Hsinchu, Toucheng and Back – The Dairy of Another Journey

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Being dead and buried the morning after Chinese New Year is a common phenomenon amongst us Taiwanese, but waking up at 8 a.m. on the first day of Lunar New Year for a trip out of town is definitely something else.

The sharp sound of my cellphone alarm broke through the cool, crisp air, Sunday morning. Funny how the alarm seems to be the only function that works all year round; everything else crashes, stalls or just plainly doesn’t work. Not the alarm though. It’s pulled me out of bed every morning for the past year, and today was no exception. I dragged my luggage and took my guitar. This was it! Just me and Bridget, baby! Oh, right, and some relatives, ha ha; specifically a little half-German bandit who goes by the name of Korby.

We were heading to 新竹 (Hsinchu) for a new year’s lunch with my grandparents, a place I hadn’t been to since this time last time.
In my mind, 新竹 never really had anything to give me. No glamour, no excitement, just dusty old streets and unlit alleys. To some extend I was right, because that was the impression 新竹 gave me, but that was because the only place I’d been to is my grandparents’ house, and they’ve been living in the same place for the last 35 years, what did I expect? So, deep inside, I really hoped I could be proven wrong. And what better a time to visit than during the most significant occasion of the year – Chinese New Year.

Like Katt Williams once said, parents usually cannot wait until their children speak their first words and start stringing sentences together. But the converse is true, that once these little ikes start talking, they will be qualified to ask 500 questions a day.

“Why is the McDonald’s sign yellow, Mama?”
“What part of a chicken is a chicken nugget, Mama?”
“What’s the difference between barbeque and hot sauce? Is barbeque sauce just sweet and tangy and hot sauce isn’t tangy? What is tangy, mama? Is that sour but it isn’t quite sour?”

My cousin, Korby, the most energetic little bugger I have ever seen in my life. He’s so bloody lively he makes the Duracell bunny look weak. After setting off from 板橋 (Banciao), I sat in a pile of his toys in the back seat as we headed for the highway going south. Almost immediately after hitting the road, Korby began his four day lingual marathon, with me being the most innocent bystander:

“John! Can we play Battleships later?
“Yes, sure.”
“Joooohn, can we play Lego later?
“I thought you wanted to play battleship? What do you want to play? Battleships or Lego?”
“I want you to read to me.”
“…”

Eventually he started playing with his toy Husky and I could get some sleep. My aunt tossed her poodle in the backseat and it seemed pretty content just to sleep on my lap. I turned on some Stone Sour and got some shut eye. The road was long, and I was going to need all the battery life I could get to catch up with Korby, who seemed to run on solar power.

My good friend, Anna, once told me, there are some children who, when you tell them to stop doing something, will always purposely do it once more just to piss you off and to ‘have the last laugh’, so to speak. Korby is one of those kids.
I was woken up by the sound of Korby’s high-pitch scream (the same scream I hear every time he doesn’t get his way). He kept playing with the cup holders in the back seat and my aunt was getting impatient (bless her. She is by far the most patient parent I’ve seen). I honestly didn’t mind, I had Corey Taylor in my ears, nothing could bother me – or so I thought. Five minutes later, Korby unleashed his ultimate weapon: repetitive questioning without the need of an actual answer. Oh my, word!

“Mama, how long until we get there?”
“About an hour.”
“Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama! Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? are we th….”
I eventually fell asleep.

When I woke, we were preparing to enter urban 新竹. Turning off the intersection, I opened my eyes to see what we were passing, when I suddenly had a flash back, back to July last year, when K, H and I were touring Taiwan. I sort of wanted the same sort of excitement out of this trip, so I started paying attention.

I’d never been into urban 新竹, and just like when I went to Tainan last year July, I was shocked to find that it was not that different from Taipei. The city planning was quite discrete for an older city. It is where all the high-tech development in Taiwan takes place after all. The very cellphone I’m holding in my hand was probably designed by some poor sap who hasn’t seen sunlight for 10 years. So it’s no wonder they put effort into remodelling the town.
One thing that really stood out about 新竹 when we first drove into town was how it had everything Taipei had, just three times as big (and they had a lot more Betel Nut stalls)! Maybe it’s because they have more space, but some of their stores are huge! We passed by a three story pet store when I thought to myself, “Wow! What a lovely piece of archite-” “-are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

Damn it, Shrek! How many more children must you brain wash?

