Hiking Trails in Taiwan

[I wrote most of this back in June. Cleaning out old ideas and scraps of blog posts – here we come! Also, lots of pictures for this post.]

 

When I have the chance, I like wandering around in the woods. Here are a few reflections on hiking trails in Taiwan.

 

Signs warning about the various dangers of the forest. I would like to point out that these signs all came from the same place, and that they included two variations on how slippery paths can get.
Signs warning about the various dangers of the forest. I would like to point out that these signs all came from the same place, and that they included two variations on how slippery paths can get.

Taking day trips to the White Mountains in New Hampshire while as a child left me with this picture of a hiking trail: an unpaved path that is relatively clear of underbrush, usually marked with paint trail markers. I’ve gotten out a bit since then, but that still serves as my baseline. I was profoundly amazed by a few of my experiences of “hiking” China, when I realized that the entire mountain or path would be perfectly paved with stairs. (Often there were also vendors squatting at strategic places to peddle cold drinks and popsicles. Had this been a part of my childhood hiking experiences, I think I would have been an even greater fan of those trips to the White Mountains). This model seems unthinkable to employ in many places in the US: the man-power to construct such a committed trail would be too expensive, and to have stairs ascending a mountain would also go against the search for nature that I think many Americans want in when they are going to climb a mountain.

 

Most Taiwan hiking trails do not commit to fully paved and stair-ed trails either, but for other reasons. The reasons for this seem pretty obvious. I can’t speak for the desires of Taiwanese hikers relating to trail preferences, but it is clear that any trail constructed on a Taiwanese mountain is in a constant battle against the elements. Taiwan’s natural environment is apt to quickly erase all outward signs of human encroachment, thus a hiking trail simply serving as a blazed trail has no shortage of difficulties. This struggle, and the ongoing maintenance it necessitates tends to push Taiwan hiking trails to more minimalist practices. Maintenance of a fully paved trail against mildew buildup – which makes the trail slick and hard to walk on – and erosion seems to be too great of a commitment for all but a few of the most popular trails.

 

Minimalist trails are prone to erosion and slickness in their own ways. I have seen a great variety of methods employed to combat these issues, some of which are really quite ingenious in their use of materials. Another advantage of unpaved trails is that they can be more easily rerouted should a portion eventually “lose” the battle to erosion and become too slick for easy walking.

 

On the topic of trail maintenance, there is often a feeling of DIY. The materials used and construction of trails is hardly uniform nor does it have any air of professionalism.  My favorite example of this, is of course, the Four Beast Mountains 四獸山 in Taipei, which is riddled with home-brewed trails, exercise areas, dance areas, etc. I highly recommend it as one of my favorite places to spend a little while adventuring if you’re in the Taipei area.

Less popular trails are also marked differently here. When I started going on short hiking ventures around Taipei, I noticed trail tags, but my full understanding of their existence took significantly longer. First, I had to figure out what they were. I am familiar with the use of flagging tape to mark trails, having done fieldwork in some moderately remote locations. The scattering of these tags along hiking trails was similar, yet they were clearly not uniform or regulated. One trail would usually have a variety of markers along it (as opposed to one clear color of trail blaze paint). Often red, yellow, or white, the tags are sometimes cloth and sometimes plastic. Sometimes they have words on them, sometimes logos, sometimes they are blank. Especially when I first arrived and my character-recognition skills were much worse, I had trouble reading them. They usually only say very simple things: “[place] mountain climbing club” or “[name] hiking association”. When I realized that almost all of the text that appears on these tags amounts to the name of a hiking club, it was obvious that they were being left by the group as they came through the trail.

 

The collection of brightly-colored tags in the corner marks the start of this hiking trail.
The collection of brightly-colored tags in the corner marks the start of this hiking trail.

At this point, I found the practice to be rather arrogant. Like a dog peeing on a hydrant, hiking groups in Taiwan feel the need to make their presence in a location known? These trails that I was walking took no great skill to conquer, and it seemed to me to be silly and arrogant to boast about having been through them. Yet as I ventured to more remote places and less-traversed regions, I began to see these trail tags differently, and understand the logic behind them. Taiwan’s verdant and productive forests quickly obscure human traces. For less popular trails – cleared underbrush for a walking path is an unseen luxury. Without high foot traffic, grasses and ferns quickly grow up to hide the trail, necessitating the trail blazes to indicate the general path. Yet even trail blazes have short viability – they will quickly decompose or become covered in mildew in the moist forest. Instead, trail markings are continuously refreshed by the community of hiking groups that use them and leave tags along their length. As older tags fade or fall off, new ones are tied up to take their places. Thus the trail markers that these hiking groups leave behind are actually a part of public service to keep the trail visible.

 

My explorations of hiking in Taiwan are far from complete: I still have yet to truly venture out into some of Taiwan’s more epic wilderness. I have yet to go on any hikes where a permit is required – which is common for the longer hikes in the national parks. The purpose for permits, I have gathered, is not only to reduce the numbers of people who enter, but also for safety to encourage only those who “know what they’re doing” to enter and also to help the rangers keep track of all those who are out wandering the higher peaks. Going to some of these regions is on my list of things to do this year, so hopefully I’ll have some more experiences to report on this front.

Biking & Some other aspects of daily life

This is to contrast the previous post of all-business text. The following gallery is a not-particularly-well-organized photodump from the past few weeks of times when I have been goofing off.

