We make holes in teeth!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Taiwan Day 16 - Monkey Mountain

Full picture set of the day here: Flickr set or slideshow.

Back to the rainy north, and back on the bike this morning. After 2 days of sitting and eating, I'm exhausted. I need to get back on 2 wheels and burn some of this stuff off and make room for more food. As I mentioned yesterday, we have a lunch date today. I pushed it out to 12:30, saying that I needed to go long on a ride. I forgot to mention the guy's name who is taking us out. His name is Better. For real, yo. Nat's dad talks about him all the time. I have to be honest, I can't not judge the book by it's cover on this one. I'll leave it at that.

But first, Monkey Mountain. Now it's not really called Monkey Mountain it's just where I saw the monkeys that day, so I wanted to get back up there and climb to the top. Last time I made it most of the way, but not all the way. Today it was all the way or bust. I set sail a bit after 7:00 and much to my surprise, I was wrong in saying I wouldn't see the blue sky again until we got back to NJ:

So a word about the rain, or more specifically, the rain forecast. Before we got here I saw 1 forecast where it was 10% chance of rain. Since then, it's anywhere from 40-90%. I've learned that there are 2 kinds of rainy days here in the winter. The first is the 40-60% kind, and the other is the 70-90% kind. 40-60 means there's a reasonable chance that it will be dry most of the day, and it will rain some little bit somewhere along the line. 70-90 means it will be wet most of the day, and it may or may not rain when you're out. We had a few days of 70-90, but we're back in the 40-60 which is what we had when we got here. Now if only these lows of 47 would get a little bit back to normal, everything would be ok.

So of course, in that pic above it's only a sliver of blue and most of it was gray. I was heading to the hills which are almost constantly shrouded in clouds. So I knew it was going to be wet & cold up there, and today I dressed more appropriately. Shoe covers, longer pants, thicker gloves, thicker head cover, and a rain jacket. As I started out, I was warm.

That wouldn't last. As soon as I got to the base of the hill the mist started. And it steadily grew to drizzle as I climbed higher and higher. I have to admit that my sense of wonder is no longer as strong as it was the first week, at least on a ride like this. The novelty of my riding here has been replaced with a total comfort zone. I'm still awed by some of the construction and scenery I get, but I'm not taking as many pictures on the rides, especially on days like this where I really want to get my ride on so I can get my eat on later. I need to uncover more new things and spark that sense of wonder again.

The road was more of the same, since...well, it was the same. Lots of these signs along the way:

Unfortunately, no monkeys. The goal of the day was to get to the top, 4000 feet up. The ride wasn't anything amazing, and I really don't have anything new to talk about. I got a few "jia yo!" comments, and a thumbs up by a passer-by. But it was mostly me and the rain, which I had some conversations with along the way. The general conversation went like this:

Me: Dude, can you give me a break with this rain?

Rain: Dude yourself. I'm rain, man. I'm what makes the island what it is. You know, water is plentiful, I help grow all this awesome fruit and tea that you like. Scenery? Hello, you ever see a dry mountain? Kinda boring, and good luck getting a road up on that bitch because the trees and plants and stuff help keep the damn mountain together. No rain means no trees means landslide central. Now STFU and pedal.

Fine. So I made peace with the rain and made my way to the top. Unfortunately, the hill topped out at about 3950 feet and that was it. I ended up climbing 3250 feet in 7.7 miles which took 1:11, which is solid and leads me to believe that the TaiPingShan climb will take me about 2 hours or so, assuming I ever get there. This rain makes it pretty sketchy on the "down" part of the trip. I may need to buy some new brake pads for that trip.

I did get to see some monkeys after all, about 50 feet from the top they were in the trees and screaming at me again. Once again, no pics and not even any video. I tried to go with the video but they were gone by the time I broke it out. These monkeys are so lame in that regard. I guess they're camera shy.

I turned around, put the rain coat on (going up I was fine), and rolled back down for 33 minutes. Even though I was dressed more warmly it was freezing. I can't imagine how cold I would have been without the extra layers. I stopped a few times to take random pics of signs and later I was able to figure out that most of the area belongs to the department of the forestry, and much of it is only opened on a limited basis to the public, just like the other spot with the gate and the application process.

I took a slightly different route to get home which made the ride more interesting. The straight out & backs are boring, and the alternate route makes life much more enjoyable in the whole life & spice balance. I still have to take that 8-10 mile straight shot back from Scallion Land to Luodong every ride. But there's not a whole lot I can do about that.

So lunch. Better. His fiance is actually someone we've met before, as she used to live in Jersey City. It's been quite a long time but at least we know her, as opposed to being paraded in front of scores of people I either don't know or don't remember. We got there first and sat down to wait. Shortly after they showed up and we did the normal meet & greet & eat. This was the same place where I had the possible Best Meal of Trip the other day.

It turns out that Better is simply a poor choice for an English name, and it ends there. He was actually quite a nice guy and the lunch ended up being a decent time. He knew a little bit of English, so he tried to engage me in conversation, which was somewhat broken but he generally got the gist of what I was saying, which is more than I can say most of the time. Anna can speak English too, though for the most part, she didn't. That's the way these meals usually go. This is the price you pay for free food, I suppose.

After lunch Nat's dad immediately tried to get us to go to his sister's house, but thankfully Nat's mom told him to go fly a kite so we want back to the apartment to relax (not for long) and grab a coffee. I wasn't even halfway done when he burst into the living room and announced, "Ok, Norm, they're waiting for us at my sister's house. We better go." He said it as if we had made these plans and they were waiting for us. The man is persistent, I'll say that.

Nat gave me the option to bail but I went, since it was something to do. Nat's mom, however, took the out and hung out with her sister upstairs. It gets us out of the house and I get to drink tea on someone else's couch. Julia had some toys to play with and we got snacks. The only thing is that they constantly try to bombard you with food there, and it's a series of "no thanks" over and over. They also tried to talk us into dinner which we managed to pass on. We stayed maybe an hour.

