Monday, July 30, 2007

Hong Kong I: Arrival

Me, toting luggage.

We arrived at our hostel late Friday night (the picture above is from Saturday morning) and were up bright and early the next day. The hostel was quite nice, as well as quite cheap, and it was really cool to experience the "international youth hostel" vibe that I heard and read so much about first-hand while working as a map editor for Let's Go. The hostel was filled with people from all over the world, and while I'm glad I don't have to live in those kinds of accommodations all the time, it was neat to get a taste of that lifestyle.

The view from our hostel window.

Location-wise, it would have been hard to do much better than we did in our hostel -- we were less than one block away from the waterfront, in the Causeway Bay area of Hong Kong. Causeway Bay, in addition to overlooking Victoria Harbour, is one of the ritziest shopping districts in the whole city. Of course, none of the students we were traveling with would ever dream of buying stuff there, but it made for a quite safe neighborhood (I made sure of that before we went), which is not always easy to find when you're searching for budget youth hostels.

The street by our hostel.

We took the metro (Hong Kong has, by the way, one of the most incredibly useful urban transporation networks I have ever seen) to Kowloon, where we were meeting with a few other students, and experienced first-hand the wonders of cell-phone-less coordination in a city where only one person speaks the language.

The metro speeds into the station.

Once the logistics were out of the way, however, everything was smooth sailing. We collected everybody and set out to find a cheap breakfast/lunch in central Hong Kong.

From left to right: Kevin, Eric, Chris, Manuel, Matt, Sheila, me.

After lunching in a cute diner (on the biggest bowl of fried rice I have ever seen, I might mention), the group split upt to go our different ways: Eric and Matt to go to Macau, a neighboring Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic, and Kevin, Chris, Manuel, Sheila, and I to go to Ocean Park, Hong Kong's most famous theme park.

The view from the top of the double-decker bus.

Hailing the double-decker bus to Ocean Park also proved complicated, but once we were aboard, things were smooth again. We drank in the views from every angle from the top of the bus, becoming more and more excited as the buildings thinned out and expansive views of the waterfront began to appear.

Getting closer to the waterfront.

Almost there...!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Off to Hong Kong!

Several classmates and I are heading out for Hong Kong tomorrow evening, and will spend the weekend (into Monday) on the islands! Kevin and I will be meeting up for one last rendezvous with his family (this time in Taichung) before making our way up north to the airport for a nighttime flight of less than two hours. I am sure I will have pictures and stories galore up here by the middle of next week!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Taiwan's latest bid to re-enter the UN

Earlier this week, Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian wrote a letter to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, initiating the latest chapter in the on-going saga of Taiwan and the UN. Taiwan was a member of the UN, under the name "Republic of China," until it was ousted in 1971 and replaced by the People's Republic of China (mainland China).

This is not the first time Taiwan has tried for re-acceptance to the United Nations. In August of 2001, President Chen Shui-bian announced that his government was re-initiating (for the ninth time in the history of the ROC) the campaign for Taiwan to enter the UN. (More information about that here. That last effort, like this one, did not seek for acceptance of the "ROC," but simply for "Taiwan" as a sovereign political entity with no official relationship either to the PRC or the ROC.

Chinese officials were outraged by the re-initiation of this issue, and vehement proclamations and denunciations of the "rebellious move" are showing up in newpapers all over China. A good account of what is being said was published recently in the People's Daily (人民日报), the full text of which is available here. (Some information about the nature of the People's Daily, which is printed and edited by the Chinese Communist Party, can be found here). Clearly, it's hardly an unbiased source, but I have no doubt that what it reports about what was said by various officials on this topic is accurate).

Anyway, here's what I read: A senior Chinese representative to the UN, Wang Yinfang, said earlier this week that "There is only one China in the world, any attempt to raise in whatever form the so-called issue of Taiwan's "participation" in the United Nations is doomed to failure as before.... Such an erroneous act is not only a flagrant violation of the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and aserious distortion of the nature of this Organization, but also a brazen challenge to the 'one China' principle widely recognized bythe international community," he said.

"It has severely encroached upon China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and grossly interfered in China's internal affairs," Wang insisted. "The Chinese government strongly condemns and firmly opposes it and requests these countries immediately to desist from engaging in any such illegal act that undermines China's sovereignty and integrity. There is but one China in the world and Taiwan has been part of China's territory since antiquity."

