Tag Archives: Taiwan

Taiwan 2010 – Part VI – Taichung Science Adventure

Oh, I may make fun of their mystical Chinese medicine, Feng Shui, superstitions, ghost concerns and a host of other completely illogical remnants to the dark ages of man’s reason, but that notwithstanding, the Taiwanese are at heart a science-loving, technology-obsessed people, which makes them infinitely superior to a vast swath of science-denialist Americans who constantly cause problems for our own country.

It somewhat surprised me, then, that we had to travel to Taichung to go to the science museum. I suppose on an island this size, that’s little more than having to travel to Tucson from Phoenix, but it seems odd that it wouldn’t be in Taipei. Nonetheless, we have friends in Taichung and so we decided to

  1. Enjoy a trip on the High Speed Rail
  2. Spend the day at the science museum
  3. Visit with our friends at their home

The Hight Speed Rail (HSR) is awesome. You can purchase your tickets at 7-11. It’s a short walk or bus ride from my in-laws house, a two-stop subway ride to the main train station and under an hour (at 300kph) to Taichung, where, they give you free bus rides to major destinations in town, including the science museum. It was effectively door-to-door service.

Irene’s never been to the Taichung science museum and, even for her, the admissions process was a bit confusing. Apparently, there’s multiple areas, including the Natural History area, the Science area and the Space theatre. I didn’t realize it at the time but it’s a massive two-building, four-storey complex. We were, predominantly there to see the natural history museum and when Irene asked about the science hall, they gave her some explanation about it being an exhibition of some company’s products, so we decided to skip it. Mistake. That was apparently only the roving exhibit, and the rest is four-storeys of hands on science fun. Still we just barely had enough time to cover the natural history area before it was time to meet our friends. I can’t help thinking that I need to go back before I leave, although that would be a little expensive.

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The natural history area was beautiful, perhaps a little bit light on exhibits, but most were in both Chinese and English, well laid out and attractive. (Perhaps they brought a Feng Shui master in to get it “just right”) The kids (and I) had a lot of fun and that’s what counts.

Here’s one that will shock you though. You don’t have to exit the museum through a gift shop!

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We met our friends and traveled by taxi to their home. Never travel by taxi. Our driver’s very instincts were different from my own. For example, when we’d be on a single lane road (well, single lane with a sort of side area for scooters and pedestrians) and the traffic in front would slow to a stop, instead of slowing down as would seem prudent to me, he would instead swerve to either side, sometimes into oncoming traffic but most times into the scooter pedestrian area. In one instance at an intersection, the car in the oncoming lane looked as if it was going to make a left turn in front of him. (That’s common) So he aimed his cab at exactly the oncoming lane, with the intention of occupying that space as the other car left it. The other car chickened out and we came to a deadlock, while all the cars that were behind us continued on, passing us on the right. I can’t say for certain that the traffic in Taichung is scarier than the traffic in Taipei, but it sure felt like it.

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Our friend, Don, is from the US and teaches at a nearby university. They live near the university and the area is full of restaurant choices of various ethic types. We chose Indian food and it was excellent. We went back to their place to let the kids play for a while and I was very impressed. Unlike my in-law’s place in Taipei, which was built in the 1970’s, their home, built this century was vastly advanced in terms of comfort and modern conveniences. One area that is so difficult to judge about a country are the homes. So rarely do we get to go inside anyone’s home – apart from those people who live in their shops – that it’s hard to decide what is a “typical” Taiwanese home. I believe I’ve been inside five, total. Perhaps I’ll never know.

Then is was back to the HSR for a smooth, effortless ride into Taipei and “home.”

Taiwan 2010- Costco Menu in Taiwan

Like the US, Costco in Taiwan has a low-price food court, featuring products made from available ingredients at Costco.

The menu is similar but different:

  • Chicken ceasar salad
  • Clam chowder
  • Chicken bake Bulgogi (beef) bake
  • Hot dog (all-pork) & drink
  • Seafood pizza
  • Hawaiian pizza
  • Peking duck pizza
  • Bacon cheese hamburger & drink
  • Mango smoothie
  • Hokkaido ice cream

Taiwan 2010 – Part V – Jhihben, Chrben, Jhiben, Chiben, Jiben

At last I’ve finally caught up. All that cow excitement was beginning to make me fall behind, but I’ve got a couple more hours on the train from Taitung to Taipei and nothing to do except burn out my batteries. Michelle has exhausted all but the last of my iPhone’s battery playing Monopoly and now she’s working on the iPad’s battery reading The Lightening Thief.

