March 11 Tianan
Slept poorly my last night in Hong Kong as the weather turned cold and the blanket was thin. There was a space heater but I didn’t want to leave it on all night.
I got to airport in plenty of time only to find out there was engine trouble. China airlines gave is a food voucher, a flight to Taipei and money for a ticket to the high-speed train to Tainan. Arriving in the midst of a rainstorm, I was so glad to take that train to Tainan. The train sped down at 260kph arriving In Tainan in less than 90 minutes. Unaware that the high speed station was far from city I jumped in cab. Driving on and on I was fearing some $40 bill but no! It was only $15, an introduction to the low prices of Taiwan.
I was immediately happy to check into Fuward Hotel, a real four-star hotel with toiletries, snacks and a large, well-appointed room. I set out to explore the neighborhood and found myself in a curious reconstruction of a traditional Japanese residence.
At least that’s what I think it was as this tranquil oasis had no English explanations but a smattering of Japanese visitors. It was an introduction to the strong Japanese influence that pervades Taiwan. Continuing the Japanese theme I landed in tiny Japanese place with beautiful, fresh sahimi for $7. Happiness!
On the way back I stopped in the oldest temple in Tainan, busy Tian Gong or Tiantan temple, built in 1854 and considered the spiritual center of Tainan.
Tiantan is usually translated as the Altar of Heaven. It is the altar to the god that rules over all the mortal realms. He is commonly known as the Jade Emperor (Yù Huáng ? ?). His worship in Taiwan goes back to the early days of Chinese settlement when Zheng Chenggong made sacrifices on the grounds in which this temple was later built. Tainan’s Tiantan, or Tiangong Temple, is the oldest temple on the island serving this deity. Today it is at the center of Tainan’s spiritual community.
My breakfast buffet of choice is Asian and the Hotel Fuward did not disappoint. Burdock root salad in chili oil! Stir fried spinach! Salted egg! Chinese buns! Congee! Milkfish soup!
I picked up a very basic map from reception and tried to find out where the tourist office was but the staff’s level of English wasn’t up to the task.
No matter. Many sites were nearby. My first stop was the Confucius temple (confucius.culture.tw/)
A succession of Qing emperors presented plaques in honor of the Great Sage who was the first teacher to advocate for public education. Previously education was accessible only to the high-born. One wonders whether the veneration of Confucius that permeates Asian society is responsible for the high emphasis placed on education throughout these societies.
Across the street was one of many quiet lanes that lent Tainan its “Old Asia” feeling.
This temple is dedicated to a Lady Linshui, Chen Ching-ku. Since there are so many people who need the help of the goddess, she is accompanied by 36 assistants who are positioned in a side chamber. These are all the patron saints of women, who come in large numbers to pray for sons or good health. For women and children alike, the goddess is a source of spiritual comfort.
Women also come to this temple for a “belly change” which is believed to change the sex of an unborn child. A Taoist priest performs a ritual which, it is said, can give the child whatever sex the parents desire.
But it’s not all about temples! Koxinga was a pivotal figure in Taiwanese history. This Chinese-Japanese aristocrat first defended the Ming dynasty against the marauding Manchus. He went on to drive the Dutch East India company out of Formosa (Taiwan) and took the first steps toward taming the wild island.(The Economist).
As Tainan is considered the heart of Taiwanese culture, naturally it hosts the most impressive Koxinga shrine.
Perhaps because Tainan and Taiwan rarely appear on “bucket lists” or “best of” lists, I was enjoying an increasingly rare sense of discovery in this relaxed and super-friendly country.
But my feet were killing me! I finally came across snazzy and super-padded sport shoes at prices that were about 20% cheaper than Hong Kong.
Then I headed to the tourist office where the staff tried to explain to me how I could take the hop-on hop-off bus to see the city’s many sights. I wandered out confused about how the whole day could cost $1 when in Hong Kong it cost $70. Surely I misunderstood something.
At that point a serious-looking young woman I had seen in the tourist office approached me and asked if I wanted to sightsee with her. Sure! Viera turned out to be a Canadian of Chinese descent who had not forgotten her Mandarin. Even she had some trouble unraveling the bus system but at least she could question the driver.
Our goal was Anping Fort on the outskirts.
The history of Taiwan’s development began at the Anping district of Tainan. This is where the Dutch built their stronghold in the 1620’s, naming it Fort Zeelandia. Most of the old fort is gone now; the only bit left of the original is a piece of red-brick wall, elegant banyan roots growing down its sides.
Part of the fortress compound was the Tait & Co merchant house which had been turned into a museum that traced the history of Tainan as a commercial center. It ended when the bay gradually silted up and could no longer be used as a trading port.
Now, time to eat! Tainan is famous for its unusual cuisine. You just have to try the famous red jelly with tofu.
