Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Pounding the Pavements of Old Taiwan (En Voyage)

Getting around Taiwan is exceptionally easy. In addition to the bullet trains which zip between Taipei and Kaohsiung, domestic flights to the east coast and outlying islands, commuter and rapid-transit trains, there are hundreds of bus routes. Visitors who want greater freedom can rent a car, a motorcycle, or a bike.

There’s also walking. Nowadays, humanity’s original means of transportation isn’t much favored by people making their way to work, school, or a place where they can have fun. This is especially understandable in Taiwan’s warm, wet summers. Yet more and more tourists - both domestic and international - are eschewing the tour bus, and opting to explore parts of the island on foot.

Ambulation makes total sense in the old heart of Tainan, Taipei’s Wanhua District, and much of Lugang. These places were settled long before the invention of the motor car. Until well into Japanese colonial period (1895-1945), ordinary people walked everywhere, while the wealthy traveled in sedan chairs carried by servants. Despite the best efforts of modernizing mayors, each place retains fascinating alleyways impenetrable to those who won’t get out of their cars.  

As part of a broad shift toward what Europeans call “slow travel” - but Taiwanese often label LOHAS (meaning “lifestyles of health and sustainability”) - walking tours are catching on in Taiwan, thanks in part to three organizations which take it upon themselves to organize regular, short-distance pedestrian excursions that free of charge.

One of these operates in Tainan, which even now is sometimes called Fucheng, or “government city.” This honorific acknowledges that, for more than two centuries until 1887, Tainan served as Taiwan’s administrative capital. In terms of current economic and political importance, it ranks behind Taipei, Kaohsiung, and Taichung. But many people find it the most interesting of Taiwan’s major cities, thanks to a stupendous density of historical and cultural attractions. A local idiom, “there's a major temple every five steps, a minor shrine every three,” is hardly an exaggeration. 

As a service to those who want to give the city’s captivating neighborhoods in the attention they deserve, Tainan City Government has thrown its weight behind a project called My Tainan Tour. This pairs knowledgeable, bilingual Tainan natives with small groups of tourists eager to dig a little deeper into local history and culture

Tourists heading to Taipei have a range of options. Some are offered by Like It Formosa, which describes itself as “an independent organization committed to promoting Taiwan and facilitating intercultural exchange.” Their guides are young, and bi- or trilingual. One of Like It Formosa’s most popular walkabouts is the Historic Tour held each Sunday. This kicks off at Longshan Temple in Wanhua, a famous house of worship in a grittily authentic part of the capital. There, the guides explain aspects of Taiwanese folk religion (“males should enter a sacred site left foot first; females should enter right foot first”) before moving onto the restored old street known as Bopiliao [pictured here]. 

The next two stops both date from the Japanese era. After a look at Ximending’s Red House, and a few words about its intriguing shape and varied history, it’s on to the Office of the President. The latter was completed in 1919. The tour culminates at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, three hours and 4.5km later. Like It Formosa’s Facebook page lists other Taipei tours, including a pub crawl, a LGBT-themed walk, and a look around history-rich Dadaocheng. There’s also a hike up Elephant Mountain, timed to enjoy the setting sun and superb nighttime views of Taipei 101.

Tour Me Away covers some of the same ground. Their Old Town Taipei expedition, however, also stops by Zhongshan Hall, a concert venue which embodies the dramatic twists and turns of Taiwan’s history in the 20th century. This Spanish-Islamic style building, completed in 1936, was commissioned to celebrate the coronation of Japanese Emperor Hirohito. It was here in 1945 that the Japanese civilian authorities and armed forces in Taiwan signed an instrument of surrender. Soon afterward, it was renamed “Zhongshan” in honor of Sun Zhongshan, aka Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Nationalist Republic of China.  

Tour Me Away’s Taipei Chill Out Tour roams through Taipei’s Flower Market and along nearby roads including Yongkang Street. Two of Asia’s most famous xiaolongbao (soup-filled steamed dumplings) restaurants are located here, as are several other excellent eating options...

To read the complete article, click on this link to the online version of the magazine.

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