Welcome 2012

New Year’s Eve, Year 100. Leaving Taichung after lunch, we had a beautiful 2-hour drive to our first venue, which as promised was up in the mountains again, this time in the village of Guguan. All along the route were large advertisement flags about our event, hundreds of them flying from lamp posts and telegraph poles every few hundred yards. The flags showed various performers including us – we were beginning to feel quite important! There were also posters up everywhere with similar artwork. When we reached the village, people we didn’t know smiled at us and greeted us, presumably because they had seen us on the posters.

A flag advertising our performance in Guguan

Last week in Lishan we had hit a serious problem. The low air temperature (around +4 degrees C) made the alphorn sound flatter than we had expected: by nearly a semitone. Too flat to counteract by blowing air through and it was really uncomfortably out of tune with the accordion throughout the performance. My wooden alphorn has very little potential for adjustment for tuning; the accordion none at all (other than as part of a £400 overhaul). I was deeply unhappy, though the audience and organisers didn’t appear to be bothered at all. So this time, I took my carbon alphorn because it is tunable, although it doesn’t look so authentic. All tuning issues were solvable, and we were much more comfortable with the musical results despite the even lower temperature. Martin found that the lower air pressure at high altitude reduced the capacity of the bellows – allowing fewer notes per squeeze.

The performance stage at Guguan

In performance

This first performance of the evening was to culminate with a countdown to midnight and the arrival of the New Year. It was very exciting, with a firework display and various other acts, including some more indigenous peoples’ dancing, and this time a Red Indian group (no idea where they were really from) who looked and sounded stunning:

Fellow performers - superb on flutes and on bass and treble pan pipes

As soon as we’d finished our spot, at around 11.45pm, as the fireworks and the countdown were beginning, we were whisked off to our taxi to be driven three and a half hours to our second event of the night. As we drove past the audience who lined the track back up to the main road, we were thanked and greeted and felt like royalty! One could get used to this! (Note, must practice the royal wave.)

Taiwan’s Year 101 arrived as we left the village (eight hours before New Year in the UK). As we sporadically dozed in the car, we meandered in an apparently endless snake of cars up and up and up another mountain road, till we eventually arrived at our second destination, Alishan. Then the last section of the journey was to a higher place still, a 25-minute train ride further. Apparently this is one of the most beautiful mountain train routes in the world, but clearly we did not experience it at its best in the dark and extreme cold! We shared our carriage with the strings and brass quintet of the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, which were two of the other acts! Apparently this is an annual event, and they know to just bring their second-best instruments up the mountain because of the extreme conditions.

Keeping the trumpets warm

This event was a concert to celebrate First Light [of the New Year], and the music was already in progress as we arrived at 4am. It was to culminate with the appearance of the sun, expected at 7.05: at this moment they wanted the alphorn to be playing to welcome the first sun in the New Year. The first glimmers of daylight in the east were greeted with great excitement. 

First Light 2012

Then our turn began around 6.50 and we played a number of Swiss melodies, some gentle, some lively. We did not play the Taiwan national anthem again, nor this time was Jingle Bells needed. We did do something else rather special, though. Two reporters from the Taiwan Times had had a long chat with us when we got off the train. Among all sorts of other things they asked whether we had a wish for the New Year (we can’t imagine an English newspaper reporter asking that question, but this a culture rooted in spirit guidance and requesting and granting of wishes and prayers from a myriad of gods and external forces). So Frances said that we hoped that the world would be a more peaceful place in the next year. They liked that. So Frances asked our manager if it might be appropriate to play Amazing Grace as the sun appeared, as a mark of solemnity for the aspiration that the New Year will bring more peace into the world. They liked that very much, and the piece and reason for it was duly announced. The silence in the crowd of around 2,000 people as we played, and the applause afterwards, showed us that it was well appreciated. It felt very good. And is one of the very few ‘normal’ pieces that an alphorn can (nearly) play, so it generally goes down well.

Our final performance on Mount Alishan

 It was a little cloudy at 7:05. Ten minutes later as we were packing up there was a great cheer as the sun came out for the first time. So ended our engagements in Taiwan. We slept quite a bit of the return ride to Taichung, but our twisty road did just dip south of the Tropic of Cancer and back, so that’s another tick in a box.

Back to the hotel, time to pack up and to snooze, time to warm up and to chill out, ready for an 8 o’clock departure in the morning. What an amazing trip.

