Six whole days is ridiculous; we’ll run out of things to do — so we said.
What a ridiculous notion.
Some facts before we get to it: Taiwan is shaped like a mango, or a heart, or a drumstick. Tourist guides never fail to mention this, in the same way that we think of our country as an oddly-shaped, lanky, possibly malnourished dog. Its capital city is Taipei, an area measuring 271 sq.km. with a prominent tower, warm weather, and lots of milk tea. This was the extent of my knowledge of that beautiful and admirable country, and I’ve come to admire it all the more in my six days there.
Of the six days that we spent exploring Taiwan, only four were in Taipei. We spent one day along the northern coast, and another navigating the buses of Taichung. It was certainly an experience, of which I will elaborate later on, but the point is: we were determined to explore other areas outside the capital. Not everything had to be about cities, right? Northern Taiwan is a mountainous region, and to nature we returned.
Open Wide, O Earth
As tourists do, we availed of a tour package for our northern coast tour. Browsing through tour packages, you begin to get an idea of the usual places that tourists are taken to: there’s Yehliu Geopark, Shifen Village, and Jiufen Village. Of the three, I was most excited about Jiufen. Quaint town that inspired “Spirited Away”? The description almost seemed specifically made for me. I have to confess that Yehliu was the least I was looking forward to, but it ended up being the one I enjoyed most.
What’s so exciting about a bunch of rocks? Excuse you, what’s not exciting about a bunch of rocks? The nature of places near the coastline, particularly the ones exposed to weathering, is that they are ephemeral. As our guide Norman put it, if you visit Yehliu after five years, it will not be the same Yehliu that you saw just now. Yehliu Geopark is a 1.7 km cape along the coast of the Yehliu peninsula. Its deposit of sedimentary rock has been exposed to winds and waves throughout the years, which has led to geological formations that resemble mushrooms, faces, and giant sandals.
Yehliu has three main sections, and to fully traverse it and back would take two whole hours including stopping for photos. Its most famous attraction is the Queen’s Head, a rock formation that from the side looks like the famous Nefertiti bust. Apart from the iconography, the Queen’s Head is known for being on the brink of destruction. Weathering has taken a toll on the area that functions as its “neck”, and experts think that it will give out in the next 5–10 years: add that to the reasons that people queue up to take a picture with it. But we knew that waiting for our turn to take a photo would eat up the two hours that we were allotted, so we had to move on.
Yehliu is essentially a sea of golden brown. Block out your ears and avert your eyes from the crowd and you could be in another planet. Yehliu was packed when we came; there was no other way around it, but it didn’t bother me so much because you could turn a corner and tilt your head like so, and there would always be something that caught your eye — a unique pattern in the rocks, the smooth curve caused by sharp sand slicing through stone, the ebbs and flows of past rain, ominous shadows against ochre. You really didn’t need a picture with the Queen’s Head to appreciate Yehliu. I feel like you would enjoy it best on your own, looking at the small things that people tend to ignore.
As we leave footprints on a wet floor, these are the footprints that nature makes. But unlike ours which can be wiped away, nature’s mark, the mark of time, stays. We tend to say that we can feel time pass us by. I like to think that Yehliu makes you see time, and how we all succumb to it in the end.
The next stop in our northern coast tour was Shifen Waterfall. I read that there was going to be a suspension bridge at some point, and I mistakenly assumed that the bridge would be going across the waterfall. Turns out that would be extremely dangerous, and after seeing the actual waterfall, I found myself grimacing at my ignorance. You wouldn’t want to be within 20 feet of that.
Shifen Waterfall may not be the tallest in Taiwan, but it is an impressive 40 metres across, with a slight horseshoe shape that directs all the water in a generous riverbed. The waterfall itself is nestled within a mountainous region, which has been blessedly commercialized at just the right amount, so as to avoid visitors from feeling that they were being victimized by capitalism yet again.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to enjoy the smaller attractions on the way to the waterfall — the front acts if you will — but while we raced to not lose sight of our tour guide (Slow down, Norman!), we did pass through some restaurants, a playground, some shops, the famed suspension bridge, and a few more shops that turned out to be selling jerky. I wanted to try a bit of the jerky but we were shuffling along on borrowed time, which is why I wouldn’t recommend large-group tours to people who tend to pause and breathe and take it all in. There was ice cream, too. Why couldn’t we have stopped for ice cream…
Seeing the actual waterfall itself was a nice reward for all our rushing. It crept up on us like a cat at night. One moment we were watching our steps and looking for handholds, and then when we looked up, it was there, peeking out through a low shrub — the water, the spray, the sound roaring in our ears. What I remember most was the sound — it was loud, and hungry. It really is majestic.
Our guide took pictures of everyone in our group, and while we waited at the side, we finally had time. We took it all in — Shifen Waterfall blasting its fresh water spray like a blessing for braving the sun, its mighty roar bellowing out of the enclave, crying: “Welcome!”
Daan Forest Park
The northern coast had us in its clutches, so when we went back to Taipei, we sought out a substitute for its vivid greens and still waters. Luckily, Daan Forest Park wasn’t far off. Taipei has a lot of parks. When you look out at it from the observatory of Taipei 101, there are trees everywhere, and you can see a concerted effort to merge the city with the mountains surrounding it.
Daan Forest Park is a 26-hectare public park in the middle of Taipei. It’s fondly called the Central Park of Taiwan, because we all like to measure our own treasures against anything remotely similar in the West, but it’s very much true. The park is the size of three baseball fields and has two ecological ponds. It’s also home to a variety of animals that the park management take care to feed and protect.
