24 June 2008

The Rest of the Weekend

To continue---I don't remember exactly all the locations and sights that we saw, nor the order in which the pictures were taken, but here's what I do remember:

It seems like we drove for days. This might sound taxing, and perhaps it was. But the long ride was frequently segmented into bite size pieces by many engaging stops along the way. Our guide, Xiǎo Zhào (the name 小照, interestingly enough, has a lot to do with illuminating things) seemed to know exactly what we should see, and Prof. Smith had a few connections that he called upon to give us tours, drink tea and educate us about Chinese culture.

A lone man watches tourists

At Ālǐshān, we found this temple to the Daoist earth god. I mentioned in a previous post that at many Daoist temples, people "cast lots of sorts" to divine information from the metaphysical. This time, several of us got to ask him to answer our questions about the future or some as-of-yet unrevealed truth. The gods decide whether or not to answer your question, and communicate this through moon blocks. The Process in Chinese is called 擲筊 (Zhì Jiǎo, tossing the bamboo blocks). The blocks are made out of wood today and are crescent shaped. One side is flat, one convex. You throw two of them and if they land one flat-side-down, and the other flat-side-up, it's a positive answer to your question. If both are up or both down, then it's a negative answer. After bowing three times and paying reverence to the god, you toss the blocks up to three times asking if you can have your question answered. If the answer is yes, you pick a stick out of a vase which will have a number on it. That number has a corresponding drawer in a round wooden box. Inside that drawer is an excerpt of classical poetry which should help you answer your question. Of course, it's up to your interpretation, but some students' questions were answered surprisingly well. My question didn't even get permitted to be asked. Perhaps that god couldn't be bothered with my question. Perhaps I'm not meant to know. I'm okay with that.

Another dragon motif at the Earth God temple

A bit more about temples before we move on. There's an interesting mix of three (plus) religions in Taiwan. Confucianism, which from what I'm gathering is the philosophical foundation on which the others lie. It's also the social code, as that's basically the heart of the philosophy. Then there's Daoism, which is also a bit philosophical, but seems more religioius: temples to different gods and goddesses are all over. Then there's Buddhism, which kinda gets mixed in with the medley of the other two, so you have Buddhist gods next to Daoist gods in temples, and a mashup of the two philosophies. The social mandate of Confucianism and Taoism gets cemented and policed with ideas of Buddhism's karma and the like. The Dao is Nirvana is Right Living. 

So temples come in two main flavors. Confucian temples are quite austere, and simple. Reflection pools and benches line the courtyards. 

The Daoist/Buddhist temples are quite different. Because there are ideas about afterlife, gods, and the like, these temples are places for petition. Incense fills the air in and around these temples, colors excite your eyes, and the sounds of birds and worshipers shuffling about the deserted courtyards. Overlay all this in the context of a bustling street corner on which the temple sits, and the experience is even more unusual. The rumble of car engines, the laughter of kids walking home from school, and the sounds of street vendors waft over the walls of the temple courtyards in exchange for the incense smoke. It's a very honest metaphor of the religious and social becoming one.

Later, we stopped at Nantou on the way to wherever we were headed. Here, we found a Daoist temple that had been newly finished when an earthquake struck. The best laid plans! I thought this picture has a bit of cruel and/or poignant humor in it, and would be much better if the air conditioning hadn't cooled my camera down so that the lens fogged up before I could take any pictures... Perhaps the gods were averting bad PR.

Laughter, in spite or because of destruction?

The level you're looking at above used to be the third level of the building. This city was very close to the epicenter of the 2001 earthquake in Taiwan. The earthquake, on top of causing widespread damage and several deaths, also hit this temple pretty hard. It's as if the earth swallowed the first two floors.

Just around the corner however, literally within 3 yards of the fence around the devastated temple, these bees were busy as they proverbially are, producing Lotus Flower Honey, which, upon sampling, was found to be delicious.

