Thursday, December 22, 2005

Home on the Range

I've been back at my parents house here in Coaldale Alberta for a couple days now, and the initial culture shock is wearing off a bit. That being said, I am looking at the drab little town where I grew up in with different eyes.

Inane observations from Canada and the west central plains of Alberta follow:

- Canada is quite cold. Really. It was -15 degrees Celsius when I landed in Calgary, and my rain coat didn't quite cut it. Here in southern Alberta though the Chinook has arrived, and temperature is a balmy 8 degrees. But, though I think that my body has largely acclimatized to the sub-tropical climate of Taiwan, it has not been too uncomfortable here.

- The streets of Canada are HUGE and empty. What's everyone doing, working?

- Canadians really look Canadian. Though I'm mostly referring to fashion, I've also noticed that a lot of people have really round Canadian heads. Ha. Hockey guys belong to a well defined and unique Canadian subculture that, though they would be loath to admit, widely identifies itself through style of dress, and the way they walk and hold themselves. As well, the subculture that I might belong to is most easily identified by the beard, and also by wearing flannel in the winter. I think the first thing that I said to Tom and Kev when they picked me up at Calgary International was "Wow, you guys really look Canadian."

- Although they might deny it, Canadians really do have a Canadian accent. You know when Americans say that Canadians say "a boat" instead of "about"? That one really pisses off some Canadians. But I've got some bad news... Canadians really do say something that sounds like "a boat". Other head snappers for me include every time someone says "there", which comes out as a subtle "der", and "for", which is clearly pronounced "fer" (even in Vancouver). Previously, I remember thinking that the accent was a Maritime thing. The accent is heavier in the Maritimes, but it is defiantly spoken to different degrees in the west as well.

Don't misunderstand me, I'm not dim enough to claim that I don't have an accent, or to claim that an accent is anything but a subtle (though salient) difference in pronounciation observed by two people with different backgrounds. I'm saying that after listening to people from all over the world speak English with all their various accents for years now, two things have occurred. One is that subtleties in annunciation have become very pronounced to my ear. Speaking slow and deliberate English for countless hours in my classes has also contributed to my own accent becoming Internationalized or Americanized to an extent.

- Canadians are really really friendly, but still quite socially aggressive (especially compared to the Taiwanese).

After I landed at Vancouver International I had to go through immigration. There were two lineups, one labeled "Canadian Residents" and one labeled "Visitors". I lined up and eventually handed my passport over to a particularly Canadian looking immigration officer (with a very round head and really short gelled hair spiked up in the front). He asked a couple of questions about the value of the gifts I was bringing into Canada, and as he handed me back my passport, he asked,

"Are you living overseas sir?"

I told him that yes, I was living in Taiwan, to which he told me that I should have lined up in the visitors line.

I said "Really?" because I was honestly surprised and amused.

"Yeah, you should know that by now - you've been home like what, three times now?"


"Actually this is the first time I've been home."

"The first time in three years?"

"Actually the first time in two years and three months..."

Wow, that must have really been bothering him that I lined up in the wrong line.

Later when I finally boarded my flight to Calgary, I put all four of my carry on bags in the overhead compartment and went to sit down in my window seat. Two people had to stand up and let me through, as I was one of the last people to board the jet. To my embarrassment I soon realized I had left my camera in the overhead. Having planned to take some pictures over the Rocky Mountains, I said to the woman beside me in the most polite tone possible, "I'm really sorry, I left something in the overhead that I need to get." She didn't like that, and she felt that she needed to make that clear to me through a series of vocalizations and deliberate movements which would be categorized as "very annoyed". In Taiwan, the reaction to such a request would be something like "no problem, no problem, no problem", peppered with a lot of smiles and an apology to me for my apologizing.

That all being said, I am of course having a great time. I've already met many of my good friends, and I'm excited to meet the rest and hang out. Next week brings Christmas, winter camping, and the wedding. Nice.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Takraw is really cool

I just got an old roll of film developed, and found these shots from about a year ago.

I saw these guys playing in Taipei on "Foreign Workers Day", some government sponered event where South East Asian workers got together for music and food and games.

Takraw originated in Malaysia hundreds of years ago, but the modern form was developed more recently. Played on a badminton like court, the rules are similar to volleyball, except you can't use your hands. Players can hit the ball up to three times, the final hit often being a spectacular spike for which the player does a crazy flying flip thing. The above picture is actually this guy's serve. He was good.

It's kind of like hacky sack, only for really light, athletic, and flexible people.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Dou Jiang

Oh boy. I have quite a bit of stuff that I need to pack up and bring home. The most inconvenient thing is my sitar, which is again proving itself to be a white elephant. I've got a lot of other stuff as well, and I can only check two pieces of luggage of course. I think I need to find a big box to pack the sitar case and my appliances in.

