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Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Purity of the English Language

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

James Nicoll

Taiwan Road Trip, Day Four

We spent the last night on the road in a picturesque bungalow complex (complete with a huge marble hot springs tub in the bathroom) just outside Puli. The next day, after breakfasting on the most humongous pork sandwiches I've seen in a good while, we sauntered up the hill across from the hotel to check out the hang gliding launch spot on top. Didn't see any gliders that day, but a bunch of other nice stuff:
Hillside betelnut plantation

As always, the flora didn't disappoint:

Golden Trumpet Tree, Tabebuia alba

Some kind of Christmas tree...

After that, it was time to hit the highway back to Taipei. In an autobahn rest stop by Hsinchu, we found this wonderfully wacky sign. This is what happens when dictionaries are used without protective gear and in the absence of professional supervision...

Now it's time to prepare for a trip across the Southern Cross-Island Highway - a road even more magnificent than the CCIH!

PS: Many thanks to Andy Wimmer who agreed to take over my camera for almost the entire trip, as my hands were usually glued to the steering wheel.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Taiwan Road Trip, Day Three, Part Two

Above 2500 meters the flora changed drastically. Gone were the jungly taro leaves, the ubiquitous ferns and the flowering trees - this was now the realm of conifers, lichens, moss and general creepiness.

At 2600 meters, we passed the Sacred Tree at Pilu, a 3200-year-old, 40 meter tall fir tree (Cunninghamia konishii). It's an amazing feeling to touch a living creature that was already alive at the start of the Iron Age, around the time when the Romans established their Empire.

Just below the top we stopped for lunch in Dayuling. The restaurant had iron garage-style pull-up doors instead of front walls. These doors were wide open, and DAMN, was it cold in there. But the mountain cuisine helped us forget the arctic climes: wild boar, highland cabbage and tiger lily blossom soup. I'd crawl all the way from Hualien for that sauteed boar with wild onions!

At 3100 meters, the Hehuanshan guest house offers hikers a place to stay overnight for a nominal fee (breakfast included). Check out the hiker-made snowpersons (can't say if they're boys or girls). Sorry about the asinine pose, guess I've been in East Asia for too long.

Then the serious part began: narrow, slippery roads on tundra-like terrain, swept clean just that morning after a fresh snowfall, and fog. Boy, the FOG! If you want to see the view from Wuling Pass, the highest road in East Asia, you need to arrive before 1 pm, because after that the fog will restrict your line of sight down to five feet. Not desirable in combination with the above-mentioned road conditions and the gaping maw of the valley three feet to your left.

The fog stayed with us all the way to ca. 2500 meters and then finally lifted to reveal the lovely slopes of lower Nantou County, aka "Taiwan's Orchard".

More about that and Day Four tomorrow!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Road Trip Taiwan, Day Three, Part One

Day Three found us traversing one of the most amazing mountain roads in Taiwan, the Central Cross-Island Highway, and of course the world-famous Taroko Gorge, which is actually the first 15 miles or so of the CCIH. Much has been written about the Gorge and the Highway, so in order to save valuable cyberspace, I'll let my photos do the talkin' and others do the explainin' - here are a few links about the history and sights of the Taroko Gorge and the CCIH:

Taroko Gorge

Taroko National Park (the eastern part of the CCIH)

Story of the CCIH

More pix from the CCIH

This trip takes you from banana plantations by the Pacific all the way up to the highest mountain pass in East Asia (3275 meters) which is covered in snow from December to March, and back down to sea level, all in one day. Hence, I decided to split this day into two parts: the first features the Gorge and the ascent, the second the icy realms of the pass area.

The gate to Taroko Gorge

The Gorge

Out of the gorge, and into the hills

Things to remember

A different fauna and flora: this nasty-looking piece of work is a local nettle, Urtica thunbergiana, aka "Cat That Bites" in Chinese (咬人貓). It forms huge bushes with fat, dripping poison glands on the large leaves. Touching them will guarantee the end of your boredom for at least two solid days.

