Friday, February 26, 2016

Taipei, Taiwan--Rooted in History, Looking toward the Future

It was perhaps fitting that my tour of Taipei began at the National Palace Museum. Not only does the tour allow one to appreciate what is the finest collection of Chinese art in the world, but a visit highlights the unique history that links Taiwan and mainland China. The collection was amassed when Chiang Kai-shek and his followers fled the mainland at the end of the Chinese civil
war in 1949. With them went more than 800,000 art objects dating back thousands of years. The National Palace Museum was opened in 1965 and ownership of the vast collection remains a point of contention between Taiwan and the mainland.

Photographs are, unfortunately, not allowed inside the museum. The collection is jaw-dropping, featuring a variety of paintings, ceramics, calligraphy, and jade carvings. The displays are arranged so that any particular style can be easily associated with the dynasty that ruled at the time. Traveler's tip: the Museum is consistently mobbed, so plan to arrive early--although that only means that the crowd will be marginally less insane.

Our next stop was Taipei 101, the fifth-tallest building in the world. The fastest elevator on the planet whisks you in seconds to the observation deck and the views are spectacular. We visited on a rainy day and I was concerned that the view would be obscured, but the mist began to rise and the outline of the city was revealed below.

Take time to visit the sprawling food court in the basement and sample a variety of offerings. I found the chicken livers and hearts delectable, but duck tongue is not recommended--fairly insubstantial, with sharp, small bones and chewy connective tissue.

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park was a surprise for its sheer immensity.  Although not universally admired from an architectural standpoint, the scale of the monument highlights the reverence in which many Taiwanese hold the authoritarian leader. As my guide succinctly stated, without Chiang Kai-shek, there would be no Taiwan.

If Taipei 101 is a glimpse of the nation's future, Longsham Temple is a window into its past. Founded in 1738, the Buddhist temple is the oldest in Taiwan. Although dedicated to the deity of mercy, there are shrines to dozens of other gods and goddesses throughout the complex and any visit is a dizzying area of chants and prayers, of drums and the sweet smell of incense.

We ended the day with a tour of Dihua Street, known for its Chinese medicine shops and lively market. My visit occurred shortly before the Lunar New Year and many stands hawked special concoctions crafted to ensure health and prosperity during the coming year. I drank a potion of pork broth blended with a variety of mysterious ingredients. Would have tasted better with vodka.


From a National Park to a Night Market

Yangmingshan National Park is a beautiful oasis, minutes from Taipei, which features rolling grass hills and plentiful hot springs. Legend has it that Quig soldiers, frustrated by bandits who would establish outlaw camps in the forest, burned the trees to the ground and created the park's notable grasslands. Unfortunately, it was raining heavily the day of our visit, so instead of a planned hike we visited Chungshan Hall, which was built in 1966 to commemorate the birth of Sun Yat-sen. Revered in both mainland China and Taiwan, Sun Yat-sen is viewed in Taiwan as the Father of the Republic. Chiang Kai-shek married his widow's sister.

Twelve hundred soldiers toiled to erect Chungshan Hall in a span of just 13 months. The 1100 seats in the main hall are angled, it is said, so that Chiang Kai-shek would notice anyone who might drift to sleep during a speech.

The main dining hall is impressive, capable of seating hundreds of revelers. Each looming chandelier is as large as a queen-size bed. Chiang Kai-shek adopted the traditional Chinese architectural style partly to counterbalance the destruction of traditional Chinese structures during the cultural revolution on the mainland.


Following lunch at a simple restaurant in the park that offered chicken, sweet potato soup, and locally sourced greens, we visited the National History Museum. Although small, the collections, particularly of funerary pieces and Buddhist art, were fascinating.


We finished our day with a visit to the Shilin Night Market, which is a bewildering array of food stands, games, and retail stalls. Even more interesting was the crowd of people that descended on the Market--clearly a favorite of locals as well as tourists. Dominating everything is the sheer variety of food that is available--stinky tofu, grilled calamari, skewers of chicken parts, even swordfish sperm sacs. My curiosity did not ascend to those heights, however, and I enjoyed a multi-course dinner at the Silk Restaurant in the Regent Hotel.

From Taipei to Sun Moon Lake

We departed Taipei, headed southwest, for a visit to Sanyi. Initially, the Sanyi region was developed due to its abundant timber, but a woodcarving industry eventually emerged. Many families in the region embraced the tradition and numerous woodcarving shops line the main street.

Puli, our next stop, is noted for its history of making paper. Although modern commercial methods have dramatically impacted traditional paper manufacturers, they are still patronized by artists and calligraphers who need paper of the highest quality. We also toured an interesting outdoor exhibit which features a "paper church." The structure was designed by the noted Japanese architect, Shigeau Ban, after the 1995 earthquake devastated much of Kobe, Japan.  The light, easily obtainable material made it possible to quickly erect a new place of worship, to replace a Catholic church which was destroyed by the earthquake. In 1999, when Taomi, Taiwan, suffered a crippling earthquake, the paper church was donated to Taomi as a symbol of the friendship between Japan and Taiwan.

Sun Moon lake itself is stunning--one part round like the sun, and another crescent-shaped like the moon--and ringed by emerald mountains. The area is home to one of Taiwan's fourteen recognized aboriginal tribes, the Thao. Legend has it that they originally settled on a small island, Lalu, then migrated to the mainland when rising waters rendered the island uninhabitable. I found the artwork of the indigenous tribes remarkable similar to that of American Indian tribes of the northwest.


    Staircase of a Thousand Lights, once the only was to reach the Temple on the shores of the Lake

Today, a luxury hotel has adopted the Lalu name and is a spectacular property. With the hotel as a base, we toured the Temple of the Walking Monk, Xuanzhuang, who sojourned through western Asia in search of sacred texts.

 Also interesting, and worth a long, uphill slog, was the octagonal and multi-colored Tse En Pagoda, built by Chiang Kai-shek in honor of his mother. Once a heavy fog lifted, views of the Lake from the Temple and the Pagoda were fantastic, as were those from my balcony.

We strolled through Tehua Village and I sampled millet wine, as well as a concoction made from tree bark and an indefinable liquid. Finally, I managed a wine/sorghum brew called alcohol 58. Not the best, but it killed the taste of everything else.