I don't want to get too involved in political argument here -- not, as last summer, because I'm afraid of being hunted down by government agents and dragged away (hooray for freedom of speech!), but simply because I don't feel fully informed about the details of the situation. However, I do feel pretty safe pointing out that Wang's statement that "Taiwan has been part of China's territory since antiquity" is a brazen lie. I researched Taiwanese political history for a class I took at Harvard called "The Two Chinas," for which I wrote a final paper on the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. Some information from this paper appears below.

Although two Chinese expeditions were said to have visited the island of Taiwan in the seventh century, there is scant Chinese documentation of contact before 1430, when a Ming official reported his “discovery” of the island to the emperor. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the island often served as a refuge for pirates, as well as a variety of more legitimate Chinese and Japanese traders, before being “discovered” and named “Ilha Formosa” by Portuguese explorers in 1590. The island was seized by the Dutch in 1622 and officially settled in 1624, in order to establish trade between the Dutch and the Ming dynasty Chinese.

Forty years later, in 1662, revolutionary Koxinga, the son of a pirate, laid siege to the Dutch fortress of Zeelandia and won control of the island for more than twenty years. In 1683, however, the Qing dynasty annexed Taiwan as the empire’s 22nd province and ruled it as a prefecture. Sinicization slowly replaced the Westernization that had characterized the cultural development of Taiwan’s hodge-podge population, and the island was settled by many Chinese during this period.

Thus by the time the Sino-Japanese War began in 1894, Taiwan had been a part of the Chinese empire for little more than two hundred years -- not exactly a short amount of time, but certainly not all of "antiquity" given that the Chinese empire dates back thousands of years into the past. Although the Sino-Japanese War was fought in the Korean, Liaotung and Shantung peninsulas, most historians agree that the Japanese kept a constant eye on Taiwan as a key strategic Chinese territory, and patrolled the waters outside the island almost continuously.

Eventually, the Penghu Islands fell under Japanese attack, and by spring of 1985 the Chinese forces had had enough. Yet the Qing rulers’ willingness to give these islands to Japan was by no means matched by the islanders themselves. Taiwanese historian Chang Chi-yun recounts the vehemence of the islanders upon learning of their fate: “When, on April 17, 1895, the Treaty of Shimonoseki ceded Taiwan and the Penghu Islands to the Japanese, so great was the uproar among the Taiwan population that the transfer ceremony had to take place on board a warship outside the Keelung harbor.”

Yet this ceremony was even more vigorously contested at a later date. In May of 1895, the people of Taiwan, “clamoring for autonomous government,” established what they called “The Republic of Taiwan,” with a parliament and an elected President, Inspector General Tang Ching-sung, forming the first democratic republic in all of Asia. Despite the many attempts of the Taiwanese islanders to maintain their autonomy in the face of foreign domination, the republic was a short-lived, surviving little more than a week.

Still, as historian Lai Tse-han points out, although the Republic lasted only ten days, the Taiwanese fought the Japanese troops for four months. By June, the Japanese had occupied Taipei, in the face of massive Taiwanese resistance. With the arrival of the Japanese Governor General, Sukenori Kabayama, a military and civil administration was set up as, by October of 1895, Tainan was also subdued and occupied by the Japanese Army.

When Taiwan was "returned" to China at the end of the Second World War in 1945, it had spent fifty years as a Japanese colony and still retains the deep impression this period left upon it. Since Taiwan was Japan’s first overseas colony, Japanese intentions were to turn the island into a showpiece “model colony.” Therefore, once the rebellions had slowed and the Japanese political infrastructure had been solidified, much effort was put into to improving the island’s economy, industry, public works, and culture.

Yet few ever truly lost sight of the fact that the islanders of Taiwan were a conquered and colonized people who were governed by foreigners on their own soil. There was little integration between Japanese officials and their subjects, except at the very highest social strata. According to statistics compiled in 1941, more than fifty years after Taiwan ostensibly became a Japanese colony, the island’s Japanese population amounted only to 370,000, mostly merchants and government servants. One-third of these lived in Taipei, and the ratio of Taiwanese to Japanese on the whole island was 18 to 1. Although armed resistance in this period was almost nonexistent, there were many more peaceful forms of protest, both overseas and on the island itself.

