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Cicada Summer: Update from Taiwan 😷

“Nothing in the cry of the cicada suggests they are about to die” やがてしぬけしきはみえずせみのこゑMatsuo Basho, Japan (1690)

Cicada

What a great attitude to have, and especially in the midst of a pandemic! Follow the way of the cicada. Live life as noisily, joyfully and enthusiastically as possible, even if you have no idea what tomorrow will bring. And even if you hate injections. Don’t look, just keep on pressing that camera shutter, and before y’know it, it’s all over!

There’s 4 of these photos, all slightly different, ha ha! 😂

Anyway, this haiku poem by Matsuo Basho really made me laugh, and it feels like it should end in an exclamation mark, cos it is just so true. Nothing, absolutely nothing in the cry of the cicada suggests they are about to die! The cry of the cicada is truly deafening, and it goes on from dawn to dusk, all summer long. On some nights, in the early hours, a sleepless cicada will call for a few minutes and wake up the whole neighbourhood. It sounds like a continuous loud buzz, and apparently can reach 90 decibels, which is a similar frequency to lawn mowers, hedge trimmers and food blenders spinning at top speed. It is the defining sound of summer, and here in Taiwan people say that summer only really starts when the cicadas appear.

This is 20 seconds of their sound I recorded a few days ago down by the sea below St. John’s University. Just listen….

Now in mid-July, the cicadas are coming to the end of their short adult lives. While the tree tops are still full of their sound, down below at ground level, dead and dying adults are starting to fall.

Otherwise they are very difficult to see, though one of our cherry blossom trees finds itself a gathering place (feeding / egg-laying?) for the cicada adults. They let out strong distress calls and take off if someone approaches too close, so I prefer to view them from a distance…

“Most cicadas go through a life cycle that lasts 2–5 years. After mating, the female cuts slits into the bark of a twig where she deposits her eggs. Both male and female cicadas die within a few weeks after emerging from the soil. Although they have mouthparts and are able to consume some plant liquids for nutrition, the amount eaten is very small and the insects have a natural adult lifespan of less than two months. When the eggs hatch, the newly hatched nymphs drop to the ground and burrow. Nymphs have strong front legs for digging and excavating chambers in close proximity to roots, where they feed on xylem sap. In the final nymphal instar, they construct an exit tunnel to the surface and emerge. They then moult, shedding their skins on a nearby plant for the last time, and emerge as adults. The exuviae or abandoned exoskeletons remain, still clinging to the bark of the tree.”

Their abandoned exoskeletons do indeed remain, clinging to the bark of the tree trunks….

They seem like ghosts of time past, and only when you peer inside through their backs, can you see that each one is split open, empty, the body gone. And all around overhead come the calls of the newly-emerged adults shouting down to us to stop wasting our time looking at their empty shells, and instead to look up and see them buzzing around in the tree tops. We’re not down there, they seem to say, we’re up here. Alive and full of hope. Some say they are symbols of resurrection and immortality, the abandoned exoskeletons perhaps reminding us of the abandoned grave clothes in Jesus’ tomb. There are some similarities. But I prefer to think of them more as symbols of transformation, because the nymph, the body inside that abandoned exoskeleton, was not dead, but rather growing and maturing, changing, transforming into an adult. A bit like the caterpillar in the cocoon emerging as a beautiful butterfly.

Anyway, one thing is for sure, absolutely nothing in the cry of the cicada suggests they are about to die. They have such enthusiasm and passion for life!

It was Gandhi who said, ‘Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever’. That’s our challenge!

In the plant world, it’s also coming to the end of the flowering season, with the lotus flowers fading and the seed pods ready for harvest…

And here in Taiwan, we also hope that we are coming to the end to this recent Covid surge. Our case numbers have been going down each week, and we’re now down to less than 30 cases a day, sometimes less than 20.

Overall statistics are 15,378 confirmed cases, of which 13,931 are domestic infections reported since May 15; and 763 deaths, all but 12 of them since May 15 when the current surge began.

