Flying on Singapore Airlines to Taipei is a nice experience. Food and drinks on board are wonderful, entertainment includes a personal screen with 14 movies and dozens of free computer games to choose from on your own control center. Best of all is the friendly and attentive service of the pretty staff in their cute sarong uniforms. The flight from Los Angeles takes about fourteen hours, but we managed to relax and get plenty of sleep on the way.
We had eaten well and slept well, and felt quite energetic arriving in Taipei in the early morning. We got through immigration, customs, and changed some money all within 30 minutes. We were on the airport bus headed to the city before 7:00am. The highways were quite congested in the rain, just like a Seattle rush hour. Scooters flood the streets, riders in identical raincoats on mostly identical bikes. The cars on the road are Japanese, German and French, with only a few American models. They are generally small family sedans driven by working people.
After checking into our hotel, we went directly to the Metropolitan Rapid Transit or MRT, an underground rail system like the Paris Metro or London's Tube. We paid a visit to the official Tourist Office in east Taipei. The lady at the front desk gave us some useful tips and updates on road conditions. Cross-island rail and auto routes are still being repaired from damage incurred in an earthquake in 2001. We got loads of maps and brochures.
The tourist office is right across the street from the Sun Yat-sen Memorial (photo, Memorial). Dr. Sun is the founding father of modern China, revered by both the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) of Taiwan and the Communist Party of Mainland China. Each of these opposing sides claims to represent the true heritage of Sun. The memorial building is large but graceful. The front part of the main floor is laid out like the Lincoln Memorial, with a benevolent Dr. Sun looking down from his chair. The rest of the building functions as a nice community center. There is a display of historical artifacts related to Dr. Sun, a gallery showing contemporary artists' work and several meeting halls for conferences and performances. One of the major attractions is the hourly changing of the honor guard (photo, Sun Yat-sen guards). The change is intended as a solemn military ceremony, but to us the show seems as if inspired by John Cleese and his Ministry of Silly Walks. Three soldiers walk in with an extremely slow stylized step. Between forward steps, they stand for a full second, weighted all on one straight leg. The other leg is bent at the knee so the free foot points toe-down near the weight-bearing ankle. Meanwhile, they carry bayonets over one shoulder and throw their free arms out and back in a goose-stepping salute. They are joined by the guards who have been standing stock-still for an hour before the statue, and put on a little rifle twirling drill show. Finally the two new guards take their places, while the old ones march off. After the fresh guards are on their stands, a museum staffer in plain clothes climbs up to straighten limbs, align bayonets and smooth uniform fabric. We could not repress our smiles and laughter while leaving the memorial.
Back at the Taipei Main Station, we bought a pair of Around-the-Island train passes for about $50 each. This allows us to make seven stops around the island within 15 days. We stopped by our hotel for a quick afternoon nap, then hopped back on the MRT to go to Longshan Temple. Longshan is a colorful, popular and busy temple dedicated to Kuanyin, the goddess of mercy. The smell of burning incense is evident all over the neighborhood. After visiting the temple, we toured the famous Snake Alley Night Market. A narrow alley is packed the length of two blocks with shops where snake handlers play with live cobras. Snake soups and drinks made from snake bile are for sale. We passed on the snake cuisine, however, and instead had some local Taiwanese dishes for our dinner.
We caught an early morning train to Hualien on the east coast. The eastern side of Taiwan is less populated, less polluted, and more scenic than the west coast. We found the Chantai Hotel less than a block from the train station. They allowed us check in before 10am. Gradually we figured out that most of Taiwan's cheaper hotels don't have a policy of check-in time. They will let you in early if the room is available. We packed some snacks purchased at a stand on the street, and booked ourselfs on the bus to Taroko Gorge National Park, the best scenery Taiwan has to offer. The Gorge is marble, thus the rock walls are harder than the sandstone canyons we know from the Southwestern U.S. In many places the narrow gorge is enclosed by walls that rise almost 90 degrees straight up, with layers and layers of marble. The road has been blasted or chiseled out of the side of the gorge, and goes through a lot of tunnels. We took a hike to the Baiyang Waterfall (photo, Baiyang Falls). through 6 pedestrian tunnels and a suspension bridge (photo, Bridge). We also trekked up to Pulowan Reserve, where view stations along a board-paved nature walk overlook the foggy valley (photo, Taroko Gorge), and the river below rushes through the steep gorge. It is very calm and refreshing. In the evening, we took the bus back to Hualien to sleep.
