Tag Archives: Taiwan Culture

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!

Happy Year of the Dog ~ Taiwan’s Lantern Festival 2018 @ Chiayi!

A major extravaganza is on down in Taiwan’s south central city of Chiayi.  If you get a chance, GO!   Every year, a different city or county is chosen to host Taiwan’s main lantern festival, and every year, thousands and thousands flock there from all over the country to attend.  Including me.  I love to go!  This year it is the turn of Chiayi.  And what an extravaganza it is!

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Last year, the Year of the Rooster, the main lantern festival was held in Yunlin.  The year before, the Year of the Monkey, it was held in Taoyuan.  Both of those were held near to their respective High-Speed Rail Stations (HSR), partly so lots of people can then get there easily, plus the HSR Stations are built so far out of town that there’s huge amounts of unused land nearby and it’s ideal for a major event like a lantern festival.

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This year, Chiayi has also made the most of its High-Speed Rail Station, and shuttle buses run to and fro every evening transporting people to the lantern festival site at Taibao, not far away.  But this year what is special is that the lantern festival site includes the National Palace Museum Southern Branch, which was only opened in 2004.  It is truly amazing!

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We went on Saturday afternoon, the second day of the event, and stayed on until the night.  We walked through the lantern festival area in T-shirts, it was so hot, under blue skies.

But blue skies are hardly any good for a lantern festival – which needs darkness!  Anyway, we passed through the lantern area, and ended up at the National Palace Museum Southern Branch.  Along with thousands and thousands of people.  And guess what?  The museum was open, and from 3:00-9:00 pm, entry was free as long as you ‘like’ the museum’s facebook page, then that ‘like’ could be exchanged for a free ticket.  What a treat!  This was my very first visit, and I was not expecting to get free entry into the museum.  Inside it’s beautiful!  It’s not too big, so you can get round it quite easily.  Wow!

Then the sunset behind the museum….

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And a light show!

We moved down to the museum main entrance where there was an incredible performance going on, already started so we missed the first part.  Never seen anything quite like it.  In the dark too.  A crane had suspended in mid-air what looked from a distance like a sort of chandelier.  It turned out that each of the so-called ‘lights’ of the chandelier contained a person, and they threw out all sorts of streamers, balloons, confetti, smoke, as they moved around to the music ~ and then from the central ‘light’ out came a small ladder and a woman, dressed in red, appeared – who danced and acrobat-ed herself in mid-air.  The whole performance was done as the crane moved them all up and down and round and round.  Quite terrifying to watch.  And down below were a man and woman dressed like in the Victorian-age, all in white, and they were singing like opera-style music. Really powerful stuff.

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Turns out that they are Theater Tol, based in Antwerp, Belgium, performing ‘Garden of Angels‘:

“Lightness and joy are the most important themes of this show. Garden of Angels is about a wedding, in which the beloved couple eats each other, dances, flies. They are in love and surrounded by good company: musicians and creatures out of fairy tales.

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The performance is inspired by history, where the bouquet of flowers originally consisted of a bunch of strong spices, to expel the evil ghosts and bad influences out of marriage. The big present for the newly-married couple in this performance are the angels: the protectors, the dreamers, the wise ones. The audience is the guest at the wedding. In that way the angels don’t only bring the good things for the beloved couple, they move the guests and let them be touched by their positive energy as well.

Theater Tol brings this spectacle of fire, heat and sensuality. The world of animals, fantasy and people merge. A fantasy world of lovers, dancing animals and angels descends from heaven.”

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Quite amazing.  We were seriously impressed!

And then to the main dog lantern which revolved around once every 30 minutes, and took 3 minutes to do so, accompanied by lights and noise and zillions of spectators….

After that, well, we had enough time to find the churches lantern area, and as always the RC Church could be relied on to produce interesting lanterns, this year we had the pope, Jesus, Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus, Mother Teresa and St. Valentine….

