Monday, December 22, 2008

Sanyi, Miaoli County

Weekend before last I traveled to Sanyi, Miaoli County. Sanyi's got two big things going for it.

First, it's a well-known center of wood carving, and it has been since Japanese days. People come here from all over Taiwan to shop for wood sculptures. Small wooden sculptures can be had relatively cheaply, but the many wood carving shops in town also stock huge, impressive works of art that go for serious sums of money. (The priciest I found was a huge wooden landscape with representations of a thundering herd of horses and peasants at work; it was up for sale for 8,600,000NT, or about US$250,000.)

Sanyi's other great draw is Hakka culture. Miaoli County is northern Taiwan's great Hakka center, and many local restaurants proudly advertise their Hakka cuisine. There are Hakka restaurants in Taipei, but down in Hakka country you can get the full range of dishes.

This is the local wood carving museum. The art gallery is well worth a visit, with plenty of modern Taiwanese wooden sculpture. The gift shop was interesting as well, with not only books and models of the museum's artwork but also locally made preserves for use in cooking. Though why they sold a model kit of the Cutty Sark is beyond me.

Afterwards we went to Shengsing, a nearby village with a historic train station and a cluster of touristy Hakka restaurants. Like the old train stations on the Pingxi Branch Line, Shengsing station has been preserved as a tourist attraction and is popular with train aficionados. Unlike the Pingxi Line stations, Shengsing is no longer in active use - trains no longer service the line.

The traditional menu at the place we stopped at. If you have limited ability in reading Chinese characters, hand-painted rather than printed characters just makes it harder.

The food we got (although the GIANT BLOB of rice gluten and taro is not visible).

Lei cha is said to be a traditional Hakka farmers' drink. The most recent Lonely Planet expresses some doubts about that, but still recommends travelers try the stuff. It's made from pounded nuts and grains. Restaurants encourage out-of-towners to make the tea themselves in true DIY fashion; we got a giant mortar & pestle and pounded the ingredients until they had been reduced to powder.
Here's the end product. I can imagine it tasting very good on a cold winter's evening in a mountain agricultural village.

Then we set off from the train station and hiked along the abandoned railroad for a few kilometers.`

We saw this interesting idea: give a Hakka language lesson to anyone who stops to park here!

And then we got to another local tourist attraction: the remains of an aquaduct that was destroyed in an earthquake in the 1930s.

As with most Taiwanese - or East Asian - tourist attractions, there was a whole tourist infrastructure nearby so that people who come to snap pictures can buy sausages on sticks.

Jenna also documented our trip and she posted about it here with photos.

Monday, December 08, 2008

India and Egypt

I got my Indian visa today. We're going there for about two and a half weeks in January and February. We fly into Bangalore and fly out of Mumbai.

People ask us if we're wary about going to India after the Mumbai attacks. Of course we are. But I'm not hugely afraid of terrorists. I figure that security in Mumbai will, if anything, be increased by the time we arrive in the city. Right now there is a lot of public outrage at the perceived incompetence of the police and the poor state of their equipment. The Mumbai police system won't be reformed by the time we visit the city in early February, but the police will be vigilant.

And before we visit Mumbai, we will spend most of our time in the states of Karnataka and Kerala. Domestic Indian violence has largely bypassed those two states. (This summer there was a series of bomb blasts in Bangalore that killed two people and injured 20, but that was atypical.)

As I said, I'm not hugely afraid of terrorists. What I am worried about is the possibility of the Mumbai attacks adversely affecting Indo-Pakistani relations to the point where a war seems possible by the time we depart. Unfortunately, that seems a very real possibility right now (not a war per se, but the threat of one) and it's our biggest potential worry as our trip approaches.

After India, we're flying on to Egypt, another country with a spotty record of safety for tourists. But since the 1997 Luxor attacks the government has been vigilant, and although there has been violence targeting tourists since then it's been aimed at well-heeled tourists who can afford top-line accommodations - in other words, not us.