Thursday, December 1, 2011

How I learned to stop worrying and love MRT expansion

The United Daily News had a couple articles on the upcoming wave of MRT expansion. The first is pretty good, explaining how the new lines will take shape. The second article features interviews with Taipei residents who complain about the extensions. Unfortunately the UDN doesn't refute these complaints, which are without exception ridiculous. Nor do they give the MRT construction bureau a chance to refute them (or maybe they tried and the construction bureau was just too incompetent).
Anyway, most of the complaints have to do being forced to transfer under the new system. For example:
-Elderly people from Zhonghe complain that transferring will make getting to NTU Hospital difficult.
-Elderly people in Xindian complain transferring will make getting to Shilin and Beitou difficult.
-A Yonghe resident complains that they will have to transfer at Guting as well as Taipei Main to get to eastern Taipei, and that the trip might take twice as long (!).

First of all, the new transfers will almost all be cross-platform, like those in Hong Kong- in other words you will not have to walk 300 feet through crowded passageways like in Taipei Main. Instead you will have to walk 30 feet, across a less-crowded platform, and hopefully, if the MRT company is smart, they will time trains to arrive at transfer stations around the same time so no one will have to wait more than a couple minutes for the next train. More annoying than a direct train, but only by a little.
And there are benefits, which the last complainer utterly failed to grasp. For example, even though the Zhonghe line will not pass through any major employment or commercial center like east Taipei or Taipei Main, getting to east Taipei will be much faster since the orange line will intersect with the blue line to the east of Main, and there will another, cross-platform transfer to the Xinyi line at Dongmen, making the 10 minute walk MRT users need to take to get to 101 unnecessary. Yes this comes at the cost of direct access to Main, but even that extra cost isn't so bad given that there will be an easy transfer.
To be fair there are some annoying things about the new layout, for example people going from the Xindian line to the eastern sections of the Songshan or Nangang lines, or from the Zhonghe line to Banqiao, will have a choice between a roundabout route with no transfers, or a more direct route with two transfers. But overall, these extensions will be good for most people.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Photos from the King of Qingshan Festival

The King of Qingshan Festival (青山王祭, Qingshan Wang Ji) is one of the biggest traditional Taiwanese temple festivals in northern Taiwan. The centerpiece of these festivals are parades that feature lion and dragon dances, traditional drum and suona troupes, folk dancers, martial arts, idols from neighboring temples and a lot of explosives. I visited the grand finale of the Qingshan Festival last week; below are some of the photos I took. Overall this was one of the better temple festivals I've been to, with some particularly good drumming performances, martial artists and huge pile of explosives.
I've also added some photos from the 2009 festival.

Small idols await the King of Qingshan's procession (taken in front of the King of Hell Temple).

In the zone.

And a couple photos from '09, taken in front of Longshan Temple:

The bajiajiang (八家將) and 七爺八爺 (the tall god-puppets) in these pictures are all entering Longshan Temple to pay respects to Guanyin, the primary deity there.

You can view more of my King of Qingshan Festival photos here.
Also, Laorencha has photos (and a video!) here and his backstory here.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A run-in with Tsai Ing-wen

Went over to Qingshan Temple a couple days ago to see if their annual festival was on. When I got there I was told that Tsai Ing-wen was about to arrive, and minutes later she did, greeted by a blast of firecrackers, a phalanx of unobstrusive security guards, and dozens of excited supporters. She was so mobbed that I could barely tell where she was in the crowd, let alone see her. It was on an entirely different level than Hau Lung-bin's visit a couple of years ago, when a friend was able to push her way forward and shake his hand (and yell "Go Taiwan!" at him).
I followed the mass of people to Qingshan Temple, where Tsai prayed to the King of Qingshan and the temple's chairman gave her his endorsement. She followed this with a speech, mostly in Taiwanese but with the odd Mandarin phrase. My Taiwanese is far from the "political speech" level, but I was able to make out "We are all Taiwanese", and Mandarin sentences like "Anyone who identifies with Taiwan is Taiwanese" and "Taiwan is a multi-ethnic nation" made the theme pretty clear. I thought she came off a bit stilted, but that may just be her style- slow, purposeful and not overly emotional. The betel nut-chewing crowd drifted a little towards the middle, and I felt some of them seemed unsure about the "we are all Taiwanese" idea, though that just might be my prejudices about the very Tai-ke audience.
When Tsai finished she came down from the temple steps and gave a quick interview, and followed by some hand-shaking. I managed to shake her hand probably only by dint of very long arms, and being an extremely obvious foreigner.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tsai Ing-wen Promises to Build Stuff

