Sunday, May 31, 2015

Yeliu: a Good Stop on a North Coast Tour

Yeliu 野柳 is a small town located north of Keelung 基隆 which is home to the Yeliu Geopark, a narrow strip of rock which juts out into the ocean. In addition to the park there is a Sea-World-like dolphin show and a string of restaurants which seem hell bent of having tourists eat there. The parking lot which spans the area between the docks, the park, and the marine spectacle is perhaps one of Taiwan's most obnoxious tourist traps. There is even a flea market which reportedly never has good prices unless you're a local, a criticism which has been leveled at the restaurants as well.

Despite what I feel is well-earned criticism, Yeliu is worth a stop if you're interested in seeing the geopark. Plan to spend time walking the entire park area if you come inside because there are many quirky little areas to explore. The geopark is a great spot to add to any north coast itinerary assuming you see the park and get out of the surrounding area ASAP.

When you come here you should get directly through the parking lot ignoring everyone in your path because the touts are absolutely shameless. The park is a draw for busload after busload of tourists who are willing to pay twice the regular price just so they don't look cheap to their tour mates. Don't bother trying to get a good deal on the stuff in the parking lot.

You should avoid the marked up food in the restaurants which line the road adjacent to the parking lot. The quality is comparable to what you'd get in the cities nearby and the price is usually worse. Eat before you start your day, and bring some snacks. If you're on a full day trip hit up the convenience stores in town for something light to hold you over. When you're done go find food someplace where your money goes farther.

Arguably the only real attractions in Yeliu are the geopark, and taking photos by the small fishing harbor. The park is famous for the area known as the queen's head. It's a rock. Specifically it is a rock which has been worn away by the sea and from a very select set of angles looks like someones face with huge flowing hair out the back. Cue pandemonium as the lines get longer while everyone tries to get exactly the right angle.

The queen's head, from not the perfect angle.

The area was once open to the public free of charge, but the entrance fee is now 80NT for a regular visit. The fee likely came about because the sandstone pathways were in dire need of repairs - read concrete sidewalk - to prevent complete destruction. After a few reports of people being swept into the breakwaters a red line also got spray painted onto the rock face to tell people where they shouldn't go because they might fall in. Considering the force that the ocean breaks against the rock, it's best that you pay attention to that line.

Pretty rough if you fell in there.

My last visit to Yeliu was on a spectacularly stormy winter day which required a full winter coat, a fleece jacket, and the obligatory yellow rain poncho. The winds were blasting so hard there were times we had trouble walking, there was a driving rain, and the sea water was splashing wildly up onto what is normally dry rock. Come prepared with shoes that have quality traction and some protection from the wind if it's winter. Taiwan's coasts are always super windy. Don't worry about slipping unless you're somewhere you shouldn't be: the rocks are incredibly reliable in terms of traction while you make your way around the less visited areas.

Once you've gotten over how you were treated on your approach to the park, the inside is actually quite nice. You're welcome to explore the entire peninsula at your leisure, and the formations are divided into three rough segments. Expect some amazingly cool rock formations throughout the park where the water wore away its base and left fun shaped tops. The more you explore, the more cool shapes you'll discover to take silly pictures with.

Golf ball rock.

I just loved how this looks.

As you head farther out towards the sea there is a large rocky hill which you can ascend using a stairs. It only takes a minute to climb and provides birds eye views of the sections below. There are also some nice picnic areas here if you heeded the warnings above and brought your own food. If you're inclined to adventure before settling in to enjoy the sea breeze, stay on the lower level.

Taking the long way around on the lower level can be done as part of a circuit by eventually making your way to the top on a very very old and worn out staircase. Because you can make a circle route of the peninsula it's worth it to walk as far out to sea as you can go.

On the rainy day pictured here we made the journey seaward taking our time to explore because shockingly few tourists actually make the easy walk on this lower level. The final section is about 1km long, and after the first few minutes most people get bored and go back. That means you'll be able to enjoy the natural beauty unmolested by crowds of other people. Tour buses let people take photos of the queens head, heads up the stairs for a birds eye view, and then they call it a trip.

A view along the lower level as we set out from tourist land. Totally deserted.

