Life a Little Upside-down

Hi everyone.

This is half letter, half rant, half diary entry. Yes, that’s 1.5 posts. I know. Don’t worry, it’s not THAT long.

All my posts through February and March were pre-written and scheduled in January. I haven’t written anything new since I found out there was such a thing as Covid-19.

All my great plans to be posting about Ireland and Spain while breezing through my Spring Semester classes that I’d worked SO HARD to prep into good shape last year specifically so they would be a breeze and leave me tons of free time to write and work on my PhD application are…. fucked.

As far as I can tell, everyone in the world is to a greater or lesser degree similarly fucked. I thought for a long time about what I could say here and every time I thought I knew, something changed.

Outside of China, it hit Korea hardest early on. When it started in Daegu I was still in Spain, and I figured I’d deal with it when my holidays were over. Then I got to the airport in Paris to discover that not only had my flight been cancelled but no one bothered to tell me or put me on a different flight. I had a pretty good idea that it was changed because Air France announced the cancelling of all flights through China, but when I checked the flight matrix, it looked like my flight was just changed to a direct flight – Paris to Seoul.

I thought about telling you about the 9 hour airport drama of getting on a new flight, but it seems trivial now that people are delayed days without news, or even completely blocked from returning home.

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Then I got here (Korea) and I stayed in my apartment for 14 days. Quarantine wasn’t mandatory yet, but my University asked us not to come to the campus for 14 days, and the weather was bitterly cold, no good for going out, plus all my plans to visit other cities seemed unwise as our case count climbed higher and higher every day. Public schools and universities were all delaying the start of the school year (normally March 1 in Korea).

I read constantly. Trying to understand this new and strange thing. I thought at first it might be like SARS or MERS and I held of on writing anything because I wanted to see what the resolution would be. By the time my 14 days was over, it was painfully obvious the resolution was a long long way off. However, I still couldn’t write here because by then I had permission to return to campus and the school had finally decided on an online class platform.

A week of total insanity where we all tried to figure out what this was, how to use it, being horribly frustrated with everything. The school trying to tell us all “it’s only for 2 weeks” and I kept trying to convince everyone it would be at least the whole spring semester and possibly longer.

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I thought about regaling you all with the horrors of teaching with a language barrier in a platform designed for meetings (not training sessions or classrooms) and totally inadequate technology, but by now there are hundreds of such tales from teachers of every level around the world. The Korean public k-12 schools will start their online classes this week and then there will be even more stories out there.

I got sick for about a week. It was only a little sick. I had a horrible non-stop headache and horrible sore throat that I thought were the result of the new online class format. I got a little cough, and a lot of fatigue, and I learned how to teach class from my bed in my pajamas. I don’t have a desk in my apartment. I’m feeling much better now. I don’t think it was Covid, but I didn’t ask to be tested, I just self quarantined until I was symptom free for over 72 hours. I tried to buy a thermometer, but I can’t get one, so I have no idea if I had a fever.

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And now I’m allowed back on campus. I have energy again. I am more informed. I feel like an amateur epidemiologist. I’ve done a 4 week intensive online crash course. I thought, “I should write something.”, but I still don’t know what say.

Korea is doing better, but in many ways only because so many Western countries are doing SO MUCH WORSE. I hate the way the President and PM and schools and everyone in charge has been handing out information one/two weeks at a time. The understanding from the WHO and top scientists that this is a long-term project, that a flat curve lasts longer than a tall curve, has been public for what feels like AGES and yet in Korea, they keep acting like it will all be over any minute now. Just another week …. maybe two. Then when the time is up, they say it again.

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While everyone in the West is still worried about mass graves seen from space or ice-rink morgues, I’m worried about idiots who can’t go one spring without looking at cherry blossoms ruining all the hard work we did in March and starting a second wave.

Actually, I’m worried about a lot of things. Mostly my family in America where it appears that life is well and truly fucked. My parents, my sister, and her two kids live over there. I’ve heard so many stories from drive up veterinarian offices (they don’t want people to come in, but still want to treat urgent pet health care issues) to race arguments about whether black people can catch it (spoiler, they can, but that’s not stopping people on Twitter spreading lies). It’s a patchwork mess, and everyone I know who is in a different county or city, let alone state, is experiencing something else. Schools are cancelling the remainder of the school year, so many people are out of work that the unemployment graph actually broke. Many of my friends are either part of that spike or stuck in “essential” jobs that put their health at risk every day, and since most of them also have underlying health conditions, I’m basically expecting people I love to die before this ends, and those who survive to be financially crippled for years if not forever.

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I am very full of emotions.

I distract myself with school and mindless TV as much as I can because if I think too hard about what is going on in the world, I cry.  Like, now.

I’m reassured by a multitude of therapists and psychiatrists that this is normal. That what we are experiencing is so big and so terrible that our poor little brains are just totally unequipped to handle it. The amygdala is in overdrive trying to decide what fear response to use for this unseen threat – fight? flight? freeze? WHAT? cycling us through an endless, relentless roller-coaster of emotions that we may not even recognize as related to the pandemic if we don’t listen carefully to ourselves. Grief is present. Grief for lost opportunities, lost jobs, futures… that’s a real thing. Anticipatory grief is a real thing too. Mostly people go through that when a loved one has a terminal illness. I’m grieving the loss of my life plan and I have some anticipatory grief because I am pretty sure I’ll loose someone I love and almost 100% sure I will lose someone I know. Then there’s depression, anxiety, dissociation, mania. There’s also a collective trauma being built that we will all own the aftereffects of for the rest of our lives. You don’t heal from grief and trauma, you just learn to let it take less space and cause less pain gradually over time, and we are nowhere near the part of this where we can even START to do that.

I’m trying hard to let myself feel my feelings, but also not to let them drown me, and not to forget to be grateful for good things, not forget to enjoy things even while I worry and fear and hurt. It’s hard.

My job is something I can focus on. I work to remake lesson plans into the ill-equipped web format I’ve been ordered to use. I read a lot of advice from other educators online. I spend a lot of time trying to remember my students are so young and so ill-equipped to handle what is happening in their lives right now that I have to be calm, and gracious, and forgiving and encouraging, but I feel like I’m not getting enough of that for myself.

I think my friends/family are trying, but we’re all so scared and unsure that no one can really be “the adult” who listens and supports and comforts. I don’t want a therapist for this (yet), I just want someone to listen to me rant and then tell me comforting things. It’s not easy. No one is unaffected by this. The ring theory does not work when everyone is in the same ring!

ringtheory1I also started an art project before my winter holidays, another paper sea creature. It’s incredibly intricate and I spend at least one day a week happily cutting tiny pieces of paper and checking colors and patterns until I’m happy with one. It’s coming along nicely. Some people paint, draw, or use coloring books. Some people are cooking, or making music, or writing, or making videos, or holding virtual karaoke rooms. Art helps.

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Another thing I can focus on is my hobby of travel and photography. I can’t travel right now, but I can dream about it and remember it. I started an Instagram challenge to post a landscape photo every day from a different place in alphabetical order. I call it the #alphabetlandscapechallenge and it’s really excessive, but I needed something complex and detailed to focus on.

I met a lady from Malaysia on Insta the other day and we talked about travel plans for like an hour. At the end she said she felt guilty for dreaming about travel while so many people in the world were worried about COVID, their health and employment.

Someone, somewhere is always suffering in the world. Even before COVID there were people in fear of their health, dying for want of medicine, unable to feed their children, unable to find a job or working for slave wages. I believe it is important never to forget these things, but also to not let them destroy us. I don’t usually go in for quoting religions of any kind, but even Jesus agrees with me on this one, guys.

Now more than ever we need beautiful, creative things. We need dreams of what will come after that are better than what came before. So, maybe that’s what I want to say.

If you take anything away from this rambling letter, then take these 3 things:

Everyone is in this together.
It’s ok to not be ok.
It’s important to keep dreaming.

Now, #staythefuckhome and #flattenthecurve.

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Myths & Tales from China 08

This episode is all about animal women: the spirits which are mostly animals, but sometimes turn into beautiful maidens that hapless mortals fall in love with. Lots of cultures love spirit animals that turn into women who marry worthy or clever men. China is no exception. Here’s three stories about a peacock (well, peahen), a snake, and a mollusk who bridged the gap between the spirit, animal, and human worlds.


Peacock Princess

A long time ago, beside the Lancang River was a beautiful Peacock Kingdom. The Emperor and Empress had seven daughters altogether. Each one grew up to be extremely beautiful, and moreover, as long as they wore their dazzling peacock feather robes, they were able to fly. Every day they flew far from home to Jinhu, the Golden Lake, to bathe.

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One day they went down to Golden Lake again, continuously playing until the sun set, and only then hurrying ashore to dress. But as for the youngest little sister, Nanmu Ruona, her peacock feather robe was nowhere to be seen! They searched all over the surrounding meadow, but simply couldn’t find it. Just then, a young lad carrying a feather robe walked up and went over to Nanmu Ruona. He very courteously apologized to her and said he was alone and meant no harm, merely to express his feelings of admiration. Actually, he was Prince Shao Shu Tun of the country Meng Ban Jia. While hunting, he was chasing a golden deer to the bank of Golden Lake where he saw the peacock princesses. He was immediately smitten with their beautiful figures and flower-like smiles, especially that of the youngest princess. Thus he took the feather robe of the seventh princess, Nanmu Ruona.

At that moment, the six elder sisters were all urging the youngest princess to quickly return home, but the young princess saw that the prince was handsome, tall and sturdy, and fell in love with him, so she lowered her head and said nothing. Thereupon, the eldest sister took charge and agreed to let the youngest sister stay behind at Shao Shu Tun’s side. Soon after the six elder sisters and younger sisters shed tears and said farewell, then flew back to the Peacock Kingdom.

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The grand wedding ceremony for Shao Shu Tun and the Peacock Princess Nanmu Ruona was barely finished when war broke out at the border lands. Shao Shu Tun had no choice but to bid farewell to his newly wedded bride and lead his troops to the front line to fight. In the beginning, news came in every day of Shao Shu Tun’s defeat in battle, and the King, Shao Meng Hai paced frantically in circles. Then, an evil wizard said to him, “Nanmu Ruona is a demon transformed, it is she that has brought about this disaster and misfortune, she must be killed at once.” Shao Meng Hai heard what the wizard had to say then ordered the Peacock Princess to be burned to death.

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Nanmu Ruona was carried down to the execution grounds. Her face was streaming with tears, and she begged Shao Meng Hai to let her dance one more time, and Shao Meng Hai agreed. Nanmu Ruona spread the brilliantly colored peacock feather robe over her shoulders and began to dance elegantly. She danced and danced, and then she flew up into the air.

Not much later, Prince Shao Shu Tun defeated the invading enemy and returned to the palace. After hearing the news that his wife had been falsely accused and had flown away he was completely brokenhearted. In order to comfort him, his father the King had all the most beautiful women in the kingdom go to the Shao Palace for him to choose among. But the Peacock Princess was the only one in Shao Shu Tun’s heart, and he resolved to find his wife and bring her back. Even if the Peacock Kingdom was as far as the horizon, he would go.

He walked and walked; he walked for ninty-nine days. He experienced countless trials and tribulations, and at last arrived at the Peacock Kingdom and found the Peacock Princess. The estranged couple were reunited. In that moment, a hundred flowers bloomed and a hundred birds sang, and all over the Peacock Kingdom the young men all cheered for their pure and sincere love, and the young women all danced for the reunion of husband and wife.

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Note: I think this story is very similar to our own stories of swan lake and the swan princess. It also might be the closest thing to a Disney-style princess idol because there are a lot of little girl peacock princess costumes on the Chinese internet. If you would like to watch the cartoon these images are from, please follow the link.


Lady White Snake

A long time ago, on top of Mt. Emei (in Sichuan), there was a white snake and a green snake, they had been practicing Daoist austerities for the last thousand years, and had both cultivated the ability to change into human shape. They very much yearned for a life in the human world. One year during the Tomb Sweeping Festival season (April), the two were unable to hold back their curiosity, and decided to take a tour of the human world. The white snake transformed into a beautiful and dignified lady and took the name Bai Suzhen, which means ‘pure white silk’. And the green snake transformed herself into a servant girl called Xiao Qing, which means ‘little green one’. And they both went down to Xihu (West Lake) to go sightseeing.

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On the Broken Bridge, they were in the middle of stopping to admire the view of West Lake when suddenly it started to rain. Bai Suzhen and Xiao Qing wanted to find some place to avoid the rain, and just then a scholar unfurled an umbrella for them to block out the rain. Bai Suzhen and the scholar fell in love at first sight. Xiao Qing saw it in their eyes and quickly said, “May I ask, oh noble son, what be thy august family name?” The scholar replied, “I am called Xu Xian, and I live beside the Broken Bridge.” From then on, they made arrangements to meet, and before long the two had married and become husband and wife. They opened up “Bao He Tang” pharmacy (which means ‘the Hall of Preservation of Harmony’) beside West Lake. Bai Suzhen used her magical powers to cure many people’s difficult and complicated illnesses. What’s more, for the poor, they would examine them and prescribe medicine and not charge a single cent, so the business was flourishing. The people affectionately nicknamed Bai Suzhen as “Bai Niangzi” or White Lady.

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However, Bao He Tang‘s prosperity offended one person – the Buddhist monk Fahai of Jinshan (Golden Mountain) Temple. Because everyone was getting cured at Bao He Tang, the number of people coming to Jinshan Temple to burn incense and pray to the Bodhisattvas was shrinking. One day, Fahai came to Bao He Tang’s main gate, he watched Bai Niangzi give one person a treatment, then attentively do a dozen more, a-ya! In truth, this White Lady isn’t an ordinary person, but rather a snake spirit! Therefore, Fahai found an opportunity to bring Xu Xian into the temple. He told Xu Xian that his wife was a transformed snake spirit and taught him a way to cause Bai Suzhen to appear in her original form. Xu Xian listened to this, half believing and half doubting.

In no time, the Dragon Boat Festival arrived (autumn), Xu Xian, in accordance with the method Fahai taught him, ceaselessly urged Bai Suzhen to drink Red Orpiment wine. Bai Niangzi was unable to put it off, and had no other option but to drink several glasses. The result was that she soon changed back to her original shape. Xu Xian saw the white snake and fainted dead away. After Bai Niangzi cleared her head, she revived  Xu Xian. Xu Xian knew that Bai Niangzi was truly his own beloved one, and no longer minded whether she was a human or a snake spirit, the two of them were even more in love.

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Fahai saw that his strategy failed, so he once more tricked Xu Xian into coming to Jinshan Temple, and pressured him to leave home and become a Buddhist Monk. Xu Xian was not willing, so Fahai locked him inside the temple. Inside Bao He Tang. When Lady White didn’t see Xu Xian return home, she burned with impatience. She asked about and heard that Xu Xian was being held by Monk Fahai at Jinshan Temple. She quickly took Xiao Qing along to Jinshan Temple, and begged Fahai to release Xu Xian. Fahai was indifferent, and Bai Niangzi was quite furious. In spite of the fact that she was pregnant, she drew her golden hairpin from atop her head, shook it into the wind, and summoned up a torrential surge to flood Jinshan Temple.

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Fahai promptly took off his kasaya robe and transformed it into a dam, blocking off the temple gate. If the flood waters rose a foot, the dam also grew a foot taller, so no matter how big the waves got, they could not go unrestrained. Bai Niangzi was pregnant, so she couldn’t really fight Fahai and had no choice but to flee under the protection of Xiao Qing. While they were fleeing to the Broken Bridge, they ran into Xu Xian by chance, also fleeing the Jinshan Temple.

Several months later, Bai Niangzi gave birth to a son. Many people came to congratulate them, and Fahai also came. He held in his hands a begging bowl of a Buddhist Monk, and worked an enchantment on Bai Niangzi. The alms bowl slowly rose into the air, and suddenly emitted ten thousand golden rays of light. Bai Niangzi was illuminated by the rays, and immediately became weak all over, she was powerless to resist, and was collected into the bowl. Fahai pushed her down under the Leifeng Pagoda beside West Lake.

Xiao Qing was no match for Fahai, and had no choice but to retreat to Mt. Emei, go back into the cave and return to practicing Daoist austerities. Twelve years later, she had finally completed the True Fire of Samadhi, and came to find Fahai for revenge. There was nowhere for Fahai to escape being burned by the True Fire of Samadhi, so in a great rush, he hid inside a crab shell. Leifang Pagoda collapsed, and Bai Niangzi was saved. From then on, she and Xu Xian, Xiao Qing, and their child all lived a blessed and happy life together.

These beautiful stills are from the newly released (fall 2019) feature film. 


The Shell Maiden

A long time ago, there was a young man in a village. From the time he was little he had no father or mother, and his family was also poor. At twenty years old he had still not taken a wife. He could only work and suffer hardships, and every day he worked hard manual labor in the fields. One day when he was working in the rice paddy, he accidentally picked up a large periwinkle mollusk. He thought that was very strange, so he took it back home and kept it in a water jar.

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Time passed quite quickly; in the blink of an eye three years had gone by. Then one day the young man finished work and returned home to discover that the table was spread with delicious and savory food. He looked left and right, but didn’t see anyone. He thought it was very strange, but was very hungry so regardless of the consequences, he sat down at the table and began to eat. The flavor of the food was really good. He thought while he ate, who could have cooked this delicious food? The even stranger thing was that from that day forth, every day he came home to see a table full of delicious rice and vegetables, and that the house had been put in order, neat and tidy without one speck of dirt.