As there is still community transmission happening, so the central government has announced that Level 3 alert (of a 4-tier system) continues for a further 2 weeks, but with some restrictions lifted, like the opening of the great outdoors, including parks and mountain hiking trails. Some indoor areas too are opening, like museums, cinemas and some gyms where numbers can be strictly controlled, though with no eating or drinking allowed. The central government also announced the opening up of indoor dining in restaurants, subject to strict guidelines, but all local governments (except for the island chain of Penghu), encouraged by the general public, are treading cautiously and have delayed that decision at the local level for another 2 weeks.

Throughout Taiwan, facemasks are still required outside the home and life continues to be based mostly at home or as local as possible. Facemasks are impossible when swimming, so swimming pools and beaches are still closed. Our local seaside area apparently doesn’t qualify as a beach, so it is spared, and the raised walkway is popular with our local neighbours first thing in the morning for fishing – and exercise. Me too, I’m going every day, usually soon after 5 am, when the sun comes up. Living on the west coast means that we are used to chasing sunsets rather than sunrises, but still, it is possible to get a good view if we get there early enough! These photos are taken from dawn to dusk….

The very good news is that Taiwan’s vaccination program has really moved along in the last few weeks with the arrival of millions of doses donated primarily by Japan and USA, plus some ordered and paid for directly by Taiwan. First dose rounds for the over 65s are more or less complete, and vaccination for the next age group, 50-64 year-olds launched today. I was there, very excited, in Sanzhi Junior High School!

It has taken Taiwan a long time to get to this stage in the vaccination program, and not because Taiwan is a poor country. The money is there to pay for vaccines ordered. But questions about Taiwan’s international status, with possible pressure from Mainland China on governments and on the vaccine companies have resulted in long delays. And with local vaccines now on Phase 3 trials overseas, so we continue to wait for them too. But now, Japan and the USA have each sent Taiwan several million vaccines, and smaller numbers have come from Lithuania and Slovakia, at least partly in response to Taiwan’s generosity last year in sending out donations of facemasks around the world. Astra-Zeneca (AZ) and Moderna are the only 2 kinds that have arrived so far, and for our age group only AZ is available for the next few weeks…

It is true that the USA has not authorized AZ vaccines for public use within the USA, and so is sending them all overseas, and while Japan has approved AZ for the over 60’s, the take up in Japan has been low, so they too are sending many overseas. There are plenty of other countries queuing up with their requests for vaccines, so it is good that Taiwan is high on their list. ‘Beggars can’t be choosers’, as they say, so most of us are happy to take what Japan and the US don’t want, and people who are worried about the possibility of terrible side-effects are waiting for Moderna in a few weeks’ time. Having waited so long, and watched the rest of the world getting their vaccines months ago, so there is a certain air of excitement as everyone registers online, gets their text message to say to go ahead and book, then choosing the time and place for the appointment – plus show off the obligatory photos, taken before and almost after….

Yes, it’s a great feeling to be finally catching up with the rest of the world in the vaccination program. We have learned from this recent Covid surge that complacency is dangerous, and that we cannot just rely on strict border controls in the future. It is up to us all to do our bit, to work together for the good of society as a whole. Seeing everyone’s enthusiasm to sign up for vaccinations, even AZ vaccine with its famous side-effects, is really quite amazing. Hope is renewed.

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It all takes me right back to the cicadas and their enthusiasm to celebrate life, even though they are soon about to die. I guess they don’t worry too much about that. Once they break out of those old exoskeletons and fly off to the tree tops, transformed, so they leave behind all the old stuff that contained and restricted them for so long. For just these few weeks, they are free to fly around and fill the world with their cries as they try and find a mate, and so start the cycle again. For us, the transformation may be less physical. After all, much as we might like to break out from all that contains and limits us under Taiwan’s current Level 3 Restrictions, it is impossible. For one thing, everywhere we go, even in the high humidity and 35°C temps of summer, and even in the remotest place, like the newly-opened-up mountain trails, we still have to wear a facemask. And if people don’t, then we worry about getting too close to them. So, any transformation for us will have to happen in our minds and hearts.

