[FYI: I had to drop that really cute little “SweetCaptcha” WordPress plugin that blocked spam comments and user registrations. It was the one that asked you to clicked and drag a little picture… it worked amazingly well, but the maker has started adding a really annoying ad function to the WordPress pages. The first time you clicked anywhere on the page, you’d get a popup page with an ad on it. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, and I spent forever hunting the net for clues until I found a page of people complaining about the same problem and showing that it was SweetCaptcha doing it (and denying it, in spite of the proof). Once I saw that, I did more targeted searching and found a bunch more info about it, and discovered that WordPress had dropped the plugin from their plugin list. It’s a shame, really; I’d gladly pay the SweetCaptcha guys a small monthly fee for their service, because it was excellent, but I can’t have random ads popping up that I didn’t ask for and they didn’t tell me about, and that could lead you who knows where. I’m going to try some other anti-spam measures out over the next few posts, so let me know if you have any problems.]
Tuesday, July 28th
My flight from Narita Airport to Taoyuan International Airport in (or near) Taipei left at 2:30pm Tokyo and arrived at 5:15pm Taipei time, which is one zone further west, so it was a roughly 4 hour flight. Getting through immigration was straightforward — though I always find it slightly nerve wracking. The agents generally look fairly severe, mostly because they see 1000s of people a day and don’t really have the energy for a warm personal relationship with you or nearly anybody else. So you look at their unemotional faces and imagine all the various things that the ones inspecting your papers or your luggage might find to be wrong, including things that you can’t actually imagine, and how your life would play out after that point. But the process hasn’t failed yet, knock on wood. So I made my way to the buses from the airport to the Taipei Main Station where my Airbnb was, found the line at the curb for the bus with the correct number (based on my online sources) that would get me to that transportation hub, and took a position at what became about 4/5 of the way back in the line. After 10 minutes or so of waiting in the warm, damp evening air, the bus arrived, and after a couple more minutes I realized that the people around me were mostly holding some kind of ticket, and I was not.
Panic ensued, and I walked quickly back into the airport, found the bus line operator window, and was the 3rd person in that very slow queue. At a certain point, I looked out the windows and it appeared that the bus had left, which didn’t surprise me, and I resigned myself to having to catch the next one. But — oh joy — it turned out that my view of the bus had simply been blocked, and it was still boarding when I reached it again. I got a nice window seat near the front, and was shortly joined by a Chinese guy in his 40s who surprised me by engaging in conversation. His English was decent enough, and it turned out that he was Taiwanese, working for an iPad component company in mainland China, who basically got a week off a year to come back and visit his family. I made sympathetic noises — sincere ones, not the normal animal noises that I use to be funny, which never seem to go over as well as I hope — and he offered me directions for which stop to get off at before getting off at his own, earlier stop. I didn’t need those directions, my stop was the second stop for that bus and there was no confusion, but I thanked him and wished him well. (I assume that the money he’s making is very good, to make his absence worth it, but I didn’t grill him on that subject.)
It had been raining the whole way, which was pretty, and the traffic was Ok, and when we got off at the station — the central hub of what may have been the downtown area (or, at least, a downtown area) — I was able to make my way to where Google Maps placed my Airbnb location, about a block south of the station. I’d been exchanging Airbnb messages with my host, Alan, after I arrived, apprising him of my progress; I originally thought I’d be able to get there by 7-7:15, but it was more like 8:15 or 8:30 when I arrived at the map location. Unfortunately, there was no sign of his place — plenty of other things: 7/11s, coffee shops, small software companies, hotels, a YMCA — but nothing that looked like I should be there. The map included with the Airbnb listing gave me a close but slightly different location, which was also a fail. I ended up calling Alan, who did not speak much English, and after some flailing about, where he tried to direct me to landmarks that I hadn’t seen, I asked if he knew where the YMCA was. (I should have stayed there, despite having only 1 of the 3 necessary qualifications. I hear it’s fun.) He said that he did know where it was and would come get me. So I went there, stood outside, and about 10 minutes later Alan drove up on a scooter. Thankfully, the rain had died down a bit, so I didn’t get too wet as he drove me the 2 blocks to get to the place, which was not next to either of the locations Google and Airbnb had shown. I have no idea what their problem was: once I learned where it was and what the street names were, the address seemed to perfectly match the actual location. I ended up including that info in my review description, to help the next person.
