30 December, 2012


For the benefit of a hungry girl in Taipei

This is actually a story that happened almost two months ago. A few of my work colleague decided they were going to have a ladies' night out. Being the optimist, I asked if I could join then. They said only if I wore a dress.

I think I do alright as a lady. Some of my new work colleagues hadn't known me longer than a few months before I gave them this fright.

The waiter was very nice and he speaks English very well. He even set out sushi on fire for us. Here is a Halloween-designed sushi we tried out.

Despite his wonderful attitude, I feel I made our waiter uncomfortable with our staged "date".

He did let us play with his wheel, however. We didn't get to play the game where one spins for a prize, discount or free plate of sushi, but we did get to spin it.

After our delightful meal we decided to go out for a drink. My friend and colleague drove whilst I rode sidesaddle and waved like the queen at passing strangers. Most found it highly amusing, though I do recall getting a scowl from a group of Taiwanese guys who I can only describe in the 1970's term "tough guys". I'm guessing they assumed my silliness was lowering the tone of the whole street and their tough look with it.

27 December, 2012

Winter Solstice

I hope everyone is having a lovely festive season. Being in Asia means that I'm still working, but we'll be having our break soon enough. On the 18th January our holidays begin and we'll be off for about a month. I'm looking forward to it.

My students (or at least their parents) have decided to make this a happy month for me. I have been receiving gifts all month, the latest being a big box of mini satsumas that range between two and five centimetres in diameter. They are very sweet. I've also got a mug emblazoned with the immortal presence of Xmas trees. Seem odd using it on 364 days of the year, but I may get used to it.

Here are a few things I was gifted with before Xmas, though with the festive season in mind:

A selection of wrapped chocolates complete with bells and a model Rudolf glued onto a clothes peg, a box of dark and really rich chocolate squares, a packet of imported tea (you know, because I'm a foreigner) and the jacket hanging over the chair. That last one was actually a gift from a friend, not a student.

This chocolate is handmade by "locals" (and by that I mean the aboriginal people of Taiwan). They probably add that line to increase its sales, but to be honest it's one of the best chocolates I've ever eaten. It's almost too rich.

Being a foreigner who speaks English of course the parents decided to buy me imported English tea. At least I'm guessing that's the reason. No complaints from me, I love tea; though if they wanted to tickle my English side they could just have got me Earl Grey. There's really nothing better.

This needs a special mention. Some of the teachers at my school took part in a Secret Santa. It was a delightful event and I got to learn a lot more about my colleagues. One of the gifts that someone got was two boxes of plasters (or band aids). Only they weren't. They were wrapped up to look that way, but were actually small individually wrapped chocolates. There's a novelty I would have completely missed on the shelf at the shops. I think the strangest part about them is their name. I'm wondering if there was a foreign influence in it.

This was my gift - a delightful bottle of instant coffee which now sits in my cupboard at school, behind the aforementioned Xmas tree mug. What I really enjoy about it is the blurb on the front:

Mocca Great Coffee is like a fascinating
book-you will appreciate its long
lasting meaning; and is just a like
wonderful melody-the pleasure will
stay with you forever.

15 December, 2012



Traversing the northern edge of the lake, we came upon a fantastic sight - one massive stairway stretching from the lake to the top of a hill. This is the Steps of the Year Trail. The stairs are broken into sets with each set representing a different month and having a number of steps equal to that month's days. We met it roughly halfway, so we got this view:

Stretching down to the lake

Going up to the temple, after taking a small left turn near the top.

There are also small lantern-like ornaments attached along the railings. Each one represents prayers for a person on the temple's behalf (similar to the candles they have lit in temples) and they are placed next to the step that marks the person's birthday. Not only that, but they're organised into ages as well.

You can clearly see these lanterns are prayers for people who are quinquagenarians and sexagenarians.

The volume does alter in areas, but there are simply masses of these lanterns along the pathway.

The step for 2nd December, the date we were on the walk.

When you reach the top you'll encounter two wonderful things, but the temple can wait as you first take in the view. It's a wonderful present after a long climb beneath the tree canopy.

The second thing you'll notice is the temple itself. I am not religious, but I do appreciate the beauty and wonders of the world. Whilst I like to keep my thoughts planted in logic and reasoning, I admit I was taken aback by this place.

There is an idea of situational religion, where people feel drawn to religion in certain places. The old Catholic Church used this effectively. They made churches to be the grandest buildings in a city (save for maybe a palace) and had all their sermons in Latin, keeping an air of mystery locked with ritual. The Temple here does it differently. While there is no doubting the creativity and dedication in making the temple what it is (and I'll take a look at that in a bit), I cannot help but feel the place is what makes it great. The cool weather, the beautiful hilltop view, the lake stretching below, the greener-than-green trees surrounding the temple - they all speak of grandeur surpassing humanity. Nature makes this temple a marvel.

One of the pair of Stone Lions (Guardian Lions) that flanks the temple, giving it its mystical protection. Unlike a conventional pair (male resting his paw upon the world, female restraining a playful cub) this temple has two males.

Temples like this are often (if not always) built in various levels or tiers. This picture is taken from the first tier. In front are stairs ascending to the second tier and a room in which gods are housed. Behind me is a similar building with different gods in it.

At the top of the stairs, above the warring dragons and beneath the two rows of prayer lanterns is a flat wall. Upon its surface are intricate relief carvings done in stone.These must have taken ages, each one done on numerous blocks of stone. However rather than be held up as the great works of art that they are, they simply cover the walls all over the temple. None of them appear in the gods' houses. Then again, being stone, they would fare far better against the elements than cloth or wood.

