84. Home And Dry

from “Release”, Pet Shop Boys, 2002.

The next stage of our travels takes us to another new country – Malaysia – as we explore more of Asia from our base-camp in Bangkok. And as we often do we decided to take our first dip in a new country by visiting its capital, so we packed our bags again and headed off to Kuala Lumpur.

Our travels have enabled us to rack up a few frequent flyer miles so we opted to cash in some of our points with Thai Airways and get a couple of free seats; we only paid for the taxes (around £50 for both of us) so two free return tickets to Kuala Lumpur on one of our favourite airlines seemed like a pretty good deal. We also took a break from Airbnb in favour of a good deal from Starwood Hotels and used our gold membership level to get a very comfy and spacious room at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel with a view of the KL Tower.

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Sheraton Imperial – the view from the room featuring the KL Tower and surrounding Eco-Forest, definitely a couple tourist sites we would be visiting.
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Sheraton Imperial – and the view at night; the KL Tower has a fit / orgasm on the hour and is illuminated with changing colours and patterns. Nice.

The trip to Kuala Lumpur was very straightforward, no delays or problems, though it is still surprising that considering you are flying to a city only two hours away just how much time it does actually take to get there. The car to the airport picked up at at 6:15am and it wasn’t until 2:30pm (Malaysia is +1 hour ahead) that we reached the hotel, which was 7 hours of travelling. Anyway once at the hotel we got settled in after a short wait – the check-in time was 3:00pm – and then we were ready to head out for a bit of an explore.

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Outside the hotel is a large and busy road – Jalan Sultan Ismail – along which runs the elevated monorail, one of Kuala Lumpur’s mass transit lines. And on the opposite side of the road from the hotel is the Quill City Mall, which was the nearest place to us with shops and restaurants.

Quill City Mall is much like many of the malls we have encountered in our time in Asia: bright, clean, with plenty of shops and restaurants, and also a cinema with several screens. Though as we were to discover, Quill City Mall had one difference.

We started our exploration of the mall at the top and worked our way around and down in order to get a good idea of what was there and make note of any interesting looking restaurants or shops. Upon discovery of a branch of Daiso (a Japanese chain of shops that sells things for 100 yen / £1 / 60 baht / or in this case 5 ringgit) Philip decreed it was out of bounds until we had found somewhere for dinner; suffice to say there was some pouting as a result. Daiso = cheap stuff shopping heaven, and it definitely brought back fond memories of our time in Japan.

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Quill City Mall – all set up and ready for Chinese New Year.

So we perused the menus of various restaurants, and noted the location of the Starbucks (always handy as a Known Quantity for a snack) and spotted a few places that looked promising, particularly Longhorn Steak and Hokkaido Ramen. After having looked at several menus we noticed that none of the restaurants served beer or wine. Then, while scanning the menu of an Italian restaurant, Robert made a statement that has gone down in the Book-Of-Things-To-Be-Brought-Up-To-Show-What-An-Idiot-He-Is, when he said, “Oh look Phil, they do carbonara here with chicken instead of bacon,” to which Philip responded: “Think about it, where are we?” Doh! Explains the lack of alcohol too.

We finished our exploration of the mall and discovered that there was alcohol and pork products to be had: the 7-Eleven sold beer, and the very nice Aeon supermarket on the basement level has a special section with plenty of “banned” products for us decadent westerners to buy 🙂

These prohibitions didn’t apply at the restaurants we found at the Pavilion mall – a later discovery we made in our explorations of the city – just a few stops away on the monorail, and it was there we found another of our Japanese favourites: Coco Ichibanya.

So yes, as we later learned, Quill City Mall is in an area of the city predominately lived in and used by muslims and so there was no alcohol nor pork products served in any of the restaurants. It didn’t stop us dining at Quill City Mall though it was iced-tea or fruit juice with dinner when we ate there on several nights.

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83. Airborn

from “Platinum”, Mike Oldfield, 1979.

Taipei has a cable car known as the Maokong Gondola, which opened in July 2007, and runs from just next to Taipei Zoo and going up into the hills to the village of Maokong (貓空站), hence the name. And as we had not encountered a cable car on our travels since Miyajima in Japan (see blog entry 45. Island) we definitely wanted to give this a try.

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The grey skies of Taipei were not too unkind to us for our aerial exploits and we were able to enjoy the sights of the lush hills outside the city and up to Maokong. This was duly helped by the fact that we decided to try the “crystal cabins”; essentially some of the cable cars have glass floors so you can look down, and we do love a glass floor. These cabins cost a little more and you have to wait a bit longer for them but we enjoyed the view down as well as out.

