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Those of you who already know me fairly well can pretty much guess what I’ll do as soon as any vacation starts.Those of you who aren’t very familiar with me yet, well, this is a chance to get to know me better. In my life, I try to match what I want to do and what I have to do for some reason, a goal which has been almost fully accomplished since I started studying Chinese. This means that I’m not studying because of tests, homework or anything, I’m studying because that’s what I want to do. The same goes for most things I do.

Then it naturally follows that just because there is a vacation (such as the winter vacation that started a couple of days ago), it doesn’t mean that my situation becomes radically different. Sure, it does mean that the pressure decreases and I gain more control of what I’m doing (something which has been sadly lacking lately), but remember, I’m already doing what I want to do! Why change? Instead of sleeping ten hours a day, eating and drinking nothing but cookies and pearl tea, and spending the rest of the time idling online, I have some things I really want to do (this post only covers productive and study related topics, so don’t thin that I’ll be staying at home for five weeks):

– Finish Magneter och mirakel
Novel and/or short fiction writing
– Finish going through the Far Eastern 3000 Character Dictionary
– Read up on study efficiency (Study Hacks and Scott H. Young would be a good start)
– Fight down my Chinese character revision queue to zero again
– Read and write more extensively in Chinese
– Complete the first eight-week cycle of my exercise program and plan the next step

As you can see, at least some of these are no clear-cut goals that can be ticked off, but that’s okay, because this isn’t a to-do list; I simply want to make clear what I’m doing at the moment. Some of these projects have been abandoned for too long, others deserve completion for other reasons. A five-week winter vacation is not a time to start hibernating, it’s the time to, in a wakeful state, continue pursuing my dreams.

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I left Sweden almost nine months ago and it feels a bit odd to be back again. I have made two singular observations so far: there are foreigners everywhere (i.e. non-Asian people), and the climate is cold and dry. I think both might be rather obvious, but it’s interesting for that very reason. I’ll try to expand on some cultural observations later, but right now I mostly wanted to say that I’ve arrived safely in Sweden after roughly 26 hours travelling.

I would also like to bring up some practical matters. I have no cellular available in Sweden (and not my SIM card either), and it’ll be at least two week before I can retrieve my old phone and the SIM card. The easiest way to get in contact with me is still over the Internet, but since I’ll stay at my parents’ house, calling them would also work.

I suppose I will be quite busy the next couple of weeks, with lots of people to meet and lots of things to catch up with. However, I have at least one month before I’ll even consider doing something serious, such as working, so I think the circumstances are perfect for enjoying the Swedish summer. At the airport, I saw a newspaper headline announcing that summer is ready to start for real soon. I’m here now, so let’s go!

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A few days ago I payed my ticket home to Sweden. There are two important things about the ticket I feel I should share with you. Firstly, the date for my return is 18th June, which means that I’ll be back in Sweden the 19th; next Friday in other words. Until then, I’ll be very busy finishing my courses, as well as preparing for my return to Sweden.

Secondly, the ticket isn’t one way. On 10th September, I’ll yet again board a plane to take me back to Taiwan for continued Chinese studies at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei. Although I’ve already decided to go back, paying the ticket is a lot more final than writing a post on this website. I’m looking forward to next semester, hoping that I’ll have a chance to improve my Chinese as much as I have this my first year in Taiwan.

Before the summer is over though, I hope to be able to enjoy Sweden and all the things I miss there (most prominently family and friends, but weather and language should also be mentioned). I have a little less that three months at my disposal and lots of things I want to do. Right now, it seems likely that I’ll work in August, but apart from that I’m also going to wrap up a couple of writing projects (Magneter och mirakel and possibly my novel, along with some smaller collaborative projects in Kaleidoskop‘s pipeline).

It’s not next Thursday yet, though, which means I should get started with some of the things I mentioned above. See you soon!

