Taiwan – The Third Edition

Path to Oyster Island

Taiwan just keeps throwing more and more cool surprises at me. The weekend of 7-9 June was the Dragon Boat Festival, celebrated in many countries across Asia, and with its heritage stemming from China. On this weekend the Professor for my class ‘Workshop on Sustainability’ takes a handful of students on a trip to Kinmen Island.

Kinmen is a county (state, as we’d call them in OZ) of Taiwan; however its geographical location puts it about 10 km from mainland China with 150km of ocean between it and the rest of Taiwan. The historical significance of this island is huge. It was occupied by Japan during the Second World War then, as a result of the Chinese civil war, Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) Government occupied the island as they fled to Taiwan.  Claimed by both the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC), the island was a place of war and bombing for a long time. In the mid-90s the Taiwanese Government returned control to a local Kinmen government where it has since been a county of Taiwan. There is a lot to see on the island, and the whole weekend was jam-packed with nonstop visits to different forts and museums.

Zhaishan Tunnel

It was an hour’s flight from Taipei and upon landing our Professor met us, quickly ushering us to the bus and to our first stop. We met the Director of Social Services, Tung Shen, who is a Kinmen native, passionate about sharing and promoting the area. He had kindly sponsored our trip by providing one of the night’s accommodation and our transport all weekend. After thanking him we were off to lunch and to explore some old tunnel systems. Our second tunnel visit was the most impressive, Zhaishan Tunnel. It was built for U-boats to enter and since the war has been repurposed for orchestras on a number of occasions due to its acoustics.  That night we were invited to join a Dragon Boat Festival dinner hosted by Tung Shen. We had a large spread of local food and got to try the locally brewed, Taiwanese icon, Kaoliang liquor.

The TEAM

The next day was race day and we’d been given some old 2014 Kinmen Marathon merchandise to make us look like a team. Our class was all foreign students and none of us had ever stepped foot in a dragon boat. The Festival started with lots of local performances before getting into the races. We were entered in our first social race at 11:30. We studied all those who came before us trying to learn how dragon boating was done. Eventually, our time came.  We started off hyped but the excitement had dwindled into nervousness in the 25 minutes it took for us to get the boat in position at the starting line. When the race started our focus was consistency and synchronicity; our aim wasn’t to be the fastest, just to stay in a straight line. Halfway there we’d found ourselves picking up quite a bit of speed finishing in second place! Despite the 12 seconds behind first place, not being last gave us a burst of adrenalin and fueled us for round two. We had some lunch and met some cool locals while waiting, and at 3.00pm we boarded the boat and this time we were able to get the boat in position at the same rate as our contestants. The gun went off and so did we, the world zoned out and all we were thinking

Liberty Times

was “Row, Row, Row!” We got to the end seemingly at the same time as every other boat. Over the moon, we raced ashore to find our time was the fastest by less than 1 second! (That wasn’t enough to recover the 12 seconds we were behind in the first race). But the idea of winning the heat was awesome and it left our Professor speechless! However, he will now think twice before giving the motivation to students “if you win a race, I will give you 10 extra points towards your overall grade.” Our attendance as foreigners drew a bit of excitement and we starred in a few newspapers which was pretty cool!

 

That night we caught the ferry over and stayed on little Kinmen (otherwise known as Little K), which is an island about a quarter of the size just next to main Kinmen. Our accommodation was a tiny AirBNB within walking distance of the beach, a perfect place for us to celebrate our win and admire the beautiful sunset. The next day we explored and learned more about the forts and battles that took place on Little K and back on Kinmen until it was time for some to depart. However, I was not one of them. A mate and I stayed on another two nights to do a bit more exploring. Our accommodation was a homestay that our Professor lined up for us. They cooked us an awesome dinner and we exchanged small conversation over Google Translate. Hiring electric scooters (with a top speed of 25kmh) we pottered around the island, visited a folk village, and climbed The Mountain on the island. We also caught up again with some teachers that we met at the Dragon Boat Festival.

Kinmen is such a unique part of the world. The locals have a strong sense of identity, seeing themselves as Kinmenese before being Taiwanese or Chinese. The opportunity to go and have such an immersive experience is something I am truly grateful for. This mini trip inside my much larger adventure is definitely going to stand out as a highlight.

