A Journey of Love
Visitors to the Eslite bookstore in Taipei’s Xinyi district this April couldn't help but notice the series of striking photos on display on the ground floor - breathtaking shots of a woman, hand in hand with her photographer, set against vistas of Taiwan's magnificent beauty. Last December, Russian photographer Murad Ossman and his supermodel wife Nataly Zakharova visited Taiwan after being invited by the jewelry company Pandora. Ossman, who has taken photos all over the world for his iconic #FollowMeTo Instagram series, was convinced by the photos of Taiwan sent to him by Pandora that Taiwan would be the perfect place for a second honeymoon. Ossman and his wife had visited Taiwan previously, but felt that the island's outstanding beauty required a second trip, especially to visit some of the places they had missed the first time. Alishan, Sun Moon Lake, and Taroko Gorge were among the magical locations Ossman used to capture his Taiwanese “Journey of Love”. Each stunning photo features Zakharova, beautifully presented in traditional Taiwanese dress, in the handhold with her husband that has become the signature of Ossman's #FollowMeTo series. The backdrops, some of Taiwan's most loved beauty spots, are vivid, near surreal, but yet strikingly Taiwanese. Highlights for me include the Alishan Tea Garden in Chiayi, where sprawling tea fields give way to imposing mountain slopes, and Dai Tien Temple in Pingtung, where the vibrant colors still dominate against a stunning orange sunset. Perhaps this photographic recognition of Taiwan's unparalleled beauty, both natural and man-made, is the reason this exhibition has been wildly popular with the Taiwanese people.
Sanxia Old Street
Sanxia Old Street I have written before about the so called “old streets” in Taiwan, and in general they make for great photo and snacking opportunities. However, the old street in Sanxia is really old, and it is a lot more than just one street, making it one of, if not the best, old street experience in Taiwan, and in my opinion a great place to visit. Sanxia is located in the southwest corner of New Taipei City, and has a much more rural feel than the “old” areas of Taipei City such as Dadaocheng and Wanhua. This lends itself perfectly to the feel of its old street, which is as much an all-day night market than a purely tourist destination. It is very popular and hence you should be prepared for a fair number of people, especially during festivals, holidays and weekends. To be honest though, you will meet crowds at any popular market, so don’t let this put you off. On the main street, there are snacks, stores and game stalls a plenty. These are great for the kids, although it would probably be wise to avoid the ones awarding fish in bags as the prize. As I mentioned, Sanxia Old Street really does have old roots. You will notice decorative flagstones stating 1769, which is wherethe Zushi Temple was built. The temple is at the heart of the old street area, and it is considered to be one of the best examples of a Taoist temple in Taiwan. This incarnation of the temple was built in 1947, and it is wonderfully detailed. The square in front of the table is also a great place to get a snack and admire the temple. Food wise, there is everything here that you would hope for in a market sense, from noodles (try the “pai goo” or fried pork variety) to barbecued sausages and a variety of sweets. The specialty at the moment is a type of bread shaped like a croissant (or the horns of a bull) but distinctly more bready. It comes in a variety of sweet and savoury flavours, and you can even get it with ice cream on top. Right across from the temple, you can walk by Sanxia river and across the large Zhangfu bridge, which is one of the major landmarks of the area. The walk along the river is worthwhile on a nice day, with some interesting coffee shops, and tables and chairs along the walkway (not associated with the shops so you could bring your own picnic). One of the restaurants had a minimum order requirement even when empty, whereas others (and a particularly nod to Sifu Cafe) will do their best to refresh. There are a number of old well type taps along the river walk which do work, with a little elbow grease. Getting there is slightly challenging as there are no MRT or train stations within walking distance, and if you want to take public transport you will need to take a bus. If you want to take a taxi from Taipei, first take the MRT to Yongning Station (the taxi costs around NT$300 one way, fixed price), or take the train to Yingge Station and then a taxi (around NT$170 one way, also fixed price). Yingge is also a great place to visit, and you could easily make a day of visiting both Sanxia and Yingge. As always, we hope you have a good trip, and if you do make it, please let us know if you have any recommendations via our contact form.
