Friday, June 27, 2014

Matsu transportation

Planing a trip to Matsu was a lot more difficult than I would have imaged. There are 11 round-trip flight services operated by Uni-Air as well as the Taima ferry operated by Shinhwa Navigation Corp. that transports passengers between Taiwan and Matsu on a daily basis. It’s difficult to imagine that transportation could be an issue when planing a trip to Matsu.

Matsu is an archipelago of 36 islands and islets, among these islands, only Nangan (the main island of Matsu), Beigan, Dongyin, Xiju and Dongju islands are opened to tourists. There is no problem to hop around the islands by boat once you are in Matsu, except for Dongyin island. The only way to go to Dongyin island is by Taima ferry, of course you might consider to take a helicopter, and the schedule of Taima ferry during November to April could be a problem for travelers who wish to stay in Dongyin for just one day. On odd dates, the ferry embarks from keelung harbor and en route to Nangan then Dongyin and back to Keelung. On even dates, the ferry takes a different route to Dongyin first, then Nangan and back to Keelung. The ferry sets sail once a day at 22:50 from Keelung harbor and doesn’t operate on Tuesdays. It is very important to pay attention to the schedule to save traveling time if Dongyin is one of your destinations. Given the schedule, if you are smart enough to avoid to take the ferry on Monday then here are some scenarios:

  1.  Take the ferry on odd dates: arrive in Dongyin at noon, and leave on the next day at 06:00 (only half day for the trip and have to sleep over for 1 night) or take the ferry in 2 and a half days later at 06:00 ( sleep over: 3 nights). 
  2. Take the ferry on even dates: arrive in Dongyin at 06:00 and leave the island 2 days later at 06:00 (sleep over: 2 nights) 

There is no way to pull off a full day trip only in Dongyin during November to April. However, during May to October, the schedule changes to odd dates, the ferry goes to Dongyin first, then Nangan and back to Dongyin and finally back to Keelung; the even dates remain unchanged. This schedule makes a trip to Dongyin island much more flexible.

Taima Ferry ticketing service:
  1. Make a reservation: Passengers can reserve tickets up to 7 days in advance by internet (00:00-16:00 daily; ) or by phone (08:30-17:00, 886-2-24246868 for Keelung office; 10:00-17:00, 886-836-26655 for Nangan office; and 14:00-17:00, 886-836-77555 for Beigan office).  Be aware, unless you have a Taiwanese ID number, the internet booking system won't accept ARC ID or passport numbers. You can ask the host of your B&B to book the tickets for you when you are on the islands.
  2. Purchase ticket and checkin: The Keelung office opens for number drawing at 17:30. With a reservation or not, passengers must take a number and follow the call for purchasing the tickets. With a reservation, take the number from the smaller number machine; take the number from a bigger number machine if you didn't make a reservation. Between 20:00-21:30, the staff start selling tickets to those who made reservations. For those who didn't make reservations they can start purchasing tickets at 21:30.  The boarding starts at 21:30. 
*All schedules depend on weather conditions, and may change accordingly. In case of inclement weather, sailing announcements made daily at 11:00AM. Check the website for schedule chances (http://www.shinhwa.com.tw).

Except for Taima ferry, boats that commute between Nangan and Juguang (Dongju and Xiju) also change routes on a monthly basis. In principle, the boat will dock at Xiju first in odd months then Dongju in even months. Checking with the operator to confirm the schedule is advised.

Other information:

The Matsu National Scenic Area website has a detailed transportation information. Also, this interactive animated map (Chinese only) shows transportation between Taiwan and Matsu (left button on the top), between Matsu islands (middle button on the top) and the bus routes on Beigan (top) and Nangan (bottom) (right button on the top).

Monday, March 24, 2014

Xiangshan Cycling Route

Cycling used to serve one purpose and one purpose only: a means of transportation, especially for students in the early days in Taiwan. Nowadays, cycling is becoming the most popular sport/activity for leisure. While lots of cities in Taiwan are working on building a cycling friendly city by planning bike routes and relevant infrastructures for cyclists, the road 21甲 in Nantou County had been chosen as one of the 10 breathtaking cycling routes in the world on CNN by Tim Cheung in 2012. One can circumnavigate the largest lake, Sun Moon Lake,  in Taiwan and enjoy the nature and turquoise water in a half day ride. The route also connects 4 temples, 4 piers, 8 stunning walking trails, 1 Thao aboriginal village and the Toushe basin where the ground bounces like a water bed.