Getting to the gods' houses, we find a lot more attention placed on decoration. It is here where we find the Asian influence in these temples. Just like with Hindu temples there is an emphasis on over decorating. Whether it is a dedication to the complexity of life or the gods, there are too many things to truly witness all of them. Carved wood and stone with many shades of paint shining gloriously, row upon row. That's simply the ceiling.

Guan Yu was one of the 5 great generals of the warlord Liu Bei. His life has become largely fictionalised over the course of time and he is now viewed as an epitome of loyalty and righteousness. He was deified after his death. This is the story of the weapon he carried with him, along with a representation.

Behind the final gods' house I came upon this fountain.

Multiple small dragon heads constantly pour water from their mouths. Accompanying them is a larger dragon head, spouting water out from the great carving above.

This feature is a wonderful illusion. Whilst the spouts keep the sound of running water (along with splashing) the five dragon heads on the right occasionally exhale a kind of mist, which then blows back past them to the viewer standing before the fountain (on the right). This gives them the feeling that they're standing beneath a waterfall with the hiss and mist of the crashing water blowing over them.

I apologise in advance, but I cannot get this picture to right itself. This is one of the  fountain jars which people use as a wishing well. The rim of the jar is a series of small containers. These containers are what westerners would call Golden Ingots and they are synonymous with increased wealth.

A corner at the back of the temple. The small stone fence indicated the temple's boundary where other tourists are wandering.

The roof offers some great views.

A picture of me overlooking Sun Moon Lake with all its boats scooting people between the three piers.

I promised you bananas in the sub heading, so here they are in all their glory and varying colours. The Nantou area to have its farming rooted in bananas and betel nuts.

09 December, 2012



When first exploring the shops around Shuishe pier you may come across this coffee shop. Do not be fooled by its wonderful location. In reality it's a poorly run place that preys upon the naivety of tourists.

Being tourists who had just arrived in town, my girlfriend and I decided to find somewhere to sit down, have a cup of coffee and plan the sights that we wanted to see (and which, given our lack of time, we'd eventually only be able to see some of).

The restaurant/coffee shop offer a nice view, but little else. Our coffee was cold when it arrived and had to be sent back for reheating, despite the fact that we were the only customers at the time. The food was decent, but in an average sort of way. I guess places that rely on tourists for income don't have to care about service as they don't depend upon repeat visits.

A place that is worth visiting is this one: Moon Tea & Café

They are close to the pier and have the decency to serve coffee in large mugs. Also, their coffee is of a temperature bordering on hot. They also have large, soft chairs one can flop in.

If I have to find fault with them (and I do) I'd say they have a tendency towards over-decorating. There are hundred of nicknacks and novelties covering various shelves, as well as magazines, ornaments, figurines and display key-ring. It's all a bit too much, really.

As I said before, there is a walkway that spans the circumference of the lake. Most of it is wooden and looks like  this:

There are parts of the walkway where the wood gives way to concrete and stone paths, but the majority of it is wooden. 

Some parts of it are also surrounded by trees or even have trees thrusting up through the planking. We came across this tree and thought it to be a telephone pole at first, considering how straight it is. We later found many more like it and have attributed its straightness to the fact that the walkway has supported and encouraged that shape to grow.

These parts of the path that are more closely surrounded by trees give one a more closed-in feel. This is great for people who love nature, but not so much for those who hate spiders.

This brings me to the second part of this post - the wildlife.

In Taibei (indeed, in any large city in Taiwan) people do their best to avoid wildlife, especially in the form of insects. It's understandable. Insects aren't always the friendliest of living creatures and many of them can be poisonous; more so in the tropics. When the people of Taiwan were first offered the technology for city-building they sprang at the idea of concreting over everything and reducing the insect population. It's only more recently with the rise of the green movement that they're thinking of reintroducing more plant-life to the cities.

If you're not a fan of spiders then do not fear. You can walk the circumference of the lake worry free. Whilst spiders will have their webs in the vicinity on the walkway, they'll be off to the sides in the trees and bushes. On occasion, when the trees close in, they'll be above you, but significantly so. For those of you who suffer from phobias of paranoia about arachnids, you'll also be safe. One can always retreat to the road and simply walk around the areas that are not as open as those in the pictures above.

This is the biggest one we found. It's black and yellow in colour, but we also came across more orange coloured ones:

Spiders, however, are not the only creatures that can cross your path. There are numerous species of butterfly that one can happen upon. On our short walk we also came across a bug that had a transparent disk on its back, almost like a shield or umbrella:

Then there are also slightly larger fellows who may cross your path or even your handrails:

Insects are not the only things you'll find. There are also many species of birds in the area, a welcome sight after very few in the city. Bird call is something one misses living in a built-up place. We saw these close to the walkway and for some reason they didn't take flight when we approached. I'm still not sure what species they are, but I think they're black-crowned night-herons.

Snakes also live in the area; yet another reason why I believe Winter is a better time to visit. Being reptiles, snakes will be seeking warmer places to stay. In Winter that means keeping out of your way. I think the only reason we came across this snake on our walk was because it was dead. If it had been alive it would have escaped the rain long before we ambled along the path.

A curious feature of the lake are the floating islands that feature all around its edge. At first we took them to be buffers for the waves that move across the lake's surface, used to help sustain the edge of the lake - and with it the walkway. However we came across one of the many typed blocks of information that are scattered around the lake. According to tradition, fishermen who lived in the area once angered a mermaid-like creature who lived in the lake by over fishing or something. She wager a war against them until they eventually agreed to compromise and help her. They made floating islands and filled them with soil to grow land upon the surface of the lake so that they would create spots where fish could breed and small fish could live in safety, thus increasing the number of fish in the lake.