Appliances you say? Yup. As many of you now know, I have recently become the proud owner of a Dou Jiang Ji. Every morning now I pour beans and water in and press the button. Twenty minutes later I sit sippin' on a big mug of sweet piping hot natural Dou Jiang. I never liked the soy milk sold in Canada much, because they try too hard to make it like milk. It's not milk; it's milk-like bean juice. You can buy dou jiang from any breakfast shop in Taiwan for about 35 cents a cup. Choose hot, warm, or cold, but it's always sweet. I got hooked, and look what happened. Aiyo.

So, this baby will make a liter and a half of soy milk from about a cup of soy beans (soaked over night). You can also use the machine to make rice milk or almond milk. Tomorrow I'm going to try adding a few almonds to the usual. From the soy milk you can of course make dou fu and dou hua. I think they market dou hua as "dessert tofu" in the supermarkets in Canada. In Taiwan though the dou hua itself is not sweet at all, but is instead served with a sweep soup made of red sugar and ginger. Iced in the summer and hot in the winter.

Well, that's my story for today.

Busy Busy

Nothing much to write about recently. I guess I'm just preparing for the trip. Actually, right now I'm relaxing with some OoLong tea on Sunday afternoon, but I should be preparing.

Winter has finally come to Ilan. Last Sunday the temperature actually dropped to 10 C. It was freakin' cold (there is no central heating in these parts). That day I went bicycling with two Slovenian friends down the coast highway to NanAo, about 50 Km south of here. The wind was pretty fierce and as I cycled I reminisced about the wind back in Lethbridge. Boy, it really is windy there... Yup. Anyway we went to NanAo because I have never cycled the coast highway, and also because I spotted some hot springs in the mountains behind NanAo on the topo maps. The springs turned out to be a little disappointing (there are better natural springs nearby), but the ride was really nice.

The highway is cut into the 800 meter mountains that drop straight into the Pacific. Check out the two pictures above for a view from the highway looking down into DongAo, and a view from NanAo looking back at the highway. You can see the road there cut into the mountain about two thirds of the way up. (Please note that those two pictures were taken on a hot clear fall day in September, and last weekend was cold, windy, and grey)

You can see from this pic that the springs were "over developed". This is to say that some well meaning Taiwanese folks decided that they could improve these springs by building concrete pools, or pits, as I would call them. Though located in a beautiful unpopulated valley, you could only see the sky while sitting in the pits.

The springs were in this little valley, which was covered in these monsterous metamorphic boulders. Very uncharacteristic the valleys here.

Finally, here is a... flower. I would say it is a type of orchid, but I really have no idea.

Fortunately those first few days of cold last week were dry, but now the omnipresent winter drizzle has begun. Thankfully though the temperature came back up to 15. I figure this weather is good, because it will help me acclimatize to the Alberta winter. It's not that much colder there, right?

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Beautiful Ilan County

This picture typifies Ilan county for me... rice paddies, canals and mountains.

Monday, December 05, 2005

My Christmas List

Here it is. My list of Christmas wishes, at least one of which I hope comes true.

After reading this I'm sure you'll wish you never asked.

Here now in order of.... wanting.

A Hennessy Hammock - The Explorer Deluxe Asym

Oh so sweet. The answer to my Southeast Asian and South American traveling dreams.

Sooo convenient. Sooo light. Sooo small. Sooo comfortable (I hope). Sooo sweet.

It's available in MEC and other outdoor stores, running something like 130 to 180 CDN. I need this model (Explorer Deluxe Asym) because I am over 6 foot.

Hennesy Hammocks


I'm heading into Asia proper soon, and I'm not taking any shoes. Shoes are too heavy, and Asia is too hot for them anyway. I traveled in India for 5 months and never put on shoes once (alright there was a few times where I used them for hiking in the mountains). I wore a pair of sandals everyday for five months in India and Malaysia that I bought for 3 ringgit (about one dollar CDN) in Kuala Lumpur, but you really can't hike in those. I want a nice pair of sandals. Hiking sandals? You know, rugged and comfortable and most likely expensive. Toe protection would be good to. Check out models from Keen (
Newport or Hood River, or the Chaco Z2 Colorado.


I really need bicycle panniers, but I won' tell you why. Used is ok!

A Backpack

I've got this one black MEC bookbag that I used in India but then I put it on this gas container in the front of a bus and some thick black gunk got on it and then the gunk ate through the nylon on the bag and then it ate through the cotton of the shirt on my bag. Shoot. It's looks kind of ratty, and besides it's likely headed for a catastrophic structural failure.

I want the MEC Vento Daypack (Long, not standard size). It's made in Vietnam! I want sage and blue. Gimme Gimme Gimme. Thanks.

