Thursday, April 20, 2017

Yuli-Fuli Bikeway

Yuli (花蓮縣玉里鎮) in the southern part of Hualien County has long been a crossroads. It's here that 19th-century migrants from west Taiwan via the Batongguan Ancient Trail emerged from the Central Mountain Range. Some of these pioneers proceeded north or south within the East Rift Valley. Others continued eastward across the Xiuguluan River and Coastal Mountain Range to the Pacific coast, taking a route similar to what's now the Yuchang Highway (Highway 30).
Like much of the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area, Yuli is thinly populated and there’s never a lot of traffic. Cycling is therefore a fun (as well as eco-friendly) way of exploring the township, which sprawls over 252 square kilometers. The authorities have done their bit to make the area attractive to pedal-powered tourists by creating the Yufu Bikeway (玉富自行車道), a 9.8km-long bike path that starts in central Yuli. 
The history of the bikeway is, in fact, tied to the the history of the railway. In recent years, Taiwan’s government has upgraded and electrified the railroad in the east. In the process, the stretch immediately south of central Yuli was straightened. Instead of crossing the Xiuguluan River, it now takes a more direct route toward Taitung. One reason for this is that the rock-strewn bed of the Xiuguluan River - which empties into the Pacific 25km away as the crow flies - conceals an important geological boundary. 
The land east of the waterway, including the Coastal Mountain Range, is part of the Philippine Sea Plate. Everything to the west is part of the Eurasian Plate. East Taiwan’s hot springs and frequent tremors - not to mention much of its rugged beauty - can be attributed to the ongoing collision between these plates. 
Each year, tectonic forces drive a bit more of the Eurasian Plate under the Philippine Sea Plate. As a consequence, the Coastal Mountain Range grows a little higher. But this tectonic mismatch causes problems for humanity. The road bridge that crosses the river has to be fixed every three to five years. A tremendous inconvenience, of course, yet an interesting spot to stop, learn a bit about natural processes, and take a team photo!
As even minor distortion of the tracks could cause the derailment of a speeding locomotive, what used to be the railway bridge (and now serves as part of the bike path) had to be repaired and realigned approximately every two years. Enjoying the bikeway recently as guests of the scenic area, we barely noticed the gradient while pedaling across. But a little later, pausing for breath at the 3.2km marker and looking back at the bridge, the disparity was obvious. 
Antong (安通) Cycling Station is a former railway station supposedly repurposed for the benefit of bikers, but at the time of our visit there were no food, drink or repair services - not even a vending machine. Local folk make good use of the bikeway, and not just to reach their fields. One lady we came across was laying out Hakka-style dried pickled mustard greens (meigan cai, written 梅干菜 or 霉乾菜, shown above).
The bike path ends at Dongli (東里) Old Station, where you can get a cup of coffee, snacks and postcards. For cyclists eager to explore further, it's easy enough to continue southward on Highway 9 (the main north-south road in the East Rift Valley), although the traffic is sometimes quite heavy. We turned around so we could take in a few sights in the town center before boarding our trains home. One of these we would never have found but for the help of the local hotelier accompanying us: A section of creek at the corner of Heping Road and Minguo Road Section 1 where local housewives and grandmothers still hand-wash clothes in the traditional manner. 
In the parkland on the corner of Minquan Street and Zhonghua Road, there's a green-and-white bus bearing the logo of Taiwan’s postal service. This vehicle formerly provided Taiwan's only mobile postal (and post-office banking) services, regularly touring the township's remoter villages. A stone's throw away, local artists create and sell works at Pu-Shi Printing & Dyeing Art Workshop (璞石藝術館).
Upstairs, the emphasis is on stone art, created using tiny fragments of various stones, some of which are imported. Many of the works reflect indigenous themes:
This visit and blog post were sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The hub of the sugar industry in east Taiwan

