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?

81. In The Night

from “Alternative”, Pet Shop Boys, 1995.

Our hotel in Taipei was in the lively district of Ximen, home to lots of shops and restaurants that cater mainly to the city’s younger generation. But young at heart as we are we felt right at home especially as the look and feel of it was rather akin to Hong Kong – one of our favourite cities – yet still with its own feel, at times almost European in quality. Well that’s what we thought anyway 🙂

However, Ximen really comes alive in the night when all the lights and signs are illuminated and the streets are busy with people looking for somewhere to eat, perusing the shops, watching a street performance, etc. It was a vibrant and fun atmosphere, yet not too crowded or chaotic especially as quite a few of the streets were pedestrians only after 6pm, making strolling around a lot easier and more pleasant without cars and scooters to avoid.

Here’s a little taster of Ximen.

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Ximen – exit 6 of Ximen metro station, closest to the action and our hotel.

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Ximen – Modern Toilet, a dining experience we decided not to partake of as despite the menu sounding OK we weren’t quite up to eating and drinking from tableware shaped like toilets, urinals, and the like 😮 Just call us boring.

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Ximen is a fun area in a great city and a place we are very glad to have discovered, sights, smells, and weirdness all. We are already hoping to return to Taipei in the not too distant future.

And so this marks the last blog entry of 2016. We have been on the road now for nine months (nine!) and had a wonderful time so far, seeing some great places and enjoying some amazing experiences. Here’s looking forward to 2017 and the further adventures of the International Vagabonds.

80. Thieves In The Temple

from “Graffiti Bridge”, Prince, 1990.

Another favourite jaunt on our trips since we started touring this year has been temples, and in Taipei we decided to visit the Lungshan temple, one of the most prominent Buddhist and Taoist temples in the country. It was founded in 1738 and dedicated to Kuan-in, the Buddhist goddess of mercy.

The temple was fairly close to our hotel in Ximen so we decided to take a walk there, as it gave us the chance to pass through an unexplored area south of the district. As it turned out we were not missing much but it was worth making the trip all the same; you never know when you might stumble across a gem.

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When we arrived it was obvious from the steady flow of visitors heading inside that we were not the only ones keen to take a look at the temple. However, we briefly toured the courtyard outside the Lungshan temple before going inside proper; an artificial waterfall and pond had been created and it was actually quite well done.

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The temple turned out to be a little smaller than we had thought and it was a little on the crowded side with visitors in addition to the worshippers there making their devotions. But it was still a fun and interesting opportunity to look around, including some of the lovely stonework details we spotted.

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As well as this more obvious ‘tourist temple’ we found several other temples tucked away in Ximen’s busy streets and alleyways, their small entrances almost obscured by adjacent shops. Fortunately we found these at night courtesy of their lanterns and inside they were quiet and atmospheric and we could explore them at our leisure and not get in the way of any devotees present.

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These were beautiful temples, distinctly Chinese and different to those we visited in Japan and elsewhere. And while Lungshan was very much worth the visit, the more local temples we went to at night were especially charming; quiet and beautiful in the darkness. We’re very glad we stole a look at these.

78. Rise

from “Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex” soundtrack, Yoko Kanno, 2003.

While we love to explore new places on foot, we do also like to take the opportunity to get an eagle’s eye view as well, as we did in several cities during our time in Japan over the summer; so the Taipei 101 tower was without doubt on our list of things to do in the capital of Taiwan.

While the weather in Taipei hasn’t been bad, it has been quite cloudy and overcast on most days – it is winter after all (low 20s Celsius) and we’re really not in the tropics anymore – so we opted to visit Taipei 101’s observation deck when the weather looked about as good as it was going to get.

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Taipei 101 – Can we get to the top before the clouds come down?

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A quick and easy ride across town on the Taipei Metro and we arrived to coo appreciatively at what is easily the tallest building in Taipei, reaching up to a total height of 508m; it was the world’s tallest building up until 2004. Formerly called the Taipei World Financial Centre, the tower is now called Taipei 101, after the 101 above-ground floors in the tower.

Hoping the clouds would be kind and not spoil the view, we headed inside to get our tickets. Fortunately the queue was very short, and we only had a little while to admire / be-mesmerised-by the pulsing rainbow ceiling in the entrance hall before we got our tickets. The ceiling lights were very pretty and – coincidentally – very gay-themed, as we have seen many young LGBT people in the city out in support of gay marriage in Taiwan. We really hope they get their equality.

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Taipei 101 – In the queue for tickets and being mesmerised by the pulsing rainbow ceiling lights.

The indoor observation decks are on the 88th and 89th floors and with the lifts reaching a top speed of 60km/h it certainly did not take long to get up there. Though the clouds were looming perilously close, there was still plenty to see.