The young man thought this was becoming increasingly strange. He thought to himself, “I can’t be sure it isn’t Mrs. Li from next door doing me a good turn.” Thus, the young man found Mrs. Li to thank her. The Mrs. Said, “It’s not me! I actually heard cooking noises from your kitchen and thought you had come home early!” This time the youth was even more confused, unable to make heads or tails of it. He was determined to figure it out.

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The next day, just like normal, he carried his hoe over his shoulder and went down to the field. A short time passed, and he stealthily ran back home, hid outside the door and peeked in. Soon it was midday, and from inside the water jar stepped out a goddess-like beautiful young maiden. She first adeptly cleaned the house, then went on to skillfully prepare a meal, at once stir-frying and deep frying, and delicious food quickly filled the table. When the food was finished, she laid out a bowl and chopsticks. When everything was properly arranged, she went to hide in the jar. The young man was baffled.

The next day at noon while the maiden was concentrating on preparing the food, the young man suddenly pushed open the door and rushed inside. The maiden saw him and was happily surprised. She wanted to hide in the water jar, but the young man rushed to step forward first and bar her way. He noticed that floating on the water in the jar was a periwinkle mollusk shell.

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Could it be that this maiden was the periwinkle mollusk transformed? The young man thought this as he pulled the empty mollusk shell out and threw it on the ground to break it. The maiden looked at the broken shell and immediately felt deeply hurt and began to cry, as she cried she told the young man the story of her life, “I am a periwinkle mollusk, many years ago I carelessly fell into an old fisherman’s net and was carried to the market to be sold. A small boy going past the market saw that big periwinkle mollusk drying out under the sun and took pity, so he bought me from the old fisherman, and returned me to the rice paddy. That small boy was a previous incarnation of you! We have been brought together by fate, this year we meet once more, you kept me in the water jar for three years, I did all this to pay a debt of gratitude… but now my mollusk shell has been broken, and I cannot change back into a periwinkle mollusk.”

The young man was deeply moved, and was profoundly attracted by her kindheartedness and beauty. He took the mollusk maiden’s hand, and sincerely requested that she stay and become his wife. The maiden blushed and nodded her head. Later on the two became parents; they had a pair of children, a boy and a girl. The more days passed, the happier they became.

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There are multiple books and animations of this, though no Disney-esque princess movie in the works that I could find. The cartoon I used is a much simplified (and possibly kinder) version of the story where the young man doesn’t break the shell. If you want to see the short animation, follow the link.

9 Days in Taiwan 2/2: City Scenes & Foodie Dreams

Taiwan part 2: In addition to beautiful natural scenery and a wide variety of temples, I meandered around some of the more famous urban settings such as the “old streets”, night markets, subway stations, urban parks, and street art. Winding through every Taiwanese experience is the food, unique and delicious. I often forget to eat while out doing tourist activities, but here the food IS the tourist activity, so come hungry!


City Scenes

Taipei

Shifen Old Street 十分老街
I went here as part of a day tour which also included the Geo-park, the waterfall, and the other famous old street, Jiufen. Old streets are very heavily curated quaint “old timey” feeling places that are actually tourist traps, but they’re fun tourist traps, with good food and excellent instagram photo-ops, so very worth going to. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying inauthentic-yet-fun attractions.

Shifen is famous for it’s train-tracks and the lanterns. It’s one of the only places you can send off a flying lantern, and probably the only place you can do it while standing on working railroad tracks. It’s a very small place, you won’t spend a day there, but it’s fun to walk around and see the small shops, specialty local foods, and of course, the lanterns.

Jiufen Old Street 九份老街
My views this day were severely inhibited by a very dense fog. This is advertised as the place that inspired the art of Spirited Away, but my guide told me that Miyazaki said he’s never been here. When I followed up later, what I found was this interview he gave (sorry, it is NOT in English) where he says he bases the scenes of his movies on his own surroundings in Japan, not in Taiwan.

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Jiufen does bear a striking resemblance to the city scenes in Spirited Away, but it is purely coincidence. I actually find it very sad that the Taiwanese tourism industry is promoting this untruth to attract visitors because Jiufen is amazing in it’s own right both because it is beautiful, and because of all the amazing food. People who go only because of it’s nonexistent connection to the movie come away disappointed instead of just enjoying Jiufen for what it is.

If you’re in Taipei, it’s certainly worth the visit. We took a city bus to the top of the road and walked back down to the tour bus parking lot. It’s about 200 stairs and only one way, so you won’t see different sites walking both up and down. I have a lot more to say about Jiufen in the “Foodie Dreams” section of this post below.

Taichung

Xinshe Castle 新社莊園古堡
This is a fantasy resort designed to look like a European fairy tale. It’s a little piece of Europe for those who can’t visit. When you think about it, it’s not that different from a Western country having an Oriental garden with little Tang Dynasty style buildings and pagoda gazebos. Sometimes you forget that other people are watching us while we’re watching them. I probably wouldn’t have gone on my own, but I was invited along with an ESL teacher who was also on holiday from Korea that I met in my hostel. She used to live in Taiwan and spoke quite highly of the garden and grounds. She was most excited about the swarms of fish in the pond that practically shove one another out of the water to get at the fish pellets tourists drop for them.

Most tourists go there to take pictures. Asian cultures really enjoy posing in photos, so much that there are often lines to stand next to famous landmarks or views. People will respect the line, but if you only want a photo of the view with no people it can be a real challenge. Since it was winter, there weren’t too many people in the park and I got a lot of photos, but I still had to wait strategically to get the best views free from posers.

Houli Forest Park 后里森林園區-天上掉下了一顆種子
After Xinshe we went to a flower garden which was less flowers and more interesting visuals including a really immersive video of pollen and a giant globe light show. I’m still not sure we went to the “right” place, because while everything on the internet says “go to the Houli Flower Farm”, what they actually mean (and show pictures of) is the Zhongshe Flower Market, which is in Houli, and probably very pretty, but reported as very small.

I on the other hand ended up in the Houli Forest Park which doesn’t turn up if you search in English (you can copy paste my Chinese above, or use the link). We had to park a ways out and there were shuttle buses into the park. If you take transit to the Houli Station, it’s less than 1km to walk from the station to the park.

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The Houli Forest Park is gigantic with displays of flowers and garden styles from around the world. It’s got a bit of United Nations through plants thing going on. There weren’t too many flowers because it was winter, but the garden displays were still fun and interesting. After dark, the large sphere puts on a lights and music show that is visually hypnotizing.

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Kaohsiung

Dome of Light 光之穹頂 at Formosa Boulevard Station 美麗島站
This is the world’s largest public art installation made from individual pieces of colored glass. It also just happens to be in a subway station in Kaohsiung. There’s no reason not to see this stunning work of art if you are in the city.

Pier2 Art Center 駁二藝術特區
I heard about the amazing street art of Pier2 and set aside a full afternoon to visit. I was pretty disappointed at first because, although I found what was clearly a very artsy area, it was much more artist work space than art on display. I enjoyed everything I saw, but I couldn’t understand where all the photos on Google Image search of Pier2 were hiding.

Only after a bubble tea break did I finally figure it out! All the signs point you to the right (if you’re facing the water). However, if you go left, away from all the “pier 2” signs and across the street and around the corner– there are all the warehouses filled with cute artist shops and restaurants!! Along with more murals, crazy street art, and giant art installations. The local street signs and maps of the area were very confusing, but it was worth it in the end.

Food

Before going to Taiwan, I asked people what they recommended I eat. I scoured the internet for recommendations of “must try” foods, and while I did find things that people ate, there wasn’t any kind of definitive “Taiwanese Food” list. Now that I’ve been, I realize that this is because you can go anywhere and eat anything and it’s going to be awesome. There are just too many wonderful variations and local/seasonal limited editions that it’s impossible to compose a full list, but if you are looking for some definitive items: bubble tea (boba), pineapple cake, beef noodles, pork rice, and dumplings. Here’s what I ate, and I can recommend all of it, but if you can’t find it, don’t worry because you can’t miss out on delicious dishes as long as you eat at any non-franchise place.

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Theif Chen Tea House 大盜陳茶飲 (the name is only in Chinese on Google Maps)
On the day I got my SIM card, I was just wandering around the neighborhood, and happened to spot a sign in the window for smoked oolong rose milk tea. Milk tea and boba (bubble tea) are absolute must haves in Taiwan, and there are lots of chances. The flavors are the fun part. This was made with smoked oolong and rose syrup and it was entirely dreamy! Smoky and dark, floral and sweet, creamy and cold.

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Lin’s Wagashi Confectionery 滋養製菓
Just down the street I spotted a confectionery shop with  fresh strawberry red bean rice cake. A traditional mochi style rice cake with sweet red bean paste, a combination I already love, with the added bonus of a fresh ripe strawberry. Heaven!

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Food Stalls near Taipei Station: not on a map
There are things like semi-permanent food trucks, but not all the way to “night market” status. Walk up, buy some food, walk away, zero seating. My Google Maps history says I got out at exit M5 and headed toward my hostel (We Come Hostel), so somewhere in that area there are amazing dumplings. I got pork and cabbage, good alone but awesome with the spicy sauce ($1.25), and the winner of savory food that day was the pork bun. I thought it was a little plain at first because my first bite was bun and juices, but the meat filling was amazing, tender, and a little lemongrass flavored (.50¢).

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Literally any convenience store:
It’s not only local food stands and tea houses that have food adventures. I got a ginger Twix at the corner store. It’s basically a Twix with a gingersnap core. I do enjoy trying local variants of global brands. If you pop in for a bottle of water, take a look around and see if there’s something unique on the shelves.

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Shifen Old Street
While reading about the Shifen Old Street, I discovered a recommended local delicacy of chicken wings stuffed with fried rice. There is one small shop which takes the bones out of chicken wings and stuffs them with fried rice. It’s absurd and delicious. Walk all the way up (it’s not far) and look for this cart.

Jiufen Old Street
This is a foodie bonanza. Other than the night markets, this was the greatest concentration of interesting foods in one place. I didn’t even have time to sample most of it because I couldn’t eat enough! Of what I did get to try, the winners were pineapple cake and peanut ice cream. Pineapple cake is another super famous Taiwan treat. I did not understand what the big deal about the pineapple cake was until I ate some. I had an idea of western style pineapple upside-down cake, which is a bit like a fruitcake and not a thing I’m very into. The Taiwanese pineapple cake is nothing like this. It looks like a very plain beige square, but holds a taste explosion. The middle is a perfect pineapple compote and the outside is a crumbly rich butter cookie.

The peanut ice cream (above) is actually pineapple and taro ice cream with shavings from a huge block of candied peanut wrapped burrito style. It’s a wonderful mix of sweet, salty, fruit, and creamy. I also tried an award winning nougat cookie. The coffee flavor was rich and well balanced with sweet, salty, and bitter. I understand why it won awards. The most interesting was a kind of thin pork jerky (paper thin) spiced with cinnamon and wrapped in seaweed. I would have never thought, but nori and cinnamon go well together. I mostly ate samples because a lot of the goodies were only sold in large gift boxes, but I’m glad I got to try so many things! Taiwan food is epic!

At the Underground Mall at Taipei Station
Somehow I was still hungry after all that food in Jiufen, so I got some beef noodles and onion pancake for dinner when we got back. The beef noodles are another famous item, and you can find them just about anywhere. It’s nothing different from what you’d expect, beef broth, noodles, beef and spices… it’s just… yummy.

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Taichung

Yizhong Street Night Market 一中街夜市
I chose a less famous and more local night market at the advice of my hostel, and ate so much food! I had fried squid for dinner and candied fruit for dessert. This type of candied fruit was something I first had in China and love love love. I was only sad they didn’t have the tart haw fruit version, but strawberries are a good substitute. While exploring, I kept seeing signs for black sugar bubble tea, turns out “black sugar” is basically molasses. The tapioca pearls are cooked in the molasses mixture and then mixed into the milk tea. SO GOOD!

Across the street from No. 65, Zhongxing Street, Dongshi District Taichung City
While I was hanging out with another ESL teacher and her local buddy, he drove us to a small hole in the wall restaurant. Google Maps doesn’t have the place I went, but in street view, I can see it’s across from No.65. Look for the teal awning, not the red sign. It’s a Kejia restaurant (Kejia are a local minority people) and I ate so many delicious vegetables.

The Uptowner  雙城美式餐廳
The ESL teacher I met on my trip invited me out to brunch at a local American influenced place. I got these beautiful Florentine Bennys, perfectly poached eggs, and delicious sauces with spinach and tomato added. I know it seems strange to go to Taiwan to eat American, but remember I don’t get this kind of food in Korea.

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Miyahara Ice Cream  宮原眼科
While I was looking online for famous food spots in Taichung, the Miyahara Ice Cream factory came up. It’s a top of the line gourmet ice cream and chocolate place that is in the old remains of a Japanese ophthalmologist’s building. Today it has a magical atmosphere that reminds visitors of Hogwarts. The building alone is worth a visit, but since you’re there, be sure to eat the ice cream too. They do sell single cones and cups out front (no seating), but if you come in, you can get one of the amazing 4 scoop sundaes as I decided to do in place of a normal dinner that night.

The 4 flavors I chose were 44% chocolate (light and creamy), 80% chocolate (dark and smokey), black tea and green tea. When they bring your ice cream to the table, they wheel out a toppings cart and you can choose 5. I went for cheesecake, pineapple cake, fruit candy, butterfly and bear cookies. While I was eating, the staff brought by a bonus raspberry flavor fluffy cheesecake dream to taste, so I ended up with 6 toppings. The ice cream was a bit gelato-like, very smooth, and dense, creamy not icy. The flavors were strong but balanced, and there was so much variety in my sundae I never got tired of combining different ice creams and toppings together. Taiwan really is foodie heaven!

Kaohsiung

Liuhe Night Market/Liuhe Tourist Night Market 六合夜市/六合觀光夜市
The night markets are the best place to get dinner if you’re willing to forgo seating (and it’s worth it to eat standing) At this one, I got baked scallop for an appetizer, Aboriginal style wild boar ribs for the main dish, and Chinese style candied sweet potato for dessert (also one of my favorites from China). It was so much fun to see all the foods on offer and to talk with the vendors. There’s less tourism in Kaohsiung, so they were more excited to have a visitor try their food.

Bonnie Sugar 駁二店 (at Pier2)
Another great example of serendipity. I was just feeling a little hungry after hours of walking and taking photos, so I popped into a cafe in the art area. I was rewarded with an amazing fresh fruit tart that the Parisians would be proud of and a carafe of fancy tea with fruit ice cubes. Too posh!

Near the FlyInn Hostel
Kaohsiung is much more industrial than either of the other two cities and there was very little to eat near my hostel, so I ended up with some strange food choices including whatever this chicken thing is and a random place where the old lady called her son out to help me because my dictionary won’t work on the menu. I really don’t know what it was… mystery dinner!

Just goes to show that no matter where you choose – the 5 star Yelp reviewed restaurant or the soup shop down the alley, you’re going to find Taiwan a gastronomic delight.


If you want to end your view of my Taiwan travel here on a high note, I certainly don’t blame you, but I continue to post stories of my physical/mental/emotional limitations during my travels because I want people with invisible limitations or chronic illnesses to know they aren’t alone and that your limits don’t have to stop you from seeing the world. 

Invisible Illness & Love of Travel

In Taipei, a day of temples and a full day tour wiped me out in the warm weather. Far from being “warm winter”, the unusually hot weather and high humidity (25c + 85% humidity is unseasonable) combined with hours of walking and hiking. By the third day I had to cancel additional sightseeing because the body said no. 

In Taichung, I met some fun people to spend the day with, another teacher who in lives Korea and her local friend. The local friend had a car and offered to drive us around and we had a lot of fun taking photos and being silly tourists together, but at some point I ran out of spoons and had no idea how to explain or adapt with these friendly strangers.

Trying to explain a few of my limitations and the accommodations I’ve made for myself (not expecting anyone to do for me, just the way I’ve come to manage my issues) I got a lot of push back from the girl who invited me along. Don’t get me wrong, it was 90% a good day but it was so hard to get her to understand why I was in pain and tired at the end and why I wasn’t going to be up for more the following day. She’s 13 years younger than me and basically said everything in the “you don’t look sick” playbook. I love meeting people and making new friends, I know I had more fun and more experiences with them than I would have alone, I just hate that I have to push myself beyond my limits just to be the slowest one in a group.

In Kaohsiung, going to Maolin and Foguang Shan on the same day was a lot. I got on the road at 7am, hiked all over a mountain for several hours, navigated the bus system on my own when Google turned out be a liar, hiked more at a mountain monastery (so. many. stairs.) and navigated back to town without relying on Google which is frankly crap about Taiwan public transit info. It was a 13+ hr day, and about 5-6 hrs spent hiking the hills and stairs.

By the end, I was tired, and my feet hurt like hell, but my legs were fine. It’s not a matter of being weak or out of shape because the parts of my body complaining (feet, ankles, lower back, hands) aren’t the muscles used to climb. I slept hard and long, and while not fully recovered the next day, I mentally/emotionally felt better than I did after the tour group day in Taipei or the day in Taichung with the other teacher and her friend.

It seems I just handle the challenges better when I’m on my own time table rather than trying to keep up with others. Being on my own still isn’t 100% guaranteed to be “at my pace” because sometimes I still have to hurry to catch a bus or something, but it definitely has less negative impact on my well-being. It makes me a little sad to think I’m just going to have to turn down invitations hang out with fellow travelers on the move, I love meeting people, and I get lonely quite often, but knowing I can achieve my travel goals if I’m patient with myself is something that can help me out while I’m on the road. 