Between the 1930s and the 1950s, sugar was Taiwan's most valuable commodity. Sugarcane has been grown on the island for about 400 years, but it under Japanese colonial rule between 1895 and 1945 that the local sugar industry really began to thrive. In the 1915-1939 period, the amount of sugar produced per hectare harvested rose from 2.76 tonnes to 9.91 tonnes. By the late 1930s, sugar plantations covered a fifth of Taiwan’s farmland. Many of them have been afforested (like the one shown below) or used for the development of science-based industrial parks.
In 1950, sugar’s contribution to Taiwan’s exports peaked at 73.6%. It remained an important source of foreign exchange until the 1970s, when competition from Brazil and other producers pushed Taiwan’s sugar industry into unstoppable decline. All but three of the island’s 49 sugar refineries were closed. Some were demolished; others were repurposed as cultural venues. The state-owned Taiwan Sugar Corp. (TSC) has diversified away from the production and sale of sugar and now also grows orchids, raises hogs, and runs a chain of gas stations.
Hualien Sugar Factory (花蓮糖廠, above), which ceased operations in 2002, is neither the oldest nor grandest of Taiwan’s surviving sugar-processing facilities. Nevertheless, it is without doubt a beguiling place to visit for anyone interested in industrial heritage and Taiwan’s economic development. Being 47km south of Hualien City, not far from Guangfu Train Station, it’s also a fine place to break the long drive from Hualien to Taitung - especially if you like ice cream.
Many of those who stop here make a beeline for the frozen-products shop. It sells around 30 flavours of ice cream and popsicles, some of them seasonal. Among are likely to be some you’ve never sampled, such as azuki bean, taro, soy sauce or yeast. The sugarcane juice lollies are especially refreshing. 
Two carp-filled pools (shown above) near the ice-cream store are in fact reminders of World War II. During the closing stages of the war in the Pacific, when the Americans were bombing industrial sites in Taiwan in a bid to weaken the Japanese war machine. Sugar refineries like Hualien’s were targeted because they supplied ethanol to the Japanese military. Elsewhere in the complex, girders still carry holes and other marks (obvious in the photo below) made by shrapnel.
Back in the factory's heyday, what's now the parking lot was usually piled high with harvested sugarcane. This was often delivered by narrow-gauge trains, like the one pictured below:
The very first stage of the industrial process was removing dust, grit and gravel from the cane. The cane then moved through a series of machines, several of which bear the insignia of the British, German, Dutch and Japanese companies which made them. Visitors can wander among these crushers, rollers, pulping vats and boilers. Few are labelled, and the information tends to be in Chinese only, but it’s easy to spend half an hour or more here, gazing at the rusting yet intensely photogenic infrastructure. 
For those living hereabouts, the factory wasn’t only a place of employment. The company provided health care, housing and entertainment. The old clinic still stands, as does the former movie theatre/meeting hall. 
Rather than demolish what used to be senior managers’ official housing, TSC renovated the refinery’s Japanese-era wooden bungalows and turned them into Hualien Tourism Sugar Factory Guesthouse. 
The Japanese personality of these buildings has been preserved, even after extensive rebuilding using hinoki wood sourced from the US and Vietnam. Within the 28 rooms, guests sleep on tatami mats, and don yukata (traditional dressing gowns) after soaking in ofuro (high-sided wooden bathtubs), prompting one local Chinese-language blogger to wax: ‘The style allows you to feel the beauty of the Japanese culture of silence, soft colors and soft lighting’.
This visit and blog post were sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Taipei's Little Burma

New York and London have multiple ethnic enclaves, but while it’s likely true that Tianmu (天母) has a higher proportion of Western expatriates than other parts of Greater Taipei, Taiwan’s capital has perhaps just one true immigrant neighborhood: Little Burma in New Taipei City’s Yonghe District (新北市永和區).
It’s said between 20,000 and 40,000 people in Greater Taipei have Burmese roots. Some of them arrived as early as 1954; others came more recently to attend university in Taiwan. Almost all are of Chinese descent and many fought in KMT units which retreated to what’s now Myanmar after the Communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Several of those units were kept combat-ready for years at the behest of Chiang Kai-shek, who never quite gave up his dream of retaking mainland China by force. Many of the men were originally from Yunnan in China's southwest, which is why you'll see a number of restaurant signs (like the one above) offering Yunnanese dishes. Gradually, these aging soldiers and their dependents were allowed to settle in Taiwan.

Huaxin Street (華新街) is the heart of Little Burma, and I set foot there for the first time a week ago. I walked the 550m from Nanshijiao MRT Station (at the southern end of the Orange Line; leave by Exit 4 and turn right), following signs to ‘South Pacific Food Street.’ This is the local government’s mistranslation of 南洋 (which Wikipedia describes as ‘a sinocentric Chinese term for the warmer and fertile geographical region south of China, otherwise known as the 'South Sea' or Southeast Asia...’). Just after the police station on the right-hand side of the road, I found Huaxin Street on the left. Most of the buildings hereabouts are old apartment blocks. Few have more than five floors and the prosperity so obvious in central Taipei is conspicuously absent.
It being well before lunchtime, I first explored the neighbourhood market which occupies the street’s Lane 30. It’s a pretty standard market, except for a handful of vendors who label their produce in Burmese script. The lady selling this was too busy dealing with customers to answer any questions. 

