Taipei 101 and Beitou, Danshui: "A Soak and a Sunset"



October 28, 2007

Taipei. The capital of Taiwan. 2.7 million well-educated, well-dressed, energetic, hospitable people. Everyone carries a colorful umbrella.

It's crowded, busy and glitzy. Modern buildings. Modern fashions. Some boys wear spiked hair and the girls "accessorize." Spotlessly clean. Lots of bright yellow taxis with drivers who accept any destination without question.

Convenient, easy-to-navigate, courteous subway system. Passengers line up in the waiting lanes that are clearly marked on the platform. Except for the subway and street signs, there are no signs in English. Unless you count McDonalds, KFC and Starbucks. At Roots and Clark's, no shoes for me (45cm). Taiwan feet end at 43cm.

Here are the highlights of my visit:

The baroque Longshan Temple enshrines 165 deities including Matsu who provides safety for land and sea travelers; Guanyin is flanked by two male guards: one is said to see 1000 miles and the other can hear 1000 miles. Air travelers pray to Guanyin. The smoke from burning incense has slowly turned the goddesses faces black.

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall: massive entrance gate, grandiose walls and roof, photos of Chiang with presidents and prime ministers, uniforms, medals and two extra, extra long black Cadillacs. The grounds (250,000 sq meters) also include the National Theatre and National Concert Hall. In the huge open space, moms and little kids play at a fair and teams of teenagers gyrate to their school's dance routines.

The National Palace Museum is abuzz with mobs of school children obediently following their guides. Actually the high school kids are more intent on socializing than listening to lectures on Chinese Art History. As for me, my own patience in museums has waned over the years, but I did push myself to find the exhibits of ancient art and artifacts. Brought over by the Nationalists for "safe-keeping" during the Civil War, the museum holds a total 650,000 objects, treasures really, of gold, ivory, bronze, jade and ceramics. The museum is reason enough to return to Taipei.

Bao-An Temple (1805) is also filled with young school children. They squirm around as they put their hands into the mouths of the stone lions guarding the entrance. Since Emperor Bao-An was a famous doctor and healer, the temple gets many visitors who come to pray for good health. Pregnant women also come here to pray to the goddess of birth and her twelve female aides.

The Confucius Temple was closed for repairs. Perhaps I will return on his birthday, September 28,

Dihua Market, also known as "Grocery Street" is lined with dozens of shops selling Chinese medicines, medicinal herbs, bolts of cloth and sundries. Bins are overflowing with traditional, colorful, mysterious items.

On Grocery Street is Hsiahai City God Temple. "In addition to being protector of the people of the city, the city god also keeps track of good and evil deeds done by mortals, and monitors the movements of souls and demons in the afterlife. The powers of the city god are almost carrot-and-stick in nature: the power to motivate good thoughts on the one hand and the ability to strike fear through punishment on the other." * No children or tour groups here. Just serious worshippers including many young adults and young couples.

After I exited the subway, I asked a woman for directions to the Botanical Gardens. She insisted on driving me to the entrance gate. The park features brick walkways and gardens themed for Chinese zodiac and Chinese literature. A few spots were crowded with bird-watchers and their tripods and extra long camera lenses. I also chatted with several Indonesian women who are caring for elderly men.

2-28 Peace Park is dedicated to the 2-28 Rebellion in 1947. There is a large memorial sculpture in the center and several Chinese style pavilions suitable for picnicking or hand-holding. At the edge of the park is a wide path paved with round stones suitable for a foot massage. Ouch!

In addition to the Ketagalan Culture Center, a repository of aboriginal culture and art, the outdoor Hot Springs is the main attraction of the hilly town of Beitou, a train ride north of Taipei. Under a modest drizzle, the cold shower and hot soak and cold shower are therapeutic and relaxing for all of us a little long in the tooth.

A bit further north in Danshui, the main attraction for the hundreds of teenagers and college kids strolling about after school is the red ball of the sun setting beyond the mountains and the mouth of the Danshui River that drains into the Taiwan Strait. Both the sunset and those cute, slim girls are also therapeutic and relaxing

For the moment, Taipei International Financial Centre 101 is the tallest building in the world at 508 meters (1666 ft) and 101 stories. The exterior is said to resemble a stalk of bamboo with graceful ropes tied around the bamboo's nodes. The day's clouds and rain cloak the tower in a bright gray mist.

The main entrance leads to an enormous central atrium with five floors of ritzy shops and restaurants. A few examples from the brochure:

B1. Grand Market. Fresh products and international cuisines, high quality food court with 1200 comfortable seats.

1F. Avenue 101. International popular fashion brands reflecting global fashion trends: Hunting World, Kenneth Cole, swatch, Esprit, United Colors of Benetton.

2F. Designer Walk. International designer brands: Joan & David, Brooks Brothers, Lagerfeld, Valentino.

3F. Galleries Couture. A fabulous selection of couture brand flagship stores: Cartier, Dior, Prada, Tiffany & Co., Versace.

4F. City Square. Surrounded by delicate restaurants offering varied menus and cafes, the most relaxing and romantic French garden in the city: Amadeus, London Tea House, Diamond Tony's Italian Restaurant, Maxims de Paris, Wasabi Buffet.

5F. Financial Center. Satisfying urban professional's request with easy banking, banquet and VIP service, newest electronic products: Chinatrust Commercial Bank, Taipei Fubon Bank, BOSE, Sony.

I kept my wallet in my pocket until I found the Taipei 101 Observatory ticket counter and lifts entrance. Ten bucks!

The Taipei 101 elevators are the fastest in the world:

"Certified by the Guinness Book of records, the two world's fastest elevators are now installed in the world's tallest building. These elevators, built by Toshiba Elevator and Building Systems Corp., can move 24 passengers up at a speed of 1,010 meters per minute (about 60 km/h) or down a little bit slower at only 600 meters per minute (about 36 km/h). Going up 382 meters inside this 508-meter-high building will take only 37 seconds to the observatory level of the 89th floor."

From on high, the mountains and buildings in the distance were obscured by the mist so I couldn't see the Empire State Building, but the circular panoramic view was still quite impressive.

Equally impressive was the open display of the "wind baffles" - clever architectural structures designed to absorb the energy of the buffeting winds. Taipei 101 will sway, but not too much!

New York to Philadelphia to Boston to Miami to Bangkok, it didn't take me long to feel comfortable in Taipei. I'm a dodger and a straphanger from way back and everything seems to work well here. Folks actually wait until the little green men on the walk sign appear before crossing the street.

They even drive on the right side of the road so I'm going to attempt a self-drive tour down to the seashores and through the mountains. I've got six maps and a guidebook and a new pair of spectacles. I hope the car won't sway too much in the wind and the rain. Remember? I am on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!



* "Taiwan." Lonely Planet. 2004.


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