No election campaign in any country is complete without ambitious promises to build stuff, and Tsai's is no exception.
A few weeks ago Tsai proposed several transportation-related projects for Xinbei. The most ambitious was extending the MRT's Muzha line east from Taipei Zoo and the TRA's Pingxi line west from Jingtong so the two will meet in Shenkeng. Tsai claims this will turn Shenkeng into a transportation node, and will make it easier for tourists to visit Shenkeng and from there visit other tourist spots in the northeast, such as Jiufen. Her advisers, she assures us, tell her that it's feasible.
The Pingxi-Shenkeng idea strikes me as really bad, even by pie-in-the-sky pork barrel standards. The point of rail is that it can move huge numbers of people while using less energy and much less space than other forms of transportation. If you're not going to get a huge number of people on a rail line, there's no point in spending the huge amounts of money it will cost to build. An extension of the Muzha Line could make sense since despite Shenkeng's low population, most people live in a single narrow valley that leads right to the current terminus of the Muzha Line. There's a good possibility many of those people would choose to take the MRT instead of drive.
An extension of the Pingxi Line however is unlikely to attract enough passengers to make up for its cost- and given how narrow and winding the Jingmei River Valley is between Shenkeng and Pingxi, that cost would be very high. Tsai suggests that such a line would make it easier for tourists to visit both Shenkeng and Pingxi, and even suggested it would help with traffic around Jiufen. But the number of tourists wishing to travel between Shenkeng and the Northeast Coast or Pingxi cannot be very large- presumably most people would choose one or the other even if transportation between the two was more convenient. If there was actually demand for this there would presumably be more than one bus an hour between Shenkeng and Jingtong, and these buses would presumably be crowded- but past Shenkeng, they're far from crowded. And even a Shenkeng-Pingxi rail line was crowded with tourists, without enough locals to use it, it would be empty on workdays. But there is nothing but a few hamlets between Shenkeng and Pingxi- almost certainly too few people to justify a rail line.

Friday, October 28, 2011

More Sanchong Sidewalk Wars

Some Xinbei politicians are worrying that there aren't enough parking spaces near two soon-to-open Xinzhuang Line MRT stations, Cailiao and Taipei Bridge. These stations are in Sanchong's downtown, probably one of the densest- and therefore most conducive to walking- places in the Taipei Basin. If one of the benefits of an MRT system is that it stops people from driving, why should the government subsidize driving by providing parking? The complaining politicians in the article claim that without "enough" parking spaces scooters will clog up all the alleys and sidewalks, but in a dense city there will never be enough free parking spaces. Once again the real problem is an assumption that the government must make driving easier, no matter the cost, and despite supposed concerns about global warming.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Undergrounding of Taiwan's Urban Railways