I feel like every time I write “Alan”, I should be writing “Alan (not his real name)”, but it feels too much like a spy novel. I’m not sure where they get this trait from, but if there’s a group more willing than the Chinese to simply give you a name that’s easier for you rather than using their own, I don’t know who they are. Alan (not his real name) was a nice young guy, probably close to 30, but he spoke maybe 100 words of English, and there’s no way his parents named him “Alan”. And I have known Garys, Ethans, Michaels, and many others, all born in China or Taiwan. (I probably should have worried that my Chinese ex-officemate Wingwah was a communist spy, using an actual Chinese name to throw off suspicion.) But I’m not sure I’ve ever known a Vietnamese guy who didn’t go by his real name (usually either Viet or Tran), nor a Japanese, Korean, Hispanic, Indian, etc. Mind you, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t go by their real name. But there’s a level of pragmatism being demonstrated by the Chinese here that’s kind of impressive. “No, no, I don’t expect you to successfully say ‘Hsiuh-ping Sheh’, so just call me David.” Although I guess it might not be pragmatism, it might be annoyance: who wants to hear foreigners mangling their name all day? I did work for a Farsi woman named “Farinez”, some years ago, who introduced herself pronouncing it “fuh ree’ nezz”. After a couple of years, she mentioned that it was really pronounced something like “fah ri nozsh’ “, but when I tried that out she complained that it sounded fine but too weird coming from Westerners and I should use the dummy version instead. As I guy who used to go by “Chaim Yitzchak Sh’ar”, I figure foreign names are pretty much a free for all once you leave their own domain, so whatever works for you I guess.
Anyway, Alan (not his real name) led me to the studio on the 9th floor, but then couldn’t find the keys to let us in. He very apologetically led me to a next door convenience store where there were seats to wait, while he tracked the keys down — a friend had them apparently — and came back after 20 minutes to apologize again, and, when I said that I’d grab something to eat there while I waited, he insisted on paying for it. Another 20 minutes later — did I mention that it was warm and humid? — he reappeared and led me to the room. It turned out to be as advertised, and I thanked him, and he apologized some more, and I said it wasn’t a problem, and I finally got to bed at around 10:00-10:30.
[ See, this is why these blog posts get so damned long. I’ve written 1200 words, that can be summarized as: “I arrived in Taipei, settled into my room, and went to bed.” Still, where’s the fun in that, right? Right? RIGHT? ]
Wednesday, July 29th
The next morning I had originally scheduled an orientation tour around the city that hit all the highlights. It was full of stuff, which of course means that you don’t spend very long anywhere — particularly painful was reading that there’d only be 60-90 minutes of guided tour of the National Palace Museum, which sounded very frustrating. I’m perfectly happy spending hours in a decent museum, and I’ve always loved Asian art exhibits. (I’ll happily spend the day at the Asian Art Museum in SF, where I’m a member, and then go back the next day with someone else. Or vice versa.) The National Palace Museum is particularly fascinating, because (a) it’s huge, and (b) it preserved a lot of pieces that would not have survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution, (c) it’s air conditioned.
As it turned out, that tour frustration did not occur. While I was still in Tokyo, the tour company (booked through Viator) contacted me to warn me that the tour might be canceled that day due to lack of clients. They said I could take the Friday tour, but of course I was flying back on Friday so that was out. Once it was confirmed that the tour wouldn’t be happening, Plan B was easy: National Palace Museum, for the day. Problem solved.