Most historians agree that at the time of the Japanese invasion there was a strong sense of Chinese identity among most of the residents of the island. Yet it is also true that this sense of self shifted and mutated under the fifty years of Japanese occupation, from a strong cultural nostalgia for China in the early days as a Japanese colony, to an increasing “Japanization” which was buoyed and fostered by the good effects of Japanese infrastructure and economic organization, to mingled resistance and compliance with the Kōminka movement of the late colonial era.

There was also an increasing sense of isolation and abandonment, perhaps best captured and sloganized by Wu Zhuoliu’s 1945 novel Asia’s Orphan (Ya-xi-ya de Gu’er). The symbolism of Taiwan as a neglected and isolated orphan, forced to find its own identity as events on the mainland of China marched on without them, has been an important part of cultural discussion of Taiwanese identity ever since.

The Guomindang's efforts to portray Taiwan as a bastion of traditional Chinese culture, which began immediately after retaking the island in the 1940s and persis to this day, represent just one small piece of the island's complicated culutural and political identity. As it becomes more and more difficult to cling to the idea that the ROC is the true government of all of China, it seems to many just as difficult for the PRC to maintain that Taiwan is truly part of China after more than sixty years of de facto self-government. Is the current political situation simply a long and awkward cease-fire in an ongoing civil war, as nationalists on either side of the Strait seem to insist? Or is it rather the case that Taiwan has found a new political identity to match a cultural identity that was never fully Chinese, and now seeks international recognition of this fact?

Obviously, no one has the answers to these questions. I'll be keeping an eye on the news, though.... Not just because the topic is interesting and I've studied a bit about it, but because, as my classmate Matt put it the other day while reading the news online, "it's good to find out whether we're going to be invaded soon or not."

Note to anyone worrying back home (*cough*Mom*cough*): China would be crazy to do anything stupid right before the 2008 Olympics, so I'm sure we're all fine.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The final Harry Potter

Saturday morning, bright and early (well, around 8) I woke up with butterflies in my stomach. It was the 21st of July, the date for which readers all over the world have been breathlessly waiting for the final installment in the Harry Potter series. I brushed my teeth, washed my face, put on a black dress (in honor of the black robes worn at Hogwarts), collected Kevin, and was at the bus stop before 9. We had two buses to take to reach the bookstore in Taichung where Kevin and I had reserved the book weeks earlier.

Taichung's own Shin Kong Mitsukoshi, where Kevin and I reserved the book.

We reached the department store around 10:30, where people were queuing up for something outside. For one horrifying moment I thought it might be the Harry Potter book, but thankfully it was for some concert that was happening there later that day. Relieved, we headed upstairs and found the bookstore just as my watch displayed that it was 11.

One small display in the bookstore.

We had each reserved a copy of the adult British version, although it turned out that the American version was in the store for sale as well (though that version was not available for preorder). Our books were handed to us with special orange bags and horcrux bookmarks, and we took them gleefully downstairs to the food court (I may have started reading mine en route, though paused reading for the escalator bits). Grabbing food, we dove in.

Kevin took a picture of his food; I was too busy reading to care much about my meal.

After a few hours of silent reading, Kevin suggested that we find a quieter place, since the food court was bustling with people by then. We took the requisite two buses home, reading steadily, then paused briefly to exchange words with a few classmates in the hallway (and show off our snazzy orange bags) before heading straight into Kevin's room to continue reading.

This is what our covers look like.

Eight hours and one or two 7-11 runs later, we were done. It was... amazing. A beautiful conclusion to one of my favorite series of all time, and -- for me especially -- a wonderful respite from the frenetic sight-seeing that has filled the last few weeks. I've spent today re-reading bits of the book and (as you can probably see) organizing and editing this blog. Tomorrow we have class, and who knows what new adventures our next Tuesday off will bring? For now, I'm glad for a little bit of down time, and even gladder to be able to spend it with HP. ;)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Friday night on the town

Taichung at night.