We went passed the industrial park where many car firms were situated. Volkswagen boasted one of the biggest showrooms in the area, with a stand-alone size larger than that of a shopping mall. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Mitsubishi, Mazda, Honda, Infinity, Opel, Kia, Toyota, Volvo and even Skoda all had their showrooms set up. It was quite a nice sight. As we passed the Lexus showroom, I remember myself looking inside, trying to catch a glimpse of their ridiculous £300,000 supercar, the LFA. Let’s fix the break problem first, Lexus, and the global economic downshift, and then we’ll talk about speed, yeah?

Driving parallel to the train tracks, the shift from the industrial park to the high class suburban area was instant. It was as if we’d been watching a movie in black and white film and someone suddenly turned on all the colour.
First, Caesar’s Park Hotel shot me a glance, then the Sheraton made its presence known, glooming in the background, looking immaculate as ever. I remember passing a giant billboard advertising beds from Bed World and wondering to myself whether they were really selling beds or selling pornography on the side – quite an interesting marketing strategy. 新竹 was taking a turn for the better, and credit where credit’s due, I have to admit that I was quite impressed at how well it presented itself.

We eventually arrived at the Ambassador Hotel for lunch and tea. After finishing lunch early, Korby and I went outside to take photos and throw coins in the wishing fountain. We visited a market in the afternoon and Korby had some crazy fun on the over-priced and extremely unfair games designed by sales people to get children’s money. Yes, I believe that’s a fair reflection.
An afternoon of R&R was scheduled and I finally had time to play some guitar and relax. Korby taught me how to play Battleships (in German) and we sword fought with his Lego. So, all in all, a pretty nice day.

The Fray accompany me as I type my closing remarks about day one. Goodnight, 新竹, thanks for the warm welcome. See you next year.

Tomorrow we’re heading to the other side of the mountains for some sun. Things can only get better.

P.S. Happy Chinese New Year. And, erm…’happy’ Valentine’s Day.

I am running through a flower-filled field…big furry dogs are running beside me as it rains skittles from the sky…

“Joooohnny”
…the weather is good, the sky is bright. What the heck is that bashing sound?
“Jooohnny!” *Bam bam bam bam* “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, guten morgen, Johnny! Good morning! it’s time to wake up!”
What the devil?
“Johnnnnnnnn!”
My eyes shoot open, staring at the white ceiling.
*Bam bam bam bam bam*
I tilt my head right, and through the blurry glass doors I see the silhouette of a little man, shouting his lungs out at 8:54 a.m.
“Johnny! Johnny! Johnny”
I pretend I’m asleep, when in actual fact I heard this little bugger before he even left his room. By my book, I at least had another half an hour of stay-in-bed time.
My aunt saves me:
“Korbinian! Don’t be rude! Come in here and get dressed!”
I had my sleep.

宜蘭 (Yilan) was new to me. I had never been there before. Heading for 宜蘭, I had no impressions and no expectations. I had my coffee and my croissants and packed up for the road ahead. The long road, I might add. Three hours might not seem like a long time for people travelling by train, but three hours on a car is…distorting.

I don’t know how children do it, but they just seem to have an abundant amount of energy. The second he got on the car he took out books and toys and urged me to join him in his fun. Obviously, I was more than happy to oblige, until I started feeling nauseas of course, haha.
I plugged in my earphones and rested my eyes, thinking, surprise me, 宜蘭, surprise me.
Before long, I dozed off with Keith Urban ringing in my ears.
“Mama! Mama! Mama! How long until we get there?
“Three hours”
Uh oh.

When I opened my eyes again we were speeding through a tunnel at a steady 85km/h. I had no idea where we were. What was not surprising was that Korby was still jumping and kicking. I looked at my watch. 12:37 p.m. We’d been on the road for the better part of two hours, we had to be close now.
What I saw when we exited the tunnel honestly caught me by surprise. The four lane motorway weaved through a tight series of bends between the mountains. Oddly and amazingly, the clouds were right next to our car. Thick, thick bundles of cotton-like clouds gripped the mountainside and snaked its way across the canyon. Either we were really high, or the clouds were very low. I’d never seen anything like it!
The last time I came this close to clouds, I was visiting a famous tourist destination in South Africa known as ‘God’s Window’. But jeepers, that was almost 4000m above sea level! Taiwan doesn’t have motorways that high up. This strange phenomenon had me startled. It definitely added some colour to the grey and foggy day.
Tunnel after tunnel we entered, and tunnel after tunnel we would come out on the other side driving through a ball of clouds. Looking from the tunnel out, it’s as if there was a fire outside and we were going through the smoke. After another 30 minutes of snaky motorway we entered our final tunnel.
I was so busy wondering what the sky was going to look like on the other side, I failed to notice that we had been in the tunnel for over 30 minutes already. I was amazed at how long this tunnel was. Not until I overheard my aunt talking to my grandmother did I realise that were driving through the infamous 雪山 (Xue-Shan) tunnel.