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Taipei 101 – Taipei has quite a few really wide and long roads across the city.

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Taiwan – and thus Taipei 101 – is prone to the earthquakes and fierce storms that are common in this part of the world and so to achieve stability for the building and lessen the impact of violent motion, it has a gigantic ‘tuned mass damper’ installed. This is a steel sphere around 6m in diameter, weighing 660 tonnes, and is suspended from the 92nd floor down to the 87th floor. The damper acts like a giant pendulum to counteract the building’s swaying in high winds, etc. Taipei 101’s engineers were so proud of the damper that it was made visible to visitors from its own observation gallery.

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The damper is really impressive and you could feel the building move slightly when standing near it; fortunately it wasn’t moving anything like it does when earthquakes and storms have hit Taipei as shown in the video: Taipei 101 damper.

Another great iconic building and a great opportunity to see the city it dominates from the observation deck. We’re definitely fans of Taiwan – it’s the best new place we have discovered since our three months travelling across in Japan. And we will definitely be back.

77. Animals

from “Fear Of Music”, Talking Heads, 1979.

During our visits to the area of Xiaonanmen (小南門站) where the Botanical Garden and National Museum of History are located (and to be regaled in future blogs), we encountered an interesting looking building. Philip – ever one to know what things are especially if I can’t tell him straight away – went around to find the entrance and see what it was: it turned out to be the National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute.

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The National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute (NTCRI) – we just called it the ‘Craft Building’ as it was easier.

We put out heads in the door and discovered on the ground floor a large shop with many beautiful objects from Taiwanese artists and companies. Keeping our wallets firmly in our pockets we decided to have a look around. There was a glorious array of items, from decorative vases, bowls and ornaments, to clocks, furniture, and many other items. We think it is safe to say there was very little tat there as far as we were concerned and easily enough gorgeous things to half furnish an apartment. But International Vagabonds that we are, now is not the time to be buying desirable things, so they will have to wait.

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A Very Desirable Object – yours for just $120,000 TWD (or £3,000). We’ll have two – we like a matched pair.

The building was formerly the National Taiwan Science Centre, built in 1951 as part of a number of societal establishments: the Botanical Garden, the National Museum of History, the National Institute for Educational Resources and Research, the National Taiwan Arts Education Centre, and National Education Radio. The building remained the Science Centre until 2003, then in 2008 it was restored and re-purposed as the National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute.

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With nine floors showcasing a variety of exhibits we decided to work our way up the NTCRI and see what was there. One of the largest showpieces was The Carnival of the Animals, which were very eye-catching and a lot of fun.

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The details as you can see were quite amazing on some of these wonderfully odd animals; cute, colourful, crazy and creative.

Considering we did not have this on our initial itinerary, the ‘Craft Building’ was a great find and a really interesting way to spend a couple of hours.

76. Modern Love

from “Let’s Dance”, David Bowie, 1983.

It was time to discover how Taiwan fared in the modern and contemporary art scene when we visited Taipei’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). We do enjoy visiting MOCA-type galleries on our travels and with Taipei’s just a couple of metro stops away there was no reason to delay our visit.

The Taipei Metro (台北捷運) is very reminiscent of the various Japanese metros we used earlier this year as well as the Hong Kong MRT – basically they are clean, efficient, reliable, and cost-effective ways of getting around the city. We even decided to get the MRT’s EasyCard as these let you travel for a few Taiwanese dollars less than the usual fare as well as being accepted for payment in most any shop. The EasyCards will certainly pay for themselves in our two weeks here as the fare saving will outstrip the card deposit of $100 TWD. They are a nice keepsake too, and from what we have seen of Taipei so far we are pretty sure we will be coming back and can reuse them.

So EasyCards in hand we headed off to the MOCA at Zhongshan. The MOCA building was formerly an elementary school built in 1921 during the period of Japanese rule. After the handover of Taiwan it became a government building until 2001 when it was re-purposed as the captial’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It was also the first museum in Taiwan to be dedicated exclusively to contemporary art.

When we arrived we discovered that the MOCA was in the process of changing installations, which meant that the only exhibit we could tour was Post . Vision . Form by Ruan Weng-Mong. However, the good news was that we could view this for free and that the new exhibitions were due to open in a few days so we could still return and see these while we were in Taipei.

The Post . Vision . Form exhibit was housed in three small galleries and here are our favourites from what we saw of Ruan Weng-Mong’s work.

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We really enjoyed the showcase of this artist; it was definitely contemporary art that we liked and could appreciate – no silly ‘stacks of bricks’ or ‘chopped in half animals’ here. And great for us that we that we caught this exhibition in its last few days. We are looking forward to going back to Taipei’s MOCA next week to see the new artworks currently being installed.