Saturday, October 24, 2015

Shrimping ain't easy

Shrimping is one of those Taiwanese past times that draws a cult following of locals much like bowling does in the west. People who do it regularly love it, bring their own equipment, and have an entire social network centered around the activity. Many of the shrimp shacks are open around the clock all year round and run a restaurant in addition to the pools of massive shrimp. It's not uncommon to see big groups of young Taiwanese folks having a giant meal, a rack full of giant beers, and plate after plate of fresh grilled shrimp.

Tourists who have done some research on Taiwan might have stumbled across shrimping as an activity and not paid it much mind. The reality is shrimping is easily in the top ten things you must do when you're in Taiwan. If you have not been to a shrimping stand and think you've gotten local, it's time to think again.

For an average price of 300 NT per hour you get a rented pole, some bait, and a seat around a murky pool of water. The staff regularly feed giant crates of mega sized shrimp into the pool to stock it and make sure you at least catch a few in the time you're there, so there is no need to have performance anxiety.

Be forewarned that no one will probably speak English. If you know how to smile and are not mocking shrimping you'll draw a lot of polite interest. If you can speak Taiwanese or Mandarin someone could be nice enough to teach you how to shrimp properly and you might make some new friends. Like truly local friends who invite you over for dinner.

Grab the pole, the plate of krill, and a blue mesh net and take it to your seat. Feed the net it into the water and loop its string around that pipe or hook you see sticking up at regular intervals. Put the bait on the basin's rim in easy reach. Unravel the line on your pole and shove the whole thing right into the water to feel how deep it is. Pull it out and use the water line to measure your bobber so the hooks will float just above the bottom. Don't assume the guys who rented it to you took the time to line it up just right. If your line is too short the shrimp can't get to your hooks, if it's too long you can't control the line enough to be sure the shrimp don't spit it out as you lift them.

Those krill on a plastic plate are your bait, not an appetizer. Bait your hook by holding the krill between your fingers and pushing the hook through the little guy's back so that the business end is hidden in its belly. Repeat for the second hook. Make sure your line is totally untangled and drop those babies into the water.

Unlike real fishing there is no secret with the angle of your pole. What you want to do is watch the bobber and see when it starts to track sideways or sink. The tracking is harder to notice because there are bubble machines running, but the sinking is obvious. This is where a beer makes the waiting game a lot more fun, and shrimping places always sell beers.

Once you see the sinking DO NOT immediately pull up on your pole. After hours of shrimping practice, plus tons of berating by the local experts, the confirmed method is to wait six seconds - where you count quietly under your breath "one, two, three, four, five, six" - and then put tension on the line and quickly pull out your shrimp. Don't wrench that baby out of there, but don't be shy to give it a quick tug.

Up comes your shrimp and it is time to get physical. Like all creatures stuck through the mouth with a steel hook, it's going to kick and fight a bit. The boy shrimps have blue claws on them, and if they claw you they can break the skin. Grab the shrimp length wise in your hands so his back is in your palm and use your fingers to gently grab his legs and tail and stop him from twitching. If you grab him right he can't claw you at all.

They kick a lot if you let them dangle like this.

Once you got him in your clutches tip the shrimp upside down so his head is towards the floor which the locals claim will stun it. Snatch his blue claws by going over his head - they won't see your hands coming is the idea - and then just rip them off of his body. To get the hook out you keep holding his body, nose towards the ceiling, and then rip the hook downwards towards his tail. If you pull it upwards or try to get fancy like you would with a fish it gets stuck and basically tortures the poor thing even more.

Pull up the blue net and put your hand into the opening and drop the shrimp in there. Shame on you if he kicks his way out of captivity. It'll stay fresh under water in your net longing for freedom until it's time to cook it up with all his friends. Bait up your hook again, drop the business ends back into the water, and keep enjoying that beer until you get another bite.

Keep a close eye on your time, an hour goes fast in the shrimping world. It's fine to shrimp for a few hours, but be realistic about how much you want to spend. If you go much past the hour mark you'll need to pay for another full hour, half hour, 15 min, etc. No one will tell you when it's time to stop so you have to make the call. Grab your pole, the paper they gave you with a time written on it, and head back to the desk and pay the fee for your shrimping time. Now you can start to prep for the grill.

