Monday, June 29, 2015

Beach Time at Kenting, Taiwan

29 June 2015

Taiwan is not a large country - the entire land mass is 13,892 square miles, or 35,980 square kilometers.  That means the country is just a little over twice as large as New Caledonia.  Just a little smaller than the combined area of Delaware and Maryland.  Almost the same size as Guinea-Bissau, slightly larger than Belgium.  The dimensions are 245 miles long, about the distance from Kansas City to Oklahoma City, USA; and 89 miles or so wide.  For our metric friends, that's about 394 km long and 144 km wide.  

Taiwan is shaped vaguely like the letter Q, sort of a long oval with a peninsula making the little tail on the lower right corner of the Q.  That peninsula is where the best beaches are located, and the interior is mostly the Kenting National Park.

So after our time in Hualien, we headed to the Kenting area.  Though the closest train station is located in the town of Fangliao (pronounced fang-lee-OW), and we booked a hotel there.

Our train left Hualien at 6 AM - really.  Anyone who knows me realizes that this isn't a time I'm normally awake and about.  I'm not a morning person.  Whatsoever.

But we packed a breakfast and lunch, had our tickets in hand, and made it to the train station on time.  We had to make a small change.  Train tickets can be purchased on line very easily; there's a form that one then downloads and prints, and takes to the train station to receive the actual train tickets.  Or, the form can be taken to a 7-11 store and they'll print the tickets.  I don't advise that - we did the 7-11 thing and were given tickets with seats in two different cars.  We went to the ticket counter and the agent was nice about changing our seats, and even gave us two window seats on opposite sides of the aisle, so we could both enjoy the beautiful scenery.

Our train was ready and we boarded, heading south along the coast.  We travelled past farms, small towns, stopping at some of the larger towns to let off or take on new passengers.   

The farms were funny - many of them had mango trees, dragon fruit bushes, banana trees, other fruits that are still ripening on the plant.  But there are birds, monkeys, squirrels, rats, and insects that would like to eat the fruit, even when not quite ripe.  So as we ride along we see fields or orchards where the fruit is inside little (or big) plastic bags!  I have no idea who has the patience to tie little plastic bags around all the fruit on, say, a mango tree - they can produce a whole lot of fruit!  That would be a whole lot of little bags to tie around the mangoes!  But I guess it improves the harvest enough to make it worth someone's time.

Most train stations were fairly generic, but one had lovely red floral fabric attached to every single pillar in the station.  Someone carefully folded (and ironed) the fabric, wrapped each column at pretty much exactly the same height, and connected the ends so that the fabric stays attached.  Just a nice little decorative gesture to beautify the boring concrete train station!

And of course there were temples along the way, always with the slightly curved roofs and upswing on the eaves, usually in a color somewhere between orange and red, sometimes embellished with dragons and other animals, sometimes plain.  

At one small town, a group of maybe eight or ten young adolescents entered our train car, being noisy the way early teenagers tend to be.  One kid politely asked if he could sit next to me, so of course I said okay.  He asked where I was from, and I explained.  We started chatting, and the next thing I know I'm surrounded by all the kids!  It was just like school!  They were a group of junior high kids (I'm guessing 7th grade, about age 12 or so), on their way a few towns down the line, to go to a movie.  I asked what movie, and my seat mate wasn't sure how to say the name in English - he said something in Chinese, like "Jinjiro" - finally, one of the kids said, "It's about dinosaurs."  Ah, I said - Jurassic Park!  Lots of head nods and noises of agreement.

The funniest part was when the automated train announcement came over the speakers - as the train approaches each station, the announcement says in Chinese and then in English:  "We are now approaching the XYZ station.  Please be ready to disembark from the train.  The next station will be ABC station.  We are now approaching XYZ."  Well, my group of kids ALL recited the announcement with the voice over the speaker, complete with the exact same inflection!  And they did this in Chinese and English!  It was just too funny, I couldn't stop laughing at them!

I told my buddy seat mate that his English was very good, and that he needs to tell his English teacher that he initiated a conversation with a foreigner, all by himself, and conducted this conversation totally in English.  And that he should ask for extra credit for doing that.  (I told him I'd give him an extra A for doing that.)

Their station approached, they mimicked the announcer, I laughed, and they all got up and said good-bye to me.  My buddy rushed back and asked if he could take a photo with me, and of course I said yes.  So somewhere along the east coast of Taiwan, a 12 year old boy has a photo of himself with me!