Friday night nearly every (American) student at Asia University had plans to go into Taichung for a night of fun at "The Pigpen," billed as a "Traditional British Pub" which offered free admission to foreigners on Friday nights. This sounded a bit too good to be true (as, it turns out, was the case), but Kevin, Michael (from UC San Bernadino) and Manuel (from University of Hawaii at Hilo) gladly accepted a ride into town with David, the new director of our program. (David was heading into the city to visit the batting cages in an amusement complex just across the street from Taichung's main block of expat nightclubs, and offered to drive us in a few hours ahead of everyone else, saving us the bus/taxi fare it would have cost to get there.)

From left to right: Kevin, me, Manuel, Mike.

David drove us to the sports complex -- called, like one of the city's biggest shopping malls, "Tiger City" -- bought us all drinks, and chatted for a while before heading upstairs to hit some baseballs. The rest of us, having squared away travel details with the students back at the university, decided to bowl a few frames at the giant bowling alley on the first floor.

They had bowling balls that looked like soccer balls!
(Side note: aren't my shoes snazzy?)

I haven't bowled in ages, and I can definitely report that I haven't improved much since I was twelve (or however old I was when I last went bowling at someone's elementary school birthday party), although I did get a strike and a spare during our second round. Once we had finished, we meandered outside the building and stumbled upon a sort of convention of tiny, fluffly white dogs of identical breeds, with many owners trying to keep their dogs under control. I have no idea what they were all doing there, but Kevin snapped a picture en route to the club.

The convocation of many small white dogs, and the chaos they produced.

We arrived at the club and were unpleasantly surprised to learn that, far from being free for foreigners, it was $400 NTD for me to get in, and $500 NTD for the guys. Other people were slightly mollified to learn that this fee covered an "all you can drink" bar, but I never drink much so for me that was small comfort.

Outside the "traditional British pub" that was anything but.

However, as it happened, the experience was more than worth the $400 I had to fork over to gain entrance. The bar was fairly empty when we entered, with only one person on the dance floor and a few tables of people smoking and eating bar snacks. Soon, though, the night's entertainment took the stage: a troupe of singer/dancers called "Happy Together," dressed in green pants and white shirts, singing passable versions of popular American dance music (although sometimes the pronunciation was a little odd) and dancing in sync. As the night wore on, a couple of my classmates even took the stage with the dancers!

"Happy Together" onstage with a few of my classmates. The people in green pants are performers, the two girls in dresses (Andria and Sasha, both from the University of North Carolina) are not.

I had a lot of fun dancing and chatting with my friends at the pub. I was called upon a couple of times to translate for classmates whose desire to talk to the locals was far greater than their capacity to actually communicate in Mandarin, and even made a few Taiwanese acquaintances of my own in the process. However, as the bar filled up and the night wore on, the air grew progressively thicker with cigarette smoke, until my eyes and lungs alike began to burn. Never one to inhale smoke if I can help it, I gathered enough friends for a taxi and we drove directly back to campus. After a quick shower to remove the smell of cigarettes that still clung to my hair and skin, I crawled into bed around 3, with only one thought in my mind: 8 hours until I get my hands on the final Harry Potter!!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Sun Moon Lake III: Hiking

The mountain.

Luckily, fate was on my side. We headed back to the small town center by the visitor's center. The others paused for drinks and snacks as Kevin and I began a quest for ibuprofen. We were quickly rewarded by the discovery of a small pharmacy with the desired object on a shelf just inside the door. I had never been so happy to spend $150 NTD. After sitting for a while, and fueling up with some snacks and lemonade from a roadside stand, we were definitely ready to go, and I felt like a whole new person -- still a person with a headache, but at least one that would walk in a straight line and see out of her right eye. All was right with the world once more. We set off for Mt. Maolan, determined to reach its peak and come back down again in time to catch the last direct bus out of Sun Moon Lake Village to Taichung.

Kevin in the tea gardens at the mountain's base.

The tea gardens, with the pond visible in the bottom part of the photo. The placard at the lake read "Here often be seen frogs" and had information about the various species of amphibians who call that pond their home.

The hiking trail, though quite steep towards the end, was not long: less than 3 miles long, and divided into two parts. The first part of the trail led to the "Tea Research and Extension Station, Yuchih branch," which was established by the Japanese during the occupation and now continues to work with the tea leaves for which the mountain is justly famous. This part of the trail wound its way through tea gardens and fields, where some of Taiwan's finest Assam black tea is grown and harvested.

