Category Archives: Taiwan

Escaping Taipei’s Heat up in Wulai 烏來!

Ah, Wulai.  Think hot springs, cherry blossom and Atayal indigenous culture.  And mountain scenery.

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And views…

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And, sadly, in the last few years, think typhoons too.  Wulai has had more than its fair share of bad news.  Most recently, “in August 2015, Wulai was devastated by Typhoon Soudelor, wiping out several hotels and destroying hot springs in the region. The course of the Nanshi River that passes through the district changed and the riverbank was eroded heavily by surging water. Heavy landslides were attributed to the overdevelopment of the mountain areas around the river which damaged the soil and watershed along the slope lands”.

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But restoration work on the riverbed is ongoing, new bridges are going up and there are diggers and cranes and all sorts of construction work going on.  Wulai is on the mend!

The cable car is working again, the Yun Hsien Resort way up on the mountain top is open again, the Wulai Trolley Car is up and running, cafes and restaurants and hot spring hotels are ready and waiting for visitors.

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This past week, temperatures in Taipei have been setting May records, 37ºC and more, but ‘feels like 42°’.  Sweltering heat and humidity, and, despite thunderstorm warnings, none seems to have materialized to break the heat.  None where I’ve been anyway.  So, what better place to go than Wulai to seek some respite?  I was there yesterday.  Actually it was still baking hot ~ but only 33, ‘feeling like 39’, and that’s way better than 42!  Ah well, at least this frog was happy…

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Wulai is a mountain town 25 km south of Taipei, easily accessible by bus (No. 849), taking 40 minutes from Xindian MRT Station – at the end of the green MRT line.  And only costs NT$ 15!  The road winds up and up to 250 m (not particularly high altitude, but feels like it!) and comes to a stop at the entrance to Wulai Town, perched on the steep banks of the Nanshi River.  The town is sprawling and nothing special as a town, but its location is.  And as it’s the home for the Atayal people 泰雅族, everywhere is decorated in their symbols and colours.

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Check out the RC Church, dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima, built in 1963.  I met Fr. Arturo from Chile who serves there, dressed in Atayal colours.  Lots going on there, he was getting ready for a mass.  On Sundays, he gets about 30 people coming along, and he had a class of children on Saturday waiting to start too.  We even had a photo taken together..

Check out the 80m high waterfall, 25 minutes walk up the road.  Beautiful.

The river looks almost turquoise from the road above…

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And check out the cable car that runs up to the Yun Hsien Resort.  The cable car crosses the river with amazing views down.  Takes all of 2 minutes.  Costs NT$ 220, which includes cable car return trip and entry to the resort.

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The view from the top of the cable car looking down at Wulai ~ you can see where all the landslides have taken place….

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Yun Hsien Resort 雲仙樂園 is really quite incredible.  Who would ever think to build a resort up there on the very top of the mountain, and accessible only by cable car?  The temperatures up there were several degrees cooler than down in Wulai, and there was a nice breeze. There’s a hotel, boating lake, flowers and forest walks and archery and all sorts of things to do and look at.  Even peacocks.  But its main attraction has to be its location.  It is quite an incredible feat of construction to build a resort up there.

The flowerbed turns out to be Taiwan-shaped!

Views from the cable car on the return journey….

And back to Wulai Old Street by the Wulai Scenic Train 烏來台車 which started life as a rail cart, originally designed by the Japanese government in 1928 to transport timber, logging tools, tea and passengers – now only used by tourists.  NT$ 50 one way.

Must-visit the Wulai Atayal Museum 烏來泰雅民族博物館 which has lots of displays – and English explanations.  Most interesting are the facial tattoos, headhunting traditions, displays of weaving of the local people ~ oh yes, and the added bonus of air conditioning!

And of course there’s plenty to eat in Wulai, and drink, and things to buy.

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A good place to visit from Taipei for the day ~ lots of people cycle up to the waterfall from Taipei, others enjoy the hot springs – but really they’re best in winter, or they just relax in the river.  Plenty to do and see, and eat ~ and help the Atayal people of Wulai get back on their feet after the typhoon disaster of 2015.  An interesting place.  Even if the natural environment is badly damaged and over-developed with resorts and hotels for the tourism industry.  Still, let’s hope and pray that this year’s typhoon season is kinder on the people of Wulai than in the past.

‘陽明山東西大縱走活動’ ‘Yang-Ming Shan East-West Vertical Traverse’ 2018!

Can’t quite believe it.  10 mountains.  10 hours of walking.  1 day.  25 km.  53, 437 steps.  Highest point: 1,120 m.  The WHOLE Yang-Ming Shan traverse.  Up and down, and down and up all day long.  Steep steep steep, but dry.  No mud.  A little sun. Perfect!

All 10 mountain markers….

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Yang-Ming Shan is the range of mountains above Taipei City.  I’ve been up there many times and done the whole ‘traverse’ in sections before.  This time last year, I did it all over 2 days (see that report here).  This is the first time ever I’ve done the whole thing in one day.  This is the highest point, Qixing Main Peak, 1120 m, and the one with the most people, ha ha!

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Started off intending to do only half, but met some people who were doing the whole thing and somehow we all ended up doing it all together.  Started at Qingtian Temple in Beitou at 7:10 am.  Ended at Fenguikou Trail-head about 5:00 pm in time for the 6:10 pm bus down the mountain.  So actually I did it west to east, despite the title.

These butterflies were having a slightly more relaxing day than we were!

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And today?  E.X.H.A.U.S.T.E.D!

