Waiao Beach Cleanup After Typhoon Talim

Waiao Beach cleanup volunteers

As inclement weather likes to do, Typhoon Talim left a big mark, despite missing Taiwan on its way to Japan. Even when Taiwan gets a lucky miss, the winds still bring the junk. A lot of junk. So last Sunday, I headed off to Yilan 宜蘭 with Taiwan Adventure Outings for a Waiao Beach cleanup 外澳. Shoutout to National Chengchi University for joining the fun (and going surfing after).

Usually Waiao is in great shape because the locals farm the beach. There’s also a surf, paragliding, hostel, and pizza business. But a handful of humans can’t compete with typhoon-force winds. The local ghost, Trash Baby, will follow you home if you don’t pick up after yourself. Maybe that’s true and maybe it’s not (probably not). Although do you really want to test the patience of a baby? I didn’t think so.

Here’s a few photos from our Waiao Beach cleanup. If it’s watermarked, pretty much all of them, it’s Ryan Hevern Photography. (Buy a print!) For more about beach cleanup in Taiwan, here’s a little something I wrote around National Taiwan Clean Up Day. Read about it. And come with us next month to Jinshan Beach!

Polystyrene that washes onto Waiao Beach looks just like fish food

Polystyrene that washes onto Waiao Beach looks just like fish food

Fishermens' nets like to make themselves at home on the beach

Fishermens’ nets like to make themselves at home on the beach

Dustin Craft, one half of Taiwan Adventure Outings

Dustin Craft, one half of Taiwan Adventure Outings

The Waiao Beach locals provide burlap sacks for collecting trash

Waiao locals provide burlap sacks for collecting trash

A pufferfish washed onto Waiao Beach

A pufferfish washed onto the beach. Also, finally — one of my own photos!

Ryan Hevern Photography - another half of Taiwan Adventure Outings

Ryan Hevern Photography – another half of Taiwan Adventure Outings

Waiao Beach cleanup bounty

Waiao Beach cleanup bounty

Meet Trash Baby, the local ghost of Waiao Beach. Pick up after yourself or it'll follow you home.

Meet Trash Baby, the local ghost of Waiao Beach

River Tracing to Jinyue Waterfall in Yilan

Lupi River Tracing in Yilan, Taiwan - Aohua Waterfall

The Upper Jinyue Waterfall (Courtesy: V. Lam)

Last week, I took Tuesday off to explore Taiwan’s east coast and go river tracing 溹溪 (suo xi)! The path takes us along the Lupi Creek 鹿皮溪, past a 8m-tall natural waterslide, to the main show — 25m-high Jinyue Waterfall 金岳瀑布.

Dustin made a short video about the trace for his travel consulting company, Taiwan Adventure Outings. Reach out to them if you’re visiting Taiwan and looking for outdoor fun like this. Check it out:

It was also the 4th of July! There’s no official way to celebrate that in Taiwan. At least the American Institute in Taiwan hasn’t had anything to say about it (if I’m wrong, let me know). We decided on chasing waterfalls with a few Bud Heavys. Happy birthday, ‘Murica.

Lupi River Tracing in Yilan, Taiwan - Drinking Budweiser

The 8m-tall natural waterslide (Courtesy: Richard Saunders)

River Tracing in Taiwan

So it’s been awhile since I’ve done anything like river tracing. Just rock scrambling along the American River in California some two years ago. In Taiwan, there’s more interest in river tracing, but it seems to be considered one of the riskier activities because people (and guides) aren’t always taking safety measures. For example, going out when the forecast calls for flash floods.

A few essentials Dustin, and common sense, insists on:

  • Helmet, in case you fall at an odd angle
  • Rubber Boots, for grip on slippery rocks
  • Life Jacket, if you can’t swim
  • Waterproof bag, for personal items

A few weeks ago, some tracers died taking the same path. They got caught in a whirlpool and instead of letting nature spin them out, they fought it. Sadly, swimming is not a big thing here. In fact, during September, Taiwanese people avoid going into the water because it’s Ghost Month 鬼月. “Evil spirits that had drowned may try to drown the swimmer to gain a chance at rebirth.”

Lupi River Tracing

Maybe one of those spirits got the months confused and made its way into my iPhone, because it’s dead. The iPhone 7 Plus’s military IP67 rating means it’s waterproof if immersed for 30 minutes in 1m of water. But, this iPhone was in and out, here and there. The Lupi trace is mostly knee-deep water.

Very little swimming is involved, and when you are, you’re going against the current. One thing to watch out for. When the water is waist high, you risk losing your center of gravity (It figures, doesn’t it).