Tianmu Situated in the north of Taipei, the Tianmu neighborhood of Shilin district was for a long time the place to go for imported goods, and the residential area of choice for many expats. Both the highly respected Taipei American School and Taipei European School (two international schools) are located in Tianmu, and the international flavor is evident throughout the area, including an "embassy area". The origins of this international characteristic date back to the 1950s when many U.S. military servicemen were stationed in Taiwan. Where the higher ranking officials lived on Yamingshan, as I previously wrote about (http://www.go2taiwan.net/blog_content.php?sqno=148), the middle and lower ranking personnel lived in Tianmu. Although there is not as much obvious evidence of this presence in Tianmu nowadays, you can still visit the White House (No. 23, Lane 181, Sec. 7, Zhongshan N. Road), which is an old military??? residence now used for cultural activities. The longer lasting effect of the large international presence is the level of English used, and the large number of expats who still live here. Take a walk around Tianmu Park or the University of Tianmu campus (https://goo.gl/maps/LEtzPJW5uCT2) and this is striking and rather charming. An extension of this is the fairly recent addition of the Tianmu Flea Market. The Flea Market brings stall holders from Taiwan and overseas together, selling arts and crafts, and used items ranging from clothes to jewellery to old toys. There are over 170 stalls at the flea market, and there is also a stage area with performances, including rock and indigenous music shows. The whole area is open air, which is perfect at the moment as the weather is fantastic. The flea market is only open three days a week (Friday 4pm to 10pm, Saturday 9am to 3pm and 4pm to 10pm and Sunday 3pm to 9pm), and it is very well attended. It actually seems to spring up from out of nowhere, so if you arrive early don’t worry if nothing has been set up. The location is pretty easy to find: the corner of Tianmu West Road and Section 7, Zhongshan North Rd, Shilin District, Taipei City (map: https://goo.gl/maps/1cXDgxv9o9T2). There is also a website but in Chinese only: please provide the website link As mentioned, Tianmu used to be the place for imported goods, but nowadays you can find imported items throughout Taipei. The same is true for Western restaurants which are now widely available throughout the city. Many years ago, places like Jake’s Country Kitchen (https://zh-cn.facebook.com/%E9%84%89%E9%A6%99%E8%A5%BF%E9%A4%90%E5%BB%B3-Jakes-Country-Kitchen-360274272354/timeline/) were pretty much the only place to serve Western food, and they still do probably the best roast turkey in town. However, for eating options in general, the distinction between Tianmu and the rest of Taipei is somewhat blurred. If you are into baseball, one of the most important baseball stadiums is in Tianmu. Games are played at weekends during the season. One thing you will note is that there is no MRT station in Tianmu, so you will need to either take a taxi or bus. Probably the best way is take the MRT to Shipai Station and then take a bus or taxi from there. With the park and space around the university WHAT UNIVERSITY? campus with various play areas, this is a good place to bring young children. There are loads of places to eat, a cinema and shopping malls within a small area, and this is a good jumping off point for Yangmingshan.
Dragon Boat Festival 2015
It's that time of year again for one of the most important cultural festivals in Taiwan, the Dragon Boat Festival. It's June and it has been an absolute scorcher so far, a trend that looks set to continue for the rest of the summer. A quick reminder then to apply high factor sun cream, bring sunglasses, a hat and plenty of water before heading to a river near you to enjoy the races and food. The Dragon Boat Festival, or Duan Wu Jie in Chinese, is most commonly associated with the story of Qu Yuan and the related dragon boat races, but the origins of the festival are much older and essentially center around the transition to summer and the increased risk of plague and pestilence. Fortunately these things are not such a concern these days, but I think a little knowledge of the story behind the races helps to make the festival more enjoyable. The legend is that there once lived a popular and just poet/minister called Qu Yuan in China around 300 BC. Despite or perhaps because of his popularity, various politicians persuaded the emperor that he was a bad egg who henceforth banished Qu Yuan. The poet was heartbroken, and after 20 years of exile and watching his beloved state falling apart, he became so distraught that he decided to take his own life. He tied a rock to himself and jumped into the Mi Luo river and drowned. He was still a popular figure, and local fishermen rowed out to try and save him, banging drums to scare the river spirit into returning him and throwing rice cakes into the river to prevent fish from eating his body. Today this is remembered by the eating of rice cakes (or dumplings, or zong zi). Zong zi are glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in a bamboo leaf with various kinds of filling, commonly fatty pork, dried shrimp, mushrooms and egg yolk but sweet varieties with red bean are also available. Glutinous rice is a sticky kind of rice, and although tasty, can take some digesting. In other words, eating more than two (or some people would say more than one) zong zi in one sitting can be challenging. Zong zi are traditionally a family made treat, and as such you won't generally find them in a restaurant, at least not in a banana leaf wrapped version. Instead you will see them hanging up at local markets and around race venues. They are a must try, and with a bit of sweet chilli sauce they are delicious. The dragon boat races themselves can be seen all over the island and often attract expat teams from within Taiwan and teams from overseas. During each race, the boats compete to reach a flag, and the first team to pluck the flag from the holder wins. The event is colourful and fun, and certainly worth watching. In Taipei, the Hsintien River in Bitan and the Dajia Section of the Keelung Riverside Park are popular destinations. There are other races around the island, including Logan Pond in Taoyuan, Dongshan River in Ilan, Liyu Lake in Hualien, Taitung Forest Park in Taitung, Badoze Fishing Port in Keelung, Sanyi West Lake in Miaoli, Nan Liao Park in Hsinchu, Anping River in Tainan, Dongshr-Budai Port in Chiayi, Love River in Kaohsiung, Donggang Port in Pingtung and Magong in Penghu. The festival in Lugang is also being promoted heavily this year. This is one of the most enjoyable festivals still actively practiced in Taiwan, and I recommend trying to get to one of the events if you can.
Aborigines in Taiwan?
