27 July 2008

Travel: Taipei, Part 5

I had an ambitious schedule for the rest of my day. The HSR arrives (and departs) from Taipei Main Station, which was a good starting point, and I headed back to Longshan Temple. The sun was shining on a hot day, and the temple was packed. The worshippers were of every age, lighting incense sticks, praying, chanting, and tossing crescent-shaped wooden pieces on the floor. In this activity, the worshipper (silently) requests something and throws the pieces on the floor. The pieces are flat on one side and rounded on the other, and the result (two flat sides up, two rounded sides up, or one of each) tells whether or not the request will be granted. The temple, like so many Buddhist temples, is quite ornate. It is dominated by red and gold, with detail carvings and paintings covering every pillar, wall and ceiling. With the hum of activity, it was quite the stimulant for the senses.

In comparison is the Shandao Temple, located in a commercial district within sight of Taipei 101 (and again, right next to an MRT stop, this one conveniently named, Shandao Temple). This temple sits in the first floor of a nine-storey structure built by Japanese Buddhists in 1933, during the colonial period. Its main room is a large, clean, very modern-feeling space. With its rows of folding chairs in two sections, it felt like a large community center room, set up for a graduation. Except for the three large Buddha statues at the front. The temple hosted only a single worshipper at the time, and the atmosphere was one of eerie solitude, as drastic a contrast as one could get from Longshan Temple.

It was time to head to more secular points of interest, so I headed north to the National Palace and Museum. The Palace houses the largest collection of Chinese artifacts in history. When the KMT fled mainland China for Taiwan, they were able to take much of the artistic treasures of the nation with them. After several years of transporting the collection around the island, they gave it a permanent home in the Palace. The collection is huge, however (600,000 artifacts, books, and documents), and only a small portion can be displayed at any given time. The rest is housed in tunnels cut into the mountain behind the Palace, which, as one of the guidebooks noted, will protect it in the event of a Chinese invasion.

I am a fan of history, but I found the Palace – like most national museums – overwhelming. It is a place that demands a careful and deliberate series of visits over several days, if you really want to get the full effect. Instead, I tried to do it in two hours. On top of that, it was National Museum Day, which meant admission was free (good), which meant the place was packed (bad). I tried to hit the highlights, but I was beat, and I ended up flying through rooms, noting this bowl or that painting, eager to get back on the bus that would take me back to the MRT. I did manage to take a stroll through the traditional Chinese garden on the grounds, but the crowds and my own fatigue were getting to me, and it was time to head out.

The bus stop at the MRT station is home to many food stalls and small restaurants, and I found a couple more selling my favorite flatbread (it was here that I tried the fried version and the one called China Pizza). And this was good – I needed the sustenance for my next journey, one that called for two transfers and a ride to the end of one of the MRT lines. I was going to catch the cable car to the tea plantations at the foot of the valley that is home to Taipei.

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