Lantern Festival

This article was published in en Voyage, EVA Air’s inflight magazine in 2015.

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In late February and early March, cities and towns across Taiwan will be bathed in light and color as the nation celebrates lantern festival. Two of this year’s brightest and most beautiful celebrations will take place in Taipei and the central city of Taichung.

In Taiwan, lantern festival is one of the most important events of the year. It falls on the fifteenth day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar – March 5 this year – and it marks the end of the Chinese New Year holiday period.

Traditionally, lanterns were large, red spheres, and while you still see these old-fashioned designs around – especially in temple courtyards – modern lanterns come in all shapes and sizes. The larger display areas around the country almost always feature a huge lantern in the shape of that year’s Chinese zodiac animal – a goat in 2015 – while other designs portray anything from cartoon characters to fire-breathing dragons. This is an occasion which, although it might be best appreciated by young families, everyone can enjoy.

This being Taiwan, no celebration would be complete without food, and at the country’s lantern festival display areas, you’ll find dozens of vendors selling the island’s tastiest treats. Look out for tang yuan, a traditional lantern festival snack of pink and white rice dumplings served in a sweet soup.

Taipei

Taipei is one of the best places to enjoy this colorful celebration, as lanterns are placed throughout the city. The largest and brightest display areas are at the Taipei Expo Park near Yuanshan MRT Station and at the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. Both displays are truly spectacular and every year, organizers try to add some new element to the festivities to keep the public entertained. The result is a pair of massive events with laser shows, music, tunnels of light and thousands of lanterns.

The Expo Park is a huge area, and the displays here are split into distinctive, themed areas showcasing historical, international and artistic lanterns. There are also areas featuring lanterns made by local students and places where you can engage in the traditional practice of writing your hopes and wishes for the future on lanterns.

While the display at the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall may be a little smaller, it’s still incredibly impressive. The imposing, white marble memorial hall provides an amazing backdrop to the twinkling lights of the square’s lanterns.

Taichung

Every year, one city is selected to host Taiwan’s national lantern festival celebrations, and in 2015, that honor has fallen to the central city of Taichung. The festivities are set to commence on February 27 and continue until March 15. The main display will be conveniently situated by the Taichung High Speed Rail Station. You can get on a high speed train in Taipei and be at the station in less than 50 minutes, and the journey is well worth it. National lantern festival celebrations in Taiwan are bustling, over-the-top celebrations of light, sound and of course, food.

If you’re already in the city center, you could also head down to Taichung Park as it will host a separate display area over the course of the holiday period.

There are a few places in Taiwan where Lantern Festival is celebrated a little differently. Two of the most spectacular events are held in the southeastern city of Taitung and Yenshuei, Tainan County in the southwest, and both sets of festivities involve thousands upon thousands of firecrackers.

Taitung – The Bombing of Master Han Dan

Nothing can prepare you for this event. It can go on for around an hour, and in almost every second of that time, scores of firecrackers explode, filling the evening with light and deafening noise. What’s truly amazing about this spectacle is that each one of those firecrackers is thrown at a man wearing nothing but a pair of red shorts. Get close enough to him as he’s carried on a chariot around Taitung’s main public square, and you’ll actually feel the still-smoking casings of the spent firecrackers falling on your shoulders and head. It’s not an experience for the faint-hearted, but the good news is that you can still get a good view of the action from the edges of what is generally a bustling crowd.

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The reason for this apparent madness is that the men are dressed as Han Dan, a Taoist god of wealth who hates the cold. To curry the god’s favor – and keep him warm – businesses and individuals will spend huge sums buying firecrackers for this incredible evening.

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Yanshui – Beehive Rocket Festival

This is one for the thrill-seekers because in Yanshui, the firecrackers aren’t lit and then run away from, or even thrown around. Instead, over the course of the lantern festival evening, hundreds of thousands of these little explosives are shot directly into the crowds of festivalgoers.

Depending on your personality, being there is either exhilarating or terrifying, and if you can fight your way to the front of the crowd, the adrenaline rush you’ll get as firecrackers whizz past or smack into your body is amazing. No matter where you stand, you’re never completely safe as volleys of these fireworks sometimes come raining down from above.

This is not an event to take children to, and anyone who does go should stay safe and cover themselves completely with thick clothing, gloves and a motorbike helmet with full-face protection.

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Fall Hiking in Northern Taiwan

This article was published in 2014 in   en Voyage, EVA Air’s inflight magazine.

With the heat of the summer dying down, this is the perfect time to explore Taiwan’s hills and mountains. In northern Taiwan, you’ll find a great range of places to stretch your legs and enjoy stunning scenery.

