Scooting around Green Island

If you’ve had your fill of the city and want some fresh air, hop a train down to Taitung County. Once you’re there, embark on a journey across 20 miles of very rough seas (read: bring Dramamine) to Ludao Township, also known as Green Island.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GIWalk.jpg” title=”Beach walk” caption=”We visited during the off season, and there was barely anyone there.” position=”center”]

Now a popular spot for Taiwanese tourists and scuba divers, Green Island was once a remote place of exile for political prisoners during Taiwan’s White Terror, a period of martial law that lasted from 1949 all the way to 1987. Green Island Prison is still operational, but the island’s main penal colony (the oddly named “Oasis Village”) has been converted to a museum.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GICliff.jpg” title=”Cliff” caption=”It would be difficult for anyone to escape.” position=”center”]

After being in cities for a while we were grateful to find that Green Island only has about six square miles of land and maybe 2,000 residents. The ring road along the island’s coast is just 12 miles long, but given the total lack of public transportation or taxis available it’s best to pick up a scooter and get around like the locals do. There is no shortage of two-wheelers on the island, and you’ll be bombarded with offers as soon as you get off the ferry. We picked one up for under $12 USD a day.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GIScooters.jpg” title=”Green Island Scooters” caption=”Which one do you want?” position=”center”]

If you aren’t experienced with riding scooters this can be a good place to get in some practice. Just watch out for Taiwanese tourists (they travel in packs), coconut crabs, and other small animals crossing the road.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GIRoad.jpg” title=”Open road” caption=”Open road on Green Island.” position=”center”]

We stayed just outside of the main village in town, which is basically just a strip of restaurants, dive shops and boutiques. If you walk a bit north you can watch the tiny puddle-jumper planes take off from the airport and see the island’s lighthouse. It actually has an interesting history: In 1937 a luxury ocean liner called the SS President Hoover ran aground there during a typhoon. Everyone survived, and members of the US public donated money so they could build the lighthouse and avoid more accidents in the future.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GILighthouse.jpg” title=”Lighthouse” caption=”It was designed by Japanese engineers, and then built by villagers in 1938.” position=”center”]

We also snapped this photo from the lighthouse, which went on to be one of our favorite Snapshot Sundays of the year.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GIClouds.jpg” title=”Cloud watching” caption=”The clouds looked like a painting that day.” position=”center”]

Although the reefs around the island are well-known for diving opportunities we decided to snorkel instead of taking the chance that some important piece of safety information might be lost in translation. There are several places where you can snorkel without hiring a guide, although the locals will be really perplexed if you try to buy gear from them. “You want to snorkel?” they’d ask. “Alone!? Not safe!

[ptcPhoto filename=”GISnorkel.jpg” title=”Snorkel spot” caption=”There are tons of neon fish in there.” position=”center”]

Before long we realized why they were so apprehensive. Turns out that even though Taiwan is an island nation, many Taiwanese can’t swim. If you go on one of their “snorkel tours”, you’ll be fitted out in a full wetsuit, a mask and snorkel (no fins), and a lifejacket, and then pulled along on a rope lined with buoys while you peer into the water.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GISnorkeling.jpg” title=”Snorkel tour” caption=”No swimming is even necessary!” position=”center”]

The instructors bring bread to feed the fish and walk on the reef while pulling you along. There’s so much wrong with this, I don’t even know where to begin. Suffice it to say, we were happy to brave the waves and danger and go out on our own. If you go this route, though, you might want to take some water shoes to protect your feet from sharp rocks, and make sure you watch the sea conditions since it can get a bit rough.

After a full day of water sports make sure check out the island’s saltwater hot springs, one of only three in the world. It’s $6 USD to get in and they have about a dozen pools of different temperatures. They’re even open at night if you want to take in the stars and relax.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GISprings.jpg” title=”Hot springs” caption=”A hot bath with a view.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”GIEric.jpg” title=”Eric” caption=”We may have snuck some drinks in.” position=”center”]

Aside from the main tourist sights (which can all be seen in less than a day), there are some fantastic opportunities for hiking over volcanic rock and taking in views of the sea.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GIWave.jpg” title=”Wave” caption=”Waves crashing against the shore.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”GIRock.jpg” title=”Volcanic rock” caption=”There were crabs scuttling around everywhere!” position=”center”]

Here’s hoping that developers don’t move in and change the landscape of this little paradise. It’s fine just the way it is.

Snapshot Sunday: Walking with Dinosaurs in Hong Kong

[ptcPhoto filename=”HKDino640.jpg” title=”Rawwrrr” caption=”‘Daxi’, a giant animatronic dinosaur in Kowloon, Hong Kong” position=”center”]

Measuring one hundred feet long and thirty feet high, and weighing in at around twenty-five tons, the Daxiatitan binglingi were gargantuan dinosaurs. They used to roam in the Gansu Province of northwestern China, but now only one remains. She spends her spare time swaying her massive head and tail and roaring at passers-by on the busy streets of Hong Kong’s Kowloon District.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

Taipei on a Shoestring

After a month in China we took a little break and went to Taiwan. It seems like every time we visit a new place without doing any research or building up expectations, it ends up being so much better than we could have anticipated. With diverse food options, nice people, and a huge but approachable capital, Taiwan turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

The best part is that Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, has a ton to offer the budget traveler. Here are some ideas for free (and almost free) activities in the city.

