Sunday, February 5, 2012

Taipei for Chinese New Year

I don’t know where to begin to talk about our time in Taipei, so I’ll start writing and see how it goes.

(We are often asked how we know where to go and what to do when we go to places we've never been before without a chaperone or tour guide.  I'm including this first paragraph to answer that question.)

I spent many hours online trying to be prepared to get the most out of our 3 days in Taipei for Chinese New Year. I found a website where you could choose to have an English translation that placed each tourist attraction on the city map one at a time according to each one you chose. Then you could click on the tab “hotels nearby,” as well as transportation and restaurants. It turned out to be the handiest tool I could have found. I chose a hotel that seemed “nearby” most of the things we wanted to see and luckily there was a room available! There were many pages of hotels for the city but there were only 4 hotels that had vacancies! Even though there was an English version of the map, it did not give miles…only kilometers. So over on my handy conversion website, I put in km to miles and converted each of the 13 sites I chose to see. All but 3 were within a mile of the hotel. I had originally booked the hotel for Mon.-Wed. Then I realized that New Year’s Eve was actually on Sun. night. Thinking this would be a big deal, I went back to my hotel website to book Sun. night as well. It said they had one room left and were selling it for $45! It all looked good online. We hoped it would work as well as it appeared. I’ll say right up front, it did!

The only glitch was that, unbeknownst to us for all the fuss about Chinese New Year and the absolute disregard for Dec. 31 in Chia-yi, Taipei celebrates New Year’s Eve publicly with the rest of the world on 12/31!

With that said, we took the High Speed Rail from Chia-yi to Taipei on Sun. morning. While we were waiting on the platform for our train to arrive, another train from the opposite direction that didn’t make a stop at Chia-yi came “screaming” through the station. That was a bone-shaking experience to be standing still and have something going almost 200 mph zip past you, considering a jet lifts off the ground at about 250 mph! This was much more scary than riding on it! Riding is smooth, quiet and FAST…speed topped out at 187mph! The inside of the HSR is much like the cabin of an airplane.

It has overhead bins (without being enclosed), drop-down tray tables and reclining seat backs. There is an attendant who serves beverages and snacks from a cart. There are also “business class” cars similar to Business Class on any airline.

The station stops are announced, as well as scrolled across an electronic banner, in Chinese, Japanese and English.

It is an amazing mode of transportation!

The train station in Taipei is huge. It is connected to the Taipei City Mall, also huge! Between the station and the mall are hallways of shops. We stopped at one to buy umbrellas. We had checked the weather at the last minute before we left and knew it was going to be cold and raining. We quickly added jackets to our suitcases but forgot to bring umbrellas. We needed them, so out of the many shops offering umbrellas we randomly chose one. As it turned out, the owner of the shop could speak a little English and wanted to talk. He had lived in Riverside, CA…we had practically been neighbors! Corona is right next door to Riverside! What a small world!

Once we got outside of the train station, we discovered that there is a whole “umbrella culture” in Taipei. I think I heard that it rains 300 days on average in a year. It must be true to some extent because we saw evidence of such a climate through the presence and use of umbrellas. First, it was evident by the number of umbrella shops…in the train station, in the mall, on the streets. You can buy an umbrella almost anywhere in Taipei. Then you know the umbrellas must be used often by the way they are accommodated for in restaurants, stores, hotels, and tourist attractions. There will either be a rack in which you leave your umbrella outside while you go inside or a plastic bag will be provided in any number of ways for slipping your wet umbrella into so as not to be dripping rain water all over the establishment. These bags may be personally handed to you by a hostess or you may pull one off a hook like in the produce section at a grocery store or we saw a most unique machine that you actually drop your umbrella into and it automatically wraps it up, then you pull it out of the machine and your messy umbrella is contained. Another obvious sign of people being used to rain is their efficiency in using their umbrellas.

Covered sidewalks in Taipei

The city is designed so that the sidewalks are covered for nearly every block, except for where the alleys cross to meet the street and then, of course, at an intersection. This means that the umbrella is closed for about a half block, then up it goes to cross the alley. Then you must close it again while under the covered sidewalk or you will be bumping into people with it. Then up it goes again when you get to the intersection. At first this was very cumbersome, but we watched others. We learned. It didn’t take long, and we had the action down. You hold the umbrella with both hands, one at the base and the other on the sliding mechanism. That way you can stabilize the umbrella over you when it’s open and be ready to put it down with the other hand when it needs to be closed. Up and down, up and down. This is how one walks through the streets of Taipei.

