Little Liuqiu Island

August 22, 2012 at 5:00 am | Posted in outdoors, Taiwan | Leave a comment
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As the owner of the hotel opened the door to our room, we couldn’t do anything but laugh. The entire floor space was taken up with four floral-patterned mattresses laid side by side. It wasn’t even really a hotel. It was more like a block of houses which rented by the room and provided a home-made breakfast.

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But it didn’t matter. We hadn’t come to Little Liuqiu to spend our time in a hotel. We’d come, like all the other tourists on this holiday weekend, to enjoy the seaside. But, unlike everyone else, we barely spoke a word of Chinese and this made it all more of a challenge.

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On the terrace outside, the steps to the shallow beach were pointed out and an offer of snorkeling plus free DVD was given. We had other plans. With jerky movements, we managed to back our rented scooters out of their cramped lots. Helmets on and cameras in our bags, we began riding.

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Our destination was anywhere that looked good. We stopped to pose by Vase Rock. We snapped pictures of unknown temples as we sped past. We bought squid balls on a stick and ate them with bubble tea while we wandered past souvenir shops selling jokey T-shirts and sequined baseball caps. Some other tourists took pictures with us, complimenting our pale skin. We crawled on hands and knees through Black Dwarf Cave and wandered through the jungle foliage of Wild Boar Ditch. We laughed at the college girls trying to get a family of stray cats to pose for a photo, then tried to do the same.

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The island was only 6.8 square kilometres and we must have circled it a few times during the two days we were there. But we kept riding. Kept being cooled by the wind whooshing against our bare legs and arms. Kept feeling the thrum of the scooter. Kept trying to straighten our hair for the five minutes of freedom it would have before a helmet was plonked back on it.

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Somewhere, amongst our stops and starts, along a road that led from somewhere to somewhere but which we hadn’t a clue about, we saw a sign. A sign for a beach. So we turned right.

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Scooters and cars were parked haphazardly along the small lane, so we dismounted and took the first free space. The road ahead became a rough concrete ramp leading into dirty sand. But as the ferns and banana trees to our right began to thin, we saw the beach; a mile or so of pale, shelly sand. Two huge chunks of fossilized coral sat randomly, creating shade for people to sit in and nooks for holding possessions while their owners waded in the grey-blue water.

We slipped off our flip flops and clothes and left them in a pile, our cameras hidden inside it. Then we ran, all four of us, towards the small waves.

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Siberian Windows

August 17, 2012 at 4:19 am | Posted in Trans-Siberian | 2 Comments
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I loved the ‘wooden lace’ architecture in Siberia. In Tomsk we saw some very grand buildings, freshly painted and carved with dragons and peacocks. In Irkutsk and Tobolsk the buildings were shabbier and, in my opinion, all the more beautiful.

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Sun Moon Lake

August 6, 2012 at 6:28 am | Posted in outdoors, Taiwan | Leave a comment
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Sun Moon Lake is the biggest natural water body in Taiwan (although at 7.93 square kilometres, it’s not really that big).

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Like most ‘tourist attractions’ in Taiwan, facilities are overpriced and it’s prone to being flooded with tour groups.

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Which is not to say it isn’t enjoyable eating street food, taking boat rides and visiting temples.

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There are tons of hiking trails around the lake and it’s easy to escape the crowds just by venturing along one of these.

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Although the surrounding mountains are not so high, there are still some quite lovely views.

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The top of the Ci En Pagoda (慈恩塔) gives a good overview of the whole lake.

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We took an early bus from Taichung and arrived before 9am. It was easy to find a hotel in November, but harder to find a cheap one. There are quite a few touts selling boat rides, some who speak English, although – this being Taiwan – none are pushy.

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Food on my doorstep

July 8, 2012 at 10:17 pm | Posted in miscellaneous, Taiwan | Leave a comment
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I can never take delicious photos of food. I don’t know how and I don’t have the patience to set up a good shot before tucking in. You’ll just have to take it for granted that everything here is really, wonderfully tasty.