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Maokong Gondola – get those tippy-toes out of the shot!

Maokong is famous as a place for drinking tea, eating local Taiwanese dishes, and admiring the views of Taipei and is very popular with both the locals and tourists as well. With the predominantly grey and hazy skies during our time in Taipei we didn’t get to appreciate the view as we would have wanted to, but still managed to get some interesting vistas nonetheless.

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Maokong Gondola – Taipei 101 peeks over the hills on the city outskirts.
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Maokong Gondola – the Zhinan Temple perched high in the hills over the city.

There are several stops along the Maokong Gondola and our first was the final stop (Maokong) to take a look around at the summit. There actually wasn’t that much to see and the majority of the places to eat around the cable car terminal were more for locals, hardened Chinese, or very brave foreigners! 🙂 Suffice to say we weren’t feeling that brave. We wandered along the peak road and there were one of two other tea-houses but nothing that really caught our eye. So we decided we would get back onto the cable car and head back one stop to Zhinan Temple (指南宮站), and take a look at the temple we had seen on the way up, as shown in the picture above.

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Zhinan Temple – currently undergoing large scale renovations.

The Zhinan temple is a Taoist temple on the slopes of Houshan, also known as “Monkey Mountain” though we didn’t see any monkeys there or indication that they lived thereabouts. Founded in 1882, the temple’s main deity is Lü Dongbin, one of the Eight Immortals. It was pretty obvious that the temple was undergoing some major refurbishment from the encasing scaffolding over most of the site, but nonetheless this was a very pleasant temple to visit, with few people around so that we could explore it at our leisure.

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We spent a very leisurely hour strolling around the temple and the hillside gardens before it was time to head back to the cable car and make our way back over and down the hills to Taipei.

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Maokong Gondola – descending back to the base station just near the zoo.

This was another great day out in what has become one of our favourite cities, and one we will return to in the future as our two weeks there were only enough to whet our appetites to the delights of Taipei.

82. Army Of Me

from “Post”, Björk, 1995.

From our time in Taipei we learned that there were two main figures who shaped the creation of Taiwan as it is today: Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. Sun Yat-sen was a Chinese physician, writer, philosopher, calligrapher and revolutionary, as well as the first president and founding father of the Republic of China, aka Taiwan. Chiang Kai-shek was a Chinese political and military commander who served as the leader of the Republic of China in a long period of rule from 1928 to 1975. Both of these Taiwanese historical figures have prominent memorial halls dedicated to them in Taipei and we went to take a look at them.

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Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall
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Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall – statue of Sun Yat-sen in the main hall.
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Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall
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Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall – statue of Chiang Kai-shek in the main hall.

Both of the memorial halls to these men featured several galleries that chronicled their history and involvement in the formation of Taiwan, set around a main hall in which was a larger-than-life statue of the man in question. And both buildings were quite large and ornate and set in expansive, picturesque gardens; although we have to say that the blue-and-while memorial hall to Chiang Kai-shek was particularly impressive (more pictures at the end).

Something else they both had in common was an honour guard that changed hourly, and this was clearly a big tourist attraction as the crowds gathered in the minutes before each hour. The guards are formed from the army, navy, and air-force and each of the armed services takes a four month stint in providing the guards to each memorial hall.

For the honour guard, two guards stand totally immobile before the statues of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek for an hour, before being relieved by replacements in a slightly-unusual display of military marching and gun-wielding. It is unusual in the sense that the action takes place in what you might call a kind of stop-motion or motion-stop; the guards take a step, or raise an arm, or position a gun, and then do nothing for a second or two before taking the next action. It was certainly very entertaining to watch.

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Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall – one of the guards, who has been stood stock still for the last hour.
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Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall – the guard replacements arrive, though somewhat slowly…

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Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall – and off the relieved guards go, probably for a nice sit-down and a cup of tea, and maybe a bourbon biscuit if they’re lucky.

Our visit to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall was on the penultimate day of our stay in Taipei and the only really nice sunny day we had there, so as this was one of the more impressive buildings and surroundings we visited we were able to get some pictures with blue skies rather than grey. But it was winter so we can’t begrudge the weather too much, though next time we will have to visit in the summer.

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Both of these memorial halls were great to visit – they gave a good glimpse into the history of Taiwan, as well as exhibits of artwork by Taiwanese artists, the changing of the honour guard, and the peaceful gardens surrounding them. And all free too – what’s not to like?