BY BEN HABIB.
In July 2008 I had the pleasure of a two night stopover in Taipei, on my way to South Korea. My visit was fortunately timed during a narrow time window between two typhoons, both of which caused significant damage on the island and killed dozens of people. While I was in Taipei, however, the weather was spectacular. The following diary and photo gallery is a snapshot of my day out in Taipei…
I arrived at Taipei airport at 7:30 PM. The terminal is one long long long marble floored corridor, easily more than a kilometer long.
First chance to try out some Mandarin: I asked the female clerk at the airport bank if she spoke English (wo hue xuo yingwen ma?). She was pleased with the effort, but couldn’t help with my enquiry about credit card cash withdrawal. She did, however, helpfully point me toward the ATM’s outside.
I ran into a Western woman at the information desk who took one look at my Billabong t-shirt and guessed that I was Australian. She said she could always tell where people were from by their t-shirts. Hah hah, the joke is on her because this particular t-shirt is a cheap rip-off that I bought in Beijing. She was friendly though and asked me where I was headed. She was surprised when I said I was staying in Taipei for a while: “Taipei! No-one stays here.”
With a little difficulty, I found a bus into central Taipei from the airport. Looking at the city from the bus, it looks like a cross between Beijing and Seoul.
Caught a taxi from the bus stop. The driver didn’t know the hotel I was asking for, though he did know the district. I attempted to help him with my limited Mandarin vocab, but I didn’t know the Mandarin nouns for the landmarks I was trying to describe. He rang a friend on his mobile, who pointed him to the right place. He asked me what country I was from. It took me a while to compute the question, but I was able to respond.
After checking in to Hotel Lilai, I walked across the road to Xin Men Ding, a huge shopping precinct. It was 10 PM and the whole area was alive, packed with young people, neon lights flashing and music pumping from every shop. Helen would have loved this place, it’s a bit hollow not having her with me to share it. For food I settled for KFC chips, as I didn’t know any local vegetarian dishes and I left my Mandarin phrasebook in my room so I couldn’t ask for vegetarian meals.
I was dismayed to find the battery for my digital camera completely flat. I have a power point adaptor for Korea, but not one for the power sockets in Taiwan. This could mean no photographic evidence of my time in Taiwan. I’ll have to hunt down a camera shop tomorrow to see if I can find a disposable camera.
The following morning I went for a stroll early in search of a camera shop. I didn’t have to go far; there were dozens of them just round the corner, all closed due to the early hour. I found one that was open, probably for cleaning, but the lady was happy to serve me and after a bit of confusion I was able to point out what I was looking for. We parted ways exchanging some good natured smiles to acknowledge that we got the transaction done together. It is amazing how much one can communicate using body language, a positive attitude and a smile.
It’s true, in any transaction in East Asia one must give and receive with both hands. The locals appreciate the gesture, even though my linguistic skills are lacking. It always elicits a smile and an enthusiastic “xie xie.” I guess most foreigners they come across lack even a basic level of cultural sensitivity.
Having secured two disposable cameras, I decided to extend my morning stroll into a long walk around central Taipei. I’d studied the area on a map, but with any Asian city of neon and high-rise buildings, a map is not always very useful. A couple of blocks away I discovered Taipei Train Station, and imposing large brown building which would serve as my reference point for the rest of the morning.
Another couple of blocks away I discovered the Taiwan National Museum (check name), located in a large park filled with camphor trees, which provided welcome shade from the piercing morning sun. The trees were filled with unseen cicada’s or similar insects, whose loud steady hum was a relaxing contrast to the hustle and bustle of the busy streets. The park was filled with tropical greenery and was quite large, containing several monuments. There was the Confucius monument, a large statue in honour of the great sage. There was a beautiful multi-storey pagoda, ringed by a shallow pond. There was the national monument of remembrance of the Chinese civil war, again ringed by a pond with water features that produced a calming din. There was a monument to Sun Yat Sen, first leader of the Chinese nationalist movement. Across the road the park continued; there was a large banyan tree with an old man sitting amongst its roots.
Across from the park stood an imposing European colonial building, coloured red and white, which was the Taiwanese Parliament building. There were quite a few police around the building, so I didn’t venture too close.
Walking another couple of blocks I stumbled across an enormous decorative gateway (50m long, 20m high?), decorated in white and blue ceramics. Peering through the gateway, I saw a huge square, flanked on the sides by two enormous red pavilions with yellow tiled roofs. These buildings were both largely covered by scaffolding, under restoration. Men were perched precariously on the high-gradient curved roofs, re-tiling them. At the other end of the square stood one of the most imposing modern monuments I have seen in Asia: the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. It was a huge domed building containing and enormous statue of the Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai Shek, whose defeated Kuo Min Tang (KMT) forces fled to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese civil war.
To the left of the Chiang Kai Shek Monument was a park with more trees and undercover terraces, where people were sitting around and doing various things. There were two men of late-middle age who were practicing martial arts grappling moves, which looked like a display of slow-motion homo-eroticism. Close by a group of elderly people were walking slow in single file, repeatedly chanting a phrase that I could not quite make out. It seemed to be a requiem or a prayer of some kind, which they performed with almost closed eyes, many with hands clasped.
