Exploring Tainan, Taiwan's hometown
The Ming Dynasty merchant ship on the edge of Tainan's Anping Harbor seemed faithfully equipped: soaring masts for the traditional square sails, cargo holds for precious camphor, and a dozen or so cannons for defense while sailing a Taiwan Strait crawling with pirates.
It wasn't entirely clear, however, as I climbed into the sleeping quarters of the replica of General Koxinga's ship, why Taiwan's 17th century military hero needed a Sony flat-panel TV.
And a microwave.
Taiwan was born in this southern city, and most of the complex stew that is the country's culture today matured here. But as on Koxinga's ship, history in Tainan City is as much about present daily life as it is about the past - a product of the sheer quantity of ancient sanctuaries and a healthy respect for history that doesn't require putting it behind velvet ropes.
While sprawling Taipei is Taiwan's ultra-visible capital, I had traveled south to Tainan to learn about the often overlooked country through the city said to be its historical, spiritual and cultural heart.
As well as to seek out and better understand the attraction of an ancient noodle shop where they've reputedly never washed the pot.
Westerners often make the mistake of dismissing Taiwan as just another portion of China, or "China-light" (something that generations of Taiwanese were forced to do themselves). The actual heritage is a richer blend, ranging from ancient Indonesian explorers to pirates to half a century of Japanese settlers.
At the center of most of it has been Tainan, the aristocratic seat of rule and culture that has managed to avoid the path of other major cities toward finance and heavy industry.
"Taipei is the pocket, Tainan is the heart," Mr. Chang, my guide, said as we drove past cultural landmarks too numerous to list. "You can see people enjoy life here."
We drove to Anping Harbor, where 400 years ago there was a bay circled by fishermen settlements, a pirate "community," aboriginal camps and, at the mouth, the Dutch Fort Zeelandia (now Anping Fort).
Today, Anping Harbor is home to a few of Tainan's most developed attractions including the rebuilt Anping Fort (a few walls of the original fort remain). Chang took me to the shipyard where workers were finishing Koxinga's ship, a 97-foot "Tayouan boat" replica based solely on a 1706 painting of the ship from a museum in Japan, where Koxinga was born (which might explain the Sony TV onboard).
We drove back to the central district along Tainan Canal. Once a sludge-filled waterway through a dodgy part of town, it now is lined with waterfront bike and foot paths, all part of a project started in 2000 to make Tainan into Taiwan's Kyoto, a balance of "cultural heritage and modern style."
If Tainan's streets are the veins, scooters are the blood. Lacking a practical metro transportation system, Tainan is a seemingly endless flow of motor scooters, the vehicles of choice for, well, nearly everyone - sometimes, it seems, everyone at the same time.
On a whim, I followed the swarming buzz down Minzu Road, a broad avenue lined with shops, corporate towers and cubbyhole open kitchens with sidewalk plastic tables.
Among the required stops along Minzu is the Chihkan Tower, a recontruction of the palace that housed Taiwan's leaders for centuries, built on top of Dutch stronghold Fort Proventia in 1653. The neatly manicured grounds and the palace are startlingly accessible - in some places worn smooth by visitors' hands and feet - and was easy to cover in an hour, although I lingered awhile at a set of Qing Dynasty tablets that ride on the backs of stone turtles.
A few blocks away, the Tu Hsiao Yueh noodle shop may be one of the few places where you can safely claim to have tasted history, although after catching a glimpse of the restaurant's famous pot I briefly lost my appetite for the past.
The shop specializes in tan tsai shrimp noodles, a dish invented here that has spread across Taiwan. According to the restaurant's brochure, since it opened in 1895 there have only been two pots, the first of which was retired after 50 years. The second, I assumed, was in the corner, being used by the seated chef to cook the minced pork sauce that tops every bowl.
Ignoring the legend that the pot hasn't been washed in decades - or possibly since Koxinga landed - I ordered a bowl and a Taiwan brand beer. Eight minutes later, I ordered another bowl of the steamy dish and no longer cared if the pot was a gift from space aliens. I tried to verify the legend on my way out, but no one on staff spoke English, so I chalked it up to cultural mystery.
There are times when a language barrier comes in handy, particularly in the Hua Yuan (Garden) Night Market while chewing on something you don't want to actually identify.