Water-washed stone. Pretty.

Shallow Caves we saw halfway to the end.

As I mentioned above, Yeliu is a great stop as a tour of the north coast or a short ride out of Keelung city, but makes for somewhat of a short day out if it's your only stop. Visitors to Taipei with only a few days in town should skip this unless you've got a strange thing for erosion or choose to make a full day of the coast. If you're able to get a car and drive from Danshui some of the scenery is absolutely breathtaking and it is worth stopping at all the attractions along the road and makes a good outing from the city center. I'd recommend ending that drive by getting photos at sunset from Jiufen 九份 if you're able to.

If you're travelling by bus, you should plan on walking about 5km round trip if you want to reach the farthest tip of the geopark. Get here from Taipei by taking the Guoguang 國光 (kuokuang) bus from their Main Station terminal and getting off at the stop called Guoshengpu - 國聖埔 - then walk the short distance into the little town to the park. When you're ready to go you can grab the bus back to Taipei across the street from where you got dropped off. If you're looking to head into Keelung there is a Keelung Bus Company service to and from Keelung city at the same bus stand. From there you can see the night market in town, then ride the train or bus back to Taipei.

If you're really trying to get a local feel for things you can grab bus 862 or 863 which terminates in Danshui 淡水 (now called Tamsui on maps) and runs the entire north coast. This would be a good way to get yourself to Shimen's stone gate, Baishawan beach, or just to enjoy the view from the bus. I've never done this so double check that the buses are running when you want to go, but I have seen seeing both numbers zip past while riding my bike.

Which is another great idea to give you. You can bike along the largely deserted highway - save for getting out of Danshui - by following Route 2. There are bike rental stores in Danshui or you can use the MRT on the weekends to transport a bike from town. Tamsui to Keelung will run you about 40 miles. If you take some of the turn offs which end up at temples or other out of the way places you'll get up to about 50. There is a somewhat hidden left turn approaching Keelung which avoids heavy traffic as the main road swings inland and up hill where you'll see a very steep street with a hairpin turn in it below you as you climb just past Ta-Wu-Lun 大武崙 harbor. Take that turn, go down the hairpin and follow the roads into the city. Ride back to Taipei - using route 5 until you get to river side trails - or grab a train which accepts bikes from Keelung.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The National Palace Museum

The National Palace Museum 台灣故宮博物館 is one of the few places that is a genuine must see on your trip to Taiwan. It's possibly even worth making a stop in Taipei if you're going to be outside of the capital just to be sure you get to see the treasures it houses. Some of the pieces in this museum are just that stunning.

To make a long history lesson short, the bulk of the collection housed at the palace was brought over from China during the civil war. There was a limit to how much the army could take with them as they bounced around the country, so only those objects deemed truly valuable were brought along. As a result, the Taiwanese half of the museum - the other is in the Forbidden City in Beijing - houses a disproportionately high volume of culturally meaningful art. Thankfully, the curators at the museum have packed the permanent collection with great pieces, and there are which come out of storage in rotation.

With all the great pieces of art from China's past on display the museum gets quite busy, especially on the weekends. Because this is a must see, every tour group which comes through Taipei will make a stop here. If you want to be able to enjoy the museum in a less frantic environment, shoot for Mondays to Thursdays. Every other museum is shut on Mondays, so there is a bit more traffic, but you'll be avoiding the tour groups which swarm the building Friday through Sunday. If you have to come on the weekends, get here early, or during lunch time because the tour groups will be gone. Avoid coming in the mid afternoon on the weekends.

Buses, taxis, and tourists crowd the street level entrance on weekends.

Sadly, the museum strongly enforces the no photography rule in its galleries, so there isn't much to post here. Instead, satiate your pre-visit curiosity with this rough guide for how to see the best stuff.

Nearly everything that will capture your imagination and interest is on the third floor. It's best to get in and head straight up to the third floor where you'll be politely filtered through a set of U-turns to see the Jade Cabbage. In nearly a dozen visits to this museum this area has never been empty because the little sculpture is a outlandishly famous object in Chinese culture. The cabbage is no doubt the main attraction and sometimes there is a subtle pushing match that happens around the cabbage. The other display case in this room has a rock which looks shockingly like freshly cooked meat which often impresses more than the cabbage does, and a tiny pair of dancing bears. As of October 2015 the room had been designed to filter people through in single file while quickly giving you unobstructed access to each of the cases.

