My country retreat in Meinung had drawn to a close and I woke up refreshed and early for the bus back to Kaohsiung. My next destination was Kenting on the very southern tip of the island. To reach my destination I would have to return to Kaohsiung and change buses at the terminal. Three hours later I arrived in Kenting. Bus travel in Taiwan was proving to be as efficient and comfortable as it was in Korea. The buses might be a little older, but what they lack in modernity they make up for it with huge, couch-like, seats.
In Kenting I had taken the gamble of not booking accommodation in advance, following the similar but successful approach that I had taken in Meinung. Whilst in Meinung the gamble was a lack of guesthouses, in Kenting it was more a case of lots of guesthouses but would there be enough rooms? I had made a shortlist of some places I wanted to stay at and on arrival it seemed obvious that I wouldn’t have a problem. The main road through Kenting is lined with sea-side gift shops, beachwear sellers and guesthouses. In all the guesthouses there seemed to be no one around, or some reception employee taking a snooze in the lobby. I seeked out my first choice spot, Minimi Guesthouse, and was welcomed by the very kind owner who sold me a nicely discounted room for two nights. Oddly February is considered low-season. A time of the year when the temperature is in the mid to late twenties and the chance of rain is virtually zero.
After dumping my bags and doing a travelers budget version of clothes washing (in the sink with some shampoo). I headed down to the beach. there are plenty of beaches along the coast and I would see a few during my short stay, but the best one was a mere 50m from the guesthouse. I guess it was the main Kenting beach, but I was virtually the only person there. Swimming was forbidden due to some allegedly vicious and hidden rip currents, but the water was a little cold anyway so I was quite content with just a little wading. I checked out the 3 km beach, avoided the 6-8ft waves breaking right on the shoreline and picked some warm and sandy spots in the sun to read my book. The sunset was pretty amazing and in the evening the main street had come to life with street food and craft sellers. I think if you compared the beaches in Thailand to the ones around Kenting there would be little disparity. The water was clean, the beach was clean and one big plus over Thailand’s beaches was the solitude. I imagine in peak season it is a different case, but for the time I was there, it was perfect.
Having slightly overdone it in the sun the previous day, I took to the mountains behind the beach in Kenting National Park for a hike in the morning. I say in the morning but it ended up being quite a significant hike and took me almost five hours. Although Kenting National Park is not Taroko Gorge (which I had visited in my last trip to Taiwan) it was definitely a worthy adventure. As I scaled the slopes I encountered my first wild monkeys and the biggest spider that I have ever seen.
As I reached the heights and the official entrance to the park I was able to witness some of the parks natural phenomena. Due to Taiwan’s heavy seismic activity (I had been subjected to a noticeable earthquake when I was in Meinung) you can actually see ancient sea coral formations at the top of the mountains. I walked through coral caves and huge cracks between the rocks caused by the islands frequent tectonic disturbances. Huge banyan trees lined the coral cliff faces and made great homes for the monkeys that scampered above my head and occasionally confronted me. The views from the top of the mountain are of a forest covered peninsula broken only by a few grassy plains and bushed areas and a few small coastal towns. I made the walk down the mountain on the other side and walked back along the coastal road and checked out the few beaches that I encountered. Later I topped up my tan/mild sunburn and watched the sun go down again as a few brave surfers struggled to catch some waves. Another visit to the night market and an evening stroll around the town and my time in Kenting was done, the following morning I would head to Tainan.
A bus and a train, and a taxi because I was at the wrong train station, completed my journey to Tainan. When I reached Tainan Main Station a little after 1pm I met Lynn who would be my couchsurfing host for the next two days. Being the weekend and being back in the city environment it had been easy to find a host and Lynn had graciously offered me a mattress on the floor of her small apartment in Tainan. Not only had she offered me somewhere to sleep she had also been kind enough to show me around Tainan for the weekend and introduce me to some of her friends.