I was weaving through the crowded aisles lined with vendors selling foodstuffs ranging from strikingly simple to culturally complex: Japanese octopus balls; Tainan's coffin bread (stew in a hollowed-out brick of bread); Taiwan's trademark stinky tofu; fried quail eggs on a stick; and something I could only describe as KFT (Kentucky Fried Tentacles).
The night market tradition is more closely associated with Taipei, but that may be more about Tainan's relative obscurity outside Taiwan.
I was hunting for an oyster omelet, a signature dish in Tainan made of greens, potato starch, sprouts, eggs and, naturally, oysters. Unable to muster enough Mandarin to ask (or understand the answer), I scoured every stall until finding a cook throwing bits of animal, vegetable and, possibly, mineral onto a Mongolian-style grill.
Blank look. Shrug.
Finally, I surrendered to chance and ordered a serving, which came on a plate with a plastic slipcover to avoid having to wash dishes in a makeshift kitchen in a parking lot.
I was halfway through when the cook located an English-speaking friend who confirmed the name of the dish. I took a moment to thank as many of the Buddhist and Taoist deities I could remember and cleaned my plate, possibly negating the need for a baggie covering.
While wandering the rest of the market, past midway games and children's activities, I stopped among the vendors selling clothing, toys and household goods. I was tempted to look for the "Made in" tag, but thought better of it.
Based on the teetering stacks of sweet snacks and the heady fog of incense, prayer and humidity filling the Technicolor temple, it seemed easy to understand why the Jade Emperor is a healthy size and has a perpetual, knowing gaze. I was starting to wonder, however, if he didn't also have a Swiss bank account.
Despite being the fifth-largest city, Tainan claims more Buddhist and Taoist temples than anywhere else in Taiwan. I had spent time admiring dozens of sanctuaries and shrines, from the popular Confucius Temple to the busy Official God of War Temple, the latter surrounded by rows of parked scooters.
But then I stumbled on the Lord of Heaven (or Jade Emperor) Temple, where throngs were leaving Joss paper, stacks of fake money meant for burning as an offering to the gods or for ancestors to spend in the afterlife, depending on the temple and the season.
Every table was piled high with the offerings, including incense and cookies, and two workers were lounging atop a 20-foot pile of Joss paper-filled garbage bags, yet more of the "ghost money" continued to pile up as the faithful filed through the ancient temple.
My first impulse was to poke fun at what, on the surface, seemed a bizarre and spiritually materialistic attempt at "buying off" the gods.
But I couldn't.
The reverence - for tradition, for ancestors, for belief, all in the middle of a modern city - was striking. While short of an epiphany, I found I needed to buy the gifts and make my own offerings. History and tradition here, it seemed, are not meant just for watching.
If you go
Important: Most street signs and landmark markers are in English, but outside of the hotel, I encountered fewer than a dozen people who spoke any English. Unless you are comfortable winging it, consider booking an English- speaking guide through the hotel.
China Airlines ( www.china-airlines.com/en) flies nonstop from SFO to Taipei's Taoyuan International Airport, about 30 miles west of Central Taipei. Taiwan High-Speed Rail ( www.thsrc.com.tw/en) operates a dozen trains a day from Taipei to Tainan, which takes less than two hours. Standard class: $47 U.S.
WHERE TO STAY
Shangri-La Far Eastern Plaza Hotel: 89 Section West, University Road, Tainan City; +886 6 702 8888; www.shangri-la.com. Upscale luxury chain that, because rates are lower in Tainan, starts at $94 per night. (I upgraded to the chain's concierge-level program and still paid less than $150 U.S. per night.)
WHERE TO EAT
Tu Hsiao Yueh noodle shop: 16 Jhongjheng Road, just west of the Tang-de-jhang park traffic circle; www.iddi.com.tw; +886 6 225 9554. (A chain now, but this is the original location.)
Hua Yuan (Garden) Night Market: Haian Road, between Lixian Road and Hewei Road, North District; Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
WHAT TO DO
Anping District: About 1.5 miles west of Central Tainan; includes some of the oldest temples, Fort Anping and Anping Harbor National Historic Park.
Taiwan Tourism Bureau: eng.taiwan.net.tw
Spud Hilton is the editor of Travel. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page C - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Spud Hilton, Chronicle Travel Editor
San Francisco Chronicle May 6, 2011 04:00 AM Copyright San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Sunday, May 8, 2011
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