Asian Adventure – Part 3

The last section of the Taiwan adventure was a few days in Taipei.

We caught an early(ish) morning train to Taipei. It’s only two hours or so on the train from Hualien to Taipei. We, once again, had the ‘no seat’ variety of tickets but, based on previous experience, just decided to go straight for the floor sitting option. All in all, the journey went quickly and the issue of not having a seat really wasn’t an issue at all.

On arrival in Taipei, we went straight to the hostel. It was conveniently located very close to a Taipei underground railway (known as the MRT) station. We stayed at Parachute hostel in Taipei. It was incredibly welcoming, had a fantastic common area and free toast! We dropped our bags and headed straight out to see some sights.

We only had that afternoon and the next day in Taipei so we were up against it to see as much as possible. From the hostel we walked to the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial hall and gardens. It’s a very imposing structure surrounded by smaller but no less magnificent buildings and surrounding wall. Most of the buildings carry the same colour scheme of white walls and purple roofs. They make for a striking landmark. The main building was scaffolded for maintenance but here’s a picture of it anyway.

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial

The building is a monument to Generalissiomo Chiang Kai-Shek who ruled Taiwan for twenty six years. I suggest you Google him if you’d like any extra info. The building is octagonal in shape as the number eight is lucky in Chinese culture.

The main building is flanked by two others that look identical to my untrained eye. They are the National Theatre Hall and the National Concert Hall. I’m not sure which one this is but I am sure that it’s nice to look at.

National Theater Hall/National Concert Hall

These two ‘identical’ buildings stand opposite one another across the courtyard in front of the main memorial building. There’s a large garden to the rear and sides of the main building. There are smaller gardens around the National concert and theatre halls. They are all incredibly lovely to look at and walk around. In fact, Taipei seemed to be a pretty green city. There were trees lining roads and parks/gardens seemed fairly plentiful.

Anyway, back to the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial. The courtyard is just as impressive as the rest of the grounds. Firstly, it’s enormous. Secondly, the floor is beautifully paved. Thirdly, the view across the courtyard to the main entrance gate is amazing.

Entrance gate and court yard

From the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial hall, we continued walking to the Longshan Temple. It’s a good twenty to thirty minute walk from the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial.

The popularity of the temple is based on it’s location and the beautiful features of it’s grounds. I’ve certainly never been to a temple within a large city which boasts it’s own waterfall or koi pond but Longshan has both. For me, the waterfall was more relaxing to watch and listen to. Here’s a picture which does nothing to represent how unusual and unique it feels knowing that, on the other side of the wall this cascades down, city life is in full swing.

waterfall at longshan

The temple itself is also an excellent way to forget where you are and what is going on 100 metres away from you in the street.

Longshan temple

As we visited Longshan temple during Chinese New Year, there was an increased volume of offerings in the form of food, flowers and incense. Streams of people came into and out of the temple to pray, make their new years offering(s) and generally admire the temple in the short time we were there. Here’s a little snap of some flower offerings inside the temple.

offerings at longshan

I know very little (i.e. nothing) about religion in Asia so am entirely unequipped to comment on which faith is represented by which temple. It does feel like there are endless temples to see in Taipei and (if I’m going to be honest) for someone as ignorant as me, they all look similar but just in different sizes. Also, religion and religious buildings make me feel uncomfortable. I’m an atheist but I wouldn’t ever want my lack of faith to offend anyone. Walking around religious buildings makes me feel like an interloper sneaking into a world that’s not interested in me. My atheism, coupled with my total ignorance of the religion responsible for the temples, amplified my feelings of discomfort to unbearable proportions. I didn’t go in any other temples. I loitered outside them instead which is far less sinister and offensive I’m sure.

Anyway, that was pretty much afternoon one in Taipei done. By the time we had walked back to the hostel, we’d covered ten kilometres or so on foot which meant our legs were tired and our stomachs were empty. Once back at the hostel, we fed and watered ourselves before getting drunk (as is customary on holiday).

