A Travellerspoint blog


A Curtain of Rain to Close Out Taiwan

Finishing up in the capital of Taipei

rain 85 °F

Scenery in Taiwan rushing by my train window

In the week leading up to my trip to Taiwan, I'd checked the weather every so often. Every day showed rain, which made me worried about what would happen once I got here. Luckily, it had been sunny virtually every day. For my final day, I took the High Speed Rail from Kaohsiung to Taipei, the capital. I had only this day do sightseeing, which I realized didn't really do the city justice. Then again, does only one week enable you to really see the entire island? I decided to sacrifice relatively expensive Taipei and reduce it down to one day's worth of sightseeing.

I transferred from the rail station to the metro, and finally to a taxi to my hotel. It took me awhile to embrace taxis in Taiwan, but with the average trip costing only US $3 or so, it makes more sense when looking for an unfamiliar place with all your luggage. The Hotel Imperial was gorgeous, but my room would not be ready for two hours, unfortunately. I checked my luggage with the concierge and headed out the door to visit Taipei's UNESCO World Heritage sight, the Bao'An Temple.

Wall paintings at the Bao'An Temple in Taipei, Taiwan

My guidebook raved about the wall paintings and the overall quality of the decorations. It was impressive, but then again, I'd seen lots of cool temples during my week in Taiwan. I focused in on some high quality decorations, and snapped photos of them. Worshippers crowded the various shrines in the temple, bowing, kneeling, and lighting joss sticks as offerings. here and there, you heard the clatter of moon stones being tossed to foretell futures.

Gorgeous mask in a shrine at the Bao'An Temple, Taipei, Taiwan

Returning to my hotel, I checked into my room and did a very abbreviated unpacking. My flight for Vietnam left at 8 am, and after weighing my options, decided to arrange a taxi for the 30-minute drive to the airport. The alternative was a bus that got mixed reviews on the internet. And considering my own lick so far with buses in Taiwan, I decided to go by the "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me" philosophy. If I had done more research ahead of time, I could have booked a later departing flight, which would have allowed me to use the high speed rail and shuttle transfer to head from Taipei to the airport.

Exterior of the Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan

When I went back outside, I saw that'd it had begun raining. The spell of good weather was broken. It would rain off and on for the rest of my day in Taipei. Honestly, though, it was perfect timing. Next up was an indoor attraction and Taipei's premier sight: the Palace Museum. This massive collection of the artwork from China's long and interesting history, is housed in a huge, three story complex. For all its space, the exhibits are often thronged with a staggering number of tour groups. My guidebook had warned me about it, so I went in mentally prepared to be jostled, elbowed, and nudged aside by large numbers of tourists from the Chinese mainland. Speaking of which, this collection of imperial Chinese treasures is in Taiwan because the Nationalists lugged it with them during their retreat from the Communists during the post-WW II struggle for control of the country. You have to wonder how many of these priceless treasures might have been destroyed during the excesses of Chairman Mao's cultural revolution. The world (and Chinese culture) probably owes the Nationalists a debt of gratitude for taking the trouble to secure these links to their civilization's past.

Bronze charioteer helmet in the Palace Museum -- one of the few photos I took before if fin out it was forbidden

I'd been keeping my eye out for signs about photography. I hadn't seen any saying it was forbidden, despite museums like this usually being adamant about it. I saw others snapping pictures with their cell phones, so I discreetly began to take a few shots. I felt awful when a young lady, watching me do it, took out her phone and snapped a shot. She was immediately accosted by a worker who threatened to take her to the office and make her delete all the photos shed taken. She was obviously mortified. To her credit, she did not rat me out, and I was able to come away with a whole 3-4 shots from the museum's exhibits. I think my favorite part were the landscape paintings. I've always loved those minimalist images with their delightful details of mountains, villages, travelers, famers, and all the little snippets of rural Chinese life they depict. It got me thinking how cool it would be to decorate a room of my house with those as a wallpaper or something. I'll probably never get around to doing that, but it would be very atmospheric, I think,

Elsewhere in the museum, the massive bronze cauldrons, statues, and weapons were cool, too. The exhibit on ivory carving had a number of magnifying glasses set up so you could see the amazingly intricate details. I had to chuckle when I saw the unfortunate photographer again. She was looking through the magnifying glass at one ivory carving of a tree with individual leaves. When a face was pressed up against hers to also look, she thought it was her boyfriend's. Her look of amazement when she turned to see a random, elderly tourist cheek to cheek with her was priceless.