There was not much time left for us to see many of the smaller lanterns.  But we saw enough.  Lanterns everywhere, all shapes and sizes.  Actually the theme, as well as being the Year of the Dog, was all about Chiayi being on the Tropic of Cancer, so the latitude number 23.5º was much in evidence, and other countries that are also on the Tropic of Cancer were also part of the show.  Then we also had all the different areas of Chiayi represented in lanterns, including the High-Heeled Shoe Church that we had visited at Chinese New Year….

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And Alishan, famous for its cherry blossoms. Plus there were international sections, religious sections, different people groups, lanterns made by schools of different ages, and industries and companies based in Chiayi.  Something for everyone.

As always, the local government did an amazing job with the logistics and everything worked like clockwork.  There was a constant stream of shuttle buses and even though we joined a line that must have been several hundred people long, we only had to wait about 10-15 minutes to get to the top of the queue.  Incredible!

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So congratulations to Chiayi on an incredible lantern festival!

And a big welcome everyone to the Year of the Dog, woof woof!

Autumn Colours, Mountain Views! 台灣聖公會2017年蒙恩得福家庭生活營 Taiwan Episcopal Church Fall Trip 2017

Beautiful red maple leaves against a blue sky ~ now how’s that for a perfect picture of autumn?!

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And the best place in Taiwan to see maples in autumn is at the high elevations, up in the central mountain range.  So off we all went, all 60 or so of us, in a total of 9 (yes, nine!) minibuses, all in a long line.  Almost processional – well, after all, churches like ours are good at processions!  Large coaches cannot travel so far in the high mountains, so minibuses are ideal. The trip was 3 days and 2 nights, Tuesday – Thursday, and all were invited ~ and here we all are!

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The Taiwan Episcopal Church has organized many trips over the years, usually in the spring or autumn, to interesting places ~ like in November 2015, when we went to the Matsu Islands.  That was my first church trip.  And now this is my second.  I had managed to rearrange some classes, and most of the members of my Thursday afternoon class at St. John’s Cathedral actually came on this trip too ~ so I signed up – thanks to Bishop Lai and all my students!

Church members, their relatives and friends came from a wide range of the churches that make up the Taiwan Episcopal Church ~ we had 3 clergy, 3 clergy spouses, many energetic seniors, some couples, some younger working people and one lovely 3-year-old boy, who came along with his grandmother and her sister, and he only fell asleep once!

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We all met on Tuesday morning in Taichung, gathered from all corners of the country – and set off eastwards, up into the mountains.

The Central Cross-Island Highway from Taichung to Hualien was constructed in the late 1950’s, about the same time as President Chiang Kai-Shek and his government were establishing farms up in the mountains to provide employment for retired servicemen.  These days, the farms are still managed by the Veterans Affairs Council – together with the Tourism Bureau and some private companies – mainly for the benefit of visitors.  Visitors like us ~ and thousands of others who travel there every year.  We visited two of the famous farms, Wuling Farm 武陵農場 and Fushoushan Farm 福壽山農場, both places packed out with people enjoying the scenery.

When I left Sanzhi on Tuesday morning, it was, as always, raining.  It had already rained for 4 days, and so it continued, for all the 3 days we were away.  Cold too.  Miserable, in fact!  It is still drizzling today.  And cold.  But up in the mountains, there was blue sky every morning, all morning ~ and the clouds came rolling in beneath us in a sea of clouds every afternoon.  It did rain a little at night, but we never saw it.  Ah, it was wonderful!

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The highest point on the Central Cross-Island Highway is just below the very famous mountain, Hehuanshan 合歡山 (3,416 m).  Just nearby is Mt. Shimen 石門山 (3,237 m), well-known as supposedly being the easiest of the ‘100 Peaks of Taiwan‘ 百岳 to climb.  So up we went!  There was a biting wind, and it was 6ºC at the top – that’s very cold for us subtropical coastal dwellers!  Maybe a third of us managed to get to the top, where breaks in the clouds gave us great views down below.

The road has been badly damaged due to typhoons and landslides and earthquakes and everything else, and is still under repair in many places.  But our minibus procession got us through and down the other side to Lishan and then Wuling….