Yes, there are Aborigines in Taiwan. When we think of Taiwan, most people assume that Taiwan is populated only by ethnic Chinese. Taiwan is a small island but an extremely diverse land of people and culture. While 98% of Taiwan\'s population is made up of different kinds of ethnic Chinese, the other 2% consists of Aborigines or roughly 400,000 people in total. From the plains, the highlands and even the outer islands, Taiwanese Aborigines or “original inhabitants” can be found in all parts of the island. The island has close to 14 officially recognized tribes and just about as many unofficial tribes lobbying for recognition. The recognized tribes include the Amis (the largest tribe), Atayal, Bunun, Kavalan, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiyat, Sakizaya, Seediq, Tao, Thao, Tsou and Truku. With the Taiwan government’s establishment of the Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) and intervention in popularizing aboriginal affairs and culture, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of the history, preserving the culture and more importantly aboriginal pride. Furthermore, the aboriginal culture has become even more popularized because of the popular music of A-mei, hit movies such as Seediq Bale, aboriginal delicacies such as boar and taro, travel to Orchid island for the Yami’s traditional canoe throwing ceremony and the establishment of pubic and private museums. For those wanting to gain a deeper understanding of the Taiwanese Aborigines, a great place to start is an aboriginal cultural and art museum. In Northern Taiwan, we’re lucky that we have three really great museums dedicated to expanding the knowledge and understanding of the aboriginal culture: Taipei City’s Ketagalan Culture Center, New Taipei City’s Wulai Atayal Museum and the privately owned Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines. Wulai Atayal Museum/烏來泰雅民族博物館 Located only 40 minutes from Taipei City, the beautifully designed Wulai Atayal Museum is nestled right in between the luscious green mountains of New Taipei City’s Wulai District. Established only in 2005, the museum covers 3 floors and is dedicated to the life and culture of the head-hunting (we should say former) Atayal indigenous people. On a side note, the staff were really nice and friendly. Plus the museum was photo friendly. Address: No. 12, Wulai Street, Wulai District, New Taipei City, Taiwan 23341 Tel: 02-2661-8162 URL: www.atayal.ntpc.gov.tw/ Admission Price: Free Ketagalan Culture Center/凱達格蘭文化館 The Ketagalan Culture Center is the most convenient to reach and easily accessible by MRT and only a 3 minute walk from the New Beitou MRT Station. This center is pretty large and encompasses 10 floors for the promotion and education of indigenous people, culture, arts, and training. Photos can only be taken on the 1st floor. Address: No. 3-1, Chungshan Road, Peitou, Taipei City, Taiwan Tel: 02-2898-6500 URL: www.ketagalan.taipei.gov.tw/ Admission Price: Free Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines/順益台灣原住民博物館 The privately owned Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines was the first aboriginal museum in Taiwan. The building’s aboriginal influence can be clearly seen in the external design of the museum and is a perfect place to introduce the natural environment of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples with 4 floors of artifacts. Of the three museums listed, this is a very professional museum and can be compared to the National Palace Museum in terms of the environment and display of the museum’s artifacts. Photos are allowed to be taken in and around the ticket booth and gift shop areas only. Address: No. 282, Sec. 2, Chih-shan Road, Shih-Lin, Taipei, Taiwan, 11143 Tel: 02-2841-2611 URL: www.museum.org.tw Admission Price: NTD150 Taiwan is a wonderful place and diverse in culture and history, so get out and get exploring the other 2% of Taiwan’s little known aboriginal population. In a later post, we will dig deeper into the aboriginal culture and explore it first hand by visiting an Aboriginal village in the mountains of Ilan.
When visiting a new country, places of worship are high on my list of"must see" destinations, especially if the culture is different. Religion in Taiwan is polytheistic, so you will often see more then one god in temples, and actually you will also often find a mix of Confucian wisdom with both Buddhism and Taoism. We have a previous post on temples in Taiwan, so in this post I want to focus on a specific temple in Taipei, Zhinan Temple. There are many temples dotted around Taipei City ranging from the small community style tucked away behind tall modern buildings to famous temples such as Xingtian Kong and Longshan Temple (below). Arguably the more splendid temples are located outside of Taipei City, and for me Tainan is the best place in Taiwan to see the widest selection in the smallest area. If you don't have time to head down to Tainan, however, there is a bit of a hidden gem here in Taipei, and officially it is located in Taipei City. Zhinan (also Chi Nan) Temple is located in the hills of Mucha relatively close to Taipei City Zoo. Founded in the late 1800s it's one of the oldest temples certainly in Taipei. As with other temples in Taiwan as I mentioned, Zhinan Temple honours Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, with four main halls, five secondary halls and many walkways stretching out into the grounds. If you take a bus or drive to the temple (there is also an MRT gondola stop - if it's working), you will be faced with around 1,200 steps to get to the temple complex. According to the Tourism Bureau site,"This temple is known to foreigners as ??the Temple of a Thousand Steps.' This is no exaggeration--there are actually around 1,200 stone steps up to the