The displays on European style snuff boxes and the Jade exhibit did get a little old after a couple rooms, though. My hours there went by quickly, though. Before long, it was closing time. I half expected us to be shouted out of the facility by harpies like the anti-photography enforcer. It was very civil and low key, though. From there, I took a taxi back to the nearby metro station (I ignored the guidebook's recommendation of a bus). I hunted around and found a place for dinner. Yes, I "ate local," and did not wimp out like the night I had KFC in Kaohsiung. My Yunnan spicy chicken and rice was good. The bean sprouts that came with it were so-so, the tofu chunks unappetizing, and I have no idea what the sticky orange stuff was. I wasn't going to try it...were you going to try it? And my name is even "Mikey" -- for those who remember the Life cereal commercials.

Taipei lit up at night from the observation deck of Taipei 101 -- the tallest building on the island

My last sight for the trip was to ascend Taipei 101 -- the island's tallest building for a chance to view the city lit up at night. For the world's fastest elevators, the very short line seemed to take forever. The view from the indoor platform (the outdoor one was closed due to the weather) was nice. The rain clouds that drifted in beneath us from time to time obscured the view. However, when it cleared, it was neat to see the metropolis all lit up with colorful lights. Taipei is no Las Vegas with its neon colors, but it was worth seeing. The exit though the jewelry store was a tad forced, I thought. I saw only one unfortunate man with his wallet out and a resigned look on his face, as his wife seemed insistent on buying.

The metro ride back to my hotel went smoothly, and I called it an early night. With an 8 am flight, my wake up time began with a "4" -- never a pleasant number to see on vacation in the morning. My week in Taiwan had been very pleasant, though. Before I decided upon going, I had no idea how much natural beauty the island has. The central spine of its mountains, cloaked in their dense green vegetation, makes for an exotic landscape. Throw in some amazing temples to light up your sightseeing with gold and smoky gilded interiors. And finally, organize it all with prompt, modern and efficient public transportation (well, except for maybe the buses...), and Taiwan becomes quite the nice package for an enjoyable week or more.

Photo of the night market in Kaohsiung, which I didn't mention in my previous entry

Posted by world_wide_mike 19:29 Archived in Taiwan Tagged night temple palace museum taipei taiwan 101 bao'an Comments (1)

Patience, Grasshopper...

An entertaining account of what happens when Worldwidemike "loses it"....

sunny 90 °F

Looking across Anping Harbor towards Tainan, Taiwan

I wanted to start off this post talking about patience. Not preaching, just discussing. From time to time, I hear, "Oh, you teach middle school? You must have a lot of patience!" Yes and no. I feel I am pretty accepting of other viewpoints -- especially when it comes to travel or understanding other cultures. I also believe everyone has a right to their own views on religion, politics, and right and wrong. My patience wears thin when it confronts inefficiencies, though, and those who aren't putting forth much effort at their job, school, work, life -- you name it. So, what do I do when I lose my patience? How does worldwidemike blow his top? Well, today would be a great illustration!

Anping Fort nowadays -- my main destination for today's travels

Remember what I said in the previous two entries about buses? Well, today, I was headed to the historical enclave of Anping. This is where the Dutch colonized Taiwan, and is not far (I thought) from yesterday's destination of Tainan. In fact, I retraced my footsteps, taking the train to Tainan and ducking into the Tourist Information office. They recommended I take the special tourist shuttle #99 from Tainan to Anping. I decided to make an exception to my bus bias and headed to the stop. I must have just missed it, as the attendant there recommended I get on bus #88 (which was also listed as a tourist shuttle on the map of Anping I'd been given). I hopped on, paid my 20 New Taiwan dollars (67 cents), and sat back to enjoy the ride.

