Fei Cui Valley (翡翠谷)

IMG_3984

Nature makes us happy. It’s why we seek the outdoors, and look for untouched wilderness. This is no more apparent in Taiwan than now.

Natural Taiwan is really as good as it sounds. While some secret gems require a world of effort to get to, others are surprisingly accessible. It’s not everyday, you come across newly uncovered rock pools and a waterfall metres away from a road, and minutes from other popular attractions. Fei Cui Valley (翡翠谷) has been incredulously overlooked.

A couple of trips to Hualien (花蓮) ago, I wrote about magical Mukumugi (暮古墓魚), a pristine place to swim and relax in despite its increasing popularity. Those yet to make a visit however, will be disappointed to discover that due to damages from last year’s typhoon season, the area is closed for rehabilitation. Before you cross off all plans to visit Hualien though, minutes from Mukumugi is a place just like it – if not better.

Fei Cui Valley follows the Fei Cui Stream (翡翠河), just 1.5km east of Mukumugi Valley in Xiulin Township (秀林鄉). But unlike Mukumugi, it requires no permit to enter. At the time of my visit which was November last year, the valley remained known to only a few locals and even less to visitors. But to no surprise, it has gained more visitors since. Still, this place is very much untouched, and if it were not for the intrepid individuals of Taiwan Adventure Outings, which I had the pleasure to travel with, Fei Cui Valley would have remained eluded from me.

We hired scooters from central Hualien, and barely half an hour later we were taking the scenic route, zipping around local farms towards Fei Cui. The entrance to Fei Cui is actually a tunnel, so a short hike through there and some shrubbery later is all it takes to arrive at the stream’s edge (see below for details and map). We traced up the river and enjoyed lunch at the first beautiful rock pool before going for a dip in its perfect, crystal green waters.  Fei Cui (翡翠), by the way, means emerald.

Our lead guide, Ryan, took us past the first rock pool to see what else was waiting in Fei Cui’s wake. The ascension may take roughly 40 minutes, but the beauty that lie beyond the first main pool made every effort worthwhile.

We climbed like monkeys around and over giant boulders; slid on rocky crags as though they were natural slippery-dips; and swam in more shimmery pools of green, some deep enough to be the cooling oases we needed from the beating sun. Our grand prize for the long journey was a small but lively waterfall. As I later found out, this is the aptly named Zi Mu (子母) or, Child Waterfall.

All in all it was so much prettier than what these photos could make you imagine. I sometimes think back to the adventures I get up to in Taiwan, and it is always being in the outdoors that bring the biggest smile to my face. Fei Cui Valley is one of my favourites –  it’s that hidden outdoor sanctuary you need without the difficult access, which makes it all the more fascinating.

Beautiful, untouched Taiwan could be within an arm’s reach, all you have to do is be adventurous and venture just a little further!

Sipadan-4
Our rocky ascension begins after a short hike through the green past a man-made waterfall. Photo courtesy of Lace He.
Sipadan-2
After 40 minutes, this was our reward!
Sipadan-6
This is the first large pool which had plenty of space for lunch before a refreshing dip
IMG_3974
A young blue-tailed skink is disturbed as we continue our trace up the stream
Sipadan
Hazzah our coup de gras! Pictures cannot do it justice.

Sipadan-3.jpg

1483476265795.jpg
Ridiculously clean water makes everyone happy!

Check out the whole TAO expedition of Fei Cui, thanks to fellow explorer, Guang-hui Chuan:


Getting there

It’s easy getting to Fei Cui Valley. A 30 minute scooter ride from Hualien is all it takes to get to the entrance. We didn’t choose the fast route, and went through small roads to see farmlands, which made our trip even more beautiful!

Once you’ve parked around Banyan Road (榕樹路), head towards the trail which hugs the river. It leads through a dark tunnel or bat cave (apparently bats make a home out of it in the winter). Continue through it and on to Fei Cui Stream. There are a few spots to enter the stream at the beginning, but we chose to hike in the jungle a bit before veering off to the left over a water way. Most locals will stay in the man-made waterfall area at the beginning. Go past that before hopping into the stream to start your trace.

This is where you’ll require to do more work. Trace up until you see the really beautiful swimming pool which you see here. After that there is a 10 minute jungle trail to the waterfall, or, you can continue tracing another 40 minutes or so to Zimu waterfall as described above.

Taiwan Adventure Outings

Be adventurous.

That’s the tagline of Taiwan Adventure Outings, or TAO, as its creators Ryan Hevern and Dustin Craft like it to be known. They’re all about bringing out that adventurous spirit in everyone whilst exploring Taiwan. What started out with two guys as a means to get outdoors and meet people became much more than a hobby group.