So, I woke up early-ish, showered in one of those odd bathrooms with just a curtain between the water spray and everything else (hadn’t missed those one bit since Thailand), took the elevator down to the street…
…and then walked down to the corner cafe for my first morning coffee in 2 months and some pastries:
There was a nice window seat on the second floor:
Google had informed me of the best city bus to take to get to the museum. (I could have taken the subway from the Main Station next door to a nearby stop and then walked, but not in that heat.) So I walked a couple of blocks to the bus stop, encountering a convenient metro restroom along the way:
I got on the correct bus, but didn’t have the correct change. So I fed probably double what I needed to into the bus’s change slot, and still thought it a bargain given that I was able to skip the long, sweaty walk. Buses in new cities always make me nervous. Subways, you either make it on or you don’t. Buses, if you don’t know what you’re doing, or how much things cost, or have really any issues at all, you’re holding up everyone on the bus, and everyone behind you waiting to get on to the bus. I’ll go a long way to avoid riding an unfamiliar bus system, and that has been my modus operandi for years. But Taipei (and the subsequent Kyoto) are making me a little more comfortable with the process, so I expect that it will be a little less of a problem in the future. And, on the plus side, you get a much better view of the city than a subway will allow:
I took a few pictures of the outside, but, once more, Google has bested me, and I recommend a quick glance at its images for a little overview on the grounds.
Admission was reasonable (don’t ask me how much, I don’t recall), and they provided headsets in Chinese, English, and Japanese. After some consideration, I chose English — it’s the safe choice, I know, and I’ve doubtless missed out on the true local experience, but we all know I’m not the adventurous sort.
BTW, remember the convenient restroom signage from my Tokyo experience in the last post? Taipei has its own deliberately amusing take on that:
I managed a few other museum pictures besides that restroom entrance, but only a few. There was a ground floor and basement level with admissions, the gift shop, the cafe, and the cloak room and lockers. (Security made me leave my backpack in the lockers, which had a strange arrangement where you put a coin in the locker to open it, but then get the coin back once you’ve returned the key. I’m not sure why the coin was necessary; you’d think having your stuff in the locker would be enough reason for you to return and getting your coin back would be very little extra inducement. But, there you are.) Then, there were 3 floors worth of exhibits, and it was a fairly impressive spread. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of order, going from one room to the next, but I did find an overview room near the beginning that gave you a sense of China’s overall history, including this poster with dates:
The thing I find curious, and it was echoed subtly throughout the museum, is that it’s as though Mao’s communist revolution never happened. As the plaque shows, China’s history starts 1,000s of years ago, runs right up to 1911 with the founding of the Republic of China, and then that’s it. Everything hunky dory from there on, I guess. Nothing to see here, move along.
In fairness, I can hardly blame them. While the truly “democratic” aspects of that early republic are a might debatable, given Mao’s revolution and its rather horrific aftereffects you can certainly sympathize with exiled government’s view that it is and always has been the only valid government. Then combine that with the government and the museum’s preservation of so many at-risk cultural artifacts, and it lends validity to the viewpoint that they have a rather better claim as cultural inheritors. And, finally, the better part of valor: they pretty carefully avoid any negative references to mainland China, because there’s really not much point in antagonizing the PRC. So, taken together, just quietly ignoring the fact that the revolution happened is probably the best all around solution. Still, it feels a little weird. “There’s a huge elephant in the room; nobody mention it!”
Anyway, as I say, this feeling permeates the museum; walking through it and reading the exhibit plaques (in Chinese, English, and Japanese, though the Chinese writing clearly contains more details in many places), you really get the feeling that you are in a Chinese national museum. The events they’re describing happened “here”, not “over there”, they’re described by an active member of that culture — even though the real “here”, where the exhibits are and the actual plaque writers are located, is an island largely cut off from where those events occurred. But no, this is “our” story, “our” events, “our” kingdoms. It makes it real around you in a really fascinating way.
So, back to pictures:
And that’s it on pictures.