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Last time I blogged some photos of our wonderful, Japanese-style spa room. The whole resort is built about the spa, but we weren’t able to go last night as a thunderstorm came up, and I wasn’t too keen to be sitting in the water during an electrical storm. In the morning, the spa didn’t open early enough, and by the time it did, it was raining again.

No doubt I’ve mentioned before that Taiwan has an extremely poor track record of “romanizing” their language into western characters. Whereas China simply issued a decree and forced everyone (on pain of death, no doubt) to use a newly-developed system called Pinyin, Taiwan never went through that phase, and they’ve been damn stubborn about adopting the Chinese system because… well.. because it’s Chinese and they’re not Chinese enough. (I kid you not.)

Consequently, Taiwan has been using the old Wade-Giles system, which, to my uneducated eye, sucks. Now, I’m sure Messrs. Wade and Giles knew a lot more about language than I do, but I do know one thing: If you use their system of romanizing and you try to pronounce the word, no Chinese speaking person will ever understand what you’re trying to say.

Let me demonstrate. Take for example these two words, “Peking” and “Beijing.” Those are two words you’ve probably heard before. Everyone has heard of Peking Duck and everyone knows the capital of China is Beijing. Here’s a dirty little secret: They’re the same word using the two different romanization systems and they’re pronounced the same way. What you know as Peking Duck should be pronounced more like Beijing Duck. (Although they have their own word for “duck”, too.) “Taipei” become “Daibei” and my wife’s name, Chu-Wan, would become “Zhuwan” and she’d immediately move to the back of the alphabet.

Taiwan is slowly adopting the Chinese system, mostly because it’s all that’s taught in schools and universities around the world anymore. If you want foreigners to read your romanized text and be able to do business in Taiwan, you must use the Chinese Pinyin system. There’s another problem with the older Wade-Giles system – apparently no one in Taiwan knew how to use it either.

I mention all this because we spent a long time today driving around Taitung (Daidong) and so no fewer than 7 spellings for “Jhihben” on official signs. I have no clue how it would properly be spelled, but I think it would be “zhiben.” I never saw it spelled that way, though.

I also mentioned all that because much of the day was spent driving around in circles.

After we checked out of our room (I’ll miss it!) we drove out towards the beach where sunrise first greats Taiwan each morning and that on Jan 1, 2000 it was packed with thousands of people. Fortunately, it wasn’t at sunrise when we arrived. I’ve seen more “special” sunrises in Taiwan than I’ve seen cows, and that’s saying a lot.Not only is it a rocky, nasty beach, cluttered with a huge accumulation of garbage, but it doesn’t even appear to be the easternmost point on the island, which would seem to me to be the point that would see the sunrise first.

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Afterwards, we stopped at Xiaoyehlieu (or is that hsiaoyehlieu?) which is a series of interesting rock formations on the coast. There’s a similar, larger formation on the northern coast called Yehlieu.

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By this time, I was completely knackered. It’s hot and oppressively humid. (I’ve included this picture of me sweating by way of demonstration.) I settled into the car and started watching the Man From Atlantis on my iPad. I was only vaguely aware of what was going on. Periodically, I’d look up and spot a new spelling of Jhihben but otherwise, as far as I could tell, we were just driving around in circles in Taitung. Like any city in Taiwan, it’s hardly picturesque.

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Eventually, we decided to eat before our train ride back to Taipei, but it was a little too early, so we stopped at a nearby park, which, like seemingly all parks of interest in these southern towns, was a great big set of stairs…and mosquitoes. Lots of mosquitoes. They didn’t even bother to run when you swatted at them, They just dropped their little mosquito pants, waved their privates parts at us in defiance and attacked again. It was, as usual, a nice view at the top, but I wonder if it was worth the bloodletting.

