Mud Volcanoes, Revisited

Wushanding Mud Volcano

Wushanding Mud Volcano

Yangnu Mud Volcano

Yangnu Mud Volcano

Another view of Yangnu

Another view of Yangnu

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The main focus of our last scooter trip south to Kaohsiung was to explore the Ghost Axe Canyon, that intriguing spot on the map that turned into such an amazing discovery, but the trip was so much quicker than expected that we had plenty of time to see some of the other sights in the area – butterflies, strange peaks of uplifted coral, a waterfall or two …and mud volcanoes!  Kaohsiung County has a number of Taiwan’s best examples of this strange phenomena, and on this trip I revisited all four – two (Wushanding and Yangnu) near the town of Yanqiao in Kaohsiung County that are probably the best on the island, a tricky-to-find one near the town of Qiaotou, and a fourth at Tianliao, near the border with Tainan County.

I described them all (and a number of others, on the blog here, so this time I’ll put up some more pics of these strange, strange things… Continue reading

Yanshui: Taiwan’s most terrifying, exhilarating festival

A Yanshui Beehive in action

A Yanshui Beehive in action (from a distance…)

Compulsory protective gear for anyone daft enough to want to stand in the front line at Yanshui

Compulsory protective gear for anyone daft enough to want to stand in the front line at Yanshui

Two of our party at Yanshui 2013, doing their best Daft Punk impression

Two of our party at Yanshui 2013, doing their best Daft Punk impression

Cold, gloomy February is one of those months (like May, which is often a washout, thanks to the plum rains) when living in Taipei suddenly doesn’t seem quite such a great idea. But, unlike May, this month features one of the great dates in the Chinese calendar: Lantern Festival. Falling on the fifteenth day of the lunar new year (which usually places it sometime in February; it falls on the 14th in 2014), Lantern Festival is a far more interesting event for many foreigners than Chinese New Year itself, where most of the celebrating goes on unseen within the family home. For many Taipei locals (and foreign visitors in the city too), Lantern Festival means joining the vast crowds thronging the streets around Taipei City Hall, goggling at the spectacle of countless large and very elaborate lanterns. For many it also – rather regrettably  –  means trekking out to the little town of Pingxi on the headwaters of the Keelung River and letting off one of the untold thousands of sky lanterns that are released throughout the year these days, only to litter the beautiful wooded mountains around the town (please don’t add to the problem!).

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For a Lantern Festival you’ll never, ever, forget though, make the rather longer trek down to Tainan to join in the utter madness of the stunning Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival. This outrageous spectacle, surely one of the world’s most intense and unforgettable participation events, traces its roots back to a cholera outbreak in the town (which was then a major port) during the mid 1870s. Back in those days, Continue reading

Twenty Favorite Taiwan Waterfalls

The Golden Grotto in Hualien County

The Golden Grotto in Hualien County

The YUanuang Waterfall on the Xiaonianxi in Kaohsiung County

The Yuanyang Waterfall on the Xiaonian Stream in Kaohsiung County

Longgong Waterfall, Chiayi County

Longgong Waterfall, Chiayi County

Taiwan is paradise for a waterfall lover like myself. It’s a bit of a joke among friends and family, but I’ve loved these things since I was a kid and used to scan guidebooks back home in England, reading about stunning cascades with rich and evocative-sounding names such as Cauldron Snout, Pistyll Rhaeadr, Falls of Glomach and Sgwd y Eira. When I finally passed my driving test (em…on the fourth try…) and got my first car, a Datsun Violet, there was no stopping me  – in a series of weekend trips and longer holidays I started methodically touring first Wales and then England, exploring all those waterfalls I’d read and dreamt about in books. Within a year or two the interest had become almost an obsession, resulting in me writing a book (sadly never published) covering the complete waterfalls of England (totalling some 370… named examples).

It would probably be near-impossible to see all the waterfalls in Taiwan even if I made it my full-time job, since they are just too numerous and many are simply very remote or otherwise difficult to reach, so it’s just as well I’ve at least partly grown out of my youthful obsession. Waterfalls are still an irresistible magnet  however, and I’m never happier on a hike then when it includes at least one (but preferably more than one) waterfall. Continue reading

Gone, but Definitely Not Forgotten

The remarkable Lost Soul Valley at Caoling, now buried beneath millions of tons of earth dislodged during the great earthquake of 1999. (Photo taken in 1993).