Jingmei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park 景美人權文化園區, Taipei

Prepare to be seriously uncomfortable.  This museum is not for the faint-hearted.   It is gruesome, horrible, degrading, and yet strangely compelling; all at the same time.  The fact that it exists at all is a testament to the vision and determination of some of those who were incarcerated there and who were prepared to work hard to ensure its success.  It is a must-visit kind of place.  But only with a must-be-prepared state of mind to listen, learn and reflect.  For here, in this place, you will come face to face with what man’s inhumanity to man means in real life.

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The Jingmei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park is the site of the former Jingmei Military Law Detention Center of the Taiwan Garrison Command (1968-87) where political prisoners were incarcerated, indicted and sentenced during Taiwan’s White Terror Era ~ the suppression of political dissidents following the February 28 Incident in 1947.  Martial law in Taiwan lasted from 1949-1987.

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The White Terror Era 白色恐怖 was indeed a very very dark chapter in Taiwan’s history.  And it was not that long ago.  Many of the victims and some of the perpetrators are still alive today.

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From Wikipedia: “The term “White Terror” in its broadest meaning refers to the entire period from 1947 to 1987. Around 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned during this period, of which from about 3,000 to 4,000 were executed for their real or perceived opposition to the Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party) government led by Chiang Kai-shek. Most actual prosecutions, though, took place in 1950–1953. Most of those prosecuted were labeled by the Kuomintang as “bandit spies” (匪諜), meaning spies for Chinese communists, and punished as such.  The KMT imprisoned mostly Taiwan’s intellectual and social elite out of fear that they might resist KMT rule or sympathize with communism.”

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What is now the Jingmei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park, in Jingmei, Taipei was the place where many of these political victims were held in custody, prosecuted, tried and imprisoned. These days it is part memorial, part museum, and is open to the public, free of charge.  There’s a free audio guide in English with 19 audio-places to visit.  I was there yesterday afternoon, and spent 2 hours wandering around, seeing everything.

The actual memorial is at the main entrance to the museum, titled ‘Imprisonment and Liberation.’ The victims’ names are added too, with the dates of their imprisonment(s) in white or, for many, the date of their execution, in red.

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“With towering walls symbolizing confinement, the jagged monument penetrating the site of the former Prosecutor’s Office for Military Tribunal like a sharp razor represents the deconstruction of authoritarian power.  The space between the directional folding walls narrows and widens, as if swinging in between states of imprisonment and liberation, before it eventually leads towards White Dove Square, that symbolizes freedom”.

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From there, we move to the nearby military courts, set up as they were for the trials in 1980 of the leaders of the Kaohsiung Incident, which received widespread international coverage and media attention.

The 6 military barracks are now filled with displays and exhibitions.

But the most infamous building is the Ren-Ai Building, the actual prison.

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Many of the rooms have displays showing what they would have been used for during the time they were in use.  The guard room, where prisoners would enter the prison, and from where they would leave for their executions or further imprisonment, has a clock set at 4:04 am (the word for number 4 (四 sì) sounds like the word “death” (死 sǐ) in Chinese). Shackles hang on the walls.

There’s also a medical room and a small shop.

And the room where family members would have had the chance for a 10-minute talk (must be in Mandarin Chinese) to a prisoner via the telephone on the other side of the glass wall.  All calls, all letters, all contact were of course monitored. The Chinese characters, 肅靜 (su-jing) meaning ‘Quiet’ are painted on the walls.

The cells also have displays of how the prisoners would have lived.  The cells are small, cramped, smelly.  Many were kept in solitary confinement.  Others had padded cells in case of self-inflicted violence.  All were very hot and humid in summer, and damp and horrible in winter.

The prison guard has his own cell, nicely done out with bed and desk and even a closet for clothes.

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Outside are the exercise yards.

On the other side are the work rooms.  Some of the lower-risk prisoners had jobs working maybe 10 hours a day in the prison laundry, washing, ironing, folding clothes and sheets, not just for the prison, but also for other government agencies, like the military hospital.  There’s also the boiler room, the canteen, the library, and an exhibition.

The main entrance to the prison…

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When I visited yesterday, there was a group of about 15 people on the guided tour that starts each day at 2:30 pm, and there were also a small number of family groups going around on their own. The place is hardly over-visited.  It is also not exactly easy to get to, a 20-minute-walk from the nearest MRT station (Dapinglin) and 15 minutes from the nearest You Bike station.  Instagram shows some school groups visiting, but not many.

But it is well worth visiting.  This aspect of Taiwan’s history is uncomfortable for many.  In May 2016, as part of her inaugural address, Taiwan new president, Tsai Ing-Wen announced plans to set up a truth and reconciliation committee, to “address the historical past in the most sincere and cautious manner. The goal of transitional justice is to pursue true social reconciliation, so that all Taiwanese can take to heart the mistakes of that era.”  In December 2017, the Act on Promoting Transitional Justice 促進轉型正義條例 was passed.  However, a lot of people remain less than enthusiastic, and many questions remain, well explained in this article here.  What to do with the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial is part of that debate, and due to its prime location and appeal to tourists, it is one that brings forth many and varied opinions.

Many of the prisoners from Jingmei went on to serve their sentences in the prison on Green Island, off Taiwan’s SE coast.  Watch this space – we hope to visit!