If I could only say one thing about Daan Forest Park, it would be “it’s nice”. It’s really, really nice. We went there in the middle of a Friday so there wasn’t a lot of people. A red running path coasts along the perimeter of the park, and you could run there in complete safety even on a rainy day because of how wide the canopy is. The place reminded me of Washington-Sycip Park in Makati, except it’s larger, way larger, and it’s benches don’t have that obtrusive bump in the middle to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them.
We only explored half of the park because it was so large, but I feel like I didn’t have to look at every nook and cranny to enjoy it. I just had to find a bench, sit, tilt my head up, and listen. We sat on a bench near the pond and listened to the white egrets faff about. I read that this place was busier in the weekends and could be as crowded as Luneta at the right time, so we were lucky to have this peace to ourselves.
Lounging about in Daan Forest Park was probably the first time that the notion of actually living in Taipei entered my head, not that I considered it any further. But as an intellectual exercise, let us consider: it’s the end of your workshift, you’re walking home with a grocery bag in one hand, milk tea in the other, you do a quick turn to this oasis, and then you find a bench, sit down, pop on your earphones. And then you breathe in. Now, isn’t that nice?
Obelisk, The Sight of You Stunned
A trip to Taipei isn’t complete without going to Taipei 101’s observatory — I know that now. My previous knowledge of Taipei 101 can be summarized in three points: 1) it is tall, 2) things fly from it during New Year’s, and 3) Artemis Fowl convinces his enemy to meet him there by using neurolinguistic programming (“I‘ll be wearing a burgundy tie. Pay attention to that. There are a hundred and one ways this could go wrong.”).
Initially, I had wanted to skip the observatory because I thought the queue would be long, but the queue is in fact very organized, as everything is in Taiwan. We had lunch in level B1 first, where normal mortals lived. After that, we tried going through the shopping mall and pretend that we could actually afford things. We’d already bought advanced tickets and timed our entrance at 5:00pm for the sunset. Once we got to the waiting area, we settled down and enjoyed the audiovisual projections until our turn came.
The high-speed elevator of Taipei 101 takes you to the 89th floor indoor observatory. You can climb the stairs to the 91st floor for the outdoor observatory or climb down to the 88th floor for the wind damper (to which Artemis ties warlock N°1 to the current dimension). We did both, of course, because why not.
The indoor observatory is just about how you’d expect it. If you’ve been to N-Seoul Tower, you can expect the same thing — windows on the outer side of the circle, shops on the inner. The walls had handy diagrams that showed which direction you were facing and what you can expect from the view. We read through an information pamphlet and discovered that if you looked at the eastern window during 5:00–6:00pm, you can see the inverted image of Taipei 101 as its shadow. Sunset was predicted at 6:19pm, but unfortunately the sky was overcast.
I can’t quite explain why I felt the way I felt when I saw the damper for the first time. It felt sacred for some reason, and when I braved the glass balcony I realized that my knees were shaking. Simply put, the damper is a huge metal ball, painted in gold to make it look nice, bathed in light from below — and yet I felt a certain reverence for it. It’s the feeling you get when you know that something important has happened but you’re not quite sure what. The damper sits there, quiet and still, but in its stillness it serves a very important purpose. This gold, unassuming ball, almost like an indulgent toy, has prevented tragedies.
National Taichung Theater
Another of Taiwan’ engineering marvels is the National Taichung Theater in Taichung City. Designed by Toyo Ito, its glass panels and curved concrete walls call to mind a whirlpool, but for some reason, it reminded me of a fancy vacuum cleaner. Don’t those concave spaces feel like they’re about to devour you? It’s an imposing structure, and the main entrance alone makes you feel like you’re about to enter the mouth of a whale.
If you ask me, the interior of the National Taichung Theater is more interesting than its exterior. Inside is a smooth expanse of white walls, seemingly as of marble. The floor space is vast, but the the walls are arranged in a way that it forms natural partitions for specific areas. There are no beams or pillars, just an endless wall of white. I definitely felt like I was Jonah inside a whale.
It was in reviewing my photos of the theater’s interior that I realized that I’d seen this before. A few years ago, when I could still be relied on to watch cable, I watched the Taichung Theatre episode of Discovery Channels’ “Man Made Marvels”, and that’s how I know that the gorgeous walls were formed by interweaving multiple layers of wire and filling it with concrete. They couldn’t use hollow blocks because it was rigid and cornered, so they had to come up with a new technique just to lay out the concrete.
It’s amazing, the things that come back to you days after they have to. Now I wish I could go back to the National Taichung Theater, if only to brush my fingers against its walls and whisper, “I know you.”
Bangka Lungshan Temple
A confession: if it were entirely up to me, I wouldn’t include places of worship in travel itineraries. I can go to Catholic churches, sure. But the temples, the small, active ones that have daily devotees — I feel like I’m intruding on something.
But! Certain voices were heard, brows were raised, and fingers were wagged, so we alighted from the blue MRT line and walked through what looked like, and smelled like, the Binondo of Taipei.
Lungshan Temple was built in 1738 and has stood the test of time. During the second World War, the temple was badly damaged by American bombers and since then, has been extensively repaired and renovated by Taipei residents. The temple is very clearly a place of worship. It’s no Borobudur, where selfies are part and parcel of the experience. People came here to pray, and maybe take a few pictures, but mostly they came here to pray.
The temple, it seems, appeals to almost everybody (except Christians). It has a hundred statues of Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian deities (no Christians), which explains why I could hear all sorts of languages from the devotees holding incense sticks. We quickly made our way through the crowd, took a few pictures, observed the devotees, but always, always, that nagging feeling behind my shoulder — what are you doing here?
Despite my discomfort, it’s good to be reminded that your institutions are not the center of everything. There are other, older, more influential belief systems, and the noise yours makes doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the most important. We took one last photo of Lungshan Temple’s colored mosaics, and went home.