No seriously. The next one I tried to take, of 3 large buddha statues in a big case, passing attendants stopped me and (politely) declared that pictures weren’t allowed. After that, I saw signs forbidding photography all over the building. This happened in Kyoto later, too, and I confess that I find it very annoying. Why not? Really. Why not? The harm is… what? You can’t be afraid that people won’t buy your gift shop postcards because they have their own pictures. Copyright? It’s a 1,000 year old statue, I think we’re past even Disney’s grandest dreams of copyright period extension. It’s not like I’m sitting in your movie theater ripping your movie to post it to BitTorrent. It’s a picture of a Buddhist statue, FFS. Look, here’s thousands just like it, or better. I can see forbidding flash photography, because that can damage artwork (though more ink and paint than stone) plus the flashing is super annoying to be around, but normal photos? And I can see it more for current, living artists’ works where copyright issues apply. But photos of historical objects? Photos that promote your museum and its works and encourage curiousity, and share our cultural heritage? Don’t be absurd. I swear, I’m growing increasingly tempted to buy some of those spy glasses with hidden cameras mounted in them for just such occasions. I generally take the view, “Your house, your rules”, so trying to circumvent those rules rarely interests me. But I also have limited patience with nonsense. Plus, cool spy tech is, by definition, cool. So, we’ll see.
Well, on the plus side, that makes this bit shorter. No more pictures, so no need for 1000 words. (That’s how that works, right?) So: the museum had stuff. Old paintings in the Chinese style with unreadable poetry. A substantial collection of jade carvings, including their extra special exhibits, the Jade Meat and the Jade Cabbage. Traditional Chinese tribal clothing. Ancient bronze mirrors, with a fascinating story about how the “Magic Mirrors” project their cast image (the image on the back of the mirror!) onto the wall when a strong light is shined on the front. Ancient Chinese printmaking. In truth, as I mockingly did these Google searches, I can’t help but note that many of these examples are as good or better than the stuff I saw in that museum. Don’t get me wrong, I liked that museum anyway, despite the nonsense. And if you’re all fixated on “reality” and the “physical universe”, you should totally go sometime and see their nice collection of physical objects. But, I have to say, Google Images wins again, and saves considerably on air fare.
Lunch there was nice enough, and the museum had WiFi, and you could easily spend many thousands of dollars in the museum gift shop on elaborately carved jade and fancy vases, if you are in fact the sort of person who can easily spend many thousands of dollars anywhere. I was at the museum from around 9:20 am to around 4:20 pm, had a great time overall, and caught the bus back to the Taipei Main Station. Which looks like this, btw:
The tunnels under the station had a bunch shops and restaurants — I’d call it an underground mall of sorts, though perhaps a touch on the claustrophobic side. But I had a great dinner, went back to my Airbnb room, streamed some good video over the solid WiFi, and wrapped it up with a good night’s sleep. Winning!
Thursday, July 30th
The next day was earmarked for the second tour that I’d picked, and that one was fortunately still on. I had a second breakfast at Starbucks (yaay!), enlivened by the nearby company of a British woman and her exuberant 8 year old daughter, and was picked up a little before 9:00 by a van piloted by two Taiwanese guys in their early 20s, Steve and Gordon (not their real names). Gordon was the driver (and tour guide in training), who didn’t really say that much, but Steve kept up a pretty steady commentary in excellent English, and was a perfect example of a well-informed and entertaining tour host. I gave him an excellent review on the Viator site, though, rather irritatingly, their system removed the parentheses I’d used, reducing some of the clarity of my deathless prose. (I am a man who relies substantially upon his parentheticals but, had they warned me, I could have worked around the limitation.)
My compatriots on the tour were a Chinese guy from Indonesia and an American Air Force pilot (stationed in Okinawa), his wife, and their two kids, a boy around 7 and a girl maybe 5. I’m tempted to illustratively refer to the guy as “Biff”, but in fact their actual names are far better. I’ll be discrete and tweak the last name, but they were (essentially) Casey and Cassie Carpenter. I laughed when I heard that, and explained that I was Charles Castleberry. So there was a modicum of bonding. The kids were named Landon and Ireland, so that may develop your image of the parents further; irrespective of their names, the children were very well behaved, and the parents pleasant traveling companions and good conversationalists. We traveled first to an old mining town that had been used by the Japanese as a POW/labor camp during the war (the Japanese owned and ran Taiwan from 1895 to 1945), and saw a very minor waterfall with a heavy mineral content (high in pyrite and arsenic) that we were assured was more impressive in a rainier season.