Interesting article in the Liberty Times about the costs of putting Taiwan's urban rail lines underground, versus building elevated lines. The gist is that it cost 3.5 times to move the TRA lines in Taipei underground than it will to elevate the rail line in Taoyuan. The comparison is a little unfair, since construction costs are presumably higher in Taipei, but it's a point I've often wondered about- has burying the TRA line in Taipei really been worth its cost?
Typically the benefits of burying train lines versus elevating them are considered to be the reduction of noise pollution and the increase in light reaching street level; Alon Levy discusses these complaints (and ways to mitigate them) here. To be fair, Alon focuses on two-to-four-track intracity rail, while an elevated TRA line plus HSR would require 6 tracks, though perhaps burying one and elevating the other would have been a possiblity. The problem in Taipei however is that burying the rail lines failed to achieve any benefits over elevation, because once they were buried Taipei simply added an elevated six-lane highway, which produces more pollution than an elevated rail line in addition to having the same problems with noise and blocking light- all for a higher cost.
Zhonghua Rd. is slightly better, but it is still ridiculously wide for an urban road- about 80 meters including the sidewalk, which in a city of too-narrow sidewalks is ironically far too wide and underused as a result. Although not quite a step backward lie Shimin Blvd., it is no better than an elevated 4-track structure. In fact an elevated structure might make the area more pedestrian-friendly by splitting Zhonghua Rd. into two sections.
If it is impossible to only bury some of the tracks or to elevate all of them there are still better ways to use the new space rather than just pavement. Perhaps buildings could have been constructed on the new space along what is now the center of Zhonghua Road, in effect creating two roads with a block in between. New buildings may have also been possible on one side of Shimin Blvd. Adding new buildings would increase the supply of real estate in some of Taipei's most desirable areas, thereby helping combat high costs.
Of course some will argue that the highway was necessary to relieve traffic. This is a fallacy however; Alon Levy's statistical analysis shows that in the US adding highways has no appreciable effect on congestion; and anecdotally New York's experience with highway expansion has shown that adding highways only causes more people to drive while draining mass transit of passengers. Furthermore many trips done by driving could also be done by mass transit. Finally, mass transit is more space-efficient than driving, and if there is one thing everyone should be able to agree on it's that Taipei is short on space. Therefore if extra capacity was really necessary along what's now Shimin Blvd., maybe a better idea would have been building an MRT line (eg, an extension of the Airport Line to Xinyi) rather than an elevated highway, or perhaps speeding up the construction of MRT lines parallel to Shimin (i.e., the Xinyi and Songshan lines) and improvements to the TRA that would add capacity (i.e., signal upgrades and triple-tracking the Nangang-Qidu segment).
In sum, by burying rail lines Taiwan has spent a huge amount of money to benefit drivers. This reflects the auto-oriented viewpoint of the government (and the general population), an attitude which ironically conflicts with other public concerns (lack of space, air pollution, concerns over global warming).

Monday, September 26, 2011

Sanchong Sidewalk Wars

One of the most (and few) annoying things about living in Taiwan is the lack of sidewalks. Even when a street does have sidewalks there often isn't enough space for the mass of pedestrians, and some people are forced to walk in the street. Even though this is pretty much the rule rather than the exception in Taiwan, for some reason it has garnered the attention of the press in Sanchong.
Basically, after the MRT was extended to Sanchong, scooter drivers began parking on the sidewalk around the Sanmin High School MRT station, pretty much like they do everywhere in Taiwan. While it is gratifying to see the media pay attention to the plight of Taiwanese pedestrians, the solution is disheartening: "The Department of Transportation promised to add parking spaces on the sidewalk." In other words, the government not only will not help pedestrians, it will legalize the activity they are complaining about.
This is because the government, as well as drivers and media, see this as a problem of too few parking spaces. But this requires making the unspoken- and false- assumption that there is an unchanging number of drivers wishing to park near this MRT station. The falsity of this assumption is belied by the fact that the government had already added 300 parking spaces to solve the problem of parking on the sidewalk, but it "still wasn't enough". Basically, demand for traveling to Sanmin HS MRT is such that you would probably need hundreds more, perhaps thousands more, parking spaces to satisfy it, and these parking spaces would require a huge amount of space, and encourage driving which in turn further discourage walking.
Basically every time a government adds space for drivers, it will only offer temporary relief, if that, because once other people find out that finding a parking space has become easier or there's less congestion or that there's a more direct highway they can take, they will choose to drive. What's more, driving facilities in dense cities frequently come at the expense of pedestrian convenience, comfort and health. In effect, Taiwan, one of the planet's most crowded countries, has chosen to transfer huge amounts of public space to cars and scooters for low or no cost, despite the fact that private transport takes up huge amounts of space compared to mass transit or walking. I would bet that many of the drivers complaining about a lack of parking near Sanmin HS MRT would be willing to walk if Xinbei's government provided clear, adequately wide sidewalks and level crosswalks that can be crossed in a single light cycle.