1. Climb Elephant Mountain

It would be hard to miss the earthquake-proof Taipei 101. It’s one of the tallest buildings in the world, and much (much) higher than the rest of the Taipei skyline.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TaipeiSign.jpg” title=”Taipei 101″ caption=”And they’re humble about it too.” position=”center”]

But at $500 NTW ($17 USD) each, visiting the observatory up on the 89th floor was a bit much for our budget. Besides, we were more interested in taking photos of the building itself.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Taipei101View.jpg” title=”Taipei 101″ caption=”From the top of Elephant Mountain.” position=”center”]

We found some great views of the Taipei 101 from the top of Elephant Mountain in Taipei’s Xinyi District. It’s a steep 30-minute walk up, so make sure you take some water – and don’t forget your camera! Climb up at sunset to see the city’s lights come on.

[ptcPhoto filename=”101Camera.jpg” title=”Taipei 101 at night” caption=”Snapping photos at sunset.” position=”center”]

Cost: Free

2. Go on a Boba Binge

Boba tea, aka “pearl tea” or “bubble tea”, was invented in Taiwan in the 1980’s before quickly spreading to café menus around the world. The most popular kinds are either milk- or fruit-flavored teas with balls of chewy tapioca, although variations are seemingly limitless. Taipei has more boba shops than you can shake a straw at, so you won’t have any problems finding one.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Boba.jpg” title=”Boba” caption=”Our favorite: Milk tea with bubbles. No frills.” position=”center”]

Cost: A cup of boba is normally less than $1 USD.

3. Spy on People Practicing Tai Chi

Word on the street is that the best place to see people practicing this ancient martial art is at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. We never made it over there early enough, but we did see people training in other places in the city. There are also plenty of places to take a class and try it out yourself, if you’re interested.

[ptcPhoto filename=”PeacePark.jpg” title=”Tai Chi” caption=”Tai chi at the 2-28 Peace Park” position=”center”]

Cost: Free

4. Gawk at Scooter Madness

This was one of our favorite activities in Taipei, and you won’t find it in any of the guidebooks. Get up before rush hour and head over to Taipei Bridge to see the spectacle – thousands upon thousands of scooter commuters on their way to work.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TaipeiBridge.jpg” title=”Taipei Bridge” caption=”An insane number of scooters.” position=”center”]

There are over eleven million scooters registered in Taiwan, making it the most popular means of transportation. It goes without saying, but this activity can be a bit hard on the lungs – if you’re very sensitive to pollution it might not be for you. I really can’t describe what this is like, but Eric made a dandy video that sums it up quite nicely. Some humor was added to make the chosen soundtrack a little less intense.

Cost: Free

5. Feast on Street Food at a Night Market

Taipei has more than a dozen markets that open up when the sun and temperature go down. There are some great deals to be had if you want to do some shopping, but the food stalls offer the real bargains. Point to anything that looks good, pick up some beers at a convenience store for $2 USD, have a picnic and people watch. Watch out for fruit vendors at night markets like Shilin, though. They’re infamous for overcharging tourists.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TofuAndOmlette.jpg” title=”Omlette” caption=”You can smell the stinky tofu from a block away…the oyster omlettes are much tastier.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”NoodlesHotdog.jpg” title=”Noodles” caption=”Taipei’s famous beef noodles, and a hotdog nestled in a rice-filled sausage bun.” position=”center”]

It happened to be that while we were in town Eric’s old friend and colleague Dan was there too. Dan’s from Taiwan, and he and his wife Feny used their amazing language skills while showing us around. They also treated us to a selection of snake products at Snake Alley. There are only a couple places left that still serve up our slithery friend, which is supposed to be effective in making men more…manly.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SnakeSoup.jpg” title=”Snake soup” caption=”It tastes like a cross between chicken and fish.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”SnakeShot.jpg” title=”Snake shot” caption=”Snake blood, bile, venom…other snake fluids. Bottoms up, boys!” position=”center”]

Cost: Street food is a bargain. You could go on a bender for about $10 USD.

6. Check Out Some Temples

About a third of Taiwan’s population is Buddhist, and a third is Confucian. So Taipei has some pretty neat temples where you can learn more about these religions or just soak in the dragons, koi, incense, and all kinds of beautiful eastern imagery. One of the more popular religious landmarks is the Longshan Buddhist/Taoist Temple in Taipei’s Wanhua District, a good example of Taiwanese classical architecture.

