For the 3-day cultural tour of Taiwan, we were given new groupings, based on the destinations that were pre-assigned. We didn’t all go to the same places. My group, as well as a few others, were to tour the western coast of Taiwan. Another group or two toured the eastern coast, and then a few others toured other parts of Taiwan.
Originally, Quennie (a fellow participant from the Philippines) and I were grouped with an entirely Chinese-speaking group. But since we absolutely did not understand the orientation they did the previous day, we insisted with the organizers that we be assigned to an English-speaking group. For my part, I really wanted to learn more about Taiwan, and I would hardly be able to accomplish this if I were assigned to a Chinese-speaking group. (Of course, the group facilitator spoke some English, but we did not want to burden her with requests to interpret the whole time as it was not her primary duty.)
So we were placed in a bus with a mixed group of non-Chinese participants. The majority were westerners but there were also some Koreans, South Africans as well as a few Filipino co-delegates. After a mistake in the bus assignment for our group, we were quickly transferred and we were found ourselves finally exiting the monastery compound where we’ve lived for the past 4 days.
Not long after the bus went on its way, our facilitator, Andrea Wang, then briefed us as to what to expect for that day. Also, in order to break the ice, we were all asked to introduce ourselves to everyone. This was easily accomplished due to the excellent sound system of the bus. In addition, the bus also had videoke, and this was later on put to good use.
Our first stop outside of Kaohsiung was the city of Tainan. In Taiwan’s early history, Tainan was the base from which the Dutch administered the whole of Taiwan for a time. It has been centuries since the Dutch have been expelled and almost nothing remains of their former presence. Perhaps one of the very few remnants of Dutch rule is Chikkan Tower, which is the modern name of a building that is built on and is partly made up of what was once a Dutch-built structure.
Chikkan Tower/Fort Provintia
By all appearances, Chikkan Tower looks entirely Chinese in design, but a closer look at the foundations and the surrounding ruins would show what remains of the original Fort Provintia in the 17th century. It’s a popular tourist spot in Tainan due to it’s historical significance. Near the building is a monument memorializing the surrender of the Dutch governor of Formosa to Koxinga, a Chinese military leader and national hero to most Taiwanese.
Koxinga’s defeat of the Dutch effectively freed Taiwan from a European power for all time, and installed the dominance of ethnic Han Chinese which exists to this day. Within the Chikkan Tower, there’s an exhibit dedicated entirely to him. (Interestingly, Koxinga is regarded as a fearsome pirate in the Philippines during the early days of the Spanish period. This was due to his threat to attack and conquer the Philippine Islands when the Spanish authorities refused his demand for tribute. The attack never came because of Koxinga’s sudden death.)
Eventually, I had my fill of the Chikkan Tower and eagerly set forth to explore the Daoist Temple that was just across the street from the Chikkan compound. Since this would the the very first time I will be crossing a busy road in Taiwan, I made sure that I followed traffic rules and crossed when the pedestrian light was green. I didn’t really want to cause any incident on my first (and hopefully not only) trip to Taiwan.
At first, I was wary about entering the temple for fear of offending any worshiper if I unwittingly did something wrong or improper. But apparently, worshipers in that Daoist (Taoist) Temple were so used to tourists roaming around that they really don’t mind. So I eventually stepped inside and looked around to admire the richly decorated temple.
It was the first Daoist temple that I’ve ever entered, by the way. Being so far only exposed to Fo Guang Shan’s Buddhist temples, this Daoist temple presented a very different face of Chinese/Taiwanese culture. There was a heavy scent of incense permeating the entire temple, and the traditionally and religiously significant colors of red and gold could be found in every direction one looked. Aside from that, patterns of repetition were also prevalent here.
At the side of the temple compound near the main road, I chanced upon a very large furnace where devotees burned strips of paper on which their prayers were written. Before long, Jacob, one of the facilitators, began to call us participants to return to our buses for the next stop of the trip.
FGS Nantai Branch Temple
The next stop turned out to be a Fo Guang Shan temple in a district called Nantai, just across the Tainan City Hall. Our group made a pilgrimage to the main shrine of the temple, venerated the Buddha, and listened to a short talk by the Abbess. Afterwards, each of us were given token gifts. (This would be a recurring theme in the next couple of days for every FGS temple we visit.) The design of the temple was one that I was very familiar with, having been exposed to FGS for the past 4 days, and even back in Manila, in the Mabuhay temple.