Once you clear the initial waterslide – also called the Lower Jinyue – a path on the right side takes you a little further up. A few minutes later, you’re back in the creek. From there, I’d say it’s about 1-2 hours of scrambling to the waterfall.

I’d recommend bringing a camera that’s more rugged. Something designed for the outdoors, like Dustin’s Go-Pro or an Olympus TG-5. My last iPhone (which was not IP67-rated) survived a dip in the rapids, so it’s fair to say it’ll survive a toss in the sink or the pool. Don’t take it on wet adventures.

Because my iPhone’s getting surgery, enjoy more of Vin’s pics.

Lupi River Tracing in Yilan, Taiwan - Selfie Lupi River Tracing in Yilan, Taiwan - Philip Chang Checking Phone Lupi River Tracing in Yilan, Taiwan - Golden Silk Orb-Weaver Spider Lupi River Tracing in Yilan, Taiwan - BudweiserTaiwan Adventure Outings is also running a TravelStarter campaign to raise funds for a 12-passenger van, in case you’re feeling generous!

‘Our Time Will Come’ (明月幾時有) and its International Debut at the Taipei Film Festival

Zhou Xu plays protagonist Fan Lan in Our Time Will Come (Courtesy: NYT)

Zhou Xu plays heroine Fang Lan in ‘Our Time Will Come’ (Courtesy: NYT)

I was invited to last night’s debut of ‘Our Time Will Come’ 明月幾時有, at the Taipei Film Festival. I’ll get to the point. I really enjoyed it.

A true story, the film is about the day-to-day efforts of resistance fighters against Japanese-occupied Hong Kong during World War 2.

Our hero is Fang Lan, an unassuming but rebellious primary school teacher who grows to become leader of a guerrilla unit. The film centers on Lan’s personal relationships with young fighters and her elderly single mother.

Neo Noir

Director Ann Hui – Hong Kong’s most award-winning filmmaker – took an approach that’s part documentary-style, incorporating interviews with people who lived the story. Including, many stationery shots from the bottom-up, to give the audience a sense of spying on characters (who are hiding in plain sight).

So this style isn’t out-of-place for films from the 1940s. ‘Our Time Will Come’ is a film noir played out in Hong Kong. Trust is a major issue. The central character is an anti-hero, the Japanese commander is an anti-villain. Even the documentary aspect is shot in black & white, and flashes back and forward. Hui hits a lot of other tropes of this genre. These are just the most obvious ones. There’s more you’ll spot in the trailers.

It’s also beautifully scored. That has nothing to do with film noir. I just felt like mentioning that.

If you can, see it in Cantonese — the language the resistance would have spoken. In Taiwan, Our Time Will Come is dubbed in Chinese, with English subtitles.

Our Time Will Come and Taiwan

The male leads are both from Taiwan. But why Taiwanese people should care is there aren’t many films covering life in Japanese-occupied Chinese (ethnically) territories during World War 2 (WW2). In these areas, it wasn’t daily business as usual. But people still had to do the same things they had to do. Residents weren’t always at odds with each other.

Those films that do, typically focus more on combat, love in the time of war, and have a very aggressive portrayal of Japanese soldiers. Hui made a character-driven piece, not a war epic. Identity, not international politics.

Anyway, what does Taiwan have to do with Hong Kong? Taiwan was also a Japanese-occupied Chinese territory, although for a much longer period of time. This topic is far more complex than I can give it space for. It’s also not really about Taiwan or Hong Kong or China or Japan.

The best way I know how to summarize it is how people’s sense of self and way of life is squeezed, when they feel like they are under the rule of an occupying force. Americans know this feeling (Brexit 1776, cough). People in Hong Kong and Taiwan have felt it at different times in different ways. I’ll leave it there.

The Resistance Against Japanese-Occupied Hong Kong


“The Hong Kong government has never officially recognized the efforts of the East River Column.” – Chang Sui-Jeung


Hong Kong’s WW2 resistance is a story that hasn’t really been told. Largely, only in local literature. And even then, mostly forgotten — try Googling it.

As Chang Sui-Jeung 陳瑞璋, author of “East River Column: Hong Kong Guerrillas in the Second World War and After” points out, the Hong Kong government has never officially recognized the efforts of the East River Column. This is partly because the group was supported by Chinese communist leaders.

It goes without saying that Hong Kong has a complicated relationship with communist China. Even today. Some believe recognizing the East River Brigade means acknowledging communist China’s role in freeing Japanese-held Hong Kong. I don’t like getting involved in politics. I do think it’s helpful for people to see that what once was true, wasn’t always, and may not be, in the future.