Once you've seen the two main rooms on the third floor you can decide what else interests you. Your next stop should be to see the ivory carvings which are currently housed on the first floor. They used to be on the third floor in an exhibit with tons of reliefs carved into rhinoceros horn, but the gallery has moved, likely in an attempt to spread crowds more evenly in the museum. It is currently being called "precious crafts" on the map, in hall 106 with a picture of a strange ball. The ball is what appears to be a series of ivory rings nested inside one another and it hangs as part of a giant ivory mobile. Everything in hall 106 is a masterpiece, but much of the treasures here are made from animal bones.  For those with moral concerns there is signage to help visitors understand the pieces on display in the context of current conservation programs.

Also on the first floor is a hall full of religious relics (halls 105 - 107) which is worth at least a quick look. There is a massive pagoda which features hanging bells - that really do hang - as well as tons of finely wrought gold crafted in reverence to the Buddha.

After seeing floor one you can consider heading back up to the third floor where the museum has an interactive exhibit about bronzes. The old bronze bells and urns which are spread around the museum are not very impressive by modern standards, but after a tour through hall 300 you'll be ready to at least appreciate something about halls 301, and 305 - 307. There are some very good bilingual displays about the evolution of Chinese characters which are accessible to even non-Mandarin speakers. The jades in halls 306 - 308 are also quite impressive given their context, but are nowhere near as well loved as the jade cabbage you've already seen.

The second floor should be the last stop for visitors who have already taken tons of stops into Chinese museums, and it should only be explored once you've exhausted the possibilities on the third floor. The middle level has a collection of ceramic wear, antiques, calligraphy, and paintings. Foreign visitors usually find the galleries somewhat inaccessible due to language and cultural differences, so save it for the end. It's definitely worth a visit if you're into calligraphy - many bearing the stamps of the emperors who owned them - and brush paintings, but for most people it quickly becomes a slow walking tour just to say you've seen it.

You'll probably be exhausted after all the slow walking and stooping common to museum going, so head outside to the Zhishan Garden which is free with your museum ticket. The entrance is all the way down the stone steps around a stone wall on the left hand side as you finish the final descent to street level. There are a few drink vending machines inside, and you're welcome to take pictures here in the often deserted garden. 

Inside the garden

The museum has raised its prices to 250NT for a standard visit. Students with valid foreign ID (ISIC) are 150NT, while those studying full time in Taiwan - language schools excluded - and carrying their ID are let in free.

Exhibition Hall 2 seen from below

Special exhibitions regularly set up shop in the second exhibition hall which is on the upper level on the left side when facing the museum's main building. After visiting a few of these exhibitions the only unbiased review would be to say that the quality and desirability of these exhibits varies greatly - despite commanding high ticket prices - and unless you've been living in Taiwan for a while you're likely better off not going inside.

The stairs to hall 2 are next to the big white gate

Getting to the museum is done by bus or taxi, usually from an MRT station.  You should take the MRT to Shilin station of the red line - now called line 2 - or to Dazhi station on what is now called line 1. Shilin offers more buses with higher frequency than Dazhi, but Dazhi has a slightly lower taxi fare. Once you arrive at the station there are a set of local buses which will take you to the museum proper or you can grab a cab for around 120NT. Ask the staff in the information counter at the MRT which buses are most convenient at that time of day. Everyone who works in the MRT is able to speak some English, so get help when you need it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Sanxia Old Street and Temple

Sanxia (三峽) has become a major dormer community for Taipei, emerging from a small town to hosting massive new apartment complexes and redesigned boulevards. Young families who couldn't afford houses in Taipei or other areas of New Taipei helped drive development here, although I doubt that prices stayed low for very long. Yet floating among this very new and at time times very crowded area there is a well restored Japanese era old street and a beautifully maintained temple called the Zushi Temple 祖師廟.

