Longshan Temple

Nov 30, 2013 in Taiwan 2013

Longshan Temple

I had one final day in Taipei. I went to the Longshan Temple, the last of the many, many temples I’d seen in Taiwan. I read that there are 15,000 temples, up from 5,000 only a couple of decades ago. All the ones I saw were incredibly intricate, and very beautiful. Even the Longshan Temple, which was very touristy and crowded, had an atmosphere to it. It seemed to serve as a gathering place for Taipei’s homeless – the sad and dirty crowds of them near the temple were the first real sign of serious poverty that I’d seen in Taiwan. Inside the temple I left some offerings at some shrines and hoped that the monks would make use of them to look after some homeless people.

As I left the temple, a van drove by flying a Chinese flag and shouting something from a loudspeaker. It had confused me at first here that the international news in the China Post was about places like Honduras and Swaziland, until I realised that these are among the few countries which recognise Taiwan instead of the mainland as the “real” China. And while I was there, the big news was that the Gambia had switched allegiance, making the score 170-22 to the mainland.

Later on, I went to Ximen, and there was a big separatist demonstration going on. People were marching around a traffic intersection, crossing each side as the lights changed. I happened to be crossing at the same time and one of the demonstrators spoke to me. He first of all asked me why I was only wearing a t-shirt when it was so cold – the headline in that morning’s China Post had been about a fierce winter taking a grip of Taiwan, with temperatures “plummeting” in places to just 13°C. And then he asked me if I agreed that Taiwan should be independent. I think that self-determination is the only thing that matters, and that if the majority of the people of whatever territory want to be independent, no-one from any other territory has any valid say in the matter. But I also have a tendency to be contrary and I couldn’t help suggesting that the two nations used to be one and was it really OK for a right-wing general who’d lost a civil war to take over an offshore island and take it over for himself? He was adamant that Taiwan had never been part of China, even if it had spent a few hundred years being ruled from China. We discussed it a bit, I said I agreed that if there was a majority in the island who wanted independence, then that was all that mattered, and with that, we shook hands and the demonstration crossed the next road.

Zhuilu Old Trail

Nov 28, 2013 in Taiwan 2013

Zhuilu Old Trail

There were buses every hour or so down the gorge, and I made my way downstream. At the first couple of stops there weren’t many people, but lower down it got busier. At Swallow Gorge it was quiet for a few minutes when I arrived, but then a bunch of tour buses arrived, and suddenly the trail along the Liwu River was swarming. A suspension bridge led to the other side, the start of the Zhuilu Old Trail which is supposed to be vertiginous and spectacular, but if you want to hike it you need a permit. Apparently you need to apply for them a week in advance, and planning things a week in advance is not really my travel style. I think the only way I’ll ever hike the Zhuilu Old Trail is if I move to Taiwan so that I can apply for a permit at my leisure.

I walked to the end of the Swallow Gorge trail and back, and apart from the bits where I had to push through crowds of tourists, it was pretty amazing. But it was starting to rain heavily. I headed back to Hualien in a downpour.

Tianxiang

Nov 28, 2013 in Taiwan 2013

Tianxiang

I liked Penghu before it went mainstream. With the arrival of two other tourists I felt it was no longer cool to be there. So I headed back to Taipei and got a train to Hualien. The target here was to visit Taroko Gorge, definitely a much more mainstream destination but from what I’d heard, worth braving the crowds to see.

It had been hot and sunny when I arrived but the next morning when I got a bus to Tianxiang it was cloudy and spotting with rain. The bus was full when I got on it but there were only about five people on it by the time we arrived at Tianxiang, the last stop way up in the gorge.

The tiny village was quiet and damp. Nearby there was a temple on a hillside, so I walked up to that. Tianxiang was definitely not the most beautiful part of the gorge, but it looked pretty atmospheric under the heavy skies.

