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Sunology

Started: 2013-01-18 19:11:43

Submitted: 2013-01-18 22:12:14

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator sees a giant panda, rides a gondola, contemplates the study of Sunology, gets nearly lost on the alleys and lanes of Taipei, and eats a Ma-Po tofu burger

On our second of three days in Taipei, the weather looked warmer and drier than it had been the previous day (or would be the next day), so I shuffled my plans and decided to visit the outdoor-heavy things I wanted to see in Taipei.

On our way to the metro I spotted an odd display of public art under an elevated expressway that, when I looked closer, I realized was a bunch of PC motherboards arranged in an artful fashion. I crossed the street to get a closer look and saw a sign written in Chinese but for the brand name Asus. It was a concrete reminder of a more recent development in Taiwan's history: the ascendency of its electronics industry, which started as a low-value-add manufacturer (like Shenzhen today) and successfully climbed the value-add ladder (and is in the process of reinventing itself, once again, as portable PCs are replaced by mobile devices).

Display of Asus motherboards on a street corner in Taipei
Display of Asus motherboards on a street corner in Taipei

Our first stop was the Taipei Zoo, in the outskirts of town at the end of the brown line on the metro map. This line turned out to be more of a people-mover than a 'proper' heavy-rail metro line; it ran automated cars on concrete rails on a viaduct elevated above the street. The zoo's admission was cheap with the help of the exchange rate: At NT$60 per adult (Calvin was free), our entire family paid about US$4.

We headed straight to the zoo's premier exhibit, the giant pandas. The exhibit was clearly set up for crowd control, but on a Wednesday morning there were only a few other zoo visitors looking at the pandas. (One of the guidebooks I read suggested that office workers might also get the day after New Year's Day off, so I had expected some more people, but there were far fewer than the zoo was designed to handle.) One panda was lounging in the outdoor habitat, and another panda was lounging in the indoor habitat. Neither did very much, so the whole thing was a bit anti-climatic, but I did appreciate being able to see a giant panda in East Asia.

Giant panda lounging in the Taipei Zoo
Giant panda lounging in the Taipei Zoo
Calvin points to the panda statues at the Taipei Zoo
Calvin points to the panda statues at the Taipei Zoo

We walked past a koala perched in a tree (which Calvin was not even the slightest bit interested in) and headed to the children's zoo, which was populated mostly by domestic farm animals (with a Taiwanese twist), many of them first introduced to the island by the Dutch colonists hundreds of years ago.

We stopped for a snack at the 7-11 inside the zoo (and I searched for sweetened green tea by checking the calorie count; I recognized the character for tea, 茶 (in Mandarin, chá)), then headed through the section featuring Taiwanese animals. (I decided to skip the North American animals further inside the zoo, since I don't have to go very far from home to see raccoons or coyotes.) They had an assortment of indigenous deer and pigs and bears, plus a large habitat with a colony of monkeys being fed small chunks of banana by a zookeeper as we passed.

Calvin looks at the deer habitat at the Taipei Zoo
Calvin looks at the deer habitat at the Taipei Zoo

When we finished looking at the Taiwanese animals it was noon and time to start thinking about lunch. There was very little in the way of suitable restaurants for lunch in the vicinity of the zoo, so we looked at the cafe in the building housing the panda exhibit and ate lunch there, which was quite good by captive zoo-food standards. We bought Calvin panda flip-flops in the little shop in the panda shop, which he seemed amused by.

Our next stop was the Maokong Gondola, climbing from the zoo to a tea-tourism area in the hills above Taipei. My guidebook cautioned the wait might be excessive, but like the zoo, staging our visit in the middle of the week meant there was basically no line whatsoever. We decided to skip the transparent-floor option and go for the traditional, boring, opaque-floor gondola cabs. The gondola whisked us up over the jungle and up and down the hills, ultimately climbing 275 meters in 4 kilometers, with two stops along the way.

Kiesa and Calvin ride the Maokong Gondola
Kiesa and Calvin ride the Maokong Gondola

As we climbed, I studied the jungle-covered hills and the surrounding countryside, bisected by a major superhighway that disappeared into a tunnel to go under the hill under the gondola. It was still hazy, so I couldn't see the entire basin in which the city of Taipei sat, but I could see the apartment buildings and houses clinging to the edges of the valley below and Taipei 101 peeking coyly above the ridge, floating ethereally in the haze. (It's visible over my left shoulder in the photo below.)

Jaeger in the Maokong Gondola
Jaeger in the Maokong Gondola

At the top of the gondola we found ourselves perched on the side of the hills to the south-east of Taipei in a flock of tourists. Taiwan is known for its partially-fermented oolong teas, and the region we were in once actually grew tea but is now dedicated to tea tourism. We headed out in search of the Taipei Tea Promotion Center along a road that wound its way roughly to the east. We found the center closed, presumably for the extended holiday, and headed back in the direction we came. I wanted to stop at a tea house for some local oolong tea but I needed an English menu, being not quite adept at ordering in Chinese. I looked at one menu, clearly in English, that didn't actually serve tea but had a good selection of Celestial Seasonings herb teas. I found another, somewhat-more-authentic tea house with a helpful English menu. I ended up with a High Mountain Oolong, which turned out to be iced, which was quite good. Kiesa ordered fried sweet potato for a snack.

