By Trista di Genova, The Wild East
Pick up a hard copy of ‘Centered on Taipei’ Magazine (June issue) to see this interview in print.
Trista: Can you tell us a little about your background? When and why did you come to Taiwan, and what made you stay?
Richard: I originally came to Taiwan in 1993 to get a job for three months! I was made redundant in England, and rather than sign on for unemployment came out here to find work teaching English for a few months until I regained enough fighting spirit to start searching for a job. In the end I got a great job up in the mountains an English teacher in Puli, Nantou County, in the center of the island, and never left!
Trista: How did you get involved with the Community Services Center in Tianmu?
Richard: While I was looking for a publisher for my first book in 1998, a friend who was working for The Center suggested I approach them. Over the next months I got to know the staff there very well, as they worked on the book, inputting it all into the computer from my manuscript (that first book, the original edition of Taipei Day Trips 1, was written on a typewriter…!). The book and a few articles written over the next few years helped me land the job of Co-Editor of Centered on Taipei, which I’ve been enjoying for almost a decade now.
Trista: Why do you only have 95 friends on Facebook?
Richard: I’m really not into the whole Facebook thing; there’s simply not enough time in the day for me to go online and find out what someone has had for lunch, or discover someone bought me a drink, and there seems no reason to accept the regular ‘friend’ requests from people I know absolutely nothing about. Facebook is fantastic for networking, however, plus I’ve been reunited (online at least) with several ex-classmates from thirty years ago, and a number of old travelling friends somehow found me through the site.
Trista: Roma’s question (‘Centered on Taipei’ editor): How do you stay such a grounded person?
Richard: I’ve no idea! I just go ‘round enjoying life, making sure I don’t waste a day of it, try not step on too many toes, and follow my instincts. I’m lucky in having (I think) a good sense of humor. It’s often said these days that it’s important not to take life too seriously, and I think this is one of the most important secrets to making the most of it. Plenty of bad things happen, from small inconveniences to major headaches plus the odd life-changing crisis. The priority for me when I’ve been slapped around a bit is to work through the problem and get back to a sense of stability and positive thinking as quickly as possible. It never helped anyone worrying over a nasty illness or legal problems; on the contrary, it just saps some of the joy out of life.
Trista: How do you stay so prolific? What is your driving motivation, and what is it you’re really trying to accomplish?
Richard: Enjoy life, and enjoy every day. My best friend died of cancer at the age of 40, and I don’t want to have any regrets when it’s my time to go.
Trista: Your background with travel, and hiking?
Richard: I’ve always loved the idea of exploring above almost everything except music, and as a young child spent hours every week poring over British travel books at home in England, wondering at all the fascinating places crammed into that small country. We saw a few of them on our summer holidays, but it was only after I started earning money myself that I really started exploring, in my clapped-out old Datsun Violet. The hiking and, later the world travelling, all grew from those early dreams of exploring.
Trista: How often do you go hiking?
Richard: As often as I can! It depends entirely though on how busy I am, and on the weather of course.
Trista: You’ve established a hiking group now; how is that faring?
Richard: The present hiking group (Taipei Hikers) was established about 2002, I think, when I was working on Taipei Day Trips 2. I needed others to check the walking routes in the new book, and hit on the idea of organizing hikes on Saturdays, and giving one member the responsibility of ‘leading’ the walk, with my notes for guidance. I’d stay out the back, and only speak out if we started going the wrong way! The group has since grown (now there are about 130 members) and we’ve branched out into hiking to places not in the books, weekend trips around the mountains in the center of Taiwan by hired scooter, and even camping trips.
Trista: Where have you been so far, and how do you choose new hiking trails?
Richard: It’s easy as pie nowadays, as there’s so much info (albeit still largely in Chinese) available, plus passable hiking maps which provide a good overview of the Taiwanese countryside and the countless trails crossing it. While writing my first two books there was none of that, and apart from well-established walking trails such as the Caoling Trail or the Mount Bijia Ridgewalk, it was a case of reading local guidebooks, asking lots of questions, and lots and lots of trial-and-error hiking.
Trista: What are your favorite spots, and why?