Taipei appears to be the global capital of motorized two-wheeled transportation. Mopeds are everywhere, as well as the mechanics and motorcycle apparel shops to service this vast fleet of two-wheeled stallions. Even without drivers, mopeds dominate the city-scape; the sidewalks are covered with parked mopeds.
From the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, more walking. I admit, I was a little lost. I was enjoying my stroll around the city, but the sun and humidity were beginning to take their toll. I needed to find something to eat. Breakfast in Asia can be a tricky thing, especially if breakky more closely resembles dinner. That’s not what I want out of the first meal of the day. From a small shop near Taipei Station I bought a sesame crust roll with a hollow inside lined with bean paste. It was dry and not that tasty. Finding the little shop did however help me to find Taipei Station and re-orient myself.
No more messing around now, straight onto the subway, or MRT (metro) as its called here (probably because only a tiny portion of the MRT network is actually underground), and off to Longshan Temple. Longshan Temple is a beautiful and intricately decorated temple, the likes of which I have not seen in Northeast Asia. It is relatively new however, dating from after 1949. Buddhist nuns in black robes sat meditating or reading scriptures around the temple, while hundreds of believers performed prayer rituals at the various shrines. Despite the throng of people, the place was remarkably peaceful. At every single Buddhist temple I’ve ever been to, I’ve felt a great peace and calm. Longshan Temple was no exception. I wonder if I was a Buddhist devout in a past life. I bought some Buddhist prayer beads, similar to Catholic rosary beads, with which to practice the ancient chant “Om Mani Padme Hum” (get exact meaning), which I learnt at a meditation class in Adelaide. I’ve since found out that this chant is very old and is one of the great sacred phrases of Hinduism and Buddhism.
From peace to possessions: All around Longshan Temple is an extensive shopping district, full of small old shops (in complete contrast to the modern Xin Men Ding precinct near my hotel). There were Chinese herb shops, selling various plants, aloes and cacti. There were incense and firecracker shops. There were souvenir and stalls selling other nick nacks. There was an undercover market laneway for food: uncovered meat, whole (dead) plucked chickens looking up at me from the tables in a state of rigor mortis; halved chook bodies complete with leg and claw; fish, gutted and whole; slabs of red meat. Most stalls “cooled” these vessels of bacteria with an improvised ceiling fan consisting of a small spinning motor with two lengths of wire sprouting out at 180o, with streamers attached at each end.
My search for a lunch location was a vain one. There were plenty of restaurants around but no English menus, and me too scared to go through the long and complicated process of explaining I wanted a vegetarian meal, without actually knowing how to ask for such a dish. After an hour roaming the alley ways around Longshan Temple I capitulated and caught the subway back to Xin Men Ding and its KFC outlet to gorge on some French fries. It is hot, humid and I am sweating like a Christian in the Rome Coliseum circa 1st Century AD.
Mid-afternoon now and I have a new mission: catch the MRT to the end of the line at Danshui. Danshui is the suburb near the mouth of the Danshuei River that runs through Taipei, where it flows into the East China Sea. After a couple of stops the MRT emerges from underground to become an elevated train, which gave me a chance to observe a large slab of northern Taipei. It appears very green for an Asian mega-city, with lots of trees between buildings and many rooftop gardens. I wonder if the tropical climate helps in this regard.
Danshui is like the Glenelg or Saint Kilda of Taipei, the water-side area with the carnival atmosphere. There was a long riverside walk, lined with bars, carnival shops where one could pop balloons and shoot hoops for a prize, souvenir shops, and various food stalls and restaurants. The walk along here was great because the sea breeze took the edge of the stifling heat and humidity. There were also regular ferries taking people to the other side of the river.
On the hill above the opposite bank in the Linkou district a remnants of the old civil war refugee colonies. These colonies used to cover the hillsides around Taipei after 1949 when over two million refugees accompanied the KMT army into exile from the mainland. This last slum in Linkou is all that remains.
I had lunch on the balcony of a restaurant overlooking the river. I ordered fried greens, which turned out to be spring onion and Chinese cabbage, and Japanese style tofu, which was some fried tofu with lettuce chili and ginger. I had more linguistic difficulties with the teen waitress. I bumble through with the dumb tourist routine, but its wholly unsatisfying. My Mandarin skills are OK, but a lot of the speech here is unfamiliar to me. There must be local dialect variations and words not known on the mainland, and my Mandarin is strictly Beijing style.
On the MRT ride back to Ximen I had to continually stop people from sitting in the seat next to me, which had a puddle of flavoured tea on the seat. About 10 different people went to sit down and got the shock of their lives when this burly white guy shoved his hand into the small of their backs as they went to sit down. They all turned in annoyance to see what the hell I was doing, but frowns turned to smiles when I pointed to the spillage I prevented them from sitting in.
At Ximen station I emerged to street level at a different exit and got lost. It was also raining, drenching me in my disorientation as I doubled back three times before re-orienting myself. I returned to Lilai Hotel, wet. The woman at the airport yesterday thought I was strange wanting to stay in Taipei. After a great day roaming round the city, I think she’s dead wrong. I’d come back here in a heartbeat.
Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben is an internationally published researcher with interests including North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and undergraduate teaching pedagogy. He also teaches in Australian politics and the international relations of the Middle East. Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea. Ben is involved with local community groups Wodonga and Albury Toward Climate Health (WATCH) and Transition Albury-Wodonga.
Ben welcomes constructive feedback. Please comment below, or contact Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.