Not sure if I've posted this, but here's a picture of the grave sites that randomly litter the hillsides here, which we saw on the drive:

Nat thinks they're gaudy and I suppose they kinda are. They're interesting enough from a tourist standpoint but they probably are a bit much to be dropping all over the countryside. But it's a pretty integral part of the culture, the ancestor thing. So you'd never really be able to change this. Nat's dad is totally bonkers over all the pomp & circumstance related to his mother. He carries around the small plaque with her picture almost everywhere now to show people. So the grave sites are just part of that religion.

Back to the house and some more relatives were there, this time Crash and YaoChun, both readers of the blog on Facebook. Crash had some goodies for me, including a waterproof camelback that his company makes, a waterproof iPhone case, a small bag to strap on the top tube of the bike to put stuff in, and an extra bladder for backup water. Very nice score, and this will certainly come in handy when it's time to hit TaiPingShan or LiShan.

YaoChun was just there to look happy, which she always does.

After they left we went to get some dinner and hit the bakery and food store. We dipped in for a quick stop at the night market to get something to eat while waiting for dinner, a sort of appetizer if you will. I think it was a lard stick wrapped in lard and deep fried, and salted. It was good for sure. Off to the bakery madness, the noodle shop, the grocery store for milk, then to get some veggies and back home to find that 2 of Nat's cousins were there. I groaned, as you can't actually eat dinner when other people are there without offering them food, which would mean going back out and buying more stuff. But as soon as we walked in, they got up to leave. I'm sure they knew we were about to get our food on and I must have looked hungry. Given how often people try to give me food, I must always appear hungry.

We had some noodles and veggies, which is a pretty standard meal here. Julia, meanwhile, was hammering some potato chips and looking guilty:


Taiwan Day 15 - Heading Back North

Full picture set of the day here: Flickr set or slideshow.

Day 15 started where day 14 ended, which was in a hotel in the south of Taiwan, GaoXiong to be exact, or as far as I know. We made no effort to get up early, since we assumed everyone would sleep in a bit. Around 8:30 the natives started getting restless and we woke up Julia and went to breakfast which, as always, was about 8 minutes of peace then 30 minutes of me walking her around and distracting her and trying to prevent her from throwing up by looking at everyone's food. These group meals suck in that regard. It's difficult to enjoy myself half the time when we go out to eat. Here she is eying up my breakfast, which is congee (rice porridge basically):

After breakfast we went upstairs and packed our stuff up, and the kids played well for a while and I took the opportunity to not do anything at all. These trips are tiring, as little as we actually do anything. And just sitting in the chair watching the world go by is enjoyable when I get the chance. Soon enough, that party ended and it was time to head out. On the way out of the hotel, we could see the Ferris wheel wasn't running yet. You could also see blue sky:

Hopped on a shuttle bus which took us to the amusement park entrance, and also brought us around the grounds of this veritable compound. There must be at least 8 huge hotels, a half-mile long mall, and a university, as well as all sorts of construction going on. In the end, we could have walked in about half the time it took us to get there but it was neat to see everything around the area. I noted to Nat that there seem to be a lot of Asians that go to the school there. It's almost like we're in Boston.

After a circuitous combination of road crossings, escalators, mall entrances, and bridge crossings we made it to the amusement park entrance, and shortly after that to the monorail, which was going to bring us to the other end of the park. Another half mile away or less. In all we ended up traveling maybe a mile which probably took all of about an hour. For sure, this wasn't the HSR.

The idea was to start at the end and walk back to the start. The end was indoors, which was nice because it was insanely bright outside. The weather was nice, probably low 70s when we got there. But the morning haze makes everything brighter and it actually hurt my eyes because it was so bright. All the kids stuff was indoors and at the far end anyway, so aside from a little walking outside, we ended up being inside most of the time.

Many of you know that our daughter is a big wimp so finding anything for her to ride was a difficult task. Some of this started rubbing off on Lydia as well, and between them they really didn't go on many rides. One thing they both liked was driving these little cars on a track. An adult could sit on the back and help a bit, which of course means they could drive it for them. We had some fun, and Julia really enjoyed when I got on and we started ramming into Nat & Lydia:

After this the whole day went to hell when Julia and Lydia got on this kiddie log flume. They seemed ok when they got in, but when they started going around the loop, I saw that on the back side there was a small up & down, which I knew was going to be trouble. I ran around to the other side to watch, and as they went up I heard one of them scream. When they came up to the top Lydia was crying, and Julia looked like the terror. When they got to the bottom, Julia started crying. Lydia stopped, started again, then by the end they were both screaming and crying.

Good times!

That was pretty much the end of it for Julia. She was more or less broken up for the next hour, and Lydia showed signs of being skittish as well. They both went on a ride or 2 more, but it was a lot of looking and not much doing after that. We stopped to get lunch at a sort of McFood place inside the park, and it was a bit better than you'd expect but more or less as expected. Outside, we could see something brewing, and it turned out to be a bunch of white guys making morons of themselves:

The only justification to this would be that this was a huge joke and they were getting the last laugh by getting paid for this. This was bad, and when I say bad I mean utterly atrocious. Just awful. Eventually some reasonably attractive woman in white started kinda dancing around, but I think it was more of a slow-motion ice skating routine without ice. I'm not sure what was more surprising, the act or the fact that people actually stayed to watch it all. Incidentally, it was supposed to be some sort of reenactment of the Trojan Horse thing, though I'm assuming it's the sort of Clif Notes version of the Clif Notes.

We walked back the 1/3 of a mile or so to the other side of the monorail, and did none of the rides because there really weren't many, and the ones that were there were not 4 & 5 year old friendly. Nat, Calvin, and their dad tried to go on something, but Lydia flipped out and that was the end of that. I had taken Julia inside because we knew she was going to scream if she saw Nat try to get on. But in the end, no rides were done by the adults, which is fine by me since I'm a big baby and hate amusement park rides.