Top of the Maokong Gondola and surrounding countryside
Top of the Maokong Gondola and surrounding countryside

We headed back to the gondola and took it back down the mountain. We let Calvin play in a playground near the base of the gondola while we sheltered from the light drizzle in the covered portion of the play equipment. I looked at our time and decided we had just enough time to see the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall (including another changing of the guard at the top of the hour), so we headed back to the metro, braving the early-rush-hour traffic, and scurried into the massive building just as the changing of the guard was getting underway. As this was apparently the last guard change of the day (at 17:00), all of the guards marched slowly out, leaving the giant statue of Sun Yat-sen unguarded.

Sun Yat-sen statue in his memorial hall
Sun Yat-sen statue in his memorial hall

My guidebook indicated that this site is popular with tourists from mainland China, since Sun is regarded as a founding father of both Chinas. We were clearly not the only tourists there, though we may have been the only white-skinned tourists, as a flock of women descended on Calvin as soon as the changing of the guard was over and tried to take his picture, with varying levels of success. One woman handed me her phone to try to get a picture of her with Calvin and I noticed it was made by Huawei, and I wondered how popular Huawei phones were in Taiwan or if this was a clear indication that its owner was from the mainland.

Chinese tourists try to take pictures of Calvin in the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall
Chinese tourists try to take pictures of Calvin in the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall

Once the flock of tourists subsided, Kiesa took Calvin outside and I took a quick look through the galleries displaying various artifacts from Sun's life. One gallery tried, with what I can only assume was a straight face, to draw connections between Sun and Taiwan (which was, during Sun's life, a Japanese colony). Sun is the "father of the Chinese nation" in the sense that Taiwan is the Republic of China, which tries to impose a national identity on Taiwan and its people that is based on a pan-Chinese identity. While contemplating this at the museum I barely resisted the urge to start taking notes for a dissertation on "Sunology" and nation-building in Taiwan, comparing Taiwan's experience as a Japanese colony to its takeover by the Nationalists immediately after WWII and their attempt at imposing their own national identity.

Taipei 101 from the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall
Taipei 101 from the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall

I exited the hall to the south and immediately saw an excellent view of Taipei 101 across the fountain and plaza forming the grounds of the memorial hall. As I sat there watching the fountain and the tourists milling around, the honor guard appeared to my right, marching out of the memorial hall in the direction of the main flagpole on the other side of the fountain. (There were flags everywhere in the grounds around the memorial hall: they were planted every several meters around the fountain and on many of the main walkways. Some streets in the city had just as many flags. I couldn't help but wonder if the flags wax and wane depending on which party holds power in the city or national government.) They lowered the flag while music played (which I took to be the national anthem; Kiesa and I decided we ought to stand up like everyone else), then marched off the scene, attended by a couple of handlers in suits who managed crowd control.

Honor guard marches down from the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall
Honor guard marches down from the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall

(We saw on display two of the three essential national symbols by Willy's reckoning: a flag and an anthem. To see the third we needed to drive to the airport: a flag carrier with a 747 and landing rights at Heathrow.)

We headed back to the metro in search of our selection for supper, a small restaurant I found on the vegetarian restaurant listing website Happy Cow called PP 99 Cafe. I carefully recorded the location on the Google map, as reported by Happy Cow, in my notes for the day but did not actually transcribe the address, so when we got off the metro stop and headed down the road indicated on my map in search of the restaurant and came up empty-handed I wasn't quite sure what to do. We turned back, and headed down a side street at random, and just as I was beginning to wonder what our backup plan was, I spotted the restaurant, two blocks away from where the map had (apparently incorrectly) placed it. I wasn't sure whether to attribute the failure to Google Maps' difficulty parsing Taiwanese addresses, or a transcription error in the address, but I couldn't help but wish I had a proper data connection for my phone. (Or at least the ability to download the map for offline use -- Google Maps unhelpfully told me the area was 'unavailable' as an offline map.)

The restaurant itself was a Taiwanese take on a European cafe, serving mostly American dishes with vegetarian Chinese characteristics. I ordered the Ma-Po tofu burger, which was basically as advertised: spicy tofu on a burger bun, and was good, if not exactly what I expected to find when I decided to visit Taipei.

After supper we headed back to our hotel, put Calvin to bed, and I worked on planning our last day in Taiwan.

For a parallel account of our second day in Taipei, see The Twelfth Day. For more photos see Photos on 2013-01-02.
lots of bagels. it's the only way to true enlightenment.
- Scott J. Galvin