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Northeast and Ilan Coast Scenic Area – Bitou Cape

Drive along Taiwan’s northeast coast, and you will find sandy beaches – places where can relax, play with friends and family, or just soak up the sun. But that’s not where the real beauty of this stretch of land lies.

Located just to the southeast of the Asian landmass, Taiwan has been battered by typhoons, strong winds, high waves and torrential rain. As a result, the coastline, especially in the northeast, is a rugged combination of battered cliffs and bizarrely shaped wave-cut platforms. At Bitou Cape, you’ll find both.

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The cape’s coastal hiking trail starts a few hundred meters south of the sleepy fishing town of Bitou and takes you past a cliff-side school before leading you through dense mangrove thickets. The gnarled, spiky vegetation is heaving with animal life, and even in the winter, it’s possible to see squirrels, lizards and a variety of birds.

When you leave the undergrowth behind, prepare to be arrested by the breathtaking views of steep rock faces and lush, grassy cliff tops.

The path is not particularly long, but it still commands amazing views of the sea, the hills and valleys of the headland and the nearby towns. You should also make detours off the main track to visit the gleaming white lighthouse and also the wave-cut platform at the base of the cliffs. Centuries of wind, rain and wave erosion have left behind an almost otherworldly landscape of ridges, potholes and mushroom-shaped honeycomb-structured rocks.

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Bitou is easily reached by taxi or bus from the nearby city of Keelung. Bus No. 1052 leaves hourly from outside the Keelung Train Station. Once in Bitou, you’ll find signs for the trail in both English and Chinese.

North Coast and Guanyinshan Scenic Area – Guanyinshan

Guanyinshan is a beautiful day trip for anyone staying in Taipei. Easy to reach from the center of the city, it’s also relatively easy to climb as its summit, the imaginatively named Tough Man’s Peak, is only 616 meters high.

Small thought the mountain may be, there’s still plenty to see. Like so many Taiwanese hills, Guanyinshan is covered in plants and trees, meaning there’s a huge variety of animal life. There’s also a wealth of temples, many of them dedicated to Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy for whom the mountain is named.

There are a few paths you can follow to the top. While the main one is paved and easy to navigate, those with a min for adventure can follow other, steeper routes where ropes have been anchored around trees to help you pull yourself up difficult slopes.

However you get to the top, it is there that you’ll find Guanyinshan’s greatest attractions, as you’re afforded incredible views across Danshuei.

To get to the mountain, take the Orange 20 bus from Luzhou MRT Station and get off at the final stop.

Yangmingshan National Park – Seven Star Mountain

Seven Star Mountain is the tallest mountain in Yangmingshan National Park and is also a dormant volcano – its seven peaks being the eroded remains of a large crater that once topped the mountain.

As with Guanyinshan, you will get amazing views of Taipei here, but that’s where the similarity between these two Taipei peaks ends. At 1,120 meters high, Seven Star Mountain is nearly twice as tall, and that means it’s a much longer and harder hike to get to the top. Not only that, but the surroundings are completely different.

Gone are Guanyinshan’s temples and forests. In their stead, you’ll find volcanic features and grassy but otherwise barren slopes. The lack of trees means that you’ll be able to gaze across the city below you long before you reach the summit. It also means that summer hikes can get brutally hot, and even in October, you’d be advised to wear a hat and carry sun cream and plenty of water.

To start your walk, take a 260 or R5 bus from Jiantan MRT Station, and get off at Xiaoyoukeng. This large fumarole spews steam, sulfur and other gases into the air and is one of Yangmingshan’s most popular sites. You will pass other, much smaller volcanic vents on your way to the summit, but nothing with quite the same grandeur.

The walk up and down should take 2-4 hours depending on your level of fitness and the length of your snack and photo-taking breaks.

Shei-pa National Park – Taoshan

Taoshan is one of Taiwan’s most interesting hikes. The path to the top is measures 4.5km, which isn’t a huge distance for experienced hikers, but as you cover that distance, you will ascend 1900m. It’s a tough hike, but if you have the energy for it, you’ll find that it’s one of the most rewarding things you do on this island.

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The path takes you through a coniferous forest where the path is cushioned by thick deposits of rusty-brown pine needles. When you eventually scale the mountain, you’ll discover the sights that make Taoshan such a wonderful climb. The 360 degree views are stunning, and on a clear day even encompass both the northeast and west coasts of Taiwan. The panorama also includes the country’s biggest mountains, Jade Mountain and Snow Mountain, along with the distinctive Dabajianshan, which you can see on the back of the NT$500 bill.