There are 2 cycling routes built along the lake, Xiangshan cycling route (Xiangshan tourist information center to Sheishr, 3km) and Moon lake cycling route (Syuanguang temple to Moon lake, 4km), to separate the cyclists from cars and buses and one Toushe cycling route (1km) leads to the smallest reservoir in Taiwan at the Sun Moon Lake Scenic Area. Xiangshan cycling route is probably the most beautiful and the easiest access route for cycling around Sun Moon Lake. The only bicycle rental in Xiangshan is the Xiangshan bike rental and recreation plaza, which is on the other side of the road. The price for renting a regular bile is NT$100/hour.

Bird's eye view of the cycling route from the Xiangshan tourist information center

Man made sandy beach and little park 

Bridge over the turquoise water

Pavilion

Land mark of Sun Moon Lake

Overflow control (sky well)

Bike trail over the lake

and into the lush

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Yushan starry concert

The Yushan Starry Concert has been held for the 5th time this year at the Luona Elementary School in Xinyi village of Nantou county.  The demography of Luona village is mostly composed of the Bunun tribe, that is well known for their homorhythmic chords and fanfare melodies. As most of the villagers would never have the chance to step into the National Theater and Concert Hall in their lifetime to enjoy a high quality music, the principle of Luona elementary school, Peter Ma, started an ambitious project in 2010. Instead of bringing villagers to the National Theater and Concert Hall, why not bring the concert to the tribe so that all the villagers can enjoy the music at ease? Hence the highest altitude music concert in Taiwan.

I participated in the concert last year and was impressed by the high quality of the performances and the fact that all staff of the organization were volunteers, some of them even flew back to Taiwan from America to put out such a wonderful show. Last year the theme was focused on tribal music, this year a variety of musical styles elevated the performance once again. The Dong Guang choir brought the famous homorhythmic chords of transitional Pasibutbut, an eight part harmonic signing. The crystal clear sound of the Vox Nativa chorus, the local native children's choir directed by school Principal Peter Ma, gave me goose bumps. The group 'Perfect Match' brought a Taiwan style broadway show to the stage. There was also an amazing piano performance from a blind pianist, Huang Yu Shiang (黃裕翔), who also starred in an autobiographical movie "Touch of the Light (逆光飛翔)" in 2012. There was also a performance from the 'Guang Ching Chorus' a group of disabled singer. And finally a wonderful performance by the Bolivian group Anka Phaway 'the Eagles', all for free under the starry night at the foothills of Jade mountain.

This concert is held every spring (around March), for more information visit the website: http://voxnativa.org

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Shanghai

Thanks to the increasing number of cross-strait direct flights, Shanghai is only 2 hours away from Taipei, at a reasonable price. With its "free Taiwan High Speed Rail round-trip ticket package" offer, China Eastern Air was the cheapest airline I could find, and with no surprise, the price reflected on their online booking system and customer service. I saw a value joint-way package on their website which offered Taoyuan/Shanghai round-trip tickets plus 25% off round-trip tickets for Taiwan High Speed Rail plus free round-trip tickets for high speed trains departing from Shanghai to various cities in China. I couldn’t get the details from their website so I called to inquire and I got the answer: “contact any travel agency”. I went to the liontravel and no one knew what the deal was about and they had to call a senior manager to find out. The travel agent first told me that in order to get the value joint-way package the airfare had to be at lease R class and the departure of high speed train had to be on the same day of my flights, then he showed me the price: airplane tickets: NT$14000 which I could get it online for NT$9000 (Z class), and the so called “free” high speed train would cost me NT$1000 to Suzhou (one-way) and the price was only CNY$ 39.5 (less than NT$200). I thanked him for the effort and tried to book the tickets online. After filling out the information needed I clicked the submit bottom and it returned an error message with no indication of which step the error occurred. I called the customer service and told them the problem, a moment later, she told me that she had tried it and confirmed the booking website worked with IE browser but not with google chrome. I told her that I had tried firefox, safari, opera and IE, none of the browsers worked for me. I asked if they could book the flight for me but they refused and gave me a solution, “contact any travel agency”.

My first night's hotel in Shanghai was the Manhattan Bund Business Hotel, 5 min walking distance from the Bund, and I loved and hated the location at the same time. The hotel’s entrance is on the Dianchi road, the road I would think twice before walking in after the nightfall. Before I got in the hotel a man walked toward me and solicited; after checking in the room, I was tailed by a different man on my way to the Bund; a third man came to me on my way back to the hotel, offering me a list of girls from different provinces of China for a memorable night in Shanghai. No matter how I expressed firmly that I was not interested, he just wouldn’t give up. Finally, he slowed down his pace and giving up on me, I let my guard down and broke into a smile on my face, somehow that almost undetectable smile worked like a charm, the guy speeded up again and the other guys started approaching. I fled back to my hotel and locked myself in for the rest of the night.

