it was like to sleep there, with only ceiling fans to keep cool in the summer heat. We’d spent the onslaught of Typhoon Herb there, and back then I wondered what the base would look like after it had been abandoned. Now I know.

The Guard Company faced the East Base’s parade grounds, which is now waist-high in weeds. We walked over to the Division HQ building that spooked me out on several occasions when I had to stand guard there at night and listen to the ghosts. Chenbl, ever sensitive to such things, said he felt dizzy and insisted on apologizing to any spirits who might be offended at our presence.

After making a round of the entire East Base, I began to suspect that there was actually nobody around. We passed female officers’ quarters, something that I’d never encountered when I was there. Back at the Guard Company, I kept noticing places where various things had happened; I felt like I was in a time travel novel, visiting ancient ruins where I once lived.

We snuck out a hold near the side gate where I’d waited in line so many time to get in and out of the base, and then across the road to the West Base, where we fought through another mass of brambles and thorns to the main armory. Some dogs noticed us and began barking, and though nobody appeared, I walked quickly ahead to the rear part of the base where the Regiment HQ was located. A seemingly flightless white pigeon strutted up and down the leaf-covered road as black clouds began to cover the sky. The silence and emptiness were eerie. Vines and bushes had invaded some of the buildings. Even the motion sensors were gone, though the plastic shells of some could still be seen here and there.

I showed Chenbl the RHQ barracks and the base karaoke that I’d managed. The floor I’d spent so much time mopping was covered with dirt, as is the spider-infested bar where I’d picked laserdiscs of songs for various officers to sing. Rain began to pelt down, and we took refuge in the RHQ rec room while we got our umbrellas out, and then followed the base ring road to the main gate, which felt a little strange in that we usually ran around it going the other way. When I turned around, it seemed much more familiar. There used to be an old guy manning the main gate, but I figured it wouldn’t matter by that time if we got thrown out.

Nobody was there. Chenbl took my picture in front of the rapid response unit barracks as well as at the main gate guard post where I’d stood guard. The old Chiang Kai-shek statue is still there, with the old green man waving his hat and smiling at the empty, unmanned gate in front of the overgrown parade grounds. After I got my fill of pictures and just standing around lost in various reveries, we walked out the gate and down the road to catch the bus to Tongluo, where we had some unimpressive Hakka noodles for lunch. Chenbl asked an old woman if there was anything interesting around, but after I took her picture, she yelled, “I give you directions and then you take unflattering pictures of me? How dare you?” But we were already walking away, past thick green rice fields waving in the wind like a big bedspread. We stopped to walk with a woman hurriedly harvesting a small garden before the storm hit, and then visited an old hospital from the Japanese area, a two-story wooden building with blue trimming. The original doctor’s son lives there now, by himself, and he came out to tell us a bit around the place.

We took the electric train back to Miaoli Station. By that time it was around 5:30 p.m. which was normally about the time I would get there when I had leave and wanted to go up to Taipei, so I experienced a little willing cognitive dissonance, imagining that it was still 1996 and I’d just come down from the base, ready for a weekend on the town. Then I pulled out my iPhone and ruined the atmosphere.

We got back to Taipei around 8 p.m. and proceeded to the Taipei Artists Village, where Thumper was holding his 20th arriversary, i.e. 20 years since he came to Taiwan. We were the first to show up; Jason was setting up the barbeque, and I fashioned a string for the washtub bass from one of the bar decorations. Other people began showing up, and as usual, the more people inhabit a room, the less I feel like talking. I walked between people, taking pictures and munching on the excellent food (except for the undercooked potatoes), until my upstairs neighbor Brent started the evening’s musical entertainment. The bass lasted about two songs before the string broke, but I wasn’t in much of a mood for the bass anyway and declined David’s offer of fiber-optic wire as a replacement (it was too slippery and cut my hand when I tried to tie it). The pocket trumpet called to me, however, although not many of the songs really suited it, though Conor rope me into a 12-bar blues set.

By around 2 or 3 a.m. many people had already gone; only a few of us were left. I shuffled around the edges of the room, playing freestyle licks here and there. Rodney was doing something on the drums, and Lany was playing around with some guitar stuff. Somehow, we all just synced up and Lo! a pretty cool jam ensued. But I was tired, and when Brent said he was leaving, I took him up on his offer of a ride back through the growing storm. It would save me a trip across the galloping Bitan bridge, anyway.

posted by Poagao at 10:19 pm  
Feb 20 2010

Penang

February 18, 2010

The call to prayer wasn’t unpleasant at all; it did wake me up, but I went right back to sleep, getting up way past actual sunrise. Gimzui took us to the waterfront, where a rickety boardwalk led out to a bunch of forlorn fishing shacks. Mosquitoes feasted on my calves, and the foul odor was explained when an old man rode up on a motorcycle and deposited a large quantity of waste into a blue barrel by the water’s edge.