Friday, July 15, 2011

It's about being pro-walking, not anti-car: a manifesto

The New York Times recently published an article about European cities' efforts to become more pedestrian-friendly under the headline "Across Europe, Irking Drivers Is Urban Policy". Needless to say it was written from a driver's perspective and therefore misses the point: all the policies described in the article are primarily intended to make walking easier, not to make driving harder. Take a look at some of the measures the article mentions. These include:
-closing streets to cars, i.e. pedestrianizing streets
-creating space for bicycles
-congestion fees
-limits on CO2 emissions
-parking maximums
-replacing pedestrian tunnels with surface crosswalks
-signal prioritization for trams and buses
-speed limits low enough that cars and pedestrians can mix freely on the same street space

Of all these measures, only one- parking maximums- serves the sole purpose of restricting driving, and it's actually the only one I would oppose. Of the others, pedestrianizing streets, adding bike lanes, and lowering speed limits all increase space available to pedestrians and reduce the safety threat that cars pose them. Limits of CO2 emissions is not anti-car per se, since its purpose is to slow global warming (something you'd think the liberal NYT would sympathize with) and people can drive electric cars instead. Pedestrian tunnels and signal prioritization are simply a matter of choosing which mode you'd prefer to promote: if you want more people to walk you should adjust signals to make walking more convenient. Finally, congestion pricing actually helps many drivers, because it encourages those who have an alternative to driving into urban centers to not drive, freeing up road space for those who really do need to drive (and are therefore more willing to pay).
In other words, what the article describes isn't the beginning of a war on cars, but rather the end of the war on walking. Many transit/ pedestrian/ bicycle activists do actually want a "war on cars" that includes regulations and urban design with no goal other than making driving difficult or impossible. To me, such a strategy misses the point and makes the pro-transit/ walking agenda even harder to promote. There's nothing wrong with cars in and of themselves; it's the negative effects of cars and policies that support driving that are the problem. If drivers drive safely in a car that does not harm the environment (or if they compensate for the damage they cause, e.g. through a pollution or greenhouse gas tax), and pay for the space their car takes up and the cost of the government services necessary to make driving possible (traffic police, road maintenance), then I have no problem with driving. For the record I think mass transit should also pay for itself, as is the case in many Asian cities and once was the case in New York. Transt/ ped advocacy in the US needs all the help it can get; taking an extreme anti-car position will only drive away potential allies and convince the general public that we're extremists or elitist. On the other hand, policies that are focused on making biking and walking easier will have wider appeal and will not give the impression that walking advocates simply have an irrational hatred of cars. The same goes for transit advocacy: it should not just be a matter of more subsidies for transit, but also making transit more efficient and user-friendly. If people realize that transit can be high-quality without massive subsidies it's more likely to find widespread support.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Taiwanese Food Policy

Recently food policy seems to be a big issue in Taiwan, at least judging by how frequently the Taipei Times mentions it. A common assumption is that Taiwan should aim to be self-sufficient in food production. Michael Turton offers a more concrete reason than any Taipei Times article:
Increasing grain production is an urgent necessity since rising petroleum prices over the long term gravely threaten Taiwan's food security. In 2008 when oil hit $120 a barrel Taiwan stopped importing sweet corn from the US and sourced it from China. Since China is also a food deficit country, this is obviously not sustainable. Long-term projections for climate change show that the grain regions of the central and western US are going to suffering from permanent drought by mid century (for example) and Taiwan can expect further declines in rain. Preparation now is urgently necessary.

