Kaohsiung, Taiwan's "second city"
I had decided to base myself for a few days in Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second city, for a number of reasons. There are a handful of nice historical spots in the area that I could visit as day trips. It is a transport hub, and hotel prices are roughly half of what they are in the capital, Taipei -- where I planned to wrap up my trip. I would find using Kaohsiung's metro, trains, and high speed rail a snap. I've always liked these forms of travel because they are clearly labelled and it is easier to gauge where you are and when to disembark.
Lotus Lake and its temples on the shore and surface of the waters
My morning destination illustrated how important that last bit truly is to finding your destination. I was headed for Lotus Lake, on the northern edge of the city. It is a small lake ringed by a number of interesting temples. Some are even built out over the surface of the lake. The metro would deposit me less than a half mile from its shores, by looking at my guidebook's map. However, the lady at the visitor information desk was insistent I needed to take a bus to get from the metro to the lake. I was incredulous, just as she was by my suggestion of walking. Yes, it was another blazing hot, humid day. But seriously? I had half a mind to ignore her suggestion, but dutifully tromped out and found the correctly numbered bus. The problems with buses, in my experience, is you can't always tell when you are supposed to get off. If you don't know the area or recognize your stop, you're likely to drive on past it. Or -- as would be my case -- board the bus on the wrong side of the street and head the wrong direction!
I knew fairly quickly it was taking me back into the city -- not towards where I was supposed to go. I got off, and began to retrace my steps. Asking directions didn't seem to be helping, so eventually I said "forget this!" And waved down a cab. It cost me 100 New Taiwan dollars (a little more than $3) to be taken in air-conditioned comfort to the lakeshore. And yes, had I known the way, it would have been a 15 minute walk!
the facade of the Ciji Temple at Lotus Lake
I began my exploration at the Ciji Temple, at the southern end of the lake. The exterior is richly carved in brightly-painted scenes of dragons, horsemen, and robed men -- the colors shining in the morning sunlight. Four carved gray columns are intertwined with dragons and support a facade telling stories from Buddhist mythology. The roof is a riot of carved dragons and other animals. The sheer amount of decoration continues as you enter, overwhelming your senses in the dusky stillness of the interior.
Bad luck! You are supposed to enter through the dragon's mouth -- not the tiger's!
Outside, the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas seemed simpler and almost cartoon-like in their decoration, by comparison. Two seven-story towers rise up from the lake and are reached by a zig-zag walkway above the surface. The entrance to each tower is in the form of a comical, 40-foot long dragon or tiger, one for each pagoda. You actually walk through the creature's gaping jaws into a passageway of colorful relief figures to reach the pagodas. It is supposed to be lucky to enter through the dragon's mouth and exit from the tiger's. A spiral staircase whirls its way up the center of each pagoda to a nice, breezy panorama of the lake. Below, you can see the water around the pagodas choked with lotus blossoms. Looking across to the opposite pagoda, your eyes are dazzled by the bright oranges and yellows that decorate the two pagodas. Each sports a number of fierce statues of its namesake tigers or dragons.
The zig-zag pier leading out to the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas
Continuing north along a shady brick pathway along the lakeshore, you come next to the Spring and Autumn Pavilions. Both were encased in scaffolding during my visit. It was possible to skirt around the construction, though, and make my way out onto a pier extending almost a hundred yards out onto the lake surface. At the end was the temple to Guandi, the god of war. Yellow paper lanterns lined the bridge every few feet, swaying in the gentle breeze. Although it was the least decorated of the Lotus Lake temples, it's position in the center of the lake made it a great vantage point. Climbing up to the second floor, you can look around and see the other temples spaced out along the shore. Behind them, stores offered drinks, and across the lake, an office building or two edged towards the shore. Further back, green hillsides rose to shelter the lake from the rest of encroaching Kaohsiung.
The pier leading to the temple to the God of War
Returning to the shore, you see rising up the largest and most impressive of the lake temples: the Temple of Enlightenment. This three-story temple gleams with gold, red, and yellow. Like the Ciji Temple, every inch of the walls, pillars, and ceiling seems to be encrusted with a carving, statue, or painting. Various aspects of the Buddha and other divinities gaze down at the worshippers who bow, pray, and light joss sticks (incense), as part of their devotions. I paced slowly around the temple, trying to be discreet as I took it all in, and snapped photos. On the second floor a fountain sported a half dozen dragons playfully squirting water towards each other. Although the lighting should have been dim, it was reflected and redoubled from every gold surface.
The three-story Temple of Enlightenment
Worshippers pray at the Temple of Enlightenment at Lotus Lake
The atmosphere was of stumbling upon a dragon's hoard of gold in a smoky cavern, with the light from your torch being tossed back at you from a thousand surfaces. On the steps out front, two fierce temple dogs gripped massive stone spheres. The demonic look in their eye recalled the demon dogs from the movie, Ghostbusters. I wouldn't want these curs to come to life, though, and want to play a game of tug of war with a random body part!
"If there's something weird, in your neighborhood...who ya gonna call...?"