Bag up your shrimp and take them home alive or grill them up at the store. If you don't want them, give the entire net with your catch to someone who does. DO NOT just throw those hard earned shrimp away!

Most shrimping stores make you grill by yourself. First take your net to the big sink and wash those babies up with clean water. Even if you cook things real well the murky water should get rinsed off those shrimp. Expect them to twitch a lot in the sink.

Once they're rinsed you're ready to skewer them. Grab them and hold them out flat like you did to pull off their claws. Skewer them into the soft fleshy part of their belly about three quarters of the way down towards their tails. Push the skewer up until the shrimp is secure but don't puncture their stomachs which are in the back of their head section. Run it through a huge tray of salt if you want, and then put them on a big steel plate.

Cooking up the shrimps.

You may need to fire up the grill, a job that is probably best left to the people who work there. It's a good time to look like a stupid foreigner so you don't blow yourself up. Once the grill is fired up you just put those still twitching shrimps under the heat and slowly cook them to death. It's important to turn them to stop them from burning on one side, but their whiskers will burn off pretty early on which is fine. They are done when they are dead, totally pink, and look like cooked shrimp.

Grab a clean plate, put the shrimp on it, and put them on a table to cool. Turn off the grill if no one is going to use it, wash the plate that had the uncooked shrimp on it, and then get ready to eat! Order up more food if you want, beers, whatever suits your fancy. It's worth keeping in mind that the shrimp are farm raised and chemically encouraged to become enormous. Luckily a good haul is between six to ten shrimp per hour, so eating all of them just one time shouldn't be a big deal.

Catch boiled at home after a late night shrimping in Taipei when the grills were closed. 

Most first timers tend to be leave shrimping somewhere between excited by the activity and completely repulsed by the rather gristly business of catching, mangling, and then slowly roasting shrimp alive. Whatever your feelings it's a totally local activity where you can meet incredibly friendly people and you'll be hard pressed to find something like this elsewhere.

Google up "釣蝦場" or if you don't have a way to keep that address handy ask at your hotel, a local friend, boss, etc., about where to go to get your shrimp on. Not every place is 24 hours. In Taipei you can find a lot of places out in the mountains past the national palace museum on shrimp hill, and a few in the city center.

Teapot Mountain: a nice hike to add to your day in Jiu Fen

Teapot mountain is a cute name for an enjoyable ocean side hike located a short ride from Jiu Fen's old street. The hike gets its name from the view of the rock outcropping at the summit of the trail which looks like a teapot without its handle. From start to finish you'll need to budget between two and three hours of your day to get it done, less if you're an avid hiker and decide not to climb your way around to higher peaks nearby. It's a more forgiving journey than the one up nearby Mt. Keelung, and while the view from the top isn't quite as epic on a beautiful day it has more character and far fewer people.

From Taipei take bus 1062 from ZhongXiao FuXing MRT which is labeled Jin Gua Shi. The pick up point changes fairly often so check the station map to confirm you get to the right spot. You can also take bus 788 from Keelung, and if you're out at Rui Fang station there are two buses serving the mountain from there.

The bus route to/from Taipei.

A note of caution. Jiu Fen is a massive tourist draw and is one of a select few parts of Taiwan which has touts on hand. Drivers will wait around the bus stops in Taipei and Keelung and try to tell you the bus just left, there aren't any buses, or other nonsense. The bus from Taipei is 110 NT to the end of the line, and it should be 95 to the old street. The ride takes about an hour and a half. If you opt for a private ride you'll pay at least double the bus price each way and get there about five minutes faster.

Once you get up to Jiu Fen, you're able to get out and see the old street first, or take it in on your way back. To do this hike you'll get off at the gold museum station about five minutes down the road from the old street. After getting off, make your way to into the compound of Japanese era buildings set into the mountain which follows a brick trail outside some repaired miner's dorms. There have been a ton of improvements to make the museum into a more visitor friendly place, but just taking a look at the free displays and walking the compound should be enough. You can't get deep into the old mines no matter how much you pay, so keep your cash for the tourist streets.