MEC Vento DayPack

A Water Purifier

The worst thing about backpacking is drinking bottled water. Well the water is pretty good, but the hundreds of plastic bottles are not cool (3 big bottles a day).

The MSR MIOX Purifier is the perfect answer. It uses rock salt, an anode, and two AA batteries to create chlorine which you can use to purify your water. It's 99 grams. Nice.

MSR MIOX Purifier


I lost my sunglasses. I promise I won't lose them again if you buy me a new pair.


Artist: Ustad Shujaat Khan. Title: Lajo Lajo. Year: 1995.

This is a beautiful CD. You'll definitely have to order it online. Look and listen here:

Ustad Shujaat Khan - Music India OnLine


I have two books here that I am saving to travel with. I will use them to trade for new books, so I won't carry any more. Don't buy me any books. Well, if you are dying to buy me this one book that you really really think I need to read, go for it.


They cost a quarter the price here in Taiwan as they do in Canada, and it only gets cheaper across the way. Don't bother. Oh, except those cool pants that turn into shorts. Those are cool, and I wore mine out. My waist size is 32".

Ok there it is. Thanks. Have fun.

買買買。 Buy buy buy.

Or, check out these folks.

Buy Nothing Christmas

Gotta love those Mennonites...

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Stereo Photo

You may have seen Tom's stereo photos on his blog... and this photo will probably only benefit him. An early wedding present. Ha. If you don't know how to do it, check his blog for instructions...

These two pictures are not the same. I took one and then moved half a meter to the right for the other. Your brain will combine the images, and the difference in perspective will create the illusion of 3D.

I can say it involves going cross eyed, or wall eyed (focusing on a point in front of or behind the picture) and then focusing on the middle image (one of the three you will see) without changing where your eyes are pointed. You need to uncouple the focusing muscles and the muscles that direct your eyes.

In the end you will see three images, the middle image being a combination of the two. If you've got it, it will be in 3D! It's the same effect as those little Disney 3D photo viewers.

Maybe practice on the small version above (you won't have to "pull" so hard on your eyes). If you can do it, click on the image and try the full size.

These two photos are arranged for the cross eyed approach. If one does protest, I can post the wall eyed version (or you can use photoshop and switch them yourself).

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The G4 Challenge

I got up at 5:00 last Saturday morning in order to make it to the bike shop in Ilan by 5:45. Actually I was up at 4:30, as excited as I was. I noted the ski trip feeling I always get with early morning waking (anyone else get that?).

We got to PingLin, halfway to Taipei through the mountains, at around 7:30. We assembled our bicycles, and headed in to get registered. By the time that was all finished up with, there were 194 of us suited up in helmets, race uniforms, and whatever gear people had decided to carry (camel backs etc.) I confidently pocketed my "energy in" glucose pack that I had purchased earlier from 7-11. "Water be damned" I thought.

I was number 042. This number appeared six times on my body: on my front and back, tattooed on both arms, and on both sides of my helmet. I realized this was going to get serious.

That's when the dancing girls came out.

I had noticed three young ladies waiting in the background during the initial introductions. Given their appearance (young, beautiful, toned, and dressed in matching uniforms), I assumed they were dancing girls. Why? Because dancing girls often show up in Taiwan when you don't expect them: in glass boxes on the side of the road, at political rallies and temple dedications, in festivals and funerals, and at the Ilan Pigeon Club’s Annual Dinner. Times like that. Times like these. Seriously.

Anyway, sure enough they were dancing girls, albeit of a different breed. One of the sponsors was California Fitness, and these three were out to help us warm up. That's right. There we were, ten minutes before the race, doing aerobics to the tune of some Taiwanese happy hardcore dance music. Now I had never done aerobics before, but this time... it was too hilarious to pass up. Call it a cultural experience.

After the dancing, we headed out to line up. Our bikes awaited us, leaning on the arch that framed the start line. At least, Brett's bike and my bike were there. Something seemed awry... I noted that every other bicycle was setup under a tent across the track. Other racers also noticed this. We made a run for it, and got back to the start just in time (although I'm sure it appeared to more then a few fellow competitors that we were making a not so sneaky head start).

And then we were off around the track and onto the bikes for the first section: 13 km through the mountains. Straight up and even steeper coming down. I love bicycling. The disappointing thing was that there was no trail riding. I'm still a little bitter about that. Anyway, I was passing a lot of guys on the up hill, and only one passed me... then on the insane hairpin downhill I passed some more, and it was all over before I knew it.

Then came a 7 km run. Those of you who know me best have surely heard my polemic concerning the stupidity of running. I don't run. It hurts. It's hard on your body. It's slow. Bicycling - that's where it's at. The perfect form of exercise and transportation. Anyway, I realized that this was going to be the longest run of my life (by which I mean, the longest in distance).

