People’s Park in the Sky

People’s Park In The Sky is a peculiar attraction located about 60 kilometers south of Manila in Tagaytay, a popular leisure destination in the province of Cavite in the Philippines. Perched on top of Mount Sungay at an elevation of 709 meters, the highest point on the northern rim of the immense Taal Caldera, it was originally planned to be a palace suitable for state visits during the kleptocratic reign of Ferdinand Marcos. Construction began in 1979 with a drastic leveling of the mountaintop, which previously reached 759 meters, but ground to a halt with increasing civic unrest and the cancellation of Ronald Reagan’s state visit in 1983. Following the People Power Revolution of 1986 the unfinished mansion was transformed into a public park and monument to the greed, corruption, and excess of the Marcos era.

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Taipei’s Xiaonanmen 臺北府城小南門

Today is winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, and it is a record-breaking 30°C in Taipei 台北. In Chinese culture it is customary to consume tangyuan 湯圓 (glutinous rice balls typically immersed in hot, sweet soup) on winter solstice, better known to locals as Dongzhi 冬至, a time when families gather together and celebrate growing one year older. Since I have no family here I will be lining up at 36 Yuanzi Shop 三六圓仔店 for a bowl sometime later on—though I might just skip this particular ritual if the line-up is too crazy. Two years ago I was informed, contrary to expectations, that you won’t actually age without eating tangyuan on dongzhi. If I miss it this year I suppose I won’t mind.

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An Alien Holiday

The seasons are changing here in Taiwan. It is getting cooler up north—and winter rain is sure to follow. People on the streets are starting to bundle up and some are even wearing parkas and such. I am holding onto summer as long as I can, sticking to short sleeves until I can’t stand it any longer. Admittedly it was rather chilly today—but it warms the cockles of my heart to play the role of oblivious nordic emissary here in subtropical Asia.

Today I stepped out into the crisp afternoon air and noticed an unusually striking blue and white Christmas tree in front of the Taiwan Adventist Hospital 臺安醫院 in Sōngshān District 松山區. This apparition failed to stir within me any feelings of nostalgia and holiday cheer. Instead there was something oddly alienating about the scene, a feeling similar to what I sometimes experience when taking a chance on western food in the more remote parts of the nation. Imagine ordering “french toast” only to have it materialize at your table without ever coming into contact with anyone who’s actually had french toast before. It might be the same general idea but there’s something off about it.

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Crossing the Central Mountain Range of Taiwan 中央山脈機車之旅

In the summer of 2014 I was nearing the end of my first sojourn in Taiwan. By the beginning of August I would be in Canada for a wedding in the family with no idea what I’d be doing after that. Since I wasn’t sure if I would be returning to Taiwan I made vague plans to go on a road trip. With only about a week to go before my departure the weather took an ominous turn as Typhoon Matmo 麥德姆 barrelled toward the island. On July 20th, with the pressure of time bearing down on us, my girlfriend and I hopped on a 125cc scooter—the same kind of dinky, puttering scooter you see people riding around any Taiwanese town—and set out from Changhua 彰化 with the goal of crossing the Central Mountain Range 中央山脈 at Wuling 武陵, the highest paved (and publicly-accessible) mountain pass in Taiwan at 3,275 meters above sea level. With luck, time and weather permitting, we’d be able to visit Hehuanshan 合歡山 and maybe even drive down into the amazingly scenic Taroko Gorge 太魯閣峽谷 on the east side of the island.

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The Dark Side of Seoul

Today the weather changed. Rain has given way to light snow, strong winds, and subarctic temperatures. Gusts of up to 60 km/h have rattled windows and knocked over street furniture. After drying my shoes from the previous night’s misadventures I left my hostel for Insadong, intent on grabbing a hearty breakfast, but as the minutes began to drag I only allowed myself time to grab one of those delicious mung bean pancakes and a coffee. I didn’t know it at the time but I was bound for one of the darker parts of Seoul.

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A Crash Course in Korean Culture

My time in Seoul has been far more hospitable thanks to the assistance of a family friend, Ellen, who teaches English here. I am extremely grateful that we met in this distant land. It is one thing to have a local guide to show you around and another thing entirely to have someone from your own culture who really understands your motivations for travel. It isn’t simply that we communicate well, though we do—she also gets my travelling style in a way that most people wouldn’t, not without a great deal of explanation.

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