Maybe that’s where faith comes in, as we pray for God to release us from our fears, worries and despair about the pandemic, even as it continues to worsen for our friends in neigbouring countries of Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Vietnam. May God transform our fears and worries into faith, and our despair into hope and joy. And may we celebrate with the cicadas the joy of just being alive here and now, filled with hope in this present moment!

Advent Church Centre & Labyrinth

Thank you again for your ongoing concern and prayers, all much appreciated ~ and if I have any side-effects from today’s vaccine, I’ll let you know next time. Until then, enjoy this photo of dawn breaking over Advent Church at 5:00 am this morning….. it was such a stunning sight!

(With the exception of the first cicada photo, which I took last year, all photos were taken this month in or around St. John’s University, Taiwan)

PS Updated July 18, 2021: I have since been reminded by my Taiwan friends of the phrase, ‘金蟬脫殼’: 1) lit. the cicada sheds its carapace (idiom); fig. to vanish leaving an empty shell 2) a crafty escape plan. Wikipedia describes it thus: “The cicada symbolises rebirth and immortality in Chinese tradition. In the Chinese essay “Thirty-Six Stratagems“, the phrase “to shed the golden cicada skin” (金蟬脫殼) is the poetic name for using a decoy (leaving the exuviae) to fool enemies.” More food for thought!

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!

Alishan 阿里山 2017 ~ Sakura Cherry Blossom is out!

And looking spectacular!  If you have any free time in the next few weeks, you just must make time to go to Alishan and see the cherry blossom, it’s stunning!

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I went yesterday.  It’s only a week before the official Cherry Blossom Festival is due to start, but most of the flowers are fully out – and so was the sun, perfect!

Alishan is one of Taiwan’s most famous scenic spots, and for visitors from overseas, it is one of the must-see places.  Best to do things leisurely and stay there overnight, but if that’s not possible, go on the overnight bus, and make the most of it!

Alishan is high, over 2,000 m above sea level and much of it is now a national park. Wikipedia says:

The Alishan area was originally settled by the Tsou tribe of the Taiwanese aborigines; the name derives from the aboriginal word Jarissang. Ethnic Han Chinese settlers first settled on the plains near modern-day Chiayi as early as the late Ming Dynasty (around the mid-17th century), but did not move into the mountains until the late 18th century, establishing the towns of Ruili (瑞里), Ruifeng (瑞峰), Xiding (隙頂), and Fenqihu (奮起湖). The resulting armed clashes between the settlers and the aborigines pushed the aborigines even further into the mountains.

Following the cession of Taiwan to Japan at the end of the First Sino-Japanese War, 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.

The overnight bus (‘King Bus’ 國光客運) from Taipei Bus Station departs at 8:40 pm on Fridays and Saturdays – buy a return ticket @ NT$ 560 each way (or NT$ 620 one way). The bus stops twice on the way, and it arrives at Alishan National Park entrance (entrance fee NT$ 150 per person, plus free map) at about 3:00 am and a few minutes later at the terminus at the 7-Eleven.  There’s not a lot to do at 3:00 am at 5°C except shiver in the dark, so we found the best place to wait (in the station) and were first in the queue for the tickets for the sunrise train at 5:00 am.

The ticket office information said that 637 tickets (@ NT$ 150 each way) on the sunrise train were available. Yes!  The first of the 2 trains left at 5:30 am for the 20 minute-ride to Chushan Station, Taiwan highest train station at 2,451 m above seal level.

