Taiwan I - City of Taipei

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First thing first, a bit of clarification for placing Taiwan in the "China" page. This might stir up some bitter dispute in certain places or among certain people, but I do so here simply for the sake of political correctness: officially the U.N. and the U.S. recognize Taiwan, an island separate from the the east coast of the Mainland China by a 180km-wide strait (the Taiwan Strait), as part of China. However, in case you don't know, Taiwan is practically a separate country, and they call themselves "Republic of China," to be distinguished from the "People's Republic of China" in the Mainland. I guess the correct term for Taiwan is a "self-governing island."

The separation goes way back to the last Chinese Civil War, ended in 1950. The communists, led by Mao Ze-dong, captured the mainland and the nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, retreated to the island of Taiwan. Since then, the two camps have been hostile to each other, well, I guess only politically. The economic exchanges across the Taiwan Strait have been increasing rapidly since the late 1980s. We're after the money, after all.

Anyway, that's enough about politics. Below is a few random photos that attempt to summarize my incomprehensive impression on Taiwan during my brief stay in the summer: it was hot and humid; cities are surrounded by water rice fields and small lush hills; Local markets are stuffed with colorful tropical fruits, all incredibly delicious.

The island has very high population density, with 613 people per sq.km. (think Japan, but not quite as neat and orderly), compare to around 76 people in the States; in the cities, squeezed among prosperous skyscrapers are patches of ghettos; apparently people are rather religious (or more accurately, superstitious); on every other street corner you can spot a temple or a shrine serving a local deity. Reportedly the supernatural realm here is just as bureaucratic as our mortal world: there's a local deity for every street, or maybe even every building... so you better behave and watch every step of yours. There's always someone on your back.

On the street there are hordes and hordes of scooters flying randomly from every directions, which is another good reason to watch your steps. Scooter’s the best transportation from point A to point B through the narrow and crowded streets of this small busy island. In Taiwan you basically can’t live without one. Even the markets are so designed that you can do grocery shopping on a scooter. But if you want to travel to a distant town, you should definitely try the new Taiwan High Speed Rail system that spans the island from north to south (last pic). It's fast, comfortable, and reasonably priced (unlike the Shinkansen in Japan).

And there’re many other interesting things I’m not able to put into photos. For instance, the acrobatic stun constantly performed by Taiwan ’s taxi driver never failed to impress me. They are capable of making the most impossible turn in the most impossible circumstance. Say, when waiting for the traffic light on the right-most lane at an intersection, with some calculations, they will manage to pull in front of all others, cut across 3 lanes and make a left. From my observation, the rule of thumb for left turn in Taiwan is, if the opposite traffic has enough distance to brake for you, just turn. Another rule of thumb, traffic light is only for your reference, you don't have to take it seriously; if no one's gonna hit you, just go. One more thing that really make me envy is the incredible convenience for street parking, especially at lunch time. You can practically park your car in the middle of the street and just walk into a restaurant (imagine that in downtown San Francisco). The worst thing that can happen is your car gets towed, and you pay a moderate fee to get it back. But hey, with a hundred other cars line up in the middle of the street, what are the odds of YOUR car gets towed?

The rest of this page is about Taipei, the largest city (capital city) in Taiwan. Taipei means "north of Taiwan" in Chinese, and it is located near the northern end of the island. With a population of some 2.6 millions (01/2007), it is the political, commercial, educational, and cultural center of Taiwan. In the 1st two pix the bamboo-shaped building is Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world (448m, if it's the height of the roof that counts). The next 3 pix is the Japanese-style Presidential Office Building. It was built during Japanese rule in the early 20th century.

One of the major attractions, to me, is FOOD. The essence of Taiwanese cuisine is not found in fancy restaurants or hotels, but in hundreds of shabby little diners and booths in these crowded, noisy markets that thrive at nightlight. Here you can find a wide variety of local dishes, in small portions: oyster omelets, thick cuttle fish soups, pork blood pudding, minced pork over pork rice, vermicelli soup, meat balls, fish balls, shrimp balls, stinky tofu, plus all kinds of soyed items. And they are really cheap. I got a feast with only 300 Taiwan Dollars (about $10 US, last pic): goose breast (top left, counter clockwise), clam soup, smoked shark steak (the best dish I had in Taiwan), and cold noodle.