So, I walked over half of it. To my advantage it was, once again, all up hill. I have climbed many many mountains (read: treeplanting). Taiwanese haven't. I have really long legs. Taiwanese don't. As a result, I calculated that I can power walk up hill at about 95% of the speed that the average Taiwanese person can jog uphill (at least of those that passed me).

Once that was finished we were given a map and compass and headed in the bush for the orienteering portion of the race. Except, it wasn't really orienteering. Call it a mix of topo map reading, guessing, and dumb luck.

Call it a Chinese reading test.

The whole map was in Chinese, including the instructions on how to get to the 6 waypoints. At this point there were three of us hapless foreigners - with varying levels of Chinese reading ability - all huddled in a small circle trying to decipher just what it was we were supposed to do. I recognized the following characters and phrases: 在古道上 (on the trail), (degrees), (and then...), 公尺 (meters), (turn), (mountain).

In the end we just followed a group of people with Chinese reading ability and got on a trail. Passing them, we soon found our selves in another pickle. Brett was about a minute ahead of me, and he had met Marc, a Canadian from our bike club, coming back up the mountain. They had missed a check point. We all gathered at an important fork in the road. We just knew it was important. After all, there was a camera man there.

We had two choices. There were ten people milling around and group think was taking over. I looked at the map. We knew it had to be close. I choose a route and took off by myself. After a couple hundred meters I stopped and listened. I heard radio chatter and made for it. They signed my map and pointed me down the mountain. Deng yi xia, I said. And then, at the top of my lungs I started yelling for the other guys. Orienteering be damned.

Turns out only Brett heeded my calls, and so we took off again, back out to the road. We returned our maps and compasses. They told us we were the thirteenth and fourteenth people out of the jungle. Sweet. This is when excitement took over. We ran the next 2 km to the river tracing portion, which we started by rappelling off a suspension bridge into a river. We headed into the narrow rocky valley of a nearby feeder stream. I bounded over rocks. I happily jumped in and out of the water. I ignored the cramping in my legs.

I came to the top of the river tracing and stood staring at the task ahead. Somehow I had ended up quite a ways ahead of the small group that had formed at the suspension bridge. I was told that I was in eighth place.

At this point I made my first error. A strategic error you could say. We had to climb an 8 meter long knotted rope that hung from the bridge above. I have quite a bit of climbing experience, and I knew this was not going to be an easy task, even if my legs weren't starting to cramp. I was told I had five minutes. Four minutes later, just getting my hand over onto the bridge deck, I noticed something. A group of guys were heading up the river bank. They apparently took one look at the rope climb, took the ten minute penalty, and left it at that. I had to make it over. I didn't.

Back down to the river bed, and then I to had to struggle up the river bank and start another 3 km run. I had really wasted my legs on my unsuccessful rope climb. The cramping was getting serious now, and I had to lay down on the road and stretch a few times over this portion of the race.

Paddling down a bigger river in hard plastic open topped kayaks was next. It was pretty fun. A little white water even, but very tame. However, I did see I guy go in right ahead of me which was funny. He looked pretty scared.

After this is was another 3 km run to the finish. My second error occurred at this point. Call this one a tactical error. I followed a couple runners ahead of me up a road marked by an arrow. For about ten minutes we ran straight up a mountain. I had a growing feeling that I had been there before. Looking back down the mountain I saw PingLin town and realized that we were running up the same road that we had earlier biked up. That cost about 15 minutes, and it was the only point during the whole race that I actually felt pissed off. But, it didn't last long.

Anyway, that was about it. I made it back into the finishing area and had to make a lap around the track in front of everyone before hitting the finish. Fortunately I found the energy to run that final lap. I was twentieth to cross the finish line. I had my picture taken, and collapsed in the comfortable grass and stretched for the next half an hour.

How sweet it was.

Ok then that's my story. Hope it wasn't too boring. I will update this posting one more time with photos when I get my hands on some.

google me.

Oh, yeah! So I was browsing my site stats the other day, checking out the referring urls to my blog and found the following suprise:

"Oh boy", I thought. I quickly made my way to google and typed in my name. Low and behold, my site was the fourth in the list.

That's pretty sweet I think. People can search my name and easily find my site. Even more cool is that if you search "Philippine Jeepneys" in google, my site comes up number 43. Dhankar Monestary: number 70. They say if you want to be found on google, you need to be in the top 20. Top 10 is best. I guess I still have work to do.

