Friday, April 17, 2009

Hidden Gems

"I'll take the strawberry ice cream crepe with chocolate sauce and dog head, please."

Over the past two and a half years, I've come to discover what a hidden gem Taiwan really is. I may complain to friends that this wonderful little island - a rough-cut green emerald in the South China Sea (with a few gray spots, to be sure) - gets so few tourists. That it feels like the entire world, including the traveling world as exemplified by tour buses at one end, and Lonely Planet-totin' kids at the other - has collectively decided to ignore* Taiwan. If someone who has visited, worked or lived there mentions the trip, many back home will initiate the following conversation:

"So, how was Thailand?"
"Thailand? How should I know? I didn't go."
"Yes you did; I could swear you went to Thailand."
"No, I went to Taiwan."
"Oh, so you were in China then."
"No, I was not in China, I was in Taiwan."

It's kind of sad, really. Between having its own rich history, being the repository for a huge chunk of Chinese history now lost to the Mainland, all of the outdoor activities it offers - when the weather cooperates - the friendly people and the magnificent food, Taiwan should be ranking up there with Japan on travelers' itineraries.

That said - yes, I complain about it. But secretly, I like it this way. I like not having to share my mountain peaks with hordes of backpackers. I like that banana pancakes are only on menus insofar as Taiwanese people seem to like them (though you're more likely to find a fruit waffle than a pancake). I like that even the most "touristy" spots aren't touristy at all, and that the locals haven't sold out to travelers' wallets. Well, maybe in Sun Moon Lake to Chinese wallets, but that's about it. I say this hoping that Penghu doesn't become the next Macau, what with allowing casinos and all. One Macau is enough, thankyouverymuch.

So part of me wants to broadcast to the world what Taiwan has to offer; part of me wants to zip my mouth and keep it all as one big, delicious (literally delicious) secret. If hordes of buxiban English teachers can come, stay a year or two and never really discover what Taiwan is about, what's the point of trying to promote such laid-back, subtle beauty to a world of people who've never even been here?

Which brings me to the next point of this post - within the island that is a hidden gem are several other, smaller little treasures, some tiny and some the size of buildings. I'm talking about the little things that make Taiwan beautiful, but aren't significant in and of themselves, and are usually overlooked. Things like a picturesque old brick wall winding its way up the side of a mountain settlement. A fat, friendly cat lounging on a warm scooter seat.

A huge image of Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy, perched atop a tiny Buddhist temple on Shuiyuan Road (#155 I think) just after it leaves Wanhua District and heads into Zhongzheng. Even from the street, you wouldn't know that this massive statue exists - and by the way, such statues are quite common down the west coast, but I rarely see them in or around Taipei. To see this one, you have to head to Zhongzheng Riverside Park and look, well, up.

I met someone in Zhongzheng Park who told me that this temple has been around since the 40s (the current statue is newer than that) and was erected because that site - just north of Guting and south of Machangding Memorial Park - used to be a popular and safe swimming area for local families. The temple was erected to keep swimmers safe. These days, I wouldn't dare jump into the Xindian River, for fear I might dissolve.

You see it on the two or three decrepit shophouses dotting the streets here and there, or the outlines of old brick arcades.

If you wander deep enough into the alleys, you begin to lose sight of the endless concrete and see the curious potted plants and vines, the friendly old lady with her ancient dog, or the lovely little shrines to all manner of gods you never knew existed.

My favorites of these gods, by the way, are the Yin-Yang God and the God of Insomnia (you can find his shrine deep in Wanhua District, not far from Huanhe South Road). The God of Insomnia doesn't cause insomnia; apparently he cures it. The shrine even has two tall god costumes for participating in parades, and seems to see a reasonably steady stream of locals praying for relief from their sleeping troubles.

You might even come across an unusually beautiful temple, full of artwork that's three centuries old, or older. We came across just such a temple in Wanhua recently - can you tell we like Wanhua? - dedicated to Matsu, goddess of the sea.

Matsu temples are fairly common here, but this one was especially lovely. It has only been at its current location for 30 years, but the idols and altars within it are all several centuries old, and were imported from Fujian with some of the first immigrants to Taiwan. Most of the temple is made of stone and wood.

In the back, we discovered two volunteers doing repair work on one of Matsu's companions (I forget if this one is Thousand Mile Eyes or Long-Hearing Ears).

Down Wanda Road, we also came across a relatively new temple whose dragon columns had especially beautiful lines.

...and at the end of this trail of tiny, insignificant-in-themselves, but beautiful-as-a-whole gems, you might just find an incense shrine topped with a beer can...or a tiny food stall autographed by the President of Taiwan (in Simplified Chinese?)...or a vendor whose specialty seems to be "dog's head crepes" (see the first photo).

*although I have noticed more recently that a huge contingent of visitors to touristy areas do in fact come on tour buses; they're just Korean, Japanese and Chinese so they blend in.

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