temple--and there is a saying, ??live an extra 20 seconds for each step you climb.'" It's funny how things that might not be beneficial on first glance are turned into health miracles in Taiwan. But it isn't really that far or steep. There are a few stalls/shops in the first section of the steps, so buy some water if you haven't already, and check out the almond cookies which are a traditional favourite apparently. When you go through the gate you will see the main hall, Chungyang Chapel (below). This is the the original part of the temple complex, although it was renovated from 1991 to 2000, replacing the original wooden beams with concrete while attempting to maintain the original appearance. Given the number of typhoons and earthquakes that affect Taiwan, hopefully this will preserve the temple for centuries to come. Overall it's a pretty impressive structure (or collection of structures) and it makes for some great photo opportunities. You can take photos of people worshipping as long as you do so subtly and with the respect the circumstances demand. As with the zoo, this is a good place to come to escape the city. The air is fresh and the grounds are pleasant to walk around. There are pagodas and various areas to sit and rest, and it is a good place for a picnic. Don't plan on being able to buy anything to eat once you are here though. I think a temple visit should be on every itinerary, and Zhinan Temple would be top of my list. You can experience the different aspects of the main areas of religion in Taiwan, enjoy the mountain scenery around Taiwan and get some great photos, including shots of Taipei 101 (although a zoom lens will help). The sites listed below have information on how to get there, but please note that the Maokong Gondola isn't always running (you can check at any MRT station to see if it is). Personally I think the easiest way is to take the MRT to Gongguan then take bus 530 from there (about 30 mins). It can get very busy during weekends, holidays and religious festivals, and I wouldn't recommend driving at any time. One word of warning however. Popular legend has it that unmarried couples who visit the temple will not be long together. One explanation I have been given is that Lu Tong-pin, the main deity of Zhinan Temple, is jealous of lovers and will do his utmost to separate them. Or as the Tourism Bureau site says,"The main deity in this temple is Lu Tunpin, one of the Eight Immortals of Chinese legend. He is a well-loved deity, despite a reputation for somewhat randy behavior." You have been warned! Useful Zhinan Temple links with transportation info: Tourism Bureau Taipei Travel
There Are More Than Just That One
Much has been written, and rightly so, about the stunning National Palace Museum (http://www.npm.gov.tw/). But there are a surprising number of other museums dotted around the island (especially in Taipei) and they are cool in more ways than one (this was written in the summer). I'll focus on the museums that focus on Taiwan in a series of posts and the ones that are relatively easy to get to. It's worth checking the website for any changes to opening times and entrance fees, but in general museums are closed on Mondays and close at 5pm. Here's two for starters?K The Postal Museum Website: http://www.post.gov.tw Map: (click here) here You don't need to be a philatelist to enjoy this museum. It's spacious (all seven floors of it) despite the unassuming entrance (shown below), most exhibits are bilingual, and frankly (please excuse the postal pun) many of the stamps are works of art. There are many rare stamps from the early days of the postal system in "Formosa", and exhibits tracing the history of the postal service. There's also a fair sized collection of coins and notes from around the world. If you are into stamps then I would say this is a must, but even if you aren't the history is interesting. And it's tremendous value. Entrance to the museum will cost you less than the price of a stamp (currently NT$5, yes five Taiwan dollars). National Taiwan Museum Website: http://formosa.ntm.gov.tw Map: (click here) here Close to the train station (and right next to the NTU Hospital MRT station one stop down from the CKS station) is this majestic building. Purpose built to be a museum during the Japanese occupation around 1915, the building itself is perhaps as interesting as the exhibits. Although it has undergone several restorations, you do get the feel that it was built during colonial times. The central hall is surrounded by 32 towering pillars and black marble walls. Grand carpeted staircases lead up to the second and third floors, and looking up you'll see the dome which dominates the building. There are special exhibitions which are shown on the website as well as permanent ones, most notably Taiwan's Indigenous Creatures and Indigenous Peoples of Taiwan. Unfortunately these did not have English translations, but it's still worth a look. The special exhibition when I went (on the camphor industry in Taiwan which runs until October 15th) did a good job with the English though, and I suspect subsequent exhibitions will do also. Given its location, you will almost certainly be close at some stage during your trip, and I would highly recommend adding it to your itinerary. It isn't huge so children won't get bored, and it's also situated in the 228 Park in case they need a run around afterwards. You can even bribe them with a trip to the 72 flavor ice cream shop (more on this in the next post as it isn't the easiest place to find so I will provide a map as long as I can find it again!) Oh and entry cost? Well it does cost four times as much as the Postal Museum, but at NT$20 I still think it's great value. If you have heard of any museums that you would like to me to review, drop me a line via the contact page.
