Of Hills and Swill


View from the psychiatric hospital.

Last year I was the distinctly Un-Grand Old Baron of Beitou – just under halfway up the hill to Yangmingshan but feeling over halfway down the path of life. I was confined to a solitary-confinement-sized box on that hill, reeling from a broken marriage and drinking myself silly.

A year later I’m in Danshui, off the sauce, a lot thinner and fitter than I was, enjoying an increasingly civil relationship with my ex, and in a much better frame of mind.

I’ll probably have to leave my dank ground-floor flat later this year; among other issues, the water keeps disappearing – they dig the street up to “sort” it every other week, and it’s fucked a few days later. That’s not fun when you’re midway through disposing of a week’s worth of guinea pig crap and certainly not after a sweaty bike ride in the mountains.

It was the mountains that got me where I am now. Just to get home each night was a mission, especially on the NT$1,800 piece of shit I was riding at the beginning. After a few months I was flying up brutally steep mountain passes with ease. By summer, I felt confident enough to take on Majorca’s Serra de Tramuntana mountain range. As someone who doesn’t have anything approaching biking clobber, let along cleats and what-not, I was pretty chuffed with my 160-km ride in blistering heat.

A cool old shop on the way up the road.

Since the move to Danshui I’ve been slacking, but I’ve been trying to make amends lately. I took to the mountains last week and found the end of one of the routes I had been doing from Beitou. It was a nice ride with a couple of short stops – one at a psychiatric hospital to get some water.

There were several factories along the way spewing noxious crap into the mountain breeze, which wasn’t great, but it wasn’t enough to stop a familiar wave of well-being sweeping over me. Legs on fire, caked in crusts of dry salty sweat, I was nonetheless overcome with that near euphoria that the mountains bring. It’s ineffable, really, but I’ll try. Not quite orgasmic, it’s close to the ebb of a gout attack when the painkillers finally start to kick in.

Among Taiwan’s blessings is the lack of concern with oddball antics. You can see and do all kinds of things in public places with not an eyelid batted. As a kid in northwest London, I used to sing out loud as I walked to school. I got dissed. Caterwaul to your heart’s content in downtown Taipei and you’ll be unlucky to get a perplexed side glance. In the mountains, you’ll find me bellowing like a Welsh coal miner.

I started with some. Howard Tate – don’t let anyone attempt to persuade you that shouter Joplin’s version is better – and must have been halfway through a Little Milton number, when I came upon this. It’s a little disturbing, but I think we need to be disturbed now and then.

This place was fucking horrible. Four hundred animals stomping all over each other in indescribable filth. The employees warned me that it stank in there but the acridity was literally eye-watering. Many of the poor creatures had bloodshot eyes, some of them suppurating. It was feeding time and the desperation was obvious. In one corner, a younger pig cowered behind her mum, clearly too scared to get close to the melee. On a couple of occasions, near pandemonium broke loose as the animals jostled for space.

Some of my friends don’t know or remember that I was a vegetarian for 10 years. Since I turned “traitor” as one veggie pal once put it, I’ve constantly – excuse me – stewed over the issue. A refrain rings in my ears, uttered by the father of that same friend: “In a hundred years time, people will look back with disgust and say ‘Remember when we ate animals?’”

The revolting swill they were being fed. This was thankfully mainly vegetable matter but a couple of lunch boxes were in the mix with unidentified matter inside. It was feeding time as I arrived, so they thought I came bearing grub and were therefore particularly frenzied.


I have a hard time justifying my meat consumption to myself for so many reasons. One problem is that I like to try anything I can while travelling, and so many interesting dishes include meat. But here at home in Taiwan, I’ve decided I’m going to cut out meat from my diet as much as possible, particularly pork and beef but also chicken.

Tuna will have to be the next one. I’m eating this canned Wellcome stuff that I know is completely unsustainable and caught using blitzkrieg trawling techniques. I’ll have to at least start paying for the semi-morally-justifiable stuff, which is twice the price and not readily available in local supermarkets.

I’m not sure how this is going to pan out in terms of a potential return to full vegetarianism, but I am going on the record as saying I aim to start by drastically reducing my meat intake with a long-term goal of cutting it out altogether.


A hawk flies high in the sky. A pair of them were circling as I made my descent.




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