 

 

Fulbright orientation

How is it that I am already getting behind on updates and I have been here just over a week? But on second thought, there is some sense in that: a lot of things have been happening are for the first or only time, and thus merit some reflection. I think things will settle down into some regular rhythms eventually, and it will feel like I have less to report on.

Last weekend was the Fulbright orientation, which was some part technicalities (reviewing the fine print of the grants that we received, meeting everyone in the office that is most directly responsible for us – ie. whom we should go running to if we encounter bureaucratic tangles about our status in Taiwan), but also some parts fun. We got to meet all of the other Americans who are in Taiwan for similar reasons, although there’s no shortage of Americans to connect with here, it still gives a bond of some similarity. Still, I think that although the Fulbright commission wants us to form a community between grant recipients, given the diversity of work that we are doing and the fact that we’re spread out across the country, and the diversity of recipients in general, it’s not going to be a tightly knit group across all of the grantees.

Regardless of whether or not we had a lot in common, I appreciated the chance to get to see who else is here on the joint dime of US and Taiwanese government money and what they are going to be trying to accomplish. There’s (what seems like) a hoard of English Teaching Assistants (ETA’s), whose (if I may generalize broadly) purpose in this country is to be young, fun Americans teaching English in semi-remote or otherwise somewhat disadvantaged schools. To further generalize broadly about their goals, it seems that they are here to be young, fun Americans in a foreign country (sometimes very specifically Taiwan). And to conclude my broad generalizations about them, there didn’t seem to be anything too complicated about what they will be doing here.

More interesting were some of the other grantees, both in their stories behind what they are going to be doing here and what they intend to do. As I mentioned previously, there is actually a great diversity in the scholars who receive awards from the Fulbright. Sitting around the table were tenured professors with children older than myself; me, fresh from undergrad and probably obviously bright-eyed and bushy-tailed; and then a range of PhD candidates and assistant professors in between. (I think I might actually be the low-outlier of experience. But, hey, it has to be someone, and I don’t exactly have time to run off and go get a master’s degree, so I’ll just do my best and roll with it.) The variety specialties was also broad, from new music composition to using graphics processing units (GPU’s) for faster computer processing, to analyzing ancient texts, to aboriginal education systems…

But what really struck me, was the relationships that everyone had with Taiwan. Everyone had a personal connection to the island in some way. While this was likely something that the selection committee had in mind as a criteria to select candidates, I was still appreciative of the forms that this took. Some had attained American citizenship after immigrating from Taiwan years ago; others had grown up on the island as ex-pats and have now returned to understand their childhood home in a different light.  There were also family connections: parents who had been born here (like me), or those who had married into Taiwanese families. Even with other Americans (non-Fulbrighters) that I’ve run into since being here, it’s pretty common that the reason they have returned to this relatively small corner of the globe because of some kind of connection like the ones listed above. And that’s not surprising: Taiwan probably became a relatively international community with the waves of emigration during the last century. In fact, an entire separate category of passports for “overseas Chinese”, who may have never even been to Taiwan itself, but want to claim their heritage and their relationship. Furthermore, the Taiwanese government has been open to other countries than mainland China for much longer, leading to the higher possibility of a foreigner who can tell stories of Taiwan in the 1970’s and is returning to the island after a hiatus.

I won’t claim to really know the influence that this has on Taiwan’s interesting place the international arena – which may be some soft power or nothing at all. I would say, that the in the common introduction that foreigners exchange,  “what is your connection to this place”, in Taiwan it often extends beyond business.

Another part of the Fulbright orientation was a whirlwind tour of some cultural and historical highlights of Taipei. Unfortunately, most of the stops were just long enough to start to digest what the significance of the location. Thankfully, I’m sure that I’ll have the chance to revisit most of these places with friends or family if they decide to visit. Most of the sites were free, so I’ll just have to find people to go with to revisit them.

國父紀念堂
Changing of the guards at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. It was a fairly involved ceremony with a lot of flashy gun twirling and very slow parade marching. Also, the new guards begin their formal parade on the first floor of the memorial hall and this statue is on the fourth floor. In order to not take forever going up the stairs, they very formally march into the elevator, which was kind of humorous.

Some of the other recipients of the same grant that I received,( the Fulbright Student research grant, although we’re being deemed “Fellows” by the commission here in Taiwan) and I then hit up the Shilin night market together at the end of the orientation activities. Night markets in Taiwan are probably everything that you would want and expect from a market on the street at night in Asia: bustling with people, food, blinking lights, wares of all kinds, smells, open arcades, and things to look at everywhere. Except, unlike the similar places that I’ve been in mainland China, I don’t find myself struggling with as many negative thoughts, like: “why don’t these people think this is kind of gross…?”  “this really is just too many people!” “that ___ looks so cheap that I can’t believe that it’s worth buying at any price – even that ridiculously low one.” I’m not saying that they aren’t full of semi-hygenic food and cheap goods from mainland China, but just to a lesser extent than I’ve seen before.

士林夜市
One of Taipei’s most famous night markets (commonly frequented by tourists and locals alike).

Taiwanese cuisine is often aiming for something referred to as QQ, which is a gummy-chewy texture. Food blogs of the internet have discussed this in more detail than I care to, but just think of boba, or the pearls of tapioca in bubble tea and you get the idea. Night markets are a prime place to go looking for QQ food. I started out enticed by the idea of getting something gummy to chew on as “food” and now have been completely won to the concept that it is an excellent idea.

On that note, I’m going to end this epically long post. I still have more to report (an entire week, in fact), but I’ll just end here for now.

This is the street I’m living on right now. It seems pretty ordinary, but not in a bad way.