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Monday, April 27, 2009

Into the heartland

You know you've been in Taiwan too long when your idea of a fun family Sunday outing is to go for a drive along a new freeway. Despite the rainy weather, we drove the entire length of the new No. 6 Freeway 水沙連高速公路, all 30 kilometers (19 miles) of it, from Wufeng 霧峰 in Taichung County 台中縣 to Puli 埔里 in Nantou County 南投縣 . While the road is open to traffic, it isn't for business, as there are (as yet) no rest areas, and with the exception of a turnoff for Caotun 草屯, no exits until Puli. On the other hand, it's arguably the most scenic of Taiwan's freeways (which isn't saying much), as the road makes its way through mist-covered mountains. It also has significantly reduced the amount of time it takes to get to Puli, and has put places such as Wushe 霧社 and Cingjing Farm in much closer reach of Taichung. Whether or not that turns out to be a good thing remains to be seen at this stage.

Amber finally gets to eat lunch after the drive to Puli

Although it's now more convenient to reach, Puli is still Puli. I've never shared the enthusiasm the writers employed by Lonely Planet and Rough Guides seemingly have for the small town located literally in the center of Taiwan. There are plenty of scenic attractions within easy reach of Puli, but the city itself is pretty much typical of the Taiwanese countryside (at least on the west coast) - the air is often dirty, the traffic is chaotic and the architecture is downright hideous in many places. Having been there on a couple of previous occasions, we'd pretty much exhausted all the local sightseeing options, so with nothing left to do, after lunch we stopped off at a small nursery cum restaurant cum souvenir shop, where Pamela ended up buying a couple of small plants for Amber's room.

Amber checks out a bear-shaped floral display

On the way back to the freeway, we saw the main hall of the Chung Tai Chan Monastery (or Temple) looming in the distance, and seeing as it was still relatively early in the afternoon, decided to visit. I had been there once before, back in 2000, when it had first opened, but it looked much more impressive this time. The complex is large, the grounds are attractive, and what it lacks in history, it makes up for in decoration. Considering the amount of money that has been donated over the years to make the monastery possible, it could have easily succumbed to the temptations of tackiness, but for the most part, bad taste is kept in check. It certainly isn't like any zen 禅 temple in Japan, to say the least. The nuns there were very friendly toward Amber (though she seemed intimidated by them), and one spoke excellent English.

The main building, apparently the tallest Buddhist temple in the world at a height of 136 meters (446 feet)

Your humble tour guide somewhat self-consciously gives the bell a ring. This is far more common in Buddhist temples in Japan than here in Taiwan. My daughter was scared by the sound the bell made, though you can hear her laughing in the background after I gave it a go.

Temple Bell

We visited the Hall of the Four Heavenly Kings and the Great Majestic Hall. There are other, grander halls to see, but they require a guide in order to see them.

We left the monastery at around 5:30, got back on the freeway and headed home. Back in Fengyuan 豐原, we ended up driving right through a Taoist procession of some kind. My wife, who was driving, and my daughter, sitting in the back seat, were both excited, but for different reasons (notice the people standing right in the middle of the road at the end)!

Taoist celebration

Sunset on the drive back (the only time we saw the sun today):

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