The tea tales

On a whim and a prayer yesterday, I took the train up to Luye, a small fruit and tea-producing town in the east Taiwan foothills. The abstract map I had in my possession showed it was a short walk to hire a bicycle to take in the sights.

Within seconds it became obvious the station was a great deal further than the two inches on the map. In thirty four degree heat, this mattered a lot.  After hauling my backpack up a steep tarmac climb for a kilometer with not a soul or mad dog in sight, I wasn’t far off giving up, particularly when an old lady on a scooter pulled in front of me and let off a couple of angry volleys of mandarin at me. I had no idea what she was saying, only that her eyes were snarling – they were the only part of her visible behind face mask, helmet, gloves and long-sleeve clothing.

Just in time, a potential cafe – a woman sat at a table, appeared on the horizon – the opposite side of the road). I had experience in this situation, “I want tea” is one of the first phrases I learnt in both English and  Mandarin. Unfortunately, in Taiwan there are so many types of tea, the question always initiates a further unintelligible stream of queries. I end up desperately trying to find a fragment of speech I can extract meaning from, a bit like when I am talking to my uncle in Shropshire.

Anyway,  I got tea, an iced pint of it served in a glass decanter. The tea was served at a very stylish fan-cooled tea bar next door. The lady turned out to be a tea plantation owner; the oolong tea she served me was freshly picked. For an hour, she entertained me with stong-brewed stories, halfway through a snappily-dressed local singer from one of coastal aboriginal tribes popped in for a glass of tea with his mates. His songs echo the rhythm of waves the ocean apparently.

After paying for the tea, she lent me her bicycle, found me somewhere to stay the night, and invited me to join her husband’s 60th Birthday party that evening. It was an hour of tea therapy, at the end I was no longer thinking of leaving Luye, but planning when to come back.

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Singing to the sea

A short bicycle ride from Taitung city centre, I found myself the only person on the grey sandy beach, between crashing waves and screaming cicadas. It was midday and over 30 degrees. Swimming or sunbathing are obviously not a popular activity here.

On the coast path, an old woman in a pink hat and pink tracksuit wandered along alone. Further along, young people on bicycles were posing for photos in a twenty foot high picture frame, part of an outdoor art collection. Dozens of tourists were cycling in the midday sun – with sun umbrellas and electric assistance it should be added.

Apart from the pink tracksuit lady, the only other locals I had seen along the seashore was a man inside a dark temple fast asleep despite a fan blowing directly into his face, and a father, son and dog having a bath together in the communal pool.

Then  I heard a man’s voice singing a familiar tune. I recognised the words; they were Japanese. The sun-dried man, one hand in pocket and one hand on the microphone was standing facing a screen in a red building at the seashore. The building, owned by the fishing cooperative it seemed, was open at three sides giving  free air conditioning and free to look at.

Despite the slovenly appearance, the man sung with intensity;, his heart was in the words even if his body wasn’t. He was singing a moody ballad set in Japan’s mid-twentieth Showa period. Originally sung by a woman I believe, the song has some interesting lyrics including “Next time, I want to come back as a man”. The only other people there, four women sitting in a row at the back gave him a generous round of applause.

Later in the day, I cycled back to hear more. The lyrics if not the songs were all Taiwanese this time. The outdoor white plastic tables and chairs were all full of locals and the parking area full of scooters.


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To talk of thighs

Yesterday I took a bus into town. It was a challenging experience, partly because I didn’t know how to say where I wanted to go to, but mainly because I didn’t know where I wanted to go to. Perhaps I should learn how to say ‘Drop me off somewhere interesting’.

Anyway, after a tense negotiation in sparrow Mandarin, bus driver A convinced I didn’t want to get on his bus as it was going to the depot. He kindly put me in touch with Bus Driver B, who spoke a neat kingfisher English. He not only dropped me somewhere interesting, the busy town centre, but also hooked me up with a guide – the only other passenger.

Jasper was in town for a job interview. Coming down for the day from Taipei, he had earlier taken the boat out to Green Island where he is seeking work in a duty free shop. He had a spare hour before the five hour train journey back to Taipei so he thought he would go into town and get some fried chicken. Bus driver A thought I might like to join him. I desperately did – not being able to order food was cutting down my opportunities to eat food.

32 year old Jasper spoke excellent English, and Portugese too it seems – he is just back from six years working in Sao Paolo for a Taiwanese computer cabinet making business -a dying trade apparently. Self-deprecating, he kept apologising for his poor English in excellent English. Determined I was to get the best out of my fried chicken experience, he gamely translated the menu, getting stuck on the word for thigh. He didn’t need to translate, to be honest he could have rolled a dice to decide and I’d have eaten what I was given and the dice too. Anyway, after proposing alternative translations like drumstick, breast, wing and Adam’s apple, we settled on thigh as the suitable word. To talk of such things is one of the joys of travel. I think Basho said something like that. Although he may have been talking about flowers rather than thighs.

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An evening in a Taiwan Hostel

The loss of a common language has been one of the hardest things about coming to Taiwan, but the sudden disappearance of common sense can be the most humiliating. Examples include not knowing how to use the toilet -I googled it; not knowing how to open doors – somebody has to open them for me; and not knowing how to cross a road – quickly and hopefully seems to be the answer.

Last night was another humbling from bumbling incompetence. Firstly, the hostel manager, a girl from Taipei, did my laundry for me after assuming I wouldn’t be able to read the buttons. A gregarious girl, she is slim and tall, as tall as the young man from Burkina Faso here on a student exchange program – she insisted they compare heights much to the amusement of the room.