A few months ago I visited Cambodia’s Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (see that report here).  Ever since then, I’ve been meaning to visit the Jingmei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park and learn a bit more about Taiwan’s darkest era.  Ah, Cambodia AND Taiwan.  Both went through hell.  Both are trying to come to terms with what happened.  But visiting a country and living in a country are 2 different things – and call for 2 different responses.  The scale was different, and it is difficult not to compare the two, and in doing so, there’s a risk of trivializing Taiwan’s own experiences.  For those in Taiwan who suffered during the White Terror era, it was a long and terrible nightmare, and what happened at military detention centers such as Jingmei will haunt Taiwan for generations to come.

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The Christian faith teaches that confession, forgiveness and reconciliation are part of the process of healing.  Jesus’ words, “The truth will set you free” are part of that teaching.  Chinese culture emphasizes harmony, often at the expense of truth.  But it is only when the truth is told and justice is brought, so healing can begin, reconciliation be achieved and true harmony descends.

Prayers requested.  For Taiwan.  For us all.  And for God’s mercy to prevail.

Updated on May 11, 2018: for my post on our visit to Green Island, including the visit to the prisons there, please see the link here

Updated again on May 19, 2018: today’s Taipei Times is reporting here on the official opening of the Jingmei Human Rights Museum that took place yesterday, the day after the official opening of the Green Island Human Rights Museum, both run by the same government department.

WOW! Lanyu 蘭嶼 Orchid Island, Taiwan

Taiwan’s outlying islands are all special, but the crown jewel of them all must surely be Lanyu!  A tiny green dot in the middle of a vast blue ocean, and on a sunny day (or 3) wow, the island glimmers and shines like a little jewel.  Blue sky, blue sea, green mountains, sandy beaches and rugged black volcanic rocks ~ and traditional boats painted in the white, red and black designs of the local Yami / Tao people who use them for catching flying fish, which they then hang up to dry all over everywhere.   A really amazing place!

Lanyu is one of those places that when you first see it, the only word to say is, ‘WOW!‘ Big green mountains completely dominate the view ~ there are 8 mountains over 400 m (1,300 ft) and the highest is 552 m (1,800 ft).  This is the first close-up view we had of the island as we approached it last Wednesday on the boat from Houbihu 後壁湖, near Kenting, on Taiwan’s southern tip.

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The boat trip itself makes you feel you’re setting off on an adventure.   Two boats make the trip together, taking 2½ hours for the approx 60 km / 40 miles trip going directly eastward from Kenting, through waters that are often rough and choppy.  Last Wednesday at 7:30 am, the sun was shining, the sea looked calm, and everyone munched away on their breakfasts as we were leaving port.  An hour later – and most were regretting it!  We stayed outside the whole journey and watched the flying fish ~ and survived in one piece to tell the tale….

When the boats arrive at the Lanyu Port at 10:00 am, it’s like Piccadilly Circus out there. Our boat had 300 people, I guess the other one had about the same, and we all arrived at the same time, with the boats leaving back for Taiwan only minutes later with another huge group of passengers.  Minibuses from all the different guest houses are there to pick up their visitors, boxes of deliveries are also being unloaded and loaded, and, well, it’s all a scene of huge chaotic fun!

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With a total area of only 45 km² (28 sq miles), a round-the-island highway that spans a distance of 37 km (23 miles), and so many steep high mountains, it’s not surprising that everyone in Lanyu lives somewhere along the coast. There are 6 villages, and they share the amenities between them, meaning no one village can claim to be the most important.  The 4 elementary schools are evenly distributed, but the high school, hospital, port, two 7-Eleven convenience stores, airport, post office, the single solitary ATM machine and government offices are not grouped in one village, rather spread out all over.

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Officially Lanyu has a population of about 5,000 people, including about 1,500 from Taiwan, the rest are local Yami / Tao people.  (The old name is Yami, the more recent name is Tao, and different people in Lanyu had different opinions about which name they preferred).  What is interesting is that they are not related to Taiwan’s other indigenous people, but instead to the peoples of the Batan Archipelago in the far north of the Philippines – their 2 languages and cultures have much in common.

The people of Lanyu have very strong cultural traditions and customs.  Visitors and tourists are welcomed, but local people make it clear that Lanyu is different from Taiwan, and they do not welcome people taking photos of them, or visitors going too near their homes or adversely affecting their way of life in any way.  Their many churches and prayer stations around the island are mostly locked.  The barbed wire and fences are to keep the goats out, but the people say they have had many experiences of visitors taking their drinks and snacks into the churches and leaving all their rubbish there.  So they keep the visitors out too.  Apart from the caves, we only found one prayer station that was open, in the far south of the island.

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In Taiwan you can buy meals on the street all day long until late into the night, but in Lanyu, it seems the whole island closes down early afternoon while everyone has a nap.  Every home seems to have a kind of wooden covered platform outside where the people rest during the heat of the day.  And then at about 7:00 pm, many of the stalls and restaurants also close down for the night.  Taiwan people will say that the most important thing about daily life is always ‘Convenience’ with a capital ‘C’, but not so in Lanyu.  Life moves along slowly at its own pace, and not even the attractions of making money out of all these visitors is going to persuade the local people to change their way of life.

And that is of course exactly what we loved about it!  Knowing all this, we found the people were very friendly and happy to talk – but then we also adhered to their customs.

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One such custom is that the traditional fishing boats are regarded as almost sacred – and not to be touched, and permission should be sought even to take photos.  And no swimming in the areas where the boats go fishing during the flying fish season.