My question is: why so urgent? Why can we not let fields lie fallow until it is necessary to increase Taiwan's food supply again? Farming is an environmentally damaging enterprise, consuming 70% of Taiwan's water and huge tracts of land that could otherwise be left to nature, and gives off CO2 to boot. Increasing food production now is solving one potential problem- a problem that may, hopefully, never come to pass- by exacerbating already-existing problems, namely water shortages, global warming and the erosion of natural ecologies.
It seems to me that modern economic policy is obsessed with boosting consumption in order to boost production. The problem with that is that ever-increasing consumption eats up an ever-larger share of the planet's limited resources. This approach combines the worst of capitalism and socialism. A capitalist solution would be to let prices increase so people consume less and farmers produce more, and both groups waste less. Some form of welfare could be used to guarantee enough food for the poor. A socialist/ communist response would be to ration food, so that all people are given the same amount of food regardless of income. Keep in mind that reducing consumption does not mean starving people; it means people eat foods that themselves don't eat up as many resources, for example less meat and more vegetables.
Any thoughts? Am I missing some facts, or using faulty logic?

Friday, May 13, 2011

MRT expansion news: Circular Line

Some MRT-expansion related news: Taipei’s Dept. of Rapid Transit Systems has told the Taipei City Council that the southern section of the circular MRT line will be completed at 2021 at the very earliest, despite having begun planning in 1992. This line would extend the orbital line (which is already under construction and passes through Xinzhuang, Banqiao, Zhonghe and Xindian) from Dapinglin east through Muzha to NCCU, and will link up with the Wen-Hu line at the Taipei Zoo station. Its construction has not yet been approved because DoRTS doesn’t feel it will cover enough of its own costs, and wants to do more to develop the land around future stations.
I feel this is a reasonable strategy on the part of DoRTS. If a heavy rail line fails to attract enough ridership to pay for itself, it could probably be replaced by another, lower-capacity form of mass transit, such as BRT or light rail. A government’s resources will always be limited, no matter how high you raise taxes, so any service that requires subsidies will drain money from other services. In other words if an MRT line loses money, that’s less money available for education, health care, welfare, and so on. The problem in Taiwan is that the government expects the MRT to be profitable, as it should, but then subsidizes driving by providing free parking, by using general funds instead of a gas tax to build roads, and by not making drivers pay for the pollution and noise they create. If these subsidies were steadily removed as mass transit services were expanded, you would probably have enough demand to build comprehensive mass transit in all of Taiwan’s cities while at the same time reducing the government’s spending, decreasing pollution and making Taiwan an altogether more pleasant place to live.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Solving a Problem that May Not Exist

I'm a sceptic about the dangers of population decline. The benefits seem obvious: the world has limited resources, a lower population can make these resources go further. After all the world's population can't expand indefinitely. The supposed dangers on the other hand seem unconvincing. For example, many people worry that an increase in the proportion of the population that is elderly will strain government budgets. True, but children also consume more wealth than they create, so the money people and the government spent on children can be diverted to caring for the elderly.
Which brings me to this. I think it's a poor article, because the author doesn't really establish a clear link between the problems he describes (low birth rates, brain drain) and his solution (allowing Chinese students to come to Taiwan). But I'll ignore that issue and pretend the author made a more common, cogent argument, namely that Taiwan's schools need students or they will be forced to close. The problem with this is that Taiwan's schools are government-subsidized- even private colleges. Closing schools will free up money that can be used to help the elderly. Allowing Chinese students in is basically spending Taiwan's limited public resources on Chinese students (unless their tuition covers the full costs of their education here). The author argues that allowing Chinese students into Taiwan will make them more friendly to Taiwan, but only offers one example. To me it is far from clear that the supposed benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
Taiwan arguably has too many colleges as it is- Taiwanese people often comment on how easy it is to get a degree these days, since there's so many colleges that anyone can get into one. That may sound nice, but not everyone needs to go to college, and in a world of limited resources not everyone should be granted a subsidized college education. A final issue many people bring up is teachers- what will they do if they don't have students? One solution is smaller classes. Another is retraining to care for the elderly.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Who Should Build Taiwan's Subways?