Clouds over Paranal

Oct 22, 2013 in Chile 2013

Clouds over Paranal

We finished our epic Chile journey with a visit to Paranal where I spend 80 nights a year working at the telescopes. We had some bad luck though. The skies are normally clear here at least 90 per cent of the time, but the last couple of years have seen quite a lot of bad weather. And today we managed to pick a cloudy day. We’d seen the cirrus over the desert as we headed out from Antofagasta, but there is quite often cloud nearer to Antofagasta while Paranal is clear. Today it was not so, and the clouds thickened during the afternoon.

By nightfall they’d decided not to open the telescopes. The opening is always impressive to see, so this was a pity, but the engineer who would have opened the dome treated us to a good display anyway, tilting and rotating the telescope so that we got great views of it inside the closed dome.

We went out onto the platform in the night, and through breaks in the clouds we could see stars, but nothing like the normal blazing skies. It was a pity, as I’d planned the trip for a time when there would be no moon and the centre of the Milky Way would be high in the sky at the start of the night. The night before, and the night after, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

But Paranal is not only about the night skies. We went for a walk in the desert the next day, and that’s always great. The terrain here is so harsh that just before we arrived, they’d been testing a Mars rover nearby.

El Tatio again

Oct 21, 2013 in Chile 2013

El Tatio again

We went to see the geysers at El Tatio. I’d been there three times already and although it’s a pretty awesome place, I was thinking that maybe four visits is a bit excessive. And seeing as you have to get up at 4am to go there, and it’s brutally cold when you get there, and it’s 4300m above sea level, I was wondering if my mum and dad and aunt would actually get any enjoyment from this at all.

But we got lucky with the tour we went with. Everyone, everyone who visits San Pedro will go to El Tatio, so agencies really don’t have to work very hard to earn their custom. But the trip we went on was one of the few that actually makes an effort. The driver advised us not to sleep on the way up, telling us that you adjust more easily to high altitude if you’re awake. We thought this sounded like it would be worth a try so we stayed awake all the way up. The Italians, Brazilians and Chileans who were also on the trip ignored it and were soon fast asleep.

But it was good advice. I felt better when we got to El Tatio than I’d done on any of my previous visits, and as well as that the place looked more incredible than ever before. It was brutally, savagely cold, 15 degrees below freezing, and in those conditions huge steam pillars rise from even the tiniest geothermal hole in the ground. It was stunning.

We had plenty of time at the geysers. On previous trips I’d always felt a bit rushed, but we hung around until pretty much all of the other minibuses had left. Once the sun came up, the savage temperatures got a tiny bit more agreeable.

All the tours start in the main geyser field and then drive over to a geothermal pool that you can swim in. I’d swum in it on my last trip. It was horrific. It’s like getting into a bath that you ran nice and hot and then forgot about for a bit, and then you have to get out into sub-zero air. So we passed on a swim this time.

I was in a great mood as we headed away from El Tatio. This had been the best of my four trips here without a doubt. So, my advice for having a great trip to El Tatio is 1. go with the Maxim tour agency, they are really good; 2. stay awake on the way up; and 3. don’t swim in the pool unless you like disappointment and misery.

Cordillera de la Sal

Oct 19, 2013 in Chile 2013

Cordillera de la Sal

We’d been to the southernmost parts of Chile, and now it was time to head north to San Pedro de Atacama. It was the fifth time I’d been here, only a few weeks after my fourth visit.

San Pedro is full of tour agencies, some good, some bad. We went on a trip to the Valle de la Luna with a bad one. And the trouble is, there are so many agencies, I can’t remember which one it was I actually booked through. Whoever it was, they had a van that was tiny and they were trying to fit too many people into it, and after our first stop it wouldn’t restart for a while.

But, at least it managed to deliver us to a good viewpoint over the desert in time to see the sun go down. San Pedro might be excessively touristy but it’s got a prime location and I don’t think I could ever get bored of seeing the desert scenery around here.

Flight back to the mainland

Oct 14, 2013 in Chile 2013

Flight back to the mainland

The boat journey to Navarino had been amazing, and a short flight back would surely be an anti-climax. But this was no ordinary flight. Once more in a tiny Twin Otter, our Aerovias DAP flight took us over some stunning scenery. We flew along the Beagle Channel until the border with Argentina turned north, and then we turned north too. We crossed the Darwin Range and experienced some epic turbulence on the way over. I was lucky to have a window seat on the packed little plane.