Now, I normally have a good sense of direction. And it became clear to me pretty quick we were heading every point on the compass -- not just west to Anping. It honestly seemed to me we would head down one street, make two right turns, then head back up in the opposite direction. I began to pay attention to street signs and saw many familiar names from yesterday's walk in Tainan. It became clear we were just slowly looping back and forth. Any westwards movement to Anping was on a gradual basis. If we were in a race west with a glacier, we'd be falling behind. A half hour later, I looked at a temple we were passing that seemed familiar. It was Tainan's Confucian temple...where I'd STARTED my sightseeing yesterday. In 30 minutes on this bus, I had gone the distance it had taken me 15 minutes to walk yesterday. Plus, we made a turn and were headed back East towards the train station.

Renaissance era Chinese cannons

It was then I blew my top. Now, I'm sure you're all dying to see what Mr. Patient World Traveler does when he blows his top. This is especially interesting in that a key concept of Chinese culture is "face." You lose face when you lose control of yourself in public. So, ranting and raving would be viewed extremely poorly. Plus, is it really the bus driver's fault his managers designed an idiotic route? If I lose my patience, I tend not to take it out on someone else. I decide on a course of action which punishes ME more than anyone else. Think of it as my monastic self-mortification -- the hidden medieval flagellant in me. Those of you who are one step ahead of me, here, have probably narrowed it down to three possible courses of action. All three involve getting off the bus, of course, which I did immediately. In order of sensible-ness, the choices would be:

(1) Take a taxi to Anping
(2) Say "forget this!" and leave in a pouty rage
(3) Walk to Anping

Banyan trees taking root on the almost 400 year old, crumbling, brick walls

Which did you choose? Well, remember the self-mortification part. Of course, I decided to walk to Anping. In the 90 degree heat. The only problem was I had a map of Tainan which didn't show Anping, and a map of Anping which didn't show Tainan. There was a common street, so I knew I could get there by heading west on Mincyuan Road. I just had no idea what the distance was between the two. I found out, though. One hour. Of course, considering the principle of the Taiwan Two-Step, the actual distance is probably less than my walking pace times one hour.

The brick walls of Fort Zeelander -- today's Anping Fort

Okay, so here we are, five paragraphs later and I haven't described a thing...well, except for how much of an idiot I can be at times...! So, why was I going to Anping? I wanted to see Anping Fort, which when built in the early 1600s, was called Fort Zeelander by the Dutch. Eventually, I arrived there, drenched in sweat. I paid my admission and was given an English pamphlet. I found a shady spot with a nice breeze and took about 10 minutes to read through it, I also knew I needed to recover my calm, and find my patient middle school teacher self, again. Zen achieved, I jumped up and headed to the fort museum. It took only about 10 minutes to go through it. I then began to explore the fort grounds, taking pictures all along. The inner citadel is in fairly good shape, but the outer walls have deteriorated quite a bit. In fact, their ruination is somewhat colorful in parts where banyan trees are literally sprouting out of the walls, their roots crushing the bricks in an "Angkor Wat" type embrace.

Dutch powder horn used to charge their matchlock muskets

A smattering of Renaissance era Chinese cannons that have been mounted here and there in the fort. The three-level, inner citadel is the most scenic part, and is accentuated by a modern watchtower, flowering bushes, topiary, and a statue of our old friend, the deified Ming General Koxinga, who defeated the Dutch in a three month siege here and chased them off of Taiwan. From a military historian's perspective, I wish there were more details on that siege. The fort museum has examples of Chinese and Dutch weaponry (as you can imagine, it was Dutch Renaissance era matchlocks vs. Medieval Chinese melee weapons and bows). Or at least that is how they portray it. They do say when the Dutch Governor-General returned home he was tried and court martialed for losing Taiwan. They don't really say how the Chinese won, though. My guess is that, with a three month siege, the Dutch were simply starved out and had no hope of relief. Koxinga was victorious, Taiwan returned to the Chinese, and the General was eventually made into a god, of sorts.

Chinese tombs in the style of the Ming and Qing Dynasties

Next, I walked through the neighboring Anping Matsu temple, one of the oldest in Taiwan. My heart wasn't really in it, though, as I'd had my fill of temples the last two days. I moved on to the nearby graveyard to check out the hundreds of ornate tombs in the style of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The graveyard itself was overgrown, but the tombs seemed fairly well kept up. Had it not been for modern photo-etching of the occupants on some of the tombs' stonework, I would have guessed they were all centuries old.