Given that the hike is so hard, you may want to sleep at the mountaintop cabin before making your wat down the next day. There are spaces for sleeping bags inside and for tents outside. Be warned, though, that at this time of year, it will be very cold at night.

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Having guides with you on this hike is a good idea, and the British and American team at Taiwan Adventures http://www.taiwan-adventures.com/ have a lot of experience leading hikes here.

At 3325 meters, Taoshan is easily the tallest of the mountains featured in this article. Getting to the top is not easy, and unless you’re a fit and experienced hiker, you may not want to try it all.

Tri-Mountain Scenic Area – Lion’s Head Mountain

This mountain got its name almost 200 years when it was suggested that the peak looks like a lion’s head. Such animal-based names are common in Taiwan, and it often takes a lot of imagination to see the resemblance between the mountain and whatever part of whatever animal it’s named after. That’s definitely the case here, but it’s a beautiful site nonetheless. In fact, the area is listed as one of Taiwan’s 12 most scenic destinations and is known throughout the country for its forests, rivers and old temples, some of which are set into the mountain’s caves.

Lion’s Head Mountain is probably the furthest of the five sites from Taipei, but it’s still accessible from the capital and can be enjoyed as a day trip. The area’s visitor center is easily reached from the Hsinchu High Speed Rail station as there’s a regular shuttle bus service. Once there, and armed with maps and brochures, you’ll be able to set off into the hills – the “mountain” is only 496 meters high – and enjoy a unique day of hiking in Taiwan.

Some of the local attractions include Water Curtain Cave, a massive overhanging slab of rock that shelters a small temple, Sticky Rice Bridge, so called because the mortar used to hold together the structure’s stone slabs contains rice, Lingsia Temple, with its almost Roman Catholic-looking façade, and Shishan Rock Face. The highlight, though, is the view overlooking the red-tile roofs of the exquisite Quanhua Temple.

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Hualien Highlights

This article was published in 2014 in en Voyage, EVA Air’s inflight magazine.

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Taiwan’s biggest county, and one of the most popular with tourists, Hualien is a spellbinding mix of mountains, meadows, beaches and ocean-side cliffs. The stunning Taroko Gorge is the region’s major attraction, but around the county, there are many other destinations for single travelers and families to enjoy.

Farglory Ocean Park

Just a short drive outside Hualien City, the Farglory Ocean Park is a fantastic day out, whether you’re traveling alone or with friends or family. The park’s main draws are its dolphins, seals and killer whales. They all perform a few times a day – the dolphins and whales making incredible leaps out of their tanks, striking targets with jaw-dropping precision, while the seals’ routine is built around ridiculous slapstick humor.

After the shows have finished, there are opportunities to meet, pat, and shake flippers with the animals. It’s even possible to swim with the dolphins.

Between the performances, you have plenty of time to have fun on site’s the amusement park rides. This being an ocean park, many of the rides are water-themed. There are bumper boats, a log flume and a white-water ride. Back on dry land, there’s a roller coaster and plenty of children’s rides.

If you visit the park, try to arrive early as the site closes at 5pm.

Zhaofeng Leisure Farm

A definite family favorite, Zhaofeng Leisure Farm is a great place to take children. The sprawling 720-hectare site is part farm, part zoo and part nature retreat, and the whole place is set against the backdrop of some of Hualien’s greenest and most beautiful mountains.

A trip here is a hands-on experience, as visitors are able to get up close and personal with the many animals. Feeding the cows and goats is a regular activity and you’re even able to try your hand at milking while the farm workers talk about their daily activities and the ups and downs of life on a farm.

In addition to the regular farm livestock, there is a wide variety of more exotic animals here like camels, ostriches and monkeys. Zhaofeng Leisure Farm has also established a bird park which now houses hundreds of species including flamingos and many types of parrots.

When you’re ready to get your hands dirty again, there’s generally fruit to be picked, as lemons, avocados, kumquats and pomelos are all grown here.

Shitiping

Hualien’s coastline is mostly a rugged mix of soaring cliffs and rocky outcrops that is best experienced by driving down the ocean-skirting Highway 11. If you make the journey, you should stop at Shitiping, which is situated about 70km south of Hualien City.

Meaning “stone steps” in Chinese, Shitiping is known for its amazing rock formations that have been formed by thousands of years of erosion and the geological raising of sea cliffs and coral reefs. Much of this cracked, pot-hole-riddled terrain can be explored, and those with a passion for nature or geology can easily find themselves absorbed in the waterfront with its rock pools, ridges and battered rocks.

Fresh coral is growing just offshore, making this a popular place for divers and snorkelers. If you want to dive in yourself, be warned that the currents can be strong and the rocks are sharp and unforgiving.

