Just as on our first day in Taipei, when we had the opportunity to delve into the old and new, on our return to Taipei City from traveling about the countryside, we were once again able to have these insights through the sites we visited.
Our day is less structured, and we are able to act more spontaneously - stopping first at the Contemporary Arts Museum (where there is a free lecture), and making a quick visit through public gardens at Chiang Kai-shek's residence (you can pay a fee to visit his actual residence).
Then I spot a sign on the road for the Confucius Temple, and I plead with our guide to make a stop there. It proves to be an essential highlight, helping me understand the soul that is the undercurrent of traditional Chinese culture.
As we walk through the portal leading into the Taipei Confucius Temple, a teacher is leading a study group on the porch, out of the rain. The temple - more of a museum or shrine, really - looks ancient because is modeled after the original Confucius Temple in Qufu, Shandong Province of China.
The Taipei Confucius Temple, which takes up a square city block on Dalong Street in the Datong District, was originally built in 1879 during the Qing Dynasty when Taipei was established as the prefectural capital of Taiwan. But it was demolished during the Japanese occupation. This structure was rebuilt in 1930, still during the Japanese occupation.
But the newly completed temple had only been in use for a few years when World War II broke out and the Japanese ordered an end to traditional Chinese ceremonies. Japanese Shinto ritual music was played in the temple instead, until 1945, when Japanese rule ended.
This is the only Confucius temple in Taiwan that is adorned with southern Fujian-style ceramic features. At the main hall of the temple there is a black plaque with gold lettering inscribed by Chiang Kai-shek that reads "Educate without Discrimination."
You can easily spend a couple of hours here, going through the rooms which systematically explain Confucius' philosophy of the Six Arts (especially if you want to read everything). Most fascinating to me is the stress on mathematics.
Fine Arts Museum
The visit to Confucius Temple proves auspicious when we next visit the Fine Arts Museum, TN$30 ($1) admission - fabulous, not to be missed - perhaps the best visual way to appreciate Taiwanese culture and history.
Most especially, we were fortunate to take in the Dean E Mei retrospective exhibit of 40-years of his career - absolutely sensational.
Dean E Mei was the first Taiwanese to study art in New York City (at Pratt Institute). He became obsessed with the notion of identity (I-Den-Ti-Ty, the word is composed of 4 Chinese characters (ultimatum, neighborliness, impel, and brotherly relations ) and used his art to express political activism (bottom line: he seemed as much against Communist China as Capitalist America) but the overarching perspective is founded in Confucianism.
What most impresses me is his artistic talent and versatility, but also the intellectual and philosophical overlay - too often with modern art and political art, especially, the work depends on some creative gimmick. In his work, you appreciate it visually and then probe more cerebrally.
There are many marvelous exhibits in the museum, which, for good reason, is the second most visited museum in Taipei after the National Palace Museum.
We close our visit in Taiwan with a stop at one of the distinctive attractions, the night market. There are many throughout the city and the country, and we go to one of the most popular and largest in Taipei, Shilin Night Market.
The drizzle doesn't keep people away - part of the market is under roof but the rest are stalls in alley ways. You are assaulted by a cacophony of sounds and smells (some good, some foul) lights, colors - an atmosphere that is a combination bazaar, flea market and carnival, with the purveyors using whatever device they can to attract customers.
The market is laid out in front of a temple - another example of this comfortable juxtaposition of new and old - and I make my way into it, delighted at the stunning contrast, which makes no-never-mind to everyone else.
As we leave, there are fireworks that burst above the market, competing with the neon signs.
Some of the markets are better known for the goods they sell. Other important night markets include: The Huaxi Street Tourist Night Market, offering an "old Taiwan" atmosphere (it made an appearance in the film "Monga"); the Linjiang Street Tourist Night Market, one of the few located in a residential area, with 200 stalls and dozens of specialties including luwei (foods stewed in soy sauce), making it a popular place to eat; Raoche Street Tourist Night Market, which is smaller, has its specialties including Chen Dong "medicinal" sparerib soup, Dongfa oyster noodles, black pepper buns, Dongshan duck heads and stinky tofu. Other night markets around the city include Jingmei, Yansan, Ningxia, Nanjichang, and Guangzhou Street.
Palais de Chine Hotel
Even the breakfast buffets at the hotels offer opportunity for culinary exploration - there are invariably a broad selection of Asian items (breakfast seems no different than lunch or dinner), along with Western.
We appreciate the elaborate breakfast spread at the Palais de Chine Hotel Taipei, on Chengde Road, our hotel in Taipei City, which is appropriately old fashioned and refined and very popular with business travelers (www.palaisdechinehotel.com.tw/eng/, a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts).
The hotel, with 286 rooms and suites, is designed and decorated in French Art Nouveau style with imported furniture, velvet fabrics and antique pieces. The rooms are spacious, comfortable, air-conditioned and well-appointed with bathrobe, bottled water, coffee and tea maker, daily newspapers, IDD & DD phone, mini-bar, slippers, refrigerator, safe, toiletries as well as a LCD TV with all-in-one control system for radio, movie, music and light/temperature adjustments.
Its restaurants offer an array of Western and Chinese cuisines including French-style delicacies at Le Thé.
The five-star hotel also offers a business center fully-equipped with contemporary corporal features, a fitness centre well-appointed with TechnoGym fitness equipments and complimentary use of swimming pool at BEINGsport Club (rarely found in other Taipei hotels). Other services include 24hr in-room dining, express laundry and dry cleaning (charges may apply) and complimentary shoeshine service.
The hotel is well situated to the Taipei Main Station (a five minute walk), for easy access to other cities by rail, as well as to the bus. It's easy to reach the major tourist spots such as Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, Ximending, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Huaxi St. Night Market and many others with a short MRT ride. The Taoyuan International Airport is also accessible by a 40 min ride.
Our visit, coordinated by Taiwan's government tourist bureau, has been too brief, but has piqued my interest to return and really explore. I found Taiwan to be a destination which you can really do that - the logistics and excellent transportation systems, the variety of landscapes, the depth of its cultural attractions, the superb accommodations and food, and the excellent value for money (a bargain destination, I would venture to say), and most importantly, how comfortable you feel everywhere you go. It may seem cliche, but the people really are friendly, hospitable and so anxious to help even if they do not speak English. We had many wonderful encounters but one in particular touched me - we were leaving a restaurant (called the Volcanic Chicken, where the specialty is a super-heated chicken completely intact with headdress and feet), and I noticed some odd looking bananas at another table. The woman insisted I take one. It seems a small gesture but it was done with such kindness, to reach out and make a foreigner feel welcome.
But this is actually engrained in the culture, as I subsequently learn back in my hometown on Long Island, no less, during a performance by the Chinese Arts Dancing Ensemble, which comes from Beitou, Taiwan. Their final dance of the evening was called "A Warm Welcome," and is based on Confucius who said, "Friends come from afar, isn't it pleasant?" The dance - which includes cups, plates and chopsticks -offers a guide for the proper way to treat guests (see Chinese Arts Dancing Ensemble and slideshow).
Prepare for the trip in advance: The Tourism Bureau of the Republic of China (Taiwan) website: www.go2taiwan.net (also eng.taiwan.net.tw). Taiwan Visitors Association, 1 East 42nd St., New York, NY 10017, Tel. 212-867-1632/4, Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karen Rubin, Eclectic Travel Examiner
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