Apart from connecting travellers with small-scale local tourism initiatives, TAO ensures they give back to the community by hosting free monthly beach and forest clean ups. They hope that TAO travellers not only appreciate Taiwan’s beauty, culture and adventures but are also given the opportunity to contribute towards maintaining these well-loved locations. In fact, they are the brains behind Taiwan National Clean Up Day, launching this May 20, which is a collaboration with long-term hikers, other activity groups and local communities to make Taiwan more beautiful.

As mentioned, my enviable experience at Fei Cui is not mine alone and I owe it to these guys for showing me the way. If you like to explore Fei Cui with company too, TAO is organising another trip for the long weekend of May. For more information on these events, the friendly guys at TAO would be more than happy to help you out!

Advertisements

The Museums of National Taiwan University (臺大博物館群)

This month, National Taiwan University is welcoming visitors to enjoy its main campus at its most vibrant and beautiful. The 2017 Azalea Festival (台大杜鵑花節) is on until the end of this month, and no doubt, everyone visiting will want to take a couple of photos with these flowers in full bloom.

flower_5

While I’m very partial to azaleas, the university holds a few more secret gems that delight in different ways! On the same university grounds lie a number of museums practically unheard of. Housed in some of the university’s oldest historical buildings, they’re open to the public, and free!

During my year of study at NTU, these museums and galleries made intriguing places to relax in after class and I would recommend it to anyone who could spare even ten minutes. While everything is happening at NTU, don’t just walk down Royal Palm Boulevard and take selfies with the pretty azaleas. Take a gander in the following museums, and make your visit to Taiwan’s oldest and largest university even more worthwhile!


NTU History Gallery (校史館)

IMAG2618 (1)

A university that was established in 1928 is bound to have a wonderful collection of historical artefacts! What began with only two faculties and a combined total of fifty nine students, is now recognised as Taiwan’s top university, globally reputable for outstanding academia. Furniture, teaching manuals, and student records are here on display along with information about NTU’s chosen symbols (where you can learn of its patron flower, the azalea). The Gallery also depicts NTU’s most turbulent past, such as the student protests while Taiwan was under marshall law.

NTU Museum of Anthropology (人類學博物館)

he20150922_101

Small yet detailed, the museum allows you to see the lives of those who have called Taiwan home through the ages. Much of the collection is sourced from the era of Taihoku Imperial University which preceded NTU under Japanese rule. From clothing, hand tools, and wooden artefacts, to films, photos, and written accounts; the museum provides a thorough understanding of indigenous communities who existed long before the Han Chinese arrived. The Museum is right next to NTU History Gallery in the same building so team up the two in one visit.

NTU Agricultural Exhibition Hall (農業陳列館)

1
credit of Wikipedia

NTU has its own farms and makes its own food. On the main campus you can wander over to the Experimental Farm and admire its crops and gardens. The university therefore takes Taiwan’s agriculture pretty seriously. The Exhibition Hall takes you through the best of the industry, new and eco-friendly technologies, and promotes more love for Taiwan’s green and natural. At the Agricultural Product Sales Centre, you could also purchase NTU food stuffs as well as the famous NTU milk. Lines are always out the door.

20160802-9-3

NTU Museum of Zoology (動物博物館)

Extend your walk to Zhoushan Road (舟山路) and you might catch a whiff of something that smells vaguely like an animal farm. Follow your nose to the Life Sciences building (生命科學院) and you’ll find the Museum of Zoology. Despite the modern exterior, the museum’s foundations could be traced back to 1928 when the university first opened. Over 20,000 fossils and animal specimens from Taiwan and surrounding islands have been documented – most of which are on display here, including a baleen whale!

NTU Geo-Specimen Cottage (地質標本館)

rok.jpg

At first look, it’s easy to mistaken the Geo Specimen Cottage or Geological Herbarium as a house for the groundskeeper. Though well-preserved, the cottage was used only as a warehouse until the museum’s conception in 2003. Inside holds a modest collection of 3500 specimens of rock, minerals and fossils of significant geological value from Taiwan. You can look at these specimens under a light microscope, then take a stroll in its garden to see larger rock formations typical of the Taiwanese scenery.

Herbarium of NTU (植物標本館)

IMAG4462

This is one of my favourite places to walk around in on a nice day.  The Herbarium was one of the earliest that were established, and its focus was to collect and document Taiwan’s flora, which eventually reached an incredible 250,000 or so specimens. About 60,000 of these are indigenous to Taiwan and it was here that some of these newly-discovered species were named. There’s also an exhibition room archiving seeds and other dried plant specimens, but do not miss the outdoor areas, including the fern greenhouse.