Time for another temple? Yes. We paid homage at the Matsu temple.
And from the sea:
So much food. If only I could squeeze in more.
The street was clearly restored with tourism in mind which attracted highly original cafes and shops. I bought a gorgeous and practical handmade fabric hand/shoulder/backpack bag and then we found ourselves in the insanely imaginative “Art Cafe Funnywenqing” whose owner had traveled the world amassing curios and odd objects of all kinds.
Maybe yesterday was a bit too much. I woke up with a bad head cold. I still managed to get to Chikhan tower, another former Dutch outpost.
And what is a day in Tainan without a temple visit? This time it’s the Grand Matsu Temple, a 17th-century Prince’s palace remodeled into a temple. Matsu was the god in charge of fishing and fishermen.
Across from the hotel, I explored the Old Lin Department store, a Japanese-era handsome store, now filled with extremely pricey clothes and accessories.
Then it was back to bed with pills and tissues until my final Japanese meal of sushi and saki.
March 13 Taipei
My head cold improved enough for me to take bus 88 out past Anping Fort to Sichao Dazhong temple.
But today I had another purpose besides temples: the rare blackface spoonbill. Nearly extinct, this lovely bird spends the winter at the mouth of Cengwen River on Tainan’s outskirts. The timing worked out beautifully as I hopped in a small boat for a 70-minute ride along the mangroves to the nesting grounds. There was a guide who, unfortunately, spoke not a word of English but we did see the spoonbills and several other species. It was a nice morning out.
Back to the hotel for luggage, a bus to the train station and I zipped up to Taipei arriving in late afternoon at the Dongmen Hotel. On a quiet street and only steps from the metro, it was clearly a good location and I was amused at the large room painted with polar scenes. With a couch and no closet or hanging space it wasn’t the most practical setup though.
Heading out to explore and find food I realized that Tainan spoiled me with food choices. You could hardly go 10 feet without being tempted by a snack stall. Not so here.
I arranged for my metro card and took the train one stop to a heavily commercial district where there were somehow no restaurants. Back in my neighborhood, combing the streets, I finally fell into a hip Japanese place that cooked me up a nice plate of fried tofu.
Quiet Linyi street outside my hotel burst into life this morning, crowded with a morning market. Unfortunately the Dongmen hotel didn’t provide breakfast so I grabbed some tea eggs and spicy tofu for breakfast. It was a beautiful day so I decided to head up to Tamsui, formerly Taiwan’s largest port and trading post on the Tamsui river. As it was Sunday, the riverside promenade had a wonderfully canivalesque atmosphere crowded with families sipping bubble tea, nibbling on fries and taking selfies.
The British had set up administrative offices a little higher up on historic Xenli street.
Heading back down to the river I was confronted with a heaving mass of humanity so I hopped on the metro to Shilin. I grabbed a snack while waiting for the night market to open at 5 and then strolled the bustling streets. As it wasn’t quite as effervescent as the one in Tainan I decided to stop by Longshan temple, one of Taipei’s “highlights”. The square around the temple was filled with people swaying to a musical act which I watched for a while.
The temple was a festival of light and color. I was so glad to catch a snippet of the Lantern Festival which I had missed. Here’s what was in the temple entrance:
I checked out the Bialoh historic block nearby which was architecturally interesting but kind of dead at night. I shovelled down some sushi (mediocre) before heading back to the hotel.
The National Palace is Taipei’s highlight museum, a “must visit” for the incredible porcelain and jade, especially the famous jade cabbage.
Later, I followed the tourist office’s suggestion to explore historic Xinshuang Lane, a quiet “old Asia” street of neighborhood temples, traditional crafts and old buildings. It seemed like a laid-back working-class alternative to Taipei’s more modern, commercial neighborhoods.
I determined to try and locate a Lonely Planet recommended Szechuan restaurant around the train station. It was an incredibly confusing 20 minutes, circling around with Google Maps, tourist maps etc. but no restaurant. Finally I stopped in a hotel who explained there was no sign but it was on the third floor of a certain building. The fiery tofu and eggplant dishes made it worth the hassle.
After packing up, I decided to continue with the exploration of artsy Taiwan by heading to the Songchan Cultural Park. So fascinating! This former tobacco factory had been converted to a center for modern art and design with a museum and numerous studios. The long halls replete with polished wood bordered a stunning garden. Even the restrooms were truly restful with polished wood and clean lines.
I was pleased to see that the State Department financed something called the “American Innovation Center”. I don’t know what they do there but it looked cool and it’s good to know that we provide something other than the fighter jets that blasted through the sky each morning over Tainan.
I wandered over to an extremely high-end department store nearby in search of Taiwanese tea but found the prices too high for tea and everything else in the store. $300 for a scarf from Mongolia? I finally bought a good selection of oolong tea in the airport and almost missed my flight.