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Welcome, new readers

Now that the trip is over, this blog is complete. It’s been great to have so many followers – thank you to all who have posted responses.

If you are new to this blog and want to read about the whole trip, you can click December 2011 under Archives to go back to the beginning. Click on each title to see the whole post. There are clicks for OLDER POSTS as well, to help you find things.

You can see our pictures in more detail by double-clicking on them. 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. By the way, have you discovered snippets of extra information when you hover over the pictures?

I hope you find our travelogue interesting. Feel free to leave comments – we will check from time to time.

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Getting home

We are writing this final message from the comfort of home, where we don’t have to squint at a rather small netbook screen. We arrived, tired but happy, about 10.30pm yesterday evening, 22 or so hours after setting off from Taichung at 8am, gaining an extra 8 hours of Monday in the process.

Jimmy and Corinne kindly came to the airport to see us off, but the farewells were suddenly unexpectedly quick, as Cathay Pacific told us that our booked flight was delayed, so we’d miss our connection in Hong Kong, but they could fast-track us onto one in 20 minutes if we wanted that. We were escorted through the formalities super fast by Madamoiselle Cathay Pacific, who blagged us into the front of every queue. How’s that for service! And we were not the last on to the flight.

We’d been booked into Business Class for the return journey. Oooh what a difference  – you can really lie down! Even the alphorn had its own place to stretch out.

The Alphorn lying in state

Very attentive stewardesses attending to our every whim, complimentary food and drink in the comfortable transfer lounge. And we were in the upper deck so we went higher than if we’d been in Economy. We have been made to feel like royalty for much of this trip. Back to normality now!

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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.

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9/21

88/9/21, that is. Or 21st September 1999 to us. At 1:47am the ground shook with an earthquake of magnitude 7.3. The epicentre was beneath the town of Chi-Chi (or Jiji) a few miles west of Sun Moon Lake. Five days later there was an aftershock of 6.7 magnitude. Number of people who died: 2,455. A fault line had appeared, running 60 miles north south along the foot of the mountains where it reaches the coastal plain which contains this city, Taichung: a gash where the ground was lifted on the landward side by anything from 4ft to 30ft from its previous position.

Those are the bald statistics, which you can read anywhere, or vaguely recall from UK news coverage. Our last tourist objective on the plains was to visit the museum commemorating this event, to get a real sense of the devastating effects on the ground and on the communities, to understand their remarkable resilience in living with the threat of such disasters, and to marvel at the power of nature.

What is totally remarkable is how little destruction there was, and how few lives were lost, bearing in mind that this is a city of around a million people. Cities like this in earthquake zones, though full of tower blocks like anywhere else in the world, are built to withstand the earth tremours which typically occur a few times a day round here. The only destruction on 9/21was to those buildings actually on the fault line, unable to withstand one half of the footings being lifted up to 30 feet in height, and the odd occasion when one of these buildings was caused to lean over onto an adjacent one. Loss of life was from the destruction of the very few apartment blocks directly on the fault line, full of sleeping people. A few feet either side of the actual fault line, everything remained exactly as normal.

The museum is built round the ruins of a school that lay on the path of the fault. There was no-one there as it was night time, and as people’s homes weren’t involved, someone had the foresight to preserve the mangled structure and turn it into a memorial and museum to the earthquake. The structure has been left as it was after the quake, although is shored up for safety.

School entrance.

Ruins of classroom block, now with protective cover

There are newly built modern display halls and theatres featuring dramatic photographs from the time and charting the recovery period. An aerial photographic record shows the path of the fault, the land and the city like a page torn in half and the sections placed back together incorrectly, perfectly OK either side and a narrow line of destruction meandering its deadly course.  The track of the fault is shown with a yellow dotted line.

Narrow strip of damage along the fault

Most telling are, of course, the actual ruins, and the fault line which lifted up about two-thirds of the school’s running track. The track now descends a bank of 4 feet and ascends again to the higher level a bit further round. The track surface is, of course, ripped to bits.

The fault crossed the school running track

So there were photos of bridges collapsed where they crossed the fault,

The fault creates a new waterfall as nearby bridge collapses

and buildings with floors and roofs collapsed into an unsightly pile.

Damaged buildings

Fields of rice, flat for flooding, now left on two levels.