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We stopped at a steakhouse we’d seen the day before. They had a distinctly American sales gimmick of selling a 1 Kilogram steak, which, if you could eat the whole thing, you got for half price. I didn’t try that, but I did figure this would be a very down-to-earth steakhouse. Was I wrong! It’s was one of the most pretentious steak places yet. Every course was served with a flourish of pretense of a high-end restaurant wishing to charge ridiculous prices for nothing of substance, yet this was, as far as I could tell, just a low-end Taiwanese-style steak shop. Here’s a picture of the prawn appetizer, with its single stick of fried spaghetti.

At lunch, I learned the truth about our earlier excursion around Taitung: We were just driving in circles. A few years ago, they moved the train station and my father-in-law wanted to locate the station for later. He never found it. At lunch, no fewer than three people gave us directions to the stations, none of which seemed to make sense. Whipping out the iPhone and the GPS, I quickly located the train station and we had no further trouble locating it. Score one for technology, none for human interaction.

It’s a full four hours back to Taipei on the slow (but not slowest) train. The east coast simply isn’t populated enough for a high speed train like on the west coast, but they do have some of the new “rocking trains” which I’m not too familiar with, but I understand they achieve their extra speed by not slowing down on turns. The rocking train was my requirement for this trip as I’m fascinated by different forms of train technology; unfortunately, these trains are popular and no seats were available. We were stuck on an “express” train which achieves a bit of speed by not stopping at many stations. It’s still painfully slow.

And so ended our mini-trip to the rift valley of Taiwan.

Taiwan 2010 – Part IV – My Life After the Cows

I knew that after a visit to the Pastureland Resort Experience, life was going to be a pale imitation of its former self, but I was determined to soldier on.

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It seems that Guanshan Township is part of the great Taiwanese bicycle experience. Sometime after our last visit, a bicycling craze overtook the island, with thousands of people touring round the island. As a former long distance bicycle rider, it’s a craze I can approve of, even if the idea of riding a bike on Taiwan’s roads fills me terror.

Dozens of places in Guanshan rent bicycles and several of the hotels offer bicycles for their guests. Neither of my kids can ride a bike, but the hotel offered bicycles built for two and we were able to coax Michelle onto one. (James was not the slightest bit worried about it.) Michelle road with me and, unfortunately, none of the bicycles were big enough for someone 6’3″. I extended the rusty seat post well past the minimum insertion line, just enough to let me peddle without smacking the handlebars with my knees (except when turning) and we were off. Still, a full downstroke, my knees still fully bent and I couldn’t get much power, making the ride difficult.

We rode about 5 km part way around the nicely built bicycle path that circles the town and the important part was that Michelle had a lot of fun and I have hopes she’ll really try to learn to ride her bike when we return to Arizona.

Between the incredibly uncomfortable seat, heavy bike weight, Michelle’s extra weight, poor gear ratio, no leg extension, high humidity and most importantly, my complete lack of shape, it was a brutal 5km.

I really want a bike like this. (OK, technically a trike)

After we checked out it was on to Taitung and then the Jhihben Hot Springs, or so I thought, but this trip had at least one more surprise for me.

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A Visit to the Chu Lu Ranch! A tourist dairy farm! Oh Joy, I feel I was dealt a Royal Fizzbin.

So, after an hour or so, plowing around another dairy farm, in deadening heat and humidity, I can honestly say I’ve seen all the dairy farms I ever want to see in Taiwan, if not the entire world!

I must say, Chu Lu Ranch is better than Rareseed Ranch, if you must go to one or the other.

As we had to pass through (or at least near) Taitung before we went to Jhihben, I decided enough was enough. I wanted to eat at McDonald’s. I’ve been in Jhihben before and I know the food selection is limited. I was prepared for that, but I wanted a western meal on the way through, and I wasn’t above priming the kids to get them to want McDonald’s, too. My father-in-law clearly didn’t want to go, but I did, and he subjected me to a second cow farm. Fair is fair. I deserved McDonald’s. (Really, is that a sentence that’s ever been written in English before?)

Leaving the cow farm and with the GPS and the iPhone, I was able to navigate us directly to the nearest McDonald’s, where I had fried chicken. (McDonald’s in Taiwan, and indeed throughout much of Asia, sells fried chicken. It’s really quite the best thing on their menu, I don’t know why they don’t have it in the US.)