As I walked gingerly out on the boardwalk, dogs in the huts launched a volley of barking against the intrusion. I had no intention of going out that far, however, instead watching the mudfish flapping around on the flats and taking pictures of the scene. Chenbl and I then walked up the coast a little ways and were invited on a tour of the docks there by a Malay fisherman whose friend was untangling a net. Smoke from garbage fires was billowing out over the water from nearby cliffs, but the sky was a spectacular shade of blue. Gimzui said the whole thing would be torn down soon, so it was good that we got to see them before they’re gone.

Breakfast was delicious curry “pancakes” and hard-boiled eggs at an Indian place across the street from the hotel, which is feeling more and more like the old Langford Hotel in Winter Park where my family stayed while house-hunting after moving to Florida in 1981. In a good vacation way, that is. It was getting quite hot, but still not as muggy as Taipei in the summer.

We drove to the old part of town by the coast, full of brilliant white English-style government buildings, to a busy temple. Out in front was a rack of huge purple incense logs, while the scene inside was much the same as most Taiwanese temples, except for the mixture of Malays and Indians. I took a picture of a fellow sitting by the gate, and the woman sitting next to him immediately demanded money. The singing wasn’t that good, though, and they cursed at my back when they didn’t get any.

The Malaysians, who know what they are doing, went to have tea indoors during the hottest part of the day, while Chenbl and I foolishly went for a walk around the area, stopping in at a shop run by an old Chinese woman. While Chenbl chatted with her, I talked with an old Hindu man who thought that Penang was going downhill “thanks to all of those Muslims.” He seemed affronted when Chenbl later came up and asked him if he was Muslim.

Our next stop, after taking pictures of a garbage recycler on his porch step, was Sun Yat-sen’s old revolutionary HQ. After paying a small fee, we got a tour from the junior-high-school girl inside. The old courtyard construction really does keep the places cool, and there were some ingenious pre-electrical-era arrangements in the kitchen. It was odd to think of the old revolutionaries holding their secret meetings there, always on alert for raids and ready to escape into the maze of Indian and Malay establishments behind the place. The upstairs is being rented out to some artist types. “Not just anyone can rent out those rooms,” the student told us when we inquired. “They have to be, you know, someone.”

It was truly hot out now, the perfect time, I felt, to go hat-hunting. We eventually found our way to the Muslim market opposite the Police HQ, and I quickly realized that most of the hats were too small for me. I managed to find a couple that fit, though. The owner, an older man in a black hat just like the one I’d bought from him, tried to fix another hat I’d already bought and didn’t do a very good job.

Our hosts, refreshed after an afternoon of tea, called up and arranged to meet us outside. It was a relief to get back into the air-conditioned car and drive out to the other side of the island, to a coastline covered with resorts and beaches. At the end of the road was a fishing village. Young Malay men with braids and dark, soft mustaches kicked a yellow soccer ball around while stray cats strolled around rubbing people’s legs. We talked with a couple of young fishermen who claimed they were 18, though they looked much more like 14 at most, as they smoked while sitting on the dock. Huge jellyfish, both white and orange, floated in the green water under the docks.

Back in town that evening, we had dinner at an old restaurant, a delicious meal around several tables as there were quite a few of us; apparently the Malaysians got word around of our visit, so we had over a dozen people in a convoy of vehicles. Afterwards, one of them gave us a ride back to the hotel, giving us a guided tour as we went.

Tomorrow we’re driving back to Kuala Lumpur, most likely stopping in Ipoh again for lunch and a haircut.

posted by Poagao at 8:47 am  
Feb 20 2010

The mountains

February 16, 2010

Everyone drives in Malaysia, it seems. Kuala Lumpur’s metro seems a half-hearted effort at best, with small two-car trains and insufficient lines. Buses are scarce, and only a few small motorcycles can be seen whipping around in traffic. Mostly it’s cars. The cities are laid out accordingly as well, necessitating long drives into town amid gridlocked traffic situations for shopping, eating, etc. The license plates are white letters that look like fridge magnets stuck on glossy black plastic cut to the shape of whatever model’s license-plate space is.