That was my reflection at the end of the Taiwan trip a year ago. I still think it’s very much true. Even just walking to dinner with friends from the office, I struggle to keep up. In Ireland, I could see that some terrains I pulled ahead and in others my travel companion did. I had one good “hiking” day in Korea last fall, but mostly because we all agreed to go super slow and stop often for photos and the weather was awesome. Here in Spain as I write this I can tell that some days I have more or less brain fog, or that my ankles or knees are more or less able to handle the stairs. It’s not fun, but I can handle my body and brain most of the time, even the bad times. The hardest part is the isolation I feel when I get left behind because other people can’t. I ask if you have a friend or relative who is fine one day, but can’t do anything the next, don’t make a fuss. If they are a little bit slow, just slow down, too, but don’t say anything about it. It means more than you can imagine to be included without being made to feel like a burden.

Doolin & The Aran Islands

The Aran Islands are another quintessential Irish bucket list. There are three, and you can take a boat out to any of them. If you are travelling via tour bus, then the most likely path is from Galway through Rossaveal, but we had a car and decided to go out of Doolin. Doolin itself is spoken of with a kind of reverential awe by those who visit regularly and now I know why. If you are lucky enough to plan your trip to the islands from Doolin instead of Galway, make sure you plan time for some trad music in the evening.


Inis Oírr

We chose to go to Inis Oírr (pronounced roughly “inis sheer”), the closest and smallest of the islands. It seemed like a nice way to see them without being overloaded with tour groups which all go to Inis Mann or Inis Mor. When I was planning the day, I looked at a map of all the things to do and see, mostly ruins but you know I am a sucker for ruins, and I figured I could just rent a bike and ride around to see it all.

It’s also possible to get into the carriage and ride around, but I like to go at my own pace, and the island was neither large nor described as very hilly, so a bike seemed great. I was looking forward to seeing the ruins of the O’Brien castle, the sunken graveyard, and the wrecked battleship. In addition, I was planning to hunt down some Aran knitted wool products because, well, they’re famous. So much I did not know…

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On the day of our ferry tickets, we made it to the parking lot and drove aimlessly looking for a spot for longer than planned. It was with some relief that we made it with a few minutes to spare, or so I thought. I was informed at the ticket office that our ferry had already left! Of course, like every ticketed event, they advised us to arrive 10-15 minutes early and the parking dilemma set us back from that goal, but we were still at least 5 minutes early. I couldn’t believe that they would just leave!

I began to protest and ask about refunds since they left before the scheduled time, and they agreed to put us on another boat. The longer I watched the docks, the more it became obvious that there was almost no order to the ferries at all. It seems like a few boats make the trip, and a few companies sell tickets, but they are not connected. Both going out and returning, we were just put on whatever boat was most convenient and the staff collected a variety of colorful tickets. I suspect that they then use those to collect their passenger fees from the ticket selling companies later. It’s confusing and disorienting and more than a little frustrating, but I guess it works.

It was such a lovely day with clear skies and bright sunshine that my companion wanted to sit on the deck instead of in the covered portion of the boat. There is something to be said for this, as one is much less likely to get seasick on deck, however, one is also much less likely to stay dry. We were hardly out of the harbor when the wind picked up and the waves began to splash in, covering the floor.

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I pulled my shoes up to try and keep dry as the water swirled around. We were not allowed to move once the boat was in motion due to the extreme bouncing, so I was stuck. Then the waves began to come over the side. Small splashes at first, but soon large drenching waves. It began to rain. Sudden hard sheeting buckets of rain combined with waves splashing us in all directions. I did not have any waterproof clothing on whatsoever because the day was so lovely when we were on land. By the time we arrived to the island 30+ minutes later, I was entirely soaked: socks, underwear, everything.

This extreme damper on my mood was not tempered by the fact that the rain had once more evaporated as we pulled into the island harbor and beautiful sunny blue skies prevailed. If anything, it made me even more grumpy. If I’d just sat inside on the boat, I’d have gone from sunny dry land to sunny dry land. Instead I got soaked to the bone with no change of clothes ahead for hours. I declined the carriage and the bike rental shop and immediately set off in the opposite direction of all the other ferry passengers, hoping to find a quiet and empty place to soothe my emotional distress and dry my wet socks.

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I did find a quiet section of beach with no humans around and I traded out my layers of clothing, alternately wearing and sun/wind drying. I managed to go from totally soaking to slightly damp over the course of about an hour. I listened to some music and watched the ocean. I let go of my expectations and my plans, and was finally able/willing to head back toward the cluster of buildings and see what there was to see nearby. I didn’t really have the time or energy to bike around to all the sights, so I just walked. I got to see some of the homes, quaint little cottages all divided by stone walls. I found a sweater shop. I learned a lot more about Aran Knit.

The Aran knitting patterns are unique, especially when combined with a rougher, less treated (more waterproof) type of wool. They were made by fishermen’s wives to stave off the rain, seawater, and cold winds that I had gotten only a tiny taste of on my boat ride over. (I got drenched on a “sunny” day, imagine what it was like for the fishermen?) The tradition is maybe 100-150 years old, and the sheep aren’t from the Aran islands (anymore, not enough sheep). There’s a strong mythology about the types of stitch and patterns in the knit, but it’s mostly from a single source, which always makes me skeptical.

Whether or not the patterns link to certain clans or whether the original ladies who knitted them ascribed the mythological meaning to bring health, wealth and such to the wearer we can’t be sure. What is sure is that the distinctive patterns are unique and in high demand. Such high demand that there’s now factories churning out machine made versions of the traditional fisherman’s wear. You can order them online, you can buy them in any city in Ireland. I doubt any casual observer will know the difference. The machine made sweaters are lovely and affordable. I didn’t want one.

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I perused the shop’s offerings, observing tags and occasionally asking questions. The hand knitted sweaters were truly lovely, but they started around 100€ each. I thought a lot about how often I’d wear a really thick wool sweater in my life. It would be great for the 20 minutes I’m outside each day in the depths of winter, but then it would be too hot to wear inside. Plus, I’m already quite fluffy, and bulky clothes are not flattering on my figure. I looked longingly at the scarves, because I love scarves, but I also have too many already and am trying to figure out which ones to leave behind on my next major move. Finally, I settled on a hat. It is hard to keep my head warm in the cold winter winds and they’re meant to be taken off inside, plus don’t take up so much room in the luggage.

I chose a hand knitted hat in a lovely moss green with several different classic Aran stitches. The gentleman at the counter and I chatted for a while about the changes in Ireland and on the island specifically in his lifetime. He told me when he was younger, everyone went down to the lighthouse to watch the football (soccer) game on the only television on the whole island, and now they had stuff like WiFi! His wife was part of the group of ladies that knitted the in house goods, but he wasn’t sure if she had knitted the hat I chose or one of the other ladies had. The wool itself was from the Connemara area because there just weren’t enough sheep on the Aran Islands themselves to support the knitting, it being more a fishing (and lately tourism) economy than a sheep based one.

I actually wore the hat a lot during the rest of my trip in Ireland and it was a welcome addition to a wardrobe that was packed for a more summery climate than I ended up with.

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With my souvenir goal achieved, I continued to explore and came across a small meadow behind some abandoned buildings. Down among the grass and weeds was a zoo of tiny life. Little black winged and red spotted moths, fuzzy bumble bees, stripey caterpillars, and beautiful butterflies. I had a wonderful time crawling around on the ground and taking pictures.

The line for the ferries back was almost as chaotic as the ferries out, but I had more faith that we wouldn’t be left behind. The weather was getting squally again, and the ships captains were having chats about the best way to get back. They started out asking all the people subject to seasickness to get into certain boats which were less likely to be as impacted by the waves and which would take the most direct route back to Doolin. Our reservations included a trip past the Cliffs of Moher and would be about twice as long as the direct route.

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Sadly, by the time we all bundled onto the boats, the captains had decreed the weather was too bad to go to the cliffs. I made sure to get a seat inside for the ride back, turned on my music and had a little nap. I have been known to get seasick when I’m below decks, but this ship was fairly wide and had big picture windows. It was not a real question of being wet and cold vs being a little nauseous.

Once more, I learned that no matter what the weather looks like on land, it is not related to the weather even 5 minutes out to sea and that whatever plans you make in Ireland that involve the ocean are subject to drastic change and cancellation without warning. I think the boat trips were worth it, and I’m glad I went to the island, even if it meant getting soaked, but if you only have a couple days in Ireland, maybe stick to mainland activities to avoid disappointment.

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Doolin Cave

When putting together the day plan, we had a few hours in the late afternoon free and the cave looked like a good “all weather” option. I booked the tickets for pretty much everything we did ahead of time online because summer is the high season in Ireland and popular sites sell out fast. Even though I wasn’t feeling great after my very wet morning, it seemed like a waste not to use the tickets that were already paid for, so we headed to the cave.

20190805_162628The cave is famous because it has the longest freestanding (or free hanging I suppose) stalactite in Europe. It is quite impressive. Tours go down in groups with hard hats and a guide. There’s a LOT of stairs, a fairly short walk, and a very dramatic presentation where you walk into the main cavern in the dark (flashlights pointed at the ground) so that when the lights come on, you get a stunning view of the star stalactite. Originally, there was meant to be a garden walk involved in this as well, but the rainy weather which had prevented us from seeing the Cliffs had caught up to the mainland and it was positively pouring down. On top of that, the cafe was closed by the time we came back up. I think the stalactite was stunning, but overall, I wish we’d been able to enjoy the other things at the location.

Doolin Music House

Whatever hardships the day threw at us, the evening plans made up for it all. I was able to change into dry clothes, which helped a lot, and our nighttime plans were for some trad music in a local house. I’d reached out to Christy and Sheila via email and arranged for a space in their house show. Trad (traditional) Irish music is a big draw both for locals and tourists in Ireland and while a lot of it is available in pubs, those can be loud and crowded – a challenge to anyone who’s feeling overwhelmed at the end of a long, hard, rainy day of touristing.

The idea of sitting in a nice quiet living room and listening to music and stories was far more appealing than the pub. Sheila welcomed us in and invited us to sit by the fire which was burning local peat and smelled amazing. Peat is harvested from the bogs of Ireland. It’s dead and decaying organic matter that’s been pressed into turf. It’s dug up in chunks and dried in the sun, then used for fuel. Ireland doesn’t have a lot of trees, which is why so much is build of stone and why the people burn peat for fire. Even with new gas and electric heating systems being installed around the island, a lot of folks still use peat in their fireplaces and stoves. I also had the chance to see some of the harvesting and drying in process when we drove through peat bogs later on.

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When we first came in, we entered Sheila’s painting studio where she creates and displays her artwork. In the living room, however, the walls are covered with charcoal sketches of some of Ireland’s most influential trad musicians of yore. Sheila brought us some wine and other guests filtered in. It was mostly people over 50, I may have been the youngest in the room, but they were lively and talkative (I think the Irish might be the only people who talk as much as the Americans). We were served a light meal of local salmon and local cheeses with fresh bread and we just ate and chatted for a while. It was very relaxing, like a dinner party at a friend’s house.

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When we had all finished eating, Kristy and James came out with a fiddle and an armload of flutes. James stuck to his fiddle the whole night and only very rarely spoke. Kristy was every inch the Irish story spinner and played a variety of flutes and even the spoons at one point. Between songs, Kristy would tell us all stories about the music and about growing up in Ireland. Although he never said his age directly, I gather he must at least be in his 70s if not older. He’s been performing professionally for more than 40 years, but the stories he told about his childhood experiences lead me to believe he’s been playing much much longer. 

I did not have the kind of memory capacity in my phone to record all those wonderful stories, but I was charmed by tales of the older way of life that had still been common when he was a boy. How all the men worked hard physical labor jobs, and almost no one had any money, but it barely mattered because they could go round to each others homes at night and play music and dance. He told us the history of the instruments and how the music grew up as something more to accompany dancers than as it’s own art. Dancers were the percussion and the main entertainment. A musician who couldn’t follow the dancer’s beat wouldn’t soon be invited to play again.

Sheila and her friend came out to show a small demonstration of the dancing, so focused on the movement of the feet and the stillness of the body. The whole world has seen Riverdance by now, the famous show that came from this traditional dance style. It has been heavily adapted to appeal to a broader audience with more movement and flash, but the original style is very subtle and very challenging to master.

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We listened to music and stories totally captivated. It is one of my best memories of the entire trip. My Airbnb host, Marcella, lives just up the road, and of course has known Sheila for years and was stunned to find they were asking so “high” a price as 25€ per person for the experience. I found it to be totally reasonable for such a wonderful evening. No public show could have compared to the warmth and personal touches of being in their home, and yet they were impeccable hosts with regard to our comfort and keeping our wine glasses full. Plus, while they may just be the neighbors to Marcella, Kristy is a world renowned and award winning musician with a lifetime of amazing stories to share.

Every night is different because different musicians and dancers show up to accompany Kristy. Plus, although the night I was there, none of us were brave enough, Kristy did say he likes it to feel more like a group event than a performance, and anyone is welcome to sing, play or dance as they like.

The main website is very classy, and doesn’t properly give the impression of the impish charm that Christy exudes. I took a single video for my own memories and to share with you all, but if you want to see more, their Facebook Page has a much wider selection than the primary website.

Myths & Tales from China 07

My entire winter holiday is a zig zag of mental processes, and my random story hopping here is a great reflection of that! Ireland! Taiwan! Ancient Chinese Fairy Tales! It’s all humming around in my head with my real life plans, worries, hopes, and anxieties. Since writing this blog is really a kind of hobby/therapy for me, that means you get whatever topic I find most therapeutic at a given time. It’s a grab-bag. Today, more Dragon King myths, well Dragon King adjacent?


Gao Liang’s Race for Water

Legend has it that Beijing was once a part of the Bitter Sea, and not until later was there dry land. 

Many years ago Beijing was called Youzhou. It was part of the Bitter Sea and was held by the Dragon King. People could only live on the mountains of the western side and northern side. One day, Nezha came to the Bitter Sea Youzhou and began to fight the Dragon King. Finally, he captured the Dragon King and Queen, but he let the Dragon Prince escape. From that time on, the water the water receded and slowly the dry land was revealed.

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In the time following, this piece of dry land had households; villages and towns gradually took shape. Moreover, the escaped Dragon Prince had also changed and become Dragon Duke, and along with (his wife) Dragon Mother, (and their children) Dragon Son and Dragon Daughter, they hid in a lake at the foot of the western mountains, passing their days in total silence. One day, Dragon Duke heard some news: Youzhou would build Beijing City. He indignantly shouted out, “It goes without saying that our Dragon Palace gave people peace, and now they also want to build a city there. its just too much!” Later he also heard it said that Imperial Chancellor Liu Bowen and Yao Guangxiao drew the plans for Beijing Eight-Armed Nezha City and would build Eight-Armed Nezha City. This time he was even more angry, and said to Dragon Mother, “This is horrible. If they build Eight-Armed Nezha City then we have no hope of a change in our fortunes. We should take advantage while it is not yet built and reclaim all the water in the town, then they will die of thirst.”

imagesFirst thing in the morning the next day, the Dragon Duke disguised himself in the appearance of a rural person going into town to sell vegetables. He pushed a small cart; Dragon Mother pulled a small yoke; Dragon Son and Dragon Daughter followed some distance behind. In this way, the whole family snuck into the town. Inside the town, they walked in a circle. Dragon Son drank dry all the sweet water; Dragon Daughter drank up all the bitter water. Then they both transformed into fish-scaled water baskets, each laying down on one side of the small cart. Dragon Duke pushed the cart, and Dragon Mother pulled the small yoke. They exited Xizhimen (the main NW gate of Beijing) and abruptly turned to leave.

Just then, Liu Bowen was leading the artisans to build the Imperial Palace when suddenly someone ran up to report saying that all the water in the capitol city, large and small, had all dried up! Liu Bowen heard this and panicked, then  he thought about it: certainly it was that Eight-Armed Nezha City had invoked the Dragon Duke’s revenge. Quickly he dispatched individuals to go to each gate and make inquiries: had any strange people been seen entering or leaving the city that day. Not long after, a scout returned to report: a little while before, two people pulling water baskets had left at Xizhimen. Liu Bowen heard this and then all was clear.

He said, “That repulsive, evil dragon! I must dispatch some men to reclaim the stolen water and bring it back.” “How will it be reclaimed?”, everyone asked him. Liu Bowen said, “We send one person to overtake them; two spear jabs will break the water baskets, and the water will bubble forth and run back. No matter what happens behind him, he must not look back. Just enter Xizhimen then everything will be safe and sound. Which brave person will dare to go?” Upon hearing this, everyone shook their heads repeatedly. Liu Bowen anxiously stamped his foot, “If we wait until the foul dragon gets it to the Lake, we’ll never get it back!” At that moment, a young artisan named Gao Liang stood forward and said in a loud voice, “I will go!” Liu Bowen picked up a red-tassled spear, gave it to Gao Liang and said, “Be very careful!” Gao Liang accepted the red-tassled spear, turned around, mounted his horse and headed straight for Xizhimen.

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As soon as he left Xizhimen, Gao Liang hit a problem: should he go North or West? He figured the evil dragon would plan to put the water in the lake, but in this region, only Jade Spring Hill had a lake. Right! To the Northwest! Gao Liang spurred his horse on, pursuing them into the Northwest, pursuing straight up to Jade Spring Hill. He could see the Dragon Duke far off; the Dragon Mother had stopped for a rest to wipe away some sweat, and close by was the small cart loaded with fish-scaled water baskets.