Shitiping is a little isolated – the nearest convenience store is around 10km away – but there is an ocean-front campsite that’s equipped with excellent facilities.

The Batongguan Trail

Hualien is a haven for hikers, and the Batongguan Trail is one of the county’s most impressive routes. It’s a historic path that originally ran 152km over the spine of mountains that stretch down the length of Taiwan. Parts of the trail have since been lost to the wilderness and the route is now about 90km long – still a good eight days’ hike for experienced walkers – and leads from the Nanan Visitor Center in Hualien County over to Dongpu in Nantou County.

The trail will take you over mountains with incredible views of forested slopes and plunging valleys. You’ll also encounter thick forests, mountain pools and waterfalls.

Walking the path is an amazing experience, but you need to be prepared, even if you’ll only be on it for a single day. The weather can change quickly in Taiwan, and days that start off warm and sunny can quickly become cold and very wet. For a longer trip, you’d be advised to take a tent. There are cabins along the trail, but some of them are widely spread out whereas there is an abundance of campsites.

For parts of the route, you will need a permit from Yushan National Park. To apply, visit this website http://mountain.ysnp.gov.tw/english/index.aspx and fill in the necessary information.

The Butterfly Valley Resort

The Butterfly Valley Resort is the perfect place to relax and enjoy nature. It’s right next to a beautiful National Forest Park, which is crossed by a number of walking trails. They range in difficulty, meaning there’s something for everyone, no matter their skill level. Wherever you walk, you’re almost certain to be surrounded by the sight and rejuvenating smell of camphor trees.

Among the trees, you’ll discover a towering waterfall, a powerful mountain river with banks, strewn with jagged, eroded boulders and crossed by a nerve-jangling 15-story-high suspension bridge. The forest is brimming with wildlife including macaques and rare, colorful birds.

The valley is home to over 70 kinds of butterfly. Not only can you see them flying through the forest park, but the resort also has a breeding house for exotic species and also a butterfly museum.

At the end of your day, you can relax in the resort’s outdoor hot spring. The water is piped from under the valley and fills nine large pools that are equipped with water jets for muscle therapy. The invigorating water is a steady 60 degrees, and in addition to the hot springs, there’s also a steam room and a sauna.

Ru Feng Jade Factory 如豐琢玉工坊

Hualien is famous for its jade, as the beautiful green ornamental stone has been mined here for years. Carefully carved, decorative items can be bought all over Taiwan, but to get something truly unique, you should visit the Ru Feng Jade Factory. Not only can you buy jade souvenirs here, you can also pick your own uncarved rock, grind it down to reveal its gorgeous surface and then polish it to make it sparkle.

There aren’t many places in the world where you can design and craft your own ornament from a precious stone, so this should be an experience you won’t soon forget.

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On the road

In 2013, I wrote this Tourism English textbook for Cengage Learning

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Fun in Taiwan

In 2011, I wrote this Tourism English textbook for Cosmos publishing.

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Listen in & Speak out

In 2009, while working for AMC Publishing in Taiwan, I was the lead writer on this beginner-level English textbook for college students.

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Taiwan’s tea

This article was published in the November, 2012 edition of en Voyage, EVA Air’s inflight magazine.

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Taiwanese teas are among the finest produced anywhere in the world. While you’re in the country, do more than just buy a pack from the gift store – take a trip to the mountainous areas where the leaves are grown, enjoy the sights and smells of a hike through the terraced, hillside plantations, and then relax with a pot of freshly brewed tea.

There are tea-growing areas in almost every part of Taiwan, and they’re each responsible for at least one distinctive blend. Although most of the country’s teas can be classified as oolong, green or black (in Taiwan, black tea is actually known as hong cha – red tea), variations in plant type, soil and local weather conditions mean that an oolong grown in the central mountains will taste different to one produced near Taipei. Fortunately, they’re all delicious, and the regions they come from are all uniquely charming.

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Maokong, Taipei

This neighborhood on the outskirts of Taipei City is famous for its Tieguanyin and Baozhong teas. The former is an extremely complex tea that’s partly fermented and then repeatedly rolled and roasted to give it a rich taste with hints of dried fruit. As it’s such a strong, unique tea, the best blends are among the most expensive sold anywhere in the world. Baozhong is a much lighter tea, making it a good choice for those new to Chinese tea. It has a delicate floral aroma and a mildly melon-like flavor.

By taking the Taipei MRT and Maokong Gondola, you can quickly reach the tea fields from the heart of the capital. As it’s a tourist area, many of the local farms run guided tours of their fields and processing areas, and for a longer walk among the neatly lined rows of tea plants, just follow the signs for either the Zhanghu Trail or the Historic Tea Trail.