The main entrance to Jin Gua Shi.

A mining cart, with gold!

You'll slowly climb upward as you pass through the compound, and the first signs to follow are those towards the Shinto shrine. It was built by the Japanese and lies just above the mining encampment its its tori is visible from below. The trail up is about 600 meters and is worth a look if you've got the time. The old mining village is really picturesque and it's not a wonder that it's finally become a tourist attraction in its own right.

Mail some postcards or enjoy some nature.

Most of the structures were first built by the Japanese.

Up and up, and a right at the top of these stairs.

You'll keep moving upwards and eventually you'll come upon an old set of mining tracks. There are some carts available for you to take photos in and even push back and forth along the old rails. The carts end at a massive set of old mining equipment and a pay-to-enter simulation of the old mine. The equipment is free and awesome to see, and the outside of the simulation building has a very cool copper filtering system model. The buildings here house the exhibits that are worth skipping unless you're a mining enthusiast.

Original cart tracks.

Picture friendly carts you can push!

Hundred year old machines.

There's a little V shaped cut in the mountain just past these last few buildings which has a little bridge over a small waterfall/stream to a walkway on the other side. At the end of the bridge you'll have the first access to teapot mountain through a set of lockable steel doors. The trail is seasonal at best, but it's quite pretty when open and follows the river up to where it rejoins the main trail on the paved road to teapot mountain. 

See that red dot next to the V? That'll be you just before you start hiking.

That wooden bridge leads to the temple, and the trails.

The seasonal trail at the end of the bridge. The gates were open, but the trail was closed.

If that trail is closed, or you want to see more of the natural beauty of the area, keep walking along the brick path until you come to a set of stairs set back from the road. They are right behind a massive golden statue on top of a temple, and on a clear day it's a landmark that can't be missed.

It was too foggy. This guy is usually visible from the gold museum.

Clearly marked trail head for the hike.

The ascent is predominantly steps of moderately even grade no matter which fork of the trail you start you hike from. The trail crosses a zig-zagging road twice, which breaks up the monotony of just powering up the stairs and affords some beautiful views. There are a few small areas where the trail breaks down into a small dirt path, so don't worry that you've gone astray.

The first steps up at the temple entrance.

As you ascend you'll be treated to better and better views of the coastline, Keelung mountain, and nearby Jiu Fen. The ocean water directly below this trail looks dirty, but in reality is mineral deposits getting washed off the shore. The abundance of deposits helps explain why the area was so heavily mined by the Japanese.

You'll need to follow the road to the left once you get to the pavilion at the top of the stairs where you reach the road for the second time. The road will end with an overlook and another set of stone steps on your right with a marked sign for teapot mountain. Head up these steps and make your way up to the top. Theres areas which are just rock filled grass so be careful if you're not wearing hard bottomed shoes.

You'll come up those stairs on the right. Follow the road to the next set of steps.

On the most recent visit here there was a new, angry looking red sign telling hikers the are not allowed to enter the teapot because it is too dangerous. The pot was always a favorite place to scamper over some rocks and afforded some really unique views of the nearby mountains. The ropes through the pot are still there, but the lowest portion of them has been cut off. The existing ropes are still easily reachable, but this blog is not condoning climbing into the pot against the clearly written sign's warnings.

Angry looking do not enter sign.

The way down can be done in one go and can take even novice hikers only 20 to 30 minutes. If you're heading to Jiu Fen old street or Taipei, you'll want to follow the signs at the bottom of the stairs towards the temple which is downhill and slightly to your right. You'll end up just next to the main pavilion of the temple, which you cross and head into a parking lot. There are bathrooms here just past the temple on the right, and a few stores will sell water or snacks if the weather is nice.

Marker for the stairs down to the temple.

The stairs lead down on the left side of this photo.

Buses leave for Keelung leave from the entrance to the gold mining museum, which you access by taking a left at the bottom of the trail and then walking back down and through the gold museum. It's possible but a bit dangerous to walk past the temple, the bus stop, and then walk on the road back to museum. Alternatively, take the bus back to the Jiu Fen old street and change buses there.