After a quick ice cream stop, we left the park at about 2:30 and started the long, long journey home. First we briefly waited for the shuttle but decided to walk the half mile to the hotel, which I'm sure was faster. Then we grabbed our luggage and the cars and drove back to the HSR station. Nat's dad got some tickets for an earlier train (I told you, he likes to be on time, so on time that we ended up leaving 45 minutes early), and after getting some coffee, drinks, and snacks we were on the train back towards Taipei.

I forgot to mention that it was well into the 80s and the sky was blue again. Take a good look, this is likely the last blue sky we'll see until we get back to NJ:

On the train, we bought an extra ticket for the kids so they could sit in a chair instead of our laps, and of course they took 2 seats which meant the White Shadow got to find his own seat. For most of the trip I was able to poach one behind everyone, but between the last 2 stops I ended up standing behind the kids. Nat gave me the green light to listen to music which was nice because that's what I wanted to do anyway. We got back to the station at 6:14, right on time.

It was Friday night and Taipei traffic is awful, so we grabbed dinner in the station at a place called Mos Burger, which is the first meal I ever had in Taiwan when I originally came here 10 years ago. So it holds a sentimental attachment for me. I have to say, it wasn't as good as I remembered it. There may be something about the first meal after your first full 24 hour flight that simply cannot be beat. I may have been ripe to love anything I ate for that meal. I also remember taking a shower after that first flight, and how great it felt. Finally, I remember falling asleep in the apartment that day 10 years ago waiting for Calvin to come get us and take us to dinner.

Anyway, dinner was a "burger" of sliced pork inside a rice bun. Good not great:

We hit the road and we were all tired, to be sure. As we got closer to home the phone rang and Nat's dad's friend was on the phone. It was then I heard the 2 sounds (1 word) that I'm starting to dislike more than anything in the Taiwanese language. That is something that's pronounced "me-yacht tsai" and which means "tomorrow". Basically, I totally have a Pavlovian reaction when I hear that word. I start to cringe now and my defense system starts to say, "no no no no no no no no no!"

The reason I dislike this word so much is that it's basically the start of Nat's dad starting to plan the day for us. Apparently someone wants to take us out to lunch, and at this point in my day I want nothing more than to go home and pound some beers. So I let my eyes roll back in my head and focus on the beer.

When we got home, 6.5 hours after we started the journey, I pound the first one in about 10 minutes, then slowly work on the second one to enjoy it a bit more. They're both good. I deliberate a 3rd one but the buzz from the first 2 is plenty, so I get ready for bed instead. Bed is a welcomed end to these long 2 days.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Taiwan Day 14 - Heading South

Full picture set of the day here: Flickr set or slideshow.

Yeah boy today was a bit of a long one. At least Julia is cooked at this point. Somehow we managed to stay up until almost 9:30 now, which is probably a questionable decision but hey, here we are. Tomorrow may be a late-start kinda day. It's ok, we just have more eating to do, which of course is how we started the day. Nothing crazy, just a dumpling and a few mini buns of a sort. No pics. We hit the road slightly after 8:30 and the FIL drove a bit aggressively because we were 10 minutes late. But we were leaving so early we really had little chance of missing the train.

No traffic to speak of so we got there with plenty of time to spare, at least 45 minutes if not more. The FIL is a bit of a spaz in regards to being on time, and leaves nothing to chance. I like to be early but my man takes the cake on this front. So, you can imagine his nearly nuclear reaction when Calvin played a joke on him and told him they had just left the house with only 30 minutes until the train arrived. He started pacing back and forth and ragging on Calvin for not leaving with time to spare. They arrived shortly after, still 20 minutes before the train was supposed to show.

While waiting for them I had a late second breakfast of a bun with taro paste and dried & shredded pork. This one is really good so I'll give you the pic:

As we got going on the train, I got a coffee from the rolling cart and had it sitting on the tray on my lap, which is attached to the seat in front of me. And Calvin was sitting there, or at least was about to. Apparently he's one of those guys who goes from a full stand to seated in one fell swoop, by relaxing his muscles all at once and dropping into his seat like a big bag of cement. In other words, the coffee ended up in my lap, on the floor, the seat, on the camera, on my phone, the window, the train conductor, on the side of a passing airplane, and so on. So I spent the next 10 minutes or so cleaning myself up, and then getting back to my coffee.

I guess I forgot to mention we were on the high-speed rail (HSR) on our way from basically Taipei to GaoXiong, the south of the country. The trip was expected to take a hair over 1:30, which is exceptionally fast as it takes about 5-6 hours to drive it, apparently. As we were driving to the HSR, I realized I should have taken my GPS with me to track the trip. So Nat and I both downloaded motionX on out iPhones, and while the reception was spotty, we were able to get this as a max speed:

It can apparently top out at 300 km/hour, which is like 187.5 mph. Not sure what we got but it was fast, and the ride was pretty cool. A neat experience, I will say. Also, we're clearly on the wrong side of the island right now:

Having said that, most of the West Coast was covered in smog and there are no hills to speak of. So while the weather sucks, the riding is better where we are. Not sure about the SE part of the island. I suspect that's the prime spot to be. I understand the mountain biking is actually active in that area.

We got to GaoXiong right on time (12:36) and without a doubt this trip proved what I already knew, that the train system in the US is an absolute embarrassment. We should be ashamed at how poor our mass transit system is. It took us 1.5 hours to go 200 miles. I've had the train to NYC take over 2 hours, and I think that trip is something like 36 miles.