The remarkable Lost Soul Valley at Caoling, now buried beneath millions of tons of earth dislodged during the great earthquake of 1999. (Photos all taken in 1993)

The Ferris wheel and rocket ride at the abandoned theme park above Pitan, Xidian (photo taken around 1995)

The Ferris wheel and rocket ride at the abandoned theme park above Pitan, Xindian (photos taken around 1995)

Last Christmas, while clearing out heaps of junk in my bedroom back in the UK, I came across several boxes of old print photos from my various world travels in the early 1990s, along with some photos from my earliest years in Taiwan, almost two decades ago.  Among the tourist must-sees such as Wulai Waterfall, Sun Moon Lake, Taroko Gorge and Yehliu, however I found photos of two places which will be far less familiar to the majority of Taiwanese expats, for the simple reason that (for completely different reasons) neither of them exist anymore! Continue reading

A Balkan Summer

Magnificent Kotor in Montenegro

Spectacular Kotor in Montenegro

The magnificent rebuilt bridge at Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The magnificent rebuilt bridge at Mostar in Bosnia and Hercegovina

Plitvice Lakes in Croatia

Plitvice Lakes in Croatia

I know: Europe’s Balkan peninsula is hardly a little-known area of the world these days, but it’s definitely one of the earth’s more beautiful corners, and exploring just a few of its countless attractions this year made for an unforgettable summer. Here are pics of few favourite places. Most of these places are written up in plenty of guide books, so I’m not gonna add any more here, but instead simply say that if you get the chance to go – GO! It’s a stunning, stunning region. Continue reading

The Strange Case of Transdniestr: a ‘Country’ recognized by no one

Chapel at the War Memorial in Tiraspol, 'capital' of the breakaway state of Transdniestr

Chapel at the War Memorial in Tiraspol, ‘capital’ of the breakaway state of Transdniestr

Taiwan has long bemoaned its lack of recognition by the rest of the world, but it’s a long, long way ahead of places such as Somaliland (a de facto sovereign state which has just one embassy, in neighbouring Ethiopia), or Kurdistan (an autonomous region of Iraq which welcomes tourists and, unlike the remainder of that sad country, is quite safe).

The Parliament building in Tiraspol

The Parliament building in Tiraspol

And then there’s Transdniestr, a ‘country’ which has its own president, government, its own currency, its own police force and army, and maintains border controls with neighbouring Ukraine and Moldova. Yet not one country in the world recognizes it as a separate state. In fact to the rest of the world it’s the easternmost part of Moldova, one of the most obscure ex Russian republics, and itself a country that I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of until I started researching this summer’s big trip, to Ukraine and the Balkan peninsula. Continue reading

Ukraine: an Undiscovered Gem

St Andrew's Church, Kiev

St Andrew’s Church, Kiev

I left Ukraine a few days ago for a country even less well-known among travellers, Moldova, but inexplicably overlookedUkraine was so fun that I’ve got to devote an entry and quite a few photos to the parts of this wonderful, fascinating, different country. It’s very well worth exploring if you get the chance!

KIEV

St Michael's Monastery

St Michael’s Monastery

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In the Lavra (Caves Monastery)

In the Lavra (Caves Monastery)

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Close-up of St Michael’s Monastery

Continue reading

Chornobyl

The notorious Reactor Four at Chornobyl

The infamous Reactor Four at Chornobyl

In a kindergarten near Chernobyl, abandoned after the accident

In a kindergarten near Chernobyl, abandoned after the accident

I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing on September 11th 2001: laying on the bed in my old apartment in Beitou listening to a CD of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony on my Walkman (iPods weren’t around in those days). I was in the middle of the slow movement (which is probably one of the profoundest statements in Western music, by the way), when David rushed in and told me what had just happened. As we watched the news the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center and my last vain hope that this was some kind of catastrophic accident were dashed.

Fifteen years earlier, I can’t recall what I was doing when news first started leaking of the nuclear accident at Chronobyl on April 26th 1986, but the following days, as the cloud of radioactive debris began circling around Europe and the extent of the disaster became known, are  still pretty clear in my memory.