One word of caution about the buses at the temple. There are times you'll have to pick between a few different buses all marked for the same route. As part of their schedule drivers get a rest period at this temple and the first bus in line is not always the bus which will depart next. The customer service at this stop is poor at best, notably the complete lack of logical bus departures or communication from drivers. Passengers can often be seen chasing the bus as it leaves, shouting for it to stop. If you have to wait outside a bus, make sure you're somewhere that any passing bus has to see you before it disappears, and enthusiastically wave them down. Just say Jiu Fen (15$) or Taipei(110$). If it's bus 1062, and it's leaving, you want to be on it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Biking Safely in Taiwan

A lot of people who visit and relocate to Taiwan are curious about getting out on two wheel in what has been described as a cycling paradise. The idea this island is paradise is a misnomer and puts way too much pressure on this island to perform. Taiwan is most correctly called a good place to cycle.

All of Taiwan's cities are easily biked because the infrastructure is set up for scooters. You'll be moving slower than scooters and you won't be treated the same way, but there is definitely more respect than you'd get in most western cities. Drivers in Taiwan rarely have issues with bikes, and they're not driving badly to piss you off or to make a statement about the place bikes have in society. If they're driving poorly it's just because they're bad drivers, plus the driving culture here is based on perceived privilege and the idea that might makes right. There are also some rather glaring flaws in the legal system for punishing drivers who hit pedestrians and bicycles making the results of hitting or killing someone much less of an issue than it is back west.

Somewhat unsurprisingly the biggest safety issues tend to be buses. I'm loathe to say anything bad about the bus drivers in Taiwan since many are very professional and provide a necessary service. Yet the majority of them also have some bad habits when it comes to bikes, perhaps because there is no mechanism in place to punish them for doing it. Expect to get cut off or slowly driven into the curb by buses which refuse to yield to cyclists. It happens in every city, and on every country road. When turning they turn quickly without waiting for pedestrians and run red lights, while honking, much more frequently than cars do. Luckily they're huge, and you've now been forewarned. Get as much distance from them as you can while staying safe, and either hang back to let them go first, or beat them by enough distance you won't get cut off at their next stop.

The next biggest issue is cars/small trucks which are turning, with an emphasis on left. Failure to yield right of way on left turns is the single biggest cause of accidents in Taiwan. Cars which turn left rarely look for anything other than oncoming cars or scooters, so pedestrians and bicycles are unlikely to factor into their decisions. Everyone turns quickly, trying to grab that moment of open space to make it across the way. Seen a few walkers and bikers get hit this way, so keep your head up and hands ready for action. When cars are turning right they WILL see you if you're in the road, but they will either act like a bus and muscle you off the road or blast past you to squeal on the breaks. There are some drivers who manage to find it in their hearts to wait as you pass the intersection, but don't expect that to be the norm. On streets with open parking you may even get cut off into a parking space with a parked car in front of you.

When you're biking near parking lot entrances, driveways, store fronts, or any of the other areas where cars and scooters can get off the main area of a street, you need to be careful. Vision is usually obstructed for drivers, and the only way they can get out is to just slowly plow their way into traffic. That means that cars entering the roadway will NOT stop for you, and could even hit you as you pass because they expect you to swerve or stop dead.

No one can estimate your speed on a bike. If you're slow, they'll expect to pass you and you'll just stop or slow down. If you're fast they'll think you're going slow, and cut you off anyway making things that much more dangerous. On the off chance you're going fast AND they notice before they try to overtake you to turn right, chances are high they'll floor it just to pass you and then get stopped by something as they try to turn. The advice here is to bike as fast as you can while maintaining your ability to stop on a dime.

Cars rarely follow the speed limit, and this goes double for large roads on the weekends when things are less congested. Nothing is pleasant about a car or scooter passing you at highway speeds when you're having a bike ride. Municipalities have done a lot to drop speed limits on city streets and non-highway areas, but enforcement mechanisms are weak at best and give the police relatively few tools to issue tickets to violators.

When you're in a crosswalk/bike crossing do NOT expect anyone to yield to you while you cross the road and keep your guard up. LOOK at oncoming and turning traffic before you enter the road and don't expect them to suddenly yield as you approach. Right turns, left turns, or even straight, no one seems to understand the concept of yielding to pedestrians. If you ride out too quickly, someone will definitely hit you. There are tons of ways this could be fixed, but the driving culture here does NOT support pedestrian safety.