The most political the film gets is a scene depicting the smuggling of intellectuals out of China. A true story. Considering the Communist Party’s role in their own purge of many thought leaders, and the ups and downs of the Cultural Revolution, this is going to surprise people. Chinese history is complicated.

Some people mention there’s other Communist propaganda here. For example, our heroes, although spirited, are mostly tasked with ordinary things and honored for their bravery. Empowering young people with doing what is necessary, while encouraging them to come together for a common cause is a theme of films made during the Cultural Revolution. And, almost every other wartime movie ever made. I’m not a China scholar. It’s possible some people read too much into this. That’s just my personal opinion.

The Cantonese trailer for the Hong Kong market has more action:

Audience Q&A

Cast of 'Our Time Will Come' at Taipei Film Festival

Cast of ‘Our Time Will Come’ at Taipei Film Festival

A lot of the Q&A had to do with the film’s usefulness as a political tool. Is it a true story? What politics does it reflect? Is it really a true story? Understandable, since we’re on the lip of the 20th anniversary of the Chinese takeover of British Hong Kong. And, Taiwan has its own complicated relationship with China.

Filmmaking is an inherently political exercise. Although, character-driven movies are about people. Politics helps establish culture. The political machinery sets the scene. But this type of film is about the artistry revealed of the character’s emotions and decision-making process. This story is particular because of the protagonist’s courage. Sense-making. And strengths as an independent woman.


Sacrificing for each other while doing ordinary things at an extraordinary time.


A lot of people will be drawn to this film because of the war of that time, and the present debate going on over how Hong Kong should be ruled. However, people fighting for their everyday lives is a rich enough context, and this is where the film exists. Sacrificing for each other while doing ordinary things at an extraordinary time. Like ‘The Pianist,’ ‘Our Time Will Come’ is a glimpse into the treasure chest of forgotten stories from this era.

It’s controversial for a lot of the wrong reasons, which is unfortunate because there are a lot of other unintentionally “contemporary” themes here. The single mother. Lan’s refusal to get married for the sake of getting married. Maternal bonds. Parents just don’t understand. And a few others that are totally relatable.

Director Ann Hui and actress Deanie Ip share a moment

Director Ann Hui and actress Deanie Ip share a moment with the audience

Teaming Up to Solve Taiwan’s Pollution Problems: National Taiwan Clean Up Day at Jinshan Beach

National Taiwan Clean Up Day in Taipei TimesJinshan Beach along the north coast was trashed by the time our crew got there on National Taiwan Clean Up Day. So, perfect conditions!

One Brown Planet discovered a full-grown bamboo stalk that we used to load five bags at once. A photo of us with our bounty made the front of the Taipei Times, the most read English newspaper in Taiwan.

Wait, what’s National Taiwan Clean Up Day? This year, volunteers cleared trash from beaches around Taiwan. My American friends who run Taiwan Adventure Outings started it to get in touch with what we have to do to keep Taiwan beautiful. A place locals want to love, and a place travelers want to visit. So, you get a mix of people who come out and want to do something good for each other.

A Little Bit about the Culture of Volunteer Work in Taiwan

National Taiwan Clean Up Day probably shouldn’t have been headline news. But in Taiwan, this is the kind of work many locals full-on dodge because there’s an element of public shaming amongst some out-dated people. Keep in mind that this is anecdotal:

  • Volunteer work isn’t a big thing because it’s still work and people want to get paid for work. People in Taiwan often work long hours and try to spend more of it with their families. Groups like ours do get together. But some Taiwanese also believe we are here because we don’t have families to spend time with. Like I said, out-dated, to the core. Besides, once you get to a certain point in your life — your friends are your family.
  • People may think you’re doing some kind of community service. Did you do something wrong? People might gossip in an aw-shucks kind of way about what that could be. And locals love to gossip about what expats are doing. If you’re as lucky as I am, they’ll ask you directly. I mean that, because I’d rather deal with issues head-on. Give people something good to talk about!
  • Other than outdoorsmen (and women), most Taiwanese go out of their way to avoid getting tan. Some say it makes a person look like a blue-collar worker. Which is a disarming cultural exchange, because Americans see tan and ask where you went on vacation.

Universally, people think there’s always someone else around who will clean up for them — that’s not a Taiwan thing. I wouldn’t point this out if the local characteristic weren’t a little more particular than that, though. People in Taiwan focus more on doing what they’re supposed to because of the rule-of-law that bosses and elders have in East Asian culture. Unfortunately, that also means people leave it to others to “do their jobs.” What does that mean? Someone else will do something about it.

That someone else is us! Because garbage is a problem on Taiwan beaches. Why is there so much trash on the beach? Well, Taiwanese people don’t often go to the beach, so the sands get less attention than they should.