Shopping for Jade
The Taipei Weekend Jade Market is an earthy weekly bazaar located under the elevated stretch of Jian Guo at Ren Ai Road, and is a great place to spend an afternoon searching for trinkets, oddities and more than a few hidden treasures. With a bit of shrewd bargaining, you can find a sleigh-full of holiday goodies without draining your bank account. Like the nearby flower market and antique market, the Weekend Jade Market is something of a Taipei institution. Vendors begin staking out their spots in the wee hours of Saturday morning when the rest of the city is making its ways home from a night out on the town. By sun up, the cave-like interior of the market is filled with shoppers and so it will remain until after sunset. Folding card tables line the interior of the market, each covered with an array of jewelry, beads and figurines. Felt cloths and wooden boxes are spread with semi-precious stones and settings. Blue turquoise, pink quartz and, of course, the seemingly endless shades of ubiquitous green jade lend a rainbow quality to the whole chaotic scene. My visit to the market came on a recent Saturday afternoon. I was hoping to make short work of the female column of my Christmas shopping list. Being on something of a tight budget, the precaution was taken of bringing along a Taiwanese friend--a woman whose negotiating skills could reduce but the most stalwart of local merchants to a mass of quivering protoplasm. I was pulling out the big guns, so to speak, and would soon be quite happy that I did. At 3 p.m. the market is comfortably busy, crowded with shoppers and packed with a sometimes withering array of items. Who knew you could make so much from a simple green stone? Some vendors specialize in decorative trinkets, beads and curios priced anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand NT dollars. Others seem to gravitate toward the higher end of the price and quality scale with items like the solid jade hoop bracelets worn by so many Taiwanese women, which can fetch anywhere from NT$3,000 to NT$30,000. Complicating matters is the fact that prices are rarely, if ever, posted. Rather, they are hidden in the mind of the merchant and only revealed after the would-be buyer's spending capacity and relative gullibility have been properly sized up. Plunging into such a maelstrom of unbridled commerce can be understandably intimidating to the uninitiated. But don't let this dissuade you. Just be ready to bargain, haggle, wheel and deal, and do whatever it takes to get the price you are looking for. If a particular vendor won't budge, then go on to the next one. There are plenty to choose from. I was ready for some wheeling and dealing myself. I had my eye on a couple of nice jade necklaces. Quoted NT$2,000 for one, I was preparing to unleash my withering counteroffer when the jab of an elbow delivered to my rib cage by my diminutive companion signaled that I should shut the heck up and let her handle it. She shook her head in disbelief as she sized up the necklace. I noticed a slight smile cross her face as she glanced back at the now visibly unnerved vendor, as if to say "well met". She was like a duelist drawing her saber. "800, maybe…" "What? How could I? Surely you jest…?" I was ready for the sob story about expensive private schools and a sick uncle. "How about 1,700?," was the actual counter offer that was fired back at us. "800." Nicely done, I thought. Stand fast. "Would you consider 1,500? It's really a beautiful piece, nearly as beautiful as you." Ah, here come the compliments. He's done for. "800." And so it went, until… "Ok, NT$1,000? That's as low as I can possibly go, really. I'll have to pull my youngest out of his English class, you realize." "Done and done." And it was more of the same for the remainder of the afternoon. Every time I attempted to strike a deal of my own, the haggle queen intervened, usually getting a much better price than my own target. Frustrating? Only a bit. My wounded pride mended itself quite quickly when I realized that I finished off my shopping list for a fraction of what I thought I would be spending. I also learned some valuable lessons from watching a master negotiator at work. Lesson 1: Never settle for the quoted price (see below for the exception). This is one of those opportunities to try out your own master negotiating skills. Some vendors--most I would guess--are more than willing to give you a fair price. We found a good target is about 60% of the quoted price. Sometimes you may do better than this. Usually, the less valuable the item is, the smaller the percentage that you can expect to knock off the quoted price. Beads and items in the NT$100-200 range can seldom be haggled over. Lesson 2: If you are going to buy a high quality jade item, bring along someone who knows jade. Color, clarity, opaqueness, even the tone (in the case of jade bracelets) the stone makes when tapped can (apparently) reveal clues to the quality of the material. I, admittedly, would have been lost without a little help from my faithful shopping advisor. Lesson 3: Have fun! This is particularly important when bargaining with the vendors. I have found that a light-hearted approach will often garner greater rewards than a hard-nosed one. If you have a good laugh and the vendor does as well, you may be surprised just how quickly they accept your offer. If you feel that there is no chance getting a vendor to budge on price, keep looking. As I said before, there are plenty of other vendors to choose from. Lesson 4: There is more to the Weekend Jade Market than jade. Sure, the semi-precious gemstone is the star attraction, but that's not all that can be found. Antique coins, silk bags (perfect for storing that new jade bracelet), crystals, turquoise, glass and wooden beads, and more await the weekend treasure hunter. Happy shopping and Merry Christmas!
Dragon Boat Festival
Dragon Boat Festival or Duan Wu Jie in Chinese, falls on the 5th day of the 5th month according to the lunar calendar (usually in June). It is one of the three major holidays in Taiwan along with Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, and like the Mid-Autumn Festival has its origins in the changing of the seasons. The underlying and ancient customs seen during Dragon Boat Festival are based on driving away evil spirits and disease, this being particularly relevant as the “hot season” is thought to being on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month. With the heat, disease would have become more prevalent, especially along waterways. To a large extent these origins have been forgotten, although they exist in many of the customs still seen during the festival, such as carrying sachets (hsiang bao) containing herbs and spices called are thought to ward off disease. These sachets are typically red and come in many designs such as flowers, birds and animals and are a favorite with children. The dragon boat races themselves are alleged to have originated to give the traditional rituals a more festive atmosphere, and later became connected to Qu Yuan. Nowadays, this is what most people associate the festival with, so you might well surprise and impress your Taiwanese friends with your in-depth knowledge! As legend has it, at the time there lived a popular poet/minister called Qu Yuan. As often seems to happen, the emperor received some bad intelligence slandering the poet and so banished Qu Yuan who was heartbroken. After 20 years of exile and watching his state falling apart, he became so distraught that he decided to take his own life. Tying a rock to himself, he jumped into the Mi Luo river and drowned. Local fisherman rowed out to try and save him, banging drums to scare the river spirit into returning him and throwing rice cakes into the river to prevent fish eating his body. Today this is remembered by the eating of rice cakes (or dumplings) (zong zi). Zong zi are glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in a bamboo leaf with various different fillings, commonly fatty pork, dried shrimp, mushrooms and egg yolk, although there are many different kinds available now. As soon as they become available this year I’ll post some photos. If you are in Taiwan during Dragon Boat Festival, you must try them. With a bit of sweet chili sauce they are delicious, but don’t eat more than two, they can take a bit of digesting! Dragon boats races can be seen all over the island and often attract teams from overseas. In Taipei, the Hsintien River in Bitan is probably the most popular destination, and you can easily get there by MRT. During each race, dragon boats race to reach a flag. The first team to pluck the flag from the holder wins. It’s colorful and fun, and certainly worth a trip to watch. Top traditional Dragon Boat Festival traditions: Children wear scented sachets (hsiang bao) Try and stand an egg on its end at noon (for luck) Hang calamus (water sword plant) and mugwort (moxa) around your front door Adults drink hsiung huang wine* and "king" (wang) is written with it on children's foreheads Fetching well-water at noon Putting up pictures of zhong guei (a demon slayer) * To be drunk in small doses! This wine is actually a mineral hsiung huang dissolved in rice wine. Hsiung huang is also known as realgar or more by its chemical name of red arsenic sulphide!!
