Swirling, soaking, shuddering and smoking

Not true love: life in Taiwan

September 2021

Thankfully, not so recent….

One morning a few months ago we checked the weather app when we woke as usual and learnt that we’d missed eight earthquakes as we’d slept. There were two more before breakfast.

This was unusual.

Normally, we feel an earthquake once a week or so, though in reality there are hundreds every day. Most are simply too small to make the news.

Sometimes, there’s just a strange feeling of queasiness, like you’ve spun around too fast, and one of us will say “was that an earthquake?”. At other times, the furniture will shudder, the bed will wobble as if sat on by an elephant, and the wine glasses will rattle a terrified tune. Only the decorative porcelain doesn’t move, but that’s because it’s blue-tacked down.

By now, we know the drill. When the shaking begins, one of us will run to the front door and open it wide. If the frame warped we might get trapped inside.

It’s bigger than us

We also know where to cower until the rattles are over and we know where to meet if we are not together and we get caught in a quake when we are away from home, and the apartment with the blue-tack has been reduced to rubble.

This was all new to us when we moved here and we’ll never get used to it. Even though the statistics show that the personal risks are small, and all Taiwan’s modern buildings have got extra reinforcements, the quakes are always unsettling.

And they are not the only worry of this sort.

A couple of days ago we woke to the news that the island was about to be whacked by a “Super Typhoon”, though what they meant by super was unclear. I don’t think they meant wonderful. The “Beast”, according to CNN, had been hovering off the coast for a week, swirling ever faster, like a discus thrower preparing for the hurl.

Taiwan was to be the target. Packing wind gusts of more than 260kph it was no butterfly and it brought fallen trees and bucketfuls of billowing rain.

And the volcanoes

There are other natural phenomena.

The earth moved

Last winter, we took a bus ride around one of the mountains north of Taipei. We got off half way with plans to begin a hike and, as the bus disappeared around the bend, Mitzi suddenly said “what’s that smell?”.

“Er, sulphur, I think”, said Max.

We then noticed that the ground around us was smoking and that there were hot pools of water belching gas from behind the long grass. We learned that the mountain we were standing on was part of a group of volcanoes.

We found it a little unnerving to discover that all this bubbling and smoking was happening barely 15km from the city centre (and even closer to a nuclear power station).

About 30km further east, just off the coast, sits another volcano which generates clouds of white gas most days. You can take a boat ride to check it out.

Beneath all of them is liquid magma and, according to volcanologists, although they have been dormant for thousands of years the possibility of an eruption “has not been completely dismissed”. The nuclear power station actually runs safety drills just in case, which is mildly comforting.

The left tub’s cold

An upside is that there are lots of hot springs in the area and, thanks to the Japanese who occupied Taiwan for most of the first half of the 20th century, lots of hot spring baths.

One of the pleasures of living in Taipei is that you can take a subway train direct from the city centre to a small town in the north, called Beitou. There you can rent a room with a private tub, or go to the public baths and relax in the steaming milky water that flows out of the mountain at an average temperature of 40ºC.

In the winter, when the air temperature is lower, you can watch the clouds of water vapour billowing through the trees as it rises from the river, steaming its way to the sea.

Last in the list of nature’s thrills here is the rain and the heat.

The weather app classifies the rain into four categories – ‘heavy rain’ (which is the sort you experience in Europe when there is a massive end-of-summer downpour), or ‘extremely heavy rain’ (which is like a bucket of water being endlessly poured over your head). Then there’s ‘torrential rain’ (which is like trying to walk in a swimming pool) and, lastly, there’s ‘extremely torrential rain’, which is shown on the app in the dark purple of an Anglican bishop’s clothing, just to emphasise how biblical it is.

We have not experienced ‘extremely torrential rain’ …. so far.

And then there is the heat. The summers here are hot. For months, the daily temperature hovers in the low 30s – and often reaches 35 or 36 degrees, with a ‘feels like’ of over 40ºC.

Thankfully, the winters are cool. There was even snow on the volcano outside the city last winter, and we climbed 1,000 meters to see it. After so many hot days, we thought it was super – though not in a typhoon sort of way.