The funny thing when we arrived was that there were 2 welcoming arches made of balloons as we made our way towards the entrance. We really thought that the temple set that up especially for us. But as it turns out, it was actually a leftover decoration from a wedding that occurred the day before. They decided to just leave it where it stood as a form of reuse.
One thing very noticeable about this temple though is its very modern design. There were steps going nearer the shrine that appeared at the press of a remote control. The temple is illuminated via a sophisticated lighting system, and there were even a wall full of “prayer lights” (for lack of a better term). Each light stands for a donor of the temple, and they light up supposedly in prayer whenever a request for prayer is made in exchange for a donation to the temple. At least that’s my understanding anyway. I might be wrong.
As it was just about noontime when we arrived, the temple prepared for us participants a sumptuous lunch which was served in the conventional way (unlike the regimented manner by which our meals were served back in the monastery.) This was to be the first in a series of vegetarian feasts that I had the good fortune of partaking in for the rest of my stay in Taiwan. It seemed as if they prepared food that was enough for triple our number. I must have had 3 plate-fulls, and many of the others did, but the food wasn’t even close to running out.
I was so stuffed from all the food that I made good use of the free extra hour after lunch to walk around and take photos of the surroundings. I even got to go back to the main schrine to take photos accompanied by Shirley, another fellow Filipino participant. Before long, we were re-boarding our bus towards our next destination.
Exiting Tainan, we made our way towards the north up to a point where we will eventually reach the city of Taichung, also on the western coast of the island. But before reaching Taichung, we stopped by the Lukang Historic Township located in the small county of Changhua adjacent to it.
“Lukang” is alternately spelled “Lugang” depending on which system of romanization one is using (Wade-Giles or Pinyin, respectively.) It used to be a very important port city with extensive commercial ties with the coastal cities of mainland China. However, it underwent a slow decline due to heavy siltation at its coast, which took the town further away from the sea. This was compounded by the refusal of the city leaders to have railroads to pass through the town, thereby resulting in losses as businesses moved to more profitable cities.
This decline, however, unintentionally preserved most of Lukang’s architectural and structural heritage. Unlike other old cities in Taiwan, Lukang did not demolish its old red-brick buildings in favor of larger and more modern ones that characterize the much older cities of Taipei and the Tainan. It is now a prime tourist spot due to its historic significance, the same way that Vigan is to Filipinos.
We were given free rein to roam Lukang, and I had a lot of fun soaking in the local atmosphere and taking photos. In one instance, I was even berated by a homeowner when I was taking a photo of a bicycle. I’m not sure what I did wrong but it might be that he felt like I was invading his privacy. I went back and forth the narrow streets observing the quaint architecture of the old buildings, most of which were still in use, and the artisans and merchants plying their trade in the sidewalks and home fronts. Some structures have been re-purposed for obviously newer trades (cafes, bubble/milk tea), but some looked abandoned and closed..
Occasionally, I stopped by to read a historical marker, which fortunately all had English translations. One particularly interesting historical artifact was a “half-well” that I saw jutting out of the enclosing wall of a residence (the other half was located within the wall. According to the historical marker, it was a mark of generosity to install a half-well, because it’s an open invitation for everyone outside to take whatever amount of water they needed. Unfortunately, the well had already dried out and been filled in, but the structure is still intact, much like most of the old buildings.
The guide of the other bus, Justin Tsui (who, as it turns out is a real cool fellow), tried to gather everyone to have a semblance of organization in the tour, but later on, we once again got separated and I found myself alone. Time could really pass unnoticed when one is deeply engaged in something and I found myself in this predicament when I realized I spent an hour or more just going back and forth the same street. Out of a sense of mild panic, I tried to exit the street and venture further just to see something interesting, while at the same time not venturing too far from where the pink and baby blue shirts (our “uniforms”) were congregating.
I was fortunate to find Andrea and while she was actually trying to get everyone to return to the buses, she allowed me a few minutes to proceed to a nearby Daoist temple. Anyway, she still had to go there too because a lot of my co-participants were probably also there.
My second Daoist temple visit was much like the first one, only that this particular temple is a lot bigger, and there were much more tourists than devotees milling around. I didn’t stay around much as I wanted to keep close to Andrea. I really didn’t want to get lost at that point in time, so when she left, I left too. And we worked our way back towards our bus. By the way, the whole time we were in Lukang, it was a cloudless mid afternoon. The aircon of the bus was very much welcome after all that exploring in the July summer heat. It took another hour or two of traveling before we finally reached Taichung.