Sanxia is worth a visit in its own right if you have extra time on a trip - or live in Taiwan - and want to see something farther afield from Taipei City. If you're thinking of heading to nearby Yingge 鶯歌 for the old street there, it is worth slotting time for Sanxia into your day. The only way to get here is by bus, car/scooter, or cab because the MRT ends at Yongning (north of here) and the TRA stops in Yingge. Another option on a nice day is to take a long bike ride from the city on the bike paths then swing inland where the path (literally) ends and make your way to the temple.

First, the old street. There are a lot of craft shops and a few restaurants along the reconstructed lane which is blocked to non-pedestrian traffic. There are a lot of places to get croissants and fried sausages, try out some tea, and even some nice clothing shops. It's not like the old street in Shenkeng 深坑 because it's not a giant food market. The majority of the food around here is all on the outside of the old street.

What you do get by taking a walk down the old street is a feeling of being transported back to another time. On the day that I came to take these pictures there were few others around and while the stores were open no one was hawking anything. Each building has its own story and it's worthwhile to take your time looking up at the ornate designs which still cap many of the facades.

Some of the stores were still getting set up last time I was there, so it's hard to judge what might have changed in the last year. Take a stroll through here and see if anything strikes your fancy. No promises, because I made it end to end without needing to go in and shop anywhere, but the architecture is worth the trip on its own. When you're done enjoying fantasies of the past, wind your way back to the police station where there is an intersection between the end of the main street and an alley/road leading to the river and the temple.

Most of the famous food and snacks in this area are housed in the first floor of the modern buildings on the main street which is now in front of you. Croissants are the most popular item people buy here, and there is one store on the temple side of the main street which draws massive crowds and will be obvious even on a quiet day. There is plenty of food here to grab a lunch but the stores have small seating areas, if any, unless you eat off one of the alleys near the temple. Grab whatever strikes your fancy then head back to the police station.

Head down hill in the alley towards the river - it's the street with a bunch of croissant vendors and a giant tree at the end before a stone wall - and you'll quickly arrive at the main square of the zushi temple 祖師廟.

The main square serves a meeting place for groups which are let loose to tour the old street and eat at all the restaurants which line the alleys around the temple. Don't be surprised if the big space feels awfully crowded, even on a weekday. If you're lucky, it'll be deserted and you can get some great pictures.

If you take a look across the river before you start in to the temple you'll be greeted by giant guardian statues and the picturesque Zhangfu Bridge. The bridge leads to a large residential area in Sanxia and there isn't much over there for people on tour. If you decide to grab a few pics from up on the bridge there are often people playing music and selling souvenirs under the pavilions above the river. Once you've seen the river head into the temple.

This temple is nice because it's very tightly packed and you can get almost unparalleled access to a lot of the beautifully intricate details on the columns, ceilings, and roofs. Most temples house Mazu or the heavenly emperor as well as a host of other enshrined gods and heroes of the Chinese folk religion. This temple houses 清水祖師, or 祖師公, who is often called Qingshui or Zushi in English. He was once a monk who had an exceptional skill for religious speech and is fabled to have brought rains wherever he went in China during a drought. Zushi was very popular among the Fujian people, and temples devoted to him were among the first to be opened in Taiwan. This temple in Sanxia dates back to the 18th century, with its current manifestation being completed in the 1940's.

One of the defining features of this temple is how much of it is made of stone work. The outer walls are made of stone, as are all of the columns supporting the main worship hall. The posts by the busiest walkways are protected by steel grates to prevent damage during the temple's busiest times.

There are a lot of photos like these to be taken here with dragons flying off the roofs, guardians lining the railings, stone carvings everywhere and tons of lines and levels and cloisters. If you are into photography, there are a lot of composition elements to explore - or struggle with - here. If you're not into pictures the layout and tightly packed nature of this temple is still a feast for the senses.

The second level walkway which rings the main hall serves as an access to the lesser gods being worshiped in the temple. It also is a great place to see the carvings which cap each of the stone columns. The sculpture work under the roof is also very impressive with stunning reliefs of many animals and beautiful flowers in well maintained colors.

