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Provisional capital

Started: 2013-01-17 19:37:44

Submitted: 2013-01-17 21:26:16

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator explores Taipei in the rain

I woke briefly to the noise of the fireworks celebrating the dawn of 2013 (at least, in the local time zone, GMT + 8) and vaguely regretted not watching the display, or at least picking a hotel where I could see Taipei 101 out my window, then went back to sleep.

By the time we drug ourselves out of bed in the morning, I was afraid we'd missed the hotel's breakfast (included in the price of our room), but when we headed down to the lobby to solicit recommendations of somewhere else to go for breakfast we found that breakfast was still available (until ten, we were told), but they didn't actually have any room for us, so the woman in the breakfast area took our room number and promised to call us when there was space. She did, about a minute before ten, so we headed back downstairs to eat. The breakfast was not quite as expansive as the hotel breakfast in Hong Kong, but it was more than adequate to get us started in the morning. (Also, the price was good.)

I grabbed a tourist map (in English) from the display in the hotel lobby, then headed out into the streets to begin exploring the city. My phone wouldn't roam on the local GSM network, where it would (allegedly) get some data coverage, so I was stuck navigating the city without my trusted friend and advisor Google Maps. (Taipei did have a desultory, voice-only CDMA network where I could at least send text messages to Twitter, at US$0.50 each.) We were located somewhere between the Zhongshan and Zhongzheng regions of the city, in a neighborhood that looked mostly residential but had a fair number of shops at ground level, closed for New Year's Day. (Taiwan, in its guise as the Republic of China, celebrates 1 January as Founding of the Republic of China, which happens to coincide with New Year's Day on the Gregorian calendar. They count years from the foundation of the republic in 1912, so most of our receipts gave the year as 102.)

We found a nearby metro stop; Taipei's metro system used the same three letters we were used to from Hong Kong but in a different order, so we had to get used to calling it MRT. This system's payment scheme was nearly identical to the Guangzhou metro: I bought single-journey plastic tokens from a touch-screen vending machine, usually paying somewhere between NT$20 and NT$30 for each adult ticket (between sixty US cents and a dollar). Unlike Hong Kong, on this system Calvin was free because he was under six. (Kiesa began to wonder if we should have been traveling in Taiwan earlier to take full advantage of the deference they gave to families with young children.)

We took the metro a couple of stops to the 228 Peace Park, which was first built as a park during the Japanese colonial administration (1895-1945) and was dedicated to the victims of the Nationalist's military rule, starting with a demonstration on 28 February 1947 (hence the "2/28"). We wandered through the park in the light rain, then headed to the museum that gave the context for the events, housed in an old radio broadcasting building. I picked up an English audio guide, which was handy because almost all of the text inside the museum was in Chinese only, leaving me to wonder at times exactly what I was looking at. I knew enough of Chinese history to have a reasonable idea what was going on but I hadn't studied this event in detail, so I actually learned a fair amount in the little museum. Calvin got bored quickly (the subject matter was far above his pay grade) so Kiesa took him out to a playground on the southern end of the park.

Slide in the playground at the 228 Peace Park
Slide in the playground at the 228 Peace Park

When I finished looking through the museum, I found Kiesa hiding under a large concrete slide while Calvin played in the light rain. It was clearly lunchtime, so I scoured my guidebook for hints and found Loving Hut, a vegan Chinese restaurant chain on the street adjacent to the park, so we walked in search of the restaurant and found it a couple of blocks away. Like most of our Chinese meals, I tried to order two main dishes, something with noodle and something with tofu, in hopes that Calvin would eat something and Kiesa and I would eat the rest. Calvin never had much chopstick technique to begin with, but Kiesa's chopstick technique seemed much improved well into our second week in East Asia.

After lunch we walked back through the park in the direction of the massive Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. This took us across several streets, most of which featured crosswalks with an animated man (lit up in green LEDs) to indicate the phase of the light. When the light changes, the animated man starts strolling, but as the count decreases he starts running. (Here's a video on youtube, if you're into that sort of thing.) (While waiting for the train in one metro stop I saw an ad on the television suspended above the platform in which the animated man jumps down from the crosswalk light and proceeds to run around the city.)

We walked through the massive classical Chinese gates to see, framed in the distance opposite a large walkway, the massive monument dedicated to Taiwan's iconic (and controversial) leader. It was obvious that we weren't in Hong Kong any more because of how much land in the middle of the city was being used by this one monument; in retrospect the layout reminds me a bit of Rajpath in New Delhi or the National Mall in Washington, DC. I cursed the rain that would make any attempts at photographing the monument as we walked toward it.

The main steps leading straight up the outside of the monument were closed for renovation, so we walked around to a side entrance and took the elevator up to the main hall, featuring a giant bronze statue of the Generalissimo on a large pedestal in the massive hall, smiling benevolently from his perch. He was flanked by two stony-faced honor guards wearing helmets polished to a shine, carrying bayonetted rifles. (Calvin chose this opportunity to ask what the knives on the end of their guns were for; I equivocated.) We were about fifteen minutes from the elaborate changing of the guard at the top of the hour, so we went down one flight of stairs to look at some artwork and calligraphy on display before returning in time to see a trio of guards march slowly in from a side entrance. (I put Calvin up on my shoulders so he could watch the spectacle.) The changing of the guard was, as had been advertised, elaborately choreographed; the new guards marched in and proceeded to salute, swap rifles, and eventually marched into place on their positions flanking the statue while the guards they replaced marched out. Once the new guards were in place a handler in a suit came up to straighten each guard's coat and tassels so they were picture-perfect for the next hour.

Chiang Kai-shek statue in his memorial hall
Chiang Kai-shek statue in his memorial hall

With the spectacle complete, we headed down to the ground floor and looked through the gift shop (which put Chiang's face on everything imaginable and almost seemed to rival Mao in the cult-of-personality contest; and also put the Nationalist star on the trinkets representing the entire island of Taiwan, which I thought a good chunk of the population might not appreciate) before getting a snack at the local cafe. I tried bubble tea, which was interesting but not entirely compelling. I left Kiesa and Calvin in the cafe and looked through the exhibit hall, which showed artifacts from Chiang's life and told an edited version of his life in convenient bilingual signs. (As an amateur Sinologist I thought their choices in what to leave out were just as interesting as the artifacts they included.)

Content with my appointment with the Generalissimo, at least for this trip, I found Calvin in the cafe evading a tourist's camera and tried to convince him to show his face for the photo but failed. We left the temple to Chiang and headed to the nearest metro stop, which we took to Longshan Temple, a massive combined Buddhist and Taoist temple near the river in an older section of the city. We arrived at dusk and found the temple packed by worshipers, most of whom seemed to be waving lit incense about. Many had left offerings of food to the icons distributed around the temple. I found a pamphlet in English describing the temple and learned that one of the icons in back was Mazu, the local goddess of the sea, known in Hong Kong as Tin Hau.

We headed back to the metro in search of King Join, a vegetarian restaurant my guidebook recommended several stops to the east. I made a wrong turn navigating a roundabout joining two major boulevards and ended up walking down the wrong side street but managed to fix my mistake and sneak up on the restaurant from the other side. This restaurant advertised cuisine from imperial Beijing, but I was insufficiently well-versed in Chinese cuisine to tell the difference, except that I enjoyed eating it. (This was the first time that I've ever paid for dinner with a single thousand-dollar bill, worth about US$33.)

We took the metro back to our hotel and settled in for the night.

For a parallel account of our first day in Taipei, see The Eleventh Day.