Gao Liang dismounted and stealthily moved around the Dragon Duke, behind the Dragon Mother. He abruptly straightened up, lifted the spear, then jabbed. One jab broke one fish-scaled water basket and the water flowed out with a crashing sound. Gao Liang was just about to strike the second one when that basket turned into a strong-stomached young man. He giggled as he slipped away into the Jade Spring Hill’s lake. Dragon Mother quickly picked up the water basket that had been struck by the spear, leapt past the north side of the mountain top and straight into the Black Dragon Pool. Then the Dragon Duke shouted loudly, “Smelly boy! You think you can just walk away?” Gao Liang turned and ran. Behind him a huge wave like the surging of the tide chased after him. Gao Liang ran with urgency; he could just see Xishimen. His heart soared, and he could not help but turn and look behind, but as a result he was swept away at once by the giant wave.

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From then on, Beijing City’s wells once more had water, but it mostly bitter water. The sweet water was taken to the lake at Jade Spring Hill by the Dragon Son. Later, people built a bridge at the place where Gao Liang sacrificed himself and called it “Gao Liang Bridge”. Now it is known as “Gao Liang Qiao”.

Note: In the last blog where I talked about Nezha, I linked to the old animated video of his adventures. While finding fun photos for this one, I discovered a new high quality animated movie was released in 2019. You can see the trailer on IMDB. Plus, there appears to be a comic. These stories are a very vibrant part of modern Chinese pop culture.


Hunter Hai Libu

Long ago there was a hunter named Hai Libu. He was an extremely warmhearted person. Every time he returned from hunting, he would always share his game with everyone, only keeping a small portion for himself, so everyone loved and respected him a great deal.

One day Hai Libu went into the deep woods to hunt, when all of a sudden he heard from up in the air a cry of “save me”. He looked up and saw an eagle flying by with a small white snake which it had grasped by the head. He promptly loaded an arrow into his bow, took aim and fired at the eagle. The eagle was injured, and allowed the little white snake to escape.

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Hai Libu said to the little white snake, “Pitiable little thing, hurry and return home!” The little white snake said, “You are my benefactor who saved my life, I wish to repay you. I speak the truth to you: I am really the Dragon King’s daughter, return with me, my father will certainly thank you with a mighty gift. My father’s treasury holds many treasures, whatever you want you can have. If you don’t like anything there, you can ask my father for the small gem he keeps in his mouth. If only you have this gemstone, and keep it in your mouth, you can then understand the speech of all the animals of the world.”

Hai Libu thought to himself, “I don’t really care for treasure, but understanding the speech of animals, that could be very useful to a hunter.” He then asked, “There really is such a thing as this gemstone?” Little White Snake said, “There really is. But when an animal says something, only you can know. If you tell another person, you will change into a block of hard stone.”

Hai Libu followed Little White Snake back to the Dragon Palace. The Dragon King was entirely grateful that Hai Libu had saved Little White Snake and wanted to thank him with a great gift, so led him into the treasure hall and allowed him to chose a treasure, whatever he liked he could have. Hai Libu didn’t pick up any of the treasures, instead he said to the Dragon King, “If you truly wish to give me something to remember this by, then please give me the precious gem you keep in your mouth.” The Dragon King lowered his head a moment and thought, then he spat out the precious gem in his mouth and gave it to Hai Libu.

As Hai Libu was leaving, Little White Snake went out with him, and repeated to him over and over, “You must remember, whatever an animal says, you must not tell other people. If you tell them, you will instantly turn into stone, and can never again be brought back to life!” Hai Libu thanked Little White Snake and returned home.

With this gemstone, Hai Libu hunted very easily. He kept the gem in his mouth and could understand the language of the birds of the air and beasts of the field; he knew which mountains had which animals. From then on, every time he returned from hunting he shared even more game with everyone.

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Things went on this way for many years. One day while Hai Libu was hunting deep in the mountains, he suddenly heard a flock of birds discussing something. He leaned in to listen attentively. The first bird said, “We should quickly fly to somewhere else! Tonight this mountain will crumble and the ground will be submerged by a flood, who knows how many people will drown!”

Hai Libu heard this and was shocked. He hastily ran back home and said to his fellow villagers, “We should quickly move to somewhere else! This place isn’t habitable!” Everyone who heard this found it strange, it was a fine place to live, why should they move their homes? Despite the fact that Hai Libu anxiously urged everyone, no one believed him. Hai Libu shed worried tears and said, “Believe me, we must move quickly! Once night comes it will be too late!” An old man spoke up, “Hai Libu, we all know you would never lie, but you want us to move our homes. You need to explain clearly why this is. We have lived at the foot of this mountain for many generations, there are many old people and young children, moving would not be easy!”

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Hai Libu knew being worried was no use, he couldn’t give a reason for the move, and everyone was skeptical. If he wanted to rescue his fellow countrymen, he could only speak the actual truth! Arriving at this realization, he calmly said to everyone, “Tonight, this mountain will collapse, and a deluge will flood the ground.” He went on to explain how he had gotten the gemstone, and how he had overheard a flock of birds discussing taking refuge, as well as why he could not tell anyone else the information he heard, he told them the whole story. Just as Hai Libu finished speaking, he turned into a lump of hardened stone.

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Everyone was very remorseful, holding in tears, and remembering Hai Libu’s name, helping the elderly and leading the children, driving the livestock, they left for a far away place. While they were walking on the road, suddenly black clouds densely filled the sky, a fierce gale roared, and after that it rained a downpour. At midnight, there was a sound that shook heaven and earth, and the mountain had a landslide, and the rushing flood waters inundated the village where they lived. Hai Libu sacrificed himself in order to save his fellow villagers, and the people from generation to generation cherish his memory.

Once again, if you’d like to watch an animated short of this story, I have found a link! You can see it’s a different animation style than the pictures I chose, and that’s because there a a lot of different renditions of these famous stories.


The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea

Legend has it that a very long time ago there were eight Daoist Immortals. Separately, they are Tieguai Li, Han Zhongli, Zhang Guolao, Lan Caihe, Lu Dongbin, Han Xiangzi, He Xian’gu, and Cao Guojiu; together they are Ba Xian, the Eight Immortals. They behead goblins and drive out monsters; they eliminate evil and promote good; and they left behind many touching stories.

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Tieguai Li used to be called Li Xuan and he was a Daoist. Originally he was tall and sturdy, with a majestic appearance, he practiced Dao in the caves of Mt. Dang. One time, he sent his spirit out to go to Mt. Hua and visit the great teachers Laojun and Wanqiu, but when he returned to his body it was unexpectedly destroyed, and he had no choice but to use the body of a recently dead beggar brought back from the grave. He didn’t expect that the beggar would have an ugly face or a lame leg. He had to carry around an iron crutch and rest his leg on a cloud while travelling the four seas. He came to be called “Tieguai Li” or Iron-Crutch Li.

During the days of the Eight Immortals, Zhang Guolao would always ride around on a donkey. It is said that his donkey could walk thousands of miles in a day, and when they stopped, he could fold it up like paper. Han Zhongli was originally a general in the army, but since he lost in battle, he went into hiding deep in the mountains to practice austerity and become a Daoist Immortal. He always bares the the skin of his belly, waves a fan in his hand, and is smiling and laughing with an expression of good fortune. Pure Yang Master Lu Dongbin looks like a scholar and carries a double edged sword on his back. The sword gives off a bolt of divine light that can scare monsters away. 

He Xian’gu is the only female immortal among the Ba Xian. She carries a Lotus in her hand, and is slender and elegant. Lan Caihe often carries a flower basket which is overflowing with sweet smelling flowers in all seasons of the year. Han Xiangzi is the grand-nephew of the great Tang Dynasty poet laureate, Han Yu and carries a reed flute in his hand. Cao Guojiu’s device is a jade tablet. Legend has it that the sound of the jade tablet can make all things between Heaven and Earth peaceful and calm.

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Left to right: Tieguai Li, Han Zhongli, Cao Guojiu, Zhang Guolao, Han Xiangzi, Lan Caihe, Lu Dongbin, He Xian’gu

One day, the Eight Immortals were riding on the clouds to go to take part in an assembly of immortals across the Eastern Sea. Lu Dongbin said, “Riding clouds across the sea isn’t really considered a skill of the Immortal School, it would be better if we each used our own special abilities, tread the waves across the sea, and show off our magical power. Do you all agree?” The remaining Immortals voted in favor.

Iron Crutch Li was the first to cross the ocean. He simply threw the crutch in his hand into the Eastern Sea. The crutch resembled a small boat floating on the surface of the water and carried Tieguai Li safe and sound to the opposite bank. Next, Han Zhongli slapped the drum in his hands said, “Watch mine.”, then threw the drum into the sea. He crossed his legs and sat down on the drum and crossed nice and secure across the Eastern Sea.

Zhang Guolao grinned and said, “My move is the most brilliant”, then he took out a piece of paper and unfolded it into a donkey. Once its four hooves touched the ground it looked to the sky and let out a bray, then carrying the seated Zhang Guolao on its back, trotted across the waves. He Xian’gu threw her lotus flower into the water, stood patiently on its face and drifted along the waves across the sea. Soon after, Lu Dongbin, Cao Guojiu, Han Xiangzi, and Lan Caihe one by one tossed their treasures into the sea, and with the aid of those treasures they each showed off their special abilities and crossed the sea.

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Seven Immortals arrived on the opposite shore, to the left and to the right, there was no sign of Lan Caihe. As it turned out, when the Eight Immortals crossed the sea just then, it disturbed the crown prince, son of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. He dispatched the shrimp soldiers and crab generals out to sea to look around. Taking advantage of the Ba Xian being caught off guard, they captured Lan Caihe and took his flower basket.

Lu Dongbin couldn’t find Lan Caihe, he became worried and upset. He hollered in a loud voice toward the Eastern Sea, “Dragon King, listen up, hand over Lan Caihe right now or else you will feel my wrath!” The Dragon Prince heard this and became excited and angry and rushed up to the surface of the sea to let Lu Dongbin really have it. Lu Dongbin drew his double-edged sword and sliced the air. Afraid, the Dragon Prince sank back down to the sea bed.

Lu Dongbin was unwilling to let him go. He pulled his fire gourd from his pocket and burned the Eastern Sea into a sea of fire. After that, the seven immortals each made use of their powers, going forward to fight, cutting down two of the Dragon King’s sons. The shrimp soldiers and crab generals were unable to hold them off, and one by one were defeated and hid in the seabed. The Dragon King of the Eastern Sea saw his own sons die, flew into a rage, and called on the Dragon Kings of the South, North and West Seas to work together to overturn all of the water in the world into one huge tidal wave and crash it onto the Immortals.

At that critical moment, Cao Guojiu used his cherished Jade Tablet to open a path before them and the giant tidal wave went around them on both sides and receded. The other Immortals followed Cao Guojiu precisely and arrived unharmed. The Dragon Kings of the four seas quickly gathered their armies for war. They were about to launch a fight to the death. But just then, the Bodhisatva Guan Yin passed through the South Sea and yelled at both sides to stop. She then helped them to settle their differences. Before long, the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea released Lan Caihe and both sides stopped fighting and made peace. The Eight Immortals then bid farewell and went freely and leisurely on to the meeting of Immortals.

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Note: This is a great example of the syncretism in East Asian religious faiths. Guan Yin is a Buddhist figure, a Bodhisattva is one who came to the edge of true enlightenment, but instead of choosing Nirvana, they chose to stay in the world to help others. On the other hand, the Eight Immortals are Taoist figures. It’s common to see the characters from each religion interacting in stories, and for people to practice rituals and prayers from both.

9 Days in Taiwan 1/2: GeoParks, Butterflies & Temples

I have been told over and over by native Taiwanese and twitterpated Taiwanese tourists that I simply HAVE to go to Taiwan, that it is nothing like China, or possibly it was everything I love about China with none of the Communism. It’s so close to Korea, the flights are easy, but the weather is hard. In January 2019 I had a spare 2 weeks before I would meet my friend for our whirlwind Middle East tour. It seemed like a great chance to finally see the Ilha Formosa. The rest of the holiday that winter was so much, I forgot I didn’t write about Taiwan until my Facebook Memories started popping up this January. Faced with an unexpected rainy week on my holidays in “sunny” Spain, it seems like an opportunity to fix that.

I went to three main cities: Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung. I ate more delicious food than I thought could exist on such a tiny island, and I enjoyed local sightseeing, temples, and natural wonders. In the first post, I’m going to give a little historical context and then talk about the natural beauty and the temples I visited. In the second post, I’ll share my more urban tourist experiences and saving the best for last, the food.


A Very Very Brief History

I used to live and work in mainland China (in Jinan, and later Yanjiao, a small town outside Beijing), plus I studied Chinese history, culture and language in university. I knew Taiwan was different, but I didn’t really understand how much.

Taiwan separated from China when the Kuo Min Tang fled there after Mao and the Communists took over mainland China in 1949. China under the KMT government was part of the Allies in WWII. We gave them money to fight the Japanese, but they ended up using it to fight the communists, and still lost. Most of the Western World didn’t recognize the communist government of China until the 1970’s. We were busily still supporting the Taiwanese government as the rightful government of all China.

A few countries at a time slowly came to realize that the communists weren’t going anywhere, and then Nixon had his famous visit to Beijing to stand on the fake Great Wall and show solidarity and that was pretty much it. Since then, China insists that Taiwan is a part of China and everyone just sort of humors them. We make separate treaties and trade agreements, plus Taiwan has a different language, flag, currency, government and legal system from mainland China…. but, ONE COUNTRY! (says China)… Taiwan is starting to disagree.

Of course Taiwan has a strong Chinese identity and history, but it diverges sharply at 1949. At the end of the Civil War, the KMT retreated to Taiwan and the Communist (Mao) government claimed the mainland. Mao’s government worked hard to erase a lot of history in order to position the Party at the top and center of all life in China. It was huge disaster and tens of millions of people died from persecution and starvation. Plus temples and relics were destroyed or stripped of decoration and re-purposed as Party business community halls. Some time in the 80s, the government went “oops” maybe we need history after all, and started rebuilding both physically and narratively. Therefore almost everything you see nowadays in China is a reconstruction, and the few practicing monks and nuns in the temples are there under very strict observation because someone told China that civilized countries don’t murder all their religious leaders. (most of the literature on this is academic research and NOT readily accessible in Wikipedia, you can take my word or you can go ask a Chinese Studies scholar). Although, now with Hu… who knows?

Taiwan, on the other hand, continued the Nationalist traditions that were started in the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that finally eliminated the monarchy and established a “people’s” government… although arguably back to the Boxer Rebellion because everyone was so fed up at those Royals supplanting Traditional Chinese Culture™ with Western European goods and values… and opium…The point is that the KMT were basically in favor of traditional Chinese culture, where the Communists were pretty opposed. So while mainland China went through this holocaust level cultural purge (The “Great Leap Forward” followed by what is still referred to as the “Cultural Revolution” which makes it sounds like hippies dropping acid and doing free love), Taiwan and other Chinese communities in Asia (Malaysia makes this super ovbs, too) were continuing to move forward with a more normal level of cultural changes influenced by post colonialism, globalization, and technology just like everyone else.

2000 years of shared history, followed by 60 very divergent years brings us to the ‘same but different’ cultures of mainland China and Taiwan. So while China firewalls out anything it doesn’t like and creates its own online reality, arrests anyone who dissents, and sends religious or sexual minorities to reeducation camps, prisons, or organ harvesting factories, Taiwan is a proud democracy that legalized same sex marriage last year. While that sounds a little behind to most westerners, its stunningly progressive for Asia. They were actually the first country to do it.

Lastly, a quick note on the spelling. Mainland China adopted a variety of romanization (“roman” letters, like the ones you are reading now) called “pinyin” while Taiwan used the older form Wade-Giles. Some brief examples (minus tone marker): Beijing /Peiking, Gaoxiong /Kaohsiung, Deng Xiaoping /Teng Hsiao-p’ing, Guomindang /Kuomintang. Although now-a-days a lot of things in Taiwan are romanized in Pinyin, those places which were internationally codified with Wade-Giles spelling still remain. Pronunciation remains a challenge for those who have not studied the language because neither system is intuitive for English speakers. (try typing the pinyin spelling into Google translate to listen).

Natural Wonders:

Taipei:

Yehliu Geopark 野柳地質公園

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This was part of a package bus tour I took, but honestly, if I ever go back to Taipei, I want to take the public bus out here and spend a whole day at this park. This website has some very nice English language explanations about the rock formations and erosion patters, if you’re curious.

I do love the science, but I have to say that I, like most of the visitors, was more enchanted by the fairy-tale like shapes that these rocks have come to embody. When I arrived, I got a little pamphlet showing the most famous formations. It was a little bit like a scavenger hunt trying to find them all, and I kept getting distracted by not at all famous, but still amazingly beautiful rock formations like joints and fossils all around.

The most famous rock is the Queen’s Head, which you may have seen on listicles of “cool things to visit”. The line to get a photo from the best angle was insane, and because I was in a tour group, I had to choose between standing in line for the famous rock, or going to see all the others. Still, I got a glimpse of Queens Head rock from the queen angle by wheedling past the line creatively (really the line is for people who want to pose with it, you are allowed to take a picture from anywhere). In case you can’t tell, it’s the one in the background that looks sort of like woman’s head with an updo or royal headdress.

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The park is well aware the Queen is their biggest draw, and that it is eroding a little more every year. It won’t be long before her neck erodes entirely and she becomes Marie Antoinette instead. To maintain tourism, the park has named a new “Cute Princess Rock” which is shaping up to become the main attraction when the old queen dies.

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Other rock formations I found include the Elephant Rock & The Pineapple Bread Rock. Pineapple bread is just cut to look like a pineapple.It doesn’t taste like and isn’t made with pineapple (unlike pineapple cake which is, but looks like tofu squares).