Day two had a solid plan which included two sights. I’ll recount them in chronological order.

We took the Taipei MRT to City Hall and walked the short distance to Taipei 101. This building is famous and iconic for many reasons. It held the world record for being the tallest building in the world until Burj Khalifa opened in 2011. It still holds many world records for engineering and has the fastest lifts (a.k.a. elevators) in the world. It is 101 floors of impressive achievement. Here’s a standard tourist photo.

Taipei 101

The 101 floors represent a couple of things. 101 is an auspicious number in Chinese culture and infers good things will happen. Additionally, 1 and 0 are the binary code used to transfer information digitally. The building is supposed to represent the advancement into a digital age whilst still paying tribute to tradition. I think it looks like a massive stalk of bamboo.

To see all the stuff worth seeing, you have to pay NT$450 to access the 88th, 89th and 91st floors. I think it’s worth the cash. Your money will buy you a free audio tour, great views and two rides in the fastest lifts on Earth. As a bonus, you also get the fun of making your ears pop post lift trip.

I will not argue that Taipei 101 is an astonishing feat of many brilliant brains working together and achieving something incredible. It really is awesome.

Taiwan is hit fairly regularly by earthquakes which vary greatly in intensity (there was a small one on the morning of our visit to Taipei 101 but that’s a different and uninteresting story for another day). Tall buildings do not fare well in earthquakes so, Taipei 101’s engineers had to install a giant ‘damper’ in order to compensate for this. It looks like a giant foam tennis ball but it’s definitely not. If it is, it’s the moat important foam tennis ball I’ve ever seen.

Taipei 101 damper

Visibility for our visit to Taipei 101 was, in my opinion, pretty good. Taiwan has a massive manufacturing industry so the air will never be that clear. I was sufficiently pleased with the view. The audio tour on floor 89 points out different parts of Taipei and recognisable landmarks according to which side of the you are looking out from. Its hard to believe that Taipei is literally next to some mountains. It really is spectacular to look at. If we’d had more time, I’m pretty sure we’d have been trekking up one or more of the mountains.

The 91st floor is where you can get outside (weather permitting). Only one of the two viewing platforms were open when we visited because of high winds. From our one side, I still thoroughly enjoyed taking in the view. Here’s a snap taken from in front of the safety railings.

view from Taipei 101

All in all, Taipei 101 is worth visiting just for the view. It’s probably only a single visit attraction though (much like the London Eye). You wouldn’t need to go more than once to appreciate everything unless the visibility was very bad. I enjoyed Taipei 101 and will give it my stamp of approval. If you go, I hope you enjoy it too. But now, ONWARDS.

The second and last stop on our Taipei list was the National Palace Museum. Here’s a snap of the outside.

National Palace museum

Ticket price was NT$120 when we visited. This is pretty reasonable for what you can see in the museum. You are not permitted to take photographs inside the museum. You must leave backpacks in the check room provided too but, if you have a brain and it’s attached to your nervous system correctly, you should manage to remember the more interesting facts.

The museum is stocked with artifacts form ancient China. When the Japanese invaded China in the early 1900s, the contents of the Forbidden City were boxed and shipped south in order to keep their national treasures safe. When it was apparent the Japanese were going to continue making progress, the collection was sent to Taiwan for safe keeping. It was hidden in a large bunker under the mountain you see behind the museum in the photo above. The full chronology can be found here on the National Palace Museum website if you’re interested in the specifics. Basically, Taiwan kept the collection and now displays the pieces on a rotation basis.

We made use of one of the two daily tours provided in English. This is a free service and, for me, well worthwhile. The tours run at 10am and 3pm but you are advised to sign up beforehand as it’s first come, first toured and there is a limit of thirty per tour. We were incredibly lucky on our tour as there were only the two of us. Our guide spoke brilliant English and was a very friendly young lady. She was very happy to chat her way around the museum so it felt more like a walk round with a knowledgeable friend than a guided tour.