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Earlier today, my parents went back to Sweden, and as I write this, the trains zooms south from Taibei, heading for Gaoxiong and my new home. In all, travelling with my parents has been great in almost every respect, but nevertheless, I look forward to going back and beginning to build up a normal, stationary life in the new city.

The last week of our tour around Taiwan consisted of the island’s two major cities,  Gaoxiong (roughly three million people, located in the south), and Taibei (roughly ten million inhabitants, located in the north). After having dropped Vanessa in Taizhong, we continued north to the capital. Spending three nights in the city, we had time to visit Shilin night market, Yangmingshan, Taibei 101, The National Palace Museum, Danshui, among other things. The seafood safari continued, but with a bit more variation. I will dwell briefly on some of the tourist attractions mentioned above.

Time to go. But what should we do without Vanessa? A map is useful.

Shilin night market is a huge area with a plethora of shops, stands and all kinds of possibilities to spend money. However, most of what is sold is rubbish and I would need much more time to look around to find something I actually need or want. Of course, there are lots of “normal” shops around, but I was unlucky with sales (three times in a row, lack of fitting sizes was all that lay in between me and a really nice pair of trousers).

Taipei 101 was really bad. It is the tallest building in Taiwan and, when it was erected, the tallest in the world (the architectural height is 509 metres). However, the weather was not very good and we hardly saw anything from the top. Also, the audio tour was only focused on daytime visitors and was therefore almost useless to us. Most of our stay there consisted of “To the far east, you can see something very interesting” to which the reply was “no, we can’t, because it’s dark”. I enjoyed Gaoxiong’s Sky Tower much more, and that was almost free of charge.

As was the case in Sky Tower, there were other things to look at than the view. Sadly, I have no nice pictures of the building itself, but I found this and this on Google to give you an idea.

Yangmingshan is the place where many Taibei residents go for vacation when they want to escape the sprawl of the big city. It’s a large, mountainous scenic area with the highest peak at a little more than 1200 metres. We spent around five hours hiking around here, enjoying most of the time. It’s not the prime example of beautiful nature, but considering that it’s so close to the city, it’s still worthwhile.

Hiking in Yangmingshan involved some tiring stairs in the beginning, but got better and better as we gained elevation.

Danshui is not the commercial port of Taibei, but rather a more tourist-friendly harbour with lots of small shops, stands and restaurants. The atmosphere was highly enjoyable and considering the fact that it’s possible to go here using the MRT I recommend a visit to everyone who goes to Taibei for a few days. Furthermore, please don’t forget to have a look at the north-eastern coast.

Sandstone on Taiwan’s northern coast.

More of the same.

The view from the small village Jiufen.

A small street in Jiufen, saturated with small restaurants and souvenir shops.

Nice lighting in Danshui.

More seafood. This is what we got when we ordered, and we then proceeded to barbecue the food ourselves. Delicious!

The National Palace Museeum was smaller than I had expected, but that’s not necessarily a disadvantage. I found the layout of the area somewhat confusing and the presentation of objects was far inferior to other big museums I’ve visited, such as the British Museum in London. However, the visit was still worthwhile and since it’s fairly easy to reach and also not very expensive, please have a look if you happen to be in the vicinity.

This is the best picture I have. Since no photographing was allowed inside the museum itself, this is also all you get.

To conclude, I’d like to thank my parents for visiting me and bringing me along on their tour around the island. I’ve not had the time or inclination to travel around and this was the perfect opportunity to do so. Taiwan is a really nice place to go as a tourist, something I didn’t realise until very recenly. I plan to write an entry about why Taiwan is so nice, but that will have to wait a few days. Stay tuned!


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Green Island

We left Taroko on Monday morning without much trouble, catching a train to Taidong and then a ferry to Green Island. Since then, we’ve had time to do quite a lot, but to begin with, I”ll limit my story to two things: scooter driving and scuba diving. First, it might seem incredible to some of you that I’ve never ridden a scooter, but such a vehicle is in Sweden generally associated with teenagers and not something I’ve ever had the need of learning (bicycling is fine). Driving motorised vehicles is always fun, mostly because that’s something I can never do legally in Sweden because of my poor eye sight. We used the scooters to go around the island, something easily done since it’s only 17 kilometres in circumference.