Honey factory

The drawer in this pic is a catch-basin for the pollen on the bees' knees, which is sold for medicinal purposes: eat it and you're assured a healthy complexion and reduced allergies...

Sometime after Ālǐshān we wound up at Yùshān (玉山, or Jade Mountain) National Park. There, we spent the night in a nice hotel with a nifty tea store where, for NT$700, we got a couple hours and 12 seats at a tea making table complete with plenty of delicious Oolong tea.

The next morning, we were in for some more looking around, and some serious stair climbing. Fighting through droves of about 300 elderly women from Mainland China there with a Taoist dancing group, we boarded a bus that took us to a "trailhead." The "trail" was really a semi-paved path that had far more stairs than I could count. We climbed what seemed like endless stairs until we reached the Eyes of Heaven and Earth, naturally formed giant gouges in the earth. Professor Smith, Pat, and I got separated from the group and it was good to have such a knowledgeable tour guide. We talked history and Chinese philosophy until we arrived at our next stop on the trail...

Cascade of liquid life

A pretty pretty waterfall. The path lead right in front of the waterfall and we enjoyed soaking up the spray of the water, an "ion bath." This was especially refreshing, as the temperature was at least 90°F (32°C).

After being reunited with the group, and getting our belonings together, it was back on the bus.

Husband and Wife, 
famous trees in central Taiwan

We stopped off at the Husband and Wife, a pair of what seem to be deceased trees leaning away fron the slope of the mountain. They're austere, and solemn, but if you look closely, you can see some green opportunists perched high on the wife's (she's the closer one) left side branch. Click to enlarge. :-)

Our last stop was Sitou Forest Recreation Area, home of National Taiwan University's Experimental Forest. We climbed around, and, despite the Canopy walk being closed, saw plenty of interesting things. It was a fun place to wander around as a group. Big enough, not too crowded, not too deserted. Good place. I found some Red Cyprus oil, and some giftie things there.

Landscape painter in the park

Perhaps the best part ws this tree. 2,800 years old makes this tree well on its way to having a triply special spirit.

Grand Valley Taiwan group
And our special, elderly, botanical friend

Then, it was back home, about a 2.5 hour bus ride. We all got home and most of us were zonked by the time our heads hit our pillows. Exhausting, as I've mentioned, but well worth it. 

I have more pictures and another post in the works, so stay tuned. Now, though, it's homework time!

23 June 2008


Friday morning, we woke up and had to have our packed baggage and our sleepy selves on a bus embarking for the central mountains of Taiwan. We may have grumbled at the time, but a small sacrifice of sleep has never been so worthwhile.

Exchanging inside glances with 
a feathered incarcerated friend

7:15 Leave ShiDa
7:45 Arrive at Taipei main Station
8:06 Embark on High Speed Train southbound
9:06 Arrive at Taichung Station
9:30 Board private bus and embark for 啊里山 National Park.

Upon arriving at Ālǐshān and getting our stuff to our rooms, we went on the first of many wanderings in the woods. Ālǐshān is a beautiful place, with beautiful trees. So beautiful in fact, that the Japanese cut all of them down and shipped them to Japan. The Red Cyprus is all over in Ālǐshān, but all of the great trees save 20 or so are younger than 100 years. That may sound old, but factor in the 20 or so that are well above 1000, and your perspective might change. 

Mystic Trees on Ālǐshān

The Chinese believe that a tree has a special spirit after being alive for 1000 years. I'd agree.

As you can see, the woods around Ālǐshān have other interesting sights...

A lake-centered pagoda shrouded in mist

Again I'm having a bit of difficulty when it comes to autofocus, but the colors in this one have me whistling trills. 
Another stealth shot

After getting into bed, some of us had a rough night. One of us got altitude sickness and had to go to a clinic. Thank goodness, she is ok, and bounced back quite quickly, considering. The next morning, despite the complications of the previous night, we arose to embark on Ālǐshān's famous Cog Train to a beautiful, if chaotic vista to see 阿里山的日出 (ālǐshān de rì chū):

Peaceful as this appears, just outside of this shot were two men on either side with megaphones informing droves of visitors about the time, angle, and ideal camera settings of this vista. Amazing what a little cropping can do.