NTU Heritage Hall of Physics (物理文物廳)

image026

Somewhere in NTU’s original nuclear physics lab lies Asia’s very first Cockcroft-Walton linear accelerator. Built by a professor and his young team of students during the Taihoku Imperial University era, the achievement sent shockwaves through academic circles in Japan and the rest was history. The Hall has been reconstructed to commemorate their achievements, and to house not only the main portions of the accelerator, but also a number of other impressive scientific resources from back in the day – including glassware hand-blown by previous physicists, and Hokutolite, a radioactive mineral originally sourced only in Taiwan.


Getting There: Here’s a map to help you find all these knowledgeable worlds with ease. The NTU Museum of Medical Humanities (醫學人文博物館), NTU Archives (檔案館), and the NTU Insect Museum (昆蟲標本館) are outside the main campus, but are also included for you to enjoy!

Opening Hours: Most of these museums are open 6 days a week, closed either Mondays or Tuesdays, and on public holidays. Hours of operation are usually 10am to 4pm with a one hour lunch break from 12 to 1pm. For accurate opening hours, view in Google Maps.

*unless stated otherwise, photos credit of NTU

I slept in a love hotel in Tainan, and it was the best place I’ve ever stayed in

At first look, Prince Hotel (太子大飯店) is not pretty at all. Fluorescent lights alongside chandeliers, a red counter to a green backdrop. The lounge in the corner is a couple of coffee tables and chairs, half of which are being used as a makeshift nail salon. Not far from its entrance are large signs quoting hourly prices. A telling sign of the kind of place, I have just stepped into.

This is the first love hotel I’m staying in. While many love hotels in Taipei are themed, luxurious and expensive, the Prince Hotel ranks barely three stars. But I imagine this place must have once been glorious. Situated on the corner of You Ai (友愛街) and Kang Le (康樂街) street of central Tainan (台南市), the white, seven-floor building looks impressively large and spacious enough to may have once been glamourous. Now dated and worn though, it has had to rebrand itself.

Filedata635757506990642308

My boyfriend had found out about the hotel on Agoda for 550 NTD a night (20 AUD), in already cheap and cheerful Tainan. We thought we found a good weeknight deal and were eager to stay in a conventional hotel. After camping in zero degrees in the Alishan (阿里山) mountains, I would appreciate a place where I could shower, a bed that isn’t the cold hard ground, and a toilet that doesn’t come with the anxiety of someone happening across my naked behind. This is not a conventional hotel. But regardless of the gaudy interiors and possible stink of sex, I am staying here for the night.

A smiley lady greets us with free water and green tea. Foreign backpackers are not the common clientele here, and even in the lobby we see only male guests. After a friendly chit-chat, we retreat to our room, hands full of drinks, and minds peculiar at what we might find there.

Sure enough, ten minutes into settling in we hear the undeniable sounds of sloppy, amorous passion coming from next door. Resonant and crystal clear, it was as though they were in the same room with us. He was, let’s just say, doing all the talking; while she, sounded extremely enthusiastic in agreement with whatever it was he had to say. We made a mad dash to do our laundry, leaving Mister and Missus next door to finish their business.

On the way to the rooftop laundry, we bump into another smiley lady – only this one stands motionless, and rather provocatively.

IMAG3431 (2)

Ah. What would entice you to wash your soiled clothes more than a portrait of a semi-nude lady inviting you to come hither?

Erotic decor and abysmal sound-proofing aside, this place does however, more than suffice for its price tag. There’s good running hot water with decent pressure, a bath tub to soak sore muscles, a surprisingly comfortable bed, clean sheets and pillows (we checked), and albeit not the best, a view of downtown.

IMAG3432

There maybe nothing remarkable about it, but this place certainly knows how to charm. Everything else the Prince Hotel has to offer, makes it an outstanding choice for budget travellers. Stay overnight and every guest receives a breakfast voucher up to the value of 60 NTD…a rather generous amount. Breakfast is served in none other than a local Taiwanese joint, located just downstairs and has one of the most plentiful menu items I’ve seen. You can find the much loved wan ge (碗粿) or rice bowl cake* here.

The hotel not only makes sure you’re well fed after your rest, it also ensures that getting in and out is as convenient as you need it to be. It provides free undercover private parking, or if you rather park on the street like we did, the hotel will pay for your parking tickets!