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That bit of necessary business out of the way, we headed on to Jhihben, where we got a resort hot spring spa room that is to die for. Not only do they have the standard outdoor spas, but the pipe it into the spa rooms, too. (OK, the whole nonsense about the natural water being any different than heating water is just a huge marketing thing, but it’s still nice to soak in the hot, hot water.) The rains came, which prevented us from doing much outside, but I soaked my weary, bicycled-tortured legs and it was good.

We slipped back into Taitung for dinner and, after much wandering the streets, we ended up at the only Indian restaurant in Taitung. The menu was limited, but it was good.

Tomorrow, we take the day in Jhihben before catching the train back to Taipei. I’m taking things one day at a time, but my goal for tomorrow is simple: no cows.

Wish me luck.

Taiwan 2010 – Part IIIb – Pastureland Resort Experience Area (Episode 3)

If I haven’t got you confused with my post numbering by now, I never will.

Let’s see, I left off at the sugar refinery, on our way to the cows.

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Oh, OK, right… so, we left the sugar refinery and we went to the cow place, known formally (in English) as Rareseed Ranch, where they have some dairy cows and ostriches, although the purpose of the ostriches is somewhat murky.

They make milk at this ranch and they sell milk products. People come and feed the cows and look at them.

We stopped at the snack bar where they sell ice cream – which comes in one flavor: milk flavor. They also sell cheesecake, which tastes like milk and I also had a glass of milk, which, reassuringly, tasted like milk. I believe I am now totally cowed out and do not need see any more cows, ever.

We pulled into a really nice looking resort in Guanshan township, but it was too expensive, so we went to their cheaper sister hotel, right next to the train station. Apparently bike rental comes with the room and we plan to go riding in the morning. At least it doesn’t involve cows.

Food pickings were slim, but we ate a passable chinese-style pork chop at a bien dan shop near the hotel.

Our hotel has free wireless (at least, I assume it’s free wireless from the hotel, the access point name is “default”), so I’ve had my first opportunity to catch up on my blogging and newsreading. The data connection on the iPhone is a life saver, but I’m still using it sparingly. Opportunities to tap into wi-fi are like gold.

We’ve no left the “planned” part of our itinerary. I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but this much I can guarantee: It will not involve cows.

Taiwan 2010 – Part IIIa – Pastureland Resort Experience Area (Episode 2)

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As you can see from this picture, I made it to the “Pastureland Resort Experience Area” but if you think I’m going to tell you about it straight away, you’ve got another think coming.

It was a long day to get to those cows, and it’s going to be a long blog post to get to the cows.

We started the day in Hualien – which is good because we ended the day before there, also. Hualien is the gateway to the Taroko Gorge, a mind-boggeling chasm wrought by nature out of the magnificent marble cliffs. Impressive but almost completely impassable by humans were it not for an equally impressive feat of manual labor to put a road into it. Taroko Gorge is the start (or end, if you prefer) of a cross-island, cross-mountain “highway” linking the east and west coast, designed originally to facilitate the movement of troops and material across the island in the event of Chinese invasion. By “highway” I actually mean a barely 2 lane road precipitously hacked into the sides of the cliffs.

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But I’ve done all that before, so instead we went to the next-chasm-over, which, as far as I can tell has no name, is equally impressive, until recently has been a restricted area so as tourists could not enter and, because of lack of military applications, hasn’t even got a two-lane goat track. It does have a strictly one-lane road hewn into the cliffs for access. I’m told that the area was restricted “to protect the environment” but it’s as plain as can be the real reason is the hydroelectric dam(s) along the river. As the road is just a service road for dam workers, it doesn’t need to be wide enough for two cars to pass. As a road for tourists, it leaves much to be desired. Because of their “conservation efforts” only 600 cars per day are allowed into the area – 300 in the morning, 300 in the afternoon. If the 300 morning cars on the way out met the 300 afternoon cars on the way in it would be absolutely impossible. its a terrifying experience to have to back up along that winding, narrow road (without rails) until you can find a rather optimistically small pull-out. There area equally small and rather long “tunnels” along the way – many of them are just there to keep the overhanging cliffs from falling on you.

It was a harrowing ride, and when we finally convinced him to turn back, he picked another road to follow that was equally as small. Beautiful scenery, but white-knuckle passenger time.

Apart from looking at the scenery, there’s nothing else to do except work your way down to the river, where the water is beautifully clear, but oddly blue-green, and splash around in the gravelly shallows. The kids had a lot of fun and the fish come to eat your feet, which is an odd feeling.

