Sunday, January 18, 2009

Back to Singapore

I'm at a free Internet kiosk at Changi Airport in Singapore. No pictures yet.

Today we spent a beautiful day exploring new parts of Singapore. I know it's cool to bash Singapore. Maybe if I lived here for a year, I might grow to dislike it too.

But I'm sorry - I like Singapore.

I like the conveniences of having a wealthy, modern, highly Westernized city sitting right squat at the center of Southeast Asia.

I like the array of cheap and remarkably authentic Asian food. I doubt you'll find a better selection of absolutely authentic by-Indians-for-Indians Indian food outside of India. Or perhaps the UK.

I even kind of like the modern architecture, even if many of the residential areas I've seen bear a certain resemblance to housing developments in suburban Florida.

Today we took the cable car up Mt. Faber - fun, though a much shorter ride than you get (or got, I suppose) at the Maokong Gondola in Taipei. Views from the top of Mt. Faber are quite nice, and we were there on a beautiful if hazy day.

After that we decided to head to the National Botanic Gardens, despite the fact that they are not located close to an MRT station. We braved Singapore's public bus system for the first time, and then found that the gardens were located a long (but pleasant) walk from the main road. But the botanic gardens themselves are very nice once you get there, and the orchid garden is worth the $5 you must pay to enter, especially if you like orchids. The gardens themselves are free, and this Sunday they were full of people.

Now, on to Bangalore...

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Southern Taiwan Trip

During the four-day New Years weekend given to us by the government, we made a full counter-clockwise circumnavigation of Taiwan by train, stopping for 2 nights in Tainan and 2 nights in Taitung before returning to Taipei.

I brought my new camera: a Nikon Coolpix S210. I still like my Canon and it still works well, but on our upcoming trip to India I figured it would be a good idea to bring something a little less bulky. Any photographic oddities or blurriness is probably due to the fact that I was still playing around a bit with it.

This trip was actually our Plan B. Plan A had been to take advantage of the holiday weekend by making our way across southern Taiwan via the Southern Cross-Island Highway, which connects Tainan and Taitung and reportedly features some of the best scenery on the island. Unfortunately, we apparently weren't the only ones in Taiwan with that idea. Every local hotel listed in our guidebook was booked. In theory it might have been possible to do the highway in one long day, as the raw distances involved are not that great. But it's a winding mountain road. And bus service does not exist over the entire highway - there's a bus-less section in the middle where we would have had to hitchhike or arrange our own transportation. In the end we decided to save the Cross-Island Highway for a later date.

So on the morning of January 1 we set out for Tainan by HSR. Jenna and I had each been to Tainan twice before. Emily had been once before, and it was Becca's first time.

After resting at the hotel, we explored the Five Canals area of Tainan. None of us had been there before. The canals no longer exist, but the neighborhood is full of old architecture, narrow alleys, and of course temples.

Back when the canals still existed - and Tainan was the capital and major metropolis of Taiwan - high officials from the Qing Dynasty would arrive in Tainan by boat. They would make their way through the now-nonexistent system of canals and dock by the Official Reception Gate, built in 1739:

Next to the gate were a couple of old stelae that some kids were bouncing balls off of. The stelae had probably been through worse.

I can't remember exactly what the above temple is now (it might be the Wind God temple, right behind the reception gate above) but it is exactly the kind of thing you can stumble upon just by wandering around central Tainan.

The remarkable ceiling of one temple.

Chihkan Towers. The latter picture is a sculpture commemorating the surrender of local Dutch forces in 1661.

Miscellaneous central Tainan pictures.

On Day Two we went to Anping, various out-of-town day trip plans having been considered and then discarded because of the lack of convenient transportation.

This is the Old Julius Mannich Merchant House, which now houses a cafe that is very proud of its beer selection and some exhibits on German culture, including portraits and short biographies of German cultural luminaries such as Goethe, Wagner and Beethoven.