And walking we did! My research online was useful and accurate. We were able to walk to 8 out of 9 of the places that we had time to visit. Technically, we walked 7 out of 9 if you count walking one way and riding a bus/ taxi the other way. The National Palace Museum was over 4 miles from the hotel, so we took a bus and taxi to and from it. We took the bus to Taipei 101, 3 miles, but walked back. We also walked to the Longshan Temple after walking through the Botanical Gardens, but we took a taxi back to the hotel. Otherwise, it was all walking.

Walking in an unknown place has a lot of advantages. One is that you can see things up close and personal. Many of the buildings on the street looked dirty and run-down, but as we walked we could see that many of the buildings actually had beautiful lobbies inside the doors that you couldn’t see from the street…really beautiful lobbies with marble floors, brass doors, lovely wood or granite front desks and huge flower arrangements. Most of these lobbies were for high-rise apartments but some were banks and office buildings. Most had some kind of decorations out for Chinese New Year.

The opposite was true, as well.  Some buildings looked worse once we were walking by them instead of riding in the cab.  These two opposite conditions could be side by side.  While riding instead of walking, one can't discern the difference.  All the buildings have been subject to so much pollution that they all look dirty and run-down with just a passing glance.

Another advantage to walking is that you can see all the nooks and crannies of the city. These are very interesting places. These are the alleys and side streets. The alleys can be just that, alleyways for the back door, parking the scooter, storing junk. Or they can be where the “market” is during the day and shut-up at night.

There was a "market" in the alley near our hotel.  We could look down on the corrugated  tin roofs of it from our hotel window.  We would walk by during the day and all the stalls would be open with people milling about, but at night all the garage-type doors would be pulled down tight and not a soul would be around.

Alleys could also be the entrance to some homes. If so, they would be lined with potted flowers and curtained windows. 

The side streets were full of shops and restaurants with residences above. Most of the restaurants in this area of the city were located on the side streets; little quaint cafes, tea shops, ethnic cuisine, bakeries, mom & pop restaurants and lovely restaurants.

Kao Chi Restaurant, one of the fine dining experiences on a side street in Taipei.
Note: We ate at one of the lovely restaurants, Kao Chi. Luckily, Koa Chi had a portion of the menu in English considering no one spoke English, even the very well dressed managing hostess (who likely was the owner). The waiter and waitresses were too shy to speak to us. Whether they spoke English or not, we certainly couldn’t tell. We’ve been in the country long enough to know very, very few people speak anything but their native language, be it Taiwanese or Mandarin, that includes the taxi drivers, waitresses, train station employees, and shop keepers. The one exception is the hotel concierges. I am not complaining, just stating a fact. We are in their country, not visa versa. Aside from the language difference being obvious, it was also obvious that we were the only non-Asians in the restaurant. This is true almost everywhere we go. We started counting how many “white” people we saw. From Sun. to Wed. we counted, at the most, a dozen…that included searching in the very crowded train station. There are many Asian tourists, ie Japanese, Korean and mainland China (FYI mainland Chinese have only been allowed tourist visas in the past 3 years and only in the past 6 months have they been allowed to visit solo, without a group, per China..not Taiwan). There are very few European or American tourists. This being the case, almost every non-Asian we saw stopped to talk to us.

That leads me to speak of the other advantage of walking…people talk to you. Not the Taiwanese, of course, but anyone else. That included on our very first day, an American young man who was with a group of Chinese young men. He stopped to ask if he could help us because we were looking at our “restaurant map” (in English given to us by our hotel concierge). He really couldn’t help us. He hadn’t been in the country more than a day himself. The interesting thing about this conversation, though, was that he was with a Christian group who was in town for a convention. When he realized that we were Christians as well, he invited us to come to the convention. (We couldn’t make it, but it was a great offer.) He was from S CA and was happy to know that we had lived there, too. He said they had just come from the mainland where they met with some underground churches. He said that experience has changed him! Again, what a small world!

Another person we met while walking was a young French girl. We crossed paths outside the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial. She was “lost” and needed some directions. I say “lost” in quotations because she didn’t really have a destination, so she technically wasn’t lost. She was wondering the city for a few days. She needed someone to talk to. She’d had a bad night at a youth hostel and was a little shook up. She hadn’t been harmed but was nervous that she would be, so she hadn’t slept a wink the night before. We walked with her for a little while and gave her directions to a park she was aimlessly looking for. We were walking between several attractions within a few blocks of each other and kept meeting up with her. After 3 encounters we ended up moving on and not seeing her again.