Rice left high and dry as paddy fields are uplifted

The final hall was devoted to the response and the reconstruction. Apparently within three minutes a government committee had been formed and by 6am a lot of rescue effort had been mobilised. The Government immediately diverted  billions of Taiwanese dollars to providing support, food and replacement housing. 28 other countries immediately weighed in with emergency assistance.

Jimmy’s mum felt the shocks but was OK, Jimmy himself was in the northern city of Taipei that night and slept through it. Most people in the region had some family or friends affected, and all got involved in helping out with whatever was needed. Building prefabs was the major task of the army. In the light of this experience they’ve further updated their disaster response programme and all mobile phones can be immediately contacted by the emergency notification authority.

A most poignant experience.

Back to work tomorrow: two performances up in the mountains, one starting at 10pm to mark the coming of the New Year, the other at 4.30am, with the climax at sunrise – they call it ‘first light’. Should be unforgettable!

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Trees and plants

Frances has taken many pictures of the Taiwanese flora, too many to include in the daily travelogue. We know many of our followers are interested to see what grows here, hence this special post. Taiwan is generally lush with natural vegetation, even to high altitude, as one might expect of an island bisected by the Tropic of Cancer. There is farming too, mainly of rice and fruit.

We don’t know what many of these pictured plants and trees are. So if you do, perhaps you might like to leave a comment to tell us and our readers? Thank you to those who already have.

1.Let’s start with a large one, in a courtyard of Taichung Museum:

1. In Taichung Museum

 2. Lines of these along some Taichung roads:

2. In Taichung

3. Now, Sun Moon Lake, which is rich in natural and planted species:

3. Sun Moon Lake (tree)

We found many of its flowers scattered on the ground, and Jimmy kindly posed with one for us:

3. Sun Moon Lake (flower)

Hmmm. The pics need separating with text, but it could get boring to go on at length about each one, so some we’ll just number so that you can refer to them. This is no. 4:

4. Sun Moon Lake

Number 5. I think this is wild poinsettia.

5. Sun Moon Lake

Number 6.

6. Sun Moon Lake

Number 7 was already featured in our post about the Sun Moon Lake trip. Sue identified it as Lantana camara (genus: verbenaceae) with lots of varieties. Thank you Sue:

7. Sun Moon Lake

and detail:

7. Sun Moon Lake (close-up)

we liked the patterns so went even closer:

7. Sun Moon Lake, as seen before

Number 8. These trees were everywhere, often lining the edges of farmsteads or fields or roads. Clearly not intended to be wind breaks!

8. From train to Hualien (East Coast)

Number 9.

9. Qingshui cliffs viewpoint (East Coast)

Number 10.

10. Beitou Park

Number 11 was our first Unusual Tree in the Bells and Smells post:

11. Beitou Park

Number 12. Touching how they grew high roots and wrapped them round themselves!

12. Beitou Park

Number 13.

13. Beitou Park

Number 14.

14. Beitou Park

Number 15. When does a fern count as a tree?

15. Beitou Park

Number 16.

16. Beitou Park

Number 17. Another example of the trees with roots starting from high up and then entwining them around its own trunk. These often also have branches going straight out sideways at around 4 or 5 ft off the ground then going horizontal for an extraordinarily long way – and no sign of the weight causing a split at the trunk.

17. Beitou Park

Number 18 was our second Unusual Tree in the Bells and Smells post. Probably the same as 17?

18. Beitou Park

Number 19. I don’t know if this had been coppiced, or if it just does this.

19. Taiwan Fine Arts Centre Garden

Number 20. And the next picture is a closeup.

20. Taiwan Fine Arts Centre Garden

Closer look at 20.

20. Taiwan Fine Arts Centre Garden

 Number 21. The first one is one of the many others that are unknown but not particularly noteworthy (shoot me now if you wish), but I put this in just to show you because the second one is a sample of bamboo, which alongside pampas grass and banana trees is very much the standard normal plant around everywhere. This bamboo here is neatly trimmed.

21.Taiwan Fine Arts Centre Garden

Number 22. I don’t know how many types of trees sport these roots that descend from on high (ooops, too many Christmas carols lately!), or whether they’re all the same sort. These weren’t of the figure-hugging variety, though.

