Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Trip to Taiwan: Part I Kaohsiung to the Maolin Valley Area

Myself and Bob Oddo in his school classroom in Kaohsiung

Crossostephium chinense

Myself and Grace on Banpingshan (Turtle Mountain) 
Ipomoea sp on TM
Passiflora sp on TM

Bob, Grace, and Myself with Kaohsiung in the background on TM

Kaohsiung from near the top of TM

Land Crab on TM

Indigenous Land Snail Shells on TM

Sign on TM
Ant Lion holes in soil on TM

Passiflora foetida on TM

Ipomoea carnea on TM

Fossilized coral on TM

Naturalized Sansevieria cylindrica on TM

Another view of Kaohsiung from TM near top

Striped Crow Butterfly (Euploea sp)  on TM

Mystery small tree on TM, probably planted there

Lamiaceae on TM

Naturalized Sansevieria trifasciata on TM

Liriope sp on TM

Croton cf cascarilloides on TM

Fern sp growing in limestone on TM

Ficus sp on TM
Leaves and fruit of Ficus sp

Interpretive Panel outside Butterfly Museum in Maolin area

Purple Crow butterfly, Euploea tulliolus, Maolin 

Interpretive panel inside Butterfly Museum, Maolin

Striped Crow Butterfly on Asclepia curassivica next to Butterfly Museum

Aboriginal depiction in village in Maolin area

"Head" of the Snake in the river bed in Moulin area

Fern sp in rock on "snake's head"

More ferns in rock on "snakes head"

Cheilanthes sp on "snakes head"

