Friday, May 06, 2011

Taipei Notes

December 2009

A train took us into Taipei. Unlike in Japan, no one was texting, though a few people had no qualms about talking on their cell phones in soft voices. More than a few phones had really stupid ringtones.
We had a brief adventure in trying to exchange dollars, bills of a 1996 vintage being problematic for some reason. The height of this comedy was when we couldn't figure out how to cross the street to a bank in clear view. The drama was compounded in trying to figure out how to deal with the chips used as subway tokens.

We got off the MRT and had a Chinese Pizza and tea, a delicious and cheap lunch. The better part of the afternoon was spent at the National Museum, a place I'd long wanted to visit. We tried to see the exhibits chronologically, zigzagging from room to room as this place has no rhyme or reason in regard to layout. We started our tour slowly, amazed by jade possibly as old as 8000 years. But these and the pottery began to grow tedious after an hour. It was interesting to see their progression through time, and how styles had changed based on things like spiritual and political change, contact with foreign influences, etc. I was also comparing this with chronologically parallel art over in Japan. But I really wanted to see more statues, more paintings, and more spiritual art in general. (I got an inadvertent glimpse of the latter when a young woman stood staring at a blank space behind glass.) The ever-increasing crowds also began to grate, their numbers surprising on a weekday. Unlike the Japanese, who queue and file past, making it easy for me (at 6' 1") to see over their heads, the Chinese cluster like a rugby scrum. At one display, Miki and I found ourselves completely surrounded, and pressed to the glass. The most popular displays were those related to a specific personage, proving that the cult of personality is ever-pervading. I was also surprised by the number of video and interactive exhibits. A shame that people can't seem to relate to a simple static item anymore.

We'd expected to spend most of the day at the museum, but after a few hours, our brains were full. We did, however, save room for leftovers. The nearby aboriginal museum was intriguing, but had a sad lack of English explanation. I was impressed by the spirit poles, a pot with 2 intertwining serpents, and weapons used to subdue evil spirits.

We went back across town to the Chiang Kai Shek memorial. The large building was at the end of a huge open plaza, and his figure, seated in his chair atop a high flight of steps. was reminiscent of Mr. Lincoln. On the veranda of the equally massive National Theater, some students were practicing acrobatic routines. Out on the tiles, people queued up to have their photo taken with a dog. While observing all this, I loved this feeling of incongruity, that lack of understanding that I've long lost in Japan. It is always fun to hear of things mysterious to visitors to Japan, and today I could rekindle that sense of wonder. How easy to it to accept that which you don't understand.

In the Memorial itself, we caught the tail end of the odd performance known as the changing of the guard. Five men took turns high-stepping and suddenly freezing into strange poses, like an bizarre game of freeze-tag. I suppose they needed the exercise after standing still at attention for so long. I find these displays have an equal dose of the comic and the horrifying. I had a similar reaction to the propaganda downstairs, pictures of scenes from the generalissimo's life, his writing, his cars, and the mock-up of his office. There was a strong emphasis on his awards, international recognition, and photos with other heads of state. It was like the unpopular kid who tries so hard to be accepted by the big boys. I got into a conversation with an 80 year-old mainlander from Fukien, though unfortunately I didn't ask his opinion on all this. But I didn't need to ask the opinion of another man of similar age, who when entering the hall, removed his cap and bowed deeply to the bust of General Chiang.

It was growing dark as Miki and I walked the streets now crowded with traffic, past a couple of the old city gates. The phallic 101 building continually lurked over our shoulders, proving that the government's craving for international acceptance didn't end with ole' Chiang Kai Shek. We stumbled across an alley now renovated to look as it did before the occupying Japanese bypassed it with the broader avenue beside. The buildings flanking the alley were empty but for a few small displays amidst brick and beam. I can see cafes and restaurants here in a few years.

Nearby was Longshan temple, completely abustle. People of all ages were chanting, kneeling in prayer, or holding joss sticks at 45 degree angles from their foreheads. We eavesdropped on a Japanese tour in order to hear about the figures to whom the Taiwanese were bowing. Our timing was perfect as the guide quickly ran through the names, then said suddenly, "OK. Let's eat!" to the obvious relief of the tour. We had no idea if all the activity here was a festival, or simply an average night, but you'd think it was Christmas by all the numbers here. One young man in a dress shirt and tie was sitting full lotus and chanting, one hand raised vertically to his chest. An old woman came over, and with obvious displeasure, did some weird mojo in his direction.

We walked a couple of blocks over to Snake Alley, the only other place I knew about in Taipei. It was a let down. Rather than a market awash with rampant and dangerous serpents, there were only a couple of dismal and near-empty shops, though one of them did host a lovely albino python. Nearly as interesting were the few shops with sexual paraphernalia, plus a few pitiful hookers lurking down alleys. All the food on display around here stimulated a different desire in Miki, who bought a phallic cob of corn to eat on the way to the train station...

...our last morning in Taiwan was spent slowly, over tea. Got to Taipei around noon, dropped the bags, and went up to a couple of temples. The Confucian Temple was newly restored last year, a bright blue, with lovely walled gardens and ponds. The Taoist counterpart nearby was all red and brick, looking older, but vibrant. The Confucian Temple was more a museum, yet the gardens offered a quiet escape from the city. From atop the Taoist temple's 4th floor, we could see Yangmingshan to the north, the stacked up Chinese-take out boxes of the 101 building to the south. There were so many things here that we hadn't seen, post pilgrimage fatigue catching up with us, and a few quiet days were more fitting to our mood than rushing around a busy city. We'd be back.

The neighborhood around the temples was very intriguing, but we'd have to wait for that next visit. A nearby Rinzai Temple was a garish yellow against the hills. The soccer stadium next door was in the midst of being torn down, looking like a Roman ruin. With the Asian Games being held here next summer (2010), this whole area will have a different look the next time I'm here. At the airport, we checked into the mysterious Air Asia, a steal at a mere 50 dollar ticket from Taipei to Bangkok. They said nothing about my bag being 2 kg overweight. As we boarded our flight, I hoped that they wouldn't be as lax about things such as the number of bolts on the plane's fuselage...

On the turntable: Grateful Dead, "Santa Fe Downs, 10-17-82."

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