22. Taiwan Fine Arts Centre Garden

Number 23. This type, some quite large but often in pots, notably swell towards the bottom of the trunk. By the way a feature of the climate round here is almost constant wind (while we’ve been here it’s been a nice warm wind), so a great number of the trees in parks, hotel gardens, along the roads etc, have these wooden support systems.

23. Confucius Temple

Number 24. Also common in a pot, this time with a distinctively different shape to the base of the trunk.

24. Outside the hotel in Taichung

Number 25. Closer photo next.

25. At the Earthquake museum near Wufeng

 Here.

25. At the Earthquake museum near Wufeng; flowers

Number 26. Also has a closer shot next.

26. At the Earthquake museum near Wufeng.

26. At the Earthquake museum near Wufeng; flowers.

Number 27. Ditto. I’m getting used to this!

27. At the Earthquake museum near Wufeng.

 Like this.

27. At the Earthquake museum near Wufeng; flowers.

And not a flower, but one more thing:- every morning in the Taichung hotel we’ve been aware of a bird calling frequently, that sounds just like a policeman’s whistle. It is, in fact, a policeman’s whistle.
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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.

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Pacific Rim

Hualien, the largest city on the east coast, lies at the seaward end of a rift valley. This was formed by the separation of the Asian and Phillippine tectonic plates and thus is an area prone to earthquakes. On this map you can see the coast road running south from Hualien and the more or less parallel one passing through the rift valley.

Taiwan in alpine relief

Jimmy was game to drive a hire car for the day. So we started by going back up the coast about 10 miles to see the stupendous Qingshui cliffs.

Qingshui cliffs

 Although the map shows ‘green’ low land all around the coast, in fact the mountains plummet from as much as 1000 metres straight into the sea along this part of the coast and both the railway and the road have to resort to lots of tunnelling. We could see the old road clinging to the cliffs, which looked truly perilous.

In fact we were to discover during the course of the day that not only the topography but also the numbering and indeed the positions of the roads on the map were but distant relatives to reality. Besides that, the Rough Guide advises that one should always check roads one intends to use, because of earthquakes, typhoon, flood, landslide damage etc. Jimmy clearly knew this as he stopped frequently at ‘convenience stores’ to ask the locals. 

Next on our itinerary was Taroko Gorge. It was wonderful, living up to all expectations. The mountains here are a famous source of marble, and the river bed was strewn with massive marble boulders.

Taroko Gorge, with marble boulders

We took some of the old wiggly road down the rift valley so as to get good views of the inland mountains. The valley is strikingly both broad and flat, with cultivation at the side of a shallow river. It doesn’t take much to imagine the fields being swamped by a swollen river.

The Rift Valley and Hualien River

The road we’d planned to take over the mountains to the coast was indeed closed, so we returned almost to Hualien and sampled some of the famously beautiful coast southwards from there. One or two properties along the way were worthy of Grand Designs or Le Courbusier, and we’ve got used to spotting giant golden statues of Buddha or a local god seated among the densely forested slopes every now and then.

Looking south from Highway 11

Then it was time to catch (a) the train back to Taipei, and (b) some snooze. We saw our first eight (8) cows, in ones and twos in separate fields, from the train window. Back to the Hot Springs hotel in Taipei this evening.

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Enter Tourist_mode;

Sorry, no internet at our last hotel, so this is a catch up.

It was good of Jimmy to work for us on Christmas Day. After our alfresco Christmas Lunch in the a.mart moped park, we met him at the local teahouse nearby to plan our next few days. Oolong Milk Tea – oo! long! oo! more please. It’s rather like a tea-flavoured hot milkshake.

So, the itinerary beginning Monday 26th is: Taipei, East Coast, Taipei and back to Taichung on Thursday 30th. To go right to the southern tip would be way too time-consuming and too far for our driver (Jimmy this time), so we will just be sampling the coast around Hualien and a bit of the Rift Valley. Might get a minor earthquake, as there are two or three per day of magnitude 3 or 4. Jimmy warned us that Taipei would be wet.

We opted to go to Taipei by the new High Speed Rail link, max 186mph, and we were zooming past the cars on the highway alongside.