Sleepy street pooch

More to come, but now, I'm sleepy.

17 June 2008

Throwing Pottery and the Taipei Zoo

Lately, I've been busy. Schoolwork, studying for a standardized chinese test called the TOP test, and trying to stay social have been consuming my time. However, I've made some time now to get this posted.

Encouraging mascot at the
pottery cultural center

A couple of days ago, let's say Friday, my group from Grand Valley went to Yingge (鶯歌), a town south of Taipei famous for its pottery. We first had the opportunity to try our own hands at making some earthenware.

"...as easy as that!"

Our tutor was very helpful, but it was baffling how effortlessly he moved the clay into a spinning symmetrical work of art. Everyone had a go at throwing on the potter's wheel. We didn't have time to wait the day or so that it takes to fire the pots, so we chose our glaze and are waiting on our finished pots presently.... more to come!

Pure confidence

Afterward, we had some time to look in the shops at Yingge. (Here's a link to another blog that has some good pics of the shops there.) They all had pottery of some type, from large jugs to tiny little tea pots perfect for my BaoChong Tea, to elaborate, wildly glazed vases. I found a couple of things that I liked, but ended up running out of time and losing the stories to which I hoped to return. I'll either have to go back to Yingge or find the stuff elsewhere.

My rommate, however found some amazing Celadon Glaze Song Dynasty reproductions - a tea set fit for serving our delicious tea. I'm jealous.

Saturday, I was feeling under the weather. I had planned on going to a temple to snap some pics, learn some Chinese, and assimilate some culture, but instead I rested all day. On Sunday, however, some classmates and I went to the Taipei Zoo, which is allegedly the largest zoo in Asia.

Unknown Macaque

I don't know what it is about zoos, but I always feel a bit awkward ogling these animals. I understand that they're representing their species and all, and soliciting money for research and lodging, but something inside me protests their being put into a concentrated area and fed dead things. Nonetheless, they seem to be having fun (at least some of them) especially one of the first creatures that we saw:

These little monkees were all over the place, wrestling, climbing, backflipping. I was lucky enough to have my zoom lens to catch this one, as the fences were quite a distance from the action.

This little monkey looked so concerned at something; someone needs a hug. Or at least some social grooming.

P. abelii, male

One of the last exhibits we saw was of the Orangutan. This guy seemed eager to show off his flexibility. They say that in some ways, humans are most closely related to orangutans, although I can't remember how. 

I mostly took pictures of the primates. It's amazing how much emotion they show - especially the orangutan, though, perhaps because of their very large faces. Somehow, one felt connected with this one, those piercing eyes reaching beyond her confinement.

The zoo had a really neat insectarium, too, with a butterfly area. 

As amazing as these animals are, I still think this is my last trip to a zoo.

Right now, I'm resting following the TOP Test. It's raining again. Every afternoon, it gets unbearably hot, and then the clouds burst open and cool whole city off. It's glorious. The trade off is that not much sun gets through. Rainy season.

I'm content. The abstract provides for my needs.

Until next time.

12 June 2008

大龍峒保安宮 (Bao An Temple)

Today, my delightful roommate and I took a walk, an MRT ride, and another walk to Bao An Temple. After eating at the third Korean restaurant I've dined at since coming here. Lots of Korean places here, or perhaps I just notice them more because they tend to be sit-down type places, and the district where I live has a whole lot of street vendors.

And they usually have mirrors in front of you, because the shops are so small. Makes it look like there's more room. 

And on we went to Bao An Temple. The name means security, or serenity, and you can see why. The place is beautiful, with lots of swooping dragon motifs, and ski-slope roofs. 