Kalanchoe sp

Aboriginal village house made of stacked slate

View from village, note how easily landslides occur in the mountains

Quinoa harvest in village

Clerodendron paniculatum

Butterfly, species unknown

Large fern near Meinung

Red fruited Comminlinaceae near Meinung

Tree with buttress near Meinung 

Fern near Meinung

Species to be determined near Meinong

Epithema taiwanensis, a tiny lithophytic gesneriad near Meinung

Selaginella and ferns near Meinung

Lithophytic ferns, Epithema and other plants near Meinung

Yue Shi Jei (The World of Moon) with sliding sand
This past Christmas break was unusually long, 2 weeks, so my wife and I decided to visit Taiwan for the first time.  Our daughter Snow visited last year and enjoyed it, so we decided to go this year.   I was looking forward to meeting up again with Bob Oddo, who had retired from Horace Greeley a few years ago and we also were expecting to meet up with my wife's friends Yi and Yen as well.   So off we went on a very long trip (16 hours to get there) via Eva Airlines.  Eva is pretty good, the food is good, you can ask for snacks and drinks in between meals if you want, and it definitely was better than a typical American airline tends to be these days.  The flight path was interesting, we flew north towards Hudson Bay, then west across northern Canada and Alaska, then down over Kamchatka and between Japan and South Korea to Taipei.  Guess they want to avoid being over water too long which is fine by me.  We landed in Taipei at around 6 am their time, then after some lines to get through customs we took a bus to the train station.  We took the bullet train from Taipei to Kaohsiung  Along the way I saw how densely populated Taiwan's western plains are, any flat land is occupied by housing (think apartment buildings or compounds, no typical US house with lawn thing going on there) and agriculture.  In fact it was very interesting to see plots for growing vegetables or rice right among the buildings in semiurban areas.  Another thing I noticed is that fruits are often wrapped in white gauze, apparently this is so that insect pests are excluded so spraying is not necessary.   Some other areas were encased in a mesh, it seems that tomatoes might be grown in those areas but as it was winter there werent too many tomato plants in full production.   Taiwan's lowlands do not appear to get frost, judging by what I saw from the generalized pantropical vegetation that grows there, but it can get cold, especially at night.
We arrived in Kaohsiung and were met by Bob at the station, then took the subway back to his apartment.  I have to say I was impressed by both the bullet train (why cant we have those here?) and the immaculate and well run subways in both Kaohsiung and Taipei.  They even have partitions so that one cannot fall or be pushed onto the tracks (sometimes such sad stories do happen in NYC) and there are sliding panels that open to admit and allow exit from the train when it arrives.   Bob told me that Taiwanese are very rule oriented, and in fact there are markings on the floor which designate where to line up so as to go into a train car when it arrives, and it allows for easy exit as well since there isn't a mad mob scene trying to get into the car all at once while people are also trying to exit. Good idea.  Also on escalators one is supposed to wait along the side, not block the other side in case people want to pass.  We generally allow people to walk past here too in the US but they usually have to be right behind us before we move out of their way.  Bob said that it would be best for us if we got some sun right away so as to adjust to the 13 hour time difference, and he was right.  We walked a lot, and it was quite sunny and warm in Kaohsiung, much more so than would usually be the case in Taipei later in the trip.  As I found elsewhere in Taiwan, people were very friendly, if we asked for directions it was not unusual for them to half way walk us there.  At one point Bob's subway pass fell out of his pocket and a stranger came running up to us with it to give it back to him.   Could happen in NYC too, but just as likely could have turned out different.  I got the impression that Taiwan really wants people to visit, and that was a welcome relief from other places I have been in two ways.  One, it is an extremely safe country, I think only Japan and Singapore might be safer.  Two there aren't random people walking up to you trying to sell you stuff or hassle you.  The taxis have the driver's ID in them visible to the passengers in the back seat and the fare is explained in Mandarin and English and is easily seen from the back seat too.  So I got the impression this is not a place where folks try to rip visitors off. it is a genuinely welcoming country.
Food is a huge deal in Chinese culture and definitely is so in Taiwan.  I learned about "night markets" which are basically rows of stalls of different vendors selling food and desserts, you just buy what you want and usually there are some tables and chairs to eat just behind them.  There is something for everyone, sweets, fried foods, soups, kebabs, oyster omelettes (those were good), and the famous stinky tofu. Yes it stinks, and yes I tried some, not something I savored but it was okay.  But in general the food was very good and I just avoided the "eye of newt" kind of stuff that one would expect to find in Asia.  Two items come to mind that fall under that category, one place advertised cobra snake soup, another had goose intestines.  Not my thing.....
On the other hand Taiwanese milk tea was definitely a great thing as far as I was concerned, and I drank copious amounts of tea every day there.  Milk tea is sort of like hot cocoa here in the US but it is made from tea, milk powder, sugar, and non dairy creamer I think.  Usually they just make it from a mix but one can also get regular hot sweet tea without milk, and of course green tea.  I did kind of get addicted to the milk tea though, and it helped me stay awake while I transitioned to their time zone.