We arrived in Fangliao, our destination, located just about at the top west side of that little peninsula Q tail.  It's a cute little town, with the operative word being "little."  The town seems to be spread out, and there are all kinds of businesses, but not much that we recognize.  Very few restaurants, and they close between meals.  So if we try for lunch at, say, 1:30 PM, most restaurants are closed, and we're out of luck.  Or we can eat at one of the couple of bakeries, or at good old 7-11.

I also couldn't find very many hotels online, and the one we booked is located on a local highway outside town.  Not much of anywhere we can walk to from here, so we've taken taxis around.  Plus none of the staff at our hotel speak much English, so we have really minimal conversations.  We can ask for a taxi.  We can ask for our room key, although one lady wanted to check us in for a second time.

But we managed to locate the bus that travels down to the town of Kenting, site of the beaches.  And that's why we're here.

Sunday we went in to town and caught one of the Kenting Express buses.  Headed out and travelled south along the peninsula, though really small towns, all with views of the ocean.  It took about an hour, but we finally arrived in Kenting and made our way to the beach.  

It was GORGEOUS!  Just the way beaches should be - smooth golden sand, aqua water, waves crashing on the shore.

The beach itself was fairly small, maybe half a mile long, between two rocky headlands.  Apparently the shore is made up of these little pocket beaches, creating a scalloped coastline of curved sandy beaches between the rock outcroppings.

The beach was also covered with beach umbrellas, with small tables and stacks of chairs underneath.  Some were labelled for a hotel.  Others were available for rent - and there wasn't much of anywhere else to sit.  So we tried to bargain, but the woman in charge wouldn't budge from her price.  Well, what to do - the sun was hot, by now it was approaching noon, and I burn with too much sun.  I paid and we sat down.  

A young man had asked Richard if we had any sunscreen he could use, and of course I had a spare tube - so we invited him to join us at our table.  Turned out he's from Hong Kong, 19 years old, and while waiting for his school exam results, he's taking three weeks to bicycle around Taiwan.  And this day (Sunday) was his play-at-the-beach day.  So we had fun talking to him, asking questions about his life in Hong Kong, his travels around Taiwan, and of course telling him about our travels.

I spent some time walking around the beach - there were massive boulders of weathered rock, some sort of conglomerate full of fossilized coral - so well preserved, I could actually see the various kinds of coral in the rock!  They were spectacular, really unique and in such detail!  

So of course the hat posed with some of the various coral and rock, and we looked around at one end of the beach.  It started raining after a while, so I didn't make it to the other end of the beach.

When the rain stopped, I checked out the water.  It was a little cold, but not too cold to go in.  However, the waves kicked up, and were actually higher than my head - so I stood in waist-deep water for a bit and got knocked around by the water and foam whooshing in from the waves as they broke a bit further out.  I was hesitant to go out through the breakers, and saw quite a few people being knocked over and bounced around.  Decided I didn't feel like getting rolled around by the waves, so went back to our little table.  So, not much of a swimming day, but a wonderfully relaxing day at the beach.

After a while, our new friend (whose name in English is Freedom - how cool is that????) joined us for lunch - this was great, because he can read and speak Mandarin, which really helped us in the restaurant.  It was quite the novelty to get all the information for a change!  

We hung out with Freedom for a bit, then said our goodbyes and caught our bus back to Fangliao.  Exhausted from the beach trip, but happy and totally relaxed.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, we head to Sun Moon Lake in the center of the island.  This is going to be a long slow trip on the local lines, because we're going outside the express routes.  I think we're going not only off the tourist route, we may be going outside the Taiwanese tourist route.

So we'll see how it goes, and what we find at the lake!



Saturday, June 27, 2015

Taroko National Park

27 June 2015

Today we took the train from Hualien (pronounced hwah-LIN or hwah-LEE-IN or occasionally HWAH-lee-in, depending on where one is in Taiwan) to Fangliao (pronounced fang-lee-OW).  Fangliao is down on the southern coast, and is the jumping off point for travel to Kenting National Park and some of the best beaches in Taiwan.  So that's why we're here.

And later (or tomorrow) I'll blog about our train trip here.  

But yesterday, we went to the Taroko National Park, and that's the focus of today's blog.  Because there are so many photos, since the place really is that gorgeous!