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We stayed the night at a hotel in the Wuling Farm area 武陵農場, about 2,000 m above sea-level….

And we woke up the next day to beautiful blue skies and autumn colours…

The nearby river is famous for its Formosan Landlocked Salmon (yes, we saw some, but they’re impossible to photograph!) and further upstream is the Taoshan Waterfall 桃山瀑布, known as the ‘Sound of the Mist’ Waterfall.  The walk there is 4.3 km each way – through the forest, and takes about 3 hours in total there and back.  It was my first visit ~ and we had a wonderful morning.  It is really beautiful!

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Nearby is Taiwan’s second highest peak, Xueshan / Syueshan 雪山 (Snow Mountain), which I went up in 2011 ~ this time we went up to the trail entrance to look at the view. The view is spectacular. And so are all the lovely people in our group!

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And then down to visit some of the Wuling Farm tea-growing area, and a small museum dedicated to what the farm was like in the old days….

We left Wuling and headed back to Lishan 梨山, where we’d passed through only the day before.  Lishan (literally means Pear Mountain) is home to the Atayal People 泰雅族, many of whom are Christians.  The area is also about 2,000 m above sea level, so lots of fruit and vegetables can be grown here that normally only grow in cold countries – like dear old England.  The steep mountainsides in Lishan are no longer covered in big forests of beautiful trees but instead are covered in fruit trees, and at this time of year there’s no leaves, and the fruits in season are covered in paper bags to protect them – so the mountains look bare – but covered in white flowers, which turn out to be paper bags.  They’re mostly apples, pears and peaches.  It’s amazing – and yet devastating – all at once, to think what amazing things man has done to produce all that fruit, and yet at what cost to the environment.  Reminds me a bit of the UK Lake District really – but just replace fruit with sheep!

Anyway, we went to buy some of the apples – oh, and cabbages….

Incredible clouds nearby….

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And no, it didn’t rain, eventually the blue sky came through!

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Oh yes, and a very regal line of trees….

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Fushoushan Farm 福壽山農場 is one of the Veterans’ Farms, very high up in altitude, and before it got dark, we just had time to visit Tianchi ‘Heavenly Lake’ 天池, where President Chiang Kai-Shek liked to visit when he was at the farm.  Check out his green house….

We stayed at the most amazing Lishan Guest House, just down the mountainside from the farm, and designed in the same style (and by the same architect, Yang Cho-cheng 楊卓成) as the Grand Hotel, Taipei. This was where President Chiang Kai-Shek and his wife stayed when they were in the area – but the building was badly damaged in the 1999 earthquake, and reopened in 2012 – as a hotel.  It is very very popular, and certainly scores 100% for atmosphere ~ all that red colour, and all those lanterns!  There are no lifts / elevators, and we were assigned the top floor – 3rd floor.  So me and Ah-Guan, good friend from St. James’ Church, Taichung, struggled up to the third floor – to find that we had been assigned the room next to the Presidential Suite.  It was a ‘hit the jackpot, won the lottery, gob-smacking moment’ lol!

We were clearly in the room that originally would have been used by the presidential bodyguard, and the most amazing thing was that we had access to the presidential balcony.  This was the balcony with THE VIEW!  And so we spent a happy hour or two welcoming all our friends to come and have a look!  The presidential suite, as far as we could see (from peering in the windows!) has been left much as it was when President Chiang and his wife stayed there – we could see into a tea room, and into the mahjong room at the end….

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That evening, after dinner, and after the Atayal Concert, we had a short service in the hotel dining room for our group.  Ah, what a happy evening, and what a wonderful group of people!

Next morning, Thursday, yesterday in fact, and I was up bright and early (well not very bright, but certainly very early!) to see THE view across the mountains…..

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See the Taiwan flag? From directly outside the presidential suite, it’s positioned exactly right in the centre of the ‘V’ in the mountains…. how’s this for a view?!