After an obligatory visit to the touristy market at Anping, we explored the harbor area. There is a very attractive park by the harbor, and we stopped there for a time while we greeted each of the roughly seven hundred pet dogs who were enjoying the park with their owners. It was really quite an amazing sight.

Statue at Tainan's harborside park. Those are kites visible on the left side of the picture.

That evening Emily returned to Taipei (she had a class to teach Saturday morning, unfortunately) and the rest of us departed Tainan the next morning. We traveled by train to Kaohsiung, where we were to transfer to a Taitung-bound train. We had two hours free in Kaohsiung, enough time to take a taxi down to the Love River area:

... but unfortunately, midday turned out not to be a great time to visit, as very little was open. We were able to get lunch after exploring a bit and finding a decent neighborhood with restaurants, and then it was back to the train station for the journey to Taitung.

The Kaohsiung-Taitung train gave me a look at a new part of Taiwan for me - a very different climate than the forested hills of northern Taiwan. Palm trees were everywhere, and there were places where the train took us through forests of palm trees growing in neat, orderly rows. Was this a natural occurence, or was I seeing a palm tree farm?

Taitung may well be the first small East Asian city I've ever been to with a train station that's not located in or near the city center. Taitung Station is actually located several kilometers away and is absolutely not walkable from downtown. I felt like I was back in North America.

We took a taxi to our hotel and then set out in search of food. We stopped for food at a variety of little places, acheiving the feat of eating in two places written up in Rough Guide for what was essentially one meal. We also established that when Rough Guide recommends you visit Sihwei Night Market on a Sunday, that's because there is literally nothing there if you go on a Saturday. I'm amazed that a Taiwanese city can only sustain a night market one night a week. (To be fair, for all I know there might be another night market somewhere else in Taitung that is open every night, but wasn't deemed special enough for Rough Guide.)

Taitung has sort of a transportation nexus downtown, next to the now-defunct Old Taitung Railway Station. Taitung's chief attraction is its natural scenery (much like Hualien to the north, the other major city on the east coast), so first thing Sunday morning we caught a bus north, to Sansiantai.

Sansiantai, which literally means "Three Immortals Platform", is a series of rocky islands linked to the mainland by a footbridge. The area is renowned for its natural beauty and gets lots of domestic tourists (and we saw more Westerners at Sansiantai than the whole time we were in Taitung city). Note the solitary dog resting in the picture.

Views from the bridge in both directions. Note the stairs.

Sansiantai island proper had a tasteful boardwalk for people to walk on, and a dozen or so fishermen were on the far side of the island.

From Sansiantai we took a bus north to Basiangong, where a series of Buddhist grottoes have been set into caves in a cliff overlooking the ocean.

We did not see any other tourists, foreign or domestic, at Basiangong, but there was a meditation group and a couple of locals who took no notice of us. There were also some large dogs, who generally took no notice of us except for the one who followed us for a time.

Basiangong pictures. Overall it was peaceful, though the grottoes themselves were unremarkable for anyone who has seen lots of Taiwanese Buddhist imagery. On the way down we saw a monkey foraging in a tree.

The views from Basiangong.

On our way back to Taitung we stopped in Chenggong for an excellent seafood dinner. Later that night, in Taitung, we stopped by Shihwei Night Market, it being Sunday night. The market was a bit of a disappointment; most of the food available was of the heavily deep-fried variety. We might have just gotten there too late for good stuff, as a lot of vendors were already packing up to go by the time we arrived. So it came to pass that we left Taitung without once trying local Aboriginal food.

But we didn't leave without getting a few custard apples. They're available in Taipei, in both regular and "pineapple" varieties, but in Taitung it's the local signature fruit and we came home with three big ones. They're the "pineapple" kind, which I prefer - the flesh-to-seed ratio is higher and they're easier to eat. At tourist shops in Taitung train station we even got custard apple mochi and custard apple ice cream. The ice cream was excellent, and remarkably cheap - if only I could find it in Taipei.

Further pictures and commentary on our trip can be found on Jenna's blog here and here.