We also were asked for directions while we were walking to the Botanical Gardens. It was funny at first because this was a group of Chinese people coming towards us with that “Help me” look about them. We thought, “How are we going to be able to help them?” It turned out that it was a Chinese American who was visiting her Taiwanese relatives for the New Year. She could not read the Chinese map they had. The Taiwanese relatives had never been to Taipei and were confused as to where they were. Surprisingly, we could help by pointing them in the direction of the CKS Memorial and assuring them that they had not too far to walk.

Other than those few that we could speak to in English, we would greet many people we would pass on the sidewalk with “Ni hoa” or “Happy New Year” and a bowing, more like nodding, of the head. Most would smile and reply with the same greeting, including “Happy New Year.” We would not have had even this small interaction with people if we hadn’t been walking…with our umbrellas.

Don with his umbrella walking on the elevated sidewalk across a major intersection of Taipei.
Note: When we arrived on Sun. afternoon, there was a pleasant amount of people on the streets even though many stores were not open. By evening, the streets were empty. We arrived in Taipei on what would be comparable to our Christmas Eve day and the level of activity was similar. People were out and about making last minute preparations for the evening and following days’ celebration. Mon. was like Christmas Day in the US. Everyone was at home with their families. The streets were deserted, except for foreigners…us and the French girl! The national sites were closed. By the following day, people were back out on the streets.

There were masses of people at Taipei 101 the day after Chinese New Year.  Ticket sales for the observation deck were being sold at the entrance pictured to the left.

There is a shopping mall connected to Taipei 101. It was huge and beautiful. It could have been the Mall of America if it were not for the people all being Asian. There are Asians at the MOA, but not thousands and not exclusively. The mall itself looked very familiar. 

The building, Taipei 101, itself is a wonderful structure, being the tallest in the world until 2010 when Dubai opened their Burj Tower.  It derives its name from having 101 floors above ground...and five below.  We didn't stay long.  With many of the top floors in the clouds, we didn't think we would see much by visiting the observation deck.

We walked the three miles back to the hotel. Along the way, we stopped for “refreshment” at Dunkin’ Donuts!

Note: We didn’t see any familiar restaurants, but we did see fast food: McDonald’s, Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, 7-Eleven, Subway and Starbuck’s.

There were masses of people also at Longshan Temple. Longshan Temple is one of the oldest temples in the country, therefore much revered. There was carnival-type activity going on for blocks outside the temple gate with food booths and toys and every kind of trinket you could imagine being “made in Taiwan.” For my family and friends in MN, all I can say is that it was running a close 2nd to the State Fair for crowd numbers and activity. You know what I’m talkin’ about.

We went inside the temple gate, which is the temple courtyard. There were so many people that we could hardly direct our own movement. There were rituals going on in there having to do with passing under the lanterns and burning incense sticks and being purified. I won’t even try to explain these things that I don’t understand myself.

The carnival atmosphere was in the courtyard, too. People were eating the treats they had bought out on the street.  They were taking pictures by the waterfall and pushing and laughing and talking.

Then like birds that quietly but suddenly change directions, this crowd seemed to gel into two lines and began to head into the temple while others were coming out. We moved along with them up to the actual entrance of the temple where we could see through the crowd that religious rites were taking place. We forced our way back to the courtyard and out the gate. We really had to leave because the smell and smoke of the burning incense sticks were very strong.

Note: Taiwanese people, as a whole, are so very superstitious and worried about the gods and evil spirits that they are indiscriminate about their religion. They combine them all just in case one or all of the above are either right or wrong. Thus, at this Taoist temple there was also Buddhist priests and those who worship the folk gods. These are their three religions: Taoism, Buddhism and, what they call, folk religion. We could see them all at play that day at Longshan Temple. Chinese New Year is a spiritual holiday for them as well as secular.

View of Longshan Temple from across the "fountain park" outside the front entrance.  The rows of yellow "balls" are actually lanterns.  Notice this old temple has a neon sign across its archway.  This is common.
Note: Our friend, Billy McGrory, and his family spent time in Germany years ago. Vicky was crazy about going to all the castles. Billy would say, “You’ve seen one castle, you’ve seen them all.” I think I’m getting this way about temples: “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”

The two most impressive places we went to in Taipei were the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial and the National Palace Museum. The surprising aspect about CKS was its size. It was enormous! There is no picture that can do it justice. Its beauty is in its simplicity and color…white and blue.