I started trying to get onto google a couple weeks ago after finding that a search of "Aaron Franz" or even "tai kua zhang le ba!" brought up nothing. So I spent a bit of time researching and figured it out. No prob. It took a while, but it worked. If you are interested getting your site recognized... figure it out yourself! Or, leave a comment and I will give you a run down of how google works (as I vaugely understand it).

Next goal: To be the #1 Aaron Franz in the google universe (ergo, the #1 in... the world!) That's got to be worth something, right?

I'll keep you posted.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Weekend Plans

Finally finished a week of teaching... on Friday evening this time instead of Saturday noon. I've got tomorrow off so I can go participate in my first adventure race in the mountains around Ping Lin between here and Taipei. I think it's called the G4 Challenge or something, and this one is like the preliminaries. I think about ten countries are participating, and each country will send the four best to some big race far far away where a team will drive away in a Land Rover G4.

Don't worry, I don't have any deluded fantasies about winning or anything, I'm just very excited about this thing. Our biking club gets to send a contingent for free because not enough people signed up... just the team power bar guys and other equally hardcore, fully sponsored types.

Anyway, should meet some cool people, and of course the race itself is going to be sweet. The details are secret, but I do know that it will involve mountain biking, running, climbing and rappelling, kayaking, orienteering and even technical driving. Oh boy. My only advantage, at least over other mere mortals, will be in the kayaking (open top style) and mountain biking. I say I might have an "advantage" in kayaking because most Taiwanese have never been in a boat, never mind paddled a boat. I have been in a boat, and feel that I have, at least, a better chance of not tipping over. My mountain biking "advantage" is assuming that we will actually be on trails... I have contended in the past that MAYBE Taiwanese can't mountain bike very well, though this is only because most of the country is paved. Finding a good trail is not easy, and I have observed that people in the biking club that I go out with seem a little unsure of what they can handle off road.

That all being said, my goal is not to be in the bottom 10 %. Wish me luck.

I've included some random photos with this posting, selected under the rather broad catagory of "things I saw while biking in Taiwan".

Ok then. Other than that everything is going swell. Only three weeks until I get on that jet. Not long now, and a lot of thing to do (read: buy). Oh boy.

Thursday, November 24, 2005


Just wanted to post some pictures I took of a few of the little guys I have seen around here.

Starting with my favorite...

A Cicada, about 3 cm long. The loudest insect in the jungle.

A butterfly, as big as my hand.

A millipede, 10 cm in length.

I have no idea what this is, but I can tell you it was pretty small, and sitting on a hat. Looks like a weevle?

A spider, bigger than my hand, though apparently not poisonous.

I would have given you the latin names of all these, but... well I will leave that to my sis. Go to it!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Oh yeah, I forgot. I teach English.

Although I guess everyone I know is aware that I'm teaching English, I wonder if people might not misunderstand a few things.

First, I teach in Taiwan, NOT Thailand (Taiwan is the country that the tsunami did not hit). I am sure that there are still a few people that believe I am in Thailand.

The second point is that I really do live the life of a teacher day to day. I teach a mix of children's, high school, and adult English classes six days a week.

I write lesson plans. I mark homework on my own time. I give kids stickers when they do their homework well, and I take A's away from children who don't do their homework at all. I have spent hours considering and discussing how to discipline students. I intentionally embarrass myself in front of high school students to break the tension. I regularly make stupid jokes that only children find funny. I play good cop/bad cop everyday with my students (though in my case it's nice teacher/not nice teacher, and they are both me). I YELL at kids who don't pay attention, and I scare children with threats to report unfinished homework to their parents. One or two children probably really don't like me very much at all (although 99% of the kids really do like me).

I like almost everything about it.

I think it's that I love being with kids that I have stayed teaching this long. Being around children and interacting with them on their level has a way of keeping ones perspective on life fresh. Kids laugh and get excited about things that adults don't even notice. They don't hold back their feelings.

While the grown ups in a foreign culture might seem very different from grown-ups from back home, elementary students are, in my experience, the same everywhere. Enculturation, if that is in fact a word, doesn't seem to start kicking in until junior high.

That being said, I've realized that teaching is not my calling in life. Originally it was a means to an ends. A convenient way get out of Canada after university at a time when I didn't have much money. A way to see the world, and make some cash while doing it. It still remains, to an extent, a means to an ends. Right now I am still working here to save a bit more before I head out into Asia proper early next year.

But, until then, I will teach and teach again. And anyways, living in Taiwan is not so bad, either. ; )

Don't worry though, I will stop someday.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Philippine Jeepneys

Here is a quick ode to the Jeepneys of the Philippines. I love this transportation. For those who don't know the story, a quick explanations follows.

Until recent years, the Philippines had more than a few American military bases, and with those bases came the jeeps. A lot of jeeps.