Again I commanded controls of a scooter, this time in the slightly more hectic environment of Tainan’s city streets. We dropped my bags off at Lynn’s apartment before heading to the Tainan Confucian Temple. The temple was the first of the Confucian kind in Taiwan and dates back to 1665. Confucianism’s main focus is with the spiritual concern in this world and the family, not with the gods and not the afterlife. As such Confucian temples are significantly less elaborate than the Buddhist temples found in Taiwan with their elaborate colours, architecture and idols. The Tainan Confucian Temple is located in a scenic park area that is full of life. Music is traditionally very important with this particular temple and there was a “Confucian” girl group playing outside when we visited. Across the park there was some kind of local festival in progress and despite the calmness and serenity of the grounds of the temple there was also an atmosphere of community surrounding the park, which I guess would please Confucius himself. Later we visited an old street filled with small local businesses selling traditional goods, organic teas and crafts. We then headed across to the National Museum of Taiwanese Literature. Although some floors were under-development the imposing architecture of the colonial-era building was impressive and it was possible to learn a little about the history of literature across the different eras and indigenous tribes of Taiwan.
In the evening we went to Hua Yuan night market. Hua Yuan is the most famous night market in Tainan and is home to food stalls, a clothing market and an entertainment area. After sampling some Taiwanese style sausage, drinking some bubble tea and exploring the clothing market we entered the entertainment area. We tried our hand at various games in the hope of winning the usual cuddly toy but failed on the most part. I was pretty good at the pistol shooting and Lynn schooled me at popping balloons with darts but our exploits were mostly fruitless. Gambling is illegal in Taiwan but it was openly possible to play Mahjong (I think it was Mahjong) at the market. Players were lured in to put their money on upturned tiles by pretty young girls, anywhere up to ten of them working at each stall. We headed back into the food area and managed to get some dumplings and some spicy chicken on a stick (apparently someone, in Chinese, complimented me on how attractively I ate my chicken!?) before the crowds began to swell too much (shoulder to shoulder) and we left for quieter grounds. Our next stop was Hai-An Street Museum. Following a few kilometres of walking distance from the market we arrived at Hai-An. The best way to describe this street, lined with traditional buildings, is as a living cultural experience. In Tainan, Taiwan’s historical capital, you can witness numerous ancient temples, buildings and landmarks but few are still in active use. Hai-An is a living, breathing district filled with traditional craft shops, art retailers, cafes, restaurants and tastefully decorated bars. Delicate lanterns illuminate the activity as you walk down the thoroughfare marveling at some of the craftsman’s skills. We took our time and looked around before having a few drinks in a dim lounge bar called Taikoo, furnished with recycled and revamped furniture, antique lights, faded film posters from days gone by in Taiwanese cinema and modern antique trinkets like vintage phones. To add to the effortless coolness of the bar they had a drinks list to put many bars to shame. Obscure beers from Belgium and the rest of Europe, contemporary cocktails and delicious snacks. https://tainancity.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/taikoo/
The following day we had breakfast across the street before making a quick stop at Chihkan Tower, or as it was formerly known Fort Provintia. Despite Lynn being the navigator it turned out, as it often did during my stay, that I would have to work out how to get there. Fortunately my map reading skills are top-notch and I was able to undo Lynn’s navigational errors and we managed to have twenty minutes to look around Tainan’s chief cultural landmark. Architecturally impressive and set in well kept grounds this bastion of Tainan was built by the Dutch in the 1960’s and has been held by the various colonial powers since then. It famously holds dictionaries and business documents in Siraya, a native language from the time of Dutch colonization. Historical and beautiful.
After leaving Chihkan Towers we headed to the ancient Anping district. Anping is famous for many things. It is the main harbour area of Tainan and is home to several attractions. First though we met Lynn’s friends, Luna and Tina, before heading to another culture street where it was possible to try herbal remedies and buy souvenirs if you so wished. I tried some nasty dark brown substance that supposedly soothed a sore throat before washing it down with its equally disgusting liquid accompaniment. Seeking to take the taste away I grabbed the next free drink sample which turned out to be a kind of vinegar. Disaster. We moved onto the merchant area. There are plenty of old merchant houses, warehouses and customs buildings related to the booming trade between Asia and the rest of the word in the 17th century. Many of the buildings are related to the Dutch East India Company and the salt trade that thrived here. We visited a building that was used to record imports and exports of salts. I was able to find a specific coloured salt that matched my birth date (there was one for everyday of the year) that if I hung around my neck, or used special salt soap made with it, would cleanse my soul (at least I think that was the point). We then had a light snack in the grounds of the building, that unfortunately involved coloured salt encrusted eggs. It seemed like a popular birthday treat by observing the tables that surrounded us, for me it was just enjoyable to smash an egg open with a hammer!