In a few of these eateries, the Burmese-language bill of fare is much more prominent than the Chinese-language menu, and a lot of the Mandarin you’ll hear spoken in this neighborhood is strongly accented. Two or three early-opening places attract groups of men aged 50 and over who sit, chat, smoke and drink tea or coffee.
I’m sure that if you know where and what to order, and you’re with a group of friends, you can have an splendid feast here. Being by myself, and a first-timer, I chose at random one of the street’s halal eateries and ordered a bowl of Jinshan Noodles (金山麵), in part because I prefer broader, bantiao-style pasta. It was pretty good: A generous amount of mildly-curried chicken, hard-boiled egg and raw onion.
After that, there wasn’t time to do much except have a cup of sweet Indian milk tea in another halal restaurant...

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

JJ Farm in Hualien County

Various kinds of cattle, especially water buffalo, have long been a feature of Taiwan's countryside. Oxen were brought to the island in the 17th century by the Dutch, who controlled an area roughly equivalent to today's Greater Tainan. As recently as the 1970s, a good many Taiwanese farmers were still using ungulates to plough fields, turn millstones and pull carts. These animals also supplied manure, but few farming families drank milk, and because of a food taboo that still persists among some Taiwanese, even fewer ate beef.
Before the Japanese seized control of Taiwan in 1895, the only milk production was by the handful of Westerners living on the island. In 1870, British missionaries running a hospital in Tainan established a small dairy ranch so they and their patients could enjoy fresh milk. But the first large-scale operation was established in 1896 by the Japanese, who believed reliable supplies of milk were necessary to keep their soldiers healthy and to help the wounded recover their strength.
Since World War II, the Taiwanese diet has become more like North America's. People eat more bread and less rice, and milk is sold in every supermarket and convenience store. Most of the milk powder consumed in Taiwan is imported, but a lot of fresh milk comes from domestic producers, among them JJ Farm (吉蒸牧場), located very near the Xiuguluan River Rafting Service Centre in Hualien County's Ruisui Township (花蓮縣瑞穗鄉). 
JJ Farm, which produces over 5,000kg of milk each day, is open to the public seven days a week from 8 am to 5.30 pm. The farm has over 600 milk cattle, fed on local grass and manufactured feed imported from New Zealand. 
As you'd expect, JJ Farm pasteurizes the milk is sells directly to visitors and indirectly through supermarkets and department stores – but does it differently to most dairy companies. Rather than heat the milk at a high temperature for a very short time, it applies a lower temperature (65 degrees Celsius, which is why their milk products bear prominent '65C' logos) for a longer period. This, it's claimed, means more of the nutrients found in raw milk are retained. In my opinion, JJ Farm's milk has a delicious aroma and a fuller taste than most milks available in Taiwan.
The farm also sells milk cookies (unlike most brands of milk cookies, which are made with milk powder, they're made with fresh milk) and steamed milky buns. Anyone who loves dairy products will enjoy both. If you're hungrier, order a set meal (NTD150) or a milky hot pot (NTD280). There's also milk candy, ice cream and coffee; sit upstairs on the veranda for good views up and down the valley.
It's not possible to get very close to the dairy herd. The cattle spend most of their time under a shelter which protects them from both strong sunshine and rain; the building is equipped with huge fans for when the weather gets too warm for comfort. But if you've young kids in tow, be sure to take them to the farm's petting zoo, where there are ponies, goats, a peacock and evem a mountain boar. 
The easiest way to reach JJ Farm is to enter the grounds of the Xiuguluan River Rafting Service Centre, then turn right when you reach the riverbank. Keep going and you'll very soon see fibreglass cows and the two-floor restaurant/sales centre. Even if you're not much of a cyclist you'll have no problems getting here from central Ruisui on two wheels. 
If you simply want to enjoy a milky hot pot, there's no need to go to JJ Farm. Green Genie (綠精靈), which has various meal sets, all priced around NTD300, is less than 300m from Ruisui Railway Station at 52 Chenggong North Road. It's open 11 am to 9 pm daily, but takes a break from 2 pm to 5 pm on weekdays.
This visit and blog post were sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Eating sugarcane and buckleberries

Sitting down to a multi-course meal recently, this dish appeared in front of me. At first glance, I assumed the main ingredient was bamboo, but it turned out to be sugarcane. Harvested when still very short and soft, it was first boiled then added to a stir fry with slices of turnip, a few slivers of carrot, some chili and a generous amount of Chinese buckleberries (Cordia dichotoma). The buckleberries are the brown spheres about the size of peanuts. After cooking they're very soft, but contain a large pit (and thus little in the way of flesh). They're not at all sweet and tend to take on the flavours of the foods they're served with. 

Chinese buckleberries are hard to farm but often gathered from the wild. I've eaten them dozens of times over the past two decades, sometimes added to fried eggs or piled over a steamed fish. Most Taiwanese refer to them by their Taiwanese name, phoa-po-chi (破布子). Archaeological evidence indicates the Siraya indigenous people in what's now Greater Tainan were eating them regularly at least 600 years ago.  