So what were we doing in Lanyu?  Well, last week was Taiwan’s spring break of 3 days – a day for Children’s Day, a day for Tomb-Sweeping Festival and an extra day on Friday to make it a long weekend, and which everyone else had worked the previous Saturday to make up for.  Our university also had the Tuesday off to give the students a chance to get home before the rush of people on the Tuesday night.

A week before Chinese New Year, knowing we had a 5-day spring break in April, I had asked Miao-Shia, my good friend at St. James’ Church, Taichung if she’d be interested in a trip to Lanyu, seeing as I’ve been in Taiwan all these long years and never been there. She’d never been either, and before we knew it we had a group of 6 of us (Miao-Shia, Shu-Miao, Chung-Pung, Ah-Guan, I-Chen and me), all first-timers, all friends, and what’s more, our wonderful Miao-Shia agreed to organize everything!

And so it was that we set off on Tuesday, arriving at the Houbihu Port late that night, where we stayed in a nearby guest house ~ all ready for the boat to Lanyu next morning.

We had booked a small guest house in Lanyu, with mixed dormitory-style rooms (each bed curtained off for privacy) in the village of Yayo / Jiayo / Yeyou 椰油 which is nearest to the port.  We had also booked 3 motorcycles for the first 24 hours – turned out that there were so many people on Lanyu at the same time as us that all motorcycles and bicycles were fully booked after that.  But it didn’t matter.  We saw everything we needed to see, and more.  I spent the time taking photos from the back seat with I-Chen driving – the roads are not easy to drive, some parts are unpaved, some covered in sand and some of the hills are very steep, especially coming down!   This was Miao-Shia and Ah-Guan behind me…

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Our 3 motorcycle drivers did a great job, and we spent a happy day riding around, trying not to get sunburnt, avoiding the goats and pigs, and always stopping for every photo op – ha ha!  Everyone else was doing the same.  There’s plenty of room on those Lanyu roads!  Lanyu is full of visitors on motorcycles and most of them are from Taiwan.  Some western foreigners also visit, but most are Taiwan-based.  Ah, it’s a great place!

Lanyu has an interesting history.  During Taiwan’s Japanese era, 1895-1945, Lanyu was completely closed to all visitors, and designated as an ethnological research area, so even now, the tribal customs and culture are considered to be the best preserved of all Taiwan’s indigenous people.  Old photos from that time can be seen here.  Then in 1947, the Chinese started to arrive and the KMT government used Lanyu as a garrison and military prison, also a collective farm for old soldiers.   They deforested many areas, cleared others, built Taoist shrines, and from the start were in conflict with the local people.  In the late 1970’s the soldiers left, and their shrines were destroyed by the Lanyu people.  We passed the ruins of the garrison on the northern coast of Lanyu.

What did we notice in Lanyu?  Well, for a start, despite it’s English name of Orchid Island, there aren’t any actual orchids to be seen.  Long ago picked almost to extinction. And what else?  Well, a massive absence of temples of any kind.  Taiwan is full of temples, Buddhist and Taoist, but we did not see any in Lanyu.  We saw a few shrines in shops of business people who have come over from Taiwan ~ but actual temples?  No.  And we didn’t see any graveyards either.  Local people said the graveyards are in the forest, and secret.  There is a special owl endemic to Lanyu, the ‘Do Do Wu’ Horned Owl which we went to see.  Traditionally seen as the embodiment of evil spirits by local people, and associated with graveyards and death.  Not easy to take a photo, but their eyes glitter in the dark!

What did we see lots of? Well, stars at night, for one.  From the east coast, the night sky view is spectacular.  And what else?  Well, crosses – in every home we passed.  And churches in every village.  In fact, churches everywhere of every denomination.  We saw RC, Presbyterian, Assemblies of God, Baptist, True Jesus Church, and more – and often all next to each other.  Lanyu declares itself to be a Christian island.  On arrival at the port, the welcome notice is a mosaic, saying in Chinese 歡迎蒞臨蘭嶼 基督之島 “Welcome to Lanyu, Christ’s Island.”

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We were staying right next to the Yayo Presbyterian Church – isn’t it beautiful?!

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One morning we also climbed up to the Prayer Station on the hill above Yayo ~ and came down in high spirits, hence the smiles!

This was the view of Yayo Village from up above…

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Other village scenes of Yayo…

We visited the Lanyu High School in Yayo to watch a bit of the island’s softball (similar to rounders) championship, a 2-day event with teams from all the villages.

And we went to the local elementary school, beautifully decorated in Yami / Tao symbols and designs….

The school is open to the public outside of school hours, and is a famous place to see the sunset over Mantou Rock – yes, it really does look like a Taiwan mantou (traditional steamed bun)..

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And we also went to the old lighthouse at the small port, with stunning views all round, and watched the swimmers and divers in the waters below.

The small harbour is full of colourful boats….

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And we ate in most of the local restaurants.  One was called ‘En-Bao’, which happens to be the name of the cell-group that Miao-Shia and my friends belong to at St. James – hence this photo!  The restaurant produced some really delicious ‘flying fish baked rice’.

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And on other days and nights we ate elsewhere, trying out the local flying fish delicacies.

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There’s pork available too.  Pigs roam around everywhere, they are so full of character….

And though there’s lots of goats all over Lanyu, we never saw any restaurant offer goat as a dish ~ apparently they are kept for extra-special festival days.

And fruit?  Apart from a few banana trees, the only other fruit we saw being grown was a local fruit that doesn’t have an English name, in Chinese it is lintou 林投果 (Pandanus tectorius), a member of the pineapple family – native to Lanyu and not found in Taiwan.  Members of the same species are found in the Philippines.  We drank it as juice and as a smoothie. I liked it.