After the graveyard, I checked out the one of the ruined coastal artillery batteries, and one of the 18th century European merchant houses. It was getting late in the afternoon, though, so I decided to call it a day. I hailed a taxi and paid about $7 for a quick, 10-15 minute ride back to Tainan's train station. I didn't know whether to chuckle as I retraced this morning's footsteps (but in air conditioning), or feel ashamed of my pig-headedness. Did I learn a lesson, today? I guess I did. I learned that I lean towards a kind of masochistic, self-mortification when I get angry. The one who suffers when I get mad is usually myself. I'm not sure who I am "showing" by treating myself brutally. I guess it is better than taking it out on others, though. I mean...heck! Heaven forbid I lose face! Lose patience, sure, but face...?

Anping Fort -- was it worth the grief? Sure....especially if you're a military history buff like myself!

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:16 Archived in Taiwan Tagged fort tombs taiwan tainan anping zeelander Comments (0)

A Hot New Number: the Taiwanese Two-Step!

Day trip to Tainan and lots more temples!

sunny 89 °F

The historic city of Tainan, and a perfect place to practice the Taiwanese Two-Step!

One of the reasons I chose to stay in Kaohsiung was that it is a regional transport hub. It would be easier to take day trips to a variety of destinations. When I travel, I don't like to spend just one night in each city. Packing up each morning, finding your next hotel, and then unpacking is such a pain...and a time waster. I feel you get a better experience if you can unpack and spend at least three nights in one spot. It is not as stressful and a place begins to actually feel like "home."

The top day trip I wanted to do out of Kaohsiung was to Tainan -- the island's former capital and a historic city. Trains left from Kaohsiung's main station -- a convenient 5 minute walk away from my hotel -- every half hour or so. The journey takes anywhere from 35-45 minutes, depending on how many stops the train makes. When I got off my train, I found the station's tourist information booth and got a better walking map than I had. They pointed me in the right direction to begin my WALK (no buses today!) to the sights I'd picked out. Actually, my library copy of Lonely Planet's "Taiwan" had a nice, step by step, city walk. So, I followed that, supplementing it with the new map to help with directions.

Early organic version of the Taiwanese scooter

An interesting thing about walking in Taiwan's cities is the sidewalks. You see a lot of people walking on the hot pavement in the streets, holding up an umbrella to ward off the sun beating down on them, instead of the shaded, much cooler sidewalks. The sidewalk floors are often tile, plus you get the occasional blast of air conditioning from doors opening to the fancier shops. So, why don't Taiwanese walk on their sidewalks? Because the danged scooters use them for parking, that's why! Or, shops encroach and set up their business on them! Often, there is just a narrow, one person wide path on the sidewalk because of the row of scooters parked there. And if the shop is a scooter repair one, he disassembles the bike he's working on right there where you need to walk. Also, you may have to dodge a scooter driving down that narrow little row to park! I christened the dance you have to do if you try to walk on the sidewalk the "Taiwan Two-Step." It is mainly because you have to take two steps for every one you want to go forward with all the weaving in and out of obstructions. No wonder the Taiwanese walk in the streets!

Tainan's much more simple Confucian Temple

The Confucius Temple was my first stop. It was the first one built in Taiwan, and is more provincial and less ornate than the one at Lotus Lake. Like that one, though, it wholeheartedly adopted Confucius' role as the great teacher and uses the temple as a museum to teach visitors about its rituals. I met a retired devotee in the Edification Hall who was eager to chat. He sells decorative sheets of Confucian sayings in Chinese calligraphy written on cloth paper. He asked me to pick one out and explained what it said and how that illustrated Confucian ideals. Then he gave it to me as a gift and said I should frame it in my home so I could pass on the teacher's wisdom. I think I'll go him one better and hang it up in my classroom!

