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Monday, December 24, 2007

On the tour bus to Tansui and the zoo

Today was the day I finally bit the bullet and participated in a Taiwanese bus tour. The only reason I agreed to go on this one was the fact it was organized by some people in our apartment building, it would be a good chance for Amber to mix with other people, and it was free, for the most part. So I found myself getting up around 5 this morning, in order to have some breakfast and take a shower, before Amber, Pamela and I joined the group at 6:30. Three tour buses were waiting for us outside the local Family Mart ファミリーマート convenience store:

The excursion had been paid for with the money earned over the past year from selling the residents' bulky garbage (TV's, fridges, toilet fixtures and so on) 粗大ごみ to recyclers. In past years, the money had been spent on holding a Christmas party in the apartment complex courtyard, but this year it was decided a group trip was in order. Apparently, the local candidate from the Democratic Progressive Party 民主進歩党 (legislative elections are scheduled for next month) got wind of all this, for he came on board to say a few words and shake some hands. The bus left at 7, and at 7:27 the karaoke カラオケ singing started, followed later by games (Pamela participated in one incomprehensible activity, and came away with a Tarepanda たれぱんだ). Fortunately, no one asked me to sing or play, and I was content to read the newspaper on the drive up. I had taken a tour bus in Japan once. The tour guide on that trip did provide some commentary, and sang a traditional folk song at one point, but for the most part the passengers were left alone to enjoy the scenery or talk amongst themselves. I guess in Taiwan there needs to be something going on every second to keep people interested. Heaven forbid you would want them to get lost in their thoughts.

Eventually the bus arrived in Pali (Bali) 八里, in T'aipei (Taibei) County 台北県, where we took a boat for the short trip across the river to Tamsui (Tanshui/Danshuei) 淡水. Looking back towards Pali, the view was dominated by the mountain, Kuanyinshan (Guanyinshan) 観音山:

Once in Tamsui, we were given about 90 minutes to ourselves, and so proceeded to do what every Taiwanese tourist does when they visit there - gorge themselves on snacks. We're actually going to be staying for two nights in Tamsui in February, during the Lunar New Year 旧正月, so I'll write more about the town then.

We rejoined our group around noon, got back on the bus and drove off to our next destination, the Taipei Zoo 臺北市立動物園. The zoo began in 1914, when the Japanese colonial government bought a private zoological garden and turned it into a public park. Its present location in the Mucha (Mujha) 木柵 area dates back to 1968. As zoos go, Taipei's is one of the better ones I've visited. The animal enclosures are relatively spacious, and the mountain setting is attractive (though often rainy, with today being no exception). This being a Sunday, the zoo was also...a zoo, packed with families and couples. We would have enjoyed our time there more had Amber not started feeling the effects of having been awake since 6am, and became one very cranky almost-two year old. One thing that did impress our little one was the tiger display. A glass separation allowed her a close-up view of the tigers walking by:

I'll refrain for now from making harsh criticisms of certain Chinese males whose perceived need for help in the bedroom is one reason these magnificent creatures are fast disappearing from their natural habitats.

Around 4, it was time for everyone to get back on the buses for the trip back to Fengyuan (Fongyuan) 豊原. Along the way we made two stops that gave some idea of the extent of the tour bus industry in Taiwan. First, we pulled off the freeway in Tahsi (Dasi) 大渓 and stopped at a private rest area that appeared to be exclusively for the use of large buses like ours. The parking lot was packed solid with coaches, disgorging their passengers for the sole purposes of using the restroom (so crowded there were women lined up to use the stalls in the Men's room) and to buy souvenirs (namely, food). Then we stopped off for dinner in T'oufen (Toufen) 頭份, at a restaurant that appeared to accommodate only groups of tour bus passengers, judging from the mammoth dining halls and large, bus-choked parking lot. The food was OK, but the noise level was deafening - imagine eating in a restaurant where tour group leaders have to use bullhorns to make themselves to be heard.

After dinner, it was back on the bus, with more games but, to my great relief, no singing (instead we watched an アニメ on the video that, alas, had it's original Japanese soundtrack dubbed into Mandarin). We eventually got home at 8:30. A long day, but it wasn't the ordeal I had expected it to be. Everyone had a good time, and I appreciated the fact that we were given time to ourselves in both Tamsui and at the zoo, instead of being herded around by a flag-waving, bullhorn-blaring group leader. Will I do it again? That, I'm not so sure about. I guess it would depend on where we would go.

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