Built a good while ago, heaven knows how many lives this tunnel claimed during its construction. 25km, 25.5km, 26km, 26.5km, 27km…As I watched the numbers on the side of the inner-tunnel wall increase, I realised that we were driving dead straight and right through the heart of one of Taiwan’s thickest and largest mountains, and what awaited us on the other side would most definitely be different to what we had seen for the most part of our journey east.

Blasting out the tunnel, I sort of got that ‘the sky is the limit’ feeling. Huge open spaces. The closest mountain I could see was at least a good 40km to 50km away. The sky was layered with foamy white clouds, they were out of reach. Looking down from the motorway I could see 宜蘭 township down below. The buildings did not exceed three stories, so conveniently everything looked very flat. It was a beautiful sight, definitely something one would not be able to see in Taipei. Because apart from Taipei being a basin, it is also the capital of Taiwan, making it the most well-developed and built up cities on the island. Let’s not forget, the once tallest building in the world is situated there – Taipei 101.

I imagined 宜蘭 to be much like 花蓮 (Hualien), old, traditional and slow-paced. I was right on all three counts. It was not disappointing, though. In fact, it was exactly what I needed to get away from all the bustle of city life. Winding down the motorway into 頭城 (Toucheng) city, we were soon driving amongst the city people. Driving passed a grave-covered hill, I saw a Christian cross in the middle of Buddhist burials, rather standing out. I was happy to see that amidst all this traditional culture, there was still space for cultural diversity.

We were looking for our bed & breakfast so we could take a well-deserved rest and finally eat some food. It had taken us over three hours to get here, and needless to say, we all skipped lunch and were starving. My aunt spotted a big grey estate on the side of the narrow road. It was located in the middle of nowhere and was situated right in the middle of some farm land.
“This is it,” she said, “we’re here.” It was a huge house, with four stories and a fabulous design, it looked more like a presidential getaway than a bed & breakfast. I didn’t even think 宜蘭 had these types of houses, let alone rent them out as B&B’s. Another strange thing I noticed was that the house did not seem very welcoming. Six dogs barked at our car, apparently trying to chase us off. After asking the owner of the house some questions, we knew why. It was because we weren’t even supposed to be there; we had taken a wrong turn and ended up on someone’s private property. Off we went then, and another few minutes later we finally arrived.

Number 596 協天 (Xietian) road doesn’t look like much from the outside. It’s just a regular three-story apartment, but wait until you see inside!
The smell of lavender streamed into my nostrils the second I stepped in. Posh European wood paved the floors of the low-lit interior. Beautiful frescos hung from the walls and different brightly coloured couches, chairs, and bar stools were all around the house and in front of the counter. It was magnificent! Even the staircase leading upstairs was lavishly designed. Dark pine wood covered the floors of the second, third and fourth floors. The rooms looked better than in some hotels. There was even a big 72″ flat screen mounted to the wall! It was awesome.
The best part of the B&B was undoubtedly the view from the fourth floor outside on the balcony. They had turned it into an observation tower. Wood on the floor and beautiful European-style chairs surrounding a glass coffee table. Just right for those scenery lovers. Looking down, the sea was visible. We would definitely want to go down and play, if not for it being winter and the North-Easterlies being so bloody cold.

In the afternoon we went to see the docks then had dinner with my aunt’s friend and her children, Mindy and Matthew. They were going to be travelling with us as we toured 宜蘭 these three days.

At night, I grabbed Bridget and headed up to the fourth floor balcony. It sure was dark, not to mention it was freezing cold. I grabbed a chair and sat there in the dark and sang songs with my guitar, all the while listening to the waves which I couldn’t see crash against the shore line, until I was eventually forced in by the rain.

I seem to lose track of days during the holidays. It’s Monday, and tomorrow we’re going to visit some farm animals or something. Korby’s been going on about it for two days. Let’s hope it lives up to the hype.

it’s raining outside. No music for me tonight, just the sound of nature and its silence – and Korby snoring.

Sometime during the night I woke up because Korby had kicked me in the face. I have always been fascinated by the way children sleep, because Korby had somehow managed to turn 180 degrees on the bed. The funny thing is that he turned right back around in the morning. Haha. At 8:35 a.m. he head-butt me on my forehead, accidently I’m sure, and suffice to say, we were both awake. He woke everyone up and gradually at our own pace we all went downstairs for breakfast.