The hills around us had picturesque names like Teapot Mountain and Gorilla Mountain, though I’m not sure whether that was because of their shape or because of the wild gorillas and teapots roaming their landscape. There are 1000 families in this town, although that turns out to be a turn of phrase more than a strictly accurate count. It used to produce gold and copper, and now produces tourists, so I guess that’s evolution.
Then we traveled to the village of Jiufen, where lies the tea house that inspired the big tea house in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. This was my primary reason for going on this tour, and I was very glad to be here. Here are some shots of the town and the teahouse:
This whole street was little places to buy food (and generally walk with it afterward, though a couple of places had seating) and buy tourist tchotchkes. Eventually, that bit seemed to end, and then a right turn led down a hill to a few proper restaurants.
And this led to the tea house that the Spirited Away tea house was patterned after:
Walking back, I started eating — though, honestly not *that* much. Little dumplings, and pork skewers, and pastries, and such. And these:
We probably spent maybe 60-80 minutes on the street, the last 30 of them just wandering on our own. Then we got back into the van and headed to the next stop, Shifen — not to be confused with Jiufen, despite how much alike they sounded when Steve said them. Shifen was another old mining town, now famous for its annual lantern festival. And it’s right next to “the Niagara Falls of Taiwan”, which we saw first.
Still, put a little cafe out here, and it would be a lovely place to sit and read and listen to the water.
Shifen proper is a tiny little town, where they do lantern releases all year ’round (above and beyond the annual festival), and tourists come, pick a lantern with Significant Colors, write a prayer on the lantern, and then light the burner inside it and let it float away carrying their prayers to heaven — or into the nearby jungle, where the bamboo frames can be collected by locals and retrieved for a deposit. If you’re all skeptical about the prayer thing, that is. Me, I figure it’s like light being both a wave and a particle: no reason why both can’t be true, it just depends on what kind of experiment you’re running.
FYI, if you’re curious about the significance of the colors (and the lanterns with multiple colors), the vendors provide a handy chart for spiritual success.
The guy from Singapore sent up a lantern with some kind of Christian prayer on it about the upcoming judgement day that, honestly, seemed a little dark to me. (World peace not good enough for him?) Biff’s family sent up another one, with messages written on each side. (The boy drew scorpions on his side, which apparently he’s really into right now. The girl left her handprint which, given that she’s only recently acquired hands, is probably as important a thing to celebrate as anything else on those lanterns.) I, you’ll be shocked and surprised to hear, abstained: I live in the modern age, for gods’ sake. My iPad carries my messages to heaven.
We were supposed to ride this train to another town, but it was getting late and the Steve gave us a choice. We’d all ridden trains before, so we said we were fine to skip it. Instead, we drove over to another nearby former mining town as the rain started, where they have wooden postcards you can mail overseas, and instead of lanterns people write wishes on bamboo and hang them on walls and bridges.
From there, we drove back to Taipei, dropped off the Singapore guy, then dropped off Biff and his family, then dropped me off. Biff delayed us to run into his hotel and get money for a tip, even though you don’t tip in Taipei, which, of course, then meant I had to. But it was no great burden, and Steve and Gordon (not their real names) had been a real pleasure.
I ate at a different place in the under the Station, watched some video, and went to bed early to wake very early for my 8:30am flight to Kyoto the next morning. Alas, I knew that Starbucks didn’t open until 7am, so I brought an onigiri (rice ball) with me, caught the airport express bus across the street (from the same company that had brought me from in), boarded in plenty of time, and I was off.
Next post: Kyoto!