They began converting the old jeeps into a more convenient form by cutting the jeeps in half and extending the wheelbase. These days though, there is a Jeepney factory that turns out scores of brand new ones.

So, everywhere you go in the Philippines - whether you want to get around Manila, or head to the next village in the mountains - you can take a Jeepney. All are privately owned, and most operate on routes that are painted right onto the front and sides.

No need to wait for the bus at a bus stop. You can flag down a Jeepney anywhere on the road. It kind of feels like hitchhiking, except you only need to wait a minute for a ride. When you get off, you just hand the driver your pesos (make sure you have the right change though...). There are even local Jeepney unions that set the prices, so no one gets ripped off. You can check the price in the cab and pay accordingly.

This is the interior of my Aunt Linda's older brother's Jeepney. His Jeepney is the one in the second picture. Check him out in the mirrors up top.

He lives up above San Fernando in the hills and everytime he wants to head into the city, or, head back up to his house, he first goes to a designated waiting area. There he waits until the jeepney fills up, or until he's gotta go. It's a sweet system to pay for your gas and subsidize car payments. In fact, most people probably could not afford to have a vehicle if it wasn't for this system.

The ultimate in car pooling.

I would like to propose that we implement a similar system in Canada.

Imagine that you want to head into Lethbridge from Coaldale. So, first you head over to some parking lot to wait for some passengers. Occupants pay up in Lethbridge. At least we could cover our gas. Environmentally responsible, and a great way to meet new people!

Anyone have any jeepney pics? Please email them to me and I will post them.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Lazy Weekend

I don't think I'm going to do anything this weekend, and so, I will have no pictures to post... There is a possibility of KTV tonight, but that kind of debauchery doesn't make for good photos in my experience.

I've been reading a lot about south-west China recently, about YunNan and SiChuan provinces in particular. Those provinces are on the eastern side of the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalaya. Reading about the environment and the culture reminds me of the western side, where I spent a couple weeks when I was in India.

These pictures are from the Lahual and Spiti Valleys, a high altitude desert located in eastern Himachel Pradesh, between 5 and 10 kilometers from the Chinese Border and Tibet. Michelle and I went through the area in May 2004 on local buses (one bus a day ran through).

I believe this village was called Nako. We were dropped off at this town in the dark after a long day on the bus. After stumbling about the village in the pitch dark for about half an hour looking for a hotel we finally found one... back at the bus stop.

There was a serious landslide at the road near this town, and the story was that we had to meet the bus on the other side the next day at 2:00 or something. So, the next day we set out to find the landslide and the crossing point. We had a little difficulty finding the place to cross the landslide, and some road workers let us know we needed to be on the road further down the on the mountain. It was going to be a LONG walk. A minute later a huge dumptruck slowed beside us all the guys gestured for us to climb on. So, we got in and took a crazy half hour ride down the side of the mountain with the local yokels. They took us right to the point where the landslide hit, and left us to make the twenty minute trek over the slide.

An hour later or so, a bus arrived on the far side, and all the passengers got out and walked across to join us. Another half and hour later, a bus arrived on our side and everyone got off and made the switch.

Good work Himachel Bus Company.

On this rocky outcrop you can see the Dhankar Monastery, hundreds of meters above the valley floor. The valley is culturally and geographically a part of Tibet, and this Monastery is over 800 years old. We stayed in the Monastery with four or five other backpackers, including one cyclist I remember. A couple of monks were put in charge of taking care of us... they said they hadn't seen so many visitors in a long time. They cooked traditional Tibetan food for us, including some great steamed bread that I learned to twist into shape. Room and board for about 90 rupees (2.50 CDN) a day.

I took this pic on a hike above the Monastery in search of the lake you see in the next picture. On the other side of this mountain to the right lies China. This was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

Well, here's the lake. The black dot in the upper left is actually a boat. Go figure. Seriously. Figure that one out. I couldn't. There is no roads in these parts, and trail leading here was through a narrow Arizona-esque Canyon.

I continued walking around after I took this picture, and in a few minutes spotted a dead horse and a lone vulture. This huge vulture didn't notice me at first, but he was clearly concerned other animals might spoil his feast. Eventually I made my presence known, and, instead of flying away he ran away. He ran fast. He hid behind a rock. Have you ever seen a vulture run? It's funny. I'll show you my imitation sometime. So he just hid behind this rock and periodically peeked over it to see what I was doing. Explain that behaviour. The only reason I can think of is that maybe he didn't want other vultures to discover where he was. That or he ate too much and couldn't fly.

Later, likely suffering from the kind of thinking induced by oxygen deprivation, I decided to go for the summit of the mountain I was on and get a good look at China. This eventually led me to a long skree slope that I climbed, which in turn lead me to a three meter cliff that I had determined to be the only way to continue. I stared at it for about twenty minutes and then wisely decided to abandon my attempt.