We then checked out the Old Julius Mannich Merchant House and the Tait & Co. Merchant House. The Julius Mannich Merchant House had been restored and renovated into a small museum, the outside had a nice open air cafe in the shade of a huge tree and we enjoyed some ice cream. After passing the Tait & Co. building we passed into the Anping Tree House. Anping Tree House was originally a warehouse for Tait & Co. before passing to the hands of the Japanese Salt Company during the Japanese occupation. After the end of the second world war the building was left derelict and succumbed to nature. What stands now is the partial ruins of an old red brick building that has been overwhelmed in fascinating style by Banyan trees.
After exploring the complex of brick, concrete and tree we took to our scooters briefly before changing to Tina’s car and heading to a dusky, sandy beach down the coast. It was a little of a disappointment as the beach side buildings seemed abandoned and there was extensive building work being done to preserve the beach from the actions of long shore drift, in addition there was a definite haze of pollution in the air making everything feel very North Sea and not sunny beach. Tina and Lynn did buy a kite though which amused us briefly and made the trip not completely wasteful and we headed back to Tainan for some Taiwan “hot pot”. I tried hot pot before in Taipei and it is quite tasty, you poach your meat of choice (in this case ostrich!) and some vegetables in a flavoursome broth. It’s very different to English style hot pot! In the evening we went for a Chinese massage. I say massage, but it was more akin to being assaulted in the general shoulder area by an aged man.
The following day I took a local train to the HSR station and zoomed north to Taipei. I had booked a luxurious hotel room, for a quarter of the price, in central Taipei and planned to use the remainder of the day to do a little shopping. My shopping adventure began in Zhongshan at the department stores and ended in the trendy district of Ximending. In Ximending I walked around the shopping district until I stumbled across Ximending Film and Art District. I had previously noticed the plethora of cinemas when I visited the area on my last trip but the art district had eluded me. There was an open air cinematic square with three screens mounted on a glass and metal house as well as numerous streets lined with colourful and energetic graffiti. Beside the square was a dance theatre where some aspiring youths were practicing and I kept bumping into groups of kids wearing identical outfits honing their own little groups dance performances or skateboard skills. In many ways it is not to dissimilar in style and atmosphere to the popular youth district of Harajuku in Tokyo. As my camera shutter finger tired and with no plans in the evening I stopped at one of the cinemas and watched the new Die Hard movie. This was possibly the only bad part of my journey as it was a massive disappointment. On my way home I collected a feast of night market foods and over ate in the comforts of my hotel room.
I enjoyed a well deserved lie-in on my final day in Taiwan. When I did surface I took the opportunity to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei. http://www.mocataipei.org.tw/blog This had been the one place I had really wanted to see in July, but was unable to because it was closed the day I went. Fortunately today it was open and I paid my meager entrance fee and enjoyed an impressive exhibition on New Media Art. Like someone describing their dreams to you, it is a little tedious for people to have art described to them, it is something you have to experience on your own. instead, here are a few links to some of my favourite exhibitions that I saw: The first is about subtlemobs: you can see a video here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMzCuPiqZeM and this is the website for future events: http://subtlemob.com/ The second I would like to share is about an interactive photography and social contact experiment called “touchy” http://touchtouchy.com/ If you are ever in Taipei, I thoroughly recommend a trip to MOCA!
As the day wore on I made a brief but fruitless trip to the Taipei Art Village (in between exhibitions) before I headed to Yuanshan. The main reason I wanted to visit Yuanshan was to see the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, but there was plenty else going on in the area. A huge lantern festival was on display, unfortunately my visit was during daylight hours and thus the magnificence of the lanterns was a little lost, as well as a large temple and the Taipei Story House. However, I was a little weary and I plodded onto Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Some of the work was quite arresting, especially on the very top floor where their were huge canvasses by Hsin-Yueh Lin http://www.tfam.museum/TFAM_Exhibition/exhibitionDetail.aspx?PMN=1&ExhibitionId=442&PMId=442 My visit however was cut a little short by closing time and I returned to the hotel to get showered and changed before I went to meet Sandra, who was now back in Taipei, for some dinner. We met at a subway station and had some western food before heading to the former U.S. consulate building, which has now been transformed into an independent film house called SPOT-Taipei. Although we were to late to catch a film, we enjoyed some tea on the outside terrace. Bidding farewell, I returned to my hotel room for one final night of relaxation before heading back to the chilly shores of Busan and the beginning of a new school year the following morning…