I spent this past weekend (November 26 and 27th) in Taipei. It seems a bit strange to me that I have been in Taiwan for almost three months now and this was my first trip to the capitol, but since I have to spend the next two weekends there as well, I guess it's good that I've already seen most of the rest of the island already.
Originally I had a meeting scheduled with an expert on Taiwan-Japan relations at the Taiwan Think Tank in Taipei on Monday, but he had to reschedule because of a previous engagement. I did have the chance to meet with my professor from Missouri State University (Dr. Hickey), however, so it was still a fruitful trip. Since my next two trips to Taipei are more or less “business trips” (I'm attending a conference on Japan-Taiwan relations next weekend and have my meeting the week after) I wanted to get most of my sight-seeing and tourist side-trips out of the way this weekend, a goal that I think I accomplished.
I boarded the overnight bus from Kaohsiung to Taipei at about 3:00 a.m. Saturday morning after only about an hour and a half of sleep. I thought this would be a great way for me to save time. The bus ride is about five hours, so I thought I could just get five hours of sleep in transit and wake up in Taipei in the morning so I could have the whole day to tour the city. This turned out to be mere wishful thinking. The bus was freezing cold and the driver didn't turn off the TVs that played Taiwanese news all night. I don't know why, but even though it's not hot anymore, the intercity busses still all have the AC pumping on their overnight routes. Bizarre…
I arrived exhausted in Taipei at about 8:30 in the morning. I threw my suitcase into a coin locker and headed off for a greasy breakfast at McDonald's. I was set on seeing Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world, so I consulted my Lonely Planet guidebook to see what other sights were in that neighborhood. I decided to go to the “Discovery Center” at Taipei City Hall, across the street from the 101 building. They have some interesting displays about the city's history and have a free English audio tour recording you can borrow to lead you through the exhibits. I thought the displays on Taipei's early history were interesting, but the “city today” section was way too touristy.
I then crossed the street and headed for the elevator to the observation floors at Taipei 101. You pay about six dollars to ride the world's fastest elevator to the 89th floor observatory of the world's tallest building (a fact which they make sure is not lost on visitors) to get a bird's eye view of a smoggy urban view. I'm sure there are days when the smog isn't too bad, but it was very thick on Saturday. I also shelled out the extra few dollars to climb the two flights of stairs to the outdoor observation area on the 91st floor, which gives you basically the same view, but with a little fresher air than you might get at street level. Unfortunately, the smog was so bad that many of the sights the audio tour pointed out where shrouded in a gray haze.
For lunch, I stopped by Ruby Tuesday's for a salad bar and buffalo wings. How exotic! Yes, it's a cop-out, but I think I deserve to eat crappy American food every now and then! All I'm going to say about that overpriced meal is that they had bleu cheese dressing, so I was very pleased.
After lunch I walked to the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. This memorial hall and park are easily seen from the top of Taipei 101, as they occupy one large city block. The hall itself is a large traditional Chinese building that enshrines a big statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the KMT, the Chinese Nationalist Party that eventually fled to Taiwan to establish the Republic of China (the official name of the government of Taiwan). There are some exhibition rooms in the back with interesting historical tidbits, but English translations are few and far between. One hallway that did have English translations housed an exhibit of photographs of the Sino-Japanese conflict throughout Sun Yat-sen's leadership. As I was looking at some of the exhibits, one of the employees asked me if I wanted to watch the changing of the guards ceremony (the last one of the day). I said yes and stood for what seemed like a very long and unnecessarily long, but very well-executed, ceremony. I took a lot of pictures, but only a few turned out well. If you're ever make it to this memorial, be sure to check out this hourly show.
The park outside seems to be very popular as a weekend getaway spot among the locals. There were groups of old men playing Chinese checkers, groups of young people practicing their dance moves, kids and old people flying kites, families playing ball, and at least one kung-fu class. It was really nice to see all these people having a good time together on a beautiful November day in Taipei (which feels like a June day in Missouri!).