While chatting to other travellers -mostly University age Taiwanese, she kept an eye on me and was generous in her guidance, heaping praise on me when I used the correct bin, and anticipating problems like My inability to open a pot noodle packet. After helping me unravel the mystery, she then scolded me for not letting them cook long enough before eating them. “But I was hungry”, I timidly protested.

Later in the evening, she spotted me studying with my iPad in the corner isolated from the others conversation. I was studying Mandarin on a downloaded Teach Yourself book. I am at introductions and numbers, or to be more specific, I am stuck on saying my name and 5. I can’t match the sing song tones I hear and the printed words I see on my screen. Anyway, at her prompting, I introduced myself to the room. An Inguoren I am, my book tells me that it literally means person from heroic country; that might be taking it a bit far but I’ll take what I can get.


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Taiwan Trip So Far

The tea is cold, and I don’t mind. I have taken my trousers off and no-one has screamed. In theory,  cars and scooters drive on the right, but generally stick to the middle, or even the left or pavement  if they feel like it.

I holy places I have met some living legends: an old man called Yue Lao standing under the moon. At night he ties a silken cord to chosen men and women to bring them together. He is worshipped at the same temple as a snarling red-faced warrior called Guan Yu.

This morning I got up at 3:30 to cycle to a beach with a very kind mainland Chinese man called Simon. On the way, under the street lights of Hualien with just a single star visible, we passed a couple of sleeping ducks, an army of African slugs and a party of stray dogs. On the colourful pebble beach with hundred or so other camera-flashing tourists we watched the sun rise for over half an hour – the sun is very my-pace. Perhaps even better than the beach was the marble wall of mountains to our left – several are over three thousand metres high and all rise within just a few kilometres from the seashore.

In the mountains in the afternoon, hundreds of butterflies flittered about over the steaming greenery, swallows danced and dived across the valley.  Trees were literally strangling each other to get some breathing space and a spider was cleaning its web, a hanging blanket tied between trees.

The gum trees and plum trees caught my eye. I was singing about them when I tripped on a tree root and seriously grazed BOTH my knees. Bravely soldiering on, I was then chased back to the bus stop by a very aggressive puppy.

Fortunately the grazes DON’T require the application of a plaster but I will of course be taking it VERY carefully over the next few weeks.

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How not to climb Tsukuba-san: Pottery stop

I have been working on a book for a few years now, a guide actually: How Not To Climb Mountains. I am skilled at the basics: wait for the worst weather, never take a map and always go alone. Today I added an optional feature: stuff pottery in the backpack before climb.

I don’t regret it though. The plate was from Umeda, a friendly and charming small pottery at the foot of Tsukuba-san beside a forest of plum trees – all  planted by the Umeda family I discovered later. I hadn’t planned a pottery stop, but after getting off at the wrong bus stop then getting lost looking for the trail entrance, Umeda seemed a sensible place to stop and try to get a sense of where I was going.

Pottery scares me a little. It involves dexterity and patience and I don’t usually have time for that kind of thing. But I do love the imperfect shapes and textures created in many of the traditional Japanese potteries that dot the archipelago. Umeda was no exception.

Continue reading

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Ibaraki Bus Ride

I took a final walk today, a trip up to the top of Mount Tsukuba, one of the hyakumeizan 100 famous mountains in Japan. As Tsukuba-san is supposed to be one of the easier peaks I decided I could quite easily do the climb in sandals and with my full backpack.  This decision was based on vague memories of half-understood comments from people who had not climbed it, and backed up by a blogpost I had not read properly,


Anyway, I will write about the actual hike in a future post. This one is about, erm, actually I am not really sure what it is about. So good luck reading it. Here goes:


Recently I have been reading A Time of Gifts, a memoir by Patrick Leigh Fermor of walking from Holland to Istanbul in the 1930s. A fantastic adventure, broad in scope and rich in historical detail, a different Europe from what I have ever seen or known. It is hard to supress the desire to follow his footsteps for a bit, perhaps with a few less barns and a few more beds. Perhaps I will try one day. For now, I should concentrate on trying to make sense of what is around me, for today that is Japan, for tomorrow Taiwan.

A public bus from the lotus-root producing, lakeside town of Tsuchiura took me to the foot of Tsukuba-san. The 45 minute journey was enough to remind me of some of Ibaraki’s peculiarities. At the back of bus, I joined a University-aged boy with dyed blond hair, a huge gold earring, black Doc Martens, and a blousy grey jacket of the kind usually worn by 60 year old women. He got off to be replaced by a High School Boy with his trousers falling down who immediately rested his bare feet on the seat in front and spent the entire journey styling his hair. We were not far from Shimo-Tsuma where two girls, one a wild punk and one a rococco-loving cos-player form an unlikely friendship in the funny film Shimo-Tsuma Monogatari.

One of my main memories of living in Ibaraki is the roads, (trains were for schoolkids and gaijin), for adults, cars were indispensable. Even hairdressers, banks, internet cafes and conbinis have their own car parks. Sometimes it seems that Ibaraki, consistently ranked as one of the least popular prefectures to visit, is aiming to concrete over every inch of ground. It is a drive-in prefecture; with a squint you could be in the midwest US of the movies.

Then suddenly, as if the builders had run out of cement, the bus sailed through a little old village, Fujisawa (Wisteria Stream) where green popped out of every garden, colourful flowers poked their heads over high stone walls and shiny kawara clay roof tiles added a desperately needed extra dimension. There is hope for Ibaraki, if only it can find the cure for concrete.

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