 

 

 

Kinmen Daily News (https://www.kmdn.gov.tw/1117/1271/1272/306893)

Liberty Times Net (https://news.ltn.com.tw/news/life/breakingnews/2815461)

Taiwan – The Next Instalment

 

Trip to Taipei Prison

I wanted to call this one “Going to Prison on Exchange” but for fears of sounding too much like clickbait (and QUT probably wouldn’t be too much of a fan of the title.) I will just address it first in this next instalment of my Taiwan exchange.

It’s not as dramatic as it sounds but going to Taipei prison was as bizarre for us as it is to see in an exchange blog. Tuesday mornings I have a class called Workshop on Sustainability which primarily teaches Circular Economy and Corporate Social Responsibility. However, being all exchange students, the Professor takes the opportunity to focus and educate us on everything Taiwan. One week, with absolutely no link to course content, he took us to check out Taipei’s operating prison. We met earlier than normal and took a karaoke bus to the southern part of Taipei, in what was still a fairly urban built-up area.  We started off with a debrief from the warden, who spoke about the history and facilities. They have all sorts of prisoners there, staying from a few months up to life; it wasn’t a high security place but neither was it a light one. We were then told to leave all our stuff in the conference room and we began our tour. From inside it was hard to tell it was a prison, it really was designed to reintegrate people into a functioning society.

Workshop on Sustainability Pizza Party

Unless prisoners took school or university classes in the education centre, they worked on site in manufacturing, pottery, arts, or in catering. We even got to try some tea and biscuits you can order in bulk for catering, (and it really was quite good.) It was a rare and random experience to go to Taipei Prison, but that’s why Workshop on Sustainability is fast becoming one of the favourite subjects of my whole degree. Instead of mid-semester exams, we had a guest lecture from the ministry of education which was followed by a pizza party with him. Workshop on Sustainability is full of surprises.

 

Liya Farm, where we got to work planting rice!

NCCU has a heap of programs that aid in exposing exchange students to Taiwan. One of the student clubs called International Youth has hosted a welcome dinner, a day out exploring the Zoo and Gondola near the Uni, and a cooking and arts night. A highlight is a weekend trip to the east coast city, Yilan. Early Saturday morning we boarded the bus and travelled to our first destination, Linmei Shipan Trail, an absolutely stunning waterfall. We visited the National Centre for Traditional Arts before checking into (and completely booking out) the 5 Season Hotel and ate stinky tofu at Luo Tong Night Markets. The next day we had a traditional university student breakfast; Maccas, before heading to a rice farm. We learnt all about the traditional farms and also got to plant some rice in knee-deep mud.

Waiao Beach

We then also made our own lunch “from rice we’d grown earlier” grinding it down, mixing it up, and cooking it into noodles!  Post-lunch we hit up the beach, the light drizzle we’d had the entire day ceased with perfect timing. Waiao Beach is a black sand beach facing the great Pacific Ocean where we enjoyed some Bubble Tea (well the tea part, I’m still warming up to the bubbles.) The weekend was an extraordinary time, seeing awesome things and making a heap of new friends with other Internationals on exchange AND a stack of local students that came along!

 

 

As well as Uni organised sight-seeing, I have been on a few wild adventures of my own on the Brampcycle (that’s the name for my bike.) A weekend arrived that started on a Wednesday (thank you bulk public holidays.) I took this opportunity to take my first little riding trip and it was to a small city call Hualian. Located on the East Coast it was about five and a half hours ride away. I left as soon as class ended on Tuesday; my prediction was an ETA of around 6:30. Still a good hour away from arriving the sun began to set, which should be all well and good except for the fact that my headlights weren’t making any difference to the ever-darkening road. Eventually I pull over to sus things out and sure enough, my lights aren’t actually on at all…because the bulb is blown. Street lights aren’t exactly a thing on this regional mountainous road; in the dying light I have never ridden with so much stress in my life. I make it to the next town using another car’s tail lights to light my way. There I manage to find a workshop that was just closing and two very kind men helped me out and set me on my way. Eventually, I make it to Hualian (a lot later than expected) and check into my accommodation. I spent the next couple of days there seeing some of the most epic scenery so far! Taroko National park…my writing could never do justice to how beautiful and vast this gorge is. I also travelled up to HeHuanShan (Shan = Mountain) where I got to hike to an altitude of 3416m. Don’t be too impressed though – you start at 2900m. This is one of Taiwan’s 100 Great Mountains with a height over 3000m, and luckily for me, it’s the one you can do without the hassle of a permit.

