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Monday, June 15, 2009

A few observations after a weekend in Taihoku

Having some business to attend to on Saturday morning in Taipei 台北, we decided to turn it into a family weekend in the big city. I arrived first, on Friday night, and checked into the Keyman's Hotel. At NT1940 ($60/¥5800) a night for a "Japanese-style" double room (in Taiwan, "Japanese-style" usually means wooden flooring and a mattress on the floor), and in a very convenient location close to Taipei's main train station, Keyman's was definitely a good choice - it also had a nice inner atrium, and breakfast was included in the room rate (Chinese-style, alas).

Pamela and Amber took the train up from Fengyuan 豐原 on Saturday morning, and I met them at Taipei Main Station 台北車站 just after 1 pm. Before going to the station, I took a walk around the area surrounding the hotel, and took this picture of the National Taiwan Museum 國立台灣博物館, dating from 1915, and one of a number of Japanese-era buildings to be found in the Zhongzheng 中正 area of Taipei. This, plus the fact that the interior of the Taipei Station building, its underground shopping malls, and the streets surrounding it outside are full of Japanese restaurants, shops selling Japanese goods and signs written in Japanese led to me observe the following: Taipei may be the power base in Taiwan for the "superior mainlanders", but deep down inside, the city wants to be nothing less than a minor-league version of Tōkyō 東京. China may be on a higher cultural plane than the southern part of Taiwan, which is supposedly where all the island's "rednecks" live (debatable), but Japan is definitely cooler. The delicious taste of irony! Oh, and having come back from a week-long stay in Fukuoka 福岡, I think I can honestly say that Taipei still has a long way to go before its dream can be realized.

After resting for a while in our hotel room, we headed out in the late afternoon, taking the MRT 台北捷運 to Longshan Temple Station 龍山寺站 in the Wanhua District 萬華區 (it didn't take Amber very long to figure out how to use the tokens - in that regard, she was much quicker than some adults!). We first visited Longshan Temple 龍山寺, Taipei's most famous temple, a fact reflected in the sheer number of people worshiping there early on a Saturday evening as the skies threatened to unleash buckets of rain (a threat which was soon carried out). Walking into the courtyard facing the Main Hall, we came across hundreds of people, many dressed in black, chanting in unison. The effect was nothing short of creepy:

The temple is certainly very colorful, and the Rear Hall was also very active, but all the incense smoke irritated Amber's eyes, so we didn't linger long.

Escaping from Longshan Temple, we walked over the start of the Huaxi Tourist Night Market (aka "Snake Alley"), which led me to make Observation No. 2: Taipei may be Taiwan's highest-class city, but it contains arguably the island's lowest-class night market. Though we were there before things had gotten into high gear, the sleaziness prevalent in some of the businesses (not to mention in some of the denizens, as well) gave me second thoughts about having Amber there. When you take into account that the market's main claim to fame is the several stalls that slaughter snakes in "shows" for the benefit of tourists, it's probably best that we didn't stick around long (the latter stalls all had signs in English and Chinese forbidding photography. No doubt their owners are aware that, in this day and age, killing animals in the name of tourism isn't considered to be as entertaining as it might have been in the past).

The shop in the photo on the top claims to sell Fengyuan-style noodles. It's a pity we didn't try our luck there. The food couldn't have been any worse than the greasy fried rice I had at a small eatery across the road from our hotel!

The rain that plagued us on Saturday evening also came down at times on Sunday (though not as hard, fortunately), which leads me to my next observation: if Taipei is ever suffering from a serious drought (which it sometimes is), the city fathers ought to pay for me to come up and visit, because almost every time I've been to Taipei over the years, the weather has been rainy! This didn't stop us from taking the MRT out to Taipei Zoo in order to see the pandas. The unfortunate pair were given to Taiwan by China last December, and Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan ("Reunification") have been dragged ever since into the muck that is Taiwanese politics. As political symbols, they are repulsive, but in the eyes of a little girl only three and a half-years old, they are just cute, and Amber eventually returned home on Sunday evening the proud owner of a panda pen and some panda stickers, not to mention a panda sucker she happily consumed just before we left the zoo in the middle of the afternoon.

Panda mania appears to have run its course, judging from the fact that we didn't have to wait in any lines before being allowed inside the special exhibition area. Nevertheless, zoo personnel didn't tolerate any lingering, and while the Tibetan bears (chuckle) were up and about this morning, the best I could do when it came to recording their images can be seen in the photo and video below:

As for the rest of the day at the zoo, Amber was interested in the iguanas, snakes and tortoises in the reptile house (that's my girl!), but curiously immune to the appeal of penguins. She did perk up in the African animal display area (especially the giraffes and monkeys), and was also quite happy with the koalas, which we saw at the end, before returning via the MRT to Taipei Station.

The two photos above, Amber on the MRT and the view from the platform at Zhongxiao-Fuxing Station, have no relation to my final observation, which is that while Taipei may be Taiwan's cosmopolitan center, judging from the fashion tastes witnessed during our stay on Saturday and Sunday (not to mention my previous visits as well), the capital city isn't that far ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to what people are wearing, especially the young. Or to put it another way, even the dedicated followers of fashion in Fukuoka are leaps ahead of their counterparts here in terms of what is hip and stylish. I'm not passing judgment one way or the other, but I do find it curious that the southern part of Taiwan, with its legions of "Taimei" 台妹 seems to be setting the pace in this regard (I have a feeling that had we visited Tianmu 天母 or Ximending 西門町, I would've just been reminded of things I'd seen in Tōkyō years ago).

For the return trip to Fengyuan, we took our inaugural ride on Taiwan's high speed rail system 台灣高鐵, traveling from Taipei to Wurih 烏日, which counts as "Taichung" 台中 to the High Speed Rail Corporation. Having ridden the Shinkansen 新幹線 on numerous occasions in Japan, I was very curious to see what Taiwan's version was like, and I was quite impressed, both with the system, and the speed and comfort of the ride. The boarding announcements at Taipei Station felt more like what would be heard at an airport (in Japan, there is never any doubt that you are about to get on a train), but the views from the train window were very similar to what can be seen riding the Tōkaidō Shinkansen 東海道新幹線 from Tōkyō to Shin-Ōsaka 新大阪 - the same scenes of rice paddies and factories, though the boxy, concrete houses and the numerous Taoist temples (big and small) left no doubt as to what country we were in:

Wurih is a rarity among HSR stations in that it connects to a Taiwan Railways Administration 台灣鐵路管理局 station (New Wurih 新烏日車站) - arriving at most of the other stations entails long bus rides into the respective downtown areas of the cities they serve. It was only six stops on a local train to Fengyuan, and by 6:45 we were all home. Having left my scooter parked downtown on Friday evening, I discovered that while I was away, my bike had served as a convenient rest area for a couple of people, judging from the empty tea containers on my machine. At least it was still there, and in one piece, so I should be thankful for small favors.

All in all, there are a lot worse ways to celebrate one's birthday than our trip to Taipei.

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