We worked out that with all the freebies, our total room cost plummeted to a measly 260 NTD a night (10 AUD). I’m not sure how they remain afloat making such little profit, but these extra services certainly appeal to patrons.

Yes it’s a love hotel, but there’s an honesty about this place that makes it easily likeable. Affairs in the boudoir happens pretty much anywhere, and for much more money…but here at the Prince Hotel, you can keep your cash, and still be satisfied. For sleep or otherwise!


 

Suitable for: Budget, open-minded travellers; couples who aren’t fussy about where they do the deed; and those who want laundry and nail care services right at their doorstep.

Getting There: Make the most of the free parking and drive / scoot there. But if this isn’t your choice of transport, catch any bus from Tainan Station heading to Ximen You Ai Street Kou, the nearest stop to the hotel.

No. 349, You’ai St, West Central District, Tainan City, Taiwan 700
+886 6 228 9171

Cost: around 550 – 680 NTD per night for a double room. You can book online, but in our experience, walk-in rates are cheaper.

Pro-tip: Ask for a non-smoking room with a window – and maybe one that isn’t next to anyone else’s. Or else bring ear plugs. Definitely try the breakfast menu downstairs.


 

*wan ge (碗粿): a homely dish of steamed rice paste topped with delicious meaty sauce. Commonly found in southern Taiwan but hard to come by in Taipei.

Rice Bags Aren’t for City Slickers

image

“Holy crap, this is heavy!”

I’m heaving a bag of rice onto a forklift and I think I almost pulled a muscle. At 50kg, the rice bags were the heaviest set of weights I’ve ever attempted to lift. I looked at Guang-Hui and he cocked an eyebrow at me with a knowing smile.

He had managed to lift and line up sixty two of these bags and I’m the one making a blatant, exasperated statement on the first go.

Day 3 and we are back at the silo and preparing for the transportation of the rice that were dehydrated yesterday. One by one, we filled large Hessian sacks with the brown grains until the silo was empty. Once tied up and manoeuvred to a vehicle, they were to be transported to A Deng’s mate’s house. All sixty two of them.

I looked skeptically at the tiny, obviously makeshift trailer they were going to be transported in. It could hold about fifteen bags which meant we had to do several trips, but the thing looked like it would collapse under the weight of even just five.

With careful roping though, we squeezed and secured eighteen to the trailer on the first go and prepared for the ride. The house was only two minutes away but with the heavy weight, we took our time.

Why we were transporting to be stored at someone’s home, I’m never going to know. We lifted, heaved and stacked the bags into what literally was a bedroom. What I do know though, was that the rice didn’t belong to A Deng, and he was simply giving his friend a helping hand by drying their grains for them, and packing it up.

As I helped Guang-Hui lift another sack on the count of three, I thought back to the work we did yesterday, and whatever I thought was hard work is nothing compared to now. We worked from 2pm and kept at this repetitive rhythm of lifting and moving well into nighttime. Guang-Hui though strong, had never done heavy-lifting to this degree either, and I could see sweat drench his shirt on all sides of his body.

I didn’t have much time to admire my hardworking partner though because I was doing it too, and trying to be more efficient at it. We watched A Deng lift the rice bags like they were sacks of cotton and I couldn’t help but feel pathetic at my poor display of physical power. It is certainly admirable that A Deng and his farmer friends have done this all their lives and think nothing of it. A Deng sees this particular work relaxing rather.

Both surprised and impressed at the lack of safety measures, we wanted to prove that we city-dwelling Aussies were just as useful. We may be weaker but we sure don’t lack in spirit! Afterall this is the life we signed up for, and though I wished I had a back brace or a third helper, remembering to bend my knees would equally suffice!

Despite straining ourselves, we powered through, in the end assisting A Deng’s friend with three out of the four trips. It was at the end of the third trip did we learn of how precious, yet, just how undervalued rice farming in Taiwan was…and perhaps around the world too. We learnt that each kilo of rice pays around 45 New Taiwan Dollars. Each 50kg bag then is valued at a mere 2250 NTD. That’s not even equivalent to 100 Australian dollars.

50kg of blood, sweat and tears and for so little. We were only part of the last stage of packing and storing, and it took about four hours to cover 3100kg of rice. Imagine all the time and effort these farmers put into the planting, cultivating, harvesting and processing beforehand…and for countless more weight.

It is in these very eye-opening and grounding moments that make me appreciate the opportunities I have even more. It is humbling to be here to learn from these farmers and see their hard work.