The Secret of Lotung Night Market
Southern Yilan offers many worthy destinations, which are now more accessible than ever. Suao has beaches, waterfalls and famous cold springs. Up the coast is the Taiwan Traditional Arts Center, and inland one finds Sinliao Waterfall, the hiking trails and monkey arbor of Ren Shan, and the Dong Shan River Park. But mysteriously, the main target of Taipei tourists is Lotung Night Market, which has been drawing hundreds of visitors per weekend since long before the new tunnel shaved travel time to around an hour. The secret is its superior menu of traditional Taiwanese snacks. People come down on Saturday or Sunday afternoon, visit the beach or hike Ren Shan, and end up around dusk at the night market. They treat themselves to a kind of extended meal from several stalls and small restaurants, pausing between courses to pursue a little bargain shopping and enjoy friendly interaction within the sea of market patrons. The market wraps around diminutive but elegant Chung Shan Park, across from the Tong Lien Bus Station (connecting to Taipei and other Taiwan cities). The park is a frequent venue for outdoor celebrations and exhibitions, especially in the summer months. Locals meander under tall trees, past turtles and koi fish in several ponds. They chat in elegant pavilions, and visit the park’s small temple. Next door is a little library devoted entirely to children’s books in the English language. (It also offers features free internet access till 5 pm.) At night, the park is safe and well-lit, but also moody and romantic. Some visitors target a favorite restaurant or stall, such as Wang Lao Ji (王老吉懷舊滷味), a hole-in-the-wall at #199 Chungshan Road, Section 3. Located at the very fringe of the market, where Gongyuan Road meets Chungshan, this well-known shop sells every part of a duck, individually or in soup: feet, head, back, heart. Expect a twenty-minute line outside, during peak dining hours. Next door to Wang Lao Ji, Dien An Temple is worth a peek. It’s dedicated to Shen Nung (神農大帝), the God of Herbal Medicine and Shen Tien (玄天上帝), who is believed to protect the health of the community by catching evil spirits. Locals have worshiped there since 1851. At the informal end of the dining spectrum are pushcart vendors selling say, chong-yo bing (蔥油餅), an oily onion pancake shredded for toothpick dining. Another favorite Yilan snack is the peanut and ice cream roll (花生捲冰淇淋), which involves shaved peanut candy and vanilla ice cream, rolled in a soft “cone” that resembles a crepe. These are usually found on Minsheng Road, but the position of pushcarts may vary. If, instead of ice cream, you would rather have bits of meat, bean sprouts, ground peanuts and cYilantro rolled up in your crepe with a special sauce, try ruan bing (潤餅) at stall number 1101 on Mincyuan Road. Quite a few food stalls are located on Min Chuan. The famous A Zhao Mutton Noodle Shop (阿灶伯羊肉麵) is found at stall number 1094, and there’s a vegetarian noodle shop (素食麵) at stall number 1097. Between the two, a sign with no number features a wild boar, announcing aboriginal pork cuisine (卑南族料理) cooked by members of Taiwan’s Peinan tribe. Gongyuan Road, which runs along the back of Chung Shan Park, is also the location of some famous dining options. Near the corner of Gongyuan and Mincyuan, at stall number 1086, visitors enjoy o wa jen (蚵仔煎), the famous oyster omelet. To discover one of Lotung’s most popular desserts – bao shin fen yuan (包心粉圓) – look for a sign with two conjoined hearts, one pink and the other white. Starch balls – each containing a single red bean, and floating in sugar water – may not sound appetizing to a Westerner, but this is considered to be the quintessential Lotung dessert. It’s commonly served over dou hua (豆花— soy pudding) or fruit ices. Nearby, at stall number 1075, is a shop selling gao za (糕渣), a deep-fried snack involving desiccated shrimp in chicken-flavored batter. A local teacher tells me that this dish represents the people of Yilan County: apparently cold on the outside, gao za is actually piping hot inside. Jungjheng Street, located at the back of the market, should not be overlooked. At #98 is a traditional bakery where quite a number of interesting items can be found: ginger candy, winter melon cookies, red turtle cakes and many more. A few doors down, at #82, is a shop selling cow’s tongue cookies (牛舌餅), for which Yilan is quite famous (and which look like, but do not contain, tongues). Besides foods, Jungjheng Street features kitchenware and very cheap children’s clothes. In fact, the whole market is riddled with unusual shops selling everything from costume jewelry to live bunnies, cartoon backpacks and big-name blue jeans. A shop at #50 Min Chuan Road sells Crocs, the cult plastic sandals. Although knock-offs are available all over the market, American co-owner Jeffery Kafka says plenty of customers still come by for the real thing. Both in Chung Shan Park and along the busy market streets, visitors will be surrounded by friendly people out to have fun, and perhaps this is the best reason for attending Lotung Night Market. Weekends draw huge crowds, but most of the dining and shopping options are available 365 nights a year. Overnight accomodations in Lotung – which allow the visitor more chances for sightseeing in beautiful Yilan County – are definitely cheaper on weeknights.