We got up early again to catch the train continue south to Taitung, the connecting point to Chihpen Hot Springs. Chihpen is the most famous but also the most remote hot springs in Taiwan. Upon arrival in Taitung, we walked into the Chungtai Hotel next to the bus station. Apparently we were the only guests of this hotel. We found the owner of the hotel sleeping under her mosquito net behind the counter. She said she does not expect any guests during the midweek. Delighted at having our business, she took us out and treated us to a lunch of the local cuisine, a special rice noodle dish. She pointed us in the direction of the right bus for the hot springs. At the large outdoor hot springs campground in Chihpen, we were the only visitors (photo, Hot Springs). The water in the hottest pool was hot enough to boil eggs, so we had to use the cooled pool. Unlike sulfur springs with strong nasty smells, the principal mineral in Chihpen's hot springs is sulfur carbonate, which has a mild smell and is (supposedly) drinkable. Soaking in the warm water with no one around, just birds, butterflies and occasional traffic noise from above, is very relaxing and medicating. The owner of the spring offered us a 50% discount on the price without our asking. After our long soak, she offered us a lift to the nearby Chingchueh Temple (photo, Ching Chueh) where there is a beautiful white jade Buddha from Burma and a gold one from Thailand (photo, Jade and Gold Buddhas). The temple is simple and nicely maintained. The atmosphere seems to have the power to purify human minds. After the bus ride back to Taitung, Barbara was interested in dining on a local delicacy, Stinky Tofu, recommended by the hotel owner. Richard felt little interest in this dish, so we ended up eating at a table between two restaurants next door to each other and coming up both happy.
We started the day by riding the train around the southern tip of Taiwan, and turning around to the west coast, arriving in Tainan before noon. Tainan is the oldest city in Taiwan, rich in culture and history. The city has a population of less than a million souls, but there are more than 200 temples and shrines serving them. Our goal was to visit eleven temples and shrines by the end of the day. Among them, the most impressive included the Perfectural City God Temple with very elaborate roof (photo, Roof Demons), which honors a group of gods that form a shadow government in the afterlife world. One god is in charge of justice, rewarding good and punishing bad. One oversees transportation ensuring the safety of all travelers and fishermen. One is in charge of education, and worshiped by young students and their parents to help pass the national exams. One is responsible for family affairs like marriage, birth, gender of the children, etc. All the gods live within one temple in harmony. We saw people coming to the temple with their prayers to a particular god to serve their need. We visited the Koxinga Shrine (photo, Koxinga Shrine). Koxinga was a Ming Dynasty official who refused to surrender to the Qings. Instead he fled to Taiwan, where he kicked out the ruling Dutch colonists. He is a true hero honored by Taiwanese. His shrine is built in a park-like surrounding with a pond full of gold carps and green turtles (meaning prosperity and long life).
Passing the Great South Gate, (photo, South Gate), a battlefield where Koxinga defended against the Dutch, we came to the Confucius Temple (photo, Confucius Temple), the biggest one in Taiwan. The grounds around the temple have a lively community atmosphere. The ruin of the first school in Taiwan is here, and a meeting hall where a Chinese traditional music group gathers to practice Confucius music. We walked north to the neighborhood of the ancient Chihken Towers (photo, Chihken Towers). We climbed each of the towers and enjoyed the view of the city from above. Before day's end, we stopped by the Temple of the Official God of War, which was quite busy. We were wondering why the God of War gets so much attention, but perhaps people were worshiping this god in his other role of God of Commerce. Down a narrow alley is Matsu Temple, dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea (photo, Matsu Temple). Matsu is said to be the most popular goddess in Taiwan. We feel we got a most diversified religious education in a single afternoon.
We got up leisurely after the previous day's long march. We strolled through the campus of Chenggong University (name after Koxinga), we ate some rice balls for breakfast and visited an internet cafe. Around noon, we got on our train to finish our island tour, back to Taipei. Taiwan's train system operates quite efficiently, almost as good as European rail. Of course, there is no English spoken or displayed in most of the stations. We bought a stainless steel bento box sold on the train as a souvenir of our pleasant train ride. Pulling into Taipei, we stepped into the rain again, though the last few days spent outside Taipei were clear and warm. After dropping our luggage, we went to the Chang Kai Shek Memorial in the rain and gathering dark. The Chinese style gate to the memorial was lighted and impressive (photo, Gate by night). Beside the memorial, the compound includes a music hall and a theatre, both in traditional Chinese style. On the way back, we stopped at a famous local fish noodle store for dinner. The owner was quite impressed by Richard's chopstick techniques and his ability to appreciate their delicacy. She offered us complimentary dishes to try. All the time in Taiwan, we felt like our schedule was around food, and this trip almost turned into an eating spree. Each day starts with the traditional breakfast of Beijing donuts, sesame cakes and hot soybean milk. We have lunch at street stands, take afternoon teas at Chinese teahouses, have dinners at local restaurants and snack at the night markets. With all the great food Taiwan has on display everywhere you go, it is amazing to see most local still keep their perfect figures.
