Today I went on a social with the Changhua-based schools. In a convoy of four cars containing managers, teaching assistants, teachers, and families along for the ride, we headed Taichung-wards, and I got to learn a little more about another of the Changhua teachers, Captain Globetrotter.
We were on our way to a bike trail, although I had very little idea of what exactly that would entail. In the UK, I had been on one or two -- largely dirt paths suitable for mountain biking, way out in the sticks to maximise opportunity to enjoy the great British countryside. So I was surprised when we arrived at the bike rental (or rather, one of the half a dozen bike rental yards) and most of the bikes on offer were very prim and slender city bikes, most featuring underslung battery-powered motors.
Battery-powered bicycles? Doesn't that defeat the point of a bike trek? Well, it was plain to see from the models on offer that we were not exactly going to be put through our paces out there, on these nimbiny-pimbiny little wannabe scooters, so I felt fairly confident picking up a neat little 24-gear number, although I was still at pains to choose the most mountain bike-looking out of the lot. I felt more than a little smug as well, as the dozen or so assorted teaching assistants, managers and husbands, and two of the other three teachers, opted for the more expensive and goofy-looking battery-assisted bikes.
Although it had been several years since my last bike trip, I was soon back in the swing of things. If only there were some sort of bon mot about the ease with which one may return to the sport of cycling. Alas, the many shortcomings of the English language to which I cling with such hubristic pride.
The trail was indeed fairly sedate. Near the beginning there was a small amusement park, with play areas, refreshment stalls and fairground games. We had bigger fish to fry though, and pedalled on (or twiddled our little throttle bars on). The tarmac track stretched on for a good kilometre or two before reaching a deep gouge in the earth with water eddying and meandering about in the channels far below -- the trickle left, presumably, from the dam upstream. It was still a breathtaking sight, seeing the hill on the other side of the bridge stretching up, partially, mystically obscured by mist. The shots I managed to take halfway over the bridge don't really do the landscape a great deal of justice, I am sorry to report, but they shall have to do.
Look at that river bed! Madness, I tell you!
Having reached the other side of the river and been overtaken by the majority of my companions in the act of taking photos, I found there had actually been a tunnel cut straight through the side of the hill, well-lit and temptingly straight. It was particularly exhilarating to race through the cool, damp passageway, passing them by one by one as they coasted by on their electric bikes.
We emerged near some food stalls, and a very tempting hill to freewheel down, which eventually evened out and brought us round to a small horse park, of all things. After paying a small entrance fee we came across some bored but nevertheless fine-looking beasts, which some of the younger members of our party were able to ride on, escorted by a ranch hand. The other teachers (or at least the Americans) had grown up around or near horses, and for their part seemed to enjoy reminiscing and flaunting their knowledge in front of an awed audience.
And I thought I was the whitest one in Taiwan.
They were however slightly less awed by our attempts at archery, when we happened across a range deeper into the park. Oh well. Can't win them all. It was good fun to heft a bow again though. We decided to find refreshments, and returned to the cluster of stalls at the top of the hill. There they served ice cream, rice dogs and a very peculiar kind of egg boiled in a special stock or something of the kind. The shells are apparently cracked during the boiling process with the end result being a very flavoursome and savoury egg white. One problem: either as a result of the stock, or for some other ungodly reason, the yolk turns a noxious green which screams 'DO NOT EAT ME'.
I think I've found more appetising treats in handkerchiefs.
It wouldn't be the first time I've ignored my reservations about allowing something into my mouth though, and unlike prior occasions I didn't actually feel bad afterwards. It wasn't bad, for $10NT. The ice cream was really good, and a generous portion for the price as well.
As a sidebar, food in Taiwan, unlike alcohol, is cheap, often astonishingly so for Westerners. It is eminently possible to pay less than $90 (£2, approximately) and eat well for a day on nothing but what you get from stalls, which are abundant and varied in every corner of Taiwan I've yet encountered. According to most of the teachers I've spoken to out here, following this hand-to-mouth kind of existence is the cheapest way of getting fed out here. Whether that will be as true for me is yet to be seen -- I spent the best part of three years post-graduation as a not-quite starving artist, earning much less than what I'm on now, and quickly developed a knack for cheap, healthy and easy-to-prepare dishes while still putting away enough money to stand me in good stead for such ridiculous endeavours as weekends LARPing, national farewell tours and of course going to Taiwan (this last admittedly with family support). I have to admit, I'm kind of looking forward to seeing what I can do with what's on offer here.
Anyway, after a brief pit-stop back at the rental yard so the silly battery-bikers could swap out their exhausted steeds, we pressed on elseways, crossing the gorge further upstream near the dam. There was an artificial waterfall near the bridge which I managed to get a shot of.
OK, it's really a shot of the gorge again. So sue me.
This part of the trail was much more akin to a suburban bike path, although we passed by a beautiful traditional cemetery, and many rice paddies and fields of plump cabbages, stumpy trees stooped low with the weight of their fruits, swaddled under a ceiling of dense netting, and cherry blossom trees and sweet-smelling bushes I've not yet learned the name of. The other teachers and I found another theme park, a small one, bee-themed, as far as I could tell, but we had no time to explore it, unfortunately.
I don't care which country you're from, that's a big wheel.
That's OK though, because there was go-karting instead! Or at least there was for the kids, and a few of the more game TAs, who had a whole barrel of laugh rocketing round a proper go-karting track with some seriously nippy little karts.
By this time however, it was getting close to sunset, and everyone was getting hungry for something a little more substantial than ice cream and eggs. So we saddled up and headed back into Taichung, or more specifically, Fengyuan, apparently one of its suburbs.
There was a night market in full swing by the time we got there: clothes and shoe stalls all over the place, and a row of various food and drink stalls stretching for easily three hundred yards intersecting with it. I'm told Fengyuan is known for its iced fruit drinks, and after sampling their pineapple offerings, it's easy enough to see why. We soon came across a place selling clam omelettes which seemed to be everyone's tastes, so we piled into the eating area, all twenty of us (or near enough). Eating an omelette is particularly difficult when all you have are chopsticks. Egg and clams and spring onions are easy enough to divvy up with a decent set of chopsticks, but the cheese that they use to bind it makes it an entirely different matter. Oh well. At least everyone else seemed to be having the same problem.
We moseyed on after polishing off our omelettes and picked up a few treats from other stalls as we went, including deep-fried sweet potato nuggets and more than a couple of bags of sugar-glazed strawberries. Delicious!
Wandering back to the car, we passed a large temple, illuminated by dozens and dozens of hanging lanterns. I was told that it was especially well-known in Taiwan as one of the oldest temples in the country. I didn't manage to get a decent look inside, it being rather the wrong time of day for it, but I thought I could at least get a snap of the lanterns. So I did.
Not pictured: fellow teachers trying to get into shot.
All in all, a day well spent, and a nice opportunity to see a little more of Taichung County and learn more about Taiwanese culture, before focusing on my teaching which starts this week.