The basic root crop is taro, grown in shallow water in fields along the roadsides, also sweet potato and green vegetables.

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And betel nut trees…

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And so to our round-the-island tour, which we did over the Wednesday late morning and afternoon, and then Thursday morning.  We basically drove round the island clockwise, starting with the hilly road up to the Lanyu Lighthouse high up on the northern tip of the island…

This is the view from the northern end of Lanyu looking back down the west coast….  Scenic is the word!

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Then round the NW coast, through the rocks.

And onwards to Five-Hole Cave… we also went to these caves one night to see the rock formations and patterns on the rocks.

Our first village to stop at was  Iraraley / Jiraralay / Langdao (朗島), famous for its semi-underground houses.  The northern and eastern coasts of Lanyu are very susceptible to terrible typhoons in summer, and building these low houses means they can escape the worst.  But it was 1:00 pm – and everyone was resting!

Then on round down to the east coast and to the village of Iranmeylek / Jiranmilek / Dongqing (東清) which is at the middle of a huge and beautiful bay.  Definitely a sunrise spot.  We determined to return early the next morning.  Dongqing has a 7-Eleven – and coffee is what we needed after a short night’s sleep, a morning on the boat, and then straight onto the roads on the back of a motorbike in the hot sun.  Ah yes, coffee and air-conditioning. And lots of flying fish being dried in the sun.

We carried on to the other east coast village of  Ivalino / Jivalino / Yeyin (野銀) but once there we took the mountain road to ride up to the weather station.  This is a very steep road and we walked the last part. The views from the weather station are glorious, seems the whole of southern Lanyu lay below us.  There’s also the original weather station building, built by the Japanese in 1940 but bombed during World War II.

What a spectacular view from the top, looking south…

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We just had time to get down back to the west coast for the sunset with the goats – and over the sea…

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Next day, Thursday, we left from our guest house on our motorbikes at 4:30 am.  Yes, 4:30 am!  How did we do it?!  But we were heading for 7-Eleven coffee and the sunrise viewing spot at Dongqing.  We saw the dawn, had our coffee and waited for sunrise…

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And then we continued on our tour of the island, heading south on the east coast.

And first to that far distant village of  Ivalino / Jivalino / Yeyin (野銀) to see their old subterranean houses, similar to the ones at Langdao.  We were not allowed too near them as the people live there, but we saw enough from the road…. really amazing.

We went on southwards, past zillions of goats….

And eventually, on Lanyu’s southernmost point, the most remote part of Lanyu, far from any habitation, and right opposite Xiao Lanyu 小蘭嶼 Lesser Orchid Island (a smaller, uninhabited volcanic islet, which is also the southernmost point of Taitung County so primarily used for military purposes, and is the place to find the famous endangered orchids) we came to the place that is sadly what Lanyu is most well-known for:

“The Lanyu nuclear waste storage facility 蘭嶼貯存場 was built in 1982 without prior consultation with the island’s Tao natives.  The plant receives nuclear waste from Taiwan’s three nuclear power plants operated by state utility Taiwan Power Company (Taipower). About 100,000 barrels of nuclear waste from the nation’s three operational nuclear power plants have been stored at the Lanyu complex”.  Apparently the nuclear waste stopped arriving in 1996, though that is not clear from this Wikipedia quote.  Anyway, the site is open to the public and we watched a video and looked at the nuclear waste storage site.  All those green concrete bunkers are where it’s at.

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Local opposition is strong and ongoing, and Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-Wen has promised to remove the nuclear waste, but it’s not obvious how this situation is going to be resolved.  Nobody wants nuclear waste stored in their back yard anyway anyhow anytime anywhere.  Of course, the way it was built under the guise of being a fish cannery was clearly deceitful, and the original plan to eventually put it all in a nearby deep sea trench was also illegal under international law.  But what to do with it all now is a major headache for the current government, and will continue to be so for a long time to come.

The site employs about 50 people, 12 of whom are from Taipower in Taiwan, the rest are local people, some whose job is purely public relations.  Thus it was that we each got a free set of postcards, including scenes of, well, the nuclear waste site.   Not surprisingly, I can’t possibly think who to send them to.

Anyway outside there are some steps made of plastic bottles and cans and other recycled materials.  As the notice there says, Lanyu is drowning in waste – from tourists, from locals and from nuclear waste.

The Dragon’s Head Rock is right there too…

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We continued on towards the west coast and the famous grasslands ~ completely different in vegetation from the rest of the island….

And so through the remaining villages of  Imourod / Jimowrod / Hongtou (紅頭), seat of the local government HQ, and Iratay / Jiratay / Yuren (漁人).  In Imourod there is also the only hospital, ATM and post office.  Near Iratay is the Lanyu Airport.  Flights are supposed to go every day to and from Taiwan but the planes are small, only for 19 passengers, and notoriously unreliable due to the changeable weather conditions – in windy weather, delays and cancellations really put people off going in the first place.  Impossible to book tickets too – well, for 6 of us anyway, and we did not succeed.  So the only alternative is the boat, from Houbihu or Taitung, more reliably on time – but oh so choppy, oh so potentially awful!

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Never a truer word spoken in jest ~ as we were to find out on our return trip home.  A cold front had arrived in Taiwan on Thursday and Friday, and although Lanyu was fine for those 2 days, the front was pushing south and arrived in Lanyu on Friday night.  So this was the scene as the dark clouds came rolling in on Friday evening….