The whole day was devoted to the long-anticipated Palace Museum visit. On the way, we passed the Grand Hotel, which is indeed grand (photo, Grand Hotel). The museum building was also dominating and impressive. However, after our experiences in the Louvre, the British Museum, the Prado and St. Petersburg's Hermitage, we found the Taipei Palace Museum's actual display was somewhat less than we expected. It is certainly not difficult to tour the displays in less than a day and do them justice. The displays emphasize the Chinese cultural jewels of the crown, the things all Chinese would be most proud of: ancient bronzes, jade carvings and porcelains, the royal collection from the Forbidden City in Beijing. There is the most famous Jade Cabbage, one piece of jade, half white and half green, carved into a sculpture of a Chinese cabbage (photo, cabbage). It is so natural between the white and green and it does look just like a real cabbage with a bug on the leaf. It is a miracle that over 700,000 pieces of national treasure survived the various moves from all over mainland China to Taipei during the war period in the 20th century. We stopped for a break in the elegant tea room on the top floor of the museum, where a pot of tea cost more than many a dinner. The view and the environment we are paying for are well worth it (photo, Palace Museum Tea Room), and we drank our teas til they practically had no more color. For dinner, we went to the biggest night market in Taipei, the Shilin Market. It was full of people, mostly young. To us they all looked like teenagers. However, most of the people operating the shops are the older generation. There were plenty of all kinds of food and we chose a hot pot restaurant where Richard enjoyed a seafood mix and Barbara had some stinky tofu.
On our last day in Taipei, we started at the Martyr's Shrine (photo, Martyr's Shrine), where we experienced the silly walk again, this time performed by navy-uniformed guards (photo, Martyr's Shrine Guards). The site has three shrines arranged around the square, a general shrine, a shrine for civilians and a shrine for military personnel. The architecture is simple and dignified. In the main shrine, there were giant flowered wreaths left from the Taiwan presidential and vice presidential visits. The day before our visit had been National Martyrs' Day, now called National Youth Day. The civilian shrine honors Chinese revolutionary heroes who never held rank in the KMT military and most of these same individuals are honored in mainland China as well. But the generals honored in the military shrine for dying for the cause of anti-communism are classified in mainland China as criminals and murderers. What we found funny is that there were a few empty spots among the martyrs in the military side. It turned out that these martyrs are still alive in China where they surrendered to Communists, were re-educated and became mainland China citizens.
Our next stop was the National Handicraft Center, three floors of Chinese traditional crafts, cloth, paintings, etc. This is the best place to shop for traditional Chinese knick knacks. We also visited the famous bookstore street, where a dozen bookstores and publishing companies are located. It is really a big treat for Barbara to see so many Chinese books. After lunch, we walked back to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial (photo, Chiang Kai Shek Memorial) to see it again in daylight. It is really an enormous building, reminiscent of Beijing's Temple of Heaven, only bigger and taller. Instead of the royal yellow roof and red walls, this memorial has a blue roof and white walls. We wonder if Chiang himself had any say about his own memorial in terms of location, size, color and style. It seemed to us that the design intent is to resemble an emperor's temple on an enormous scale. Inside it more looks like the Lincoln Memorial. Chiang's life story and his personal items are on display in a museum on the lower floor. Again, we got the chance to see how the 20th century Chinese history is told on this side of the Taiwan strait. It was very interesting that the same historical event can be interpreted in totally opposite ways. Here we had the last chance to see the silly walk again, this time performed by air force personnel.
For dinner, we treated ourselves to a very famous dumpling restaurant, the Ting Tai Feng. Apparently this is the place to see and to be seen, and it's a favorite spot for Japanese pop stars and movie stars visiting Taipei to enjoy their Chinese cuisine. The service is almost too attentive, but the food was truly delicious. Before heading out to the airport, we stopped at a Chinese traditional music instrument store and got a pretty Xiao for Richard with a mother-of-pearl dragon inlaid in the head joint. It plays beautifully. Arriving at Taipei airport in the evening, we felt ready to relax and enjoy our 14-hour journey back home.