The plan today was to visit a recreational farm nearby. These recreational farms have been crucial to Taiwan’s agricultural existence ever since Taiwan joined the W.T.O., and all exports were deemed too expensive and could not compare with larger countries which had the advantage of mass production. Take America and China for instance, their agricultural turnout is enough to feed themselves and export to other countries, to a point where they would even have enough left over after that to give away to Africa. Although the recent instability of petroleum prices and the knowledge that petroleum will soon be running out has pushed America to more conservative ways. All the extra crop and agricultural harvest is no longer being sent to the African continent to aid poverty, rather it is being scientifically manufactured into organic petroleum, in hope of solving the fuel crisis. Although it must be said that organic petroleum is substantially more time consuming and expensive to produce than normal petrol, so unless you’re a green peace boffin, you probably won’t be too psyched about organic fuels just yet.
So amidst all this new age hype, traditional farmers in Taiwan have turned towards the trend that grows in popularity as the world gets more and more wealthy – tourism. More and more cattle ranches now allow tourists in to explore and understand the lives of cows, allowing curious tourists to observe, feed and even milk cows for a reasonable price. Some farms have all types of animals, making it a sort of interactive zoo.
Now obviously, with a successful business comes fierce competition. So these ‘leisure ranches’, as they are called, offer a complimentary lunch with their tour package if you’re willing to stay the entire day. That’s a pretty attractive offer if you’re the type who doesn’t want to drive all the way to the main road and back just for a meal. Smart marketing strategies are usually met with desirable outcomes, and the hundreds of people at the ranch today were a testament to the leisure ranch’s popularity.

We left the ranch in the afternoon and found a seafood restaurant by the port. Although it was a seafood restaurant, they still didn’t sell the one thing I had been craving since we got to 宜蘭 – big, fresh oysters. In fact, none of the seafood restaurants in the area sold oysters that way. I was kind of disappointed.

I remember in S.A. I used to be able to go to Ocean Basket and order a dozen fresh oysters. My friends and I used to add Tabasco sauce and down them like sweets!
I don’t think Taiwanese people like eating Oysters that way. Oh well.

After an early dinner we went back to the B&B and headed to our rooms for rest.
I was playing guitar and my aunt was watching TV when Jibi, my aunt’s travelling friend, came in and brought in some Australian red wine. She used to play guitar and requested some songs from me so we could all sing together. I felt like a bit of a dim wit when I told her that I only know to play modern songs.
“Uh, do you know Keith Urban?” I said.
She replied with a shake of the head, “Who?”
How embarrassing! I’ve now decided to learn some old classics, just for the road, haha.
Some Abba, Carpenter and Bob Dylan.
We finally found some songs we all knew and could sing together. We sang some songs and I headed for bed after taking a long, hot shower.

Another long day. Second consecutive day of rain, but that’s not going to bring me down.
Last day tomorrow. Let’s see what else 宜蘭 has to offer.

Much like day one, most of our time spent in 宜蘭 was made up of travel.
After a hearty breakfast in the morning, we all packed our things and headed out. We said our goodbyes to the owner of the B&B and travelled north. Since it was still pouring with rain, our plan was to find a coffee shop in the city of 宜蘭 and have some off-time for ourselves. But after an hour on the road, we hadn’t come across any coffee shops; the ones we had come across were either closed or there was a 45-minute queue.
Eventually, we’d been on the road for so long that it was already time for lunch, so we found a decent restaurant and ate away.

Although quite rainy, I would still consider this trip to 宜蘭 a fun one, especially because time with family is few and far between. And just like every other Chinese New Year, I had more food than I could handle. So much, in fact, that the mere smell of food makes my head spin a little. All part of the festivities, I guess. Once a year is not a crime, although the extra weight and the tight jeans might think otherwise.

After lunch, we hit the road.

宜蘭 back to Taipei was, on paper, a two hour drive, but when I saw the traffic on the road, I must admit I had my doubts. It seemed like many people were heading home from their rainy holidays too.
Driving from the city back into the suburban area before the motorway back north, the table cloth of white clouds had almost descended to ground level. The mountains were virtually invisible, covered with fog and rain. The cold front had finally hit, and that meant it was our cue to step out of the spotlight. It was back from whence we came, into the tunnels and back home.

My house isn’t big, but it’s homey – if that’s even a word. My dog seems like he lost a few pounds – my fault for not taking him to New Years dinner with me. It’s back to life and back to classes for me. All’s good in the land of John. I kind of miss the city, and I sort of miss Taipei. Not that there was anything I couldn’t find in 宜蘭 and 新竹 but I think I’ve been up north for long enough; long enough to call it ‘home.’

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

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