Pulling back the drapes for a first morning look I could see that Taipei stretched far off below me on a board flat plain that was finally hemmed in on western horizon by green, jungly mountains. The sky was mostly clear and bright blue and the buildings were warmly lit by the early morning sun. None of them were tall – everything was on the order of 2-20 stories and certainly no competition for the Blue Giant on the other side of the hotel. I cleaned up and dressed and went downstairs to the quite impressive breakfast buffet, easily one of the best I’d been to. After eating we met in the lobby and left on foot in search of the Taipei Metro station that was somewhere in the vicinity of City Hall which sat kitty-corner to the front of our hotel. We passed a group of young German men shooting a commercial for a very fancy surveying device – not a shocker considering Taipei’s place in the world of high-tech manufacturing. Behind them were some garden sculptures – a golden raindrop with legs and a face talking to a tiger and a group of sprites taking turns looking through a telescope. Stuff like this is so common in Asia that while I always take a photo, it hardly rates as unusual. I only wish is that I could understand just what the designers are thinking when they cook them up.
The station was on the far side of the municipal complex, not far but the walk was oppressive due to the heat and the humidity. And it was only 8:30; I was glad for my sunscreen. Traveling down the escalator though helped instantly with the heat. We had a long walk down a cool marble corridor just as welcoming as the one we used at the airport to enter Taiwan. The floors were clean, the lighting pleasant and the walls were lined with art and tasteful advertising. We bought day passes knowing that we would be riding all over town, entered through the turnstiles and went downstairs to an equally neat, lit and clean platform where we caught a train with the same remarkable conditions.
We had a couple of objectives for the day. First, we needed to go to the main train station to collect our tickets for the next day’s trip down the coast. Second, we wanted to see the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial complex to pay our respects to that figure of history. In between the two were a couple of “temple stops” and being the sucker for temples that I am, I insisted. After much grumbling everyone conceded to my pleas and we stopped first at Shandao Temple to have a look.
I’ve been to all kinds of religious structures in the region, from tiny Taoist shrines in forest clearings to massive Ming-style modern temples in the north. But I’ve never been to one that looked like an American embassy. Shandao was apparently a modern Buddhist center and school and while probably a temple too it didn’t grab anyone’s interest. Too much blocky pink granite and wrought iron fencing and nary an upturned roof to be seen. We went down the escalator about as fast as we had come up and caught the next train.
Longshan Temple was another story altogether. We discovered that we had accidentally landed in the middle of an historical district on the edge of the market we had left last night. Qingshui, the temple we’d found in the dark the night before was listed on a landmark sign along with another - Qingshan - and a restored neighborhood by the name of Bopiliao, whose name alone “skin peeling” demanded a visit. But Longshan was right in front of us so that was where we started.
As I’d mentioned previously, Taiwanese temples were an incredibly different feast for the eyes. Adorned with dragons and birds and tiny people they were far more ornate than those I have visited. Most of the structures in the city were built in the early Qing Dynasty (1st through 3rd decade of the 1700’s) by the thousands of Fujianese immigrants who came to the island during that period. Where most temple architecture I’ve seen has been brightly painted and heavily carved, Longshan took both of those arts to a completely new level. Every ten foot long dragon was made of thousands of individually carved and painted spikes of wood, creating a most unusual and prickly design. The roof tiles and eaves were equally as bright and made busier by all those tiny saints riding horses, taming animals and fighting battles. It was hard to decide where to look first, and it was clear that you could spend an entire day just photographing details. Inside the main gate, the front courtyard had a big waterfall off to the right side which helped a bit with the heat, which was now starting to become quite oppressive. It also added a pleasant sound to the surroundings. We entered the second gate and went into the inner courtyard.
Buddhism in China is not as pure as that found in India and Tibet. It’s often found mixed on sites with Taoism and with the “temples” associated with the Confucian school of thought. The latter is not considered a religion per se, but rather a philosophical guide to life. But you still see Chinese lighting incense and praying in the same in manner in front of statues of Confucius as you do in front of Buddha. In Liaoning where I live, it is not uncommon to see Buddhist miaos standing side by side with Taoist guans on some holy site. In Dalian the two faiths share multiple stops on the long climb up Da Hei Shan, the mountain that commands our northern skyline. Here though, and for the first time, I found Buddhist and Taoist shrines and altars in the same complex, perhaps some unique aspect of the southern Chinese manner of observation. In Ben’s words, here it’s less about the tenets of the belief system than providing a means for people to have their needs met. Thinking about that, I recalled just how crowded with Chinese the Jokhang in Lhasa was on the day before university entrance exams. We wandered around watching the observant and stopping to look at the Buddhas, saints and Immortals that were tucked away in the cool, dark recesses. The holy figures were lucky to be out of the sun.
Bopiliao turned out to be a fascinating stop, an old 19th century neighborhood shoved to the side by the Japanese and left more or less intact. Many of the buildings had been restored and turned into galleries and shops. Some were used to house fascinating and poignant displays of photos of neighborhood life throughout the 20th century. Simple people going about their lives, celebrating weddings and children playing in the streets. It reminded me of my early life growing up in the inner city and made me realize just how alike we all are. There was a long courtyard behind the main set of buildings and it served as sort of an arboretum with trees and bushes labeled as to their species and their use. Here, I got to see my first Banyan tree up close, marveling at how it was crushing the life out of a brick wall. More surprising was a Breadfruit tree, a plant that figured large in my literary memory as being the chief reason for the voyage of the HMS Bounty to the South Seas in the 1700’s. Of course we know how that turned out and I still recall the scene as Marlon Brando and his merry mob of mutineers pelted Trevor Howard with potted plants as he and his loyal crewmen were forced into long boats for their perilous voyage back to civilization. The tree was a monster, very tall with giant lobed leaves that gave a lot of shade.
