Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lion Dance

A few weeks ago, our friend Sherry and her family took us to a Tung Blossom Festival. While there, Dan learned how to dance! The mask is a traditional mask used during festivals and parades - it's paper mache and is sold for $25,000NT ($787US).

Monday, May 3, 2010


This weekend we took a little trip to a small town called Rueili in Chaiyi County. Saturday was Labor Day, so we didn't have to work, which gave us a few extra hours to enjoy our weekend away.

Saturday, we woke early and headed to Chaiyi via High Speed Train. The trip only took about an hour, and in Chaiyi, we caught the County bus to Rueili. According to our trusty guidebook, the trip was to take about 2 hours. However, this area was hit hard when Typhoon Markot hit the island back in August causing a number of landslides that washed out parts of the roads. A number of times we found ourselves looking straight down into the valley where the opposite side of the road had fallen, or coming head on with other cards due to an entire lane missing. After nearly 2 hours of traveling, we were sure we had to be arriving soon. We I asked the driver is we were in Rueili yet, he just laughed and said one more hour! Apparently, due to the road conditions, the trip takes much longer now.

**Note to other travelers: The Alishan Railway is closed currently due to typhoon damage - it is unclear as to when it will be open.

Upon arrival in Rueili, we checked into our hotel and ate some lunch before heading out on a hike. The weather was absolutely beautiful - and the view was spectacular! We decided to start at the Visitor's Center - however, didn't realize that it was nearly 4km away! The scenery was worth it though and after picking up a map, we learned which trails were passable and which were not - valuable information in the mountains!

We began with a short hike on part of the butterfly trail that followed a stream through various tea fields and ponds filled with coi. We then turned off and climbed UP into a bamboo forest called the "Green Tunnel." Here we spent nearly an hour wandering through the bamboo forest, enjoying the fresh smells and the quiet landscape. When we emerged from the tunnel, we were surrounded by fields of tea and peach trees. We bought some interesting fruit called mountain tomatoes.
(I don't think they were quite ripe yet!)

Back at the hotel, we enjoyed a nice dinner before heading out to see the firefly show. Rueili is one of the best places in Taiwan to see fireflies - and while the show is nothing new for us having grown up in the country, Taiwanese flock to this area specifically to see the beautiful lights after dark. We assumed they'd be all around, but after talking to the hotel owner, we found out that there was a particular trail we needed to head to in order to see the fireflies. Luckily a group of Taiwanese college students were nice enough to give us a ride as it was quite a walk from the hotel. It was fun to watch these college students experience fireflies for the first time and to hear their excitement!

Sunday morning Dan woke early for the sunrise - I was too tired to get out of bed. Unfortunately, the sun didn't make a grand appearance, but the lighting was great for some morning photos.

After breakfast, we set out on our hike for the day. The trail head began on a winding path through a number of tea fields and temples. Soon, however, the path turned to very steep stairs surrounded by bamboo forests. We had to take it slow at times due to the moss growing on the stone stairs - which made it very slippery at times. We descended a many, many stairs before arriving at the main part of the trail. During this time, we had some great views of the surrounding mountains and a number of landslides....such a beautiful place, sad that it's been hit by such destruction.

At the base of the stairs, the trail followed the river winding through stone cliffs and a bat cave. The trail ended at a suspension bridge. We were able to cross the bridge, however the trail was very damaged on the other side. We turned around and began the long trek back to the hotel for lunch. This is where we decided the count the steps on our way up...there was no way we could do it all at once, so we decided to climb 100 stairs at a time, finally reaching the top in an hour - completely 1618 stairs!! It was quite a victory to make it to the top! Felt good, but completely wiped out.

After lunch we waited for our bus back to Chaiyi. When it arrived, we were informed that it only went to Meishan, where we'd have to change buses - luckily there was a family traveling that same direction who could speak a little English to help us with this. The decent down the mountain was much quicker - less than 2 hours - however, it left both of us feeling quite carsick from all the twists and turns and the drivers gas-break-gas-break driving!

Upon arrival in Chaiyi, we were beyond ready to be home. After grabbing a quick snack, we boarded yet another bus to the High Speed Rail Station - nearly 40 minutes outside of town (this is typical, yet I can't seem to understand why!)

Back home, we enjoyed a restful evening together, dreading the start of another workweek - but thankful for such a wonderful weekend outside the city.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Tung Blossom

It’s spring time in Taiwan, and if the fluctuating weather weren’t evidence enough, it’s hard to miss the flamboyant display of the tung oil trees in bloom. One of the most famous springtime sights to see in our northern corner of the island, the tung blossom is emblematic of the Hakka tribe and the economic expansion brought by the Japanese during their occupation.

The trees begin showing their stuff in March and continue into May. This being the end of April, in most places they are now in all their glory and splendor. They grow up to 60-70 feet tall, with a massively wide spread of branches and large white clusters of flowers. To stand at the foot of a mature tree is quite breathtaking.

Over a century ago, at the behest of the Japanese occupiers, tung trees were cultivated in Taiwan for their wood and for the tung oil derived of the fruits. The oil was used as a cleaner and as an ingredient in paint, varnish, caulking, and wood finish. The oil has since been replaced in all these applications by cheaper synthetic alternatives, but the trees remain as a symbol of Hakka culture. Thousands of people retreat to the mountains every spring to see the blossoms (sometimes called the “May snow” when they begin to fall) and to enjoy cultural activities at The Hakka Tung Blossom Festival.

Tung trees are two very similar species of tree, formerly of the genus Aleurites but now called Vernicia. V. fordii is the less common, currently accounting for about 10% of the tung oil trees in Taiwan. It was known as the ‘three-year tree’ because it was quickly ready for harvest, but had a relatively shorter lifespan. V. montana is vastly more prevalent, called the ‘millennium tung tree’ because of its long lifespan. Together these two are known as the tung oil tree: you tong shu, 油桐木.

Some sources also list Paulownia taiwaniana, whose close Paulownia relatives have long been cultivated as ornamental trees and for desirable timber characteristics (tone wood!) around the world including in the United States. In Chinese the name is quite similar: 泡桐, pao tong, although I haven’t been able to establish a real link in Taiwan between the Paulownia and the tung, which differ in genus but are within the tribe Aleuritideae. (When I asked students about this particular tree, they hadn’t a clue what I meant. This may or may not be directly related to my Chinese pronunciation.)

Whether we’re traveling by road, by train, or even by foot, we see these trees everywhere dotting the mountainside around Hsinchu county. One can even be found in our own little neighborhood, lining a schoolyard we frequently pass on morning walks to the park. The blossoms don’t have a distinct smell, but they are a wonder to behold in their delicate beauty and sheer numbers. What better way to pass a spring day than by drinking tea under the ‘May snow’ of a tung tree?

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