For Saturday, the wind was forecast to be ‘strong’ at 53 km/ hr.  Many local people thought the boats might be cancelled.  The good thing was that everyone was so worried about the wind and waves that as we lined up waiting for the boats to arrive, nobody dared eat anything.  I didn’t either.  And it paid off.  The trip was very rough.  Choppy is not the word.  Everywhere I looked was water.  We were going up and down so much it was impossible to stand up, let alone walk anywhere in the cabin.  So we all sat, eyes closed for the whole time, gripping the arms of our seats.  The wind and waves were so big and so strong that every time we lurched in one direction, we had to grip harder to stay put.  Luggage slid backwards and forwards.  The baseball game and then TV News played on and on.  We were all silent.  Worried.  But y’know, mostly not sick.  Even the guy next to me who I had seen very ill on the way over, was so happy to be smiling as we arrived back at Houbihu all in one piece.  Surprisingly, far fewer were sick on this trip than on the outward journey a few days before, when the sun was shining!

And what did we buy in Lanyu to bring home?  Well, this was the local delicacy to take home – flying fish as cookies and flying fish as egg rolls. Also traditional handicrafts and carved boats.  I liked the flying fish cookies myself – actually quite delicious!

So to the big question.  Would I go to Lanyu again?  YES!  And a very big YES at that!  People say you should never see all of a place on your first visit so that you’ve got somewhere to visit the next time.  And I can safely say that next time we have plenty of places still to visit.  I can’t wait.  Lanyu was so beautiful, so stunning, so special, we’re already dreaming of our next trip!

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Thanks to Miao-Shia and all the gang for making it such a fun trip, to all my friends near and far for their support and encouragement, and of course thanks be to God that everything went so smoothly.  Truly an adventure to remember, to treasure forevermore!

Alishan 阿里山 Sunrise and Cherry Blossom ~ Happy Easter 2018!

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Alishan, ah Alishan!  Famous for its sunrises, tea, cherry blossom, ‘sacred’ trees, sea of clouds and its mountain railway.   The place everyone goes once in their lifetime.  Visitors from all over the world, and especially from the Chinese-speaking world are there in their thousands.  Me too ~ and I was there on Saturday, Easter Eve ~ as dawn was breaking….

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Taiwan’s most famous sunrise location is there at Alishan ~ just look at all these people waiting to see the sun come up!

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That ridge over there in the distance is Yushan, Jade Mountain, 玉山 at 3,952 m, 12,966 ft ~ Taiwan’s No. 1 highest mountain. To the left of the Main Peak is the North Peak, with Taiwan’s highest permanently-manned weather station. We were up on the top of Yushan Main Peak and North Peak last July, and it was one amazing experience!

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When the sun does come up, there’s a big cheer – at this exact moment!

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2 minutes later, and it looks like this…

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After the sun comes up, there’s the sea of clouds below….

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And then, everyone spends the rest of the day enjoying the cherry blossom…

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But say the name ‘Alishan’ to older people in Taiwan and they burst into song.  This is the famous song, ‘Alishan Girl 阿里山的姑娘‘ sung by Teresa Teng 鄧麗君 in 1971.  Check it out, it’s very famous!

Alishan is high up in the mountains of Chiayi County, in Taiwan’s central mountain range.  The Chushan Train Station, near the sunrise viewing platform, is 2,451 m above sea level, the highest point of the Taiwan Railway System.  The hotels and cherry blossom area are all above 2,000 m, so it’s a especially pleasant place to visit in summer – when temperatures down in Chiayi are 30-35°C.  On Saturday very early morning it was 5°C, while lowland Taiwan was 20°….

So what of the history of Alishan?  Briefly it runs as follows:

“The Alishan area was originally settled by the Tsou tribe of the Taiwanese aborigines; the name derives from the aboriginal word Jarissang…. Following the cession of Taiwan to Japan at the end of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, Japanese expeditions to the area found large quantities of cypress (檜木, or hinoki in Japanese). This led to the development of the logging industry in the area and the export of local cypress and Taiwania wood. A series of narrow-gauge railways were built in the area during this time to facilitate the transportation of lumber from the mountains to the plains below, part of which continues to operate as the Alishan Forest Railway.”

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So how to go?  This was my third trip from Taipei to Alishan by direct bus, and after my last 2 reports, in 2016 and 2017, I’ve had lots of interest from visitors who want to know all the details. Of course, from Chiayi there’s plenty of buses to Alishan, but this bus is special.  For those of us in Taipei with not much time, and not wanting to spend much money, this is the way to do it.  So this is an update on those details – all you need to know!

THE bus, ‘King Bus’ 國光客運 (known as ‘Guo-Guang-Hao’) goes only twice a week, and leaves from Taipei Bus Station, next to the Taipei Main Train Station in central Taipei.  Departure time from Taipei is 20:45 pm on Friday and Saturday nights, the return trip leaves Alishan on Saturday and Sunday mornings at 11:30 am, and gets back to Taipei about 5:00 pm.  Cost for the return tickets is now NT$ 645 each way, and tickets can be booked 2 weeks in advance in person at the ticket office. No online bookings.  Yes, you can book one way only, but it may be a bit more expensive for a single ticket.  You write down your name and tel. no. when you book, just in case they need to cancel the bus (like in snow, landslides or typhoons).  Ideally of course, I would love to go to Alishan on a Friday night, spend Saturday night there, and come back to Taipei on the Sunday afternoon. But so far that hasn’t happened. I have never yet spent a night in Alishan.  Nor seen the Alishan sunsets.  But hey, I’ve seen so much else!