Jinshan Beach before cleanup (Courtesy: XpatMatt)

Speaking for myself, beach clean up is a kind of payback I do for all the beautiful scenery I experience around Taiwan. I don’t deserve any special credit; it’s just being human. And it’s a fantastic way to make new friends who care about the outdoors. Doing this kind of volunteer work also makes obvious the other effects of pollution on quality-of-life. Like food safety, and tourism.

That brings us to the way I see National Clean Up Day. A model for how locals and expats can take on several of these problems at once, through a simple intervention like partnering with each other. We make it meaningful, we make it fun (clearly), and we make it count.

Let’s talk more about these problems.

Singing Garbage Trucks That Clean Cities

Every now and then the Taiwanese show me awesome ingenuity. The cities’ musical garbage trucks is one of my favorite examples. “From Garbage Island to one of the world’s top recyclers, Taiwan (now) keeps its garbage disposal in check.”

However, whatever 垃圾 (lèsè) isn’t thrown away or incinerated tends to end up in nature. If you can’t see something, does it exist? Maybe not. Until the 100 inches of annual rainfall Taiwan gets washes it down to the beach.

Sometimes people go one step further and burn garbage at the beach by digging a hole, setting a fire, and covering it up. Over time, the sand moves, and the trash rises to the top. The ocean also brings in its own garbage from other places. The situation at Jinshan is, well, it’s not great. Mostly, it’s just a lot more of the usual.

      • Plastic (bottles, bags, helmets)
      • Aluminum cans
      • Rubber pieces, gloves, parts of tires
      • Broken glass
      • Small appliances
      • Hypodermic needles
      • Somebody’s hand

Okay, I’m kidding about the hand. But this time, the beach looked as if it was carpet-bombed by plastic shrapnel. New pieces, always surfacing. It’s just a guess. Seems the last time they gave Jinshan Beach a facelift, they brought in cheap sand from the bottom of the river — another place where people used to do their dumping.

Taiwan’s EPA


“Everything that happened in the U.S. in the 60’s is happening in Taiwan now.”


There are still locals who remember when many of these rivers were clear and the water was drinkable. Then, factories and growing towns began dumping more chemicals, and trash into rivers. Two of the assumptions I’ve heard are believing the rushing water would cycle out whatever was unnatural, and that the fish would eat the waste. A two-some of wishful thinking.

People came up with their own reasons for justifying dumping. As an early administrator of Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Agency, Jaw Shau-Kong 趙少康, explains, “When people are poor, their only concern is making money. They say, ‘When we become rich, we’ll do something about the environment.’ But once they become rich, they find it’s too late. That’s the way it always is.

Tamsui River Garbage Dump Site in Taiwan Today

Typhoons clear these dump sites at rivers. (Courtesy: Taiwan Today)

Speaking of, in 1987, Taiwan started its own Environmental Protection Agency, realizing “everything that happened in the U.S. in the 60’s is happening in Taiwan now.” At the time, Chang Kow-lung, a physics professor at National Taiwan University, told the New York Times, “nearly every river has been polluted to the extent that the water is pronounced dead — it is dead water.”

For a bureaucracy, the EPA acted quickly, but by 2000, illegal dumping was still only illegal-by-day, according to this letter in Nature magazine. “Taiwan currently has just one secure landfill, in Kaohsiung. It cannot handle all the toxic waste it produces, hence the government is seeking cash-starved countries that will dispose of it for a hefty fee. In a high-profile case last year, Cambodia returned 2,700 tons of Taiwan’s mercury-laced waste after several deaths near the disposal site.

It’s not as drastic now. Taiwan is in much better shape than the United States and other Asian countries — like China. The government is heavy into clean up. Natural restoration. And getting more serious about penalties. In 2013, Taiwan shut down ASE’s K7 plant in Kaohsiung. ASE was discharging “industrial wastewater containing the heavy metal nickel and other toxic substances into a nearby river.”

Practical Considerations for Daily Living

Every action has a totally unexpected WTF reaction, when it comes to dumping toxic chemicals. In the Kaohsiung case, it was also affecting rice paddies down the river. One of the reasons some Taiwan foodies swear by importing their rice from Japan.

The average person doesn’t have to care about saving the planet. They should care about their surroundings. There are practical considerations affecting quality of life for ordinary Taiwanese, like this example. It’s not like you can throw a couple of magic eggs into a wok and fry the heavy metals out of the rice.