Some politicians in Taichung and Xinbei are upset that construction of MRTs in those cities is managed by Taipei's Department of Rapid Transit Systems. Taichung's government has so little involvement with rapid transit construction that Jason Hu didn't even know the completion date had been pushed back two years (to 2017), or that its cost rose over 10 billion NT dollars. Yu Tian, a national legislator from Xinbei (I think DPP), also complained that Taipei's MRT is too "Taipei-centric". "It only takes 20 minutes to take a taxi from Banqiao to Sanchong, but to do the same trip by MRT you have to change lines twice", to paraphrase his complaint. They feel rapid transit construction should be handed over to the central government, possibly the TRA.
There's a good case to be made for central control, given that Taipei's MRT already crosses county borders and Taichung's and Kaohsiung's may do the same in the future. The fact that Hu didn't know even basic information about Taichung's MRT also suggests reform is needed, though I don't see how central control would necessarily increase local involvement. Yu's complaints however ring hollow: of course Taipei is the center of the MRT network, because that's the economic center of the region. Even if it wasn't, it lies at the center of the Taipei Basin, surrounded on all sides by Xinbei, so the shortest paths between many parts of Xinbei (e.g., Xindian and
Luzhou, Xizhi and anywhere else) lie through central Taipei. It is hard to believe that there's as much demand for a rapid transit line between each of Xinbei's districts- and by the way, Taipei is constructing one anyway. That's not to say that they shouldn't build, just that it makes sense that it has been a lower priority than lines connecting Xinbei to central Taipei and Xinyi.
To be fair it is true that Taipei gets an unfair portion of Taiwan's resources. A better way to resolve this problem though would be to integrate Taipei and Xinbei, instead of perpetuating a political division that obscures the two cities' interdependence.

Peds vs. Scooters

The Taipei Times reports that DPP city councilors are upset that the city government isn't making up for scooter parking lost to expanding sidewalks for pedestrians. One city councilor claims to support improving the pedestrian environment while still criticizing the reduction in parking space. While superficially reasonable, the councilor's position is as contradictory as saying you support peace but wouldn't mind bombing Iraq.
This is because space is a limited resource, and its use is zero-sum. Sure the city could build off-street parking lots, but any space used for parking lots is space not used for apartments, stores, and offices-- in other words, off-street parking lots will increase rents because the supply of space available for non-parking uses will decrease. The DPP councilors further argue that parking is a "right", but I see no reason why that should be so, especially since it negatively effects the
lives of Taipei's many non-drivers, including poor people who would be able to move just a little closer to Taipei's city center if more space was given to apartments. More space devoted to parking will also lessen sprawl, since there will be less need for people and businesses to locate further from Taipei's center.
Furthermore, the areas where illegally parked scooters are being ticketed are all close to MRT stations and innumerable bus lines, and will only become more accessible as the MRT opens several major extensions over the next five years. Many of the people driving scooters into these areas could probably just as well take public transit for at least the last leg of their journey. In fact reducing parking as public transit expands is exactly what Taipei should do: new public transit lines makes public transport more convenient for a large number of drivers, and will replace the transportation capacity lost with the reduction of parking places.
Finally, reducing parking is better for the environment and public health. Providing free parking subsidizes
driving, since one of the major costs of driving is space for storing vehicles. If you provide free parking it will become more cost-effective for some people to drive, which will in turn increase air pollution- oh, and quicken global warming. Providing more space for walking (and biking!) makes walking and biking safer and more pleasant, which in turn makes both more appealing to more people. While it might seem that walking can't replace scooters, walking is a necessary complement to public transit- you have to walk to stations before you can get on the bus or train.
I look forward to seeing widened sidewalks not blocked by scooters. Hopefully someday they'll get to Shida Road, and I won't have to be forced into the street and worry about the 74 slamming into my back when I return home on weekend evenings.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Ramblings on Food Culture