The not so Great South Gate of Tainan's old city walls

After that, I walked to the Great South Gate, the remaining bit of the old city's defensive walls. It had a number of cannons (painted red?) on the walls and by the thick, double wooden doors. It would have been more atmospheric if the inside had not been converted into a cafe. They were blaring modern pop music, which for me made it kind of cheesy and ruined the experience. The two bored workers seemed to agree, judging by their expressions. I like old fortifications (I hear your sarcastic, "Really...?"), so was disappointed with this stop.

The pleasant little Wufei Temple belies its grisly back story

The next item up was the Wufei Temple, home to one of the grislier temple histories. When the last claimant to the Ming Dynasty finally surrendered to the conquest of the Manchus, he decided to commit suicide. He urged his concubines to flee and take up new lives. However, they decided the honorable thing to do would be to hang themselves from a beam in the palace. This tugged at the heart strings of the Taiwanese, and a temple was built to honor their example of right behavior. The temple itself is tiny, and is set amidst a well-tended garden.

Keeping an eye out -- all three of them -- for demonic intruders at the Fahua Temple, Tainan, Taiwan

Next stop was -- wait for it -- another temple! If the last one had a grisly story, this one had some disturbing statues. The Fahua Temple was originally built in 1684, but was reconstructed after being bombed in WW II. It was silent -- almost deathly so. For most of my visit, I was the only person there. The creepy statues are of the Four Heavenly Kings in full-on punishment mode, getting ready to slash, stab, or otherwise crush any demonic (thankfully not Demanic) intruders. One neat thing was the use of an occasional, tiny MP3 player to project Buddhist monastic chants. It really added to the atmosphere, and gave the emptiness the feeling that I'd visited while all the monks were out on lunch break or something. I took pictures of some of the decorations that caught my eye, then wandered out. I really need to remember to bring my iPhone for times like this, so I can use its voice memo function to record the sounds of my experiences.

I needed a break for the heat, so ducked into what I hoped would be an air conditioned restaurant for a cold drink. It wasn't, but the fans were blasting at full force, so it was pleasant to sit and look ahead at the rest of the walking tour. One of the workers has a sister who was an exchange student in Ohio. I seem to be running into Ohio connections left and right. On my Taroko Gorge tour, a woman said her husband graduated from OSU and remembered Columbus fondly.

Ming General Koxinga is now worshipped at his very own shrine in Tainan, Taiwan

Have you ever wanted to be worshipped as a god? Well, if you're Chinese, it is a possibility. You have to do something pretty amazing, of course. And there is a small catch: you have to be dead before they build the temple to you. Ming General Koxinga retreated with his army to Taiwan in 1661, planning to regroup and have another go at the Manchus who were taking over the Chinese mainland. While in Taiwan, he worked diligently to improve the lives of the islanders. He built infrastructure and improved the island's economy. He even chased out the Dutch, who had begun colonizing the island amidst 40 years before. The plan to retake China never went into action, though, but Koxinga was remembered as a great man. Two hundred years later, the Chinese emperor passed an edict dedicating a shrine to Koxinga. In front of the temple, an immense white stone statue portrays him heroically mounted on a horse. Inside the shrine, a life size statue shows him calmly seated amidst various Chinese deities. His shrine is located in a pleasant garden, with a meandering pool with a spouting fountain, various humongous goldfish begging for handouts (honestly, the see your shadow and cluster towards the surface), and well-tended shrubbery.

The lady shows some fire...that's the goddess Lady Linshui hurling a fireball and chasing off demons

If you duck out the back gate of the garden, you come to the temple of Lady Linshui, the goddess the locals sacrifice to for their children's protection. This is another elaborate, colorful temple bedecked in gold, statues, and rich in carvings. The lady was getting a makeover when I visited, with workers in one room repainting the ceiling. There are many depictions of her, seated reigning serenely, beckoning worshippers, and my favorite, hurling a fireball at four beast men with the heads of tigers, monkeys, and horses! That's one way to protect the city's children: rout demons with magic that Gandalf would be proud of...!