The National Palace Museum is probably the most worthwhile place to go in Taipei and perhaps the entire Taiwan. It holds one of the largest collection of ancient Chinese artifacts and artwork in the world, many of them packed from the Mainland by the good old Chiang Kai-shek during his retreat. Too bad, no photography allowed inside; but trust me, this world-class museum is one of the best place to dive into the 5k+ years of Chinese civilization.


Yangmingshan National Park is a collection of peaks located in the northeast of Taipei. Unfortunately I was greeted by pouring rain that day, so not much scenery to show. Calla Lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica) is in season though (pix 2-4), endless fields of white and pink flowers. In the last 2 pix, a memorable wild vegetables meals. Here they stir-fry young leaves from all kinds of wild vegetable. Guess what's in the dish on the top? Deep-fried honeybee larva. It was crunchy.


Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Established in 1980 to commemorate Chiang Kai-shek, the late president of Republic of China, 5 years after his death. The two Chinese-style buildings at the two wings are the National Concert Hall and the National Theater.

The main building, some 70m in height, is quite stylish in blue and white. Inside the hall is a bronze statue of good old Mr. Chiang. The inscription behind him says "Ethics, Democracy, and Science." Sounds like some political guidelines of his ideal state. In my early years' education in communist China, Chiang was depicted as a big bald villain and a dictator of white horror. Now all grown up, I'm entitled to my own judgment on who the real dictator was and able to view these old stories from a different perspective. Poor old Chiang, a bit short on military gift and manipulative mind, lost the entire mainland China to Mao in a bitter civil war. It must be hard for him to swallow such a defeat and spend the last 27 years of his life in an island. Like the old Chinese saying goes, "he who wins is the king, he who loses is the bandit."


Now here is a less controversial historic figure. The Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall is dedicated to Dr. Sun Yat-sen, commonly regarded as the founding father of modern China by both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Sun led the revolution that overthrown the Qing Dynasty and established the Republic of China. The Hall, distinctly Chinese-style, was completed in 1972.


The Longshan Temple, a built in 1783 by Fujian people from across the Taiwan Strait. Among the crowd here you can feel the religious zeal of Taiwanese. The temple does not serve one particular religion, but a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism, and plus the worship of the local deity, Matsu. Call it blind faith.

The building is Southern Chinese-style. Notice the curved eaves and the colorful carved creatures on the roof.


This Museum of World Religions caught my eyes on the map. That would certainly stir up some curiosity. The museum occupies two floors in a department store building. The display covers about a dozen of major religions around the world, their artifacts, and models of their chapels/temples/churches (which is cool, I think). The layout is well-designed, but the collections seem a bit too lean.


Nature. Most frequently spotted wildlife are birds. The Guandu Natural Park is a wildlife reserve on wetland, a good place to watch shore birds. A Black-Crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) in the 2nd pic; a Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) in the 3rd; a Chinese Bulbul in the 4th; a Black Bulbul in the 5th; a Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) in the 6th, and a Red-Collared Dove (Streptopelia tranquebarica) in the last.

Some random shots of more wildlife.In the 1st 2 pix is a Swinhoe's Japalure (Japalura swinhonis), an endemic lizard specie. In next two pix are a pair of Apple Snails (Ampullariidae) and their lovely pinkish eggs (usually laid on dry area near shore at night). Apple Snail is a delicacy in Southeast China, although one has to risk infection of certain parasites. Apple Snail was introduced from America to Taiwan in the 1980s (as an escargot), then unfortunately it was wide-spread became a pest for the rice production. In the last pic is a Giant African Snail (Achatina achatina), also an import-turn-into-pest.



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