23 June, 2005


so it happened. just over two weeks ago i let the little hooligans in my Basic Reading class do the unthinkable to my beautiful locks. there's not much to say about it, except i'm enjoying a whole new level of air conditioning about my cranium. enjoy the pictures:

in the beginning there was some hair, but tiny Tina (who was recently cropped herself) wanted to change all that. so Miss Jill generously volunteered her services to help the class members, like Mr King Li here:

please note that this was all very educational: in the first picture you will see a book entitled "How To Give a Haircut" that our class had recently made. this education is becoming a habit; though we made no book i did allow the little dears to wash my motorcycle the other day...

here you can just about see Miss Nancy Chang in the mirror, enjoying herself very much, though perhaps not as much as Miss Jill, who apparently has a thing for mullets, and made the class cut me one before they got to the real business.

speaking of business, we see here again that language learning was incorporated. how many Chinese kids do you think know what a mullet is, even though half of their countrymen sport one? and how else do you talk about "business" with eight year-olds, if not to explain to them that a mullet is "business in the front, party in the back"?

this is Gloria Yo, the head secretary, evidently getting into the mullet thing a bit too much.

soon though, we come to the final product:

witness the sheer volume of hair in that not-at-all-trivially sized garbage can, and above all, the smiles on those kids' faces.

14 June, 2005


for some time, we had been planning a visit to the famous Sun Moon Lake, one of Taiwan's major tourist attractions. it is the largest body of fresh water in Taiwan, and rests among the mountaintops just South of Puli, near the geographical center of the island. the last two or three weekend trips chronicled here were backup activities when the weather foiled our plans for visiting thelake.

this day, however, proved to have glorious weather, allowing us to ride up, as planned, rather than taking another awful bus. it was quite a long day in the saddle, which got rather uncomfortable over the course of about 250Km, but it gave us plenty of time to work on our tans. actually, after that amount of time spent riding, all i can say is thank goodness for sunscreen or i'd still be in pain three weeks later.

there's not really that much to say about 日月潭, Ji Yue Tan (say Zhuh Yuay Tan); it's pretty much as you'd expect for a lake. it would be quite picturesque if it weren't for all the crappy Taiwanese buildings all around it. for some reason the actual attraction for the Taiwanese people at any tourist spot seems to be food, so the couple of villages around the edge of the lake are littered with food places, convenience stores and a few hotels--all with restaurants, of course.

okay, there are other buildings; the temples that are ubiquitous in Taiwan have made it to the shores of Sun Moon Lake too. frankly though, Chinese temples have long been old news--they all look roughly the same, they all indulge in architectural and decorative excess, and they all stink. that's because they're full of burning incense, by the way. even though these structures are getting a little tiresome, along with the pagodas that sometimes accompany them, Sun Moon Lake is home to one of the most impressive pagodas on the island, if not for the structure itself, then for its grounds.

the Ci En (say Tsi Ahn) Pagoda, and the same pagoda with a drum that was being violently beaten by this monk only seconds before this picture was taken.

the Ci En Pagoda was built by Chiang Kai-shek to honor his mother, Madam Wang. it reaches 48 meters from the summit of Sha Ba Lan Mountain to hit 1000m above sea level at its peak. inside it felt a lot more solidly built than the one we had climbed in Taroko Gorge, but it was the grounds that made this one really impressive. we ascended the 570m staircase that leads to the temple just as the sun was vanishing behind rapidly descending clouds. reaching the top of the stairs there was an eerie quiet that was reinforced by the fog and numerous tall cypresses, and we were greeted by a thick carpet of tiny white stones. it was quite like something out of a Chinese Kung-Fu movie like Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. hopefully the pictures will give you some sense of this spectacle, but you will unfortunately not be able to experience the tranquility of those moments we enjoyed before loud Chinese tourists arrived and shattered the silence. even the bell-ringing, chanting and drum-beating of the monks somehow added to the peaceful atmosphere.

before we had scaled the heights of Ci An, we had participated in a more traditional type of lake entertainment: rowing. there are powerboats, lots of them, that will take you around the lake or to the tiny island in the middle, but we favored the old school approach. there were several Taiwanese people who had gone this route as well, though frankly they all looked as though they were struggling with the rowing action. in the hour we had the boat we went about eight times faster and further than any of the other folks that rented at the same time as us. i guess the Taiwanese suffer in many of their watersports for only having one decent lake, but it is an small island surrounded by water; what's the deal folks? how come you don't know how to row?

a Taiwanese man doing his best rowing impression, with a temple in the background, and then a purely gratuitous shot of me rowing. enjoy that one.

so it wasn't the best equipment, but it was fun. in the hour we got almost all the way to the aforementioned island and back, and got to enjoy the cool emerald green water of the lake. unlike most things in Taiwan, it seemed fairly clean, if not clear, and we reasoned that this was because they don't let people swim in the lake. There is apparently one day in September, i think, that there is an officially sanctioned cross-lake swim, which is supposed to draw quite large crowds, but for a few moments i was pretty tempted to hop over the side of our boat and have an illicit dip.

so if you come to Taiwan, Sun Moon Lake is one of those obligatory sights that you have to see, and on balance i would say it is worth it. it's a bit of a pain to get to, and it's really not the most spectacular thing i've ever seen by any stretch, but it is one of Taiwan's nicer spots. Like much of rural Taiwan, it is surrounded by what feels like unmitigated tropical rainforest. climbing up to the pagoda we were almost deafened by the otherworldly screams of numerous tropical animals that, though they sounded only inches away, remained undetectable. though it's not difficult to have this kind of experience in Taiwan, having it at Sun Moon Lake is the total package: the sights, the sounds, and the wind, water, earth and sky that are so important to the Chinese.

the striking effect of the famous Sun Moon Lake sun, which only adds to the ambiance of this beautiful place.