I simply couldn't stop taking pictures. Ever since I had first seen the bright, glossy photographs of "tea mountains" in the travel guide my father got for me, I knew this was something I had to see during my visit. The rows and rows of neat green tea bushes, the elegant terracing of the mountainside, the brightly-clad, straw-capped women picking baskets of tea to be dried and sold to make East Asia's most ancient and revered drink -- it was all exactly as I had seen it in the book, and even more lovely in person.

One of the slopes with women, covered from head to toe in colorful fabrics, picking

One of the tea-leaf pickers, up close.

Some of the harvested leaves.

After drinking in (no pun intended) all the beauty of the tea fields, we took a shortcut past the Tea Research Station and embarked upon the second half of the mountain trail.

The climbers take a steep shortcut -- from top to bottom: Josh, Kevin, me, Eric (Dave is taking the photo). Why does Kevin look so exasperated?

The second part of the hike winds its way up to a Meteorological Research Station at the mountain's summit. It was a much shorter trail (less than a mile) but far steeper, climbing (according to my map) more than 500 feet. If you look carefully at the picture below, you'll see that I am actually walking backwards -- Dave and Josh are uphill behind me, facing forwards as they head up the mountain, just as Kevin was. Walking backwards was one of the tricks we came up with in an effort to give our aching shins a break. This area of the trail was known as the "Avenue of Red Leaves" and was likened to European-style gardens which often feature autumnally-hued leaves. You can see the reddish leaves lining the path on either side. It was beautiful.

Me, walking up the path, completely oblivious to the fact that Kevin was snapping a picture of me.

We paused once or twice at scenic overlooks, noting the change in foliage as our elevation changed and the tea fields grew more sparse.

Kevin and me at one of the overlooks, with the lake in the background.

Me among the tea leaves, at a higher elevation.

As the trail became steeper still, chatter among the climbers grew more labored, then eventually died out entirely as we focused our whole attention on reaching the top, fighting against the oppressive humidity and laboring to keep our breathing even.

Nearing the summit.

Finally, finally, around one last bend in the road, we saw the weather station at last!

Triumphant at the top of the mountain!

The view from the top.

We broke out the last of our rations for a brief picnic, snapped a few picures and then sped back down the mountain, determined to make the 5:00 bus directly home to Taichung.

Heading down the mountain.

The 5:00 bus turned out to be a 5:30 bus, so we had time for some dinner before piling, sweaty and exhausted but exhilarated by our adventuresome day. We arrived in Taichung, switched buses to get home to Wufong, and all -- as far as I know -- showered and went directly to bed.

Sun Moon Lake II: Swimming

Part of a series of floating gardens along the water's edge.

The path we found along the water's edge looked unpromising. We were all growing somewhat tired -- the heat was intense when the sun blazed down, and the air felt heavy and oppressive when it ducked behind the clouds. As the air grew greyer, my head began to pound. We forged on.

The bridge we crossed before reaching the perfect spot. You can see how dramatically the water changed color depending on the caprices of the sun.

Finally, we found it -- an abandoned refueling shack across the street from a petrol station, with a big floating dock that extended past the water's murky edge to the brilliant turquoise beyond. The boys used the petrol station's bathroom to change into their swim suits while I wandered inside to inquire of the two boys behind the counter whether their tiny, dimly-lit gas station convenience store sold ibuprofen. It didn't.

Getting ready to head in.

We picked our way delicately down the cliff's edge to the floating dock, sending gravel in little cascades down the slope where it came to rest in the damp, clay-like yellow soil at the cliff's base. Clambering across the connected floating docks that stretched out into the lake, the boys could barely contain their excitement.

They leap!

People strolling along the trail at the top of the hill above us stared down, many looking bemused, but no one came to challenge our authority to be where we were, and the boys jumped in.

Minutes after the plunge.

After a few races and a diving contest (not to mention some difficulty in getting up out of the water onto the dock!) everyone was wiped out and ready to head back on shore. By now my head felt as if it were splitting in two, and everything looked oddly marbled out of my right eye: classic symptoms of a migraine. Could the timing have been any worse?! My favorite part of the the day's planned activities still lay ahead of us -- a hike up the mountain famous as Taiwan's largest producer of wide-leaf black tea. All I wanted at that moment, however, was to lie down in a dark, quiet place and try to forget that I existed.