This style is usually reserved for Emperor's houses or a place of the gods. And this temple had a lot of them (gods, that is). The main one in the center of the courtyard was for Guan Yin, whom I mentioned before. My roommate was telling me that the lore about her comes from a Military General in the Waring States period. And this guy became a legend, feminized, and deified into this quite popular goddess here.

The courtyard had lots of plants, flowers, bonsai, and tablets. A worshiper kindly informed Pat and I that this tablet was written on by all the generations of the masters of this temple. I loved the orchids, and all the lights. The bonsai, the incense, the color. It was all so good.

On the way home, or rather, in our roundabout walk back to the MRT station, my stomach began to complain. Conveniently enough, we stumbled into a fruit market, selling the typical fruits one would find in Taipei markets: watermelon, lichee, apples, asian pears, durian, huge carrots, wax apples, and my favorite, Mangoes. We're coming up on Mango season in Taiwan, and this is one excited blogger. I can't get enough of these things. I'm trying to justify the costs of a mango a morning, but we'll see what my budget says. Hopefully these things get dirt cheap as the season progresses. Either way, I'll miss the little buggers when I go home. I can't remember if I posted this before, but mangoes here don't have that green, grassy taste that they do in the states. The ones here are ripe, delicious, juicy, and wonderful over shaved ice. My mouth is watering. Tomorrow will be a mango day.

Anyway, back to the walk. Pat and I also met this lovely lady who had pre-washed, cut wax apples. They sure hit the spot. I had a bit of a time conjuring her up for a photo, especially since she had a thick Taiwanese accent, but I couldn't miss this. She is so beautiful. And sweet.

Lastly, this is a pic from the balcony of the building that I have my classes in. The plants caught my eye, and I had to sneak out of the class ad snap this shot, just to show how much cooler and plant-friendly the Taiwanese folks are. I can't wait to have a balcony full of trees someday!

That's all for tonight, folks. More to come, for sure! Zài Jiàn.

09 June 2008

你想要照片嗎?我給你照片吧。(You Want Pictures? I'll Give You Pictures!)

I found my chord. And here are some results with notes:

A couple of days ago, I went for a walk with one of my classmates late at night. Our way led us around our district, and I saw some interesting things. This was of most interest to my lens:
Something's a bit off with the aperture, I think, but I liked the composition. The light was just amazing; you should've been there.

Anyhow, I forgot to mention a couple of events in my last post until I got the pictures in front of my face. So here are some from our visit to a hookah bar a few blocks from our house. Actually, they served really good kabab, and gyros meat, as well, and some nice Asian beer.

One nice thing about living in such a happening district is that there are good restaurants, night markets, and goings-on all the time. Even on weeknights, you can wade through droves of people to get some 小吃 (xiàochī) or little eats. And cheap too: I usually eat well for about $100NT (or about $3.30 USD) or less.

Another great thing about living here is that there is a wonderful subway system. Did I mention that it was one of the most, if not the most expensive subways to build, yet it's the one of the cheapest to use? Yeah. And it's super clean, super fast, and super... super. Even a bunch of students who don't speak Chinese can figure it out!

Speaking of, as I mentioned in my last post, we had a heck of a time in Ximending (西門町, for those interested) getting some crazy additions to our wardrobes. Here are some images to help with your visualization:
This guy thought it was great that we were wearing all this crap, and wanted a picture. Even among the crazy 'tweeners, we were quite a hit.

I think the glasses are my favorite. I might get some actual lenses in them sometime. The pants were a bit tight, but appropriate in a British/American boys-who-wear-girl-pants-indie kind of way.
But no one could top this kid's outfit. This is what I mean when I say Jap-pop meets Nascar.

I also forgot to mention that we went to the Dragon Boat races on Friday in preps for the Dragon Boat Festival's big race on Sunday. Or perhaps I didn't forget, but forgot that I had remembered. Anywho, this is the NTNU Mandarin Training Center's (where I'm studying) dragon-boat team. They crushed their competition, but it was only the first heat in a tournament. 