Off the train, then rented a car, and finally hit the road and found a place to get lunch just before 2:00. So in all, as fast as the train was, we spent almost 5 hours on the trip that would have apparently taken about 5.5 by car if we had just left and driven straight there. We ended up grabbing lunch at a food court in a mall, where we parked in the basement and found the most useless door in the world:

It's used in the event of a fire. There are fire doors that drop and seal off sections of the parking garage. Lunch ended up being a Korean pork and noodle concoction, which was a little less good than it looked (it looks good here) but decent overall:

Post lunch we went to this touristy Hakka place where you can mix up your own Hakka tea, which is this mix of various seeds/nuts, green tea powder, and actual brewed tea. But first, we saw some coconuts:

We eventually made it to the Hakka village, and I did a good amount of the grinding of the concoction:

It was kinda neat, and the tea itself was actually quite tasty. The finished product:

After that we walked around the village a bit but there wasn't much of anything worth buying there. The area is known for these paper umbrellas that were made a hundred(s?) years ago. You could buy one, along with a myriad of other junk if you wished. Aside from the tea, nobody bought anything. The kids were reasonably entertained and at the end we found a few things to keep us all busy, like 4" stilts, a hula hoop, and a few Hakka games like Pong and Mario Brothers.

We also continued to see bits of the sun:

The weather down here almost depresses me because I know we have to go back to the cold rain tomorrow. Apparently it never rains down here (Nat's dad says 50 days a year at most) and is always warmer. That's good for winter but summer must be a bear. The problem from a riding standpoint is that there are scores more people in this area, and there are no hills. I'm sure the food is good, even if we really didn't find anything. But as much as the weather is nice I like where we are because of the terrain. As we drove to the hotel the slightest bit of rain spit on the windshield and I announce, "There! It does rain down here!"

The hotel was this grand affair that's generally a bit more than we would have aimied for on our own. Surprisingly the rates were higher than we usually pay, though admittedly it's pretty high class. I still have a bit of a problem wrapping my head around the fact that you can eat dinner for $4 between the 2 of us then go drop $150 on train tickets and $200 on a hotel. In my mind everything should be cheap like the food.

Of course, they had a Ferris wheel, which isn't normal:

Julia keeps insisting that she wants to go on this and I refuse to let her go. Earlier in the day she was flaking out about being on the 2nd floor balcony and if she goes on that, she's going to possibly have a nervous breakdown and throw up at least 18 times. Nat really wants to go so we need to convince Julia to let that happen tomorrow. I think she'll back off once she stands next to it. But she may object to Nat going.

Dinner was included in the hotel and was a buffet of decent food. Nothing to write home about so no pics on this one, though the lamb was quite good. Nothing unique really. Some sushi, assorted prepared food, and soups, fruit, and desserts. As usual, Julia struggled to find anything and had a little bread and noodles, then 5-6 different mini-desserts.

We were up in the room around 8:00 for the night. In all, probably not a real lot of meat to this day given how much effort it took to get here. It makes Nat's parents happy, or at least her dad, and it gives us a chance to see a small slice of the south. Tomorrow is 3-5 square meals and the amusement park which is part of the hotel, and included in the price. I hope it's more than just rides since Julia isn't going to be down with Freefall and Superman and the like. After that we reverse course and head back to the rain.

We've now been here 2 weeks, and the trip is about 1/3 done. Doesn't feel like it, and I'm not ready to go home yet. So I'm glad we have another 4+ weeks to go until we return to the snowy hell that is NJ, which will make the cold rain here seem like paradise.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Taiwan Day 13 - Wild Dogs and More Food

Full picture set of the day here: Flickr set or slideshow.

Let's kick off the day with a little breakfast:

This is from the bakery, more of a sweet twisty-like thing with a little coconut and cranberries. It's good, definitely a solid and fairly unhealthy breakfast. Add a cup of coffee and I'm good to go for the day's ride. Of course, it was wet when I went out for coffee this morning and it was actually raining at the time. By the time I got on the bike nothing had changed, and I was stuck with a rain ride again today. As much as it rains, I think I've only had to ride in it 3 times so far, today included.

Today was a tougher one, as the temps are as cold as they get, probably near 50, and a light, but steady, rain. Went around the far side of town and took a road I haven't taken before into SanXing, which is the scallion center of the county, apparently. Then I shot back towards home and took a detour to climb the Toughest Climb again, this time from the temple side up, then back down the normal route. This is as close as I get to a loop here, but the climb is an out and back (or maybe not) so I go up, then go down.

Before signing the book I kept going and found that there's actually more to the climb, albeit nothing of note like the big one. And the road surface gets iffy which made today's slick roads even more "interesting". Soon I found myself in farm land, with tea being the main crop up here:

This was the only pic I took, because I had my raincoat on and it was difficult to get anything out of my pockets. Also, I was freezing and my hands were numb from the cold and didn't function properly. The road kept going, but there was no clear climb ahead of me and I felt like I was in a bit of No Man's Land up there. The road likely wound around the tea fields and dropped into a hole where thousands of other unsuspecting white people have met their doom. So I turned around and went back to sign the book. Not many people have been up there lately, the rain probably keeps most of them away.

On the climb up I was met by a pack of wild dogs, which is always good times. There were 4 of them, and all but 1 was afraid of me. The last 1 was interested, and he showed signs of being about to take a bite out of my leg, but I yelled something at him ("splitters, go home!") and he got skittish and ran away. While the roads weren't really new on the ride, the pack of wild dogs was a bit of a new experience. The dogs around here are a menace, by the way. They're pretty much everywhere and as predictable as the scooters.

Aside from the dogs and the big climbs, I saw a lot of birds today. I should also note that potholes are almost non-existent in this country. I did see one on the way up the climb but they are very few and far between. Almost back to the house, I was playing Suicide Taiwan Biker like I usually do in town, and my left foot unclipped by mistake and I ended up with my left foot on the ground. Somehow I managed to save it, and I didn't fall over. This pedal has been giving me issues lately so I need to be careful of that. If it happened at the wrong time this trip could take a wrong turn in a hurry.