As to fauna, we saw a Formosan rock macaque staring at us at eye level from a roadside tree when we came out of one of those narrow tunnels. I guess he was less surprised than us, but decided to haul butt anyway, just in case. You never know with these strange, pale bignoses. I couldn't get a photo of him, but here's a specimen of another widespread simian species:

Above 2500 meters, we also saw a whole slew of alpine birds, the most interesting among those the Formosan whistling thrush and the White-whiskered (Formosan) Laughingthrush, both endemic to the island.

Part Two coming tomorrow!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Road Trip Taiwan, Day Two

Day Two:
The next day found us rolling along the Suao-Hualien Highway and marveling at its scenic wonders.

Just 15 years ago, this aptly named "Death Highway" used to be the most dangerous stretch of road in Taiwan - barely wide enough for two sedans, one-lane, pitch-dark tunnels, and packed from end to end with gravel trucks driven by suicidal, betelnut-crazed madmen with an codex of ethics that didn't permit them to decelerate below sixty miles an hour even in hairpin turns. All that with a 1000-foot drop into the ocean always looming just beyond the flimsy guard rail...

Today, the road is nice and wide, the tunnels have been widened and illuminated, and the Gravel Trucks from Hell seem to have found Jesus or something, so now one can actually concentrate on the fantastic coastline instead of constantly trying to dodge certain fiery death. This is how our friends at asia-planet put it:

"In addition to the Central Cross-Island Highway, another road that offers considerable attractions for the tourist is the old Suao-Hualien Highway. First opened to traffic in 1932, this 118-kilometer-long road was the first government-built road in the area, but its origins go back to 1874, when a road was first cut between Suao and Hualien under order of the imperial Chinese government. North along the road from Hualien is the Chungde Control. In the early stages of its development, the road could carry traffic in only one direction at a time, and vehicles had to wait at the control station for convoys going the opposite direction to pass. It rapidly developed into a spot where travelers would stop to enjoy the scenery, have a snack, and buy souvenirs. At the northern mouth of Chungde Tunnel, 182.5 kilometers along the Suao-Hualien Highway, is the Shiahai Trail. This is a perfect spot to view the Pacific Ocean. A walk of 10 minutes down the trail brings visitors to a shingle beach featuring limestone formations and a variety of rock-growing plants. The 20-kilometer stretch of highway between Chungde and Heping is the most tortuous and spectacular section of the Suao-Hualien Highway. Cliffs of gneiss and marble from sheer drops of more than a thousand meters, and the road winds its way precariously between the cliffs on one side and the ocean on the other. After this stretch, the road runs through to Heping and Guanyin, finally reaching Nanau and Dungau. In the vicinity of Nanau, the Wushr Promontory protrudes majestically into the Pacific Ocean, dividing the Suao-Hualien coastline into the Nanau and Dungau bays. Dungau is a major producer of lilies; moreover, the Japan Current brings this coastal area a rich annual harvest of fish."

Now for the pix!

This mighty dragon saw us off in Suao.

Sights from the highway.

Closer to Hualien, the cliffs drop straight into the ocean, continuing their vertical line up to 800 meters below the surface, allowing whales, dolphins and other large ocean dwellers to get close to the coast. Consequently, Hualien boasts one of the two only dedicated whale watching piers in the world. If you're in the Hualien area between May and September, make sure to take part in a whale-watching trip.

A few shots from the other side of the road

Sunken Mitsubishi. Poor sailor...

Protect your forest! Call us at these easy-to-remember numbers! Read with a Taiwanese accent, the Chinese characters below the numbers sound like the digits above them and make sense at the same time, e.g. 930 reads like "save mountains and forest", and 057 sounds like "Bureau of Forestry".

Sign at a college campus in Hualien

Aboriginal art

Hualien is one of the world's largest marble producers, and the airport the only one on the planet made mostly from this mineral. This fine piece of marble architecture can be found downtown.

Look for Day Three tomorrow!