Tuesday, March 27, 2007

First full day Taipei

We got a late start, sleeping in at our cozy little hotel. Luckily, the MRT station was at our doorstep. Soon we alit at Shilin station, two blocks from which was rumored to be a vegetarian restaurant. We hadn't gotten 50 feet from the exit, though, when the sign jumped out at us: "Vegetarian Kitchen", the sign exclaimed, under some other Chinese characters. We went right in and were greeted in a friendly manner by a man who introduced himself as Ken and had lived, he said, in North Carolina. He helped us with the menu and talked to us about Japan, where he got deals on freeze dried coffee and other imported wonders.

We proceeded on the bus to the National Palace Museum, an impressive place surrounded by a lush green valley creeping up into the surrounding mountains. Inside is housed a wonderful collection of Chinese art dating thousands of years back. The whole place smelled gorgeously of jasmine and had many fetching exhibits and plenty of elbow room. My favorite exhibit was the one about seals, or hanko, as they are known in Japan. Though everyone here uses them instead of a signature on important documents, I have yet to get one of my own, instead using one of the family's whenever a delivery needs to be signed for or I need to open a bank account. The exhibit, though, was beautiful, and featured some prehistoric seals as well as videos detailing the craft of seal-making. Now I'm inspired to design and have made one of my own, to register with the city office and use on my letters and documents. The thing that most struck me, I think, was the way that the seals were added to artists' canvasses and so became a part of the artwork.

After the museum, we headed back into downtown. On the way there, we passed many houses and apartment buildings that, though in no way as decrepit as those I saw in Hong Kong, still had an air of gentle decay about them. This was most obviously manifested as rusting and crumbling. Remarkably, a good deal of the residences we saw had, in addition to the abundance of greenery in the surrounding areas, their own trees and other potted plants, tumbling from balconies and climbing up railings. It seemed to me that nature was attempting to reclaim the buildings of the city, and that the city was in agreement.

We made a stop at the excellent Eslite bookstore in search of Taiwanese literature in translation, but alas found none. The LP recommends "Notes of a Desolate Man", which they didn't have, but which I've ordered from half.com and is on its way.

As night fell, we headed off to the night markets. First though, we ducked into Longshan Temple. And we were so happy that we did! This temple is a cacophony of light and sound and smell. As we entered past the wall of glowing lanterns and the prostate monks and blind masseuses, we were assaulted by the dazzle of the courtyard. Everything is gilded and gleaming: golden detailing on the ornately carved roof corners; myriad sculpted animal figures cavorting in groups and lit from within - dragons, pigs, birds; a huge incense pot and people praying under fringed lanterns; vendors hawking food offering and incense in elaborate piles. The temple houses many religions - Buddhism, Confucianism, and ancestor worship at least, along with probably a few others. The multidenominationalism adds to the general clamor of the place and makes it, in my estimation, much, much better than Disneyland. Head to Longshan Temple for light, color, and spiritual revelation. I offered some incense to my ancestors and headed for Snake Alley.

First, though, we were hungry, and on the way to the market I spied the character that means vegetarian: 素 (su). Upon closer investigation, this sign hovered over a stall selling steamed buns, one of which was veggie. We purchased a pair and bit tentatively into them. Delicious!! I think they were NT$10, which works out to about thirty cents for the both of them.

Into Snake Alley for a peek where, mercifully, I didn't see any snake disembowelment. Tired by that time, we just idly perused the wares before hopping back onto the subway in order to as quickly as possibly crawl into our freshly made beds.

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