Got back and Nat's 4th and 5th aunts had brought food over for us. One brought some taro cake and the other some salted duck. We would end up eating both of these for dinner later in the day. I suspect that since more of the family is reading this, copious amounts of food gifts will start to arrive to make sure your narrator is happy and well fed. Now if only one of them could land me a mountain bike I'd be all set.

For lunch, Nat's uncle took us out to the same place we had gone with Darin on the first Sunday. We were running a bit late and the FIL drove like an absolute maniac in an effort to get there in 4 minutes instead of 5. At one point, he cut off a taxi in the right lane then laid on the horn as if the other guy was at fault. Anyway, we got there about 10 minutes late and Nat's aunt/uncle were already there. They have no children on Facebook that I know of, so this was not any sort of well-laid plan to get their names mentioned in good favor.

Lunch was awesome. For whatever reason, it was better today than that first Sunday and this may have been the best meal I've had since we got here, which is saying something as we've had some really good food. As usual, you can check the full picture set from the link at the top. I describe every picture as best I can, and try to take a pic of most things, but certainly anything new that we eat. I'll post a picture of dessert, which was this sort of rich cake in sweet pineapple sauce with cherries on top.

After lunch I got a coffee and got to work while everyone else went to see Nat's oldest uncle. It was another productive day at work and I'm thinking that it might be beneficial for me to always work when none of my coworkers is awake, as I have far fewer distractions and annoyances this way. It was a rare moment of having the apartment to myself so I plugged in the headphones and listened to some music for a bit and zoned out while I did some work. This was enjoyable, as I haven't listened to music since I was on the airplane coming here.

I planted the seed that Nat should put out some feelers and see if I could land a mountain bike for some further exploring. Aside from the quarry road, and the road that ended prematurely yesterday, the road near the Aborigine bridge appears to turn into dirt at some point but goes on for a long way into the mountains, and is actually a backside approach to the TaiPingShan climb. Likewise, another climb near yesterday's is a dirt road, as evidenced by the user-loaded pics on Google.

Nat's cousin's son, from here on known as Crash (my nickname for him) said he might be able to land an actual mountain bike and not the hybrid that most people ride here. He also said he wants me to try out some of the company's products while I'm here, which I'm more than happy to do. That's where I got the hydration pack from the other day, BTW.

Nat also told me that Calvin read some of the old blog posts, and made mention of the butter-in-law title. I actually laughed out loud at that, as did Nat when he texted her about it. We're off to the south of the island tomorrow with the BIL and family. I'm sure he'll make mention of it. He also told me the other day that he's not the mole, and in fact suggested I drive that day.

At the bakery during the afternoon errands run, Nat told me that everyone there probably knows me now as the white guy who comes in and eats all the samples, even though they're always the same and I never buy anything. I don't understand how I stand out from the crowd, save for the fact that I'm taller than everyone and I'm white and I moon walk everywhere I go. But really is that so out of place?

Did a bit of playing with Julia's animals before dinner. I like this pic:

Dinner was the duck and taro cake (from 2 of Nat's aunts) which were both good, plus some fresh cabbage as well as some leftover fish ball soup. This looks like raw meat but it's not. Quack quack. eat up! Eating when we get back home is going to be so lame.

After dinner, the painting of Nat's grandmother who passed away finally arrived and the FIL went down to get it. I have to say, even though it's a painting, it looks remarkably like an actual photo. The guy who did it apparently did the painting of Chiang Kai-Shek that hangs in the CKS Memorial in Taipei, so I cannot begin to fathom how absurdly expensive this thing is. The FIL was carefully trying to find somewhere to put it, and he plopped it against the wall between the 2 couches. After he walked out of the room I suggested to Nat that when we woke up, her mom would be there and the painting would be in bed with her dad (but not, you know, "like that").

Tomorrow we're off to the south of the island, taking the high speed rail to GaoXiong. Not sure what we're going to do there, other than sleep and eat. No bike for 2 days so the Fear Factor aspect of the trip will be half gone for 2 days. I may also not be able to post day 14 until I get back. We'll see.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Taiwan Day 12 - Ordinary Life

Full picture set of the day here: Flickr set or slideshow.

In an absolutely shocking surprise, it was sunny and 80 degrees when I went out for coffee this morning. Oh wait, no it wasn't. It was raining. And dark. Ok I'm soft, so sue me.

I decided to go south, towards Suao which is where the FIL's oldest brother lives. I found a road on the map that goes up, and up in a hurry. I'm starting to wear out all my options that go SW using that route 7 corridor, since there's really only 1 way to get to the good stuff and it takes at least an hour to get there. I wanted to try a different direction to get my climb on. The cool thing about this excursion is that I was taking route 9 south, then taking a single turn off the main road. Google maps street view covers this, so I was able to look at the street view and get the mile marker (ok, actually it was a kilometer marker, 101 to be exact) of where to turn. I saw there were 2 big cement towers, and 2 guys sitting at the side of the road.

I easily found the road and started heading towards the hill. No surprise, especially since I saw the cement towers which indicate a cement factory, this was another one of these mining roads. I think all the roads that go up to the top of the hill are mining roads. There was also a rock conveyor but this one was actually running today, which was pretty exciting because it's just so crazy. I passed the factory and soon found myself on this road, which is where I'm pretty sure I'll meet my end if it's going to come on one of these rides:

Google considers this a road, which it is for bikes and scooters. Soon that ended and it met up with another real road, which was promising for a little bit but not very long:

Every day I go out here I understand more and more why most people ride mountain bikes. With the roadie, this road is virtually impossible. On a mountain bike I could have kept going, though you can see there really isn't a lot of road to work with on this one. I suspected (probably mre like surmised) that since the rock conveyor was working here, the trucks didn't need to go up & down the hill, so maybe it would have been safe. But if a truck had come, I'm not sure where I would have been able to get out of the way. Maybe it was for the best that this one wasn't a great success.