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At the “top” of one of the roads is a bridge about 200 to 300 feet high. On either side of the bridge, it was 40ºC and stifling hot. Standing on the bridge, the wind blowing up from the ocean is 10º cooler, at least and at least 30mph. I had an oddly juvenile desire to pee off the bridge (obviously with my back to the wind) but the road ends at the entrance to one of the hydroelectric plants and there’s a security guard on constant duty. You’ll have to settle for this picture off the bridge instead.

The scale of the cliffs is simply impossible to convey with my photographic skills. Time and time again I tried to take photos that would impart the feeling of utter defeat someone would have if they stood in the valley and looked up at the walls around them, but a wall of green just doesn’t look great on camera. I’ve tried various techniques and also shot several panoramas, which I’ll stitch together and post later. Other times I’d find the perfect spot, but there was absolutely no space for me to step outside the car to take the picture. There was quite literally no ground to stand on(!). It’s all very frustrating.

While I pointed out my father-in-law is doing the driving, I forgot to point out (in an affectionate way) how freakin’ annoying his driving is. I think he has entered a phase in his life where he refuses to listen to anyone, and when I say “anyone”, I actually mean people and street signs. It’s bad enough I’m constantly in the dark as to where we are going, but it is quite clear my father-in-law has some vague idea of where he wants to go, but absolutely no idea where it is. If Irene, while looking at the map, says, “turn left”, he’ll say, “I think it’s right” and turn right – followed by us wandering around more and more obscure backstreets until eventually we end up going where Irene indicated. He does the same thing with traffic signs! if they point straight ahead, he’ll turn left or right. I have no clue why he’s doing this, but on more than one occasion I had to pull out the iPhone and Google maps to figure out where the hell we were and to get us back on course. Considering I have no clue where we’re going either, the whole thing is a bit frightening, but mostly frustrating.

Also frustrating is my never-ending battle with food in Taiwan. In Taipei, not only do they have plenty of western food when required, but the quality, diversity and cleanliness of the Chinese restaurants means that I can eat at several places and not appear like one of those westerners that eats at McDonald’s only.

Down in the more rural parts of Taiwan, the story is very different. While restaurants are plentiful, western ones are non-existent and the Taiwanese/Chinese ones are… mostly scary. Cleanliness standards not suitable for a car mechanic’s workshop and a unique tendency to eat the parts of animals we throw away. At the B&B we stayed at, the breakfast was catered and we had a choice of “hamburger”, “club sandwich” or “daikon cakes”

Actually, although my “club” sandwich bore little resemblance to a club sandwich, it wasn’t bad. If I’d been given 3 of them, it would have been a meal. I consisted of something akin to spam, with egg, lettuce, thousand island dressing and, I think, a thin hamburger patty on white bread. The hamburger was egg, lettuce, thousand island dressing and, I think, a thin hamburger patty on a bun.

It wasn’t much to go on and I expected to stop in Hualien to eat before heading into the rift valley. Oh no, we couldn’t go two miles out of our way, instead after touring the nameless chasm, we plunged, food-less into the rift valley.

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At lunch we stopped at a rest stop. Bicycling has become a bit of a craze in Taiwan, and there are rest stop cataring to car and bike travelers all over the rift valley. The valley is flat and easy to traverse, so I can see why it would make a good bicycle destination. The rest stop had exactly five food items for sale. Intestines, bamboo shoots, misc vegetables, cold, nasty chicken and pork. The pork is that really interesting Taiwanese pork that seems to be nothing but chopped bones, fat and skin. Somehow they’ve bread pigs with no flesh, just the scraps. I had a bowl of the worst, dullest, driest rice I’ve ever had in my life.

After lunch we went to the nearby Hualien (county, not city) Tourism Sugar Refinery, which turns out isn’t open to tourists expect by reservation, but there’s a small “museum” that best isn’t even recounted, unless you’re a fan of exhibits such as, “This is a typical desk used in the 1950’s, this is a typical phone, this is a typical rolodex, etc.” Mind you, some of the equipment they were using in the 1950’s, we’re still using in AZ state government offices today. What does that tell you about Taiwan or Arizona?