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In the cherry blossom season in spring, tickets get sold out very quickly.  In fact, the only reason why I could go this Easter weekend was because Saturday was actually a work and school day in Taiwan, except at St. John’s University, which took the day off to make up for graduation day in June. For everyone else, Saturday’s work and school day was making up for a day off later this week as part of the annual Tomb-Sweeping Festival.  So there were far far fewer people than would normally be expected on a spring Saturday.

The 2018 Cherry Blossom Festival runs from March 15 to April 10, and after that, most of the cherry blossom will be over.  But, y’know, it would be great to go there in other seasons too, and much quieter!

The bus journey takes about 5 hours from Taipei to Alishan, but on the outward trip, it’s extended to 6 hours, with a 45-minute rest at the small town of Chukou, the gateway to Alishan – and famous for its 2 suspension bridges.  We got to Chukou at 12:15 am, then rested until 1:00 am.  There’s a 24-hour convenience store, Family Mart, that’s open, and the bridge to walk across, but, well, it’s the middle of the night – and very quiet!

After leaving Chukou, the road starts to climb steeply upwards, round and round, up and up, on and on for the next 90 minutes or more.  If you get travel sick, don’t eat anything at Chukou Family Mart!  We arrived at the Alishan Main Entrance / Bus Station at about 2:45 am.  Last year, the bus would drive into the Alishan area and drop everyone off.  But now buses stay outside, and the new bus station area is there with its own 7-Eleven convenience store, which was open.  YES!  We all love a good 7-Eleven, especially one like this which has a large waiting area with benches to sit on.  It’s cold out there, so bring warm clothes.  Gloves, hat, scarf and coat.  And make the most of the hot chocolate at the 7-Eleven.  It’s hot and sweet and I love it.  And the coffee too – cos there’s not much sleep to be had on that bus once it leaves Chukou and starts heading up the mountain!  And there’s not much to do at Alishan at that time in the morning, until the ticket office opens to buy the train ticket to see the sunrise.  So make the most of the 7-Eleven!

If you don’t want to go on the train and prefer to go by minibus to see the sunrise from a different viewpoint, then there’s minibuses at the bus station offering this service, recommended by (but independently of) the bus company. I did it once and it was good, costs about the same, but hey, I like the train.  It kinda adds to the whole Alishan experience!

First you have to get your Alishan Entrance Ticket at the Alishan Main Gate.  With a bus ticket stub, it’s NT$ 150 (otherwise it’s NT$ 300).

We headed to the train station to wait there.  It’s warm (er) and hey, get in line, cos once all the people turn up, there’ll be hundreds lining up to get a ticket.  As the time of the sunrise varies through the year, so the time of the sunrise trains also vary, and the ticket office opens 30 minutes before the first train leaves.  The number of trains running depends on the season and the number of visitors too.  On Saturday, the sunrise was at 6:06 am, the first train left at 4:50 am and so the ticket office opened at 4:20 am.  At that point, the notice went up to say that there were 509 tickets available that morning….

Train tickets are NT$ 150 each way.  The train takes about 30 minutes and it is packed out with people.  So is Chushan, where the viewing of the sunrise happens.

Fortunately, there’s plenty to see and do, including a line of stalls selling bowls of hot soup, breakfast, coffee and tea – and well worth it.  After all, it’s not the warmest place in the world at 5:30 am!  It’s a very sociable place, and we’re all trying to get a good place to see the sunrise…

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Stand to the right of the viewing area near the solitary tree – yep, that tree may be the most photographed tree in the world!

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By 6:00 am, everyone was in place with cameras raised.  At 6:06 – exactly on time, the first glimpse of the sun appeared and a loud cheer went up from all the hundreds of people gathered there.  Kinda moving to hear!

For the next 10 minutes we all clicked and clicked away.  And within 10 minutes, the sun was up and it was too bright to stand there any longer, so we turned our attention to the cherry tree – which was very old and very big and completely covered in blossom.  The beauty of Alishan Cherry Trees, unlike those down here at lower elevations, is that the cherry trees there are so old.  And so big.  All so twisted and gnarled and full of character.  And covered in lichens – it’s all that fresh clean air.  And they were all looking splendid in the early morning sun.  Most of the Alishan cherry blossom in flower at the moment seems to be white.  Most of the pink ones, but not all, have finished flowering.  The white ones are beautiful ~ and of course, most appropriate for Easter weekend!

On previous visits, I have taken the train back to the main Alishan station, but this time I walked back.  If you have enough energy, then make the most of it and walk back.  It’s well worth it.  And it’ll save you NT$ 150.  But first I visited Mt Ogasawara / Xiaoliyuan 小笠原山(2488m above sea level), 500m away up a very steep hill – the views are incredible, really amazing.  If you go back by train, you will not really be able to get up there and back in time.

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There’s also a small exhibition area half way there with an interesting display of art taking the outline of Taiwan….

The path from the sunrise area back to Alishan is downhill all the way, and there’s a footpath down through the trees.  Usually takes 40 minutes, but I wandered off on some other paths, and took much longer.  It’s such a great area for wandering!

And once you’re down there back at the main Alishan area, well there’s loads of places to visit.  I wandered all over the place.  Trails lead everywhere.  So much to see.  The sacred trees area is the furthest away, and with lots of steep steps up and down.  But you don’t need to go far to see all the colours of Alishan.