One little island turned out to contain at least 3 of the targets: the peanut rock (far left), the fairy shoe (about 3/4 on the upper right, kind of looks like a sandal) and the pearl, or globe (far right, the lower sphere, yeah, I know there’s like 4).

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Our tour guide challenged us to find a particular rock and take a photo of it that matched the angle in the brochure. The angles of these rock formations matters quite a bit. The queen doesn’t look like a queen from any other angle (see below). In this case it was a gorilla, and you had to walk all the way around to the side facing away from the path to see the illusion. Most people were taking photos through the hole in the rock without ever realizing they were at the gorilla! (I won the scavenger hunt).

Looking at the brochure and the website, it’s painfully obvious I saw only a tiny part of the park, and I had a very limited time to try and find and appreciate these unique formations. I’m glad I had the opportunity, but a full day return is on the top of my list for a second visit to Taipei (right behind the food).

Shifen Waterfall 十分大瀑布

This was a short stop on the same all day bus tour. To be honest, I’m not sure it would be easy to get here on public transit, so a tour to Shifen might be the only way if you aren’t renting a car. We were pretty rushed at this stop, and the waterfall itself is a medium length walk from the car park with lots of stairs and long bridge.

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I felt a little like I was playing tag with the scenery. I just about had time to get there take some pics, stare longingly at the cool water for a couple minutes and hike back to the bus. There is nothing “cold” about winter in Taipei. I saw pictures online of people in the snow, but I think it must be a real rarity. Locals did tell me the weather on my visit was unseasonably warm, but rushing around the geopark and speeding through the countryside to see the waterfall had me soaked in sweat.

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Nonetheless, it is a remarkable waterfall. No mere trickle through the rocks as far too many advertised waterfalls can turn out to be, this was a broad and strong roaring fall. If you are lucky enough to have more than 20 minutes here, there are also several restaurants and picnic tables where you can enjoy the waterfall over lunch.

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Kaohsiung:

I actually only included Kaohsiung in my travel plans after I read that one of the only sites of mass butterfly migration was near there and was going to be happening during January (when I was traveling). Like waterfalls, butterflies are an irresistible draw for me. I do enjoy a butterfly park, where many species are raised for ecological conservation or just because they’re pretty, and visitors can walk through a mesh enclosed garden to see them, but I also treasure butterflies in the wild. It always feels like a tiny little brush with magic when they pose for me.

Maolin Butterfly Trail 茂林賞蝶步道

Thus, when I read about the mass migration of the purple crow butterflies I was very excited. There are only two species in the world that overwinter en masse in a valley like this, and the other is the monarch. I’d seen beautiful footage of the monarch masses in Mexico (not open to tourists, btw, to protect the butterflies) and while the articles I read warned me not to expect anything so profuse, it is still the second largest natural gathering of butterflies in the world. I had to go.

I did a lot of research to prepare. Optimal butterfly viewing is 8-11am, but the buses don’t run that early. I actually emailed with the park about this. The best public transit option from Kaohsiung is to take Kaohsiung Bus E25 & E28 (Kaoqi Express) to Qishan and then change to H31 (Qishan-Maolin-Duona) (website link) The problem is the distance and time. The E25 takes just over 3 hours, and then you wait for one of the 6 daily buses to Maolin park entrance and ride another 45-60 minutes. Both E25&28 don’t run before 7am. Nothing gets you to Qishan early enough to reach the park entrance before noon. I also looked into hostel, b&bs or other options closer to the park, but even searching in Chinese with my not entirely terrible language skills, information was scarce. The few places I found online couldn’t take reservations online and were not on the shuttle bus route in any case.

To make matters even more complicated, there was an earthquake in 2005 which decimated a lot of that area, but there’s not a lot of information on what is or isn’t still functional post quake.

I could have just bused in and arrived at noon, and taken my chances the butterflies were not all having their afternoon nap, but I wanted masses of butterflies. I looked at videos as recently as two days before my arrival in Kaohsiung and saw them fluttering all over the roads. In some places, roads were even being shut down to protect the butterflies! So, I booked myself a car to drive me there at the very crack of dawn. I used a company called Tripool, and instead of a 4-5 hour bus trip for 5$, I had a 1 hour car ride for 35$. If it had worked as planned, I still say it would have been worth it.

I had been watching the weather forecast like a hawk, but it was barely reliable in the city and there was next to no data about the mountains. Several days of weather patterns led me to hope that a gray misty early morning would burn off into a sunny mid-morning, so I bundled myself in the car at 7am and headed to the Taiwanese countryside.

When I arrived, the weather was still terrible. The car I hired dropped me off here.

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I found what looked like the trail head which had lots of signs about trails and how to spot the butterflies, but they were old and dirty, like no one had used them in years. You don’t know how unsettling it is to be in this kind of fog filled emptiness and see signs that are obviously new (it has a QR code for heavens-sake) but look like they’re from some kind of post-apocalyptic survival film.

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It turns out the reason is that no one HAD used them in years. The original structures from before the earthquake had just been abandoned. Eventually, I found the actual visitors center, which made me feel a lot better. The people there said there wouldn’t be any butterfly activity that day, but the weather outlook for the rest of my time in Taiwan didn’t look any better. Plus, it was 4 hours until the next bus out of town.

I watched a movie about the butterflies with a group of school children on a school educational trip. I didn’t understand that much, but it was mostly fun to watch the kids react to the video (and to me). After that, I decided to hike the trail despite the weather.

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I climbed stairs for hours and saw zero signs of butterfly presence. My photos from the hike look like they should be eerily silent, but the music from the cafe could be heard pretty much all over the trail, and despite the terrible weather, there were a significant number of other tourists out here chattering away. 

Although I found no butterflies for most of my hiking time, I did find plenty of interesting things. There were adorable snails who thought the rainy atmosphere was perfect. There were beautiful tropical flowers, flourishing in the warm winter air. And,  there was an army of giant spiders. I experienced the summer spiders in mainland China, and to a lesser extent in Korea. These are monsters who build webs that are several meters across. I am not kidding or exaggerating. These suckers are like 5cm not counting legs.

Honestly, I rarely see them quite that big in Korea… at least in the cities, and they are really good about not ever coming inside houses, and about building their webs where people aren’t likely to walk. I don’t think they’re considerate, just that it’s a lot of effort to make an enormous web, and they don’t want us to smash it.

The spiders in Maolin think 5cm body length is scrawny. If I was not familiar with the species behavior, I would have totally freaked out. Luckily I know from experience, they are not interested in me. They don’t want to put a web across a path. They will not drop on you from above. That last one is really relevant since, to avoid the humans, a lot of them just built their webs about 10ft up. Where they can catch birds.

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To be honest, I was really surprised there were no butterfly corpses in these webs. And, however intimidating these spiders can look, the webs in the mist and rain were beautiful jeweled works of art.

After a couple hours of meandering, I finally found some butterflies. I saw maybe 20-30 the whole day, and only one close enough to photo. It was a far cry from the hundreds or thousands I had been hoping to see.

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It is awfully beautiful there, but I really wish I could have seen it in action. Just in case the Taiwanese government was exaggerating, I did check the live video feed and some Instagram filters from sunnier days, and it looks like it really is a little fairy land. Next time, I will have to watch the weather more carefully and be ready to rush to Kaohsiung at short notice. The good news is, it’s only a couple hours from Taipei to Kaohsiung, so I won’t have to stay there waiting (Taipei has better food, sorry Kaohsiung), but I will have to have a more flexible plan.

Temples

Taoism (pinyin: Daoism), Confucianism and Buddhism are considered the three main “religions” of China. Taoism is mainly a mix of local folk practices that consolidated after the introduction of Buddhism. It has a LOT of gods and spirits and ancestors and immortals and magic animals. The main goal of Taoism is immortality (although there is a split on whether that means corporeal or spiritual), but you can pray to any of the gods for help with more mundane stuff like health, marriage, or passing your driving test.

Buddhism, often heard of but rarely understood, is a spiritual practice without any gods. Buddhists search for Enlightenment and subsequent freedom from this world which is both an illusion and full of suffering. This takes a few hundred (thousand) lifetimes, so in the mean time a lot of people pray to the boddhisattvas (a little like saints?) for the same mundane stuff they ask the Taoist gods for.

Confucianism is more a total package social structure than a “religion” but it does incorporate a certain amount of ritual and spirit oriented behavior and a very clear “how to live” guide, though not a lot of praying for mundane stuff. To be even further removed from the Western traditions, a lot of people don’t choose just one, but rather go to whichever will serve an specific purpose at a time. They simply aren’t viewed as exclusive “truths”. Honestly, almost nothing we associate with “religion” in the western traditions applies to any of these, but until we have a better word, here we are.

Taipei:

Dadaocheng Cisheng Temple 大稻埕慈聖宮天上聖母 (Taoist) is dedicated to the Tianshang Shengmu (Heavenly Holy Mother), the guardian of sailors and also known as Mazu or Tianhou (Empress of Heaven). It is in the midst of an “eat street” and even has a dining area in the temple courtyard. Far from being serene and heavenly, it is quite lively and bustling.

Taipei Confucius Temple 臺北市孔廟 is more of an interactive educational experience than a holy place. It’s not surprising as Confucianism isn’t really a religion. The scholar Confucius (Kongfuzi 孔夫子) was more interested in the smooth running of things on the earthly plane than the spiritual one. Rituals were an important part of a social order for him, but he didn’t spend much time speculating on any gods or spirits.

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The entire compound is beautiful, but more that that, you get a wonderful English language detailed explanation of the meaning and purpose of each hall (which, under other circumstances I might have transcribed off the brochure, but I feel like you’ve had enough education for one post), a truly early-tech 3D film explaining the history of Confucianism and it’s modern interpretation (it was so campy it was fun) and interactive displays for the six Confucian Arts that Confucius considered vital for any civilized person in a civilized society: Calligraphy, Music, Archery, Charioteering, Computation (math), and Rites (religious, political, and social ceremonies).

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It was a big contrast to the Confucian temple I visited in Beijing which was a beautiful monument with little to no explanation as to it’s historical function. Plus, where Taiwan still teaches pieces of the 6 arts in schools and even holds some public Confucian rites today, the mainland has subsumed Confucian values into the Communist Party Line.

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Dalongdong Baoan Temple 大龍峒保安宮 (Taoist) is dedicated to Baosheng Dadi (Great Emperor Protecting Life). It claims to be the oldest temple in Taiwan, or at least the oldest Chinese temple. (Yes, there were indigenous people living in Taiwan before the Han ethnicity mainland Chinese people arrived many centuries ago). It’s been restored many times over the years and is now an important heritage site. There’s several stunningly decorated buildings, as well as beautiful gardens with statues of famous Taoist stories, and a dragon in the lake. I especially enjoyed the tile work of the roof dragons on these temples which is distinct in both color and style from the mainland.

Kaohsiung:

Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum 佛光山佛陀紀念館 was disturbingly hard to get to, but thankfully I can read bus timetables in Chinese. It probably would have been easier if I’d been coming direct from the city, but I was coming on my way back from the Maolin Butterfly Park. I also missed the last buses returning to the city, but it was ok because I was able to share a car with some other travelers. I don’t think it’s necessary to do this with a tour company, but if you aren’t at least “survival” level in Mandarin, then perhaps plan better than I did.

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Fo Guang Shan is a global sect of Buddhism which started there in Taiwan at the largest monastery in Taiwan. It really is huge, and not only the enormous statue of the Buddha, but the sprawling grounds filled with gardens, exotic birds, and more beautiful statues than you can count.

The grounds are divided reflect the three treasures: sangha (community) where the monks and nuns live, study and work; dharma (teachings) where scriptures (sutras) are housed and ceremonies held; and the Buddha (the teacher) where the famously enormous statue rests at the end of the majestic walkway.

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I think most people come for the third part, and honestly, that’s why I was there. I just took a “wrong” turn at the entrance and found myself walking all the way over to the Sangha, and then meandering back through the Dharma, before finally getting to the Buddha in time to for most of the tourists to leave and for the lights to come on.

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Their website is everything you would expect elderly monks to have created, but if you want to learn more about Fo Guang you can visit. Also, the museum’s website reflects a more worldly involvement and may be more palatable to the modern internet consumer as well as more helpful to the hopeful visitor.


That’s all for part 1. Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the historical and natural side of my Taiwan trip. Next time, I’ll write about the more modern aspects including the “old streets” for tourists, a medieval style castle made by an eccentric millionaire, flowers, light shows, street art, and of course what Taiwan is best known for: the food.

The Dingle Peninsula

The joy of planning any vacation is discovering new things. Naturally, I had a list in Ireland of sites I knew I wanted to see, but there were whole swaths of countryside between the known destinations for me to fill in. Going from the Ring of Kerry directly to the Aran Islands was just too long a drive. When I looked at the map, the Dingle Peninsula came up as a must see for it’s beautiful coastline, charming local culture, and one special local resident named Fungie.


Fungie the Dingle Dolphin

I love dolphins. This makes me basic, but I don’t care. I struggle sometimes because they can be real jerks (BBC article, TW: rape), so I don’t go in for the “dolphins as spiritual healing animals” line, but like many intelligent wild animals, I find them fascinating. I was in Florida in middle school, and we went to local marine parks a lot. I wanted to be a marine biologist – or a dolphin trainer – but then we moved away from the sea and I learned about the horrible things that happen to dolphins in captivity.

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Since then, I have sought out responsible interactions with fascinating wild animal. Although some animal protection extremists say there’s no such thing, I go with “as responsible as possible”. My swim with the wild dolphins in New Zealand is a good example. The NZ government limits the number and type of boats that can legally interact with the dolphins and it reduces random tourists and boats from interfering with them while raising money and awareness for environmental preservation.

Fungie is an entirely unique case and there’s not really another dolphin like him in the world. He’s a solitary middle aged bachelor who lives in the Dingle Bay and likes hanging out with the humans. He was never a captive, never “trained”, isn’t fed by people or enticed to stay in any way other than through social interaction. And if he’s tired of people, he can swim out of the bay and the small boats can’t follow him into the unsheltered Wild Atlantic.

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I ran into people (Irish people, not just tourists) outside of Dingle who thought that he was a myth, or an exaggeration, or one of a long line of different dolphins that the town named Fungie to keep up the tourism, but Fungie is actually the subject of some scientific interest because he is so unique among dolphins. He’s a little bit like a “wolf child”. In the sad case where a human baby isn’t socialized with other humans before a certain age, they don’t learn language or basic social skills… ever. Fungie was separated from his pod at a relatively young age, just old enough to feed himself, but not fully socialized… think about Mowgli or Tarzan? He came into the Dingle Bay because it’s extremely sheltered and safe, plus lots of food (good fishing). He never got reconnected with his pod or any other, and now he tends to hide from pods passing through the area. Scientists who study him think that he can’t communicate well with other dolphins, sort of like having a speech impediment.

However, dolphins are very social, much like humans, and whatever his reasons for avoiding other dolphins, Fungie discovered he could get some degree of socialization from humans. I suspect it’s similar to the way that we interact with our pets. Fungie has lived in the Dingle bay for about 36 years, and they think he was about 4 when he moved in. For a long time, he was only known to the locals, but in more recent years, he has become a mainstay of Dingle tourism.

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I chose my tour boat because of the timing. Partly because I wanted to do two things that day, and partly because dolphins are most active early in the morning. This is the only boat that goes out in the early morning and it only holds 10 people, so book in advance. The good news is that this smaller boat inside the bay is unlikely to be impacted by the weather, unlike the larger boats, which as I will relate shortly, definitely are. Plus, the tiny boat means you get quite close to the water, and consequently, the dolphin.

There’s also the option to swim, but the Atlantic Ocean there only gets up to 15C/60F in the warmest month, and that’s still colder than most people who live south of the 60th parallel want to swim in without a wet-suit. The water I went in NZ was 13C and even with a short wet-suit, I just about stopped breathing when I went in. I didn’t have a wet-suit in Ireland, and I hadn’t figured out how to rent one in advance, so I was SOL. There was a family on the boat with us who decided to just go in in swimsuits. I think they were Swedish. The children turned blue, and Fungie never really got that close.

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The tour company kitted us out with outerwear, pants and jackets, that was super warm and waterproof. I am so glad they did, because however pleasantly cool the weather on land was, it was insanely cold out on the water, plus we got boat spray and rain. It was a gray, wet morning, I got some nice photos (as seen in the first part of the post) as we pulled out of the harbor, although the visibility was limited. I was a bit sad I couldn’t see the cliffs around the bay, but all was forgiven once Fungie showed up.

Our guide told us a bit about Fungie’s history and the studies I briefly outlined here, and then we set about trying to play with him. The guide said later in the day, there would be dozens of boats in the area all competing for his attention, so going in the early morning we got him all to ourselves. The best way to play with Fungie is to run the boat quickly, creating a wake, then pumping the breaks so the wake passes the boat. Fungie loves to race the boat and then body surf in the wave the boat creates. We did this over and over to the delight of everyone on board, and apparently Fungie as well.

When he was done with us, he just swam off. Even with our guide trying to lure him back, he was ready for a break. I point this out, because it’s really important that Fungie isn’t being exploited. He doesn’t want to live with other dolphins, and if humans stopped playing with him, he’d probably get really depressed (which happens to all social animals in isolation).

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We had a quick run out of the bay just to feel the difference in the weather, which is intense. It was wet, cold, and insanely fun. We bounced like a roller coaster and although I got splashed many times, the waterproof outerwear did a good job of keeping me warm and mostly dry. This is very important, because I the next day I ended up on a boat with no waterproof clothes and it was an entirely miserable experience. Crazy wet splashing raining Wild Atlantic boats WITH warm waterproof clothes = fun. Crazy wet splashing raining Wild Atlantic boats in regular clothes = soaking wet underwear. Choose wisely.