I would recommend the tour as the English translations on signage seem to omit details which explains the significance of exhibits. Some signage was as uninformative as ‘map of coastline’. This is little better than just looking at the map which is obviously a coastline on the wall in front of you. I digress, back to what I learned from our guide.

One of the facts was about the Chinese dragon. A dragon in Chinese culture is very different to a dragon in Western culture. In England, St George is renowned for slaying a horrid dragon. Princesses’ nearly always have to be rescued from fire breathing dragons and generally, they are regarded as somewhat monstrous. The Chinese consider the dragon to be a fortuitous creature which symbolises strength, heroism, nobility, divinity and basically everything that would make you a super wicked awesome type person. The Chinese like dragons a lot more than us Western types. They do not dispatch knights to slay them, the dispatch priests to worship them.

The Chinese dragon is made up of at least four basic aspects of other animals but there can be up to as many as nine. The four ever present features are: body of a snake, face of a horse, antlers of a deer and claws of an eagle. The number of toes on the eagle claws is significant. If there are five claws, the dragon is the Emperors. No one other than the Emperor is entitled to own anything with a five clawed dragon upon it. Three or four clawed dragons were for widespread use. Being found with any item bearing a five clawed dragon was a serious issue. The example our guide gave us was this (paraphrased as I didn’t record her):
“If a member of the Emperors government was found with, say, a robe bearing a five clawed dragon in his wardrobe, it would be proof he planned to overthrow the Emperor. This crime was punishable by death, but not just his death. The death of his entire family including his wife, children, grand children, parents, grand parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, nieces, nephews and cousins. The death toll could easily reach a hundred or more for a crime such as this.”
Pretty severe, no?

I will only share one more fact with you as I am now dangerously close waffling. I wanted to share what I learned about Jade and, more specifically, why it is so treasured in Chinese culture. Jade is a precious stone that, in olden times, took time, patience, perseverance and skill to extract and craft. The craftsmen would spend hundreds of hours carving, engraving and polishing the stone to a high gloss finish. The Chinese like this concept as it reminds them that anything worth doing takes time, effort, dedication and skill. Also, jade warms to the body temperature of the wearer unlike most other precious gems. This in turn reminds the wearer to be a warm towards others in whatever they undertake. Jade is traditionally a gift given to a loved one. It is not something you would purchase for yourself. It is supposed to offer protection to the receiving party. An example of the kind of protection afforded to the wearer was described to us by our guide (paraphrased as I didn’t record her):
“If a Mother gives a daughter a jade bracelet, the daughter would consider herself incredibly fortunate if the bracelet is broken as the result of any accident. For example, if the daughter falls down the stairs, injuring her leg and breaking her bracelet, she would think herself lucky. This is because the bracelet saved her from a much worse injury than just her leg. Maybe if she had not been wearing her jade bracelet, she would have injured both legs, or worse. In that way, jade is considered to protect the wearer.”

The wearing of jade symbolises such strong and positive thinking that I couldn’t help but feel, I would like to be given some jade.

In order to get back to the airport we first took the MRT from the Taipower Building station to Taipei Main Station. Then, we took a bus from the Taipei Main station west bus depot direct to the airport. It cost a whole NT$120 and required us to do precisely nothing. We got dropped right in front of the terminal we needed and simply trotted our way to the check in desk. Easy, and peasy.

Thank you Taiwan! You are great and, if I can, I will be back.

Taiwan Summary:
Favourite Place: Lotus Lake, Kaohsiung
Favourite Food: Taro pancake/pie
Best Experience: The Eternal Spring Shrine trail in Taroko National Park, Hualien
Other Notable Points: Super friendly locals, very reasonable prices, cycle friendly everywhere, beautiful scenery, really tasty food.

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