Shanghai has a vast metro network that makes it easy to move around the city most of the time but taking the metro was a challenge for me. No mater where my position was in a line, I always ended up the last one to get on the train. In fact, there was no queue whenever a train approached. People fought to get in the train before passengers could get off and the fight didn’t stop until any tiny sitting space was taken. One day, on a train, I saw an old lady with a handful of bags who had spotted a seat when she got on, while she was unloading her bags on the floor in front of the seat, two teenagers rushed in and seized the seat and almost knocked over the old lady in the process. I witnessed the whole thing taking place in less than 5 seconds and no commotion was raised; no one gave a damn about it; the teens sat happily playing with their phones as if nothing had happened and even the old lady seemed to get used to this situation and was OK with it. Despite the massive transportation coverage, I found it’s weird sometimes, the way they plan the transportation network, especially in the Bund and new Pudong area. Bund and the new Pudong area are separated by the Huangpu river and connected by subways, ferries and tunnels. Subway and ferry need detours to the stations making the bund tourist sightseeing tunnel the easiest and the fastest way to go from one side to another, but that costs CNY$50/70, one-way/round-trip! I guess it is as Fili put it: “a perfect example for pulling off quirky tourist trap”.

East Nanjing road is one of many shopping streets in Shanghai, I am not a shopping aficionado but as people say “you haven’t seen shanghai if you don’t visit the East Nanjing road”, so I went and tried to cultivate some senses for shopping. It’s a pedestrian boulevard with department stores, outlets and exotic restaurants in the modern tall buildings on both sides. The crowd made the 28 meter wide boulevard feel like a byway, I could barely walk when groups of talented locals spread out in dance formation as their routine exercise which somehow attracted quiet a bit audience. Walking down the street I had the craving for ice cream, I went into a MacDonald's located in the basement and ordered an ice cream. The staff said something to me but I couldn’t catch her for the first time because of the accent, so she repeated it with additional bunches of other sentences. All I heard was the ice cream half price, I felt embarrassed and had to bear with the look as if I was a retarded and asked her to speak slowly. This time I understood what she was saying: went up to the first floor to get ice cream, and the second ice cream was half price. I didn’t notice there was a shop on the first floor on my way down, I went upstairs skeptically and there it was, a tiny window in the corner sold only ice cream. I went to the booth and before I made my order the staff repeated their promotion slogan “ice cream, half price for the second ice cream”, I ordered an ice cream and she replied: “we have no ice cream”.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Daylily trip

The cultivation of the daylily in Taiwan is mostly concentrated in eastern regions, Hualien and Taitung counties. There are two famous daylily mountains in Hualien county; the Chike mountain (赤科山) in Yuli township and the Liushidan mountain (六十石山) in Fuli township. Chike mountain is named after the Chike trees (Mori oak, Quercus morii) planted by the japanese during the japanese colonial era. There are 3 versions of how Liushidan mountain got its name and the authenticity of the tales aren’t identifiable. The first tale, the most popular one, tells the story of the farmers who were impressed by the great productivity of grains (60 dan/hectare; 1dan=100 liter) and named it Liushidan mountain (60 dan mountain). The second tale is the opposite of the first one, at the beginning of  cultivation, the farmers only harvested 60 dan of crops in the whole mountain in one season and the 3rd tale is that there are 60 big rocks in the mountain.

In the Liushidan mountain valley, an Amei tribe called Talampo is the first cultivation recorded in this area. The tribe also called this place "The land that is never touched by the Sun" and they are known as the "Dark Tribe" because the area is surrounded by tall mountains with no electricity supply until recently. During the japanese colonial era, the japanese cut down camphor trees in the mountains to make camphor and railway ties. After most of the trees were cut, a local man transformed it into a farm and grew military related crops. After world war II, a general named Chang Xiechung requested for the right to cultivate the land as a retirement plan for his soldiers and named it Fuxin farm. The farm closed down in 8-9 years as the soldiers became too old to work in the field. In 1959, a catastrophic flood , August 7th flood, devastated several counties in western Taiwan, the refugees, especially from Yunlin county, settled down in this area and grew rice for living. Daylily has better tolerance to drought and requires little care, making it an even better crop to grow in the rocky mountains and soon after, the daylily plantations were thriving in Hualien and Taitung. The dazzling color attracts tourists from all over Taiwan every year in August and September, and the Hualien government made deals with local farmers, instead of harvesting the flowers, up to 70 hectares of daylily plantations were reserved for tourism purposes in Hualien in 2013 alone.