Welcome to Green Island. It’s not difficult to understand where the name came from.

Second, we did some scuba diving (two dives, to be more exact). These were my first dives outside a learning environment, but apart from the fact that I initially had some problems clearing the ears, it went smoothly. The water was about 25 degrees and losing the dry suits I know from my Swedish dives were not a loss at all, I can tell you. The coral reefs outside Green Island are perhaps not world famous for their plethora of aquatic life, but hovering over a sea floor like this felt almost like visiting another planet. I enjoyed these dives immensely and it was also a good idea to recapitulate some practical knowledge from last year’s course. I won’t hesitate before diving again here, if opportunity presents itself.

We stayed at a place called Jack’s Hotel, and the lodging was above the average for our vacation so far. Some interesting things were also included, such as scooters and vouchers for nice restaurants as well as the hot spring here on the island. The visit was somewhat disturbed by the fact that no ATM machines worked on the island, which meant we were short of cash. Fortunately, we could borrow money from the host, but it was still inconvenient to be reliant on other people for such things.

Wednesday, we spent mostly on exploring the island on scooter, alternated with short hikes or excursions where on foot was the only option. We followed the old trans-island path to the interior of Green Island, a hundred-minute walk including snakes, squirrels, butterflies and tropical plants. We also spent a fair amount of time climbing around on rocks facing the pacific ocean, with magnificent waves wasting tremendous power trying to crush the volcanic rock of the island.

This picture doesn’t say much, but it’s a nice picture anyway.

Furry squirrel! Spotted on the trans-island road.

Fishy, fishy, fishy. It’s a bit tricky to dissect this beast with chopsticks.

Sometimes it’s just easier to point.

Well, one has to do something while waiting for dinner.

Our stay on Green Island was nicely rounded up on Thursday by a visit to the salt water hot spring on the island, one of the few that exist in the world. It was nice, but nothing spectacular, perhaps partly because a glaring sun wasn’t what my already burnt skin wanted at that time. The journey back to Taiwan was pleasant enough, with even more clement weather that on the way out.

To sum things up, the stay on Green Island was worth the three nights. The lodging was good, we used a package from Green Island Adventures, and it was alright, except that the host is the kind of person one either loves or hates, and I think most of us fell into the second category. However, it should be noted that he probably never meant harm, and that perhaps circumstances poisoned my view of him somewhat (such as the problems concerning cash withdrawal mentioned above). On average, though, I can recommend this package.

We’re currently heading for Gaoxiong and I write this sitting on the train about halfway from Taidong. Somehow we managed to get three seats on this train without having reserved seats in advance (something our taxi driver said was almost impossible), and let’s hope that our good fortune continues for the next couple of days before we meet up with Vanessa either on Monday or Tuesday.

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Gorgeous Taroko

Exploring Taroko Gorge at first seemed to be a bit difficult, partly because of my somewhat limited knowledge of Chinese. After breakfast, we waited forty minutes for a bus that didn’t exist; then the host happened to come by and told us the bus station was five kilometres down the road. Since the traffic wasn’t heavy and the view nice, it wasn’t so bad to walk there. However, there was no bus there either, so we took a taxi down to Swallow’s Grotto and then the real adventure began. If that’s not apparent, Taroko is a must-see for anyone who visits Taiwan. Sadly, neither words or pictures are enough to convey this experience, but since I think pictures stand a better chance, here are some:

Right now, I’m sitting in bed typing, after a hot shower and a nice New Year’s dinner (today is Chinese New Year’s Eve). Since we spent most of the day walking around (we set out at ten o’clock and arrived home about half past five, and we didn’t spend much of the intervening time resting, let me tell you), I’m tired, albeit in a pleasant way. I will try to get some studying done, perhaps also some writing, and then say goodbye to Venassa before she leaves for Japan. Going to bed early seems like a good idea, though, because tomorrow at seven thirty, we’re leaving Taroko, heading for Green Island where we will spend three nights.