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The hotel and the whole area is very atmospheric.  Ambiance, man, it’s all about ambiance!

And so after breakfast, and more tours of our presidential balcony, we packed up, checked out and spent the morning at the Fushoushan Farm.  What a place, and what a history!  It is famous for a huge pine tree with an interesting story…

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And even more famous for its Apple King Tree, with over 40 different kinds of apple grafted into one tree…

We had a tour of the farm….

And finished with the maple trees area near the main entrance, where a zillion people were taking a zillion photos, ah, it was photo-heaven!

And so it was reluctantly time to say goodbye to the farm and head back over the big mountains, westwards… but first a photo-stop near Hehuanshan, at the Central Cross-Island Highway summit (3,275m) – the highest point on the highest main road that crosses northern Taiwan, and a major destination for cyclists!

Follow my finger and in that direction is Nanhu Big Mountain, (the one on the left of the pointed one!) which we climbed in 2012…

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This is a gathering of all from Advent Church, plus Mr. Di, our tour leader (third left)….

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And finally to lunch, and back to Taichung High-Speed Rail Station to return to our separate destinations…. and I got home at 7:30 pm.  And guess what, it was still raining in Sanzhi, in fact it hadn’t stopped all the time I’d been away!

A big thank you to our leader, Mr. Di Yun-Hung ‎(狄運亨) for planning and managing the whole trip, along with a tour company team who drove us in their minibuses, and organized all the routes and meals and everything. It was a wonderful trip – the highlights being the waterfall, the maple leaves and of course the presidential balcony views…..

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But it was also wonderful to be together with such a lovely group of people, renewing old friendships, making new ones, enjoying time together, taking lots of photos of everyone in different groups, and having a lot of fun!

And finally, thanks be to God for His amazingly stunning creation ~ and the colours (and miracle) that is the season of autumn ~ YES!

Sanzhi 三芝 Matzu Temple Centenary Celebrations, 1917-2017

Today is THE day, the climax of 5 days of celebrations, and as I write this, events are ongoing, with firecrackers and drums and trumpets and singing and offerings and all sorts of activity, and being attended by nearly everyone in the whole town.

And all in the rain and cold!  It’s been like this all weekend, but hey, when there’s a festival in town, a bit of rain and cold won’t stop anyone.

But this was the scene on Thursday, the last time that the sun appeared in Sanzhi!

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Two weeks ago, I wrote here about the preparations for the centenary celebrations of the Sanzhi Matzu Temple (honouring Matzu / Mazu / Matsu, Goddess of the Sea), officially named 三芝小基隆福成宮 Fu-Cheng Gong.  The 5 days of celebrations officially started on Wednesday, and today is the new moon, the first day of the 10th lunar month, so it’s the big day today!  See all these people? And their umbrellas….

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There’s been a lot of preparation, red lanterns strung all around the town, large gateways on the main roads leading into town, and for these 5 days virtually the whole town has gone vegetarian.  Market stalls selling meat – and butchers shops (there’s at least 10 in total) have closed down completely for the 5 days, including the famous 三芝老地方 Lao Di-Fang Steamed Baozi Restaurant, and plenty of others where the main specialty involves meat or fish.  Others are open, but only selling vegetarian food.  Even the huge Farmers’ Cooperative Supermarket has all fresh meat removed from the fridges.

All the roads leading to the main temple have been closed today and large tables set up on the roads, on which people are making their offerings, and each local village is assigned a different table area….

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Some of the tables near the temple contain what is more like an exhibition, including one of an amazing dragon ice sculpture (yes, honest, it’s all ice – with real dripping water!)…

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There’s lamps carved out of water melons….

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And there’s plenty of offerings of dead animals, including pigs….

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Goats (spot the lit cigarettes)….

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And geese…

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The lady at the bread shop told me that this was the place to see all of Taiwan’s folk culture on display all at once, and once only in 100 years.  It certainly is, and so in that spirit, I share with you the photos, firstly of last night at the main temple area….

And these of this afternoon…