“When people are poor, their only concern is making money. They say, ‘When we become rich, we’ll do something about the environment.’ But once they become rich, they find it’s too late. That’s the way it always is.” – Head of Taiwan EPA


Also, recreation. Huang Tsai-Jung grew up near the Tamsui River. “It was very clean, es­pecially during high tide, and when you dove into the water you could see bril­liantly colored fish.” What stands out to me is the span in which this level of pollution happened took less than two generations to take root.

Taiwan’s iconic Sun Moon Lake isn’t invincible, either. The lake is a much different now than 20 years ago, because of fertilizer run-off. Sun Moon Lake is still a beautiful lake nestled in the central mountains. But tourists like myself are figuring out the bureau sometimes uses old photos. Good thing people have Instagram!

Tacos, Corona, and Clean Up! Or, How to Attract Tourists

Taiwan is constantly asking itself what it can do to bring more travelers. It’s a big question that deserves more than this paragraph, but the simplest thing everyone can do is to clean up after themselves.

When we were done, Jinshan Beach became a little more like the kind of beach that looks clean, not just from afar. On a good day, surfers come here, looking for an under-the-radar cove. There are a lot of positives to having surfers around. They clean up after themselves (usually). They’re friendly. They bring friends. And they tend to be Westerners, whom Taiwanese love to see.

In fact, I’m pretty sure if you told the local residents that to draw more Western tourists, all you had to do was: 1) Clean up the beach, and 2) Open a tacos and Corona stand, they’d be on it.

So, Jinshan and a lot of other lightly populated areas like it has the potential for much more casual tourism. Only if people take better care of the land.

Jinshan Beach Bridge in Taiwan

The bridge to Jinshan Beach. In the back, you can see Yehliu Geopark.

Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau kind of already knows this.

Taoyuan International Airport greets travelers with beautiful large format images of some of Taiwan’s statement destinations. Many of the more popular stops are starting to become overrun by trash. Same as in every country, but in Taiwan, it’s lately gotten worse. A combination of having a reputation for beautiful scenery, and a reputation for low cost of traveling. You end up having to go further out – like Hehuanshan – to get to the good stuff.

For Taiwan to stay special, the most popular hikes can’t involve colonies of fleas at the summit, because hikers are leaving their garbage behind. It’s normal to find garbage at the top of many California mountains, but you shouldn’t find it at Yangmingshan Mountain, if we’re assuming Taiwan’s goal is to bring in more foreign visitors. Isn’t it?

No one comes to Taiwan to see the garbage. Taiwan is still much, much cleaner than many other places in Asia, but those places don’t have the same reputation Taiwan has for scenery. Making Taiwan a more beautiful place to live and visit is a project locals and expats need to continue working on.

If you’d like to join the next beach clean up, Contact Me or TAO! They’re also running a TravelStarter campaign to raise funds for a 12-passenger van, in case you’re feeling generous!

Jinshan Beach Surf Scene

Jinshan Beach, after the clean up

Hehuanshan Mountain West Peak: 3,400 Meters High on the Border of Nantou and Hualien

As nature likes to do, the rain didn’t take any time letting us know who’s the boss at Hehuanshan (合歡山, or Mount Hehuan) in central Taiwan. At least it helped us realize we’re the kind of people who smile when it pours. And why shouldn’t we? Inclement weather kept everyone else in Taiwan from having a look around 3,400 meters high. For most of the hike, the 8-km trail to West Peak was ours.

Hehuanshan is deceptive. Most of the area’s peaks are straightforward and you can reach several 3000m peaks in a day. For example, the East Peak is just a lot of stairs. Most people can get to and from North Peak in a morning; no problem. Another peak is a rest stop along Highway 14.

These are the places most visitors throw up deuces, take a group photo, and stop pressing on. There’s nothing wrong with that, because the views from the road are incredible. It’s still kind of a shame, because it gets even better.

Getting to West Peak is…

On a clear day, it’ll take you a half day of hiking to get to West Peak, and then there’s the matter of getting back. There’s an obvious, rough trail all the way there. So, it’s not technical, not savage, but not for snowflakes, either. Taiwan Waterfalls gives it a 5/5 for difficulty (see below).

Last week, a hiker was choppered out after getting a blister on their foot. Blisters are painful! But it seems a lot of people underestimate these heights because they heard about the place from people who only hit the easy peaks. Like I was saying, no snowflakes.

This is a topographical map of Hehuanshan, thanks to The World is Not That Big. When Highway 14 was built – the highest road in East Asia, by the way – the locals built roads to or near all the other peaks, but left West Peak alone. It’s out of the way for good reasons.

If you want to thru-hike (hike in one direction), there’s allegedly a service road down by the Hehuan River, and you could hire someone to drop you off. Note that Hehuan River isn’t marked in Google Maps, like it is here in Chinese. You won’t see the service road on either map.

