Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Good Ol' Taiwanese Adventure

I've been stuck in Taipei for a long time, and so my girlfriend Jeannie and I decided to try to have an adventure. We perused a guide book and asked some of our friends and decided to try to go to Green Island (from all reports a tropical snorkeling paradise). We made this decision on Wednesday, and on Thursday Jeannie went to book us train tickets down to Taidong. The first boat out to Green Island left at 8 am, so we were going to have to take the 3 am train so we could make it down in time for the boat (its about a four hour train ride). While Jeannie was going to book train tickets I called a couple hotels on the island to try to reserve a room. The first hotel was booked, and at the second one the woman who answered just kept yelling '喂' (Hello in Chinese), so, after doing some yelling of my own, I gave up on that. I got in touch with Jeannie and found out that, somehow, the 3 am train was completely sold out. We were both confused at this turn of events, but took it as a sign that we shouldn't go to Green Island. Apparently it wasn't meant to be.

Further perusing of the guidebook revealed that there was a waterfall not to far south of Yilan, so we decided to head there on Saturday. The train station we needed to get to was so small that only a few trains went through it a day. The first one left Yilan at 10 am, so we decided to take that (it was, after all, a marked improvement over 3 am). We made it to the train station with plenty of time, and were sitting waiting on the platform with our tickets at 9:55. Somehow, we were having such a jolly time waiting on the train that we managed to miss it completely. It stopped, people got off and on, and then it pulled away. As it was leaving Jeannie stood up and said, "I hope that isn't our train", which I think was really just a nice way of saying "Damn it. How did we miss our train? We were right here!" To be fair, the train did pull up to the side of the platform that we weren't facing, but on the other hand, ITS A TRAIN! It was too early in the day to give up, so we decided to go to the next nearest station and walk the rest of the way.

There was a train to Nan Ao in about 25 minutes so we went back to the platform and waited. A few minutes before it was scheduled to arrive we decided to go ahead and stand up, just to be able to keep a better eye on our surroundings, and lessen any chance that we might miss this train too. The train arrived on time, we got on, and then double checked with the conductor, just to make sure. Our original plan was to walk to a "Recreation Farm" (just like a National Park or Forest campground in the states) where we could rent bikes, then ride them to the waterfall. We figured out that we could get to the same farm by walking from Nan Ao, though it might take a little longer. However, we were in good company, and the scenery was spectacular. Nan Ao is a costal town where about three or four mountain valleys all converge onto a small plain and beautiful beach. Not only were we in sight of awesome mountains, but we were walking 'through' (we were on roads, but the only traffic was the occasional old person on a bike wearing an Asian style straw hat) fields and the weather was beautiful. And it was quiet, an incredibly pleasant change from Taipei. We had no map and only a vague idea of the direction we needed to go, however, we did see a bridge that looked promising and decided to head for it. This meant stepping off of the main road and actually walking through the fields. I was worried for a moment about encountering someone with a shotgun yelling at us for trespassing, but who are we kidding, this is Taiwan. No one except the police (and maybe a few hunters) have guns and people are just more mellow about everything anyway. And we were still on a small path, so it didn't seem like we were hurting anything.

After following the path to its end, we found out that it didn't actually go to the bridge. It got us close, but we would have had to wade through a field and maybe a stream too. It wasn't worth it, so we turned around and re-traced our steps. It turned out that the road we had been on led us straight to the bridge too, and, once we got to the bridge we found signs for the 'Recreation Farm' so we knew we were on the right track. It only took us about 30 more minutes to get to the place, however, once there we had a little trouble renting bikes. We saw a group of guys sitting in the shade and as we walked up, one of them got up and approached us. I asked about renting bikes. He said no. Well dog my cats. I laughed (trying to be friendly) and asked again. "There are really no bikes?" Apparently there were bikes, loads of bikes in fact, but they were all broken. I kept pressing to get him to rent us some bikes and he kept resisting, but letting in slowly. After a little he took us back to a shed, and sure enough, he had about a room and half of bikes, all in sub-par shape. I had hoped that there might be one that fit me, but I that dream was destined to dye. It seemed like we were going to be lucky to get a bike at all. The guy we were talking to started poking around in the rows of bikes, checking to see if the tires had air and whether or not the brakes worked. He found one after a while, not only did it have air in the tires, but both brakes worked, or at least were passable (though we would find out later that it pulled pretty hard to the right). He said there was another bike out front for me, which was in good shape, except that only the back brake worked.