I tooled around a bit more, found a temple, went across the river and found another temple, then a military institution of some sort, and finally another temple. After about an hour I gave up and headed back, with the idea of maybe shooting out to the standard Toughest Climb (MeiHua Hu, where Hu means lake) area and doing one of those climbs. But before I left the park on the other side of the river, I found yet another new toilet development, the definition of public toilet, which was an open air deal:

I rode back towards the house then saw a road which kinda went the way I wanted so I just took it to see what would happen. I had 2 of the old routes on the GPS so I could see that, while I wasn't going exactly the right way, I wasn't going totally opposite either. Soon enough I found some brown signs, which are used for the tourist areas, and which have English subtitles. I followed them for a bit and found my way to the back side of the MeiHua climb, which I had done the other day. So I went up and over to where we had lunch, then down past the temple, and on home.

In all, I'd say this one was a bit of a failure on the exploration scale. But I was able to see the rock conveyor from the original ride, and I noted that it was also running today. So maybe on the days when it's raining in the morning they run the conveyor to spare the truck drivers? I find that level of safety standard unheard of here, so I'm not sure that's the reason. Maybe a truck falling off the side of the hill ends up being far too expensive to deal with, so they use the conveyor then?

I will admit the thought crossed my mind, and I considered going partially up the original quarry road as I was heading back. I decided against it, though I'm thinking more and more that I want to try that climb one more time before I leave, bike cleanliness be damned.

Back at the apartment and we had some salty breakfast stuff as a late breakfast after I showered. I generally don't make mention of breakfast since it's often just a bun of sorts that we get at the bakery the night before. This morning, we didn't have any so I had a tea egg from yesterday plus a piece of bread with some "Chinese cheese" which is actually fermented tofu. Mid-morning we often have a rice ball, or leek dumpling, and so on. Breakfast tends to be something that you can keep in a small bag and eat on the fly, or the scooter as is often the case.

Worked from 10-1 or so and helped the on-call guy get through some issues, plus did some other stuff on the side. Went out to seek lunch and we ended up with lamb fried rice and veggies plus beef noodle soup. The rice was better but this looks nicer:

The afternoon was the usual coffee run, Nat grabbed some dessert which I mostly skipped because I was full, then I worked a bit more. Nat's parents were in Taipei for most of the day so I took the opportunity to grind out some actual work and sort of have one of these "real life days" which means that very little happened. This was sort of the point of coming here, just to live somewhere else for a while. So far, we've been pretty busy so it's not entirely like we're just living here. Looking ahead, that's probably not actually going to change, as I have the bulk of my vacation to use up still. After this week I have 2 weeks of vacation to take, plus MLK day off, and a floating holiday. That adds up to only 8 more days to work after this week. As odd as it sounds, I was hoping to get some more coding in while here. Oh well, I'll just have to find more time to eat and bike more.

Also took some time to clean the bike. As much as I just want to let it go, it's looking really dirty these days, and by dirty I mean filthy. This is the grit that built just today. You can see why this place is murder on your parts. It's like liquid sandpaper:

This was the (formerly clean) rag I used to wipe down just the brake pads and rims:

When I was almost done these 2 guys came up to me and asked me if I spoke English. They weren't Chinese, maybe Philippino or something. They were looking for a Western Union, and it sure looked like I was a local since I was outside banging mats together like an old kitchen wench. I guess in this sense, we are living here as residents. I was out on the side of the road cleaning my bike and banging out mats, so I probably look like I belong. Of course, I had no idea where the Western Union was, and when they asked me where the address was they had written in Chinese, I told them I had no clue.

I have to be honest, they looked kinda shady and were sort of looking around a lot, as if they were waiting for nobody to be watching so they could mug me. I may have been a little skittish, but they came off as kinda shady and my instincts told me to be careful. I told them they should go to the bank around the corner and ask, but they ended up walking the other way down the street. I also told them they should ask 1 of the 25 million people here who could read Chinese where the address was, not the 1 guy they found all day that can't read the language.

Afternoon snack run was to the night market area where I got this pastry shell filled with sweet taro. It was ok. Then we headed over to the bakery but first found this store that Nat's aunt recommended to us, which had a boat load of stuff that Julia wanted. It also had this cheapy 3D map of Taiwan which I wanted. But for $6 I wondered how long it was going to stay 3D. We bought her a few things then went to the bakery, and then KFC to get dinner for Julia.

Back at the apartment, Nat's parents came back, and we just got an order of noodles and 2 veggies to split for dinner. Nat says I take good food pics so I'll keep them coming. Nothing crazy, just pork and such on top:

In all a pretty boring day, but that's what you get when you have to find something interesting to do for 44 straight days. No exciting bike finds, no squat toilets, no crazy foods. Really, a general "life" day just like we'd have at home. Eat, work, ride, clean bike, buy stuff, and meet errant fishermen from other countries looking for a Western Union. Ok maybe there was 1 abnormal thing that happened today. Oh and I guess I did see the public toilet arsenal. So there's that.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Taiwan Day 11 - Toilets & the Tea Farm

Full picture set of the day here: Flickr set or slideshow.

Some people asked for clarification on the Japanese meal the other day. So I'll bring that back up and describe it. The picture:

Left green stuff is garden-variety cabbage, nothing crazy. The big hunk of fried meat is chicken, with no bones. The round thing is a fried mushroom, sliced on top to make it look like that. The brown stuff is sliced pork in sauce. And the pink thing is pretty much a slice of bacon wrapped around asparagus. Like I said to Ilya, the Japanese cuisine (at least in the US and here) is pretty tame and non-offensive to people who don't like dog kidney and the like. The gaping hole in the picture is missing another vegetable, which is a root of some sort (ok, so it's a tuber technically) that's shredded, and on top of that was a piece of egg. Another carton had the rice for the meal.