02 June, 2005


going to Tainan had actually been a backup plan for going to Sun Moon Lake, one of the great natural wonders of Taiwan. the weather had been so bad on that morning that we opted for plan B instead, only to find it turn into a nice day halfway down to Tainan. pretty much the same happened the next weekend, when plan B was to go to Taipei, only this time the weather never did really clear up.

which wasn't such a bad thing, as it turned out, as we were able to get these rather nifty contrast photos of the Taipei 101 building at a distance. it gives you a better sense of the size of the thing, and knowing that the shots were taken only five minutes apart helps you realize how variable the weather is here.

the world's tallest building, the Taipei 101, in the dead center of the picture above. these shots were taken about five minutes apart, which shows how fast the weather changes here, and they give a good sense of just how tall the building is, dwarfing everything else in sight.

just to the left of the 101 in these pictures is Taipei's city park, which looks to be quite big, running along the South bank of the Keelung (say Gee-long, with a hard g) River. the more impressive sight though, rising from the flats of this nice refrain from urban sprawl, is the Keelung bridge, pictured below. there are a lot of rivers in Taipei, and so a lot of bridges, many of which approximate this design. a couple are even lit up at night, but this is the largest and most impressive of the genre--that i've seen at least.

the reasonably elegant Keelung bridge. the supporting arch's reflection in the river below looks almost like it could be a rainbow.

these pictures were taken from one of Taipei's most famous buildings, a very impressive example of Chinese-style architecture. our objective in going to Taipei had been to finish up all the souvenir shopping for folks back home like you, which we did, and to see the few remaining unmissable sights of the capital. one of them is the Grand Hotel, so named for obvious reasons. it really is quite big, if a little boxy, but the inside is quite plush, as i hope the picture of the grand staircase will demonstrate.

the aptly named Grand Hotel, and its equally grand staircase.

and it was here, in one of the Grand's many souvenir shops, that i finally found the holy grail of gifts: the thimble for mother. most ornamental thimbles are made of china, which might lead you to believe they originated in China. if they did, i'm here to tell you that they don't live here anymore. i've looked exhaustively in every place i've ever been over here for those crazy thimbles, and they had just about driven me crazy when i heeded the siren song of a knick-knack lady and entered her souvenir mecca. i was so happy to find the thimbles, which are metal, by the way, that i bought two, and a soapstone dragon sculpture to boot. so rest easy mother, your gifts are assured.

the next thing that happened to us was almost equally sublime. you may remember that it's a little difficult to get Chinese people to understand what you say (see thecircumnavigation), should you venture to use their vaunted tongue. the day we went to Taipei marked the first time i had ever been understood saying something more important than ordering an ice cream cone. we were on a tight schedule to get the the famous Martyr's Shrine, which is just down the street from the Grand, and we decided to take a taxi. getting in i confidently told the man: "Zhong-lie Ci" (say Jhong-lieh Tsuh, obviously), and then began searching for the Chinese characters written in my guidebook as the driver started to say "Wha...?" but he paused halfway through his interrogatory, the light switches just turned on, and said "Zhong-lie Ci?" with a certain air of triumph that i had felt belonged to me. "Dway," i said, concurring heartily in my new language, "dway dway dway."

the Taipei Martyr's Shrine, or Zhong-lie Ci, and its rather dramatic surroundings.

anyway the Martyr's Shrine, or Zhong-lie Ci, if you, like me, prefer, was pretty much as we'd expected after having seen the one in Taichung, though a bit more impressive. the great thing was that we got there just minutes before they began their changing of the guard ceremony, which is kind of interesting, if absurd. i believe i have detailed my impressions of the Taiwanese military in ceremony before; this was pretty much the same scene, if a little longer. as you can see from the picture, there are three lines etched into the concrete of the courtyard area; they got there from the many years of soldiers marching (very slowly) the entire length of the courtyard, two times for each of the hourly guard-changing ceremonies. the whole thing takes about fifteen minutes.

thejayfather as a Taiwanese soldier. in case you're busy revising your notions about the height of Chinese men, at least consider that these men each have about a three inch lift in their boots to hide their jingly metal bits. but these guys were taller than average, and also walked in a manner not easily imitated.

as you can see, they don't seem to mind others getting in on the act. the walk they do is kind of interesting, and quite difficult to do right; all very drill team. they even have these little metal rings on the bottom of their boots, which jingle together every time they stomp their feet down, and which are probably responsible for most of the concrete discoloration.

steadily standing guard. mostly.

finally, before taking off to get the remaining souvenirs, we took a little pic with one of the newly situated guards. before they get settled on their boxes, they have a guy that comes around and ensures their pants are still properly creased, their jackets are sitting prettily, and the tassels on their guns are falling just so. i have to say that the guards do a fairly good job of remaining stock-still for a long time, and it's not something i would ever care to have to do, but i found it kind of funny that our guy visible leaned away from Jill when she walked into position for this shot. i've seen the guards at Buckingham Palace, and i sort of felt that this flawed attempt at BP re-creation epitomizes why Taiwan is not considered one of the world's cultural hubs. but their soldiers sure do dance better.