I called almost every B&B in Liushidan mountain to book a room two months before my trip, and only one of them had a vacancy on Friday night. I took it and made my 3-day itinerary using the itinerary optimizer in the Taitung tourism website (app available for free download). Two weeks before the trip, two typhoons invaded Taiwan, Trami first then followed by Kong-Rey. The typhoon warning for Kong-Rey was lifted on August 29th, one day before my trip. Despite the pouring rain in west-south Taiwan, I got on the train and headed to Taitung as scheduled. It was fortunate that it was rainless in eastern Taiwan on the first day of my trip, until the night fell. The next morning, while I was trying to find my way to a pavilion in the rainy and foggy mountain, I got a phone call from my sister who was supposed to follow my footsteps to the Liushidan mountain telling me that a train derailed because of a landslide, she was stuck in Fangliao train station waiting for further instructions. Later on, she was sent back to Tainan on the same train and the South Link railway was closed. Given the fact that the rain in Taidong wasn’t so heavy and it was on and off from time to time, I didn’t give it too much though and kept enjoying being lost in the fog and then amazed by the picturesque scenery when the fog faded away.

Back in Taitung City, the news about the South Link network was broadcast on every news channel and it wasn’t expected to be able to resume operation within 3 days. I went to Taitung train station to confirm my train and  found a poster stating that the backup system was implemented: shuttle buses to traffic passengers from/ to Dawu and Fangliao stations to bypass the landslide section. I was told to take my train as scheduled, but I got to the station earlier and found chaos in the lobby. A few South Link trains were canceled; a few trains were delayed for at least two hours and the staff was broadcasting of how to get a refund or take other trains and the worst, LED displays in the station were malfunctioning. Luckily my train wasn't canceled, with the help of staff I got on the train with a group of Tzechi volunteers whose train was canceled. We all knew that we were going to take shuttle buses from Dawu to Fangliao but no one knew if there was a train waiting for us or we should just take whatever train available in Fangliao station. After 90 mins on the windy mountain road, I almost tasted my lunch for the second time, I boarded a new train and returned safely.



View Liushidan Mountain B&B in a larger map

Day 1
Train No. 301 Departing from Tainan at 06:23; arriving Taitung at 09:33
Rent a car at 10:00
Provincial Highway 9 to Liushidan mountain
Stopping by Chulu Ranch, Wuling Green Tunnel, Mr. Brown Avenue, Dapo Pond
Accommodation: one of the B&Bs in Liushidan mountain

Day 2
Provincial Highway 30 connects Provincial Highway 9 and 11
Drive down to Taitung via Provincial Highway 11
Stoping by Nanrenshi, Shihyusan, Sansiantai, Donghe Bridge Scenic Area, Water Flowing Upwards, Taitung Railway Art Village, Water fountain show at National Museum of Prehistory at 20:00
Accommodation: yeshotel

Day 3
Siaoyeliou for sunrise, Biking in Taitung Forest Park and Paposogan (Seashore Park)
Train No. 754 departing from Taitung at 16:00; arriving Tainan at 20:08

Monday, May 27, 2013

Prepaid card with 3G internet service in Taiwan

Modern technology changes the living styles of people in so many ways including tourism. I used to buy a lonely planet, print out local map and the metro/bus map before a trip and now I just take a smartphone with me. I can find points of interest and directions to it on google map; I can search events near me on the days I am staying and rearrange my itinerary if the weather forecast isn’t in favor of my original plan; I can even translate German into English so I wouldn’t make a fool of myself. However, as powerful as a smartphone can be, it is crippled without a 3G internet support as most people wouldn’t pay for the outrageous international data roaming fee when traveling abroad. Even though, you can probably get free wifi access in your hotel and coffee shops, it falls short on the go. I list the 3 best known telecommunication service companies in Taiwan and guides to how to apply for a prepaid card with 3G internet service.

 First, due to the government regulation, you need to provide passport and a secondary ID in order to apply for a prepaid card in Taiwan. The secondary ID could be a Visa, Tourist Visa, international student card, entry permit issued by Taiwan National Immigration Agency or an official photo ID of the applicant such as Social Security Card, Identity Card, or Driver's License, etc.