Chenbl was feeling ill, so we were off to a late start this morning; Ah-lin drove us to a breakfast place, where we picked up some crunchy shrimp strips, changfen and egg tarts to take with us to the rendezvous point with the others. We then piled into Gimzui’s Nissan, which smells exactly like all other Nissans in the world, and headed north on the highway. Small motorcycles zipped alongside, probably going as fast as they could. One fellow rode mere inches behind a bus, drafting it for mileage. Amazingly stupid, that.

The highway wound around hills and forests of banana trees, teak trees and other crops. Some pieces of land had been cleared. When we reached a rest stop, I was able to establish that, while Malaysian Dunkin Donuts rank above those in Taiwan, they’re not as good as the US version. I also found that KFCs here sell tiny chicken burgers, like sliders, and delicious cream-cheese potato slices.

We got off the highway and traveled a winding road up into the mountains, occasionally passing people sitting in primitive huts on the side of the road. The air eventually got fresher and cooler, until we could turn off the a/c and open the windows. Miles later we entered the small town of Ringlet, where we found a sort of cheap service apartment and then had lunch at a KFC knockoff that had free wifi and swinging seats out front.

Our original plan was to drive out to the Blue Valley to see the tea plantations, but the road was chockablock with cars, so instead we took a side road out to a mountainside village. After parking in the square, we climbed up to the top among the scattered wooden huts, most on stilts, only to be told that we couldn’t take pictures, first because there was a dog somewhere, and then because someone had been caught taking pictures of villagers taking baths; that individual had also been severely beaten, we were told. Chenbl bought sweets for the village kids to get in their good graces and let us take some pictures of them jumping around in the square. The sky was a brilliant blue, the shadows of occasional clouds wafting over the green hills.

The others wanted to go back to the hotel to rest at this point, but Gimzui, Chenbl and I decided to make the most of the late-afternoon light. We drove back along the road a ways to some teahouses overlooking some fields and took more pictures. Walking by myself along the mountain road in the fresh air and crisp light, taking pictures of trees and the mountainside and my own shadow on the highway, I felt as happy as I have yet on this trip.

Dinner was arranged at an old hotel built in the Tudor-style in 1937 called The Smokehouse. Apparently it was originally a haven for lonely, homesick Englishmen who were posted to the area and couldn’t return to their homelands for at least eight years. A rambling two-story wooden structure, it featured creaky floorboards and a very homey feel, including a huge fireplace with a real fire, something I haven’t seen in ages. The food itself was nothing to write home about, but I wouldn’t mind staying in one of the six rooms if they weren’t so expensive.

After dinner we walked through the local night market, which was pretty much like any other night market. I’m continually surprised at how receptive people here are to being photographed for the most part, paranoid hillside villagers excepted. I keep expecting people to shy away as they do in Taipei, but most people, especially Indians and Malays, don’t seem to mind at all. It’s refreshing, and there are many interesting things to photograph here. Chenbl has gotten some amazing shots so far.

After the night market, we retired to a fruit tea shop to review the days’ events. Tomorrow we’re going somewhere else; we’ll see what that’s like tomorrow. I have yet to find a place where my Thinkpad can access wifi, so I’m just writing these in Word for now and will publish them when I can.

posted by Poagao at 8:28 am  
Dec 22 2009

Hualian and Jiaoxi

Over the past week, Chenbl has been showing a group of his friends, three from Malaysia and one from France, around Taiwan. Bored with their continual hot weather, the Malaysians were eager to experience low-temperature traveling, and they tossed aside Chenbl’s warnings about going to Hualian in the winter. For some reason, I decided to tag along as well.

We set off at noon on Saturday aboard the Ziqiang Express. Not as fast or modern as the Taroko Express, but at least seats were available. Although I usually spend such days cooped up at home with the heater on listening to Renaissance tunes, it was nice to get out of Taipei and see the countryside and ocean of the east coast. I’ve always liked Hualian better than the other east-coast cities of Taidong and Yilan; Yilan is too spread out and incohesive, while Taidong seems like an afterthought to the hot springs. Hualian, in my eyes, is the only “comfortably sized” city of the three. It’s been a few years since I was there, but it’s gotten a little more arty and bohemian than it was during my last visit. B&B’s have popped up here and there, and more tourism-related shops have opened.

It wasn’t raining when we arrived at the train station, but it was cold and gray, passengers huddled on the seats in the waiting room. Chenbl seemed to want to drive home his views on the advisability of a trip in this weather, so we ended up renting scooters at one of the places by the station and rode to our hotel, the Mango, a nine-story affair downtown with a nice lobby and so-so rooms with smallish windows.