No ride today. I was going to do something lighter this morning and maybe take some traffic video, but it was raining when I went to get coffee and decided that an hour and change in the rain wasn't what I wanted to do. I'm feeling pretty tired after 9 straight days of riding so this is probably a needed day off. Yesterday at dinner I felt like I couldn't eat enough. Then I couldn't go to bed fast enough. Guess a day off is not a bad thing. Maybe tomorrow I can take it the distance and aim for TaiPingShan. I suspect that will be in the realm of a 5 hour journey or so.

Nat also wanted me to let the readers know that most of the toilets are like what we're used to:

I tried to look for pictures of the birds I saw yesterday, but that's an effort in futility. Wikipedia has a list of about 6 million birds. The best I was able to get from the lady at the tea farm today (see coming sections) was that yes, they exist. So I have external validation that I did not, in fact, fabricate these in my own mind. That's good to know.

The idea was to leave the house at 9:00 and go to the tea farm this morning, because MIL/FIL were pressed to wrap up lunch and head up to Taipei for the afternoon. At 9:30, we were still sitting around wondering who was going, who was driving, and what the general deal was. After several iterations of discussion, Nat's aunt and her mom went in 1 car, and the rest of us went in another.

Before long we were driving out the way I generally ride my bike, and as we crossed the river it struck me that we would be going to the area on route 7 where I see the teapots on the side of the road. Sure enough, when we saw the pots we took a right and went up the side of the hill and drove to one of the shops. It's all coming together now, and I'm starting to know know this county better and better. By the end of this stay I'm going to know it at least as well as Nat's dad. He actually thinks I know it better already.

This was the same place we went almost 3 years ago, and I recall it well. As soon as we got there I had to go to the bathroom and I was able to verify again that they do have modern toilets:

They gave us peanuts and some kind of seed (sunflower, pumpkin, whatever) but we all did most of our business with the peanuts. The old man who (I guess) owns the place was there, but he has long since given way to the daughter-in-law, who does the full tea brewing process with the customers. He just sits around looking pretty, or in this case pretty much just looking old. Every time we come to the country we have to make the journey to one of the tea farms. The first 2 times was a farm near Nat's aunt's old pig farm. The last 2 times it's been here. I always enjoy it as it's a chance to sit down and have a solid cup of tea.

Between us and Nat's parents, we ended up getting 8 kilos of tea, which should hold us over for a while. We tried 3 different kinds and Nat's mom and I agreed that the 2nd one was best. So they busted out a huge mountain of tea leaves:

And turned it into this:

After the farm we headed up to the top of the hill to check out the bed & breakfast. It was a nice place but as I've said before, none of these places have heat. The place was freezing, and as awesome as the view was, I find it hard to drop $100 a night to freeze your nuts off for the night.

It was supposed to be a scouting mission for Nat & I, which quickly turned into her parents wanting the whole family to go, which immediately turned into the MIL claiming 1 of the 2 rooms with a view as her own. As far as I'm concerned, it's too damn cold to pay to stay there. We'd check in late afternoon, freeze until we went to bed, sleep, then wake up and be cold. I know these place don't often have heat, but wouldn't it make some sense for the place to offer maybe a nice warm cozy bed for these chilly winter months, especially when you're up in the hills like this? Call me crazy, but it doesn't appeal to me.

Somewhere in this mess I had to go to the bathroom, which means that Julia had to go to the bathroom, which means we had a second consecutive day of Squat Toilet Madness.

The visit dragged on and on, and I'm thinking to myself that yeah, my work hours are liberal and all but we've already toasted a good half-day on this trip and we still didn't eat lunch yet. Nat's dad was going to town talking to the lady who ran the place and the old man from the shop down below, who had been driven up by his grandson. I know my patience is longer than it used to be, but it ran out up on the hill and I was pretty much tapping my foot waiting to get out of there by the end of it.

On the way back we stopped at a local seafood place which had decent food but was as loud as a sailor hangout. I mean, not that I've ever been to such an establishment. I'm just kind of projecting what it would I think it would be like. Let's just say that it was loud and there was beer spilled on the floor in the first 10 minutes of us sitting down. And it was cold inside because, you know, no heat and all.

We got a bunch of things, and apparently you guys might not want to actually eat this stuff but you want to know what it is. We had some noodles, a soup of kidney and some mystery meat (read on), oysters and tofu, a fish stew, veggies, shrimp, and a fruit plate. The veggies look tame enough:

On to the mystery meat. There were these 2 things in the kidney and X soup which I really had no idea what they were. They looked edible enough, so I took one and ate it. Meh, it wasn't that great. Not awful, not great, just there. Nat asked her parents what it was, and she said, "Are you for real?" I asked her the same and she told me. I then looked down at it, took a close-up picture, then dug in. I admit, it was a little harder to eat the second one but it wasn't too-too bad. I don't think I'll be ordering a big bowl of these soon. But hey, when in Rome, sometimes you gotta wear a toga and do the orgy thing, in a manner of speaking. Anyway, I've kept this vague enough. If you really want to know what it is, the Flickr picture link is below, with description.

Be warned, it's not so much what we ate, but how it looks. It's really not pretty. I know at this point I've made you all curious enough to click the link, but don't say I didn't warn you.

Click here only if you can really handle it.

After lunch we went back to the apartment, got some coffees, Nat's parents hit the road to Taipei, and I did some solid coding. In the meantime, Nat's aunt and her aunt's granddaughter (Nat's cousin's kid) came over with different snacks for all of us. After they left, Nat told me that was YaoChun, one of the relatives on Facebook. So there's another relative that will likely be reading this blog by the end of the day. I wonder if they're going to welcome me with open arms next time I come.

As I was sitting in the office working, the building started to sway back and forth, which was my first earthquake for the trip. I experienced one before, on our second trip. It was something like a 1 on the Richter Scale, so nothing to get all worked up about. But it's kinda neat to say you experienced an earthquake. Well, a small earthquake. Big earthquakes are not really good times, as far as I can tell. I'm pretty sure this island averages much more than 1 earthquake a day across the whole island. It's not really a rare event.