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Sun Moon Lake

As I’m writing this post, Friday evening comes to an end and gives way to Saturday morning. I’ve spent a couple of hours writing, editing photographs and generally trying to post as much as I can about our travelling so far. I’m now connected to the internet using an unprotected wireless network, but since we’ll leave Sun Moon Lake tomorrow, there’s no telling when I might have access again. This being the case, I must admit that I’m tired and that I’ve no energy left to write something ambitious about our stay here. Let it suffice to say that we did indeed go around the lake by bike, as I implied we would yesterday. It’s about 33 kilometres around the lake and the terrain is hilly, so including breaks, lunch and several detours, it took us the better part of the day. I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the telling, perhaps with some additional comment here and there.

This is the best overview picture I have. The lake isn’t big, but mist made it hard to see clearly anyway.

This temple was one of our first bigger detours.

Dragons coiled around pillars are ubiquitous in temples like this. I find the colours of these particular pillars extremely nice.

Most of the time, the mist made the biking colder and obscured the view, but in this case, it really adds something to the experience.

Tomorrow, we leave Sun Moon Lake for Taroko National Park at eight o’clock. In so doing, we hope to avoid the worst of the heavy traffic that’s to be expected on the first day of the Chinese New Year vacation (starting tomorrow, with New Year’s Eve on Sunday). I don’t know how much this will affect our plans, but we should be okay. If being okay involves being online remains to be seen, though, so bye for now; I hope to be able to write again soon.

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Fish, mist and jade

Nothing seems to be seriously ẃrong with me, because I did indeed sleep a lot Tuesday night (see this entry to read why I only slept three hours for the first two days of this week). Twelve hours, in fact, which is roughly twice as much as I usually sleep, but it was badly needed. During the day, we visited two places, first some sort of aboriginal fishing area, which was interesting, but not terribly so. I’m sure that the landscape would have been breathtaking if there would have been more water in the river, but as it was now, it wasn’t that spectacular. Nice bridges and fresh mountain air still made the two hours worthwhile, though.

After lunch, the host dropped us off for a two hour hike to the top of a small mountain. The mist was pretty heavy, so there was no view to talk about, but walking through bamboo forests on a steep slop in fog still is something worth mentioning. The evening proceeded slowly from then on, with a new family arriving to our hotel, which meant some more Chinese for me and yet another (unsuccessful) tour to see the flying squirrel for my parents.

It felt a little sad to leave our host on Alishan; he was really nice and I got to talk to him pretty much during our drives to different places. The lodging was perhaps not the best I’ve encountered, but everything else was perfect. It was a nice mixture of guided tours and free time. Anyway, he dropped us off at a tourist centre in Yushan National Park (Yushan means Jade Mountain and is Taiwan’s highest mountain, standing almost 4000 metres above sea level), where another driver would pick us up five hours later to take us to Sun Moon Lake.

Yushan was the best thing so far on our vacation. We hiked for a couple of hours and the landscape was absolutely stunning. We followed trails running along high mountain ridges with steep drops on both sides, walked over high passes, all under a clear blue sky and beaming sun. At almost three thousand metres, the air was cool and fresh, which clearly reminded us of the Alps and skiing. It is a particular feeling, this mixture of temperatures. I managed to burn myself pretty badly in the neck, but it’s worth it anyway. Just take a look at these pictures, which are a fairly bad attempt at capturing the magnificance of Jade Mountain.