When I was young, to make sure I finished my food, my mother often said that every rice grain is like a fragment of jade. Now I truly appreciate my mother’s words.

We sat together at the end if the day for dinner. I made sure there was not a grain left in my bowl.

Day 2 in the Life of a Taiwanese Farmer

I stirred awake, not knowing what time it was but realising I had woken up to the crowing sound of a rooster and the crack of dawn peeping through our bedroom window.

It’s day two on the farm, technically our official day of farm life, though we were initiated yesterday. Groggily, we got up a little past six in the morning to get ready. We had no real idea what we’d be doing today, but expected to be busy the moment we meet the owners downstairs.

To our surprise, Yi Hsing was still asleep and A Deng was no where to be found. ‘Ah, could’ve slept in’, I thought but taking advantage of the unexpected free time, I went about farm-venturing to see just how much land this family farm covers. Fields of yellow and strips of green took over the neighbouring hills. Ah what a sight in the wee hours of a beautiful day!

Work finally began with the sounds of honking geese, clucking chooks and squabbling ducks. We took to the pen, wincing from the extreme noise they were making while they were waiting for their feed.

Once every animal was fed, it was our turn to fill our stomachs, and breakfast came literally scootering into the warehouse. A Deng rode his scooter to the city and brought back fresh, hot 湯包 (tang bao: soup dumplings) for breakfast. At 50 NTD a box (which holds eight of these squishy, mouth-watering delectables), they were far better than any dumpling I’ve eaten in Taipei. A Deng, who has been here all his life proudly proclaims with a gruff voice that he starts every morning with them. Sleep-ins and extra good Taiwanese breakfast…If this is farm life so far, it suits me just fine.

After breakfast it was straight back to the sweet potato fields to pick up where we left off yesterday. Whatever ease I thought of the work the first time was completely absent today. It was doubly hard to weed the vines under the sweltering heat. I was damp all over from sweat and there were moments I struggled to pull the weeds, even with two hands and my heels digging into the earth. It wasn’t at all bad, however! Quails would shoot up into the sky out of no where (which would scare the begeezes out of me), and we even caught sight of a little deer, no bigger than a large bunny hopping for its deer life (pun intended). Yi Hsing said that the poor fella stumbled onto someone’s farm and was attacked by a dog. Now rehabilitating in the sweet potato patch it was understandably frightened of anything that moved.

By midday we were still out there hacking at the weeds. Panting for a break, I went to the silo where A Deng was shovelling grains of rice into a giant hole covered by an equally large grate.

The hole is in fact a chute that sucks grains into a dryer. Here, a constant flame dehydrates the rice for further processing or storage. I stepped onto the grate, careful to not let my feet slip through and followed A Deng’s movement, dragging the mounds of rice into the hole below me. It was a nice change from weeding, and I enjoyed the smell of the roasting rice grains. We used an air hose to shoot what little leftovers there were into the chute. Every grain counts.

Before we knew it, it was lunchtime and we sat down in the warehouse again to eat together. Lunch was 水餃 (shui jiao: boiled dumplings). I’m starting to see a trend.

Belly full with dumplings once again, I was allowed a little kip before heading back out to the field. I’m starting to not enjoy weeding, even if the resident hen who I took the liberty of naming Clucky, would drop in next to me to keep me company. By 3.30pm, we were only halfway through the field, and even Yi Hsing called us in to rest. 

Thankful, I left dear Clucky but as it was still day out, we made the most of it by heading to a nearby waterfall. Fengxiang waterfall is only a 30 minute drive away and I was especially excited to swim after toiling under the hot sun. We found this place with one of our favourite blogs, Follow Xiao Fei. However we were sorely disappointed to find out it has since been closed. A sign read that three people had lost their lives here, and locals didn’t want a fourth victim. Damn. If that doesn’t scream caution, what does?

So we found ourselves at a nearby creek instead and had a splash around before heading back to our farmland home in time for a modest dinner. Both A Deng and Yi Hsing eat little for dinner, and though I usually don’t hoard on rice, I ate two bowls due to an unfamiliar hunger that has taken over. Working the fields has boosted my appetite and I need all the energy I could get.

Tasked with washing up afterwards, I was surprised to find they use tea tree leaves grinded into powder as dishwashing detergent. As water used here are all redirected back to their farms, natural products are used whenever possible. It required more elbow grease than usual but I like the fact they do things differently here.

image
Arden Rice's farmlands

image

image

image
I eat this everyday for breakfast
image
Noisy birds
image
Handling sweet potatoes fresh out of the ground!
image
Careful not to lose my footing!

image

image
The creek where we took a dip