High speed train

Top priority was the tallest building in the world, “Taipei 101”, which is over 500 metres tall and actually very good to look at. The enclosed observatory is on the 89th floor (of 101) at 382 metres above ground level. That’s 1,253 ft. The lift from Floor 5 took only 37 seconds to the observatory, reaching a vertical speed of 1.01 kilometres per minute (over 37mph).

Taipei 101

Floor 91, normally available for intrepid visitors to brave the open air, was closed for a very special reason: the Taiwan calendar began with their freedom from imperial rule on 1 January 1911, so they are currently in their year 100, as you see on dates round here (and on the contract for this visit). Thus the arrival of their year 101 is about to be marked by a magnificent firework display from the top of the Taipei 101 tower, hence the outside viewing area was closed as they’re setting this up ready for New Year festivities. 101 also signifies “better than 100%” and also, as a binary number, signifies high-tec. Excellent night views over the city.

North from Taipei 101

One of our other priorities in Taipei was to visit the hot springs, so Jimmy decided it would be great for us to actually stay in a hot-spring-water-supplied hotel. The hot tub in our en-suite was amazing and the water too hot to go in! Martin sampled public pools, open air, in the evening, too! They are on three levels. The lowest is just nicely warm (35 degrees) having trickled down from the top pool in which, unbelievably, there were many people  apparently not scalded. Second top (45ish?) was the best. Worth avoiding the icy cold pools off to the right.

Tuesday morning: visit to the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial park.

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall

Freedom Square is flanked by two huge traditional Chinese buildings, one a concert hall (closed) and one an opera house; on the third side is a wonderful white ceremonial archway and the fourth is the memorial hall.

[/caption]Inside is a huge bronze statue of the man who established Taiwan as what is still the only democratic country in the Chinese-speaking world.

Chiang Kai-Shek and three mortals

At the entrance stand two armed guards who stood so still that they looked like waxworks …

Sentinel

… until we were told that there was to be a changing of the guard in ten minutes, so we watched a very stiff and elaborate ceremony as these two dismounted from their pedestals and were eventually replaced by two others, in a ritual lasting 14 minutes.

Changing the Guard

Next the train to Hualien. It headed more or less straight to the east coast and then turned south along it. Quite a lot of industrial towns, paddy fields, one impressive offshore island and looking inland the mountains were not far away. Arrived in a very heavy rain shower. Tomorrow we’ll explore some of the coast that we tunnelled under, as well as the Rift Valley.

Paddy fields

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Little Switzerland

 

Saturday 24 December. Christmas Eve. This evening will be our first proper event. Even as we set off in an 8-seater minibus after breakfast we didn’t know where it was to be, except “in the mountains”: a voyage of discovery. Travelling with us were Jimmy, our guide; Yuki, his girlfriend; Michelle, the event announcer/commere, or “toastmaster” as Jimmy said; and our driver (we’ll find out his name and tell you tomorrow).

The first bit of the route was the same as yesterday, but from Puli (coffee stop) we headed east along the Highway 14. This was a normal single-lane-each-way road until Chingjing Farm, a popular service area with good views of the foothills, where we had a spaghetti lunch. Thereafter the road was narrow and winding, with many squeeze points. We never exceeded about 40 km/h and we had 94km each way to cover on mountain roads. But the driver was excellent, and the scenery became ever more spectacular, with tall hills and deep gorges – all heavily vegetated, as you would expect this close to the tropics, apart from some landslips scarring the hillsides.

Central Taiwanese mountains

Pockets of habitation here and there, isolated farms growing mostly fruit: here we learned the source of an extraordinary gift we had received at the press call. We had been given a very large box, and told it contained ‘mountain pears’. Slightly puzzled as to why we should be given such a big box of pears, we asked how many, and were told 6. Intriguing. We carried the box carefully back to the hotel, and indeed, there were 6 golden pears – each the size of a grapefruit! Delicious. The trees apppeared to be producing crops of silver plastic bags – in fact every pear has a bag placed round it, presumably, as with the bananas, to protect them from the birds.