Heading down was the sweetest skree skiing I've ever done.

These were some local children who posed for a picture near the Monastery. Take a look the girl on the left carrying her little sister. Is that Grandma? She was probably six years old, and the baby was only half her size. Happy kids.

Finally, this was the group of prayer flags at the top of Kunzam La (Pass) at 4,590 meters. It was, for lack of any words I can come up with, absolutely spectacular. It was, however, not a fun ride up the steep hairpin switchbacks. On almost every hairpin, the driver had to complete a three to ten point turn. He enjoyed using the clutch and gravity to roll backwards toward the abyss (as opposed to using reverse) as he completed every point on these turns. At the right time he would (hopefully) gun the engine and release the clutch to prevent rollling over the edge... all this while wildly spinning the steering wheel in a fluid, brakeless display of driving. This with a thirty year old Indian made TATA bus.

That was a nice trip down memory lane for me, but, that's all I've got for now.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Another Disclaimer

I realize that some people that read this blog might not know me, and therefore could possibly be offended by the last posting. Please be aware that my tounge was firmly placed in my check on that one. Understanding that, if you are still offended, please leave a comment. Remember it's just a joke. I hold no ill will.


Thursday, November 10, 2005


I was just reading Tyrn's blog, and he has posted some thoughts/complaints about roommates... which lead me to think about my current roommate situation.

I don't have a roommate here, and as a result my rent - by Taiwan standards - is a little expensive. I could half the rent by filling that empty room but, so far, I haven't accepted anyone that has stopped in.

The fact is that I am a judgmental asshole.

I've met three prospective roommates now, and denied every one.

Potential roommate # 1
The Paranoid American girl:

She had just been offered a job at our school here, and I, being roommateless, was quickly nominated to take her in for a month, possibly longer. Being a little wary of the whole thing, I said she was welcome to check it out, stay for a week, and see how she felt.

So, armed with two huge mother suitcases, she moved in. Bear in mind that this all happened the first day I met her. I showed her the room, and I started to notice that this girl was what some people would describe as "edgy". She was nervous. Jumpy. You know what I mean.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "Of course she was nervous Aaron. There she was, alone in an apartment in a new country... with a strange man... a bearded man. A Canadian!"

Granted, it is possible that she convinced herself that at any moment I would strike up a "marijuana cigarette" and get freaky, soon after which the Taiwanese drug police would smash down the door....... hours later, before she knew what was happening, she would be in some Malaysian prison awaiting trail for trafficking. "It wasn't my bag!" she would scream. "That Canadian asked me to carry his bag!" I say this because she actually alluded to (my apparent?) drug use later in conversation. Why do I provoke this kind of talk? The curse of the beard.

Anyway, she relaxed a little, then quickly started in on a barrage of questions and worries. She was worried about everything that she could possibly be worried about... all at the same time.

She displayed behaviour that I've seen from more than a few travelers. Their entire knowledge of a place seems to have been garnered from the latest edition of Lonely Planet, supplemented by the CIA fact sheet that is compiled on every country. The kind of "healthy" paranoia of foreign lands and people that our governments encourage to "protect" us. This, as opposed to a little street sense and a belief in the basic decency of people everywhere. The belief that we all want the same thing... food for our next meal, a family, to love and be loved... (that was a bit of an off topic tangent there, sorry).

Anyway, in her case it was obviously a bit too much

And, she wouldn't listen to any advice.

Her: "They are starting to process my working visa tomorrow. The visa won't come until next month, but they want me to start sooner. Isn't that illegal? Won't I get arrested? Kicked out? Thrown in a small dark room in Taipei with all those other illegal (Canadian) teachers?"

Me: "Don't worry about that. It's just a bureaucratic technicality that they are too lazy to correct. As long as your visa is being processed, you are ok."

Her: "But I heard that the room is really small, and really dark! Anyway, what about the boss Andy? What if he steals my money, or charges me too much taxes, or doesn't charge me enough taxes, or doesn't give me enough work, or cancels my working visa without telling me, leaving me lying in a small dark room in Taipei... with a black stamp in my passport!"

Me: "Wait, didn't you meet Andy in Australia at university? He's your friend! In my experience, he is a great boss, and in the past year, I have hardly had any problems. That school is one of the best in Ilan. Don't worry about all that. You won't have any problems."

Her: "But I heard..."

shenme de, ad infinitum.

She was displaying behaviour that the Department of Homeland Security would proudly characterize as "Orange", orange being a high risk of a terrorist attack, or in her case, a high risk of being ripped off by anyone, at any moment.

It was clear that this level of vigilance would likely continue into the "Red" (Severe risk of freaking out completely)... and on that day, she would skip the country, never to be seen again.

