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Touring Taipei

Originally I had planned for four nights in Taipei, expecting to chose between several worthwhile day trips after visiting the “must-see” Palace Museum.. Adding the two nights I spent in Taipei instead of at Sun-Moon Lake would give me plenty of time there. As it turned out, the weather dictated my choices – I didn’t want another windy day on the coast, and I also passed on the tea and wood-carving villages as well as the National Parks. Instead I mostly visited museums, of which there were plenty.

Street in Taipei

For the first two nights I had booked a room at the Fullerton 315 at the Internet rate, but while the room had the usual comforts, it didn’t have a functioning window. Still, the hotel was close to an MTR station, and had the excellent Very Thai restaurant right next door. I had a very Thai couple of days, eating one lunch and two dinners there. Papaya salad, green beans, wet chicken curies, dry beef curry – all recommendable.

Longshan is a city temple

I can’t second Lonely Planet’s recommendation of the public baths at Beitou, where I went my first afternoon, though. For one thing, it’s quite a long trek to get out there, especially as I had to change trains twice. But, more to the point, the changing rooms are awful. A few wooden cubicles, with cold-water showers, and wet floors, and then you have to stash your clothes in one of the nearby lockers – assuming you have the right change. After the Japanese baths these were a real let-down. I should have tried one of the hotels instead.

When I came back from Taroko Gorge I stayed at the See You hotel, booked through agoda.com and reasonable limping distance to the train station, and almost within sight of the terminal I’d need for the airport bus. My room was fine, but not the breakfast at a KFC down the street. After abandoning the soggy bun and dubious fried chicken the first morning, I picked up energy bars and yogurt and ate in my room the other days.

Busy time at Longshan

My first full day in Taipei I visited the two prime tourist sights: the Longshan Temple and the Palace Museum. For a change, the day started out hot and sunny, and my umbrella finally got to function as a sunshade. A major ritual was underway when I arrived at the temple, with tables of offerings filling the courtyard, and rows of devotees, many of them women in black robes, chanting along with the monks. I waited for it to finish before taking photos, and again, there was plenty to photograph. I noticed one woman busily polishing possible smoke stains off an already gleaming incense burner, and others whisking away the profusion of fruit and flowers.

Scale model in the Museum of World Religions

The Palace Museum was very hard on my feet, and in the course of the afternoon filled up with tour groups. While I enjoyed the special exhibition on the Southern Song dynasty, and I thought the exhibits reasonably well displayed, the museum failed to live up to my expectations. Maybe they were too high, but I thought there was a distinct shortage of jade and of Tang artifacts. I felt this even more strongly later when I visited the Taipei History Museum, which had plenty of both. I did skip the bronzes and the later ceramics, neither of which do much for me, and had coffee and an elaborate chocolate cake in the cafe instead. At which point I got to look outside and see that it was raining. Again.

Interesting Art Deco building near the Historical Museum

On my return I started with the Museum of World Religions but thought the one in Glasgow was better – although Taipei does have an Egyptian sarcophagus and a piece of cloth that had once covered the kaaba in Mecca. The Historic Museum was another matter, both for its permanent collection and for the fabulous special exhibition of artifacts from the Famen underground temple on the mainland. These were from the Tang period, one of my favorites, mostly silver, mostly intricately decorated, with lots of birds rather than dragons. One statue looked remarkably like a Sphinx, and the lion statues reminded me strongly of the Khmer lions in Cambodia. No English labels or audio guide for the special exhibition, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Vase at the Yingge museum

I finished that day at the Discovery Center, with displays on the history of Taipei, and when the next day dawned grey and cloudy I went to the ceramics museum at Yingge. Surprisingly, this remarkable museum was free. Very interesting information on the whole process, starting with techniques for finding and handling clay, included a section on modern uses of ceramics in industry. While I wasn’t much impressed with the “art” pieces in the top floor gallery (I think I recognized one arrangement from MAD in New York), the teapot competition in one of the outer buildings included some pieces I admired.

Even better, the museum staff told me about a free “holiday” shuttle back to the train station, and reading the leaflet, I found another shuttle going to Sansia, which had a temple I wanted to see. Unfortunately, the temple was mostly covered with scaffolding. Then I worked my way through the street fair going on around it, packed with people, and decided I had seen enough stalls and enough street food that I didn’t need to visit the Shilin night market

Wall carving at the Sansia temple

The outside of the Sansia temple

 

The protesters

My last day began with the 2-28 Peace Park (commemorating a massacre on 2-28-47 at the start of a period of martial law). Good thing I didn’t also want to visit the 2-28 museum, as it was blocked off, along with several nearby streets – a demonstration was underway. Although the speeches sounded fiery, the crowd seemed small and unalarming, and plenty of police were on hand. After a brief look at the Chiang-Kai Shek Memorial Hall (I’m no fan of Chiang-Kai Shek) I took the metro east in search of a Thai restaurant recommended by a local sitting near me at lunch in Taipei 101 a couple of days earlier. While Home’s was fine, I preferred Very Thai.