After wandering the city just a wee bit longer and stopping by the Internet café, I went to my friend's house to get some sleep. Katannya, a Canadian English teacher, lives in a really nice apartment on the outskirts of the city with three or four other roommates. They are all foreign English teachers and they seem to have a pretty good set-up here. Thanks to all of them for putting me up this weekend!
I got a much-needed full night's sleep and went to meet Dr. Hickey for lunch on Sunday. We ate at a restaurant called “Skylark”, which at first I thought was a Japanese chain restaurant of the same name. Thankfully, it wasn't. The Taiwanese Skylark is a Taiwanese version of western food. The Japanese Skylark is a Japanese version of an American diner with Japanese and Western food, but the Taiwanese chain is much better. You order from a set menu that includes a salad, an appetizer, a main course, a dessert, and coffee or tea at the end. It was a very satisfying meal.
It was really good to see Dr. Hickey here in Taiwan. He has been instrumental in helping me pursue my study of East Asian politics while at Missouri State University. He is an expert in Taiwan-U.S. relations and is responsible for setting up the exchange program that I am currently participating in. He is on sabbatical this semester and has been in Taiwan for about three weeks researching a book he is writing on Taiwan's foreign policy. I got to hear his thoughts on many issues in Taiwanese politics and I particularly enjoyed his stories about his recent interview with Lee Teng-hui, the former president of Taiwan. We chatted for over an hour, then decided to head over to the former residence of Chiang Kai Shek, the former dictator of Taiwan.
Chiang's house is closed to the public, but his massive garden is open and is apparently a popular spot for a Sunday stroll. We chatted some more about politics, international relations, and the joys and travails of travel as we soaked in the warm weather and beautiful scenery.
We parted ways at about 3:00 and I decided to go see the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. It is larger and more impressive than the Sun Yat-sen Memorial, but the quirky smile Chiang bears seems very out-of-place. I guess if you're going to build a memorial to a dictator, you should at least make him a happy dictator!
The museum here is much more interesting and has many more English translations than at the other memorial. Two of the generalissimo's bullet-proof Cadillacs are on display, as are many of his personal items, medals, awards, clothes, calligraphy, and furniture. Lighted signs explain in Chinese and English various episode's in his life. All of these are written with a (brace yourself!) slight pro-Chiang slant. I don't know if any of you are aware of this, but sometimes people who build memorials to dictators aren't exactly the most unbiased people in the world. Apparently, even though Taiwan didn't become a democratic country until the early to mid 1990s, Chiang was responsible for Taiwan's democratization (he died in 1975). Yes, those Chinese ghosts are very powerful.
After another dinner of American food, I went to the infamous Snake Alley. This is actually just one street of a massive night market in Taipei. The economy of this area was once based on the world's oldest profession, but the police have apparently pushed prostitution out of the area so they could turn it into a tourist and family friendly night market. Odd remnants of the old raunchy atmosphere remain in the form of booths and stores that specialize in adult toys, which seem oddly out of place in the midst of noodle stands, tea shops, and knock-off brand name clothing merchants.
The big draw in Snake Alley is, of course, the snakes. I only saw about three or four shops that still kept live snakes, which they will kill, cut, clean, and cook right there for you if you are so inclined. Snake handlers wear microphone headsets and yell out the crowd as any good side-show worker would to entice the curious to join the dark side. You aren't allowed to take pictures, but I managed to snap a few before they yelled at me.
I have a pet snake at home and I am probably a little biased, but the shows were a little frustrating to watch. I have no objection to people eating whatever animal they want, as long as it isn't endangered and it isn't going to start another SARS scare. It was the “entertainment” part of the show that was really disheartening. One guy tried to feed a mouse to some small non-poisonous snakes in front of a huge crowd, but they didn't take any interest in the food. Another guy kept smacking his cobras on the head after they tried to bite him. If I had that guy yelling in my face and waking me up all day long, I think I would try to bite him, too.
Well, this was a long post and I don't think I had much of a chance to reflect on these experiences, but I'm going to end it here. It's been a long time since I last posted, so I really wanted to get this up while it's still fresh in my mind. I'll try to post again before I get through a whole weekend next time!