The roof of the main worship hall

Like most of the roofs on temples in Taiwan this place is adorned with flying dragons and depictions of legendary tales. There are two pavilions of the second floor which house the temple's gong and drum - used for ceremonial purposes like welcoming visiting gods - and they're worth a look. You'll also pass by two smaller shrines on the second floor which are housed behind some incredibly carved woodwork and host tons of small statues.

The main worship hall often has visiting Zushi gods from around Taiwan, but real access to the main chamber has been sealed in every Qingshui temple I've been to in the country. There is an alter set up in the courtyard (pictured above) which is used by lay people for worship.

The roof in the main hall is a pretty imposing sight. It depicts a vortex in the heavens with a point of light at its center. The symbolism is obvious, and there are a few temples around the island which feature this, but it's still sort of creepy as you think about it while standing in a quiet temple basked in incense smoke.

Enjoy the temple and make use of the bathrooms inside before heading back out. There are buses (and cabs) which can take you to Yingge for the pottery old street and the TRA railroad, up to the MRT, or all the way back into Taipei's city center. I made a trip here by bike using the riverside trails from the city, and it was a congested but short ride to Yingge before heading back along the river to Taipei. There aren't any Ubike stations, so you'd need to ride one down here, but on a nice day its a far better experience than the bus.

Qixingshan, and Hikes at the Top of Yangming Mountain

Yangming Mountain, hereafter to be called yangming shan (陽明山) is a volcanic area set in Taipei City's northern Shilin and Beitou districts. For anyone in the city the name implies a vast area of peaks and valleys which include entire communities, colleges, hot springs, farms, and basically any area shaded green on a map of Taipei. Getting up all of the lower mountains eventually leads you up to the ultimate peak at Qixing shan (七星山).

View from the top on a nice day

Climbing qixing shan is a rewarding experience for anyone looking to get to the top of the tallest point in northern Taiwan. The next highest peak, snow mountain, requires a permit to get into, so qixing shan becomes the defacto mountain that lay people must conquer. And conquer they do.

On busy days everyone waits around to get a photo with this. Note the heavy fog.

A view up towards the eastern peak.

Weekends are rather busy on the trails and on the roads during the early spring flower season when the temperature is cool and comfortable. People flock to see the cherry blossoms in bloom around the roads that ring the ascent to qixing shan proper, and many families make a point of getting up to the top on their day in the mountain. Weekdays are nearly always quiet, especially if you approach from one of the less popular trail heads.

A half day up and back itinerary

If you have a car or scooter, you should drive up to any of the parking lots, pay the nominal parking fee and then hike up to the top. You can usually find water at the parking area pavilions which have information centers, drink vending machines, and quite often small convenience stores. Driving is a great way to see this mountain, but the down side is you have to keep looping back to get your car either walking or by the minibus. Great for a quick hike, but you'll miss a bit of the splendor that comes from being away from the heavily visited areas.

Public transit users looking for a half day hike should take the bus up to the Number 2 parking lot (第二停車場) and get off. Most buses which stop here have service straight through the heart of Taipei City, so pick up one of the several buses that come here and ride it till the end.

If you just want to hike Qixing shan you shouldn't waste your time going to the yangming shan stop which is a fair walking distance down the mountain from where this hike actually starts. The only reason to go to the lower stop is to get on the minibus which will take you around the mountain to different lower altitude areas like Qingtiangang where the cows live. The flower clock, in my opinion, is not worth a visit but buses and trails do run there as well.

From the parking lot hike up the short distance to the visitors center and if you need, hit the toilets and grab water at the shop in the lower level of the building. There is a trail on the road side of the visitors center which leads up to a small stone pavilion where you'll hook a right up and into the trail for Qixing mountain.

No matter where you start, expect a bunch of stone stairs to stretch as far as your eyes can see until you reach the very top of this mountain. To avoid erosion issues from the huge number of people who make this hike every year the government has set down giant stones to make a fairly smooth path. As you ascend the gradient will get steeper, and you'll eventually be lumbering up switch backs to the peaks.

Stone steps sometimes give way to wooden boxes like these. Careful on the descent.