From the steps of the memorial, you view the National Concert Hall to the right and the National Exhibition Hall to the left. Both buildings look like temples with the orange tile roof and ornate carvings. Accompanying both are lovely sculptured gardens. As it is noticeable of all Chinese architecture, the layout is exactly symmetrical. The plaza below the memorial and between the two halls is very large and is bordered opposite the memorial by a huge beautiful gate of five arches.  It is called  the Gate of Great Piety.

The property of the memorial, an entire city block, is surrounded by a white wall topped with a blue tile roof with the gate I just mentioned and another gate called the Gate of Great Loyalty. It sits among busy city streets (Roosevelt Street on one side!), but when you enter into the walls it is like another world.

I must note that Chiang Kai Shek did good by bringing the Nationalist Party to Taiwan and standing against Communism, but he was not a good man in total. His tactics were brutal and many thousands died by his hand.

The National Palace Museum was also very impressive. The museum itself sits on a hill with a majestic staircase leading to it from another plaza with symmetrical gardens on each side and a gate at its opening.

The significance of this museum is that it houses the largest collection of Chinese artifacts any where in the world.  Unfortunately, it is not very many considering it represents 5,000 years of civilization. The facts are that when Mao took over China in 1949, one of his goals was to rid the country of its culture and replace it with a new one…of course, Communism. Chiang Kai Shek knew what was happening when he was being defeated and exiled himself to the island of Taiwan, so when he left with his band of followers, they took everything they could get their hands on and manage to put on boats in order to have some physical reminders of their past. Those articles are housed in the National Palace Museum.There were brass statues (mostly Buddhas), documents, paintings, furniture, pottery and letters.

The display I enjoyed the most was a 30-foot long scroll in ink and water color of a scene in a small village that witnessed an astronomical event. On New Years Day 1761, the sun, moon and five planets all rose at the same time. The scroll was laid out in a glass case, and it also appeared on a screen on the wall behind it. Sometimes the screen would have the scroll rolling along and other times it would animate the scene so the characters would be moving. In the scene itself it was notable that the village had many horses used for many purposes and that the village had a small observatory on a rooftop. It was a fascinating piece of artwork on the scroll and also a wonderful additional display on the screen.

At the Palace Museum, I learned some history. I learned that Hong Kong was not the only property leased out to a foreign country. The Q’ing (or Ch’ing) Dynasty had a bad habit of forfeiting land in unequal treaties. They had a list of 20 countries that had at some point made deals to lease or acquire land from the Dynasty. That list included the less obvious countries of Peru, Sweden, Mexico, the Congo and Brazil along with almost every nation in Europe and also the USA. It was the “forfeiting” of Viet Nam to France in the late 1880’s that caused Sun Yet San to begin his Nationalist movement in mainland China, toppling the dynastic empire and setting up their first central government. I realized while in this museum that I know so very little about, not just China, but the world.

Note: Chiang Kai Shek was the student of Sun Yet San. He carried on the Nationalist movement in mainland China until challenged and defeated by Mao Tse Dong in the 1940’s.

This leads me into mentioning another period in Taiwanese history that I was not aware of.  We discovered it while wondering around by the Presidential Building. There was a humble granite memorial to what they call “The White Terror.” From 1949, when Chiang Kai Shek established his Nationalist party on the island, it was ruled by “authoritarian democracy," essentially martial law. This memorial was dedicated to the many thousands of “martyrs” that that form of government created.

The people lived under fear and intimidation of their “elected” rulers because it was a brutal government. This continued until July 15, 1987, when martial law began to gradually loosen its grip. Until Syria, it was the longest period of martial law any country had ever endured. The official Taiwanese government apologized for such actions in 1995. As we read this history, Don and I concluded that such recent freedom probably accounted for the high voter turnout, 80%, for the presidential election two weeks ago.

The last place in Taipei that I want to mention is Da’an Park. It is Taipei’s "Central Park." It is a huge lovely green space where you can take a long walk to get away from the traffic and buildings of the city.

We enjoyed a beautiful stroll at the end of the day through some of its many pathways. It was a pleasant walk, even in the rain…with our umbrellas.

We had a wonderful time in Taipei. We walked, we ate, we saw lovely buildings and memorials and gardens, and we learned so very much. We went “home” on the train feeling satisfied that we couldn’t have done one more thing to make our time in Taipei better than it was.

No comments:

Post a Comment