That’s the place to see the sunrise!  The sea of clouds and mist means that the sunrise is a bit unpredictable and may not appear at all, but hey, we’ve gone all that way so we have to go and see what’s going on!  Last year I also visited Alishan – but a bit later, at the end of April (see my blog post and photos here), and that time we went on a kind of bus tour to the sunrise place. This time I went on the train, and we sat and waited for the sun to come out.  The sea of clouds at this time of year made it a long and cold wait but there was soup and coffee and lots of other yummy things to buy and eat and drink while we were waiting, along with hundreds of everyone!  Finally the sun appeared above the clouds at 6:50 am ~ and within minutes it was too bright to stay any longer.

Back to Chushan Station, and by train on the return journey, except we got off at Zhaoping Station which is very convenient for the cherry blossom.

Walked all around and as far as the Alishan Sacred Tree – mostly on a boardwalk in the forest, so lots of steps up and down – but all good exercise, cos by then everyone was feeling a little sleepy having not had any sleep on the overnight bus!

The huge cypress trees are amazing, so so so big!

The Ciyun Temple 慈雲寺 is the place to view sunsets, but as it was only 8:47 am by then, it would be a long wait….  but anyway the gardens are beautiful!  The notice there says that it used to be a Japanese temple, built in 1919 with a side-room containing a statue of the Buddha donated by a King of Siam.

And then back to the main area to see the cherry blossoms in the sun ~ there are many varieties of cherry blossom in Alishan, but most of them are the Sakura or Japanese cherry ~ beautiful!

And so back to the main visitor centre area where the most beautiful building is the post office, Taiwan’s highest, and built more like a temple, with cherry blossoms in flower there too.  Love it!

This is the main shopping and car park area, and we were meeting the bus here at 11:30 am.  Needed a nap by then!

And so 6 hours back to Taipei with only a brief stop at Chiayi Bus Station ~ back in Taipei by 5:00 pm and home by 7:00 pm.  The bus driver was great, he was the same one as drove the bus last year.  Knew everything and everywhere and lots of advice on what to do and where to go.

A really great trip!  Highly recommended ~ and the cherry blossom is amazing!

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Alishan has two 7- Eleven Stores, and claims they are the second highest in Taiwan ~ and Taiwan’s #1 highest post office too. Another must see!

And Taiwan’s #1 highest elementary school.  Wow, that’s quite something!  2,195 metres above sea-level, that’s over 7,000 feet. Imagine that eh?

But of course, none of these reasons are really why Alishan is so popular.  It’s very well up on the list of THE places to visit in Taiwan. Tourists from all over Asia and especially Mainland China, zillions of people have it on their list.  Alishan is famous, very famous.

We’re talking about an area of over 400 km² way up in Taiwan’s central mountain range, with the main Alishan mountain resort located at just over 2,000 metres above sea level. Famous for it’s sunrises and sea of clouds, for it’s cherry blossom and giant ancient ‘sacred’ trees, for the famous folk song about the beautiful girls of Alishan (阿里山的姑娘) and the local Tsou indigenous people, for its tea plantations and wasabi, and for its mountain railway and winding roads….

From Wikipedia:

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, 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.

Now the area is called Alishan National Scenic Area and possibly the only reason for it not being completely overrun with even more tourists (not true, it IS overrun by tourist in the cherry blossom season!) is it’s remote location ~ 6 hours by road from Taipei, that’s 3 hours down the motorway to Chiayi and then 3 hours of winding roads going forever round and round and up and up!

Anyway, a fine day was promised for Saturday, and it’s the end of April – so we’re right at the end of the cherry blossom season.  Gotta get there fast!

How to do it?

Well, this is one way ~ overnight bus from Taipei straight to Alishan, arriving in Alishan at 3:00 am, just in time to get ready to head for the sunrise due at about 5:30 am.  The key place is to see the sun coming up over Yushan, Taiwan’s highest mountain (3,952 m) …..

By which time it’s about 6:30 am, and time for a big explore of the Alishan area. Checking out all the ancient trees, cherry blossoms, views and of course the little trains.

And then back by bus to Chiayi mid-afternoon, train to Taipei and home on the last bus, arriving just before midnight.  Phew!