As for plants, the first thing I noticed is that the lowlands aren't terribly interesting for a plant explorer.  The one exception was the ubiquitous Crassostephium chinese, it was planted in containers everywhere. It reminds me of dusty miller, with grey leaves and a pleasant scent.   It is native to Taiwan and some nearby areas, and is supposed to bring good luck and has medicinal uses. I never saw it in the US and as it is very attractive I did bring cuttings (with permits of course) back which I hope will root, so far they are looking okay. If you want to see lots of indigenous plants, you need to go to the mountains, and I will post more on that later.  However we did find a few indigenous plants on "Turtle Mountain", which is basically a fossilized coral hill in the middle of Kaohsiung.  It has good walking paths and we went up there on a fairly hot day.  The air over the city was hazy, apparently Taiwan also has "wu mai"--bad air, as does China, but it is not as severe.  It didn't bother me although I have had asthma in the past, but it would have been a good idea to have brought some water with us.  BTW I was told by several people, and Bob confirmed it, to not drink the tap water (it contains heavy metals from when Taiwan had lots of unregulated industry but they are making a big effort to clean up the legacy that has left behind), so we drank bottled water or water that gets delivered to the apartments.
On Turtle Mountain I noticed lots of shells, they are of an indigenous land snail.  They get rather big, about four inches long, and I also found a spot full of the characteristic pits of ant lions.  I tried to dig out a larva to see how they compare to ones I have found in the US but they were deeper than expected.  It was apparent that there were efforts to plant things on the mountain, not necessarily indigenous plants, and I saw things like Passiflora foetida and Ipomoea carnea which are neotropical species.   I also saw two species of Sansevieria which are of course African, but I did find some native ferns and a native liriope as well.   Huge banyan figs (Ficus) were present on one side of the mountain, along with a species of croton that reminded me very much of similar species I am growing from southern Africa and C. alabamensis, a US native that is a dead ringer for one of the African species.
Later on we went to the beach and on a ferry ride around the port area of Kaohsiung.  To get on the boat one had to be careful to keep to the side where folks were walking on after getting their ticket because nearby swarms of motorbikes were also driving onto the boat.  Lots of people use motorbikes in Taiwan so it is wise to pay attention when walking in the streets.  On sidewalks it is harder for the motorbikes as it is not uncommon for the sidewalk areas nearest to storefronts to change in elevation by a step or so from in front of one establishment to the next.  It takes getting used to, here in the US the number of lawsuits for tripping/falling would be enormous but they must not have such a thing in Taiwan.  More than once I almost tripped over a stair, but I soon learned to watch the ground more carefully.  Bob took us to the night market near his apartment at least twice and the food was really good.   I had oyster omelette (sort of, its really egg, ground rice water, and oysters) and some of the neat candies they have there.   I also tried black sesame ice cream at one place, it was rather good.  Bob also took us to the private school where he teaches IB Biology.  It is one of the best of its kind in Taiwan and I was impressed with the building and spacious classrooms.
One day we hired a driver to go into the Maolin area which is famous for its butterflies.  Crow butterflies, which are close relatives of our Monarch, gather in these valleys for the winter, then disperse as it warms up.  While we didn't see thousands of them, they were around and there was a free museum with lots of panels illustrating their life cycle and the different species that are found in the area.  We also visited an aboriginal village where I actually had some barbecued pork that was good (I am not usually fan of pork) and saw quinoa that must have just been harvested.
I saw lots of agriculture in the Maolin area too, but once one gets into the foothills there is more forest.  Some of the hillsides are so steep that it is pretty much impossible to grow crops there and there are a lot of landslides due to typhoons, earthquakes, and probably the geology of the central mountains of Taiwan.  I saw where parts of a road still remained but were abandoned to their fate after a landslide or two, and a new road was built in its place, but not exactly where the former road was.   One has to appreciate the valor of the road crews in Taiwan, rebuilding the roads in the mountains and hilly areas is a dangerous task (more on that in a later installment).
One of the more interesting ferns I came across (the whole island is  fern lover's paradise) was a small Cheilanthes species.  As with others of its kind, it can dry out and revive when the rains come, and thus has a competitive advantage in areas where other ferns find it harder to survive.   A very bright yellow flowered Kalanchoe was also in evidence in sunny spots along the roads, I am not sure if it is native or an African species but I have not seen it in Africa.  It spreads no doubt by masses of tiny seeds.
We did get to see a patch of lowland forest near Meinung I believe, there was some signage there, including a warning about poisonous snakes.  Fortunately we didn't come across any snakes, but there was a tiny plant that I recognized as a gesneriad growing on moist mossy rocks, it is Epithema taiwanensis.  There were also a variety of small rock ferns and some other plants that I am not familiar with.  Asian flora is new to me, so there is much I still need to learn, but that is what makes visiting any new place so exciting for a plant explorer.
We stayed for three days with Bob and on our last evening he took us to an amazing buffet place. The next morning we went back to Taipei to meet Yi and Yen.  During that time we did climb up Yangmingshan mountain, a floristically rich area, and I will blog about that next time.


Panayoti Kelaidis said...

Thanks for the generous pictures and the commentary: I learned a lot! You have also planted the seeds of a great desire to go there myself! Thanks, Ernie!

Elena Ioganson said...

Thank you, Ernie. I always like to read personal experiences about travelling to such distant places as Taiwan. Very interesting are the details of your trip. Waiting for the continuation :-).