It’s the first time I’ve visited Alishan’s most famous hotel, the Alishan House Hotel 阿里山賓館 when the cherry blossom at the main entrance was out.  Those trees are so old and falling down that they are held up and supported by metal poles.

Cherry blossom galore…

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Magnolias….

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and calla lilies…

Plus plenty more, check out this tree stump that looks like a pigs’ head…

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And there’s also Taiwan’s most beautiful (and highest) post office….

I had a spare hour at the end, and had done hours and hours of walking (after hardly any sleep!) and the weather was turning cloudy, so I bought coffee and sandwich and went off to visit the Sacred Tree Station by train – and returned 45 minutes later.  One-way ticket is NT$ 100.  Had my coffee break on the platform surrounded by huge trees.  In previous years I had walked there, but this year there was no time, so I went by the train.  It’s fun!

By the time I got back to Alishan Main Station, the sun had completely disappeared and the mist and fog had arrived.  Wow!  I passed the RC Church and hostel down below the main road – it’s apparently the best place to stay for those on a budget, but booking is not easy, mostly done by telephone.

And so back to the bus station in time to catch the 11:30 am bus back to Taipei.  We stopped once on the return journey, for 10 minutes at the Chiayi Bus Station. Most of us were so exhausted from having virtually no sleep the night before and having walked around all day, that we slept most of the way home.  Got back to Taipei Main Station at about 5:00 pm.  The driver was the same for the outward and return journeys – really excellent!

Alishan is well worth visiting, it really is special.  It’s true that the crowds might get to you at the peak times, but don’t let that put you off.  It’s beautiful!

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I just love Alishan!

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So Happy Easter 2018 @ Alishan ~ ah, what wonderful memories!

Zhongshan Presbyterian Church, Taipei 中山基督長老教會

It’s Holy Week and the sun is shining all week in Taipei, yippee!

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Today is Maundy Thursday, and appropriate for Maundy Thursday is a visit to Zhongshan Presbyterian Church (中山基督長老教會) in central Taipei (62, Linsen N. Rd 林森北路62號), where the small stained glass window above the altar is of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, while his disciples are fast asleep nearby.

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The window at the back of the church is of Jesus the Good Shepherd…

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This morning, very early, I cycled past this church on my way into Taipei.  The sun was shining, the sky was blue and the traffic stopped long enough for me to take some photos without getting run over.  The church does look splendid in the sun!

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And what’s so special about this church? Well, it’s very historic, built in 1937 in a Gothic style, with a 3-story bell tower.  This was during the Japanese era 1895-1945, and it was built as a Japanese Anglican Church, Nippon Sei Ko Kai (NSKK) with all services in Japanese.  Taiwan at the time belonged to the NSKK Diocese of Osaka.  This is the most famous of all the church buildings in Taiwan built by the Japanese Anglican Church.  Apparently, as it was near a place called Taisho Cho, its original name was “Taisho Street Anglican Church”.

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But in 1945-6, when the Japanese left Taiwan, there was no Taiwanese Anglican / Episcopal Church to hand it over to, and in 1947 it became the Zhongshan Presbyterian Church; the church celebrated their 70th anniversary in 2017.   The Taiwan Episcopal Church was founded much later, in 1954.

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Fast forward to 2004 and Taiwan Episcopal Church (Diocese of Taiwan) began a companion diocese partnership with the NSKK Diocese of Osaka, which is still going strong today.    And we have a good relationship with the Zhongshan Presbyterian Church today too – and Bishop David J. H. Lai has preached at this church many times.

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One of the places we like to take our Japanese visitors is to see this church.  It really is full of history, and it really looks quite amazing surrounded as it is by all the high-rise buildings and all that traffic, whizzing past on both sides!

And so, back to the stained glass window and its significance for Maundy Thursday ~ wishing you all a meaningful and blessed Holy Week!

THE place to see Cherry Blossoms 櫻花 @ Tianyuan Temple 天元宮, Tamsui, Taiwan!

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Cherry Blossoms (sakura 櫻花 ying-hua) are out big-time.  Spring is finally here!  Currently flowering all over everywhere, but possibly the most famous place and most accessible for Taipei people is at Tianyuan Temple, just outside Tamsui.  Just happens to be not far from here, and there are huge traffic jams – ah, yes, we all love to see cherry blossom!

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Tianyuan Temple Cherry Blossom is all Yoshino Cherry (吉野櫻) and, hey, they are looking spectacular.   You must go – and soon!

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Tianyuan Temple is a Taoist Temple worshiping the Jade Emperor (Yu Huang Dadi 玉皇大帝), and the main attraction is the 5-story pagoda, with deities on each floor, and all surrounded by cherry blossom.

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I’ve been waiting for a sunny day, and today was it!  So I went there late this afternoon, about 4:30 pm, and this was the scene….

And having the most fun taking photos were a group of very athletic students, who managed to perfect their pose after a few tries!

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Getting to Tianyuan Temple is easy if you come by shuttle bus from Tamsui MRT Station, they’re currently running all day, but there’s also a long wait at weekends – I saw hundreds waiting in line last Saturday!  Traffic is very slow, and parking is not free, so come by shuttle bus.  For me it’s easy, just hop on the regular #876 bus that runs from Sanzhi to Tamsui over the mountain road, and it stops at the temple – only takes about 20 minutes.  And I caught the same bus back again about an hour later.  Yes, so easy!  Ah, the endless weekend traffic jams are well compensated for by having beautiful cherry blossoms within easy reach!

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Do make the most of the cherry blossom season, it’ll be over before long ~ so get here quick ~ YES!