As we came back toward the harbor the other tour boats were starting to gather. We spotted Fungie a few more times, but even just having a few other boats around made me really appreciate the time we got with him while we were the only boat on the water.

The Weather

I mentioned our morning was gray and rainy, with an extra side of nose numbingly cold on the water. This was August, by the way, the warmest month although not the driest (that’s June). The morning’s short excursion out of the bay and onto the ocean gave me my first taste of why it’s called the Wild Atlantic. Even doing the speed up/sudden break trick with Fungie in the bay was a smooth calm ride compared to the unsheltered open ocean.

I did not actually think the weather that day was bad. It did rain on us a bit, but it wasn’t anything like a storm. Nonetheless, shortly after we were back on land from our morning visit with Fungie, I got an email from my afternoon tour that the boat trip was cancelled due to bad weather. I have to say I was very surprised. I didn’t think a light rain was enough to warrant a cancellation, but this just goes to show how little I understood about the Wild Atlantic. Yes, I’m going to keep calling it that, because the Atlantic Ocean is big and has different temperaments on different coasts, but what goes on along the west coast of Ireland can only be understood in terms of elemental forces.

The afternoon tour was meant to be a visit to the Blasket Islands, an eco tour where we could see some of the wildlife and get to have a short walk on the island. It was meant to be the alternative to missing out on Skellig Michael. When the tour company cancelled, I asked around at some of the other boat operators to see if anyone would be going. Please remember, in my ignorance, the slightly overcast, intermittent light rain just didn’t seem like a weather obstacle, and I thought, surely a saner company would still be going. One company operating a smaller boat said they were planning to go, but were all booked up, and we could be on the alternate list in case anyone backed out. I left them my number and went to the tourism office around the corner to see what else I could do in Dingle that afternoon.

There were a few things, caves, churches, museums and I probably could have made a go of it, but in the end, I didn’t have to. The small boat company had a family of 4 drop out, so all of us who were waiting got to go after all. The upshot is that I got to go out on the Wild Atlantic on a day when all but one tour boat was docked for bad weather. Let me say again, “bad” meant a little windy, and a little rainy. Honestly, it got downright sunny and pleasant over lunch. The ocean is a crazy place.

Why did the small boat go when the big boats dared not? Smaller, lighter weight boats are more maneuverable, and also lower to the ocean surface, with less surface area. They’re less impacted by high waves and high winds. So, there I was, all bundled up in the waterproofs again, and holding on to a boat that was more inflatable life raft than seaworthy vessel for a 3 hour tour, and trying not to hum Gilligan’s Island under my breath.

Is there a way to be sure of a good boat ride? Sadly, no. Ireland just rains a lot. I honestly do not know how people out there made a living at fishing… well, I do… a lot of them died. Even in the “driest” months, the weather can turn ugly and it can last your whole vacation. We didn’t see nice weather for 4 more days. This is not to say it was all miserable. The sun comes out a lot between the raindrops. If you’re on land, it’s fine with an umbrella and some waterproof shoes/shoe-covers. Maybe a water proof jacket if you’re on the coast, because wind does make umbrellas useless. If you don’t mind a wild wet ride, it can be great fun, but if you are counting on a beautiful clear sunny day like the brochure photo either be prepared to hang out all summer or go somewhere that isn’t famous for rain.

The Blasket Islands

Once I got over the weather, it was pretty good. I think it would have been stunning in sunlight, but we got some nice up-close views of the cliffs, and some history about the pirates, which were really more like smugglers, but pirate sounds cooler. We passed by another Star Wars film site, where Luke leaps from rock to rock to harvest the green milk.

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The Blasket Islands are a little series of Islands that were occupied by a very small (100 or so people) population of very traditional Gaelic speaking Irish. I gather there was a lot of tension between them and the occupying British/Anglicized Irish, hence maybe some of the pirating. In the 1950s, the last 22 occupants were relocated to the mainland for safety reasons. In the high season, it is still possible to spend the night on one of the islands, but most people who want to visit, go for a single afternoon, much as I had hoped to do.

I was starting to understand why a 70 person ferry wasn’t going to navigate around a bunch of huge jagged rocks in high wind and waves, but I wasn’t sure why we weren’t allowed to land until I saw the dock. The dock that was a nearly vertical stone stairway up the cliff. I have to say, that if it had been a sunny day, I would have fought through it, and climbed, but I’m slightly glad I didn’t have to. I also very much understand why no one wanted to try and navigate that with rough currents and winds.

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After a couple hours on the rough seas, I was slightly beginning to regret my choice. For safety, the boat’s seats were basically saddles with backs. They were very stable, and I never once felt like I might fall off, but if you’ve ever ridden a horse at a trot or canter, you know that saddles aren’t super comfortable at speed. There’s a reason racehorse jockeys don’t sit. You aren’t actually supposed to sit, but rather put your weight in the stirrups and use your thighs to stay balanced and level. Otherwise, your internal organs bounce all around and  your sitting area gets very sore. The waves of the Wild Atlantic were not unlike a bouncing trot. At first, I could handle it, I planted my feet and bent my knees and kept myself pretty well stable. As my legs got tired, I had the choice of three positions: stand, which is bouncy and awkward and requires a lot of core strength, sitting, which is comfortable when the boat goes up, but painful when the boat meets the water, and the saddle squat which gives the most control over the bouncing but uses the most extra muscles.

We didn’t get to see the puffins, I don’t really blame them, but we did stop in a little sheltered beach to see the seals. I am very curious as to why there isn’t a nice easy dock on or near this beach, because it was obviously sheltered, and much flatter than the vertical cliff face the actual dock is built into, but I’m sure there’s a reason involving winter storms or wildlife preservation.

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The seals like to sun themselves on the beach, which was obviously not happening that day, so we drifted to a slow stop in the smooth glassy waters and I realized that the water around us was positively filled with seals. Children of the corn style.

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I’m a bit spoiled on wildlife after living in the Pacific Northwest. The average sail around the sound will result in several seal, porpoise, and even whale sighting. People on the ferry see orcas on the regular. My last visit to Seattle, we got to see some humpbacks breaching as well as a little pod of dolphins, and a seal pup hanging out on a little bit of driftwood waiting for mom to come back. On a single sail. Nothing I have seen compared to the colony of seals *watching us from the water.

In all the photos and videos and they just look like driftwood or waves or shadows. First I noticed one or two as they bobbed a bit higher out of the water to get a good look at the weirdos in the boat. Then, like one of those 3D pictures or an optical illusion suddenly changing from duck to rabbit, I realized the sea was full of these animals and they were all staring at our boat. I am super happy that seals are much more like chocolate Labradors than sharks. They were just curious, but in that super foggy weather it was a spooky moment.

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Despite the gray skies, near constant rain, kidney jostling waves, and view obscuring fog, I am still glad I went. There were moments that the ocean sparkled turquoise, which I didn’t think it could do without sunlight. There were times as the islands came toward us out of the fog and sea spray that it felt like magical lands emerging from the mist. And there were times when I was really glad that staring at the horizon works for seasickness. As stunning an experience as a ride on the roughest possible while still being safe seas was, I was very happy to return to dry land and dry clothes.

Leaving Dingle that evening, the sun came out once more and I was treated to a beautiful roadside rainbow as I drove on to my next destination, Doolin and the Aran Isles.

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Myths & Tales from China 06

The Kingdom of the Sea

When westerners imagine life under the sea, it’s mostly human people with some fish attributes like fins or gills, but in many parts of Asia, the kingdoms under the waves are filled with sentient and often extremely large versions of familiar sea creatures — and dragons. Here are 3 stories about the Sea Kingdom, ruled, not by a merman King Triton or a humanoid sea god like Poseidon, but by a Great Dragon King who rules all life in the sea from his crystal palace.


Dragon King of the Boiling Sea

A long, long time ago, on the southwest side of Zhou Shan (a city in Zhejiang made soley of islands) there was a small island. On this island, under the ground, was buried a great deal of bright yellow gold, so the people all called it Jin Cang Dao or “Hidden Gold Island”. Some time later, the ever greedy and never satisfied Dragon King of the Eastern Sea learned of this news. In order to claim all of Jin Cang Island for himself, the Dragon King amassed large quantities of Dragon Princes and Dragon Grandsons and Shrimp Soldiers and Crab Generals, and launched himself at Jin Cang Island: rising tide after rising tide, breaking wave after breaking wave, a fierce torrent that overtook the sky. The trees on Jin Cang Island fell and the houses collapsed; it was an extremely miserable sight.

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On the east side of Jin Cang Island was Fang Hua Shan or “Flower Spinning Mountain”, at the top of the mountain lived the Flower Spinning Sprite. She saw the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea causing trouble for no reason at all, devastating the common people, and she felt entirely angry. She picked up her magic broom and lightly swept towards the sea surface. The water that was coming up the mountain then retreated back down with a crash. The survivors on Jin Cang Island one after another ran to Mt. Fang Hua to take refuge. The Flower Spinning Sprite changed her shape in a single shake of her body, she became a white haired, ash grey hundred year old granny, and said to everyone, “If you want to save Jin Cang, follow my lead and spin the flowers into thread. Weave the spun flowers into fishing nets and go down to the sea and defeat the Dragon King!” Everyone heard the old granny’s words: men and women, old and young, all together set about the task, united in the common effort of spinning flowers and weaving nets. They spun and they weaved, they were wholly occupied for seven times seven or forty-nine days, they wove nine times nine or eighty-one pounds of golden threaded fishing nets.

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They finished weaving the fishing nets, but who would they send to the sea to fight the Dragon King? Everyone bickered back and forth, talking about it continuously. Just then, a small chubby boy appeared suddenly out of the crowd, he smacked his chest and said, “I will go!” His fellow villagers looked and saw it was little Hai Sheng and could not help but laugh. How could a seven or eight year old child fight the Dragon King? The old granny, however, smiled and said, “Go to the sea and fight the Dragon King, there is nobility in having courage, so let little Hai Sheng go!” So saying, she took up a suit of golden threaded clothes and bade Hai Sheng to put them on. Next she passed on to Hai Sheng the secret trick to fighting the Dragon King.

Hai SHeng put on the golden threaded clothes, and his whole body immediately felt a burst of soft tickles. In accordance with the spell the granny imparted to him, he said “big”, and all at once he grew tall in height. Suddenly he became a powerful, large, inexhaustible giant. His fellow villagers stared with their eyes wide and mouths open. Hai Sheng picked up the golden threaded fishing nets and took large strides down Mt. Fang Hua, then with a plop sound, jumped into the sea.

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It’s strange to say, but wherever Hai Sheng went, the tidal waters and sea waves in that place made way for him. In actuality, the golden threaded clothes Hai Sheng was wearing were water repelling treasure clothes made by the Flower Spinning Sprite just for him. Hai Sheng took out the golden threaded nets and cast them into the sea. He said, “big”, the net flew toward the ocean in such a way that it hid the sky and covered the earth. In a short time, he started to collect the first net. He had captured Gou Manjing, the treasure guardian general for the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. As long as he had captured Gou Manjing, he would be able to get the Sea Boiling Pot; then he would have no fear that the Dragon King would not return Jin Cang Island. Hai Sheng was extremely happy, and ordered Gou Manjing to hand over the Sea Boiling Pot at once!

Gou Manjing started to struggle while still in the net. Hai Sheng shouted, “small”, and the golden threaded net instantly started to shrink. Gou Manjing was choked to within an inch of his life. He had no choice but to stop and lead Hai Sheng to the Hundred Treasure Hall of the Eastern Sea Dragon Palace to take the Sea Boiling Pot.

As soon as he had retrieved the Sea Boiling Pot, Hai Sheng then, in accordance with the Flower Spinning Spite’s instructions, set up the pot at the sea side, scooped out one ladle of Eastern Sea water, poured it into the pot, burned a roaring pile of dry firewood, and pili-pala it started to boil. Boil! BOIL! Several incense sticks burned in the time that passed; the water of the sea gave off steam. The Dragon King openly and honestly appeared on the water’s surface, behind him followed a group of hot and panting shrimp soldiers and crab generals repeatedly bowing and kowtowing and earnestly calling for their lives to be spared.

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“Ebb the tide and rest the waves, return Jin Cang to me, otherwise I will boil the Dragon King soft!” Hai Sheng said. The Dragon King hastily gave a command for the tide to retreat by three feet, and the waves to subside by thirty feet. Jin Cang Island was at last once more protruding from the sea. 

Who could have guessed, as soon as Hai Sheng picked up the pot in both hands and doused the fire, the Dragon King once again immediately rose the tide and beat the waves. One wave swept up the Sea Boiling Pot and it disappeared without a trace. “What to do?” Hai Sheng anxiously stamped his foot. The stomp was no small thing, and suddenly all the gold buried under the earth was completely brought out by Hai Sheng’s stomp, and flew one piece after another, down to the sea shallows, dropped onto the beach, and in the blink of an eye built a sparkling golden sea bank. No matter how the tide rushed forth or the waves churned over, Jin Cang stood, majestic and towering. From then on, the Dragon King does not dare come to cause trouble, the people live in peace and work happily, and Jin Cang Island, or “Hidden Gold Island” became known as Jin Tang Island, the Island of the Golden Embankment.


LongNu (Dragon Maid) Visits Guan Yin

According to legend, there is a pair of young innocents standing in attendance at Bodhisattva Guan Yin’s side. The boy is named Shan Cai (which means ‘cherish wealth’) and the girl is named Long Nu (which means ‘dragon maiden’).

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Originally, Long Nu was the daughter of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. She was clever and bright, and the Dragon King doted on her very much.  One day, Long Nu heard that the fishing village by the seaside was having a Boat Lantern Festival, and loudly demanded to go and see the bustling scene. But the Dragon King shook his head and said, “That is no place for a Dragon Princess to go!”

Long Nu thought to herself, “You won’t let me go, I must go!” She waited with difficulty until midnight, then took advantage of the Dragon King not paying attention, and stealthily slipped out of the Crystal Palace. She transformed into a maiden from a fishing family, and entered the fishing village. The main street was unusually bustling. There were all kinds of fish lanterns in numbers beyond counting: there were Yellow Croaker Fish Lanterns, Octopus Lanterns, Squid Lanterns, and Shark Lanterns; along with Lobster Lanterns, Crab Lanterns, Scallop Lanterns and Conch Lanterns… Long Nu stared east, gazed west, and then broke into the crowd without thinking.

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At that moment, suddenly a half cup of cold tea spilled down from a loft above, and splashed impartially on Long Nu’s head. Long Nu was so scared her face went white. For in actuality, whenever she transformed into a human, if she came into contact with water then she would quickly change back into her original shape. She was afraid that changing back into her dragon shape in the middle of the crowd would cause trouble, so she ran with all her might back to the seaside, she barely made it to the beach when she transformed into a large fish. She lay on the beach completely unable to move. 

Along the beach there came two fishing lads, one lean and one plump. They saw this bright and lustrous large fish and all at once they stared distractedly. The plump boy said, “What a fish! How did it get up on the beach?” The lean boy, moving the fin to and fro, said, “Let’s take it!  We can carry it on our shoulders up to the road to sell, it will fetch a good price.” So saying, the two boys carried the big fish on their shoulders up to the road to sell it.

Meanwhile, Bodhisattva Guan Yin was sitting in meditation in the Black Bamboo Forest. She saw what had just taken place, and acting without thinking from her merciful heart, she quickly called the boy Shan Cai to go and buy the large fish and release it into the sea. Shan Cai stood upon a lotus flower and flew down from high in the clouds.

The two boys carried the fish to the main street, all the people watching the lanterns all at once gathered around, pointing and talking, however no one dared to buy the big fish. An old man said, “Boy, this fish is too big, you ought to cut it up and sell the pieces.” The plump boy though this was sound reasoning. He borrowed a hatchet, raised it high and was just about to chop. Suddenly, a small child shouted out, “Quickly, look! The big fish is crying.” The plump boy paused the hatchet and looked. The big fish was indeed crying two streams of sparkling translucent tears. At that point, a young Buddhist monk came over and blocked them, saying, “Don’t strike! Don’t strike! I will buy this fish.” Everyone who heard this roared with laughter. “Young Monk, why would you buy the fish? Maybe you’ll start eating meat again and leave the monastic life!” The young monk’s face went red, he explained nervously, “I would buy this fish in order to save its life.” So saying, he took out a silver piece and handed it to the lean boy, and had them carry the fish back to the shore and release it in the sea.

As soon as it touched the water, the fish made a big splash and swam far far away, after that it turned around and nodded to the young monk, only then did it swiftly dive into the water and vanish. What’s more, when the young Dragon Princess wasn’t seen at the Dragon Palace, everyone was thrown into confusion. The Dragon King angrily puffed his mustache and opened his eyes wide. After daybreak, the young Dragon Princess finally returned, not until then was the Dragon King’s mind at rest. However, in order to teach her a lesson, the Dragon King expelled her from the Crystal Palace. 