By this time, the guy had really warmed up to us (I think he just didn't want to give us bikes at first because he was partly worried about us getting lost and partly worried about the bikes getting stolen and/or broken), and inquired where we were going. We told him the waterfall we were going to and he was somewhat surprised and somewhat pleased. He got out an old map that looked like it had been drawn out, then photocopied about a dozen times so that not much was distinguishable, and began to give us directions to the waterfall. We got ready to leave, and I was somewhat hesitant because I had assumed that we would have to fill out some paperwork or put down a deposit or something, but after a moment the waiting got awkward and he was giving no sign of asking for anything, so we rode off. We went back the way we had come, and decided to stop off at the beach along the way. After a short detour we got into the meat of the trip, heading straight into the mountains.

As we got closer to the mountains the jungle began to surround us, and the clouds dropped down to meet us. And everything got noisier. Apparently it is some sort of frog, but whatever animal it is, it sounds almost exactly like a fire alarm. A loud whining noise of varying volume that goes for quite sometime, but finally seems to fizzle out, presumably as the frog runs out of breath. It is sort of a creepy noise at first, but after a while you sort of get used to it.

On our ride up the valley we had only been passed by one car, so we didn't think there were many people around. And it was starting to rain, so we hoped that would scare other people away. Alas, it was all to no avail. We came upon a shed with a small plaque that said "Jinyue Waterfall", so we parked our bikes there and kept on walking up (the road was dirt and gravel now). We passed a group of 6-7 people coming out, and met about the same number hanging around near some pools below the waterfall. We were greeted in English (as per usual despite the fact that we live in a Chinese speaking country) and they immediately layed in, asking where we were from, and what we did in Taiwan. They were having a good old fashioned BBQ too, and asked if we wanted any food. I was somewhat disgruntled that there were hordes of people around the waterfall and I can't seem to get spoken to in Chinese despite the fact that I'm in Taiwan. AND, I was sweaty as hell and wanted to go swimming, so ... I wasn't as nice as I could have been, and just brushed them off. The water did feel great though. I loitered around in some of the pools at the bottom before deciding to head up to check out the higher waterfall. As I was slowly making my way up a new Taiwanese guy came up and asked if I was going to the upper pool. I said I was, and he said he'd take me up to see it. So I stood up and followed him from rock to rock to the pool immediately at the base of the waterfall. It was gorgeous. The water wasn't actually falling, 'rolling' would be more accurate, but it was still pretty to look at. The waterfall itself wasn't very long, only maybe 20-25' but the pool at the base was large, a dark turquoise-ish color, and completely empty.

Swimming towards the waterfall was like swimming in one of those little rectangular pools that people get in their houses, with an electric current. I kept swimming toward the waterfall and kept never getting there. The water was cold though, and felt refreshing after the bike ride up. After a moment my guide asked me if I wanted to jump in. I had seen a rope swing a little higher up and made a mental note to myself on how sketchy it was, so I asked once to confirm there was no real danger. The guy, naturally, denied any, so I got out and followed him up to the next higher rock. It turned out we weren't using the rope swing anyway, just climbing up and jumping in. He went first, jumping straight towards the base of waterfall, and I followed suit. It was fun. And I didn't get hurt. I didn't even touch the bottom. I decided to quit while I was ahead and headed back down to Jeannie. It turned out to be a good time to leave because, despite the fact that it was starting to rain, more and more people were showing up and any hopes of solitude we'd hoped of having were being destroyed.