Next came one of my favorites of the day: a more than 70 foot tall statue of Xuantian Shang-di at the end of a 50-yard, statue-lined pier. Xuantian is the Emperor of the Dark Heaven and mythological guardian of the north. He sits enthroned, sword in one hand, and a massive foot resting upon a turtle and dragon. Very colorful, with a stern expression, he looks out over Lotus Lake as if it his own private realm. The guardian's army was what I enjoyed most, though. Every ten feet or so, on both sides of the pier, is a different stone statue of some mythological warrior or demon. They are all mounted, some on horses, others dragons, deer, and even a swan. Some brandish weapons, still others hold squirming men or babes that they appear ready to either devour or rip limb from limb. They'd make an amazing chess set, or line of miniature warriors (David McBride, I thought of Splintered Light Miniatures when I saw them...if anybody could do this army of fierce guardians up right, it'd be you!).
It's good to be the Emperor of the Dark Heaven...
One of dozens of statues spaced along the pier and guarding the Emperor Xuantian Shang-di
The final temple was one to Confucius. I was curious to see what it was like, as I teach my students a bit about Confucius. One of the things we discuss is whether Confucianism is a religion or a philosophy. So, to see a temple built in his honor would give me more information to make my own judgement on the matter. Whereas the Buddhist and Taoist temples I'd seen earlier today had seemed crammed and almost claustrophobic, this one was spacious and open. After passing through a towering, three-portal white stone and tile gate, I entered a courtyard through a set of wooden double doors. I was greeted by two attendants who eagerly had me sign their guest book. They handed me an English pamphlet about the temple. The courtyard had a roofed gallery extending all around it. Most of the decoration was stylized geometric patterns, with the only figures being outlines of dragons. Compared to the others I'd seen, the Confucian temple was sparse and elegant. And consistent with Confucius' role as a teacher, the temple had placards in both Chinese and English explaining the instruments and equipment. It was as much a museum as a temple. Most of my 7th graders will tell you they view Confucianism as a philosophy -- with its emphasis of establishing a harmonious society --rather than a religion. However, after reading about how sacrifices and dances are made in his honor and that of his chief disciples, now I'm not so sure.
The Confucius Temple at Lotus Lake
One thing I was sure of, through, was after several hours in the sun and humidity, I needed a break. I headed back to my hotel, chuckling at the ridiculously short cab ride to the metro station. If only I had known which direction to walk! Once back in my hotel room, I relaxed in the air conditioning, sucking down a cold iced tea. Ahhhhhh! I considered showering before heading out again, but figured that within five minutes I'd be drenched in sweat again. Instead, I planned my afternoon excursion, referencing between my guidebook and the internet.
The Dome of Light artwork in the Kaohsiung metro
My first stop was a brief hop off of the metro to look at the Dome of Light. This colorful glass artwork decorates the Formosa Boulevard metro station. I continued on to my stop, the Sanduo Shopping District. No, I wasn't going shopping in the mall located above the stop. Instead I was headed to the nearby, 85-story Tuntex Sky Tower. The building is the 13th tallest in Asia, and the second in Taiwan. There is an observation deck on the 75th floor, and I was headed up for a Birdseye view of Kaohsiung. I was mildly disappointed that it was all enclosed and that you couldn't go outside, but the windows were tall and faced out in all directions. After about 15 minutes of soaking up the view, I headed back down and returned to the metro.
The view from the 85-story Tuntex Tower
My next stop was the Love River, which winds through the city from its harbor mouth. There is a bike path and parks along it. There is even a fleet of solar-powered boats that run short cruises up and down the river. I took some photos and decided to board one of the "Love Boats," even though I knew the commentary would be in all Chinese. A tour group shared the boat with me, and politely laughed at the guide's jokes. They eyed me nervously when I got up to take a few photos, so doubtless I'd been warned in Chinese to stay seated. One of the men in the tour group got up to take some video, and his wife hissed at him to return to his seat. Another example of Western corruption....sigh.
Solar-powered "Love Boats" cruise the river in Kaohsiung
The river has a number of cafés set up along its length, selling food and drink to passers by. I decided that the occasion called for a beer, as the sun was going down and I could think of no better way to watch it than to sit by the riverside and drink it in, so to speak. The food looked tempting, too, but I had spotted a better place for dinner on my way down to the river. Another Western-looking man was tucking into some food, though, at the next table. As I ordered a second San Miguel (Philippine beer), he went for the ice cream, we fell into conversation, and it turns out he is an airline pilot on a layover. We talked for an hour as the sun set and darkness fell. Turns out he is Colombian and flies for a Japanese carrier. It was good to swap airline stories for awhile. We had a lot in common, and it is always good to have a nice conversation with another Westerner when traveling alone.
Ahhhh, that is how you end at terrific day of sightseeing!
On my way back to dinner, I stopped to take a few nighttime photos of the riverbank and the buildings all lit up colorfully. I always carry a min-tripod in my camera bag for these types of photos. The photos turned out nicely. This, along with a good dinner, put me in a satisfied mood for the day. It had been a long, hot day of sightseeing, but truly a great one. I know my sightseeing schedule would seem like too much work for a vacation to some, but it is simply the price you pay to see what you want. If you want a mountaintop view, you have to climb up it, right? The same goes for a day of sightseeing in the summer's heat in Taiwan. You have to pay the price in sweat to reap the reward of the amazing sights I saw in Kaohsiung that day.
Kaohsiung's Love River lit up at night