After putting our luggage away, we got back on the scooters and rode out to Qixingtan, a beach north of the city, by the airport. It was quite cold, and to avoid letting anyone get lost we rode in a line. The blue-gray sky was just the right color to contrast with the containers of a shipyard, but I couldn’t stop to take pictures. I could feel the Invincible Rabbit straining to jump out of its bag as we rode past statues framed by the ocean and sky, but again I couldn’t stop. I compensated by swearing loudly instead. I hate traveling in groups, and this is one of the main reasons why. If it’s just one or two other people, you get more leeway, but with a larger group, you’re basically forced to do whatever they are doing. But I’d signed on; I knew what I was getting into. The foreigners only have this one week here, but I can come back to Hualian any time I want.

So I rode on. We eventually came to a goat restaurant/cafe on the nearly deserted coast, and as we were parking, a long line of people came walking up the beach. At first we thought it was a funeral procession and prepared to leave quickly, but it turned out to be a political march sponsored by the DPP.

The goat place serves goat milk-based drinks, including coffees, teas and just plain hot goat milk. It’s an acquired taste, but it wasn’t too bad, just strange. As we drank, me still stewing over the lost photographic opportunities of the trip out, the sun set, plunging the area into darkness. Outside, the owner was feeding the excited goats in a small hut.

We rode on past the airport runway to another oceanfront park, largely deserted in the cold except for a couple of guys setting up chairs for a concert the next day. Then it was back downtown for a multi-course dinner at a restaurant dedicated to a particular kind of fish; every dish utilized a part of the fish, and the waiter explained each one as they came. I’d never realized that fish were that complicated. There were even fish parts in the ice cream.

After dinner, it was off to a night market. There’s not much I can say about the night market; once you’ve seen one, you pretty much know what you’re in for, i.e. the usual mixture of games and boiled food. I bought another aborigine hat to replenish my stores. Outside, an old man was making money plucking a badly tuned wire on the bridge that lead to the beach. Nobody was interested in the darkness beyond.

Having exhausted wonders of the night market, we rode over to the stone art complex, which is composed of an L-shaped line of huts around the old railway hospital, a wooden building built during the Japanese occupation that’s been converted into display spaces for stone carvings. Several young, bare-chested aborigine men were dancing on the stage. Their skin was a most un-Aboriginal shade of white, and I wondered if it was make-up or just the cold.

I was walking around the veranda of the old building, feeling I’d seen enough stone carvings, when the ground began to vibrate. At first I thought we must be nearby a railroad track and a particularly large train was approaching, but it quickly outgrew such a possibility, and as the ground began to sway and buck, I realized what was going on; it was an earthquake. I’m usually inside for earthquakes; the only one I’ve been on the ground for was the 3/31 temblor a few years ago when the cranes were tossed off the as-yet-unfinished Taipei 101.

This one was much bigger. Alarmingly big. I abandoned all guesswork and suddenly became very agile, hopping off the swaying veranda and running to the center of the lawn, between another building and a water tower, both of which I hoped would remain standing. Other people came running out of the building, and I could hear the crashing of hundreds of stone carvings coming from the complex as the aborigine dancing music stopped.

Gradually, the shaking died down into a slow, almost gentle wave-like motion that could have just been my legs. The music started up again. I walked back around the building to see the show continuing as shopkeepers began sweeping up the shards of the stone carvings from the floors of their establishment. Chenbl appeared, having been on the toilet inside the old railway hospital during the quake. Needless to say, he didn’t enjoy the experience. A group of mainland Chinese tourists was still huddled in the middle of the lawn.

The Malaysians, however, were ecstatic. It was their first big quake, and even Marcel, the Frenchman, admitted it was his first as well. They seemed to think they could check that attraction off their list of Things to See in Taiwan. I’d assumed that it was just a local quake, as none of the locals seemed the least bit bothered about it, but when I checked Facebook I saw a dozen proclamations of panic from people all around the island. Apparently it was one of the largest in a while, almost 7 on the Richter Scale, but fairly deep down. The epicenter was just southeast of Hualian.

We rode slowly back downtown, as there were likely to be aftershocks, and walked around browsing tourist-product shops, in which I am not even remotely interested. I sat outside reading about the quake on my phone, everyone asking if everyone else was ok, what the scene was like in Hualian, etc. All around me, nothing seemed amiss. Back at the hotel, all the news stations were fixated on webcam footage of swaying chandeliers and choppy videos of people exiting shops.

We were planning to ride out to Taroko Gorge on Sunday. I was not looking forward to the prospect as I’d already seen it, and the weather was even worse, colder and wetter than the day before. But everyone else was going, so I pulled on a bright yellow plastic 7-Eleven raincoat and followed the line of scooters out of the city.