Hualien is an interesting city.  With a population of nearly 340,000, it's the second largest city on Taiwan's east coast - not exactly a big city, more like a large town.  

Hualien (and the eastern area of Taiwan) is populated by more of the indigenous people of Taiwan than most other areas of the country.  There were numerous groups of people living on the island of Taiwan prior to the influx of Chinese people, and then the European invasions.  (First the Portuguese, who named the island Formosa; then the Spanish, the Dutch, the Chinese, the Japanese up until WWII, and then the Chinese again.   However, Taiwan broke away from mainland China when the Communist Party took over, and Chang Kai Shek left and became the leader of the independence movement on Taiwan.)

At any rate, the indigenous people make up about 2% of Taiwan's total population of 22 million or so.  The groups are referred to as the aboriginal people, or first nations, and ten groups are recognized.  (It depends on who you talk to, I've also heard that there are 16 groups, other people say 25.)  

In the area of Hualien, there is a significant number of people from the original tribes, and the local culture features the art, cooking, and traditions of the people - in this region, the Hakka people.  Makes for a very interesting mix of art around town.

The city is surrounded by mountains on the north, south, and west, and the Pacific Ocean on the east.  The mountains tower over the town, and hold wisps of cloud and fog even on the hottest, clearest summer day.  They're part of the Central Mountain Range, and make up the Taroko National Park.  (And, Taroko National Park is named for the Taroko tribe, one of the indigenous groups who still maintains small villages within the parks borders.)

The mountains in this area are comprised predominantly of marble, gorgeous white and black marble, though some of it is also red.  There are small deposits of granite, and also large deposits of jade, rose stone, and random gemstones buried in there as well.  

While marble is a fairly hard stone, it can be eroded over time.  So the various rivers running down and around and through the mountains have carved intricate and deep gorges, creating absolutely incredible scenery and vistas.  There are also springs of clear, rock-filtered water bubbling up, beautiful waterfalls, grottos with holes eroded into cliff faces, and the silvery river running through the bottom of the gorge.

We went with a small tour group, a mother and daughter from St. Louis, MO (the daughter was an exchange student here for the year), and a couple from Taipei.  So our tour was in English as well as Mandarin.  (Oh, funny small world story - the mother was telling me about a friend and colleague who also retired and was travelling the world - turned out the friend is a cousin of Richard's!  When the woman said she attended X college, he asked if she knew JR; the woman said that's the friend I was telling you about; Richard said that's my first cousin once removed!  We were all obviously meant to meet up!)

Anyway, we drove up into the Taroko National Park and stopped at various points, looking over bridges, walking through rock tunnels carved by the Japanese who built this highway, and under huge overhangs of rock.  Yes, helmets were required, and signs urged us to walk quickly.  One section of the road was closed due to landslides which collapsed part of the tunnel - so the helmets weren't just an empty precaution.

It was just so beautiful, all kinds of amazing rock formations, cliffs, rocks that looked like Buddha or a mouse or even faces looking out of the stone, swallows flying in and out of the crevices in the rocks.  The rock itself was mostly dark grey with streaks of white, which made the green of all the plant life look really bright in contrast.

We had time to hike along the river, just about half an hour.  Then short walks at the various stops along the way.  This is always the problem with tours, there's a schedule to maintain and it never feels like enough time at each stop.  But the tour was the only way we could get an English speaking guide, so we went with it.

The bridges were interesting - they seemed to be either bright red, or carved marble.  Lions were a common theme and stood sentry at each end of the bridge; one bridge was almost all marble and had playful lions frollicking along the balustrade.  (I love the carved lions!)

And of course there were temples and shrines and a few monasteries dotting the landscape, adding small bits of bright colors.

The last - and most gorgeous - temple is really a memorial to all the people who died building the road, some 226 people.  I know, it sounds like a huge number - some 3-4% of the workers dying on this dangerous job!  It took ten years to carve the highway through the rock, and something like 5,000 to 6,000 people were employed on a daily basis. 

Anyway, the memorial is a temple built over an eternal spring, symbolizing both that the spirit/soul lives on, as well as the individuals are remembered by their friends and families.  The water flows down the rock in a branching waterfall.  There is also a temple further up the hill, looking down at the entry gate which sits right over that waterfall.

And while the families would definitely have preferred to not lose their loved ones, it really is a beautiful memorial.