Part of the Central Mountain Range along the “backbone of Taiwan,” this trail is also the border between Nantou and Hualien county. It’s the western edge of Taroko Gorge National Park, and part of its watershed. Way further east, rapids rush through even deeper grooves through the mountains. Gorge-ous.

I see these beautiful and devastating cliffs, and immediately understand why the government chose to place the Nantou-Hualien borders exactly where they are. No one in their practical mind wants to take the technical path down and up these ravines.

Trail permits are still reqiured to come out here – which just means registering at the nearest police station – although this area no longer requires special government permission to venture around.

The military once had a training facility by East Peak, and they still use this area. Some cable cars they put up here were turned into a ski lift that’s now just ruins. A combination of bad roads, inconsistent snow, and at best, 15 seconds of pow pow gnar gnar is the story of the ski business in Taiwan. This is from an 1983 issue of Taiwan Review, about Hehuanshan Ski Resort:

“During our stay on the mountain, the cable lift had broken down. Ski meis­ters and green hands alike had to spend 15 minutes climbing the 150-meter slope, just to slide down in 15 seconds. Most of the novices, not knowing how to stop or change directions, would fall on their backs to break their speed. When one of them crashed into one of our colleagues, we broke into cold sweat. He turned a somersault and lay flat for several minutes before we finally got him up.”

Getting permissions probably has something to do with the military, but there is a lot of biodiversity here — some being researched, some used for traditional medicines. That’s worth protecting, also!

You could go off-trail if you really want to, but you’re faced with this and that on the near side of the mountain. There’s really nothing preventing you from going down the ravine if you’re not paying attention. Around here, you don’t have to try very hard to get lost, or hurt.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, like these guys who came here to snowboard.

I wrote earlier that the trail is clear, if rough. Getting to West Peak requires quite a bit of scrambling and rope climbing.

Green on Green on Green. I mean, we could be in Ireland. Sometimes, it felt like we were on our own spirit quest. The challenge and beauty of the terrain leaves you feeling a little more empathetic, more human once you’ve reached the end.

Thick seas of clouds can be an issue for a lot of visitors, but we saw no reason to complain — mostly, because we were taking pictures of them. The area is actually known for its clouds, and because they’re always shifting because of violent winds, you’ll never really see the same view twice.

Finding A Place To Stay Near Hehuanshan

We made our own campground along the trail. You can also camp in the visitor center’s parking lot, for free. If you need a trail guide, talk to my friends Ryan and Dustin, who run Taiwan Adventure Outings!

If you’re looking for something more, indoors, Song Syue Lodge (松雪樓), is the place most people recommend. Sitting at 3,150 meters, Song Syue is generally considered the highest lodge in Taiwan. They also have an oxygen room in case you get altitude sickness.

There are many more hotels in Nantou county’s Ren’ai Township, about 1-1.5 hours due west. You’ll see them on your way, if you take the Nantou route to Hehuanshan (and you should). A few other tourist attractions are also nearby, like Cingjing Farm, the Small Swiss Garden, tea farms, and Aowanda National Forest. There’s much to see here — Central Taiwan is a gifted place.

Learning Mandarin Chinese Is Hard

Have I mentioned Chinese is hard to learn? Tens of thousands of words made up from thousands of characters. Once you know how to say the characters, now form complete thoughts with them. Otherwise, Chinese sounds like this:

If English Were Written Like Chinese

I formally began last year and did it, formally, for two months at National Taiwan Normal University. I’ve been self-learning, since then. Why? My uni has free classes for foreigners. But I’m a dual national, so I can’t enroll. Bogus, since anyone knows my country-music-listening-self understands I’m American > Asian.

Learning Chinese is hard, but it pays off. Here's me, surviving an hour-long radio interview in Chinese, about sustainability trends amongst corporates. Thankfully, it was pre-recorded.

Survived an hour-long interview in Chinese about corporate sustainability trends. Learning Chinese is hard, but speaking is easier if the program is pre-recorded.

Anyway, nine months in, I’ve come to realize a few things about how people learn Chinese. I have, to varying degrees, personal experience with all of the below.

1. Many foreign guys studying Chinese in Taiwan develop a quasi-feminine accent. A) Taiwan Chinese is softer and lighter on tones than mainland Chinese, and B) Most teachers are women, so you pick up feminine speech patterns — just another reason learning Chinese is hard.

2. If you learn Chinese in China, you’ll pick up the feminine speech patterns, anyway, from your female Chinese teacher. And if you have a Chinese girlfriend, you might inadvertently double down on these ladyboy habits. You need to learn Chinese outside the classroom.