Happy Chinese New Year of the Rat
The big annual holiday in Taiwan is Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year. This is the time when families get together to eat too much and watch TV, just like Thanksgiving and Christmas. The whole country used to shut down for a week or so, but more and more places are remaining open nowadays. As lifestyles change, more families are heading to restaurants for the traditional New Year's Eve dinner, or even hiring caterers to come in and do the cooking. Still, expect New Year's Day to be very quiet, although the ubiquitous convenience stores will remain open throughout the holiday. The exact dates are determined by the lunar calendar, but the holiday usually falls in January or February. As many people move to the cities for work, the roads are packed and flights and trains get booked well in advance as a large portion of the population return home for the holidays. If you are in Taiwan during the holiday, you should make travel plans accordingly. The week or two before New Year's Day is a great time to visit local markets. In Taipei, Di Hua St., is probably the most famous place to visit. It comes alive with stores selling all the new year favourites, including dried squid, nuts of all varieties, candy, snacks which I still have no idea of the contents and decorations. The mix of red and gold is a wonderful spectacle, but be prepared for large crowds. You are also able to sample most goods, so when you are offered something, you can accept with no obligation to buy (really as long as you smile the staff won't be pushy or upset if you don't buy anything). This has to be the ultimate way to try so many Taiwanese snacks at one time. There are many customs associated with the holiday, but perhaps the biggest is a nation wide "spring clean". It's out with the old in a big way and the streets are lined with old furniture waiting for the trash collectors to come by. If you are lucky enough to be invited to a Taiwanese household for New Year's Eve, a box set of food or fruit, or a nice bottle of spirits (presentation is key with these kind of gifts) will go down well. You will be able to find these everywhere before the holiday, from convenience stores to supermarkets to department stores. If you know there will be children present, you will be immensely popular if you put some money in a red envelope for them. You can get the envelopes at, yes, you guessed it, any convenience store. NT$200 per envelope will be fine. Customs vary from region to region and even family to family, but these are the ones you might well come across. Things that you should do include wearing red, keeping your windows open, setting off the loudest firecrackers you can find, putting up couplets and eating oranges. If you forget to do the clean before the holiday starts, then it's too late. One of the things you definitely cannot do during the holiday is sweep. If you do, you will be sweeping any future wealth out of your home. Other things that are taboo include getting a haircut, borrowing anything, washing your hair and swearing. Do any of these and you will be doomed for the coming year. Doomed! Gifts are not generally exchanged during the holiday as we would for Christmas, rather red envelopes are given out. Red is considered lucky (white signifies death) and family members give them to younger relatives with cash inside. When you start to work however, you have to start giving cash back to your parents. It does make Christmas shopping somewhat easier! Decorations come in the form of couplets placed around the door, and certain plants which are considered lucky as they prevent any bad spirits coming into your home. The couplets are usually four characters long, hailing health, wealth and happiness for the coming year. On New Year's Eve, families gather for the main meal, and what a meal it is. Last year I lost count after the tenth dish, or that might have been because of the local drink which is used to toast, Kaoliang. Made from sorghum, this vicious brew is best at 58% alcohol and is drunk from small shot type glasses. When you hear, "Gambei!" (the Chinese word for cheers), it's best to shut your eyes, throw your head back and hope for the best. But it does keep you warm! One of the main dishes during the feast will be a fish cooked whole. It's said that in the old days at company feasts (otherwise called banquets), the fish was used to indicate who was about to get the chop. If the fish was pointing at you, you wouldn't be coming back (to work). The brighter side for employees is that a new year's bonus is the norm, again inside a red envelope. If the company has done particularly well, this bonus may be more than an entire year's salary. Hey, that's just like the Christmas bonus I used to get at home! Not. One final word of warning. At the stroke of midnight On New Year's Eve, prepare for an explosion of pyrotechnics. On my first New Year's Eve in Taiwan, no one had prepared me for this, and I really thought Taiwan was under military attack. The hand held rockets do not have a guidance system and will often travel horizontally. Although the government has cracked down on the number of firecrackers and fireworks for sale since then, it is still impressive. If you are in Taiwan during this time, then there won't be a tremendous amount of organised activities. You will need to make sure you book reservations for hotels around the island well in advance, and allow for prices to be higher. So a very Happy New Year of the Rat to all. Gongxi fa tsai!