The ride back down was enjoyable, though on some of the steeper hills I had to get off and walk, what with only having one brake and all. The ride back to the 'Recreation Farm' was uneventful except for once, when I had to ride my bike into the grass to get it to slow down, and not thinking that she had two working brakes, I yelled to Jeannie to pull off too, which proved to be a stupid decision on my part, because then she was stopped in the exact place I had wanted to cruise through on my way to the stop. I managed to narrowly avoid tragedy by taking a sharper angle into the grass and heading partway up a hill. My bike came off worst and it really only got a twig caught up in the spokes. Once we got back to the farm we both parked the bikes in front. I was expecting this would be when we had to pay, but after loitering for a second, the guy hadn't asked for money, and I damn sure wasn't going to volunteer, so we smiled, thanked him graciously, and walked away.

Jeannie is a vegetarian too (major score) and within minutes, we had already planned out a good all you can eat vege buffet to go to and gorge ourselves when we got back to Yilan. Jeannie had scoped out the train times for the ride back, and knew we could make it to one just after it opened for dinner and get to the food before it had been sitting for too long. Then, before we were out the gate, the guy we'd gotten the bikes from pulled up on a motorcycle and offered us a ride. I was at first confused about how we'd all fit on, but he scooted really far forward, Jeannie squeezed in behind him, and I got on the back. There nothing for me to put my feet on except the exhaust pipe, and not only would that only have worked only for one foot, but it just seemed like a bad idea anyway. I also almost bottomed the shocks out, just by sitting on it (and did bottom them out a number of times before the end) which created and contributed to the general atmosphere of precarious-itude. It seemed like the only thing I could do was hold my feet up, hold on to the sides of the seat, and cross any fingers that weren't holding on. The turns were the scariest part, but the whole thing was also kind of hilarious, and we did end up making it without trouble. He dropped us right below the bridge that the train tracks ran across, so we headed under them, and towards the train station. Jeannie got checked the train times she had written down, and we found out that we had about 45 seconds before the train left. We started running, but the train was leaving as we got onto the platform, so we gave up and stopped to catch our breath. The next train actually came in about an hour, so missing that one wasn't too big of a deal. We decided to go get a couple beers to make the wait easier and make fantasizing about all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffets less part of our conversation. We did finally make it to the buffet, and it was glorious. All in all it was an amazing day.

A Taiwanese Baseball Game

I went to a Taiwanese baseball game the other day. It was the Whales (pink and green uniforms) versus the Elephants (yellow uniforms). However, they were all wearing pink hats, and they even used pink bats at some points. The best reasons for the pink accessories we came up with were, it was mother's day weekend, and they were just trying to show some motherly affection? We got there a little late but the game was just starting, and it really got of to a thrilling start. No one scored until the fifth inning. Apparently they were pretty evenly matched teams.

For a little background of the game, they were both corporate teams, one played for China Telecom, and I don't remember the other one. I know Taiwan is really stoked off of baseball, to the point of having a picture of a celebrating little league team on the 500 NT bill, but, just judging from how much people follow the corporate league, I don't think there is an actual professional league.

Anyway, one of the main differences I noticed about the game was the approach to encouraging players, and the appropriate noise level. At all the baseball games I can remember going to in the states, the announcers played the cavalry charge and aggressive music and the crowd got rilled up, but all before the batter stepped up to the plate. Then the batter was given a courteous silence, so he could concentrate on hitting the ball. However, there were no announcers here, and the Taiwanese fans didn't start making noise until the batter was about to swing. I can only assume that their motivations were the same (wanting the batter to do well), but it was interesting to see different implementation strategies. The music (or noise) used to encourage the players also highlighted differences between cultures. I think Americans are pretty big fans of the cavalry charge, but the Taiwanese people had a drummer. And not like some 15 year old rapping out a peppy beat you could jig to. No, there was a drum large enough to boil small farm animals in, and a dude with two hammers sounding out the call to battle. It was impressive and motivating, but alas, the weren't too creative with the beat, and after the second hour it got pretty old.

It was the Elephants who finally scored in the fifth inning, and from there the game was over. They scored again in the sixth inning and the poor whales never had a chance to come back.