3. Learning Chinese outside Asia might be toughest. There are great advantages to being here. Even if you earn a masters degree in the U.S. and learn 3,000 characters, you might not know the correct pronunciation or use case. Vocabulary is only the beginning! Comprehension is the goal.

3,000 Pictograms, I Mean, Characters

Why 3,000 characters? There’s actually many more. “An educated Chinese person will know about 8,000 characters,” says the BBC.  Just a subset of the 80,000+ that are out there, if you ask Stanford University. Hang on while I delete some files from my brain to make room for more Chinese.

3,000 just puts you at the middle school level. So after you learn 3,000 Chinese wingdings, congratulate yourself for finishing 8th grade. Here’s the first 100.

100 Chinese Characters Every Beginner Needs to Remember

100 Simplified Chinese Characters Every Beginner Needs to Remember

Then, you smash them together to form terms and learn how that changes context. Each character is just a building block for a word you want to say. So the combinations are, well… According to research by Ashwin Purohit, there are 41,513 common words made up from 3,848 unique characters. Skeptical or need a data project for a statistics class? Here are Ashwin’s data files.


41,513 common words made up from 3,848 unique characters.


These evaluations are just for simplified Chinese, the kind that mainland China uses. Some of the people I’ve spoken to, and myself, believe 6,000 words should be the target for traditional Chinese speakers.

What’s the difference? Well, the Chinese speaking world outside mainland China, including Hong Kong, uses traditional Chinese. The Simplified creation was a Chinese government initiative to improve literacy rates, because well, Chinese is hard. Simplified Chinese uses fewer strokes to write characters, merging many that sound similar. Traditional Chinese forms are more numerous, require more strokes, and easier to recognize.

Rote Memorization

Growing up, I wondered why the emphasis on rote memorization in all forms of learning. Then I realized, this is exactly how people learn Chinese. One. Character. At. A. Time. And since language is one of the first high functioning tasks you learn how to do — it just catches on.

Sadly, I didn’t learn enough Chinese as a kid to pick up the magic ability of memorizing facts just so I can repeat them on tests. Which, by the way, isn’t really magic at all. Just habits. Because it’s the same way everyone else learns. Chinese, and tests, is difficult for everybody.

Placing memorization in perspective, many Western adults know somewhere between “20,000 and 35,000 words,” according to The Economist. Memorizing 3,000 characters doesn’t so sound bad. Still…

System Learning

Is there a better way to learn Chinese? Yes, and all of them suck. David Moser at the Beijing Capital Normal University tells a joke: “One of the first signs of senility in a China scholar is the compulsion to come up with a new romanization method.”

Bopomofo (also known as Zhuyin). Local school children use bopomofo, a phonetic system, to learn words, but you still have to learn the 37 symbols and 4 tones. Also, you won’t see these symbols in public. Courtesy of Omniglot:

Chinese Bopomofo Pronunciation Chart

Radicals. Most systems incorporate learning a few of the 214 radicals. These are parts of characters that give you a clue what the word is about. These diagrams do a good job of explaining the concept. On top, you see how these radicals form characters.

Chinese Radicals Construction

The downside of radicals is that they won’t help you remember how to pronounce characters, but they help you recognize them. That’s a good start. Below, the radical for fire at the left, 火, is used to indicate fry (8), blast (9), grill (10), roast (16), and I haven’t learned 19 yet.

Chinese Radicals Example

Phonetics Are Hard

When you start to recognize characters, you need to learn how to pronounce them correctly. It’s what to say, vs. how to say it.

Pinyin. Most Westerners use pinyin to learn Chinese (the alternative is The Wade-Giles Romanization Atrocity), because it uses the Western alphabet. A fantastic learning tool. But again, you won’t see learning aides in public – just Chinese characters.

Also, learners tend to read off pinyin like they’re English words. Even after learning the four different accent sounds, or tones, people naturally go back to what they usually do. So, it kind of lulls you into a false sense of learning the language, because you end up remembering everything except the tones. You need a bit of a musical ear to sort it out. The Hutong School explains.

Four Tones, Four Words — Mother, Marijuana, Horse, Insult

1.”mā”  usually means “mother”, but in spoken language the Chinese will usually say “māma” or “wŏ mā” (My mother) or “nĭ mā” (your mother)

2. “má”  could mean “hemp” (plant), but the only common usage in spoken language would be  “dàmá”, literally “big-hemp” referring to marihuana

3. “mă”  usually means horse

4. “mà”  usually means “to scold, to insult” and is a verb, meaning it will be preceded by a subject and followed by an object.