[ptcPhoto filename=”LongshanTemple.jpg” title=”Longshan” caption=”Taiwanese temples go heavy on the dragons.” position=”center”]

Our favorite was the Tien Ho Buddhist Temple. It’s tucked away in a busy shopping district, but once you’re through the gates you’re presented with an open courtyard, intricately carved dragons, and hundreds of glowing red lanterns.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TienHo.jpg” title=”Tien Ho” caption=”An unlikely place for a temple.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”TienHoLanterns.jpg” title=”Lanterns” caption=”Lanterns at Tien Ho” position=”center”]

Cost: Free

7. Lose a Staring Contest at the Martyrs’ Shrine

The National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine is dedicated to the 330,000 people who sacrificed their lives to the revolution preceding the establishment of Taiwan. The military police officers who guard the main gate have been rigidly trained to stand like expressionless statues, never moving – and barely even blinking! Get there on the hour to watch the changing of the guard, but stay a bit longer to take photos after the crowds clear out.

[ptcPhoto filename=”MartyrShrine.jpg” title=”Martyrs’ Shrine” caption=”It’s amazing how long they can stand so still.” position=”center”]

Cost: Free

8. Just Wander

Taipei is an extremely safe city with low rates of violent crime, pickpocketing, and other crimes against tourists. Hop off the metro at any random stop and you’ll probably find something interesting and off the beaten path.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TaipeiStreet.jpg” title=”Signs” caption=”A busy street in Taipei” position=”center”]

Cost: Free!

Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors

Eager to get out of Beijing, we hopped a high-speed train over to Xi’an in the Shaanxi Province. The walled part of the old city has a nice little shopping district called the Muslim Quarter where you can sample all kinds of halal street food and shop for handicrafts.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XianFans.jpg” title=”Fans” caption=”Chinese fans in the Muslim Quarter.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”XianFood.jpg” title=”Street Food” caption=”Street food in the making.” position=”center”]

But the real reason to visit Xi’an is the Terracotta Army. It’s located about an hour outside of town, making it an easy day trip. Upon arriving we headed to pit one straightaway. Of the four pits that you can enter, it is by far the most remarkable. We were taken aback by the sight of 6,000 Warriors all lined up in formation.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-4.jpg” title=”Pit One” caption=”After thousands of years in the dark, the Warriors now greet millions of visitors every year.” position=”center”]

The Terracotta Warriors were built in the third century BCE by laborers and craftsmen directed by China’s first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The army was meant to protect Qin in his afterlife, so the soldiers were built with horses and sophisticated weapons.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XianSam1.jpg” title=”Weapons” caption=”At one time they all would have had weapons in their hands.” position=”center”]

They were covered in sixteen feet of dirt until 1974 when they were rediscovered by farmers digging a well in rural Shaanxi. One of the farmers wrote a book about the experience and now hangs out in the gift shop as a local celebrity. You can meet him and take his photo if you make a purchase.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XianFarmer.jpg” title=”Farmer” caption=”We didn’t, and had to settle for this photo of his photo.” position=”center”]

Around the back of the excavation site you can see Warriors in various stages of restoration. Archaeologists are still uncovering more and more remnants and piecing them together in what must be the world’s most complicated jigsaw puzzle.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-9.jpg” title=”Head” caption=”These guys need a lot of glue.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-7.jpg” title=”Headless” caption=”They used to be painted in bright pigments that made them look even more realistic.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-8.jpg” title=”Title” caption=”Their height signified rank – the tallest were generals.” position=”center”]

To learn more, check out the Shaanxi History Museum located inside the city. It’s a free museum but we ended up spending something like two hours standing outside in the heat waiting to get in. They only let two groups enter daily rather than cycling people through, making the whole experience rather painful. Once you’re inside, though, you can see the Kneeling Archer – the only Warrior that was found in one piece.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-1.jpg” title=”Archer” caption=”His short stature may have saved him from being crushed when the pit caved in.” position=”center”]

If you decide to brave the crowds I’d recommend going to the museum first. Once you’ve seen the pits you won’t be that impressed with what’s on display here. But you can definitely get much closer to the Warriors here than at the main excavation site and get a sense of how detailed they are.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-2.jpg” title=”Close up” caption=”Each soldier is different from the next.” position=”center”]

It should be noted that some conspiracy theorists believe the Warriors are an elaborate hoax set up by the Chinese government to lure in tourists. It is true that they were discovered right when China was first opening its doors to Western visitors.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-11.jpg” title=”Line” caption=”The Emperor’s tomb is nearby, but has yet to be opened.” position=”center”]

Skeptics are also quick to point out that no other terracotta works have survived in such good condition for two thousand years and that piecing them back together into what we see today would be an impossibility. Furthermore, legend has it that in order to keep the army a secret, Emperor Qin had all 700,000 builders put to death. But no mass grave sites have been found anywhere in the vicinity.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-3.jpg” title=”Hoax?” caption=”A massive schvindel?” position=”center”]

We like to believe they’re authentic, though. If so, they paint an extraordinary picture not only of an Emperor’s extreme sense of self-importance, but also of ancient arts, belief systems, and ingenuity.

Snapshot Sunday: Grazing in a Karst Landscape

[ptcPhoto filename=”Karst640.jpg” title=”Yangshuo” caption=”Grazing in a karst landscape – Yangshuo, Guangxi – China” position=”center”]

The countryside around the city of Yangshuo in China’s Guangxi Province is famous for its karst landscape of limestone hills. This cow took a moment to acknowledge us as we cycled through farmers’ fields along the Li River and took in the countless majestic peaks.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.