Cars don't stop at red lights, and you should never, ever be the first one to get out into the street after the light has turned green. Remember the rule just above that you need to LOOK before you do anything. Intersections are often huge and yellow lights are less than a second long. Everyone will wait and look before they cross the street, so make sure you do it too.

Swerving to avoid obstacles is a necessary skill every biker should have, but it can also get you killed. The roads in Taiwan's cities are crowded and those drivers behind you may not be expecting you to move out of the way of an object. Getting buzzed by scooters or cars is the norm during rush hour, so make sure you look before you move out into traffic. Watching a U biker get tagged by a scooter, then smacking into the back of the bus she was swerving around was a bad sight.

Wear a helmet if you're going to ride with any speed on a sidewalk or in the street during rush hour. If you're going to ride a bike, you should wear a helmet anyway, and there is no excuse for not wearing one if you commute by bike.

If you ride on the sidewalk, ring your bell early, and call out with your voice to people as you get close. The bell is impersonal and it does absolutely nothing to make people move. As a bike you have second priority to pedestrians, and as a foreigner people will judge you harshly for even the perception that you're being rude. Everyone HATES the cyclist who pulls up behind them and rings their bell like crazy, so don't be like that. When people move, you could go the extra mile by smiling or waving to them.

On weekends on Taipei's bike paths you should never expect to go fast. If you ride quickly you will quickly end up almost hitting some kid who can't control their bike, the family dog, or running off the path to avoid them. Danshui, BaLi, and the neihu side of the city get comically crowded on nice weekends. If you want to ride the bike trails at speed get out early on the weekends when no one is around, or get out after dark. If you need some place to just absolutely go all out, hit up the road along the north coast and work your way over the mountains from WanLi or along the river roads from Keelung. 

If you drink and bike, the police may stop you, specifically on road near any of the major nightlife areas. There was a huge backlash over drinking and bicycling as the Ubike system took off, and bikes are supposed to be treated the same as scooters as far as the rules go. Remember at the beginning of this writeup, how I said there are some glaring flaws in the legal system for punishing drivers who hurt pedestrians? Well one beer and any form of transit, including bikes, will basically land you in jail with fines of 100K NTD, more if you're in a car. Killing someone on their bike, or as they cross the road while sober seemingly costs 300,000NTD or so in insurance payments to the family of the deceased and you're done with the whole process. Litigation isn't the same as in the west either, leaving little recourse to the victims to get more for their loved ones.

The mountains of Taiwan are beautiful and worth biking in their entirety if you have the legs for it. I cannot recommend it enough. Roads are often narrow, at most one lane with a small shoulder, so you need to protect yourself as you climb and descend. There is a lot more patience in the mountains for passing cyclists however, which means you can enjoy a few extra inches of pavement as you rocket yourself to the top. Many drivers do not understand how to take turns however, and even when there are yellow lines they will go well past the middle of the road around a corner. There are a ton of blind corners on mountain roads and cars will probably not see you coming in the mirrors, if they even look. There are a ton of stray dogs, some of which will attack you. Make sure you protect yourself around turns and keep your speed low enough you can avoid dying on a downhill. Many of the most popular rides have minimal protection if you miss a turn, meaning you hit the guard rail and tumble down a steep slope to your eventual death.

So, to review, Taiwan is a great place to ride bikes. You can ride all year round - although night time is best in summer – and there are bikes everywhere. It's not a paradise, because there are a ton of ways you can still get hurt or even die on your bike. The driving culture is awful and cars here don't understand how to interact with cyclists, just like in the west. You can bike the entire island if you have it in you, and there are a ton of new bicycle paths in every city. You can easily be a bicycle commuter and many cities have bike sharing programs with bomb-proof bikes waiting for you to ride around town. 

Keep safe, and have fun. Once you get used to the flow of traffic and areas you ride often which pose safety risks there is nothing to worry about. Get into the mountains, bike along the oceans, bike to the night market, and enjoy this beautiful island on two wheels.