Right before dinner (or actually, when Nat was walking in with dinner) her cousin's kid came over with his girlfriend, toting a bunch of gifts for all of us. Julia got a bubble-making gun, I got a hydration bladder that his company makes, and we all got some snacks he brought up from Hualien. He's also on Facebook. The last 2 days was the Facebook Wang brigade. Well, I think they're all named Wang. I'm surprised that her younger cousin isn't on Facebook. Facebook. Facebook. Facebook. I should get royalties for this.

Rain dance tonight, hopefully it stays away tomorrow. The forecast is...never mind.


Sunday, January 09, 2011

Taiwan Day 10 - Monkeys & a Squat Toilet

Full picture set of the day here: Flickr set or slideshow.

Calvin tricked Nat into giving up my blog URL, so from now on he's going to be able to read everything I write. Take that into consideration when reading from now on. He says he won't tell the MIL what I say, but we'll see. If she mentions my driving I'll know who the mole is. Here's Calvin thinking about something. Or maybe not thinking at all, I'm not sure.

This morning I wanted to do a little more of a long ride, but I didn't have a full day to just let go because of the family lunch we're going to. I set sail around 7:00 with the idea to roll for about 3.5 hours. Plan was to head south on 7, which I've done before, then head into the hills on the 7 extension which goes up and over towards Taipei. If I do the ride to Taipei, this may be the direction I go. I mapped it out last night and other than a big climb up to about 4000 feet to start, it pretty much flattens out and stays at that elevation until you drop down the other side.

It was dry when I started, so I decided to carry it through and head for the hills, even though the hills were stuck in the clouds:

At the base of the climb, it started to mist. As I slowly went up, the mist turned to drizzle, and from there it became a constant rain. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised given what that pic suggested. But I hoping it would "hold off" and wasn't thrilled about it dumping down on me again. Truth is, the going up isn't so bad. I just chugged my way up, and up, and up, and wished that I could go up until I was done. The road was narrow but there wasn't a car in sight, so the world was my proverbial oyster. I ate it up and kept riding into the clouds.

Maybe halfway up, something on the side of the road was making a major disturbance in the bushes. My first thought was that something that large had to be a sign of the monkeys. I looked, but didn't see anything. I did, however, hear a barking of sorts on both sides of the road. I was pretty sure that's what I was hearing. But without seeing them, I couldn't say. Shortly after I heard the barking again, but again no sight. Then a 3rd time, sounds but no sights. In the meantime, I did catch a small flock of yellow birds and orange birds flying right over my head. The yellow one looked almost like a goldfinch, but with a brownish back and no black on it's wings. Then an orange one flew by, then a whole bunch joined them. I tried to get a pic but they were too small and moving way too fast. They were like little yellow and orange sprites flying through the rain.

I heard the barking again, but this time I looked up and saw a monkey sitting in the tree. I stopped to take a pic and a bunch of them high-tailed it out of there. There's a monkey somewhere in this picture, but not sure where. I believe it's in the general area of the middle, or middle-left. If you can see it I'll buy you a rice ball:

After this I saw them again off to the right, but didn't bother to try to get a pic. They run away as soon as you stop and by the time you get the camera out they're gone. Figure if I saw & heard them 5 times, I'm eventually going to catch them in the middle of the road playing hopscotch or something. Until then, you have to settle for pictures of trees and take my word for it. I really wish I had caught the birds on film, as they were cool as hell to look at.

I eventually ran out of rope at about 2:05 into the ride. I had reached 3300 vertical feet, most of the way up but still 700 feet to go. I'm sure it would have only been another 15 minutes but I was padding just a little bit and even though I have heavy-ass tires on the bike, I need to give myself some cushion in the event I get a flat. So I turned around, ate my second energy bar, drank the rest of my first bottle, took a leak on the side of the road, and started heading back down the mountain.

It was goddamn cold.

Nothing of note happened on the way back, but it wasn't raining down in the flats and I managed to dry off a bit and warm up. Got back to the apartment, showered up, got ready, and we were off to lunch on top of the hill I happened to climb yesterday. As odd as it sounds, this was actually the place I had seen up on the hill last week, which I assumed was a place to stay for the temple visitors. Strange how small the world is ending up in these 10 days. They had a pig on a leash:

They also had a small pond with fish and ducks, and you could buy food to feed them, which we did. Soon enough we were heading upstairs to sit down. We sat with Calvin & Company, plus Nat's 3 cousins. From left to right, girl, boy, girl. Girl on right was in our wedding in the US, way back when. Girl on the left was a high school kid when I first met her, almost 10 years ago. Since then she's learned English really well. Boy in the middle was the one who stopped over for lunch the other day. I think he's a fisherman:

Back down to feed the fish after lunch, and Julia informs me she has to go to the bathroom. However, there's a slight problem, as they have squat toilets here. This is the, "WTF is this?" look:

As you can imagine, this was an adventure.

We then sat down for coffee in another part of the building, which seemed to have the AC on because it was freaking cold. We also took more pics. From left to right, cousin, Nat, Julia, cousin, and cousin. The only new one here is the one on the left, who is the same one I posted a pic of with Nat the other day. She is Nat's oldest uncle's daughter. I hope you're taking notes on this stuff.

After 3 hours and 40 minutes of lunch, none of which was spent drinking beer with Darin as he wasn't there, we went home. Nat and I took a walk out to get some bread and fish food, and went back to the apartment. Shortly after I went to KFC to get dinner for Julia, then took a quick detour to get a scallion pancake because I had seen 4 kids eating them on the way over, and there wasn't a line.

Dinner was crabs that Nat's cousin (boy, from above) brought this morning, as well as rice, some leftovers, veggies, and fish ball soup.



Accommodation in aviemore