Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Monkeys, gods and karaoke

There's never a dull moment on the slopes of this hiking-happy island.

Global Post, August 29, 2009

TAIPEI — One of the joys of living in Taiwan is the hiking opportunities.

Like Hong Kong — another place typically seen as one of Asia's urban jungles — the island actually boasts many scenic trails. Some are elderly- and family-friendly; others are serious business, best left to pro climbers.

Taiwan's mountainous landscape is a hiker's paradise. The island is formed by the collision of the Eurasian and Philippines tectonic plates. They've crashed together to create the jagged, young (geologically speaking) Central Mountain Range running most of Taiwan's length.

That tectonic clash also accounts for the numerous earthquakes here (one of the latest, 6.3 magnitude off Taiwan's east coast in July, woke me up at 2 a.m. to a swaying room).

Some more difficult treks should not be ventured alone, like the one leading up to Taiwan's highest peak, Jade Mountain (elevation 13,000 feet).

Several challenging trails criss-cross the famed Taroko National Park. On my first trip to the park in 2004, signs were still posted looking for information on an American named Fryderyk Frontier, who had disappeared in the park the previous year. He's never been found.

Another favorite is the Caoling Historic Trail, also on Taiwan's northeast coast. Here, hikers can follow in the footsteps of a 19th century Qing Dynasty official. The official got fogged in, but took the opportunity to engrave a large boulder with a four-character Chinese inscription: "Boldly Quell the Wild Mists."

Trails outside Taipei and Kaohsiung — Taiwan's two major cities — are more well-worn. Kaohsiung is famous for its "monkey mountain," rising just west of the city. Here, elderly Taiwanese and families throng the trails, also home to hundreds of macaques. The monkeys are quite aggressive: hikers are warned not to carry food, which could make them targets for the thieving primates.

Taipei, where I live, sits in a basin ringed by low mountains. Here, the hiking isn't so much about getting away from it all, as getting above some of it. You're never too far from civilization — meaning hillside shrines and temples, free-range chicken joints, juice stands and karaoke (called KTV in Taiwan).

That Xianjiyan (Fairy Rock) trail, not far from my home, climbs straight up from a busy street, and winds up to a temple. The mountain is supposedly rich with spirits: stay on the trail and you'll come to the "Immortals' Footprint."

A similar trail is up Little Lion's Head mountain, a short walk from the terminal station of a subway line in Xindian. Elderly Taiwanese make the climb early in the morning for exercise; friends cool off together in mountaintop pavilions.

The Elephant Mountain trail vaults out of the city just a few blocks from Taipei's signature skyscraper, Taipei 101. Actually, for the beginning of the climb it's one long staircase — typical of Taiwan's urban-area trails.

Night climbs up Elephant Mountain are popular; groups of amateur photographers stake out space with their tripods to capture the night-scape sprawled out in neon below.

North of the city, the Yangmingshan mountain area is a mix of sealed-off military areas, pastures, sulphur springs and well-traveled trails. On weekends when the weather is good, you may find yourself sharing the trail with thousands of other Taiwanese city-slickers. But one of my favorite hikes is the Jiantan Mountain trail, behind Taipei's famous Grand Hotel. Here, the trail is lined with temples, badminton courts and at least three karaoke stands.

Westerners may think it odd to find amplified, off-key singing booming from atop a mountain trail. But it's perfectly normal in karaoke-crazed Taiwan.

Friends and families come here and pay NT$10 (about 30 cents) per tune to warble out their favorite songs. The hilltop KTV stands boasted Chinese-, Japanese- and English-language tunes, and serves tea and light snacks.

Unlike the U.S., where karaoke usually involves alcohol-fueled crooning in front of a bar-full of strangers, KTV here is enjoyed by groups of friends or relatives crowded around one TV. Long-time expats become familiar with some of the standards, such as "Yueliang Daibiao Wo De Xin" ("The moonlight represents my heart"):

Or for the younger generation, Taiwan pop star Jay Chou's "Qi Li Xiang" (Orange Jasmine):

Here on the Jiantan Mountain trail, it's first come, first sing. When I showed up one recent weekday afternoon, Tan Wen-ji, 57, had occupied one KTV spot with a large group including his wife and other relatives.

Tan's group was settled in for a six-hour sing-fest. "It's great," Tan said. "We can come here and climb the mountain, then relax and sing songs."

Original site

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