This English on this sign might be true, but it’s pretty certain that that isn’t what the writer intended it to mean. After some dictionary browsing, I think I’ve found the reason for this translation mistake. 階梯 means ladder or staircase in Chinese, but the first character might also mean “rank”, which loosely translated perhaps could be “social class”. Signs of this kind are abundant here, but that doesn’t stop them from being entertaining.

In the afternoon, we were picked up to go to Sun Moon Lake. The trip was pretty strange, because the driver had a peculiar driving style. The first few kilometres down the mountain, he drove extremely slowly, almost like he was paid per minute and really wanted to exaggerate (we had agreed on a price beforehand, so this wasn’t the case). Then, later, he suddenly decided to accelerate randomly only to slow down again. This change of speed had no apparent bearing on the actual outline of the road, sometimes making him crawl along a perfect straight section of the road, only to accelerate wildly in the next curve.. The trip was also somewhat complicated by the fact that I learnt that my future landlord hadn’t received my money. This was resolved fairly smoothly and it seems like I’ll still have somewhere to live when this vacation has come to an end. My stuff has also arrived in my new apartment, so it seems like I can relax for real now.

I’m writing this in the evening, after having had dinner in a nice restaurant overlooking the lake. We have only vague plans for tomorrow as yet; probably we will try to rent bikes and go around the lake, but since we have no real idea of where we are and what we want to do (the information centre was closed when we arrived), only time will tell. We’re only going to stay here for two nights and will leave very early on Saturday in order to go to Taroko National Park on the east coast. I’ve managed to adjust my sleeping rhythm now, at least, so it means it’s soon time to go to bed, even though it’s only slightly after ten. See you tomorrow!

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I think that an enchanter must have cursed me and transferred my parents jet lag to me. Even though I had slept only three hours the previous night and had had a pretty busy day, I didn’t manage to sleep more than perhaps thirty minutes! My plan to adjust my sleeping thus proved to be a failure of epic proportions. This was not the kind of night were one wonders if one’s awake or asleep, and constantly drifts back and forth into wakefulness. Instead, I was fully awake all the time. Fortunately for me, I had pretty nice company in the form of an audio version of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.

After a very long night indeed, the host knocked on our door and informed us that it was almost four in the morning and that we should get going if we didn’t want to miss the sun rising. The sunrise as seen from Alishan was a bit hyped up, in my opinion. We had to drive an hour, then wait in a very cold train station (please bear in mind that most peaks in the Alihsan areas stand well above 2500 metres tall) for almost an hour, before we could board a train to the summit. I don’t want to think about how crowded that place must be on weekends or in the Chinese New Year, because it was pretty bad even this Tuesday morning.

The summit itself was a beautiful place which would have been worth a visit even with no sunrise. The sunrise itself was also stunning, but very quick and thus left me with a feeling of “okay, so that was supposed to be it?” There were no clouds, so the famous cloud sea of Alishan eluded us this time (see pictures). I don’t regret that we went there, but on the contrary to everybody else, I don’t think that it’s something you have to do if you visit Taiwan. Sure, if you happen to be in the vicinity, by all means go there, but don’t go out of your way to see this. Pictures of the sunrise and the associated cloud sea are beautiful, but one has to be lucky to get that (for reference, check this, this and this photo).

I did tell you it was beautiful, right?

This is were it’s supposed to be a sea of clouds. I’m not complaining, though, the view was pretty indeed.

Yes, it’s as cold as it looks. Once the sun actually rose, it wasn’t that bad, but the early morning in combination with sitting a long time made the mountain air quite freezing.

Below Alishan, there are two Sister Lakes, one big and one small. This is the small one. I could tell you the story behind the names, but since it’s pretty boring, I won’t.

This is from a short fairly close to the peak from which we watched the sunrise.

Alishan is a lot more than mountains and we could probably have spent a few days just in this area.

Yours truly.