On the way a massage place with attractive prices caught my eye. So tempting… Initially I resisted, taking the metro to the zoo as I had planned. But the gondola to the tea houses in Maokong didn’t run on a Monday, and the zoo was less appealing than I expected, with many animals sensibly sleeping out of sight. I went back and had the massage – 30 minutes feet, 30 minutes upper body. Bliss.

That night I packed, ready for another early airport bus. I’d finish the East Asian leg of the trip with five nights R&R in Hong Kong – rest and resupply.

Flamingos at the zoo

A knowing look from an unknown bird

Wish I had that kind of balance

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Loving Taroko Gorge

Note: I am currently in Nepal, and have had only intermittent and slow ‘net access. I’ve had a lot of trouble getting the photos up for this post, which is why it’s taken so long. Will post another couple of Shakadang photos when I get a chance.

I had given up my plan to visit Sun-Moon Lake on the advice of the T.I. office in Tainan, although looking at the rainfall maps later I thought they had been over-cautious, but after tourist-trap Jeonju I wasn’t eager for another such experience too soon, and it sounded like Sun-Moon Lake had become over-popular with the mainland Chinese tourists now flooding the island. So I wasn’t too sorry to spend extra time in Taipei instead. I did baulk when the T.I. people at Taipei Main Station suggested I should reconsider my visit to Taroko Gorge, and after they called the T.I. in Hualien they agreed that it would be OK.

There was one calmer morning

The high-speed trains only run down the west side of the island, so I took a regular express to Hualien. On the way I chatted with a Peace Corps volunteer about my own age, on holiday from Thailand, but she was staying at the upmarket Silks hotel inside the gorge, and we parted company at the station, where a man with a sign was wating to drive me to my hotel. I had reserved an ocean view room at the Bay View, which turned out to be a bit further out of town than I had expected. The room was as pictured on the web site, but unfortunately the weather, and therefore the view, was not. I really liked the room, and quite liked the view too, but instead of placid blue waters, I saw – and heard – an angry grey sea breaking high and white as it hit the beach.

Just normal winter weather

The typhoon had passed, and the young English-speaking man running things at the Bay View told me that the ferocious winds whipping the trees out front were just normal winter weather. If so, I would recommend avoiding winter! I took a car and driver south down the coast road (the section to the north had suffered badly in the typhoon), and the views were really too hazy to see, and the winds too strong for taking photographs. Spectacular in the sunshine, I’m sure, but when you have to fight to stay upright, you can’t appreciate much besides shelter.

Near the gorge entrance

Taroko Gorge, on the other hand, had plenty of shelter and not much wind, and all the magnificent views anyone could want. I spent a whole day there with a car and driver, and most of a second using the (rather unreliable) buses. While I’d say it’s good by bus, it’s wonderful by taxi, as you can stop when and where you want. Of course, the earlier you start the better, as otherwise you’ll find the best viewpoints infested with tour buses. Even my taxi driver (a rare woman driver), who makes her living from tourism, complained about the number of mainland Chinese visiting. (Perhaps they don’t take taxis.)

Bridge to one of the closed trails

The typhoon had affected some of the trails, others have been closed even longer, and the one I really wanted to try, the “Tunnel of Nine Turns”, was off limits. I did hike a few shorter trails, doing the one that was my clear favorite, the first part of Shakadang, the morning of the second day. The Shakadang River shone crystal clear and glacial blue in the sunshine, while the main river, swollen by the typhoon, was burdened with loads of grey silt.

 

Carrying silt

I ate lunch twice at Tienhsiang, where the bus turned round, and a few services were located. Not liking the look of the eating places by the bus stop (even Lonely Planet remarked on the “awful food”) and not wanting to trek up to the Youth Activity Center on the off-chance I couldeat there, I ate expensively at the Silks Hotel. Very nice set Asian meal the first day (although I still wonder how you are supposed to eat ribs with chopsticks), so-so pizza the second. Elegant surroundings both days.

 

 

Tienhsiang

Eating dinner was more problematic. The Bay View provided a so-so breakfast, and free coffee or tea all day (and night), but didn’t do dinner. The women on the front desk suggested a taxi into town and the night market. Again, I was in no mood for street food. The only place open near the hotel served western food – soup and steak were quite good, if also quite expensive. The other night I insisted that I wanted a Chinese restaurant in town, and eventually they came up with a place for me. Not a word of English on the menu, but a combination of a very helpful waitress with a little English and the no-so-helpful food section of my guidebook worked. I ate egg drop soup with baby shrimp, spring onion pancakes and sweet and sour chicken. With beer.

 

I had been unable to get a ticket on an express train back to Taipei, or even a slow train at a reasonable hour, so I left before breakfast to catch the 7:20, sharing my carriage with what appeared to be a school basketball team.

Shakadang

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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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