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Living in the future

Started: 2013-01-19 11:45:15

Submitted: 2013-01-19 15:22:50

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator visits the National Palace Museum, meets a friendly local student, goes shopping, and visits the erstwhile tallest building in the world

I had one big thing I wanted to see on our last day in Taipei: the National Palace Museum, featuring the finest artifacts from Imperial China that the Nationalists moved to Taiwan in advance of the Chinese Civil War and eventually put on display. Getting there involved a metro ride followed by a bus ride. On the metro ride we met a friendly student who introduced himself under the assumed name Elias. When we told him of our plans for the day, he mentioned he went to school down the street from the museum. We got off at the right metro stop but missed the bus stop and Elias ran to catch up with us to point out our mistake. Once we found the right bus he asked if he could join us in the museum to practice his English, and we agreed.

The museum was an imposing building set back from the road in a large complex. We walked through the light rain, up the steps, and into the lobby, then (after buying a ticket and checking my backpack, which was apparently too large, which I found a little irritating because it contained, among other things, an emergency change of clothes for Calvin) entered the museum itself.

Inside the museum we were faced with three stories of galleries packed with historical artifacts, explained in both English and Chinese. (If that wasn't enough, each gallery had pamphlets available in more languages describing the collections in greater detail.) We started in the small display of religious artifacts, which was mostly bronze Buddhas of various descriptions, then headed up to the third floor in hopes of escaping the crowds of tourists. This proved foolish; we ended up in a very long queue to see one of the museum's finest pieces, the Jadeite Cabbage with Insects, which turned a flawed piece of jade into a serious work of art, with the bright green portion carved into the head of the bok choy (a cabbage with Chinese characteristics) and the whiter portion into the stem.

From there we followed the crowd into another gallery displaying intricately-carved bamboo and other works of art. Calvin started to complain that he was hungry, so we skipped the rest of the floor and headed up to the tea room on the fourth floor for a snack. We got drinks and dim sum before heading back into the museum.

While waiting in the queues we talked to Elias about a variety of topics. He mentioned that some of his teachers called politics out as a sensitive topic, and Kiesa and I agreed that it could be sensitive, but we were not generally the sort to get overly worked up about the topic. (We may also have indicated some level of support for our newly-reelected president.) I was also interested in Taiwanese politics; I know what I read in history books, news articles, and on the Internet, but that's a far cry from actually talking to people on the ground. I probed the topic delicately and Elias seemed to indicate broad agreement with the Nationalist thesis that there is one China and Taiwan is part of that China (and, presumably, that the Nationalists ought to be in charge).

After our snack we headed down to the second floor to look at the pottery, and we'd barely made it into the second millennium before Calvin got bored. Kiesa and Calvin left to run around outside, and Elias went with them to pick up his backpack from the same bag-check that I'd left mine in. I worked my way through the galleries, skimming the descriptions and letting the intricately-crafted pottery wash over me. In the sterile setting of the museum it was hard to imagine that the pieces had ever been actually used. The museum arranged the collection chronologically, and traced the evolution of Chinese pottery through the dynasties, ending with the final collapse of the Qing dynasty.

I left the museum after the pottery, skipping the bronzes and many of the other fine works in the museum. I felt that I'd barely scratched the surface, and I could spend a week here without seeing everything the museum had to offer. I headed out to find Kiesa and Calvin and wished we had working accounts for our mobile phones. (Unlike Hong Kong, my guidebook indicated that getting local SIM cards was something of a hassle (though, it appeared, less so than India); I didn't think we were going to be on the ground long enough to bother, but it did restrict our freedom of independent movement somewhat.)

We took the bus back to the metro, then took the metro to the Taiwan Handicraft Promotion Center, which featured four stories of goods produced all over Taiwan. Unlike Hong Kong, which barely makes anything but transships everything, Taiwan makes everything. As a result the store was packed with everything from mass-produced trinkets to teapots to jade carvings to replicas of pieces held in the National Palace Museum. The store even included a few Cold War relics in the form of Kinmen knives produced from artillery shells fired by the People's Liberation Army onto the offshore island held by the Nationalists. (I did not see any of the high-tech products most relevant to my day-job, though.) While wandering around, my attention was drawn to a collection of screens meant to emulate classic Chinese designs, offered for a few US dollars each. I was almost dissuaded when I noticed they were plastic, but that seemed somehow even more authentic.

Plastic screen in a classical Chinese style
Plastic screen in a classical Chinese style

We stocked up on gifts for the end-of-the-year birthday and Christmas season, and I picked up one more trinket for myself: a small vase, carved out of stone to look like bamboo.