After a fabulous meal with the most delicious tofu cooked by the host’s mother, I had at least an hour or two of sleep. This was so badly needed I can’t find words for it. Sleeping just a few hours is fine if one studies, socialise or things like that, but if one is travelling, moving, climbing mountains, trying to transfer money, waiting in cold train stations, worrying about contracts and generally not being in control of the situation, three hours sleep out of fifty isn’t a lot, let me tell you.

As I write this, I sit outside our room, with my mother beside me reading a book and my father standing in the middle of a small tea plantation taking pictures. The sun has disappeared and a mist has settled over the valley, almost obscuring the opposite side. Still, this mountain landscape with its beautiful scenery and fresh air is awesome. If I’m unable to sleep tonight, there’s something seriously wrong, because with the accumulated lack of sleep I should sleep like a baby for at least ten hours. Tomorrow, more hiking is planned, but that is, as they say, a completely different story.

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Towards Alishan

This day was to be a bit hectic, I knew that from the beginning, and right enough, the first few hours left me pretty winded. With the help of my parents, I managed to get my things to the post office in order to send them to Gaoxiong, post a signed version of an apartment contract to my landlord, as well as pay deposit for that very same apartment. Since my sleeping rhythm was rather non-existent at this point anyway, I had decided to only sleep a couple of hours on Sunday night so as to fall asleep more easily in the evening.

Our initial plan after leaving Xinzhu was to go to the train station and take the high-speed rail to Jiayi and then change train station via taxi to take the old, small train up to Alishan. However, the taxi driver managed to convince us that going with him all the way would be about the same price, but faster. He was right and we arrived in Jiayi ahead of schedule and could enjoy lunch before boarding the train.

This train is rather spectacular, especially disregarding the boring bits in Jiayi I managed to sleep through. It was first built to haul timber from the mountains down to the lowlands, but now it’s turned into a tourist attraction. The train runs four hours on a narrow track through beautiful and steep mountains, with plenty of bamboo and other plants. Arriving in Fenqihu, our host picked us up and showed us a round for a while, before taking us down a short hiking trail. The landscape of these mountains is exciting and the peculiar overhanging cliffs added to the effect (see pictures below).

A typical view from the train on the way from Jiayi to Alishan.

Because of a rock slide, part of the railway was out of order, so we had to walk roughly five hundred metres. With a view like this, that’s not something bad, though.

Take a guess, which bag is mine and which one is my mother’s?

A small cluster of buildings surrounding the train station at Fenqihu, where we got off the train.

My mother and our host, Mr. Liu, on a short hike just after we arrived.

More from the same hike.

It looks nice, but it’s pretty demanding to climb these stairs considering that the height isn’t enough even for my mother to walk straight.

Back at the hotel (I’m not sure it’s actually a hotel, but that’s the best word that comes to mind), we were treated to a dinner of local specialties, and showed our room. Everything was nice, except perhaps that the room itself wasn’t at all meant for staying in apart from sleeping. Of course, we plan to spend most of the time outdoors anyway, but I’m still not used to this kind of lodging. The host and his parents were very nice to us and we felt that we were in good hands.

After dinner, we went on a white-faced-flying-squirrel hunt. Armed with flashlights, the host and his father took us up a steep mountain road surrounded with lush trees, turned into looming shadows by the deep night. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what we were looking for, but soon enough, we found a couple of flying squirrels. They have a beautiful brown-red luster to their fur, but since we only saw them from a long way away, I refer to this and this photo, rather than any picture of my own.

In all, the day was much more eventful than I expected. The host took us with him to do lots of stuff where I’d only expected to rest and have dinner. Since he knows almost no English, I also had to speak lots and lots of Chinese, which went incredibly well, I must say. I understand roughly 90 % of what he says on the first try, including descriptions of various plants, landscape peculiarities and instructions and so forth. I don’t know if my listening ability has taken a quantum leap for the first time since I came here, but it seems like that now. Feeling tired, but satisfied, we all went to bed rather early after having some local tea. Going early to bed seemed like a good idea, because we planned to leave in the early morning to see the famous sunrise from Alishan.

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