And last, but not least, the barbecued squid. This stuff was so delicious. So fresh you can almost hear the little cephalopod screaming. It's sacrifice was not in vein, though. It nourished me for quite some time. Thanks dude/dudette!

The Dragon Boat race was a wonderful time to get portraits of my friends, too. I posted quite a few of those pics on FaceBook, and even put them in the FaceBook group for our trip. I just don't feel comfortable putting them here for some reason. 

One last update: I feel really good about my class now. I got to being social, instead of being a tortoise hiding in my Shell of Dauntedness, and found that the other students in my class were pretty lost as well. But today, I came to class with a new set of ears, and am able to understand a lot more than I had originally thought. Plus we now have a Nicaraguan and a guy from Poland in my class, new students. I'm pretty excited about all that. I think we'll have some good times together. And I performed well, too, on my quiz--as we all know, our value in life comes from our academic performance... ;-)

That's it for me. Any thoughts?

07 June 2008



So, I've been looking for the mini-USB cord that connects my camera to my computer for about 2 days, and I know that it's around here somewhere. I am trying to organize, but something tells me that I'm going to have to go get a card reader. Anyhow, I thought I'd updated you all on the goings on here.

A couple of days ago, on Wednesday, we met our language partners from the university here who are Chinese speakers that need to practice their English. We're doing a language exchange. It's kinda cool. So we met, got lunch, and went to the National Palace Museum. It was incredible. A lot of Chinese culture is wrapped up in the art and artifacts that they have there. Especially the jade and wood carvings and porcelain. Perhaps the most famous artifact at the museum is a jade carving in the form of a bunch of celery called Cuiyu Bai Cai (翠玉白菜). On it, there are two courting grasshoppers. The genius of this carving is that the carver, in a very Taoist manner, saw that he should reserve the green part of the stone for the leaves and grasshopper, and the white for the stalks. In this way, he worked in harmony with nature to effortlessly craft this masterpiece.

The following day, we started class. I've never felt so in-over-my-head in my life. So much Chinese languge, so little English. I walked away wondering what in God's name I was supposed to do for the next class. I didn't catch the homework, if there was any, and I spent most of the time fumbling through the lesson. I haven't felt like that since I started Spanish 301 at Calvin College my first semester there! After class A couple of us went out and about and I returned home promptly to get in some studying.

My class has two Japanese students, a British one, one from India, one from Malaysia and me. Needless to say, we're all a little hard of understanding when the teacher starts off blurting out Chinese very rapidly.

Yesterday was day two, and I still feel very daunted. I'm way behind in my knowledge of Chinese characters compared to my other classmates, so this weekend is all about not doing to much other than studying characters, tones, and grammatical constructions. I could drop down to a lower level, but I tested into a high level and I'd like to make the most of it. These first few days, though, are bound to be pretty arduous.

After class yesterday, a bunch of us GVSU students went to Ximending, the hippest, coolest, most trendy 'tweener hot spot in Taipei. We ended up getting some pretty ridiculous outfits and parading around looking like Japanese pop got in a train wreck with American Nascar. I wish I could find that camera cable...

Today, I went with my classmates from GVSU to the Taipei Computex Computer Expo. It was pretty interesting to see all the newest technology, but I felt that I was a bit too far on the consumer end of the spectrum, as the expo was definitely geared toward businesspeople. Afterward, our whistles were wet to buy some gadgets so we went to the technology district to check out cheap computers. A couple of my classmates bought a computer each that is super small and pretty cheap (about $500USD). Great as a peripheral for taking to class and whatnot. I'm not on the market for those, but I am on the market for an electronic Chinese-English dictionary. These things are really helpful, and even have a speaker so the machine says the Chinese words. Great help with pronunciation. The downside is that these things run about $200. I'm going to see if I can find a much cheaper version, as I think it will serve me quite well for years in the future. 

