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Typhoon on Taiwan

The God of War in my first Tainan temple

The love motel in Danyang had a big screen TV looming over the bed, but no Engligh-language programming. The guesthouse in Gyeongju probably had CNN or the BBC on the TV in the communal sitting area, but I never looked at it. The hotel in Jeonju had a normal-sized TV but no Engligh language channels. And ‘net access wasn’t great anywhere. So it wasn’t until I got back to the Ibis in Seoul on Oct 19, scheduled to fly to Taiwan on Oct 21, that I turned on CNN and heard about Typhon Megi and the death and destruction in the Philippines. And CNN seemed to think that she was most likely headed for Hong Kong, not Taiwan.

Now, I live in North Carolina, where hurricanes are commonplace, (and a typhoon is just a hurricane by another name), and if I were at the beach and was told to evacuate you’d better believe I’d be first in line to get away. But, living a couple of hundred miles inland, we usually just get wind and rain as the outer bands hit. So it wasn’t until my plane landed in Taipei, and I saw the tree tops streaming horizontally before the wind, that it ocurred to me that I should take typhoon Megi a bit more seriously. There is, after all, very little inland on Taiwan.

The main altar

I take no credit for the fact that I was headed southwest, while the typhoon’s worst impact was in the northeast, where the coastal highway took a major hit, and one busload of mainland Chinese tourists was swept away (they’re still looking for the remains). But heading southwest turned out to be the smart move. I took a bus from Taipei airport to the high speed rail station at Taoyuan, and then the train south to Tainan, where a free shuttle bus took me into town. (The high speed rail stations are all an inconvenient distance from the towns they profess to serve.) Fortunately, I didn’t believe the map in Lonely Planet, which incorrectly suggested that the Cambridge Hotel was walking distance from the ordinary train station where the shuttle dropped me. Besides, it was raining. I took a taxi.

You can never have too many gods - or too many arms

Dragon column at the Matsue temple

The hotel, for some inscrutable reason, upgraded me to a suite. Loads of room. A table and four chairs. An easy chair and foot rest. A desk chair and wired ‘net access. A big bed and a big bathroom and a bigger window. In fact, the window was a whole arc of glass, but up on the ninth floor this wasn’t as great an idea as it sounds. When the wind really got going it whistled. I always thought that was a figure of speech, but no, it really does whistle, loudly. I also had CNN, but I think I’d have been better off without it, as I watched the projected track of the typhoon turn north towards me.

I normally avoid embassies. I think the only time I’d contacted one while traveling before was in Pakistan right after 9-11 (back then it was the British embassy I used), but after watching CNN I decided it might be prudent to check in. Turns out that in order to keep the mainland Chinese happy the US doesn’t have an actual embassy in Taipei. Instead it has the American Citizen Services office of the American Institute. The duty officer on the other end of the email exchange thought I’d be better off in Taipei, but since he said it was raining heavily there, and it was raining only intermittently in Tainan, I stayed put. And really, the typhoon was largely a non-event for me. Some heavy rain, one day, but not sustained. But I did cancel my trip to Sun-Moon Lake up in the mountains and booked a hotel in Taipei for a couple of nights instead.

Roof detail, Matsu temple

My first trip to Asia was to China, and there is something about Chinese culture that says “Asia” to me at a visceral level that other cultures don’t quite match. And Tainan said “China” to me very loudly. In fact, you could say it was more Chinese than China. It was the capital before Taipei, and has a number of historic temples, and those temples looked to me the way I imagine mainland Chinese temples looked before the Cultural Revolution. Just as Myanmar feels like southeast Asia a few decades ago, Tainan’s temples felt like China a half century or more back.

You can't have too much glitter either

I just visited one of Hong Kong’s major temples, which you would think would give me the same feeing, but compared to Tainan’s temples it was positively plain. Every inch of the main temples was decorated. Dragon columns galore. Wall carvings everywhere. Heavy, smoke-darkened embroideries over the altars. More gods than you could reasonably remember. Of course, I took photos, but I also joined the locals in making offerings in a couple of temples where I thought it might do the most good. I chose the Jade Emperor at the Altar to Heaven and the oldest temple to the sea goddess, Matsu. They weren’t very big offerings, just a 100 NT worth of goodies and incense at the first, and 10 NT worth of incense at the second, but I figured that at this point I could use any help going. Besides, it felt good to do something other than watch. At the Altar to Heaven the woman who sold me the offering explained that I should light all the incense sticks at once, and then leave three for each god or goddess I was honoring. And when I finished she handed me a bottle of water. Still don’t understand that!

Statue of General Koxinga

The colonial remains in the Anping secttion of town were much less inspiring. True, I visited them the day the typhoon came closest, and had to dodge a couple of downpours, but I got only slightly damp. The authentic remnant of the Dutch fort consisted of a short section of brick wall, although the reconstructed building, in use as a museum, came in handy as a shelter during the worst of the rain. The overgrown and rather eerie English “tree house” was even less worth seeing, although in clearer weather the views of the river might have been better. The most interesting sight was the rapid removal of water from the nearby Matsu temple when the rain temporarily stopped. The front courtyard wasn’t covered, and was sunken, but had drain holes. The forecourt was swept dry.

The fort in town was in better shape than the one in Anping

When the rain started up again I grabbed a handy taxi and retreated back to town and the upmarket Shin Kong Mitsukoshi mall. After lunch in the “Thai” restaurant (more Vietnamese dishes than Thai), I did a little browsing, but was shocked by the prices for Gore Tex, and for luggage. Aside from the mall I didn’t eat particularly well in Tainan, Lonely Planet being enamored of street food, while I wanted a sit-down restaurant out of the weather. I ate some local specialties at a small place across from the hotel, but while the shrimp rolls were fine, the seafood toast was bizarre (a hollowed out chunk of bread with pieces of unidentifiable seafood in a cream sauce) and the pork tended too much to fat for my taste.

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