At the top you can rest on the stones at the top and hopefully the weather is clear enough for you to get a great view. There are two peaks which are about a five minute walk apart. It's a good idea to go up to the main peak first, over to the east peak, down into the park below, then follow the trail markers back the visitors center exit if you want to make a round trip. On your way up you'll notice a turn off for the park area. Skip it on the way up, and then return to the main trial via that route on the way back down.
The top of the mountain is often shrouded in fog, even on sunny days.

From the visitors center the average person will spend maybe two to two and a half hours to make their way up, slightly less to come down. People in great shape who practically run up and back down can do it in ~50 minutes up, 40 down. If you'd like, use the rest of the day to ride the mini bus and take photos at all the wonderful sites around the mountain. Be sure to make it back by the last bus which conventional wisdom is always at 5pm, but some minibuses cruise around the main roads after dark.

A full day itinerary for those ready to really hike.

Grab the minibus from the yangming shan bus terminal (NOT the number 2 parking lot) and head to the xiaoyoukeng 小油坑 stop. You'll be greeted by a smoking hole in the ground where the steam from the volcanic heart of yangming shan vents to the surface. From near the bus stop you can follow a steeper and shorter trail to the peak and enjoy some nice views - and smells - of the vent.

Once you get to the top of qixing shan head to the east peak, then down into the park/pavilion below. When you get to the open area full of picnic tables follow the trail to the left side when you're looking down the mountain towards a large radio tower. Keep heading down towards lengshuikeng 冷水坑.

Once you arrive at the bottom you can get a nice view of the milky lake. It's sort of hidden out of view unless you mount a platform, but worth it if you're over here. Its not worth a stop if you're going to be seeing these places via the minibus, unless you plan to hike it to Qingtiangang, which takes an hour and is a great walk.

As noted above, Qingtiangang is famous for the cows which live there. You'll be able to get plenty of pictures with these mostly gentle giants along with swarms of other visitors.

Once you've satisfied yourself here there are two more options for side hikes. If you want to take in another small mountain get yourself to the top of 竹篙山 - written as zhugao shan or Penny Hill on signs. If you are in the mood for a trek to a very small waterfall, follow the signs which lead down and away behind the small set of buildings near the parking lot. Bonus to the waterfall option is you can walk the trail to its end and pick up a bus back down to Taipei without circling the mountain again. If you stay around the pastures, once you're sure you're done with everything you can head to the parking lot and take the mini bus back to the yangmin shan bus station for the return to the city center.

Still not enough? Do an afternoon trip to 風櫃口.

Start at dawn. After mounting qixing shan and making your way past the milky lake and into the once fertile cow pastures of qingtiangang head towards the parking lot and turn right at the mini temple. Follow the signs for fengguikou 風櫃口 which will lead you along a path which skirts the farm land, passes an historic gate, and then deeper into the mountains.

Spanning at least 16km round trip this hike takes you into much less accessed parts of the mountain where the trail becomes actual dirt and grass. There is another family of cows here which rarely meets with their people-friendly cousins on the other side of the forest. Don't startle these cows because they're actually very, very aggressive.

This family was aggressively protecting their young

So much so they chased a man into the bush.

When you eventually get the road on the other side of this trail you'll be well east of the National Palace Museum, and forced to choose between a road descent to the buses which mostly terminate on Zhishan road 至善路, or walking the 8km back to qingtiangang to get the bus back around to the visitors center. There is a bus service near fengguikou, but service may be infrequent.

To answer an obvious question, yes I've done this itinerary before in a single sitting, although the trip started before the crack of dawn and we walked down to Zhishan road. We packed some hearty lunches and bought ample water and cookies from the stores which dot the mountain's parking lots. It's probably best to do this final leg on a second day unless you're in great shape and have really limited time to hike.

Monday, May 25, 2015

A Cute Spot for Photos in TaiChung

Nestled in a quiet neighborhood dotted with farms on the outskirts of TaiChung City (臺中市) proper, this small complex of buildings is a neat little attraction if you're looking for a great place to take some photos. Its called 黃永阜 and comes up on any map software.