As long as I remember "Old New York" has been trendy. People miss the grime, the ethnic neighborhoods, the old architecture, the cutting-edge culture... all things that have been worn away by gentrification, corporatism and post-modernism. I'm no exception, but I'm starting to wonder if this nostalgia can't be equally destructive. For example,
the New York Times has this article about a "beefsteak revival". Things like this, like "newfangled speakeasies and revived stickball leagues" are mired in irony. It's not a revival, it's a theme party, and it doesn't sound hip, it sounds ridiculous, even sad (as when one participant bemoans the modern world's lack of "camaraderie"). They may want to revive the feeling of old New York, but there's no way to do that- no matter how hard they try they're still post-modern ironic hipsters, trying to keep ahead of the trends.
If we want to revive the spirit of old New York, copying the trappings of the past isn't going to help. Traditions like beefsteak are probably better left dead rather than trivialized, unless they are enjoyed for their own sake rather than because it's "like the real New York, man". If you want to combat alienation and commercialization, you should aim at the roots of those problems, whatever you think those are. Ironically I think Taipei does slightly better than New York. Even though tangible history is usually either neglected or disneyfied here, and the economy has a whole is extremely corporate, corporate commercial culture hasn't spread as much as in the US. For example, even though chain convenience stores are a big thing, there's also a huge and vibrant range of street food, just as there always has been. There are a few old Taiwan themed restaurants, but they are mainly aimed at tourists. Wealthy people go to hip places, but as far as I know no one eats at stalls outside temples just because it's "cool"- they eat there because it's good, cheap or convenient. It's also less alienating- I can get to know the local vendors, who run their own stands. It's no accident that Taipei has preserved this culture, while it's much rarer in New York: there are laws and regulations in New York that make it difficult to have a wide variety of small eateries, and even though supporters of these laws may think they're rational and necessary, the fact that Taipei doesn't seem to be worse off for not having those laws suggests that New York doesn't need them either. My guess is those laws rather reflect New York's own cultural and social priorities, or those of people with political power. If we want to revive the spirit of old New York, or make New York a less alienating place, we have to change our politics or even our society, not just reenact dead traditions.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Traditional Taiwanese Festival Schedule, 2011

This is a list of all the traditional Taiwanese festivals I know of with their Western calendar dates for 2011. I've starred festivals that I've been to and know are worth checking out. I can't vouch for festivals I haven't starred. The festivals and their lunar calendar dates were drawn from the Rough Guide for Taiwan. Note that I can't vouch for all these dates- I got the names and lunar dates from Rough Guide but have already found one error. Also it's possible that the actual festival will be held on a day other than the official date. Best policy is to call the local tourism office ahead of time.

Date Festival
4/5 Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heaven's Birthday
*4/16 Baosheng Dadi's Birthday (Bao'an Temple, Taipei)
4/25 Mazu's Birthday (Dajia, Beigang, Lugang)
5/10 Cleansing the Buddha
5/22 Tainan City God's Birthday (Tainan)
5/28 Shennong Dadi's Birthday (Bao'an Temple)
*6/6 Dragon Boat Festival
6/14 Guan Di's Birthday
*6/14 Dadaocheng City God's Birthday (Xiahai Temple, Taipei)
7/31 Ghost Month Begins
*8/14 Pudu (Keelung)
8/17 Queen Mother of the West's Birthday
*8/19 Yimin (God Pig) Festival (Hsinchu)
8/29 Ghost Month Ends (Toucheng)
8/29 Dizang Wang's Birthday (Jiayi)
*11/17 Qingshan Wang's Birthday (Qingshan Temple, Taipei)
11/21 Liao Tianding Festival (Bali)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Heping Island

Heping Island is a small island just off the coast of Keelung. It has a very long history by Taiwanese standards: the Spanish built a fort here in the 1620's, and were followed by the Dutch, who finally abandoned it in the 1660's. Despite this most of the island is now just like the rest of Keelung, though there are a couple of worthwhile sights. Most famous is Heping Island Park, a coastal park filled with strange sandstone formations similar to those in Yeliu. There is also a graffiti-filled cave (which supposedly contains seventeenth century Dutch graffiti, though I saw no evidence of that) and an interesting small shrine. The strangest thing there though was green coral-like growths in some of the tidal pools. I had seen people snorkeling off the island and thought they were crazy (Keelung in the winter is about the last place I would snorkel in Taiwan), but maybe they just know better than the rest of us.