Richard: I’ve a very, very soft spot for waterfalls (I even wrote a book — never published — documenting nearly three hundred waterfalls in England while a teenager!), and Taiwan’s combination of steep mountains and lots of rain means there are hundreds and hundreds of them here. There’s no absolute favorite, but a new discovery, Yuemeikang Waterfall in Yilan County springs to mind. It would be a beautiful sight even if it was a popular tourist attraction, but it’s actually almost unknown, and getting there is an easy adventure, involving several ropes and a short wade upstream, which is especially appealing. It’s such an evocative place, I think, that I even chose a photo of it for the cover of one of my new Taipei Escapes books!
Trista: The most beautiful places you’ve seen in Taiwan?
Richard: There are so many astonishing places in Taiwan it would be impossible to choose just one, but the vertiginous Jhulu Cliff Trail above Taroko Gorge, the stunning but difficult to reach Taiji Canyon in Nantou, and the area around Fengshan village in Chiayi County would certainly be in my Top 10.
Trista: How does Taiwan compare with other countries you’ve hiked in?
Richard: It’s quite different. I’ve had the enormous luck to be able to do countless day hikes in many countries all over the world, climbed a number of high mountains, and done multi-day hikes in Uganda, Peru and Chile, and nothing in Taiwan can compare with the sheer grandeur of Torres Del Paine National Park in Patagonia, or be as other-worldly as the Mountains of the Moon in east Africa. On the other hand, while there are marvelous highlights in many countries I’ve visited, nowhere I’ve been (except England!) is anywhere near as rich in wonderful details as Taiwan, and with such a staggering network of trails much of it is accessible to the casual hiker. I’m still finding (thanks to local hiking blogs) fascinating new places such as waterfalls, caves, rock formations or abandoned villages just an hour or two from Taipei.
Trista: How many articles do you think you’ve written for The China Post? What are other publications you write for? Do you then turn these articles into books?
Richard: I wrote a column called Off The Beaten Track for the paper for over three years, so there must be at least a hundred articles. That was a great time, as it forced me to get out each week and discover new, little-known places for upcoming articles. It was sad when the column was finally cancelled. There are fewer options for writing these days; I write sometimes for Travel in Taiwan magazine, otherwise I focus most of my energies into my Off The Beaten Track blog.
Trista: How did Taipei Escapes evolve?
Richard: Taipei Escapes started out as a simple revision of the two Taipei Day Trips books. As soon as I started updating them, however, I realized there was the opportunity to do far more than simply update them. So I took out all the Yangmingshan walks (which are now covered in Yangmingshan: the Guide), replaced other walks with newer, more interesting discoveries, and completely rewrote and redesigned the remainder with a lot more information. The result is basically a pair of new books, and, I think, the best I’ve done to date.
Trista: What are the titles of your books and how can people order them? Are they sold mainly through The Center and/or other outlets?
Richard: Yangmingshan: the Guide is available through The Center, at branches of Caves and Eslite Bookstore, at Page One and at a few other outlets in Taipei. Taipei Escapes 1 and 2 will be published in June and will be available from the same outlets.
Trista: Word has it that you’ve got plans for a walkabout in England and Scotland?
<Richard: I’ve been planning a 1,300-mile walk across England and Scotland over the last four years, and the original plan was to do it this summer. I walked 1,230 miles from Land’s End (in the far southwest of England) to John o’Groats (at the northeast tip of Scotland) for charity over three months in 2000, and the plan is to do the opposite (southeast-northwest) diagonal across the country this time. Unfortunately, a brief but badly-timed return a month or two ago of Plantar Fasciitis (an inflamed foot tendon) which caused me a some foot pain for a couple of years has meant I’ve had to postpone it until next year. I’ve had no further trouble with it since, so fingers crossed I’ll have healthy feet and confidence to do the hike in 2012!
Check out Richard Saunders’ Off The Beaten Track blog
Trista di Genova is a freelance writer, author/poet, and editor-in-chief of the award-winning online collective, The Wild East Magazine online at: www.thewildeast.net
Taipei Hikers hiking club:
523 Hiking club:
Hiking and Riding in Taipei (GPS info for hikes around Taipei):
Hiking Taiwan (Stu Dawson’s excellent Blog):
Tony Huang’s Hiking Blog (in Chinese):