As we got further north, the scenery got less incredible, the snow line got higher and eventually we were nearing rainy Punta Arenas. As we descended over the Straits of Magellan, I saw a duck fly by not very far from the plane. Probably a duck could do quite a bit of damage to a little Twin Otter, though the Twin Otter would certainly win the fight.

Being back in Punta Arenas gave me some kind of culture shock. This was a normal place, with people and cafes and cars and noise and life. Puerto Williams was almost a different world in comparison. I missed it already.

Cape Horn

Oct 12, 2013 in Chile 2013

Cape Horn

After our epic boat journey we slept in late the next morning. But not too late, because at 11am we had a flight to catch. And this was a flight I did not want to miss – it would take us over Cape Horn.

Even though Cape Horn is just south of Isla Navarino, it never occurred to me that we might be able to go there until a few days before we got to Puerto Williams. It just sounded too impossibly remote. I didn’t know that there was a way to get there, and if there was a way I imagined it would be ruinously expensive.

But then I discovered that Aerovias DAP fly over there from Puerto Williams, for 80,000 pesos. This was not ruinously expensive. This was pretty reasonable for a flight to the world’s most savage and terrifying cape. We didn’t hesitate.

I was incredibly excited as we boarded the plane, and nothing about the trip disappointed. The pilots warned us that even if it was calm and clear at Puerto Williams, it might be too stormy to make it to the cape and we might have to turn back half way. They told us later that they only make it there about half the time they try to get there. But today we were fortunate. We flew over the wild Dientes de Navarino, over rugged and empty Wollaston Island, and then over a strait to the legendary Cape.

We circled around a few times, lower and lower until we were pretty much at the height of the high cliffs. We could see the two little huts in which Chilean navy people spend months at a time, defending the island against Argentinian invasions. And we could see the waves crashing on the rocks. It was an incredible place to be flying over, although I couldn’t help hoping I’d get the chance to set foot on the island, or sail past it, at some point.

Boat journey to Isla Navarino

Oct 11, 2013 in Chile 2013

Boat journey to Isla Navarino

My mum and dad and aunt came to visit me and Chile, and we planned an epic journey around the whole country. We’d been planning the trip for a long time, and had to postpone it twice due to various complications. One of the things we really wanted to do was the four day boat journey from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt, so when they booked their flights the first thing I went to do was book it. Unbelievably, Navimag had cancelled the route just a few days before, running it for freight only. A vague notice on their website said that they hoped to be open to passengers again “at some point”.

But there was an alternative. For a long time I’d been reading about Isla Navarino and Puerto Williams, the southernmost town in the world. There was a boat that went there, too, from Punta Arenas. So we decided to head south, really south, and see what there was at this frontier of human existence, where the only human beings further south would be the 1,000 or so living through the winter on Antarctica.

We set of from Punta Arenas on a beautiful calm evening, and stood on deck as it got dark and the lights of the town disappeared behind us. During the night, the weather got rougher and for a while the boat was rolling and riding some huge waves, but by the morning it was pretty calm again. When I woke up around sunrise, we were in utter wilderness. Sombre snow-capped mountains all around, wild forested islands which probably no-one ever sets foot on, and our little boat chugging through it all.

Sunset at Tahai

May 05, 2013 in Easter Island 2013

Sunset at Tahai

On my last night on the island, I went to Ahu Tahai to see the sun set. Tongariki is the spot for sunrise watching, and Tahai is the spot for sunset, but Tongariki at least requires a pre-dawn journey to get there. Tahai is just outside Hanga Roa so it’s a lot more crowded. But it was incredible no matter how many people were watching. It was a good time of year – the sun set directly behind the statues if you were standing in front of them.

It was another amazing sight. It had taken me a while to really feel the magic of Easter Island, but by the end of the trip I was sure I would be back.