The God of War poses in front of a lit up row of tiny miniature versions of himself, proving an old god is perfectly willing to learn new tricks

I don't know if you, my reader, are suffering from temple burnout at this point. Much to my surprise, I was actually beginning to lose my enthusiasm. With the afternoon heat wearing on, I kind of breezed through the Dongyue Temple (the murals of Hell were overrated) and the Official God of War temple. I wondered if that temple was an early example of commercial sponsorship. You've heard, say, the Rose Bowl brought to you by Citi. Was this an attempt to copyright the war god's temple so they could sell official logo merchandise? Maybe the sponsors were responsible for the Taiwanese fighter planes whose flight path repeatedly passed right over the temple. Either way, it was very cool to be in the god of war's temple and watch flight after flight of F-16s scream overhead.

And here's a close up of that wall of miniatures behind the God of War

I ended the day with a change of pace -- the Chihkan Towers. This was originally a fort built by those Dutch colonists in the 1653. You have to squint to see the fort in it because it has changed hands and been renovated a number of times. The walls at the base of the two story buildings are brickwork -- a Dutch colonial trademark. Otherwise, it looks like a Chinese noble's house, with the classic flayed roof with dragons on the corners. If you pronounce "Chihkan" like it looks in English, you get "chicken." Or at least I do. So, it seemed appropriate to have a collection of statues to our good old deified friend General Koxinga receiving the surrender of the Dutch Governor-General. This was one of the first colonial outposts that the Ming general bagged from the chicken Dutch, which culminated in the surrender of Fort Zeelander in nearby Anping.

I know...the Chihkan Towers didn't look like a fort to me, either...

After trooping through Tainan's streets all day, I was ready to surrender at this point, too. Maybe the Dutch weren't beaten, after all. Perhaps they just wanted to give up on Taiwan's sticky summer heat and go back to Europe! That is what I did, in effect, hopping the train back to my air-conditioned hotel in Kaohsiung. It had been an interesting day, and I tried to focus on unique aspects of the places I visited rather than simply say, "Look at the cool temple!" I was glad to get back "home" to my hotel room, though, and unwind from a second day of temple gazing and encore performances of the Taiwanese Two-Step!

"Did somebody say 'Two-Step'?" A Chinese door god -- these fierce images were often painted on the doors of temples to guard them

Posted by world_wide_mike 03:41 Archived in Taiwan Tagged towers south great lady scooters gate taiwan confucius ming tainan wufei fahua koxinga linshui chihkan sidewalks Comments (0)

A True Lotus Does not Wilt in the Heat

A full day of sightseeing in sunny, humid Kaohsiung

sunny 90 °F

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[/b

[b]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...?" - Ghostbusters-like temple dog

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

Posted by world_wide_mike 04:55 Archived in Taiwan Tagged tower lake river pagodas light love dragon tiger dome taiwan lotus tuntex Comments (0)

Taroko Gorge -- don't nap and miss this in Taiwan

Days 1-3 of my Taiwan trip

semi-overcast 84 °F

temple lions rock,and so does Taroko Gorge in Taiwan

It seems odd that after three days in Taiwan, I feel like I've had only one real day of sightseeing. That day, though, made up for it. Through my hotel, I purchased a full-day tour of Taroko Gorge -- a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was amazing, and I'll tell you about it shortly. The other two days really weren't all that bad, involving scenic train rides along the East coast of Taiwan. My base for visiting Taroko Gorge was Hualien, which is the biggest city on the East coast. That isn't saying much, though, as this coast is Taiwan's back country. A better comparison to the United States might be "highway 1" coast of California. It is very scenic, with the deep blue Pacific contrasting with the steep green mountainsides of Taiwan's central backbone. Of course, you have to throw in rice paddies and more green and lush vegetation to get a more accurate picture.

Okay, so enough comparisons, "Worldwide" (as some of my coworkers haven taken to calling me). How about describing what you've seen and done? After more than 24 hours in transit from Columbus, Ohio, I finally arrived in Taipei, Taiwan, more than two hours late. I'd previously decided to bug out of town immediately, and head for a smaller (read: cheaper to stay in) town immediately. Catching the train was a snap, but I didn't get to my hotel until after midnight. The next morning I was up bright and early, catching my first train ride along the East coast. Amazingly, I did not doze off, and drank up the scenery eagerly. The crash -- thankfully NOT of the train type -- was coming, though. Just wait for it. I'd booked all of my hotels ahead of time through hotels.com, and I have to say I recommend it wholeheartedly. I'd picked out one that some of the many positive reviews had mentioned that the hotel will pick you up at the train station. Sure enough, a fluent driver was waiting for me and whisked me to the Cullanin Hotel.