Tonight, we're going out to dinner for a member of our group's birthday. Should be fun. We might end up going to Karaoke, which is a pretty big thing here in Asia. It's called KTV and it promises to be quite the event.

I'll keep searching for my camera. Sorry, this post was probably boring, due to the lack of images. Next time, I won't disappoint.

Feel free to comment.

03 June 2008

Hakka Tour

Today started early at 7:15 am with the boarding of a tourbus. NTNU organized a day long trip to Sanyi province to the south, where we were to experience a different flavor of Taiwan. We started by hitting up the Sanyi Wood Sculpture Museum. This area of Taiwan is espeically known for its wood carving, being that it has plenty of skilled craftspeople and great natural resources (wood). I wish I could have photographed some of the amazing sculuptures in the museum, but as in America, there are strict policies against that kind of thing. The link, though offers an idea as to the place. A couple of the sculptures caught me off guard with their humor or poignance. A Pudgy face or an explicit environmentalist message or an intricate spindle meticulously carved were around every turn. 

Next, we went to experience a of bit of Hakka culture. Hakka is an ethnic group in China that, unlike the other large ethnic groups, does not have a definate place of origin. They have been called the gypsies of China, and in fact, their name itself means "guests." They are more populous in the middle provinces of Taiwan than in the others. We went to Sanbanquiao Painted mask Culture Center, and got to try our hand at painting Chinese opera masks:

Mine is on the right, and is of a female character, indicated by the flower, who was very brave, hence the dark blue/black color.

Our tourguide through the area was named Eddie, and he took us to a temple in Beipu, to one of the main goddesses worshiped in Taiwan, Guan Yin (觀音), goddess of grace. Very interesting. Her shrine is a place where you can ask questions and cast lots of sorts that will indicate the answer, if you're lucky. My professor also talked about the woodcarving in this area, which is apparently famous for its high skill. The Hakka people were very hospitible, and the tea, Beipu Lei Cha (北埔擂茶) that we helped make was delicious as well.

And finally, here's another pic of a gate in one of the allies we walked through in Beipu on our tour. I just had to stop and snap one of it, because it was so full of eye-fodder. Hope you enjoy!

P.S. You can leave a comment if you like the posts, dislike them, or just want to say hi just by clicking on the little "comment" link at the end of each post. I know it's hard to see, but I know of a great eye doctor if you need one. ;-) 

01 June 2008

Faculty Led Tour

Yesterday morning I went for another walk. Stumbled upon this gem:

After getting my normal breakfast of Lo Bou Gao (萝蛋糕) (It's only NT25!) Professor Smith took us on another tour of our district. He gave us a tutorial on the Subway and took us to Chiang Kai Shek Memoria Hall, which I'd already visited. However, I took some more pics, this time with my classmates in them. The lighting's better in the middle of the day, too.

After this, my group split off and went to a huge bookstore, with a lot of English books, but sadly, many of the books were for Chinese speakers learning English (go figure), so there were few resources for bridging the language gap from my direction. Oh well, I got a Chinese Chinese dictionary, which will be useful when I have to read in Chinese without hearing the words first. We then went to a Japanese restaurant, where I got this really good dish with rice, raw fish, seaweed, and roe. it came in a really hot stone bowl so it all cooked together when you stirred it. I'd have taken pictures of this leg of the trip, but my memory card stopped working, and I didn't have my backup. So this part was a blind stretch, but relax, there are more pics...

After that, it was off to find the Berkenstock store by NTNU to ease my aching feet. I got a pair of clogs, because both the pairs of shoes that I brought had given me blisters on my heels. And back to my room to get my other memory card--following which I hopped on the subway to Taipei City Hall where it was only a short walk to Taipei 101. 

This building was the tallest in the world up until last year. Kinda cool from below, but as you can see, it was too cloudy to make it worth a trek up to the top. Another day...