HeHuanShan

Taiwan is so full of natural beauty and I really am so fortunate to be seeing as much as I am! The only downside is that every place I see and learn about comes with a strong recommendation of two more places that I then want to go see. I think the quote from Aristotle can easily also apply to traveling; “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”

 

 

 

Taiwan – the First Month

Taipei 101

Even before I started my first day at university, I was certain one of my goals was to study abroad. Now at the beginning of my 3rd year it has finally kicked off; I am spending an entire semester at the National ChengChi University in Taipei, Taiwan. My choice in coming here was supported by the New Colombo Plan Mobility Grant which will greatly enhance my capacity to experience, engage, and enjoy Taiwan to its fullest potential.

I left home on 12 February and began the 20 hours of travel. Yes, the Asia-Pacific region and it still takes that long. Partially because the cheapest flight had a six hour layover in Singapore (Changi is the best airport in the world, so amongst the movies, butterfly gardens, and sunflower gardens I really didn’t mind).   I also didn’t fully realize until I made the trip how far down Australia is and how far up Taiwan is. It was literally the same flight time as for most of the Europeans. However, when it came to jet lag the time difference was only two hours, so that was a piece of cake.

Some of the other international peeps that are here at NCCU on exchange this semester.

While living here I am staying in the International house run by the university. The location is prime, a five-minute walk from university, and we are at the east edge of the city, bordering the scenic rainforest mountains. The river also runs just by the university, its entire stretch has walkways, parks, and basketball courts every 100 metres or so, hence Wednesday night is progressively becoming Basketball night among the I-house residence. It’s also easy access to the city, provided you take the bus heading in the right direction. I confess the whole ‘driving on the right side of the road’ sent me a long way in the wrong direction on my first attempt at going into the city.

 

Yangmingshan – National Park.

My first week here was great.  I spent a lot of time getting my bearings just by exploring the city. On the first Friday we ventured on our first out-of-town trip.  We took the bus to a town called Jiufen, where the entire city is located on the slope of the mountain. Located to the north-east, the town is famous for its scenery. We spend the arvo roaming the markets followed by hiking to the top of Keelung Mountain. Unfortunately, Taiwan’s rapidly changing weather got the better of us and almost just as we arrived at the top it became a total white out. However, if you do find yourself in Taipei this is 10/10 on the must-do list of places to visit.

Chicken Butt. 5 for the equivalent of $2AUD, and despite my concerned face it turned out to be delicious!

My adjustment to the lifestyle here has been an adventure. With no real cooking facilities at I-house eating out is the norm, and as it turns out that is the Taiwan way, for every meal. The idea of buying breakfast every day sounds like a mortgage in Australia but here, not only is it affordable, but it’s such a social way to start my day. I wander down to the place I’ve picked out as ‘my local’ and grab two of the best Taiwanese omelet pancake things with special soy sauce I’ve ever tried. My other food experiences have all been fabulous, not so stinky-stinky tofu, whole fried squid, chicken butt, lots of dumplings, Baozi and bubble tea! Taiwan has such a diverse range of authentic Asian cuisine available there is no shortage of food to try and enjoy. Not all shopping has resulted in such positive results though. The language barrier caused me some confusion; turns out it was not washing liquid that I bought on my first attempt, but bleach.   I’m sticking to my story that my bleach-splattered clothing is an Australian craze…

Lantern Festival with some of my local buddies.

The highlight of week two was having the chance to experience Taipei’s lantern festival.  We traveled to a neighboring town called Pingxi which is where they hold the sky lantern side of the celebrations. We arrived late in the afternoon and already we could see lanterns flying off sporadically all over the place. We explored the town which was completely taken over by markets and festivities. Eventually we found ourselves at the small show grounds where there was a huge stage with live music. Every half-hour there was a coordinated release of lanterns, sending over 100 up into the sky all at once. What a truly magical sight to see!

Sky Lantern Festival in Pingxi

Now we are well and truly in the swing of a daily routine. Classes have begun and for that I spend four days over at the campus. For the remaining three days of the week I now have access to a motorcycle which has opened up a world of opportunities when it comes to accessibility and traveling about the island. The university social clubs have many trips and camps lined up for our opportunity to meet locals and see the sights. I have done so much in the time here already and I have literally only just begun!