steep canyon walls and a rocky river provide the base for a day of great sightseeing

My room was all that hotels.com promised, and I unpacked, and let out a sigh. Two-plus days of transit were over. Whew! So, what did I do next? Oh, nothing more than violate Rule #1 of transoceanic travel: Don't nap! I collapsed on the bed and did not wake up until after the sun had gone down. The Type A part of me is grousing, "Nice job, jerk-face (Type A's aren't know for being "touchy-feely"), you just wasted a whole day of travel!" I can hear you, my reader, defending me, though. "Hey, cut him some slack! He's been on the go for two days straight...!" I do appreciate you sticking up for me...especially since one thing I could have done was update this blog. And you, my defending readers, are the ones suffering. Anyway, to sum up day one: Gorgeous train ride, nice long nap, and aimless wander about town before finding a really cool barbecue place where you grill your own meat and veggie choices at your table.

A full-day tour of Taroko Gorge made up for the slow start to my Taiwan trip

Ah, but Day 2. My Type A self was sooo pleased with Day 2. I'd been debating whether to hire a cab and design my own tour of Taroko Gorge or to buy in with a tour. The more I read, the more it seemed very few of the many trails you can take in Taroko are circular. And my guidebook said you don't find it which are open until you get to the visitors center. So, I decided to go ahead and buy the full-day tour my hotel recommended, and pray that it wasn't too obnoxious. As it turned out, this was the right call. We had only 7 of us in a van on this tour, and we got to hike 3 different trails. I was the last one back to the van, as usual, every time. No one seemed to mind, and it was a good group who was there for the same reasons as I was. Our driver/guide, Douglas, explained everything in both Mandarin Chinese and English. He took a liking to me because I had lots of questions and obviously had read up on it beforehand. Hey! I can be Type A sometimes, too, so cut me some slack...!

A temple lion enjoys a kingly view in Taroko Gorge

Taroko Gorge was stunning. The river has carved out steep canyons -- much of it marble -- that tower above the river and sometimes the road. Cut its climb higher into the cliff sides, and Douglas dropped us off at each of our half dozen walks and explained where we had to go. He would be waiting for us (ahem, usually me as the last one...) on the other side, so to speak. We stopped at both the entrance and visitors center to get our bearings and take some pictures. The area of Taroko Gorge has been inhabited up until recently by some of the aboriginal tribes of the island of Taiwan. The quick road to the city, though, had led many tribal members to abandon their cliff top villages and move to the city for work. Progress always brings its trade offs, and the loss of colorful traditional lifestyles is definitely one of them, worldwide. Our first mini-hike was to the Eternal Spring Shrine, which was built to honor the 450 workers who lost their lives building the road through the Taroko Gorge I the 1950s. There are lots of scenic overlooks and great places to see the frequent road and foot bridges spanning the river gorge.

Swallow Grotto gives you a good sense of the scale and majesty of Taroko Gorge's scenery

Next up was Swallow Grotto -- an even more impressive eyeful of canyons scenery. Our "trail" is actually a one way road with frequent overlooks far down Into the river canyon. And we saw a number of darting swallows (birdses, as Gollum would say) zipping along the cliff walls. This was when the "wow" factor of Taroko Gorge really kicked in. Previously, it had been at the "cool" stage. It is important that travelers use accurate terms so that their readers can get a true sense of what the destination is really like. Can you imagine how disappointed you'd be if you were expecting "wow!" and actually saw only "meh, that's pretty cool..."? I aim to please here at worldwidemike.com! You can thank me later...but be sure to tip your waiters and bartenders...