We left Bopiliao without ever getting to the bottom of the skin peeling mystery heading off in the direction of our next stop, Qingshan Temple. According to Ben, this was an old red light district and by “old” I was not sure if he meant venerated or populated by old women because it certainly seemed to be both. The sidewalks were narrow and crowded with goods that were spilling out of the shops we passed. I was at the head of our single file following an older Chinese man who was walking forward with a purpose - slightly hunched over but clearly driving forward for a reason that quickly became obvious. As we moved forward, a single, highly overdressed middle-aged woman would appear out of every pool of shade or dark side alley, taking his arm and whispering in his ear, falling off only when they entered the next personal enterprise zone. No one said a word to me, I assume due to the language barrier although one did ask Ben if he was interested in drinking tea. I felt sorry for the guy ahead of me, he was like walking flypaper and only when we cleared the block did the insects stop their assault on him. He never once looked up and I assumed his obvious drive was due to many such walks down this street.
Qingshan turned out to be an interesting combination of a Taoist temple and a family restaurant. The family element was busy cleaning pots and washing dishes for that night’s celebrations and the deities were sitting and watching passively. We took a quick spin and left the folks to their morning chores.
We stopped to look at the roof of another cultural relic, the Xinhui Academy, marveling once again at the intricate carvings. Down the street there was an interesting racket – some sort of Buddhist techno music and a host of barking dogs. Usually this means an outdoor street restaurant or some agglomeration of repairmen and vendors but what slowly presented itself was nothing of the sort. Eight Buddhist monks were approaching pushing carts, the lead of which had five happy barking dogs tethered to the front. Up top – spinning prayer wheels, burning incense globes and shrines with tiny Buddhas. Each cart was covered with a black cloth with gold writing in Chinese characters. We stood staring and wondering if we were really seeing this procession as it approached and passed. Ben translated and the message was “our purpose is to provide safety and comfort for the abandoned street animals, dogs and cats. And by the way, we buy houses.” A mobile animal rescue and real estate temple.
A fast subway ride took us to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial which was grand in size about to the point of disbelief. The complex has four main parts, a large pai feng or Chinese gate borders an enormous open plaza of white brick set in geometric patterns. To one side is the National Hall of Music which serves as the main venue of concerts in Taipei. I was sad to see that we had missed Joshua Redman by one day and Eliane Elias by two. Across the way was the National Concert Hall which is the home to the Taipei Symphony. Both of these were done in incredibly oversized Ming Dynasty Style. At the far end of the plaza stood Chiang’s Hall which bore a remarkable resemblance to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. In fact, the whole place smacked of the Forbidden City which I found quite ironic considering Chiang’s role in putting an end to the imperial era in China. Unlike the major cultural sites in Beijing, you’d be hard pressed to find a missing brick or an errant weed.
After taking a few minutes to visit a luxurious garden to have a look at some very interesting trees, I took the long walk up the plaza and climbed the stairs to Chiang’s Hall. He sat at the far end, very Abraham Lincoln-like with an interesting smile on his big bronze face. Kind of what you’d expect if he had just put his feet in a bucket of hot water after a hard day of war-lording and nation-building. Off to the side, his two honor guards stood stock still in crisp greens and chrome helmets. An attendant in a black suit would come over occasionally and mop their brow with a handkerchief. Overhead the most beautiful carved wood ceiling framed a dome that depicted the sun that serves as the chief logo on this nation’s flag.
After a stop at the train station for the tickets and a couple of photos of some more strange art including a genderless manikin with a giant bird head that spewed water from its neck into a bed of grass, we caught the subway to the Imperial Museum in the hills on the far side town. There is a reason why the Forbidden City is more or less devoid of artifacts, and that reason is that they are here. When the Japanese invaded the mainland in the 1930’s, the Nationalist Government had the presence of mind to bundle up all the cultural treasures in the former palace. They were carted about, one step ahead of the advancing Japanese armies until the war was over. When the civil war broke out, they were in the procession of Chiang’s Kuomintang and when he evacuated to Taiwan in 1949, he brought as much with him as he could, housing the goods in a new museum. The collection was impressive, but not as impressive as I had expected. It took far less time to see what I wanted to see, but what was there was still quite beautiful. Thousands of pieces of bronze, ages worth of ceramics and many, many paintings and scrolls including one from the 12th century that depicted all the common birds in the Emperor’s garden. No photos allowed though, so sadly no personal records.
We caught a cab ride back to the hotel we gathered for the final even of the day, dinner at Diamond Tony’s on the 85th floor of Taipei 101. A very fancy and confusing restaurant but with the most spectacular view you could imagine. The menu was very complex and pretty hard to understand but the food was excellent when it did arrive and they were kind enough to seat us at a window table when one cleared out so that we could enjoy a few minutes of the view before we left. I took shots and marveled at how they looked more like something taken from an airplane than from a building, the effect I suppose of being a third of a mile up in the sky.
All in all a very nice day in a wonderful city. Wonderful enough that it made me want to come back, preferably though when the sun was a bit lower in the sky.