Long Nu was broken-hearted. Weeping endlessly she arrived at the Lotus Flower Sea; the sound of her weeping reached the Black Bamboo Forest. Bodhisattva Guan Yin heard this and knew that Long Nu had come. She instructed Shan Cai to meet Long Nu and bring her in. Shan Cai appeared before Long Nu and smiling asked, “Little Sister Long Nu, do you not remember me?” Long Nu recognized him as the young monk who had saved her and she could not help but turn her tears to laughter. She went forward and was about to bow to him. Shan Cai drew her to a halt and said, “It was Bodhisattva Guan Yin who told me to go and rescue you!”  Long Nu lifted her head to look and saw Bodhisattva Guan Yin seated on a lotus flower platform so she bowed and paid her respect. Guan Yin liked Long Nu a lot, so she kept her by her side. From that point on, Long Nu and Shan Cai lived like brother and sister in a cliff cave near to Chao Yin Cavern. That cliff cave was later called “Shan Cai Long Nu Cave”.

Long Nu served as a maid to Bodhisattva Guan Yin, but the Dragon King regretted his actions, and called for Long Nu to return to the Dragon Palace. But Long Nu was unwilling to return to the Crystal Palace that imprisoned her.

**There aren’t many pictures of this myth, although it was made into a TV drama in Taiwan, the screen shot quality is abysmal. However, Long Nu and Shan Cai are regular characters in an insanely adorable web comic called “Inhuman” about how all the old magical beings are getting along in modern China. I haven’t found a good translation, but the art alone is worth a look.

This one is from a school field trip. Shan Cai asks Long Nu what’s wrong, and she’s feeling really motion sick from the bus ride and can’t help but throw up. However, because she is a princess of the sea, she fills the bus with seawater and animals, so when they get off the bus all the human students are wet and angry, but Shan Cai says “now we have enough to make seafood hot pot!”


Ne Zha Disturbs the Sea

Once upon a time, at Chen Tang Guan there was a military officer named Li Jing (historical figure 570-649 CE). When his wife conceived her third child, he was conceived for three years and six months and still hadn’t been born. Once day, very late at night, Mrs. Li felt a burst of pain in her belly, and unexpectedly gave birth to a ball of flesh. Li Jing belived it to be some kind of evil spirit, he took out his double-edged sword and cut the ball of flesh. The ball of flesh split open and out hopped a small child. As soon as the child was out, he ran all over the place. Li Jing was very happy and gave him the name Ne Zha.

Early in the morning the next day, a Daoist came requesting to see Li Jing, he wanted to take Ne Zha as an apprentice. He was the Golden Light Cave Sage Tai Yi. He gifted Ne Zha with two treasured objects: one was the circlet Qian Kun Quan (Universal Ring), and the other was the silk cloth Hun Tian Ling (Sky Budding Sash). Li Jing happily agreed.

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In no time at all, Ne Zha was seven years old. He was very active and energetic. One summer afternoon, the weather was especially hot, Ne Zha ran down to the riverbank and used the Hun Tian Ling dipped in water to bathe, and as he washed he also played. The Hun Tian Ling is an amazing treasure, when it was immersed in the water, all the water in the river shone red. This river was the Nine Bend River that feeds into the Eastern Sea, and as Ne Zha shook the Hun Tian Ling in the river, the Dragon Palace in the Eastern Sea began to sway. The Dragon King got a surprise and quickly called the spirit that patrolled the sea, Ye Cha to go and look. Ye Cha drilled out of the water’s surface to see one small child holding a length of red silk in the middle of bathing, and then called out, “Hey, small fry, what sort of strange thing are you using, the Dragon King’s Crystal Palace was disturbed when everything started to shake?”

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Ne Zha raised his head to look and saw ferocious looking (green faced, fierce toothed) monster, then said, “What kind of monster are you? Do you not want to cause harm or not?” Ye Cha heard that and became angry, he raised up his axe and swung it towards Ne Zha.  Ne Zha dodged out of the way, and fetched Qian Kun Quan and threw it at Ye Cha. There was a noise — deng, and Ye Cha’s head was broken and he died on the spot.

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Ne Zha saw that Qian Kun Quan was dirty, so he sat down on a stone to wash it. The Crystal Palace was unable to withstand the vibration of these two Treasures and nearly collapsed from shaking. At that time, the shrimp soldiers came to report, “Ye Cha was killed by a child!”. The Dragon King heard this and became enraged, he was just about to dispatch the troops, when the third crown prince Ao Bing Zhan stood up and said, “King Father, allow me to go and capture this small child.” and thus saying, he dispatched the shrimp soldiers and crab generals and rode the great beast Bi Shui Shou. They arrived at Nine Bend River, Ao Bing Zhan called to Ne Zha, “Where are you, you Little Goblin, you dared to go so far as to kill Ye Cha, watch out that I don’t kill you!”

“I am not a Goblin I am the son of the Chen Tang Guan army commander Li Jing, Ne Zha!” Without waiting for Ne Zha to finish speaking, Ao Bing hefted his pike and ferociously began to stab. This time Ne Zha was really angry! Ne Zha flung the silk cloth Hun Tian Ling at Ao Bing, wrapped it around Ao Bing, then gently tugged, pulling him off the beast Bi Shui Shou. Ne Zha stepped on his neck, lifted the circlet Qian Kun Quan, and tapped him lightly on the head, and his true form was revealed, he was actually a small golden dragon.  Ne Zha pulled out the dragon’s tendons, wrapped it around his waist and joyfully returned home.

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The Dragon King of the Eastern Sea heard that his third son had been killed by Ne Zha, in less than (the time of) one breath, he invited the Dragon Kings of the other three Seas to gather together in Chen Tang Guan, drop a huge rain, and prepare/intend to flood the place. Ne Zha didn’t want to involve his parents and the whole village of regular people, so he calmly picked up a double edged sword and cut his own throat. Not until that did the Dragon Kings free Chen Tang Guan.

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Ne Zha’s soul left his flesh body, and slowly, flutteringly it floated down to Golden Light Cave, and met his Master Sage Tai Yi. Sage Tai Yi plucked several lotus roots from within the lotus pond, arranged them in the shape of a human, and slowly said, “Ne Zha, Lotus Flower Reincarnation!” Ne Zha’s soul leaned over the lotus roots, and before long, the lotus flower slowly blossomed. A small child stretched and stood up and was exactly the same as the original Ne Zha. Ne Zha knelt at Sage Tai Yi’s feet, and spoke sincerely, “Thank you Master, you have given me a second life, from now on I won’t wantonly fight with people anymore.” Sage Tai Yi smiled and nodded. He took out two Wind and Fire Wheels and a Fire Point Spear, and gave them to Ne Zha. Ne Zha then remained with Sage Tai Yi and followed his teachings.

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Later, when Ne Zha came down the mountain, he became the officer who would lead ahead of all the troops of arms master Jiangzi Ya under King Wu (historical figure 1046-1043), beheading goblins and driving out devils, establishing outstanding military service. He also performed many great deeds for the common people, and so the people all loved him.

**This is such a beloved story in China that it has been made into a popular animated movie which is where all these images come from. It’s in Chinese, but now you know the story you can watch the video if you like:

Ireland: The Ring of Kerry

If one is doing a road trip in Ireland, a couple of “must dos” are the Wild Atlantic Way, and the Ring of Kerry. The main point of the Ring of Kerry isn’t actually the many interesting stops along the way, but the beautiful views of the Atlantic Ocean from the road. However, since it is an extremely long drive, it’s nice to have places to stop and get out for a while. The main ring is the N70, which is a lovely wide (for Ireland) highway, but all the really good stuff is off the highway and down a series of narrow twisty side roads. Neither Valentia Island nor Skellig Ring are technically part of the Ring of Kerry, but it could be argued they are more interesting.


Car or Bus?

Driving in Ireland is not for the faint of heart, but if you are nervous, then you can also take a bus tour. The advantage of a bus tour is that you can spend the whole time looking out the window at the view. The disadvantage is that they only stop at a few very popular spots, and you have to contend with all the other tourists around your photos.

I personally enjoyed most of the drive, with the exception of a few moments of extremely heavy rain and one point where we managed to drive through a cloud. Low visibility on narrow steep roads is… challenging. Despite the white knuckle moments, I’m glad I drove myself because I got to pick and choose my own stops. There’s a nearly infinite list of things to see, and no way at all to do them in a single day drive of the Ring. The good news is, the Ring of Kerry is very affordable. I believe that some of the restoration houses and museums do charge a small fee to come inside, but as far as I know, all the outdoor attractions are free of charge.

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This is the route I traveled according to my Google Maps history. We spent 10 hours on (and off) the Ring of Kerry, starting in Killorglin (a smaller town than Killarny, so the Airbnb was cheaper) and ending in Killarney (although we continued to drive on to Dingle that evening). For reference, most bus tours are 6-8 hours and start and end in Killarney, so you can imagine they move faster and see less.

The Challenge of Skellig Michael

Possibly the most popular place to visit on the peninsula is Skellig Michael. It is a phenomenally beautiful island with a wonderful wildlife preserve and interesting ruins of an old monastery. To preserve the environment, only a limited number of people are allowed to set foot on the island per day. If you are lucky enough to get a spot, the boats may be cancelled due to bad weather, even if the weather on land seems ok. They don’t call it the “wild” Atlantic for nothing.

Skelig Michael Steps, Credit: IrishFireside via FlikrEven before 2017, it was a popular attraction that required lots of booking ahead. Then the Last Jedi came out, and suddenly the whole world knew about Skellig Michael as the beautiful and remote island where Rey finds the reclusive Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker. Those sweeping staircases and round stone huts weren’t inventions for the film, those are the actual ruins. Thanks to the Creative Commons I have photos to show you.

Reservations for boats that simply sail next to the island must be made up to a year in advance in the high season and I spoke to one couple that had been waiting for a spot on a boat that allowed people to walk on the island for more than 3 years.

As amazing as it would be to have the chance to go explore this beautiful place, I think that it would be something I’d have to plan a whole trip around, choosing a time of year that is just off enough to have availability without having your chances of bad weather above 80%, and then also being willing to stay nearby for several days/a week because when your boat does get cancelled, you are still around for the “make up” tour.

Skellig hivesThere are so many beautiful small islands along the west coast of Ireland, and while none are the same as Skellig Michael, I think for most people, they are going to be just as enjoyable while being much more accessible and far less expensive. I myself visited the Blasket Islands (from Dingle), the Aran Islands (from Doolin), and a teeny little place called Inishbofin (from Galway). And if you just HAVE to have that Skywalker connection, the Blasket islands are actually in the film as well.

Finally, there is the Skellig Experience Center, which is on Valentia Island. I gather it is a warm, dry, indoor experience involving models, miniatures, and a video. I ended up skipping this as well because it was a recommended 45 minute visit, and we simply ran out of time for everything we hoped to do that day.

What I Actually Did on the Ring

Cahergall Stone Fort

Stone forts or ring forts are ubiquitous in Ireland. There are more than 45,000 ring forts, some of earth, some of stone. Many are on private land, so you can’t necessarily just drive up to them, but lots and lots are open to the public and managed by a park service. This is not to say they are easy to find, or that they have any parking facilities, but if you are intrepid, you can do it.

There’s a very small parking area along a very narrow road with a little sign pointing to a sheep trail through a meadow, and if you follow this trail, avoiding the sheep poo, you will come up to the stunning sight of this majestic stone monument crowning the highest hill in the area. It’s not roped off, and you can freely touch, climb, enter and explore which is great. Because we were not with a tour group, we only ran into one or two others while at the fort, and it was easy to take lots of beautiful, if somewhat gray, photos.

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I feel like the term “fort” is a bit misleading. I originally thought that these were military installments placed on high hills for visibility and ease of defense. It turns out that these “forts” were probably more like farmsteads where people and livestock lived full time. The double ring looks like a good way to keep the animals safe in the outer ring, and the humans in the inner ring, with a ragged stairway up to a walking path. The strong stone walls would protect from weather, predatory animals, and rival clans. The livestock could be let to roam and graze in the day / good weather, and then gathered in, like a barn or paddock, as needed. The double ring with livestock would mean the inner circle of humans would be much warmer than the surrounding countryside. 

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Many historians think that the size of the ring indicates the owner’s social standing, which makes sense if you consider that richer families would have more livestock and more (living) children. The one at Cahergall is about 70 ft / 25m across.  It also makes a lot more sense why there are 45,000 of them if you think of them as farms/homes rather than military forts.

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Cahergall is one of the more famous rings because it has recently been restored and is quite beautiful. Some people think that the restoration is “cheating”, but it’s 1400 years old and was made by dry stacking flat stones (no mortar of any kind). The restoration makes it safe to climb and gives a good idea of what it would have looked like.

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On our way back to the car, a farmer had come down to greet a tour bus with a young lamb in his arms. He wasn’t “charging” for the privilege of holding and petting this adorable soon-to-be-dinner, but everyone was giving him a Euro or two as a tip/thank you. We beat the tour bus by only a few minutes and figured that farmer would probably get 50 Euro or more from that bus alone for sheep petting… not a bad deal for him.

Valentia Tetrapod Trackway

There’s a trope in the story of evolution of the first “fish” crawling out of the sea and onto land. This is a very oversimplified version of how evolution works, but it’s a good story because it helps us visualize and understand the process. There was a period known as the Devonian between 350 and 370 million years ago where that process occurred and sea creatures gradually developed legs from fins and began to explore the food and safety options of damp land.

There are only 4 locations of earth where you can go and actually see the footprints of one of those animals and one of them is in Ireland along the Ring of Kerry.

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I spent an inordinate amount of time in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as a kid and I even did a few amateur fossil  hunts. I was delighted to find stones with the imprint of life that was millions of years old, and growing up did not reduce that delight. I recall finding fossilized seashells in the desert of Saudi Arabia, and being completely awed. So, when I found out that this level of rare fossil was available for the viewing, I had to go.

We had variable weather on the day of this drive, and were mostly lucky that the rain came down while we were driving and let up when we parked, but this stop was the one big exception. The tracks, like everything outside a city in Ireland, are not super easy to find, but Google Maps helped and there are also plenty of websites with landmark based directions. There’s a decent parking lot, but it is a bit of a walk down to the water from there. On the day I went, there was a documentary film crew on site, and they thought we were crew too because they just couldn’t imagine any tourists crazy enough to come down in that weather.

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It was only a light drizzle when I started the walk, but turned into a serious downpour about half way down. I decided that since I was going to get just as wet walking back to the car as down to the shore, I might as well carry on. I got entirely soaked. Only my shoe covers kept my feet dry. Waterproof shoes or shoe covers are an absolute must in Ireland.

It’s a beautiful rocky shore, and the steps down are a little tricky in the rain, but not too bad. There are several informative signs with models of the tracks (so you know what to look for) and a bit of history about the site itself. 385 million years ago, Ireland was actually south of the Equator, and what is now a cold and rocky shore was a warm, silt laden river delta. In addition to the footprints, there are also fossilized ripples (below) made as the muddy silt dried in patterns and was covered over by layers of different soil. Both ripples and prints were compressed over millions of years as the landmass drifted north. Finally, the erosion of rain and sea revealed this layer of the strata.

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The footprints are accompanied by a tail drag, since tetrapods were still heavy and low to the ground with long, broad tails for swimming. I think without the informative signs showing me what to look for, I (not a paleontologist) might have missed it entirely. Once you get all the way down to the shore, you know where to look because one area is roped off. Since this isn’t a restorable relic, we can’t walk on it or touch it lest we erode it away completely.

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Before I went, I was thinking these footprints might be much larger because in my head, dinosaurs are huge. However, the Tetrapod was only about a meter long (3ft). For perspective, the average alligator is about 4x that size. The footprints are tiny little polka dots with a sidewinder looking divot between them (lower left quadrant of the photo above). They look not unlike a close up of a sewn edge with the thread removed. Once I got over the fact that I was soaking wet and that these were really small dinos, it was a very cool experience.

It’s not that you can’t see these kind of tracks in a museum, but there’s something… deep and connecting about seeing it where it happened, to know that this piece of rock was once thousands of miles away, and that your feet are there on the same ground that this ancient ancestor and key link in the evolution of life on land once walked.

Skellig Ring: St. Finian’s Bay & Skellig Chocolates

Skellig Ring is not part of the Ring of Kerry. It’s a little side loop down a peninsula and closer to the coast. While looking at the map, it seemed rather silly to go to Valentia and then backtrack to the official ring, so we kept hugging the coastline, which made for some lovely views.

I think we stopped at St. Finian’s because it was pretty and I needed a place to pull over and check the map. We were on our way to the Skellig Chocolate store and I was struggling to navigate the narrow roads, strange turn offs, and Google Maps all while driving a car on the “wrong” (to me) side of the road in the rain. It is a beautiful little beachfront, and I while it makes for a gloomy and picturesque photo op on the rainy afternoon I stopped there, I am sure it’s also stunning in nicer weather.

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As for the Chocolate store, it’s a cute little chocolate shop, and they have lovely tastings where you can sample all the flavors before you decide which ones you want to buy. It was good, but not spectacular. I think I’m spoiled on chocolates. I’ll generally avoid the slave labor chocolate companies like Hershey’s, but I can order my fair trade online easy enough, so chocolate shops aren’t usually on my travel itinerary.

Theo’s Chocolates in Seattle is a stop I always recommend because they roast their own beans and actually make the chocolate from scratch (unlike most shops which buy chocolate then remelt it to add flavors and shapes). Plus, I love their factory tour which makes me feel like oompa loompas are hiding just around the corner. I also spent more than a glorious day in Brussels making my way around all the famous, historical, and newly excellent chocolate shops, chatting with makers and sampling a variety of confections, some of which were “meh” and others sent me over the moon with chocolate joy.

Skellig Chocolates are certainly better tasting than Hershey or Nestle. I enjoyed the flavors, but I wasn’t over the moon. Also, although they are making some confections on site, there is no tour or museum where you can learn about chocolate making. If you happen to be passing by, and have time, great, but you can buy the same chocolates in most Ireland gift shops or at the airport if you really want to try it and don’t fancy stopping your driving tour of natural/historical wonders for this tourist money trap.