The overlooks along Swallow Grotto were great places to snap photos of the gorge

Next up was lunch...easily the only disappointing part of the tour. Douglas took us to the cafeteria of a "Youth Activity Center". It was NOT set up to receive tour groups, though we were not the only ones in attendance. The food wasn't even "cool" (but definitely "meh"). What's worse, they had nothing but tasteless hot tea to drink. They served our group a couple at a time over a 25-minute period, making it pretty awkward eating in front of those who hadn't been served, yet. The staff had the congeniality of a prison cafeteria, plus there was nowhere to buy more water or alternative drinks, if you desired. After the warden let us out, we were off to the Lushui-Heliu trail. This was our first real hike -- or at least what I would call one. It was two kilometers and climbed up a jungle slope, peeking out for time to time at the river and road curving and recurring a hundred yards below us. Cicadas whirred in the treetops, sounding for all the world like a science fiction soundtrack. I expected Klaatu to step out of the jungle foliage at any moment and hold us up at ray gun point. I caught sight of an awesome-looking footbridge spanning the gorge and kept hoping the trial would end with that. Think Indiana Jones on steroids. The drop may jot have been to crocodile-infested waters, but it was easily a football field high. It wasn't to be, though. Douglas later told me you need special permits to reenact that scene with Short Round. Our trail did cross a mini version of it, and I wished I had a machete so I could have one of the other tour group members take a picture while the others called me "cwazy".

the jungle pathway of Lushui-Heliu Trail

Following the Lushui-Heliu trail, we wound our way back out of the park. The weather had been cloudy and overcast most of the morning and early afternoon. This was doubtless a geological thing, as the moist sea air hits the central spine of Taiwan's mountains. I could get technical and explain how one coast of the island may get rain for months on end while the other gets sun, due to the season monsoon pattern, but I'm off duty from teaching right now. Catch me in August when I go back to school and I can explain how a "monsoon" is NOT a rainstorm but refers instead to....hey! Nice try, there...

the Qingshui Cliffs near Hualien, Taiwan

The cliffs at Qingshui were our next stop. The weather obliged and cleared up and the sun shone down on the Pacific (nope, I'm not explaining why...not gonna do it!). Our viewpoint was kind of mediocre, though. I imagine there could have been a couple other places we could have piled out of the van for a quick picture besides the one we spent a half hour at. But hey! I'm not the tour guide, and don't know. Even less thrilling was our final stop at Qixingtan Beach -- just north of Haulien and hated by spellcheck programs across the world. This is a euphemistically called "pebble" beach. I would call it rocks. Or gravel. I can't imagine laying out here, or even going swimming. It would be like putting your plastic pool tub in your grandpa's old gravel driveway. The sun was blazing down, though, and there were a few cute dogs to pay with, so I was happy. Plus, I got to scratch my head at the 17-step process the local workers went through to take some supplies out to a fishing trawler about 50 yards offshore. Suffice to say, it involved an earth mover (technical term for a really big back hoe), pickup truck, two motorized rafts, several bales of rope, and a lot shouting and armchair quarterbacking from loafers like me. You had to be there, I guess.

My family is saying, "You stood us up at Hilton Head to spend time at this beach...?

All that aside, there is no second guessing how awesome Taroko Gorge was as a place to visit. If you are in Taiwan, do not snooze and miss this attraction. It was worth it, and made up for the less thrill-packed days on either side of it.

Posted by world_wide_mike 04:43 Archived in Taiwan Tagged cliffs gorge taiwan taroko hualien qingshui Comments (2)

Getting ready for an Asian adventure

Taiwan and Vietnam

My new travel hat

A quick, pre-trip post to make sure I remember how to update this blog. I leave Saturday for a 2-part trip, spending one week in Taiwan and a little more than a week in Vietnam. I waited until summer to shop for airfares, so couldn't find any good deals. Then I heard about booking a "multi-city" trip on search engines. If you set your stop over to be a multi day one, you are essentially getting two trips for one airfare price. So, prices that were in the "No way!" range, suddenly became, "Hmmm..."

Speaking of prices, I booked my hotel rooms on Hotels.com, and was really surprised to find out how cheap they were in Vietnam. Taiwan is more expensive, it appears, but both are bargains compared to Europe in summer.

I leave in a few days, so am busy getting all those last-minute things finished before leaving. So, stay tuned for updates...!

Posted by world_wide_mike 09:29 Archived in Taiwan Tagged vietnam taiwan Comments (1)

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