I deftly avoided taking her in as a roommate, which she facilitated by disappearing the following morning with all her bags, leaving only a hastily written note explaining that she HAD to go to Taipei for a day (with her two huge bags?).

A month later, she disappeared without a word to anyone.


Potential roommate #2:
The 35 year old Hawaiian guy who has lived in Taiwan for twelve years:

Disclaimer: I exaggerated that story a little .

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

LiShan -> HeHuanShan -> Taroko

This past weekend I went on a solo adventure on a bicycle through the mountains and gorges of central Taiwan. I say a bicycle because my bicycle has a problem right now (the bottom bracket is done for, and has been for sometime) so, I borrowed Brett's. Thanks. Anyway, given that Ilan is essentially at sea level, and these roads are above 2 and even 3000 meters, I of course took the bus up to LiShan, which is at about 1900 meters (if you missed the logic in that reasoning, be informed that I will usually take the easiest out, if possible. Oh, I mean, I didn't have time!). I stayed the night there and got up early Sunday and began the ride up to HeHuanShan. The weather was perfect... not a cloud in the sky. This compared with the past two Novembers (count 'em) I've spent here, during which I swear it rained every day. For those cold Canadians interested, it was as hot as it looks...

After about 40 k slowly ascending through apple and pear orchards clinging the sides of the mountains, I went through the first of many long, narrow, dark tunnels and popped out at DaYuLing - basically a crossroads with a fruit market. To the left is the beginnings of the Taroko Gorge dropping away, and to the right is HeHuanShan. Up until this point the riding was easy, about 700 meter elevation over 40 k, but unfortunately the next 5 k up the mountain was another 600 meters. As I strained up the road, cars also strained, engines racing, slowly up. This gave every Taiwanese family a good five seconds to stare at me and yell jia you! at the top of their lungs (which literally means 'add gas', but is used like 'Go, Go, Go!').

The view from the top was amazing. Just seeing the mountain made me think of the Alps, although I've never been there.... Treeless, lush green vegetation, a winding road, and a bright blue sky. Stunning. That's the photo below.

I had a coffee at an old wooden lodge/hikers dorm at the top, and although it was at first a quiet and contemplative experience (largely being ignored as usual), that quickly changed when I asked a hiker where he had just come from. This led to about a half hour practice session for my Chinese, as more hikers and onlookers joined our conversation. This also led to my acquiring a helmet. A nice guy from Taipei lent it to me because, you see, I didn't have one (don't tell my Mum). I was joking about my stupidity, and he just gave me his. This may sound surprising, but if you have lived here you might not find it
so. At first I didn't want to accept it, but, I changed my mind after I considered crashing without a helmet after being insistently offered one only hours before.

So, I did a little hike to one of the summits and then, finally, got to the reason I wanted to do the whole thing in the first place. The downhill. From HeHuanShan, sitting at 3200 meters, down to TianXiang in Taroko Gorge, at about 600 meters. All that elevation lost in about 65 k. Nice. I won't say I didn't race motorcycles. The road was pretty good, although there was always a massive drop off on the right to keep an eye on. They don't call it a gorge for nothing.

Otherwise there was the tunnels. I had been warned about the tunnels, and I came well prepared with my new headlamp. These are one and a half lane wide tunnels. Long tunnels. A few of them are so long that you lose all natural light. Its frightening to be in these dark tunnels and hearing what sounds to be a 10 ton truck bearing down on you. In front? Behind? Around the next corner? But with my lamp and good reflectors, I think I was quite safe.

Got to the hostel safe, and eventually sat down and cracked the Lonely Planet South West China that a friend lent me. Future plans are being made here... About an hour into reading about visas and such in the quiet garden, I was approached by the only person I saw all evening. He was from Britain, and it turned out that he was not, as you are probably suspecting, an English teacher. He was a backpacker. He claimed to be one of only four backpackers currently in Taiwan. I think that was a British joke. He had just come from spending 2 month in South West China. Woah. If I believed in omens this would be a good candidate, but I am a man of science and so...

Anyway, it was cool to get some first hand perspective backpacking in YunNan and SiChuan and those areas. I'm excited.

The next day I did a bit of mountain biking and a hike up to LienHua Hu (Lotus Lake). It was Monday morning, and there was hardly a soul to be seen. Perfect. I rode the final, and arguably most spectacular portion of the gorge in the mid-day.
I made a 2 o'clock train to LuoDong, and I was teaching by 5!

Friday, November 04, 2005

Form and Structure

I feel a theme in these pictures but I'm not quite able to define it, beyond the title.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

A Door

This one's for you Tom.

If you want to see a bunch of pictures of doors in Taiwan, check out Tom's Blog in my links.