 The second step is to select a company to purchase a prepaid card from. Now the question is of which company you should pick. The 3 best known telecommunication companies in Taiwan are Chunghwa Telecom, Taiwan Mobile and Far Eastone. Let’s take a look of the signal reception: Chunghwa telecom was the only company that provided telecommunication service before 1996 in Taiwan, it has the best infrastructure built around the islands, as a result it has the best reception in rural areas or islands in Taiwan. The signal reception in cities among the 3 companies have no difference. You can compare the signal reception on this website: http://freqgis.ncc.gov.tw/pub_new/PublicMap.aspx

Except for the quality of signal reception, phone rate is another important factor of choosing a phone company. I listed 3G airtime rates and internet plans of 3 companies below:

3G airtime rates

3G wireless internet plans

Packages

You can choose a package that fits your itinerary based on the information above. Among the 3 telecoms, Taiwan Mobile is the only one that doesn't provide 3G internet only (no calls) service. Basically, apply to all 3 telephone companies, you have to deposit some money to a 3G prepaid card for airtime and if you need 3G internet service, you can subscribe to an unlimited data usage plan and deduct the money from your deposit, directly. You can use your remaining credits for airtime as long as your prepaid card is within the valid period. However, there is an expiry date for  prepaid cards which is 180 days from the date of last recharge. To recharge your prepaid card, you can go to any convenience store (Including 7-11, Hi-Life, OK Mart, and Family Mart) or the telecom offices in Taiwan.

So how to subscribe? Have your IDs ready, fill up the form, deposit some money and that's it. Chunghwa Telecom is the only one that offers online reservation and detailed information regarding the products and terms of use, in English: https://123.cht.com.tw/webecss/PrePaidCard/Introenus.aspx. One thing to keep in mind if you make the reservation online, is that you have to pick up your prepaid card at the Chunghwa Telecom kiosks in the airports listed in the website and their opening hours are usually 08:00-21:00 daily. The best place of purchasing a prepaid card is the international airports as some packages are only sold exclusively there and the staff are familiar with various secondary IDs provided by foreign travelers which might be rejected in a local office. So, if your arrival time permits, stop by the counters of the 3 companies and subscribe your prepaid card. Or you can go to any service office in Taiwan to do so.

Service location:
Chunghwa Telecom: http://www.cht.com.tw/portal/en/Location
Taiwan Mobile: http://english.taiwanmobile.com/english/customer/serviceLocations.html
Far Eastone (Chinese only): http://www.fetnet.net/cs/Satellite/eCare/ShopCenter

PS: iTaiwan Government Indoor Public Area Free WiFi Access is available to foreign visitors:
you can present your passport or entry permit (for Mainland China residents) at a Travel Service Center located at any major airports, train stations or mass rapid transit (MRT) stations in Taiwan and give the service personnel your e-mail address. After the service personnel applies for an account number for you, you can use the account number to access the Internet at any major indoor public area in Taiwan free of charge.

Or you can simply go to the Taipei-free public Wi-Fi (TPE free wifi) website and register an account with your native mobile phone number. The TPE free wifi account can be used to log  onto iTaiwan service. Have fun!
https://www.tpe-free.tw/tpe/tpe_step1_en.aspx 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On the route 21

Namasia, the name resonates in my ears, it might sound meaningless to outsiders but the exotic phonetics of the name intrigues me. Located in the mountainous area of Kaohsiung, Namasia district is part of the Yushan range (the jade mountain) with two rivers, Cishan or Nanzihsian river and Laonong river, running through. The demographics of the area is mostly Bunun, with Tsou and Paiwan as substantial minorities. The bureaucratic old name "Sanmin", taken from Sun Yat-Sen's "Three Principle of People", was re-placed with Namasia in 2008, as it is the name of the Nanzihsian river in the Tsou language, meaning "better and better" in Bunun.

My first visit to Namasia was following Rich's lead, participating in one of the Bunun tribal festivals, Malatangia: Coming of Age,  in 2012. I was amazed by the majestic scenery when driving on the temporary roads and bridges. The devastating typhoon Morakot in 2009 brought rainfall that equaled the annual amount in 3 days and destroyed the major access road, route 21, and mountains in the area. The most heart breaking news was that the whole Hsiaolin village, 169 households, was engulfed by a landslide, causing 398 lives lost. Driving along the river bank on these temporary roads and bridges that were built on fallen rock debris, with the crumbling mountains in sight, the impression could humble the most proud man by the presence of mother nature.

I visited Rich in Namasia during the 2013 lunar new year's holiday, the route 21 was partially fixed and survivors from Hsiaolin village were translocated to a newly built modern community. A memorial park was built at the original site of Hsiaolin village, where all 169 households were labeled in miniature. It all seems like a bright future awaits, sad still but hopeful. The road in between the memorial park and Namasia is still a mess, it's even worse than I remember from my last visit. Apparently a rage water washed away these temporary bridges and foundations. Hopefully they will repair the roads so other people can enjoy the rugged beauty of its nature.