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Western gods in Taiwanese temples

This lengthy paper by Hubert Seiwart, then of the University of Hanover in Germany, published in Volume 21 of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Hong Kong Branch) back in 1981 goes some way to answering a question often asked by foreigners living in or visiting Taiwan: 'Why do traditional religions continue to be so prominent and popular in a society which is otherwise thoroughly modern?'

In the paper, which looks at the religion called I-Kuan Tao (一貫道, variously translated as 'The Unity Way' or 'The Way of the One that Penetrates Everything'), Seiwart argues that the popularity of such sects isn't in spite of modernization and Westernization but rather a reaction to it. He writes:

Adherence to traditional religious beliefs and practices can be a means of symbolizing cultural continuity and thereby identity... Modernization in China, as probably in most non-Western countries, started in the field of economy and technology. Only gradually (though inevitably) other parts of the socio-cultural system were affected... [As far as] religions which form institutions of their own, they are much less affected by social and economic changes than most other traditional institutions. A society in the process of modernization can more easily afford to cling to traditional religions than for example traditional ways of communication or education.

In terms of cultural continuity modernization in China represented a clear break, whereas in the West it was a continuation of the genuine tradition. To put it simply, one major aspect of modernization in China was and still is westernization, which means in a way that the modern culture in Taiwan is perceived as 'less Chinese' than the traditional culture. This may help to explain some of the differences in the cultural and especially the religious responses to modernization in Taiwan and in the West.

He points out that the only other social realm independent of economic changes is the arts, but while art is also a symbol of cultural continuity, 'the connoisseurs do not belong to the common people, [and] on a popular level religion holds a much more important place than the arts'.  

Siewart then addresses an issue that has long fascinated me: The appearance of Jesus and Mohammed in certain Taiwanese temples.

Western civilization is not objected to in its totality, only its materialism is rejected. The menace of the modern world results from the fact that the West has submitted to materialistic thinking and this materialism gains more and more ground in China as well. Since the Chinese religious traditions and Western religions are equally opposed to this materialism, they are all fighting for the same cause, they are allies not adversaries.

The recognition of Christianity and Islam as true religions equal to the Chinese religious traditions can be observed at different intellectual levels. A rather superficial level is represented by some of the fu-luan cults. While the deities which manifest themselves by the writing stick originally all belonged to the traditional Chinese pantheon, it does happen today that Western gods, above all Jesus and Mohammed [who of course is not regarded by Muslims as a god], give revelations by fu-luan. This integration of Western deities... 

When Hubert asked a spirit medium how Jesus and Mohammed could manifest themselves in a Chinese temple, he was told that 'in heaven, no boundaries between East and West exist and all gods live in the same heaven'.

The photo above shows a 19th century Taiwanese folk-religion icon of a Catholic friar, exhibited in Kaohsiung History Museum.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Putting your bike on a train is often (but not always) straightforward

Some days ago I cycled from my home on the outskirts of Tainan to Chaozhou in Pingtung County (屏東縣潮州鎮). To avoid traffic, I took back roads wherever possible, yet managed to travel in a more or less straight line – except for the middle fifth, where having no option other than Highway 22 (which passes near Foguangshan) if I were to cross the Gaoping River – I was compelled to travel east rather than southeast.

According to Strava, I covered the 78.6km in just under four and a quarter hours. Not Tour de France pace, I know, but I'm proud of what I achieved, and I look forward to a few more long rides before the weather gets too hot. The elevation gain during the ride was 262m. Almost all of that, I'm sure, was accounted for a climb just north of Agongdian Reservoir, and another on Highway 22 where it goes below Freeway 10.

This isn't a route I'd claim to be especially scenic, although I did pass through some very pleasant villages once across the Gaoping River. It's just one which worked out well for me on the day. More useful for visitors to Taiwan is knowing that it's now pretty easy to take your bike on certain trains, and that some commuter trains have carriages which have been adapted for cyclists (see first and second images). However, this isn't possible at all stations. For instance, as I was reaching the end of my ride, I knew my options were limited because I could take my bike aboard at Pingtung (屏東), Xishi (西勢) or Chaozhou, but not Guilai (歸來), Linluo (麟洛) or Zhutian (竹田).

I got to Chaozhou about half an hour before the train to Tainan was scheduled to leave, and the young lady who sold me my tickets (full price for me, half-price for the bicycle – see third image) said it was imperative to be on the platform ten minutes before departure. Do bear that in mind.

And the cost? As with every form of public transport in Taiwan save forthe bullet train, impressively cheap: NTD182 for me and the bicycle, one way. That's USD5.89 or GBP4.74.