The city of Taichung just lies north of Changhua County. It used to be separate from the Taichung County in the same way that, say, Cebu City is a separate entity from Cebu Province. At some point in its recent past, the city was merged with the county and thus constituting a special municipality in Taiwan. (The only other special municipalities in the country are Kaohsiung, Tainan, Taipei and New Taipei.) Special municipalities have a high degree of autonomy, and in order for an entity to be one, it must pass a certain criteria which includes political, cultural and economic development, and has to have a population of at least 1.25 million.
The Feng Chia Night Market
I’ve previously posted a slideshow of the Feng Chia Market which you can see here. We were basically given some free time in the late afternoon-to-early evening hours to have snacks and shop for souvenirs and stuff. I feel like shopping that early in the trip, so I just walked around and see what kind of snacks I can buy. Along the way, snapped photos every 30 seconds or so. You can see them in the slideshow.
There was still sunlight when I started looking around, and it was already night time when I was able to choose a snack for myself – assorted fried mushrooms. (I simply imitated Quennie’s choice.) I really wanted to try the ice cold bubble/milk teas that were sold everywhere but I had a throat infection at that time, the pain of which tea seemed to exacerbate, so I wisely avoided it. Anyway, we never got thirsty because our bus had a huge stack of bottled water that was freely available to us.
There was one incident that was a cause for concern for the Philippine delegation when one of us, Jemar, became the only person unaccounted for when it was time to leave the night market. Some 15 to 20 minutes passed before he was located. It turns out that he mistook the place where he was seen as the meeting place to board the bus, which was across the intersection from where we were. It was through the sharp eyes of Florelyn (also one of us) that he was seen looking at goods inside a watch shop.
I sternly berated Jemar once we entered the bus due to what I felt that time was a big embarrassment to us. I later on regretted this because in hindsight, it appeared to be such a minor thing to be upset about. Luckily, Jemar doesn’t seem to be the kind of kid who holds grudges. In addition, there was a much more embarrassing incident the day after that might have possibly made people forget about what Jemar did. (More on this later.)
FGS Hui Zhong Branch Temple
We were billeted at another FGS temple at the Hui Zhong district of Taichung to spend the night in, before continuing the tour the next day. Looking at the building from the outside, it looked more like a hotel than a temple. The lobby area certainly looked like a 5-star hotel, and there was a grand staircase on the left and the right as one enters, leading to the main shrine. We’ve been told that it was once a restaurant.
Anyway, similar to the temple in Tainan, we made our pilgrimage, barefoot, in the main shrine (which was a bit smaller) and were once again given token gifts. It was hard to keep track of the names and faces of the abbots/abbesses who were giving talks because they look so much the same due to their garb and their shaved heads. They mostly spoke in Chinese, so Justin translated for them the whole time.
Oddly enough, I don’t remember if we had dinner that night. But there were a lot of cookies and wafers freely available that I must have eaten a full meal’s worth of them. The rest of the night was spent doing the laundry (or more appropriately, waiting for one’s turn to do the laundry), making small talk with some co-participants who were also trying to do their laundry, and getting settled in one’s room.
After a small mistake in room assignments, I got reassigned to a larger room that was every bit as multicultural as my previous room in the monastery. There was a lanky blonde American named Sam who, interestingly enough, spoke Korean (and who seemed to think that I spoke Spanish, based on my name.) There was also an equally slender black guy named Jonathan from France who spoke very softly. Also with us in our room was “George”, a very friendly and charismatic Chinese guy who was also, quite appropriately, a facilitator. (There was another Chinese guy with us in the room but he spoke very little English and tended to stick with George and their friends in the other rooms.)
After having a shower, it was a well-deserved sleep. Quite a productive first day, I should say.
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This entry is part of the Taiwan series dated July 19-27, 2012:
1. Gallery: Fo Guang Shan Main Shrine
2. Gallery: Feng Chia Night Market
3. Taiwan: The International Youth Seminar on Life and Ch’an, day 1
4. Taiwan: The International Youth Seminar on Life and Ch’an, day 2
5. Taiwan: The International Youth Seminar on Life and Ch’an, day 3
6. Taiwan: The International Youth Seminar on Life and Ch’an, day 4
7. Taiwan: Tainan & Taichung, with Lukang in between
8. Taiwan: Science and Religion
9. Gallery: The Taiwan Theater Museum
10. Taiwan: Traipsing around Yilan
11. Taiwan: Closing Program at Fo Guang University
12. Taiwan: Leaving Yilan, Arriving in Taipei
13. Taiwan: Last 24 hours in Taipei
14. Taiwan: Epilogue