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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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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We’ve arrived

The journey went pretty smoothly, with a quick transfer at Hong Kong. The Cathay Pacific staff were well aware of the urgency and shepherded us through the formalities – mainly so that the alphorn could be specially buckled to its seat. They kept calling it a ‘cello for some reason.

At Taipei airport, our luggage miraculously arrived at the carousel before we did. Then under threat of severe fines, we declared our two half-eaten sandwiches, one containing meat. The sandwiches were granted entry to the country after the offending meat was eaten.

Our guide Jimmy (well he said that’s his western name) was waiting as we came out. He is a local tour guide with excellent English and will be with us for the whole trip. He helped us buy a local SIM card and cheap phone so that we could call within Taiwan without crippling roaming charges.

A car was waiting to whisk us to Taichung, 2 hours drive away, where we are now based.  Once checked in I was able to reassemble the accordion after its passage in two hand baggages and (another miracle) it works!

Frances now:

Having settled in an excellent hotel in the centre of  Taiwan’s 3rd largest city, our first bit of touristing was a taxi ride to the ‘night market’ – a feature of these parts – dozens of streets filled with stalls open every evening till aroud 3am, alive with exotic food stalls, inexpensive trendy clothing, leather goods etc, and plenty of cheery music, some of the general world cheese variety, some oriental, some seasonal. Although primarily a Buddhist country, they’ve imported much of the American Christmas / santa atmosphere.

This morning was our first engagement – a press conference, with local and national TV and radio. The mayor and various local dignitories, lots of speeches, a  beautiful dancing display from schoolgirls from one of their 14 or so local aboriginal cultures. We performed then – some traditional swiss melodies but our proffered ‘party piece’ was not required: we’d spent the day before we left the uk learning to play the Taiwanese national anthem. No – they wanted Jingle Bells instead. Surprising what you can get out of an alphorn if you have to!

Press call, Taichung, 22 December

We’ve been asked here to play for four occasions over 11 days: this publicity event, and three parties for government officials up a mountain on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and sunrise NewYear’s morning. 3 different mountain locations, I think. They promise to be spectacular. It also means that we have quite a lot of free time in between, so we plan to see what we can of the country. Taiwan is about the size of Wales, but has mountains as high as the Alps, so there’s a lot of promising things to see. And it is bisected by the Tropic of Cancer, so is pretty mild (T shirts) even at the end of December.

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Music category

I will post in the Music category some of the musical aspects of our trip, which might be about our performances, or about Taiwanese music that we encounter.

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