Categories: Geography, Music, People | Leave a comment

Bells and smells

Back in Taipei for Thursday 29th, with the whole day available after a second night in the amazing hot springs supplied hotel. We gave Jimmy a morning off while we explored, on our own, the geothermal wonders around the hotel, in the Xinbeitou part of the city. We mentioned some of this a couple of days ago (see Enter Tourist_mode). This is a photo of the public hot spring baths complex that Martin enjoyed then:

Open-air public hot spring baths, Xinbeitou

By the way, have you discovered snippets of extra information when you hover over the pictures? If you want to see more detail, double-click on the picture. You will get a little +-sign cursor: click that where you want enlargement. Sliders are there to move around the picture. Use the browser’s back button to get back to the blog.

This morning we looked at the Beitou Hot Springs Museum, housed in the former public bathhouse built by the Japanese in 1916. Before then the indigenous people kept away from the sulphur springs, naming the area the haunt of witches (hence the current name of Beitou). The bathhouse was only recently restored and opened as a museum. We had to remove our shoes and wear regulation slippers. There was a typically Japanese meeting/relaxing room upstairs, with rush matting on the floor and paper-screened sliding doors all round. We even had to remove the slippers for this. Downstairs there were some private bath rooms and communal baths, one medium sized for women and one large one for men, definitely reminiscent of Roman baths:

Japanese public hot spring bath

It is situated in Beitou Park, a pleasant strip of green lawns interspersed with jungle-like vegetation alongside a tepid and slightly steaming stream, with yellow sulphur deposits accumulated where the water flows. The park is planted with many unfamiliar trees. We’re contemplating a separate post about Taiwanese vegetation, but here are a couple of trees that you might be able to identify:

Unusual tree no.1

Unusual tree no. 2

Most people in Taiwan live in rented apartments, all with balconies and pot plants. We have not discovered why many of the balconies are enclosed with often elaborately decorative grilles. These ones overlook the park are typical:

Apartment houses alongside the stream, Xinbeitou

Continuing the water theme into the contemporary, at one end of the park is a “Jumping Fountain” display, which runs for 18 minutes every hour. At night the jets are coloured. We caught a moment with short bursts hanging in the air:

"Jumping Waters" fountain in Beitou Park

We met up with Jimmy and Corinne for lunch and the afternoon’s sightseeing. Corinne has been our main professional contact and is the organiser of the events in which we are participating. Here we all are in front of a floral display in some famous gardens:

Jimmy, Martin, Frances, Corinne

We spent the afternoon looking at two nearby temples. Firstly the Confucius Temple, which is now a museum of Confucianism, telling of his life about 2,500 years ago and his teachings, which are still covered in Taiwanese schools. There are ‘education rooms’ devoted to things like mathematics, and music; it’s only used as a temple once a year for an elaborate ceremony to celebrate Confucius’s birthday.

Dacheng Hall, Confucius Temple

As with all temples, you enter on the right hand side which is the Path of Righteousness, and leave from the left hand side, which is the Tiger’s Mouth (viz., leaving danger behind). We were particularly struck by the musical instruments, some of which were familiar (such as the qin zither, the temple bells and the sheng mouth organ). There was a huge bell at the entrance:

Temple Bell, Confucius Temple

Typical Confucian story, musicians please note:

An example of the wisdom of Confucius

In contrast, the second temple we visited, just along the street, the Baoan Temple, is very much in constant use. In the entrance are stalls selling things to use for prayer routines and as offerings, like joss sticks, candles, fresh flowers, fruit, and wooden prayer boards. There was the gentle smell of joss sticks everywhere, and prayer messages hanging up from students praying for good grades, etc. In each one of the many rooms around the courtyard was a statue of a different god, one for farmers, one for those wishing for babies or indeed to avoid babies, and many others. Each room was heavily adorned and had a special and highly ornate altar upon which were flowers, plates of fruit, candles and other offerings.

Many people were praying, to the accompaniment of bowing with joss sticks, chanting and rhythmic ringing of little bells. It was very moving. Obviously it was inappropriate to take photos here, so this is one we took yesterday, where there was no-one around, in a little settlement in the Rift Valley:

Inside a small village temple

Then it was time to catch the High Speed Train back to Taichung, and return to our hotel there. Feels like ‘home’ now, we’re greeted in a most friendly way again by the reception staff and reunited with our instruments. In the evening, even the waiter in the teahouse we have frequented welcomed us as regular customers.

Categories: Geography, People | 1 Comment

People Category

The People category tells of the people we meet, the people who help us, the people who listen to us and the people we observe from afar.

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