Like 911, the Chornobyl accident is a prominant landmark in recent world history, yet it’s surprising how little I actually knew about it until on my present trip to Ukraine (and the Balkans) this summer I had the perfect chance to learn much more about it. Chornobyl and the surrounding exclusion zone can now be visited (although it still scares most people off – only 14,000 visited in 2012!), and despite all the rumors that it’s a risky or dangerous excursion, it’s quite safe with a qualified guide, and is an absolutely, humblingly, enlighteningly fascinating experience. Continue reading

Kenting – SO much more than beaches, booze and banana boats

A rare example of a natural Eternal Flame at Hengchun, near Kenting, where natural gas rises through cracks in the rock and is ignited at the surface

A rare example of a natural Eternal Flame at Hengchun, near Kenting, where natural gas rises through cracks in the rock and is ignited at the surface

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Qikong Waterfalls

Climbing Big Sharp Rock Mountain, the Kenting area's most conspicuous (and impressive) landmark

Climbing Big Sharp Rock Mountain, the Kenting area’s most conspicuous (and impressive) landmark

In the Fairy Cave (supposedly Taiwan's largest stalactite cave), Kenting Forest Recreation Area

In the Fairy Cave (supposedly Taiwan’s largest stalactite cave), Kenting Forest Recreation Area

The 'Big Gorge,' Sheding Park

The ‘Big Gorge,’ Sheding Park

The old town walls at Hengchun

The old town walls at Hengchun

I’ve lived in Taiwan (apart from an eighteen month hiatus around the Millennium) for exactly twenty years this month (June 2013), yet in all that time have only been to the Kenting area once, about a decade ago. Finally I paid a repeat visit last weekend when a group of us zoomed down there by HSR for a weekend exploring. Local guidebooks suggest that there’s more to the area than the famous beaches (which I still don’t think are that great) and the party atmosphere (which is admittedly a lot of fun), but it was only on this second trip that I realised just HOW much there is to see, do and experience around Taiwan’s southernmost tip.

Here are seven sights within a short(ish) scooter’s ride of the party strip that are guaranteed to change anyone’s view of this well-loved but under appreciated corner of Taiwan. A couple are already firmly on the (local) tourist trail, but the others are still an open secret guarded by those in the know. The most astonishing of all – Big Sharp Stone Mountain – is an inescapable landmark from almost anywhere around Kenting, but few actually climb it because the trail is hard to find. Climbing to the summit of Kenting’s most memorable landmark (which lies on private land) is also technically illegal (although when that stop people doing anything in Taiwan?) and fairly hard, vertiginous work, so consider if you want to risk it before going. If you make it to the top though, the panoramic view over Taiwan’s southernmost tip is unequalled. Continue reading

Typhoon Morakot: (nearly) four years on

On the typhoon-damaged road to Ali village

On the typhoon-damaged road to Ali village

Just over three-and-a-half years ago Typhoon Morakot swept through southern Taiwan, causing catastrophic damage and killing over 600 people. Today a memorial park stands on the site of Xiaolin (小林) village, which was completely buried by a landslide that day, while the devastation also remains obvious in many other places in southern Taiwan.

A particularly dramatic example of the terrific destruction wrought by the astonishing 2.7 meters of rain that fell on that single day can be seen in Pingtung County, at the abandoned Rukai aboriginal villages of Ali (阿禮) and Jilu (吉露).  These two neighbouring settlements were evacuated following massive damage due to subsidence caused by the typhoon floods. Luckily no-one there was killed, I was told.  The two settlements lie in a magnificent setting, clinging to the steep sides of a huge valley high above Pingtung city, and hikers heading to the remote but once popular Little Ghost Lake (小鬼湖) would have once gone right through both on the long drive up to the trailhead. The once motorable track beyond Ali (nearly 40 kilometers long) to that apparently very beautiful place was destroyed during Morakot, and the lake is now effectively inaccessible.

The village church at Ali

The village church at Ali

Ali and Jilu on the other hand can still be easily reached, and for northern Taipei dwellers, who escaped Morakot’s wrath, a visit is to this scenically magnificent area puts into dramatic focus just how terrible the destruction visited on the area by the typhoon really was. Continue reading