Mountain pear cultivation

Highway 14 took us into Taroko National Park. We stopped twice for view-and-loo. The first was a little windy (I mean the viewpoint) but had excellent views of neighbouring mountains, which reach over 12,000 ft. Then as we climbed to our highest pass, we saw white stuff on the distant trees. Trickles down grassy rock faces had become icicles and closer inspection showed the white stuff to be rime frost, collected as low cloud had blown across. Not snow, which is rare in Taiwan.

Not snow but rime

We got out at the top of the pass and soon wished we had put more layers on as there was a biting wind through the col. Not surprising: although we were nearly at tropical latitude, we had ascended to 10,744 ft. That’s the highest road we’ve ever been on.

Turning on to the Central Cross-island Highway for the last 30 ever more twisting kilometres, we slowly descended to the next major village, Lishan. This turned out to be our destination, at the heart of the area known as Little Switzerland. At the end of the houses the street was lined with stalls selling mountain pears, very big apples, persimmon (also delicious) and various other things we’ve never seen before. Extraordinary, for the end of December! At a bend in the road was a large chinese-looking building, a summer residence of a former president. At the bottom of its steps a stage was set out, between two tall fir trees bedecked with fairy lights, mountains behind, hot food stalls, all ready for the evening’s entertainment.

The performance stage, Lishan, Little Switzerland

Besides us, there was a lovely display of aboriginal dancing – we were cold, but they danced in bare feet! There was also a cheery local brass quintet playing Christmas carol arrangements and a Latin American group made up of players all now resident in Taiwan. Michelle’s compering was very lively and all groups including us were enthusiastically applauded. We spoke our first Chinese in front of the microphone – although everyone seemed to understand ‘merry Christmas’ , we thanked them for their hospitality with ‘Xie Xie’. This time, besides Swiss music, we did play them their national anthem and they all joined in, and of course, we had to play Jingle Bells to close.

Amazing Alphorn in concert

Christmas Day.

We spent the night in the little village and probably the most memorable Christmas morning ever, being driven back for 4 1/2 hours through the amazing mountain scenery once more.

Christmas lunch:

Christmas lunch, 2011

Christmas afternoon was spent exploring a remarkable traditional covered market, with hundreds of stalls selling figures, objects, jewellery, inlay, things carved from jade, stone, wood,  the smell of jossticks, very atmospheric.

Our evening meal cooked in front of us:

On Christmas Night

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Sun Moon Lake

Friday 23 December. Free day. Jimmy, our guide, suggests to take us to see Sun Moon Lake, a couple of hours bus ride away, high in the foothills: see the picture at the top of this blog. I had hoped to take our own picture to replace this one but the cloud was down.

Nevertheless, the mist itself created a slightly spooky atmosphere as we walked for an hour or so along some of the boarded walkway that goes right round the lake.

Pier through the mist

There we found some unusual flowers, first of many on this trip.

Unusual flowers No.1

Unusual flowers No.2

The boats to the other end of the lake were not running, so we took a bus instead to the point where a cable car takes visitors up to the Formosan Aboriginal People’s Village. Two reasons why we didn’t take it: 1. the mist 2. it’s a kids’ theme park rather than an ethnic museum as we had hoped.

Instead we walked round the boardwalk to the shopping area, where traditional craftwork is sold by the local aboriginal people, in amongst the usual tourist stalls. 

Frances, with Jimmy our guide and translator

 At this end of the lake several rafts are moored. Some have a simple dwelling and a working area, others are planted with grass and other vegetation as a habitat for the fish to reproduce and grow.

Houses on rafts, complete with gardens

The area has many banana trees, some single, many large fields full. Once a hand of bananas develops it’s covered in a bright blue bag to protect it from being eaten by the birds. The one in the next image had a big hand of bananas and, still, its large and lovely flower right at the bottom.

A hand of bananas and its flower

 An ancient style of fishing is still practised here, involving large nets operated from precarious rafts:

Tradtional fishing raft

 
 There is a style for decorating buildings to depict traditional scenes:

A decorative fascia depicting a stage in firemaking

 Just as we were about to return to our starting point, we passed this unusual vessel:
 

Chinese style boat

 
 
 As you can see, the mist had cleared somewhat, though not enough to see a sunset over the surrounding mountains (sunsets are, we were told, awesome sometimes). We look forward to seeing the place in a more amenable sunlit state some time, but even today, we could see what a magical place this is. Highly recommended.
 
 
 
 
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