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If you want to see Valentia without driving the Skellig ring, I’d recommend taking the ferry (5 Euro/car one way) from Reenard Point and drive off the island via the bridge next to the Skellig Experience center, then follow R565 East back to the N70. I personally wish I’d been able to spend more time on Valentia to take in things like the Glanleam Gardens or the Fogher Cliffs, so even though I only wrote about the Tetrapod tracks, there’s a lot more to see there.

Staigue Fort

I like ruins. They are one of my favorite things to see. I like the stretching sense of history, and of being connected to other humans who lived and built things hundreds or thousands of years ago. I will almost never pass up the chance at a ruin. I wasn’t planning to see any stone rings after the Ring of Kerry, so I was happy to have an opportunity to compare two.

The Staigue Fort is considered one of (if not the) largest stone rings in Ireland. It is even larger than the Cahergall Fort, but it lacks the inner ring. It is older by about 300-500 years, and it hasn’t been restored as heavily, so it’s a little rougher around the edges. However, I did think that it was much easier to climb and walk on than Cahergall. The steps were wider and the path at the top was wide and smooth.

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Unlike Cahergall which was on high ground, the Staigue Fort is surrounded by higher hills. It was deeply foggy when I was there, and so the whole place had that kind of ancient, spooky, mysterious vibe. I got to climb to the top and walk around.

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I also learned what nettles look like for the first time from a local lady who was there showing her family around. I’m actually really glad I found out, because they sting if you grab them (or fall on them) so it’s nice to know what to avoid. I’ve read about nettles, stinging nettles, nettle tea and such in a wide variety of books, particularly by British authors, starting from childhood. I got so used to not knowing what they were, it never even occurred to me to look them up once Google was invented, and so now I know. Sadly, later on this trip, I was destined to find out how their sting feels… ow.

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There is a sign at the gate stating that there is a 1 Euro charge, but there is no one to collect it, only a collection box, which was jammed by two coins in the slot when we were there. The local lady who told me about the nettles, also said it wasn’t really necessary to pay, but we left a coin anyway because I like to support the care and maintenance of historical relics.

The final bid to collect some coins is a small “waterfall” and “wishing well” which is really a cute little stream where coins can be thrown with a wish, so if you want to contribute in a more creative way than the collection box, you can always toss a coin in the water. If you’re lucky, you might even see some of the famous “rainbow sheep” up close!

Kenmare Stone Circle

Stone circles are quite distinct from stone forts. The most famous stone circle in the world is, of course, Stone Henge in England, but there are thousands of stone circles around the British Isles and northern Europe (France, Germany, etc). Stone circles are much older than stone ring forts, and most date from around 5000 years ago. They show no signs of habitation (leftover bits of pottery, food, or tools) and that has led most archaeologists to believe they serve a religious or ceremonial purpose. Lots of the stone circles are also aligned with the sunrise or sunset on the equinox or solstice, which lends some credence to their use as annual calendars.

Some archaeologists think anything they don’t understand must be about religion, but there are other possibilities, one of which is that these were meeting places for nomadic or semi nomadic groups to come, exchange goods and stories, perhaps even find spouses. The solar link of the stones would make it easy for everyone to agree on the right meeting day. Maybe there was some liturgical aspect to this as well, but think about how many of our modern holidays that focus on commerce, gift exchange, and extended family visits started out as and still involve at least a little bit of a religious day. (*cough*Christmas*cough)

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Maybe if I went to a stone circle in the countryside on a dim gray misty day, it would feel more druidic or sacred, but the Kenmare Stone circle is in a town, and when we arrived, the town was also setting up for a fair and there were carnival tents and rides being built all around. I gave up trying to find real parking and just put the car down out of the way on the side of the road. There’s a small booth asking for a 2 Euro fee to view the stones, but like the other places, there is no attendant or enforcement, so donate or not as your conscience dictates.

I put the Kenmare circle on my list because stone circles are cool, and this one is considered quite large. It would have been silly to drive so close and not stop, but it was so strange to see this 4-5000 year old monument in such a cute suburban garden setting. The trees and lawn are well manicured, and there’s even an attempt at some flower beds nearby. Finally, there’s a wishing tree where people can write their wishes on paper and tie them to the tree branches.

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As an American, it can be strange to me to see things that are more than 400 years old. When I do see ancient things, it is almost always in the context of a heritage site or museum or such, but there’s just so much old stuff in northern Europe that it isn’t at all uncommon to see it integrated into modern day life. I was watching a British interior design show, and one of the houses was 800 years old. It wasn’t some special historical site or museum, it was one of many homes in the village that was still being lived in by totally average people. The designers were looking at the wooden beams in the walls and roof and talking about when those beams were put in place 800 years ago and still in people’s living rooms. That kind of thing blows my mind.

The Kenmare Stone Circle is just that kind of thing: it’s a millenia old site that has been built into a modern public garden. It’s wild to see the contrast, and it’s amazing to contemplate the stretch of human civilization between the people who buried these enormous boulders and the people who mow the lawn and plant the peonies today. What it isn’t, is a magical connection to my druid ancestors, real or imagined, and that’s ok. Not every stone circle has to be a mystical experience.

Torc Waterfall

I love waterfalls. I will make a day of waterfall hunting, or drive miles out of my way to visit a waterfall. I honestly have to say, I could have skipped this one. The national park is gorgeous, and the waterfall itself is quite beautiful, since Ireland rains enough to keep the rivers full. However, this might be the single most popular stop in the whole south-west of the island. The car park was enormous, filled with tour buses and private drivers like myself. I’d seen almost no one all day (except at the chocolate store) and suddenly it was like the mall at Christmas. We had to circle the parking lot several times waiting for a spot to open up, and when we did finally find a place, and embarked on the short 5 minute walk to the falls, I was accosted by the noise of the crowd.

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After a full day of quiet (often empty) Irish countryside and coast-way, it was a real shock. On top of that, it was our last stop of the day and we were tired, hungry, and in a hurry to get to our beds that were another 2+ hours away. I think on the whole, I would have been more satisfied to stop at one of the other viewpoints like Moll’s Gap or the Ladies View and skipped Torc. That, or spend more than one day on the ring so that Torc could be part of a greater exploration of the national park. There are several nice walking trails of different lengths and difficulty that would be a nice way to spend a day (or at least a half day), but sadly not a great way to end one. It should also be much more empty earlier in the day since all the tours end their day at the falls.

In Conclusion

The Ring of Kerry is a lot to do in a single day. If you are going to try to be crazy like me, carefully pick your stops in advance and plan rests since long periods of driving on those roads can be tiring. GPS and cell service gets spotty outside the towns, so load up your maps and make sure they’re available offline before you hit the road. Expect to have to turn around and ask directions, and know it will take you longer than Google says. Regardless of the expectations of speed limit, unless you are a very skilled/reckless driver, it is likely that the narrow curving roads will slow you down, and inevitably you will have to do some back up, drive around, wait for sheep.

Follow the advised direction (counterclockwise). I looked at the idea of going clockwise to avoid the tourists and I am SO GLAD I did not. There were several sections of the ring that would have been terrifying if not impossible to navigate going the “wrong” way. Everything is set up to make it easy for drivers following the route, and clever dicks online who advise you to go the other way are mad.

Take 2 or more days if you can. If I had it to do again, I’d still start from Killorglin, but I’d slow down, and stay in one of the small towns maybe 2/3 of the way through (Sneem or Kenmare) then spend the second day exploring the rest of the ring and the Killarney National Park. Live and learn.

Myths & Tales from China 05

The Sea, the Sun, and the Moon

These tales tell stories of the natural world. Although the sea, the sun and the moon were created at the time Pangu broke out of his giant egg and formed the world, during the time of pre-history, mythological early humans and demi-gods were able to interact with these monoliths of nature in a way we no longer can.


Jing Wei Fills the Sea

Yan Di had a little girl named Nu Wa*. She grew up very beautiful as well as bright and clever. One day, Nu Wa was playing alone by the seaside, and saw a small boat moored by the beach. Full of curiosity, she got into the little boat and rowed out to the depths of the Sea. As she went farther and farther off shore, a fierce wind made the sea waves rise higher and higher. Suddenly, a great wave as big as a small mountain crashed down and swallowed up Nu Wa and her little boat.

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A long time passed, Nu Wa was aware that as she slowly rose up from the depths of the ocean her body had changed. Her two arms had become a pair of bird wings; her two legs had turned into a pair of slender bird claws; her red lips had become a hard, white bird beak; the flower petals on her head turned into a beautiful crest of feathers; and her once pink dress became black feathers. She emerged from the surface of the Sea, and with great effort, flew into the air. She had changed into a bird!

Nu Wa cried brokenhearted and her crying voice sounded like the sad calls of a little bird. She lowered her head and saw the rolling waves of the Sea, and thought that she could never go back to her warm home. She hated the vile Sea, and made up her mind to fill it.

The spared no effort and flew to the mountain top, took a stone in her beak, and flew back to the Sea where she threw it in. The tiny stone vanished in the blink of an eye. Then she carried back a twig and threw it in, but it disappeared too. She cried out in despair “Jing Wei! Jing Wei!”. When the people heard her, they named her the Jing Wei Bird.

Every day she flew back and forth between the tall mountains and the wide ocean, flying and flying, carrying and carrying, throwing and throwing, trip after trip, piece after piece. Many years passed, she was very busy, and threw countless twigs and stones into the Sea. Even thought the Sea was still the Sea, she never gave up on her great quest to fill it. 

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People felt sorry for Jing Wei, and they admired Jing Wei. They called her “Yuan Qin”, which means ‘bird who is wronged’, “Shi Niao”, which means ‘bird who has pledged a vow, “Zhi Niao”, which means ‘bird who has ambition’, and “Di Nu Qiao”, which means ‘bird who is the Emperor’s Daughter’. And by the East China Sea is a special place that is still called “Jing Wei Shi Shui Chu”, the place where Jing Wei vowed to fill the Sea.

*note: this is NOT the same Nuwa as the half serpent goddess that created humans, the daughter in the story is 娃, the goddess is 女娲, so in Chinese it is obviously different.


Kuafu Chases the Sun

Once upon a time, there lived a tribe of giants in the North called the Kuafu Tribe, and their chief was called Kuafu. In those days, the earth was desolate, poisonous snakes and ferocious beasts rampaged all over the place, and life was hard for ordinary people. Just to survive, Kuafu had to lead his people in a fight against a flood of vicious creatures every day.

One year, there was a terrible drought. The fiery Sun baked the farm crops on the earth and dried up the water in the riverbeds. Soon, the people could not go on living. Upon seeing this situation, Kuafu became both angry and worried. He vowed he would catch the sun and make it obey the commands of his people.

Early one morning, when the sun had just shown half its face, Kuafu took a step, stretching his two long legs, and from the East China Sea he set off towards the Sun. The Sun quickly rose up into the air. Kuafu chased it from the ground like a strong wind; he ran ninety thousand miles in the blink of an eye, and grew closer and closer to the Sun. The red-hot Sun sprayed roasting flames down on to Kuafu’s head, he felt his throat becoming drier and drier, but he was afraid the Sun would slip away, so he went on without stopping. They arrived at Yu Gu, and Kuafu was about to capture the sun when dazzling rays of light shot forth, causing Kuafu to faint. When he woke up, the Sun was already far into the Western Sky.

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Kuafu once again pounded his feet and once again set out. However, the closer he got to the Sun, the brighter the Sun’s rays became. He felt all the water in his whole body evaporating dry, soon he would die of thirst. Under the setting sun, the ripples of the Yellow River and the Wei River shone like crystal. Kuafu leaned down and drank mightily, and the waters of the Yellow River were entirely sucked up into his stomach. He also drank down the water of the Wei River in one gulp, but he still felt incredibly thirsty. So he planned to go north to a big pond and drink the water there. But he was too thirsty, and too tired. Halfway through he could not hold on any more and fell with a mighty boom.

After Kuafu died, his body turned into a great mountain, which everyone today calls “Mt. Kuafu”.


Hou Yi Shoots the Suns

In the Eastern side of the Ocean there was a place called Tang’gu. In this place there grew a giant tree called Fu Sang, and atop this tree there lived ten brothers who were all Suns. Every day they would send one brother to work in the sky, and the rest would go play in the sea.  The next day a different one would go out. For thousands of years the ten Suns all stuck to this plan; they followed the scheduled order and each carried out his own duty.

However, one day the youngest Sun brother thought that going on every single day like that was just too boring, so he persuaded his older brothers that the next day they should all go out of the valley together and play in the sky all day. The next day, the Celestial Jade Rooster crowed and the Sun brothers all ran out as fast as they could. But while this was happening, the people across the whole world were suffering a calamity. The ground was like fire, the surface of the earth had baked and split open into thin cracks, farm crops and tree leaves were roasted to a crisp, and water in the rivers all dried up.

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The people had no choice but to hide indoors and try their best to drink water, but there was not enough, and many people fell unconscious from thirst. It was terrible. Even the poisonous snakes and ferocious beasts were too hot to move. They became extremely violent natured, and they came out of the ancient woods of the deep mountains to eat and torment the people.

The Emperor of the Human World, Yao Di, could do nothing but worry, and the people all prayed for the Emperor of Heaven, Tian Di to save them. Tian Di was alarmed. He summoned the mythic Archer Hou Yi to come to the Heavenly Court where he bestowed upon him a bow and ten arrows. He then bade him go to the human world and get rid of the poisonous snakes and ferocious beasts, and while he was at it, to put a stop to the ten Sun’s mischief.

Hou Yi descended to the material world; he saw he was in a yellow and withered place with more animals dying of starvation and more people dying of thirst than he could count. He was both shocked and grieved. He raised his head and saw the ten Suns playing by opening their mouths and spitting out flames. He was immediately filled with rage toward Heaven. He nocked an arrow in his bow and cast a murderous look to frighten them away. But the Suns were not afraid and kept on spitting flames. Hou Yi was very angry. He took aim at one of the Suns and –woosh—let the arrow fly.

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All that could be seen was a giant fiery ball falling –hua-la-la—out of the sky and down to earth. The people ran over to take a look and it turned out to be a three legged golden crow. The remaining nine Suns became frightened and ran away screaming in all directions. Hou Yi loosed another two arrows, and there were only seven Suns remaining in the sky. For fear that the remaining Suns would continue to wreak havoc, the people cried out with one voice to shoot them all down. He fired the Celestial arrows one after another into the air, and the Suns fell one after another to the ground.

Very soon, the weather became cool again, and the people began to cheer joufully. Then, Yao Di suddenly realized: the human world could not exist without the Sun, otherwise all living things and people would have no way to live, so he selected one person to sneak up to Hou Yi’s quiver and take out one arrow.

After shooting down nine of the Suns, Hou Yi wanted to shoot down the very last Sun, but he discovered his arrows were already all used up, and he had no choice but to stop. The one remaining Sun did not dare to make more trouble. Three hundred and sixty-five days a year, every day he obediently rose in the East and set in the West, working diligently. The earth was quickly restored and was once more full of life.

The common people were very grateful to Hou Yi and surrounded him with praise. However, because Hou Yi had killed the Emperor’s own nine sons, Tian Di became very angry, and banished him to the mortal world.


Chang’e Journeys to the Moon

The mythical Archer Hou Yi felled the nine Suns and saved everyone, but he had committed a crime against Tian Di, the Emperor of Heaven, so he and his wife Chang’e were banished to the mortal world. Honest and kindhearted Hou Yi decided that in the mortal world he would do even more good works for the sake of the ordinary people, but Chang’e could not get used to how difficult life was in the human world, so she complained to Hou Yi nearly every day.

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Hou Yi understood his wife’s frustration very well, and he also felt a little bit guilty. He heard tell that in the West, on Mt. Kunlun, the Queen Mother of the West, Xi Wangmu had a potion of immortality, so he crossed mountains and waded rivers to get to Kunlun Mountain, to ask the Queen Mother for this potion. However, all that remained of the potion was one small pearl, Xi Wangmu said, “If each of you takes but half of this potion of immortality, then you can both live a very long time without growing old; however, if only one takes it, that one will become an immortal and fly back to Heaven.”

After Hou Yi brought the potion back home, he talked it over with Chang’e and they decided to each take half the potion and live together forever in the human world as loving husband and wife.

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One evening, Hou Yi had not yet returned from outside; Chang’e gazed into the sky and felt lonely. She began to reminisce about the carefree times when they lived as immortals and wanted to return alone to the Temple in Heaven. Just as she thought this, there came the distant sound of horses hoof beats. Hou Yi was returning home. 

She made up her mind and quickly took out the little pearl that was the potion of immortality and swallowed it in one mouthful. Before long, she slowly began to rise from the floor. Hou Yi looked up and saw Chang’e flying away. Anxiously he cried out, “Chang’e! Don’t leave me!” Chang’e heard his cries and felt a sour pain in her heart, and as she continued floating off, she turned her head to watch Hou Yi. 

Very soon, she arrived at the gates of Heaven. Many immortals were gathered around and talking non-stop. They all said she had betrayed Hou Yi and that she was a brazen woman. Chang’e felt too ashamed to return to the Temple in Heaven again, so she turned around and flew on to the Moon instead. She did not realize that the Guang Han Gong, the Temple of the Moon would be so cold and lonely. There was only a little Jade Rabbit and a Toad. qqr0003694465pr6474

Chang’e was very lonely, and she could not help but think of her loving life together with Hou Yi in the human world and feel regret. Now, she can do nothing but stand under the laurel tree by the Moon Palace and gaze upon the distant human world.