A shrine on Heping Island

Equally interesting is Sheliao Fort, built on a hill on the island's eastern side. No English guide that I know of mentions it; I only found it through Tony Huang's website (, but it turned out to be one of the most interesting forts in Taiwan. It is less historically significant than many other Taiwanese forts: it was built in 1909 by the Japanese, and never saw action. It is also very small. However, it is very well preserved despite (or due to) being almost entirely neglected, and the peace and quiet coupled with the gnarled roots growing over its brick walls give it a sense of age lacking in larger, better preserved forts like San Domingo in Danshui. There is also lot to look at, compared to some Taiwanese forts: there are barracks, an ammunition storage area, and several rooms and staircases, as well as well as a single turret, which offers excellent views of the whole northeast coast. Overall I'd say Sheliao Fort is my favorite fort in Taiwan so far.
The fort lies to the east of the bridge linking Heping to Keelung. On the way there you will pass an old well, Heping Island's only visible remnant of the Spanish occupation. Past the well you take a side road on the right uphill through the aboriginal settlement of Alabaowan (judging from Rough Guide the people here are probably Amis from the east coast). This settlement was the closest thing to a slum I've yet seen in Taiwan, and yet its residents were quite friendly.

East Sheliao Fort

There is a second fort on the west side of Heping Island, but it is currently within a military base and is not open to visitors. It is said to contain Spanish and Dutch ruins from the 17th century as well as another Japanese-era fort.

View of Jiufen from the fort

To reach Heping Island take bus 101 from Keelung Train Station. It's worth a visit for long-term expats, but not for short term visitors.
You can see more Heping Island photos in my Keelung album.

A mural on Heping Island

Friday, January 7, 2011

Waishuangxi Old Trail

Waishuangxi Old Trail is one of four trails that climb from Pingdeng Village to Qingtian Gang, in the heights of Yangming Shan. Unlike most Yangming Shan trails it is largely unpaved, and unlike most unpaved trails around Taipei it doesn't feel like an obstacle course. It offers no views, aside from Qingtian Gang at the top, and no waterfalls, aside from Shengren Waterfall at the bottom. It is however pleasant to walk, and the Waishuang Creek is quite pretty.
When I did this walk I started off at Shengren Waterfall, which can only legally be viewed from a distance. (I climbed over a fence, across a stream and up to yet another fence to get a better look. The second fence warned of a NT$3000 fine and was adorned with a white bouquet, so I decided to stop there.) From there I walked up Zhishan Rd., past the turnoff to lane 371, and up the first set of stairs on the left. These stairs offered good views of the terraces and valley below. Eventually they led to the Old Pingdeng Irrigation Channel, which if followed north (right) leads to the Waishuangxi Old Trail. The channel passes an iron gate, but no one cares if you go in. Soon after the channel merges with the stream you have to clamber up the hillside on the left through ferns to find the trail, since a small landslide wiped out the point where the trail originally met the stream bed. From here it's pretty easy. Eventually you pass a right turnoff; straight ahead is the most direct way to Qingtian Gang. If you turn right you will climb up a tributary valley and eventually reach another fork: left for Qingtian Gang (remeeting the previous trail on the way) and right for Mt. Gaoding and Shitiling.
If you have Richard Saunder's excellent "Yangmingshan: The Guide", this walk follows the "easier route" og the Pingdeng Li Old Water Channel trail in reverse, meeting the Waishuangxi Old Trail at the end of that hike's point 1 (i.e., near the rest station). Just keep in mind that the first right is not mentioned; Richard instead describes the hike going straight.
If you don't have Richard's book, you should buy it now. It's the best guide to anywhere in Taiwan that I know of.
For a description of the trail in Mandarin, see this page. The map is also better than Richard's- it shows the turnoff mentioned above (with a question mark), as well as detailed descriptions of other features along the trail.

My photos can be found here, in my Yangmingshan album.

Shengren Waterfall to Qingtian Gang via Waishuangxi Old Trail
Time: 5 hours at a leisurely pace
Trail: Stairs for first hour; followed by an hour along a concrete water channel, followed by a slow then steep climb along a clear dirt trail. One short section of scrambling through underbrush.
Directions: S18 from Jiantan MRT to Shengren Waterfall (2nd to last stop). From Qingtian Gang the S15 goes straight back to Jiantan.
Features: Terraced farms, stream, forest, grasslands