Then it began to rain. My pitiful helmet had no visor, and soon I was squinting into a barrage of stinging, freezing drops as gravel trucks barreled past, inches away. This was not fun. When we eventually stopped off at the Tzu-chi complex, I wandered off on my own, seeking to distract myself among the quiet fields and busy monks. It worked, more or less; the complex is a haven of industriousness, fields of food the monks grow and eat, quiet dormitories and rooms of old women making plastic flower arrangements. Out back, a monk was shaving his head. Chenbl, anticipating my reaction, told me it would be disrespectful to take a picture.

The combination of the sound of running water, the high cliffs covered in clouds behind the complex, and the occasional passing train put me in a somewhat better mood for the rest of the ride out to Taroko. When we got there, however, we were told that it was closed due to the possibility of landslides after the earthquake. I was glad to hear this news, as I wasn’t looking forward to navigating those narrow roads and dodging tour buses in this weather.

We poked around the information center and had some very welcome, steaming-hot lunch dishes before heading back to Hualian, again through the rain and next to long convoys of gravel trucks that we passed over and over again between traffic lights. The rain followed us into the city, to the hotel to get our stuff, and all the way to the train station. Tired of following the line of scooters, I blasted ahead once I knew where I was, as I wasn’t wearing my raincoat and didn’t relish the idea of a wet train ride. After turning in our mounts to the rental shop, I wandered around the old train cars they have on display in front of the station. The old cars had wooden beds inside, as the journey from Taipei to Taidong took the better part of a day.

Our next destination was Jiaoxi (I refuse to spell it “Jiaosi” as it is written on the tourist maps), a small city based around the hot springs in the area. We munched on oyster cakes as we walked to our hotel, located a couple of blocks from the train station, next to the empty concrete shell that was once a luxurious Holiday Inn. I always find such structures depressing, little blots of sadness amidst the bustle.

The rest of the town seemed to be thriving, however, I found as we shuffled past the other hot springs resorts. Alas, the group found another tourist products shop and spent the better part of an hour inside browsing the various varieties of cakes and teas while I sat outside watching people walking up and down the street. Later, we found what looked like a hot-stream river running through the center of town, lined with stands selling all kinds of foods. Public bathhouses dating from the Japanese occupation lined the river, wooden structures with high roofs, foot masseurs calling out from under the eaves.

I was in the mood for a good dinner in a nice, warm indoor setting, and wasn’t ecstatic to see the group choose one of the outdoor tent places. After the food came, however, I was surprised to find that it was delicious fare all around, and the red-and-blue tent kept the wind out well enough.

The foreigners decided to go back to one of the riverside hot springs, while Chenbl and I went to another place, along the railroad tracks, where you pay them to let fish nibble at the dead flesh of your feet in a small pool. The fish, which look like goldfish, are Turkish, apparently, or at least they’re so named in Chinese. Getting in only involves passing a NT$100 note to a bored desk clerk, and only a few other people were sitting on the sides of the pool with their pants legs hiked up to their knees, schools of the orange fish surrounding their feet. When I put my feet in, the fish went to form a sock-like covering as they went to work; I had to rub my hands together to distract myself, the feeling was so strange. Eventually, however, I got used to it and began to even enjoy the sensation. Occasionally a train would roar past on the tracks just beyond the pool as I sat and wondered what would happen if I jumped in the pool. My feet felt pretty good afterwards, but I’m not sure how healthy the whole thing is.

We went back to the hotel and soaked in the hot springs there before retiring for the night. Ironically, the showers took forever to warm up, and the hotel forgot to include amenities. Even the hairdryer had been ripped off. However, there’s nothing like hot springs for a good night’s sleep, I’ve found, and the springs of Jiaoxi don’t stink like those in Beitou. I should make another trip sometime.

The next morning, the hotel gave us breakfast coupons for McDonald’s, which was on the other side of town, a long bicycle trip away. I have no idea why they do this as it’s not at all convenient. Personally I’d rather pay for a nicer breakfast, but I suppose many people like what they see as “free” things. Afterwards, we caught the train back to Taipei. Chenbl was taking the foreigners to Taipei 101. Me, I had to get to work.

I like the east coast, and I really should get there more often, especially now that the Taroko Express has cut down on travel times. I’ve also heard that flights are going to start up between Hualian and Japan’s Ishigaki Island, just a short flight, in January. Having gotten a glimpse, albeit a brief and cold one restricted by group travel, I should go back by myself sometime and do a proper weekend excursion there. In better weather, of course.

posted by Poagao at 2:08 pm  
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