I’ve got very limited internet access and the hotel in Guanshan Township (which narratively, I haven’t arrived at yet) has free wi-fi, so I’m posting this first half of the blog post now. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten to the cow part, so that will be forthcoming in the next installment. Sorry for getting you all excited about the cows and not delivering. Next time for sure!

Taiwan 2010 – Part III – The Quest for the Cows (Episode 1)

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Taiwan is a different place.

Oh, I know, that’s not the single most insightful thing I’ve ever written, but neither is it as fatuous as it sounds.

Regular readers of my blog may remember my last trip to Taiwan where we went to visit a major tourist destination: a sheep farm. It was pleasant and scenic, but the fascination with reasonably ordinary farmyard animals was completely lost on me. In some way these sheep were “famous” in the curious Taiwanese definition of the word “famous”.

“Famous” in that context means “in some way the first of something that has been promoted as something a lot more special than it really is.” All other sheep farms now pale in comparison and any discriminating person who wants some sheep byproduct would certainly buy their sheep products from the famous sheep farm.

This trip, we’re heading to the opposite end of the island to see the famous cow farm. Bizarre though it sounds, I don’t really mind. While I can’t claim to have seen everything in Taiwan, I can reasonably state that I have been to every major area of the island, save for one.

Several years ago, we took an around-the-island tour. Taiwan is roughly leaf-shaped and running right down the middle of the island is a truly impressive and formidable mountain range. On the west side of the island, the coastal areas are fairly flat and friendly. The bulk of the island’s population lives along this western coast. The east, on the other hand, is little more than the eastern edge of the mountain range, which plummets into the sea. It makes for dramatic coastlines, but there are few places suitable for large towns.

While we made the dramatic coastal drive, we bypassed a so-called “rift valley” near the extreme south-eastern end of the island. I’m told that the rift valley is both dramatically beautiful and filled with pastoral tranquility. Hyperbole it might be but there’s one thing you can say about Taiwan: The scenery if often as dramatic as it is made out to be. (Once you get past all the concrete they’re built stuff out of everywhere.

Living in such pastoral bliss, these cows give the finest milk on the island – which, considering the entire island is lactose-intolerant, it quite funny.

Somehow, I imagine this place as being similar to a Sonoma Valley winery, where guests stay in a charming resort built on a working winery. They stay, they enjoy the weather and countryside, have a wine tasting, buy a few cases and return to their mundane lives.

In this alternate Taiwan-reality, substitute “dairy farm” for “winery” and “milk” for “wine” and you’ve pretty much conjured up the image I have in my mind. I see groups of people lined up at a table, with bottles of milk and a bucket. They move from glass to glass, sipping the milk, then spitting it out into the bucket. Like wine tasters trying not to get drunk by consuming the wine, Taiwanese milk-tasters must spit it out lest the dreaded affects of lactose-intolerance cut short their milk-tasting.

That’s what I’m imaging but I’ll find out tomorrow. Today we’re in Hualien, marble capital of Taiwan – if not Asia. Hualien is one of the few viable ports on the east cost and, as the nearby mountains are made of marble, this is big business here.

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I kid you not: The sidewalks are made of marble here. Bet that’s a joy when it rains.

We took a train to Hualien, then rented a car. We sent the afternoon wandering around and sightseeing. I finally saw something that I’d heard of but never witnessed before: my father-in-law doesn’t know how to drive an automatic transmission car! I can understand not being familiar with it, but it’s automatic for crying out loud!

We’re staying in a little cement bead and breakfast south of Hualien on the coast. There’s no internet, but I can kick my iPhone on and do a bit of communicating with the outside world. While driving around town, I had to turn it on several times. It seems we can know where we’re going with the iPhone, but we get lost as soon as I turn it off. International data roaming charges aren’t cheap, so I’m trying to keep my numbers down, but it’s just too useful!

We spent some time down at a rock-strewn coastline laughingly called “a beach” and I missed the perfect photo of the day – perhaps the photo of the trip. My father-in-law headed back to the van. James realized he was gone and was chasing after him. As he approached, my father-in-law heard him and turned around and he had just the biggest, happiest smile imaginable on his face. It was quite literally that smile that only grandparents can have when caught up in the joy of having the grandchildren around. I’m still kicking myself for missing it.

You won’t be reading this post until at least after I’ve seen the cows, so stay tuned for episode 2.