Carved stone vase
Carved stone vase

We ended up with two large shopping bags full of stuff that we really didn't want to drag around with us for the rest of the day, so I set out to drop them off at our hotel. I didn't feel especially inclined to juggle them through the metro (or walk the non-trivial distance back to the metro stop, then from the nearest metro stop to our hotel), so I hailed a taxi and got a quick ride back to the hotel, then took the metro back to the 228 Peace Park to meet Kiesa and Calvin. (I might have suggested meeting them at our next destination, Taipei 101, but I didn't know the layout and wasn't sure I could reliably meet them there without a phone.) We headed back to the metro and took it toward Taipei 101, the erstwhile world's tallest building.

We had a bit of a walk from the Taipei City Hall station to the building. It was later afternoon, almost sundown, so I hurried through the light rain in hopes of reaching the top before it was entirely dark. As we approached the building I began to appreciate how truly massive it was. When I bought our tickets to the eighty-ninth floor observatory I learned that we'd have to wait before they'd let us go up, so we headed back to a restaurant on the fourth floor of the mall at the base of the tower for an expensive snack, then headed back to catch the elevator to the top.

The elevator to the observation deck took less than a minute to climb eighty-four floors in what they advertised as the "world's fastest elevator". I was careful to clear my ears as we climbed, and walked a bit shakily out onto the eighty-ninth floor.

The lights were dimmed to allow a better view of the surroundings. At times clouds threatened to envelop the tower, shrouding our view of the surroundings in a white mist. Darkness had fallen while we were waiting to ascend, so we couldn't see the hills surrounding the basin, or the East China Sea, but the entire city was lit up and laid out below us. I picked up an audio guide in English and walked all the way around the tower, listening to the descriptions of what I saw below. I tried not to get too close to the windows, or to notice the almost-imperceptible wavering of the floor beneath me, or let my fear of heights get in the way of enjoying the engineering marvel I stood on or the majestic view of the city in front of me.

When we were done circumnavigating the observation deck, we took the stairs down one floor to get a closer look at the tuned mass damper on our way to the exit. The stairwell was a basic internal stairwell, climbing or descending half of a flight in one stretch, then turning back on itself, so one would zig-zag back and forth once to descend a single floor. As is my normal habit in such stairwells, I carefully looked down the two-inch gap between the railings for the up and down stairs and saw the stairs vanish into infinity below. I assumed they descended for eighty-eight floors, but I had no particular desire to find out personally. It looked like a science fiction special effect rather than something real that had actually been built in my lifetime that I was looking down.

On the eighty-eighth floor we found ourselves face-to-face with the giant tuned mass damper that stabilizes the building in typhoon winds. The audio guide pointed out that, not only was it the largest tuned mass damper in the world, but it was also the only one on public display. The mass basically swings on giant pendulums and pushes back, slowly, when the winds push the building out of alignment. This felt like another artifact out of science fiction, or at the very least a research project sitting in a lab, rather than something actually in production out in the real world. I got the uncanny feeling that I was staring into the future, and that the nerds had come out to play.

Tuned mass damper in Taipei 101
Tuned mass damper in Taipei 101

(When Yanthor texted me on the morning of New Year's Day (local time) to wish me a happy new year (in GMT), I texted back "It's already new year's morning in Taipei. Asia is so far ahead of you Americans it's hard to understand how you cope." I was referring specifically to the time zone but standing in the erstwhile tallest building in the world made me think that Asia really was living in the future.)

Immediately opposite the real tuned mass damper was a large statue of the tower's mascot, a "Damper Baby". After taking the elevator back to the bottom we stopped at the gift shop to buy a small plush Damper Baby for Calvin.

Kiesa and Calvin with a Damper Baby at the top of Taipei 101
Kiesa and Calvin with a Damper Baby at the top of Taipei 101
Jaeger with a Damper Baby at the top of Taipei 101
Jaeger with a Damper Baby at the top of Taipei 101

By this point it was time for supper. We headed down to the basement of the mall and scoured the food court for vegetarian food in English, which proved easier said than done. We found an Indian restaurant in the food court with a handy English menu and ate supper.

After supper I decided the easiest way back to the hotel would be to take a taxi, rather than walk to the metro and then walk back to the hotel. I found the taxi stand and we queued until a taxi arrived for us. Kiesa was worried about sitting Calvin in the seat without a proper car seat and ended up sitting Calvin down between us in the back of the taxi. She was worried by the television playing on the dashboard (which looked like a badly-dubbed historical drama or historically-inspired kung fu movie; it was a little hard to tell), and afterwards we debated whether the driver was actually watching it or not. I didn't particularly care about the television; I paid more attention to the fact that the driver was actually staying in his own lane and everyone seemed to be observing the traffic rules, which did seem to generally be the case in Hong Kong and Taiwan but was definitely not the norm in India.

Back at the hotel at last, we put Calvin to bed and packed to fly home the next day after nearly two weeks in East Asia.

For a parallel account of our last day in Taipei, see The Thirteenth Day.