I live in the centre of town, surrounded by hole-in-the-wall restaurants and food stalls. Everything is literally no more than five minutes away. If I choose to travel further (10-15 minutes) I also have the option of the best Thai restaurant outside of Thailand, and a quite decent Italian, as well as more Chinese/Taiwanese/Hakka food. But often I’m too lazy for that.

Clockwise: Vietnamese baguette, boiled dumplings, ‘Japanese style’ breakfast, rice-noodles and duck on rice.

Clockwise: fried rice, hot and sour soup, octopus balls (balls of almost Yorkshire pudding-type batter, filled with cabbage and octopus), ‘Chinese burrito’ (soft pancake filled with beansprouts, cabbage, marinated tofu, pork and crushed peanuts).

Left: Japanese restaurant. Right: the finished product.

Choose whatever vegetables, noodles, meat, tofu, dumplings (and other things I can’t identify) that you want. Pay. Wait a few minutes while they boil it in tasty broth, drain it and smother it in thick soy sauce. Eat it.

Left: chicken pho – Vietnamese restaurant, Right: eel set and pork fillet set – Japanese Izakaya restaurant.

Scooter ride to the sky

July 8, 2012 at 9:18 am | Posted in Asia | Leave a comment
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“So, what will you do?” the Germans asked us.

We were basking in fleeting spots of sunlight, and feeling lazy after the home-cooked feast served by our hotel. The leaves and flowers around us glinted and dripped with raindrops and the clouds above threatened to shower again. I finished off the last of the sizzling hotplate of venison and lemongrass.

“I think we’ll rent a scooter. Hopefully it won’t rain.”

The Germans thought it was a great idea, but lamented the fact they didn’t have a license.

“Neither do we. But it’ll probably be ok.”

As we walked towards the main road in Sapa, we hoped our assumption was right. I didn’t want to be stuck wandering around town for the next four hours. The Germans chose to stay on the hotel terrace until it was time to leave for the overnight train back to Hanoi. I wondered if that wasn’t the smarter choice as we dodged tribeswomen, desperate for us to purchase an ethnic handicraft or three, and proprietors encouraging us to partake of the happy hour at their bars and restaurants.

The rental guy found us first.

“You want scooter?”

He gave us a key, two helmets and pointed us in the direction of the gas station. And that was it. No questions, no safety directives, no discussion of damage clauses. We were out of town in no time, without any idea where we were going.

It turned out to be the best thing we did in Sapa.

I spotted a brown tourist sign that sent us off up a steep route away from the hordes of backpackers and trailing tribeswomen trekking through the muddy rice terraces. To our right was the rock face, plants growing all over in the crevices and water dripping constantly, sometimes gushing down onto the road. To our left was an open expanse, a valley sweeping out and splitting into many more the further we travelled.

We saw a strange farm on the hillside across from us, piles of plastic laid out in neat squares. We passed a woman carrying vegetables in baskets hanging from a pole across her shoulder. With her conical hat she was a perfect postcard image. We spotted a gleaming line on the rock face far ahead where the road twisted around. The closer we got, the bigger it became and as we passed that torrential waterfall, several more appeared during the next ten minutes’ ride.

The road continued climbing and the clouds got closer. Driving alongside misty puffs, we felt the cold damp of water droplets in the air. Hills across the valley played hide and seek in the patches of white. We felt chilled, but didn’t stop.

Then suddenly, we were above it. The sun shone in my eyes. The road curved round and the whole world opened up to us. Tarmac snakes and stone worms wriggled through a furrowed blanket of deep green. A single reflective strand threaded its way through a deep channel. A few toy-block buildings were scattered in the expanse. I felt ecstatic. I gasped. I couldn’t help it.

At that highest point, where the bend of the road was unprotected by any barrier, I felt like I could have walked straight off into the sky.

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