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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Of cookies and temples

Life in Taiwan can really grate at times. The dirt, pollution, oily/greasy foods, dangerous traffic conditions, hidebound cultural traditions, ugly architecture, poor urban planning and narrow-minded parochialism, among other things (and don't even get me started on the beer situation!), all add up to a lot of wearying stress...

...until one switches to Tourist Mode! Then Taiwan becomes the undiscovered jewel of North East Asia, full of beautiful natural attractions, fascinating historical sites and interesting religious structures, one of which I visited this afternoon in the T'aichung County 台中縣 town of Tachia 大甲 on one of those periodic day trips designed to recharge jaded batteries.

Tachia's main (perhaps only) attraction is Chenlan Temple 鎮瀾宮, home to arguably the most famous Matsu 媽祖 image in all of Taiwan. The temple is the site every year of the Tachia Matsu Culture Festival and the Matsu Holy Pilgrimage, which lasts eight days and involves carrying the temple's image of Matsu to Fengt'ien Temple 奉天宮 in Hsinkang新港, and back again. Even when there aren't any festivities going on, Chenlan Temple is always busy, and on this hot and humid Tuesday afternoon, there was a continuous stream of worshipers, young and old, filing in and out.

Chenlan Temple dates from 1732, though the Main Hall has been tinkered with on numerous occasions over the years, most recently in the 1980's, when the money really started to roll in.

Though surprisingly small considering the temple's fame, the intricate carvings on the ceiling inside, and the rooftop figures are among many of the hall's interesting architectural features:

While looking around inside, I was given an English-language guidebook on the Tachia Matsu. Taiwanese in general are very tolerant of gawking foreigners inside their houses of worship, though it certainly helps when the hairy barbarian does his best to keep out of everyone's way and avoids taking flash photos. While I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth (and the booklet was very informative), I was somewhat bemused by this description of the temple's president, Yen Ching-piao 顔清標:

"He is benevolent, generous and frank. He models himself on Matsu's alms and compassion spirit, and leads Chen Nan Temple team to relieve sufferings by hearing voices, develop strength to serve our society, and create a peaceful and happy land together."

In addition to being chairman of the temple's board of trustees, Yen is also a legislator with deep ties to Taiwan's criminal underworld, and recently served time in prison after being convicted of attempted murder. Yet another reason why Taiwan falls under the rubric of places you would like to visit but not necessarily want to live in - this country is basically a gangster state.

Once you've seen Chenlan Temple, there isn't much else to do in Tachia. I took a short walk along Shunt'ien Road to see Lin's Chastity and Piety Arch. Basically a paean to virginity, it was erected (pun intended) in 1848 to honor a woman who remained "virtuous" for seventy years after her husband died early on in the marriage (when she was twelve years old!).

Turning left onto Kuangming Road, I soon came to the Yu Jen Shin Bakery and did what most visitors to Tachia do - buy some cakes as a souvenir. Described by the Rough Guide Taiwan guidebook as "butter pancakes", these extremely flaky cakes can easily satisfy demanding sweet teeth like mine.

Leaving Tachia, on the ride back to Fengyuan 豐原, I paid a quick visit to the Houli Sugar Tourism Village to enjoy another cup of one of Taiwan's rare craft beers. It tasted just as good as it did a couple of days before, and this time I learned the name of the brewery behind it was Taiwan Sanman Barley-Broo. There was still no information on where to purchase some, however...

...back to reality (sigh).

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