The story goes that an old man was at risk of losing his house because it had not been maintained properly. In a bid to prevent the government from tearing down his place he set to work painting the facades, sidewalks, and even the pipes around his home. Due to his creative use of colors, characters, and photogenic slogans his place became a bit of a tourist attraction. Then a small park got built next door and his house, which despite being somewhat ill kept, has survived to this day. 

Visiting the house is free and there is free parking on the streets nearby and in a lot which connects to the playground. Many of the designs from the house have been turned into postcards and stickers which can be purchased from a stand set up inside the home's main courtyard. Considering that the artist lived here until recently - we have been told...but he might still live there - it's not a bad way to show support for someone who got creative to preserve what they valued most and lets you visit free of charge.

If you like photos you'll want about half an hour to get through all your poses and faces in front of the myriad designs. If you just want to check it out you'll need about ten minutes to really soak it all in, grab a few photos and get back on your way.

Of all the places you could wind up in TaiChung, this one is definitely different and originally memorable. If you've got the time, it's well worth a short but rewarding visit. Perhaps best of all, in comparison to other attractions in this city there is no traffic and parking is abundant.

Friday, May 22, 2015

An Argument for Less Slippery Sidewalks

While enjoying a picnic lunch in a park gazebo on a rain soaked afternoon recently, I watched a foreign couple scampering from shelter to shelter trying to stay dry under their undersized umbrellas. Due to the sheer volume of rain for the previous days there were deep, foot drenching puddles which were best avoided.

The guy jumped a tiny baby hop over the puddle in his shoes, the girl side stepped the deepest part in her sandals. The guy fell flat on his ass, and the girl didn't.

This is from where I was sitting when he fell. He slipped on the exact same tiles which - seen here - are obviously an accident waiting to happen. Get off balance for a single second, and down you'll go.

At the risk of jinxing myself to fall and break something, I'd like to say that Taiwan on a rainy day becomes half ice rink half obstacle course. Visitors be warned, and residents, be re-warned.

The above sidewalk is outside of a massive twenty story apartment complex. Children at the English school downstairs wait until it rains to use this space as a giant slip and slide. Standing slides quickly turn into full on spills as they jeer each other to go faster. 

Yet it's also the primary sidewalk for this entire neighborhood. How can any human in dress shoes, high heels, or wearing something with worn soles be expected not to fall flat on their ass?

Oh, how many times have I seen people walking and just go down on the slippery surfaces that cover this island! Woe to the bikers who dare to turn or ride legs akimbo on a day with even a hint of moisture! High heel wearers bring your elbow pads!

EVERYONE who lives in Taiwan has a story about an epic spill they or someone they've known has taken. Every painted line on the road, every corner you take on a tiled sidewalk, every time you go from a wet space to a dry one is a time you could fall.

All this because everyone lines the ground in front of their buildings in perfectly flat (or polished!) flag stones and tiny tiles like you'd find in a bathroom with NO texture. 

They're great at moving water towards a drain and some of the tiles must be super cheap to lay, by hand, and repair constantly. Surely there is no better choice for the cost and labor conscious among us? 

There is.

The outside red tiles are basically just cement and are full of texture so you can walk or bike at a normal pace without any problems. Thank you Taipei City. The inside checkered tiles chosen by the landlord are the same ones that people worry about people falling on in the bathroom. If you don't walk at a snails pace you're doomed to fall. Didn't they invent those life alert bracelets for just this kinda thing?

Finally, going from a wet surface to dry ones is a great way to go down. To a Taiwan outsider this is comic advice really, only given to the elderly and infirm. Sadly, it is a frighteningly common problem along any street due to the covered store fronts that let out into side streets or driveways which are soaked in inches of water.

To wit I reach the conclusion that it's unreasonable to make everyone tile everything in pedestrian friendly tiles like Taipei uses. Yet all of these ceramic and marble surfaces can be textured without destroying the aesthetics, freedom of choice, or boosting prices. I ask "is polished marble really a good choice for the outside flooring - and driveway - of your high class hotel?" The answer apparently is yes.

This is one area that Taiwan has never - and will never - make any sense to me because it's so easy not to build death trap sidewalks. But really, be very very careful on rainy days.