The slopes of Maokong lie above the rest of Taipei, and on clear nights, the views of the city are spectacular. If you have the time, do as the locals do, and enjoy tea and dinner in a restaurant overlooking the bright lights of Taipei.

Lugu, Nantou County

The Dongding Oolong Tea grown on the hills of this quiet, rural town is wonderfully aromatic and has a sweet, fruity flavor with a robust aftertaste. Surrounded by heavily forested mountains, Lugu is often shrouded in a thick veil of mist, and the cool, moist conditions help the tea to develop a fuller flavor and a greater concentration of antioxidants.

Footpaths and roads wind their way through many of the town’s tea farms, but Lugu’s best tea trails can be find on Dongding Mountain. There, you’ll see farmers cultivating tea plants and another one of Lugu’s famous products: moso bamboo.

The refreshing smell of tea is always in the air in Lugu, and nowhere is the aroma more apparent than at the Lugu Tea Industry Museum. The traditional Chinese-style building has several surprisingly interesting exhibits, and it’s also the perfect place to try the local produce.

Beipu, Hsinchu County

The Penghing Tea grown in Beipu is one of the more interesting blends produced in Taiwan. It has been widely known as Oriental Beauty Tea since the 1960s when Queen Elizabeth II reportedly described the leaves as looking like a beautiful lady. There’s also the fact that the tea owes its unique flavor to insect eggs. Tiny leafhopper bugs feed on the leaves of the tea plants and the eggs they lay are left on the leaves until well after they’re picked. The resulting tea has a full-bodied earthy flavor with a bouquet that’s dripping in honey.

The Beipu Penghong Tea Museum is a great starting point for a tour of the area. Not only do they have a wide selection of teas, but they can also tell you about the best tea trails and recreational tea farms in the town. The owners of these farms are generally willing to show you around their fields and processing areas, especially if you buy some tea from them!

Luye, Taitung

Fulu Tea, grown on the high Luye Plateau, has a warm, red color that is the result of a complete fermentation. The tea has a naturally strong floral aroma and sweet aftertaste, which after fermentation, is complimented by hints of caramel and honey.

The tea plantation is situated near to the town’s Gaotai, or “high plains” area. It’s been a popular tourist destination for years, so the farms are used to receiving visitors, and there are numerous trails running through the sweet-smelling tea fields.

The area is known for its gorgeous views across the fruit farms and rice fields of the Taiwan’s East Rift Valley, and the plateau is also the take-off point for the local paragliding club. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can easily arrange to do a tandem jump. Apparently, you haven’t really seen tea fields until you’ve seen them while dangling from a paraglider hundreds of feet in the air!

 

Tea Cuisine

In the Far East, tea cuisine has developed over thousands of years and there are now a wide variety of recipes and cooking techniques. Tea leaves are used to wrap meat and fish or added to dishes as an herb. Food can also be stewed in or steamed and smoked over tea. In certain parts of Taiwan, deep-fried, lightly salted tea leaves are even eaten as a snack.

Finding restaurants that specialize in tea cuisine should be relatively easy, especially in tea-growing areas. Away from the countryside, look for the cha FOR TEA chain. In addition to several Taipei branches, there are also restaurants in Taichung, Kaohsiung, and Hsinchu.

Those with a sweet tooth should also try tea-flavored pastries, cakes, and desserts. Green tea ice cream has become a standard option on many restaurants’ dessert menus, and in recent years, cafés and bakeries have introduced an ever more intriguing range of tea-flavored treats.

 

Go Pick Your Own

Tea picking tours are a fun way to spend an afternoon, especially if you’re with the family. Farmers will show you how to pick the leaves – not as straightforward as it might sound since the different varieties require different combinations of full leaves, buds and flowers. Back at the farm, you’ll find out how to grade the leaves for quality and then process them. It’s a fascinating operation, as different kinds of tea need to be roasted, pressed and dried for different lengths of time. On some tours, you’ll also get the chance to make your own deep-fried tea leaves.

Many farms only take people on these tours if they’ve stayed for a night at the farm hostel, but there are a few that will take out day visitors. One of the best places is the Neishan tea farm (內山茶園) in Dongshan, Ilan County. For NT$180, you’ll get a 40-60 minute tour that includes picking, processing and cooking. To book a tour, call 03 958 1905 at least one day in advance. Since the workers don’t speak much English, you may want to ask someone at your hotel to call for you.

These tours are also available in Maokong, but as they don’t run on a fixed schedule, the local tourist office advises people to ask for more information in individual stores.

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