You probably get the point. Here’s where it gets tricky. Because Chinese joins characters to form words, if you screw up the pronunciations of one character, you quickly end up saying something you didn’t intend to. Exhibit A assumes you pronounced the first character correctly, but not the second:

Chinese Pronunciation Mistake

On the left, what you meant to say. On the right, what she heard.

Lord help you if you manage to screw up the pronunciations of both characters. The pronunciations can also change, depending on what characters are put next to each other. The reason Why, most of the time, is because it sounds more pleasing.

As if it weren’t difficult enough for most Westerners to think about what they say before they speak. How you speak is even more important when you’re in Greater China. In English, grammar matters. In Chinese, tones count.


You need a bit of a musical ear to sort it out.


Cognates Are Hard

Cognates, in Chinese, are words that mean and sound like the English translation. Typhoon, for instance, is 颱風 – tái fēng. You mostly encounter these with brand names, like McDonald’s (麥當勞). Mài dāng láo. Exactly how it sounds.

McDonald's in Taiwan

麥當勞 in 臺灣 (Courtesy: Pinterest)

Cognates are exceptions, but many made their way into modern Chinese. Some fully, some in part. For example, England is 英國 – yīng guó.

  • The first character, 英, is chosen because it sounds like the Eng in England, ˈiNG(g).
  • 國, the second character, means nation.

Chinese is hard, for me, because of this. During my one-hour radio interview, I was trying to figure out what the interviewer was asking us. One half of my brain is trying to recall the Chinese terms being used. The other half is listening to the sounds to see if they resemble an English word.

Moser has a better example which you’ve already seen. Imagine if English was written like this:

If English Were Written Like Chinese

What’s going on in my mind when I hear next-level Chinese (apparently, there’s a look on my face that makes it very clear when this is going on)

Chinese is Hard

In defense of foreigners, locals require 13 years of living and practicing Chinese on a full-time basis to get to understanding 3,000 characters and the words they form. But, visitors can definitely be more structured about learning. Work on writing — not just speaking. Oh, and tones.

Learning Chinese means having reasonable expectations, and treating it both as a process and a journey. I do think the amount of Chinese a foreigner learns here is proof they’ve learned a few lessons in resilience. And humility.

Coming up with a personal system, I’ve found, is helpful. But there are limits.


One of the first signs of senility in a China scholar is the compulsion to come up with a new romanization method.


The learning environment you create for yourself is probably more important. So much of that depends. Do you already know some Chinese? Do you have a Chinese girlfriend? The physical location is ideal, if not forgiving. What you surround yourself with makes it a plus or a negative.

If you’re Caucasian, people are most likely to compliment you on the Chinese you’ve learned so far, and then practice their own English with you. It’s the kind of compliment that isn’t kind, because your own Chinese isn’t going anywhere. You’re going to have to work harder at creating opportunities to practice.

If you’re an American-Born Chinese like me, locals generally won’t simplify or slow down their speech. If you look like you speak Chinese, locals will speak Chinese to you. Even though to them, you’re practically another species. The advantage I have is this isn’t the first time I’ve heard many phrases. But, I’m forced to learn Chinese more quickly.

National Taiwan Normal University

If you want to learn Chinese in Taiwan, I highly recommend National Taiwan Normal University’s (NTNU) Mandarin Training Center.

Learning Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University Mandarin Training Center

NTNU’s Mandarin Training Center is the site of its old library. They kept the entrance, but put up a new building in the 1980s. (Courtesy: NTNU)

Yes, there are outstanding teachers at other language academies and universities. Many of them are like free agents — they actually work at several schools, and I’ve met some who freelance as translators for businesses.

There’s also National Taiwan University (my uni), which is internationally recognized for scholarly Chinese. But classical Chinese probably isn’t your goal, and NTNU has the local reputation for practical Chinese. It’s a trust mark.

National Taiwan Normal is also known for training primary and secondary school language teachers in its College of Education, and it’s considered a top 5 university in Taiwan. They know how to teach. I personally think there are more quality opportunities for language exchange and tutoring at NTNU.

Also, without getting into so many details, my personal experience (and of others I know) is that NTNU is way better equipped to help foreigners. This is important when it comes to legal paperwork like the forms you need in order to stay in Taiwan, who you need to talk to, and where you need to go. I’ve met the friendliest people in Taiwan at NTNU’s Mandarin Training Center.

And as a stranger in a strange land, having people who will help you is everything. Learning Chinese is hard enough.

I’m very lucky to have gotten to study at several of the top universities in Taiwan. Don’t hesitate to Contact Me if there are any questions I can answer for you.