The World of Taiwan's Temple Heroes
Step between the dragon pillars of any large Taiwan temple, ride the scent of sandalwood to the inner courtyard, and you will enter a world of Chinese gods and heroes. Meet the red-faced God of War, Guan Gong (關公) and the ethereal Goddess of Mercy (觀音) See San Tai-tz (三太子), patron deity of taxi drivers, with one foot on his “fire wheel”. Perhaps you will find yourself before the God of Longevity (壽仙), who is offering you the Peach of Immortality. You need not be a card-carrying polytheist to appreciate the rich mythology of temple worship. Monotheistic religions – such as Christianity, Islam and the Jewish faith – emphasize worship of a single God, who has total control over the affairs of Earth and the lives of every individual. Polytheistic Taiwanese do not “worship” in this sense. They praise and petition a variety of gods, whose individual authority extends to such limited departments as rain, childbirth, medicine, and scholarly success. They approach these authorities much as one might communicate with the Minister of Education or a UN High Commissioner: humbly but in a businesslike way. The Celestial Kingdom, in religious Taoism, is considered a realm much like the bureaucracy of imperial China, with Taoist priests occupying the lowest rung of the hierarchy, uniting the human with the celestial realms. A Taoist priest may write mystic letters on special paper, and burn it on the end of a sword to communicate the needs of the faithful. As an official of the Celestial Kingdom, he is paid for this intercession. In practice, few of Taiwan’s temples are strictly Taoist, and most local temples mix Confucian wisdom with both Buddhism and Taoism. Temple worship in these could be described as “congregational” (as opposed to hierarchic). Temple officials have various credentials and various methods of assisting their fellow worshipers, but the clergy are often completely absent from day-to-day temple worship. Quite a good deal of temple activity is organized and executed by the worshipers themselves. What Goes on in Taiwan Temples? At various common times during the year – at the Mid-autumn Festival, for instance, and during the weeks before college-entrance examinations – families will come at their own convenience, light sticks of incense, bow three times and speak silently to the statue of their chosen deity. They may ask a favor, thank the god for past help, or else further their own relationship with the god in some other way. Then they will plant the incense in an immense urn, bow again and step aside for others to approach. On a large table near the altar, the faithful will place offerings to the deity. Different methods are used to propitiate different gods. While sandalwood incense is more usual, lit cigarettes are commonly left on the altar of the “Dog Temple” (十八王公), on Taiwan’s North Coast. Matsu and Guan Yin (the Goddess of Mercy) accept only vegetarian food offerings, while whole pigs are splayed before the Hakka ancestors at Yi Min Temple in Hsinchu. Some gods like a little wine, and tea may be offered to almost any deity. Food offerings are left a little while before the altar, allowing the deity to absorb the spiritual value of the offering; then the items are carried home by the worshipers, who eat them, feeling that they have been blessed by the gods. It is generally felt that long and faithful attention by a worshiper entitles that one to special favor. Sometimes, in lieu of longtime service, the worshiper will make a dramatic promise, such as to make a large donation to the temple if a wish is granted. The Chinese are, above all, a practical people, and temples must be maintained. It is felt that the gods respond favorably to improvements in their temples, so cash donations are considered efficacious offerings. What is expected in return for these offerings? Essentially, good government. Just as one might petition an earthly government for better bus service or a new school gymnasium, the faithful remind their gods of needed services, and believe that these will be forthcoming if they have worshipped properly. Should problems continue, a meeting may be held at the temple to discuss changing the feng shui (geomantic arrangement) of buildings or gardens, or erecting more impressive buildings. Worship, in this sense, is a living compact between the celestial governors and the terrestrial governed. More Than Museums Although we can learn a great deal from Taiwan worship, these temples are not mere displays of history or mythology. They are living temples, the very core of local communities, and the people in them are quite serious about their business there. While it may appear to Western visitors that a very casual atmosphere prevails, there is actually a strong sense of propriety in Taiwan temples that may not meet the eye. The loud conversations, spontaneous greetings and an apparent lack of organization among the worshipers are actually all part of temple activity, and not at all inconsistent with piety and devotion. Look closely at the Taiwanese circulating about these temples, and you will find people not so unlike the worshipers at Western churches. They want to improve themselves and their lives. They are praying to the highest entities they know, for things all humans crave. And they are taking care to respect and enjoy their neighbors, at a place dedicated to the decency of their community. Precisely because important community activities are taking place, however informally, an aggressive foreign photographer may not be appreciated. Pictures may be taken inside the temples, but one should not come between the worshipers and their altars, nor plague them with incessant flashes or distracting dialogue. Outside, the people are less intent on their temple business, and may be inclined to start up a conversation or pose for a photo. There is usually a desk separating the temple office from the main area of worship, and perhaps someone there can find an English speaker if you want to learn more. Sometimes a booklet is available from the office, though English is likely to be sparse. With patience and an open mind, however, much can be learned and enjoyed in the world between the dragon pillars.