Sun Moon Lake I: Arrival

Sun Moon Lake is the largest natural lake in Taiwan, and uncontestably one of the island's scenic highlights. Thursday morning Eric (from UC San Bernadino), Kevin, David (also from Cali), Joshua (from University of Hawaii at Hilo), and I rose early in the day to catch the first in a series of three buses that would take us from Wufong (where our school is located) to Taichung, from Taichung to Puli (a city to the east), and finally from Puli to Sun Moon Lake.

Picture taken from the bus ride from Taichung to Puli.

Traveling took a long time, and involved some of the bumpiest bus-riding I have ever had the misfortune to experience. Was it the country roads, the bad suspension in the bus, or some synergistic combination of the two? I have no idea. All I can say is that when we emerged from the last leg of the journey, jostled and rattled, we were more than rewarded for our pain in traveling.

Sun Moon Lake.

The water was the most brilliant, incredible turquoise color I have ever seen, sparkling in the sun that kept ducking in and out of the cloud-scattered sky. The lush vegetation and palm trees that cover the island were, if possible, even more vibrant here, and the whole place seemed to glow with pride at its own loveliness.

All of us at the start of the lakeside trail. From left to right: Josh, Dave, Eric, me, Kevin.

After picking up some maps at the visitors' center, we quickly found the head of one of the area's numerous walking paths. This particular path -- the Hanbi trail -- ringed a good portion of the lake rather than heading out into the hills, which is why we chose it. The boys were especially anxious to find an abandoned area of shore which we could use to break the lake's somewhat unenforced "no swimming" rule. I, bathing-suit-less and with no plans to break rules, just hoped everyone could get away with it in peace. We set out.

The Hanbi trail.

The trail was lovely, and we stopped many times to snap photos or examine sights of interest along the way. Kevin found a giant leaf shaped like a heart, and we discovered a stretch of the lake that used to be off-limits to anyone but former president/dictator Chiang Kai-shek and guests. We paused in a pagoda near an abandoned amphitheatre and wound up discussing religion and the Catholic church, among other things.

One of the overlooks off the main path.

Chiang Kai-shek's personal pier.

Kevin challenges Joshua to a duel using a giant leaf as a shield.

Shot of one of the many palm trees that ringed the lake, taken shortly before the sun disappeared.

Sadly, no area appropriate for swimming presented itself -- everything was either private property (of a hotel or dock) or inaccessible due to somewhat steep cliffs and little floating islands of palms. We completed the trail, now rather sweaty and definitely ready for a cooling dip in the forbidden waters, and promptly headed off along the lake in the other direction, determined to find the perfect spot.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Lukang: a thousand pictures for a single word

Lukang (鹿港, literally "deer harbor") was once the second-largest town in Taiwan, a bustling port with easy access to Chinese cities in Fujian across the Strait. Times have changed: intense siltage has filled the harbor and moved the seacoast some distance from the town, political tension across the Strait has nixed trade of any kind in the past fifty years, and, especially given the villagers' unwillingness to allow railroads to cut through their town, it is not hard to see why the rest of Taiwan has moved on while Lukang languished as a forgotten backwater.

However, this very isolation from the dramatic modernization which has whipped through the rest of the island has now proven to be Lukang's most valuable asset. The ancient winding alleyways, the carved temples and traditional crafts that persisted in this village as the winds of change blew elsewhere mean that Lukang now hosts some of the best-preserved architecture and cultural traditions in all of Taiwan.

Lots of sleepy heads on the ride there. You can see our tour guide Katie, a native of Washington state (like Sara!), entertaining us at the front of the bus.

Our first stop in Lukang was at the famous Longshan Temple (龍山寺, literally, "Dragon Mountain Temple"). Longshan is a temple devoted to Taoist and Buddhist beliefs as well as some elements of folk religion, symbolic of the syncretic nature of Taiwan's religous traditions. It is well-known for being one of the best-preserved Qing dynasty temples on the island. It dates back to the 17th century, although it has only stood at its current location since 1786.

By the main temple's entrance. The lion statute half-hidden by the foliage is one of a pair which serve as temple guardians. This one, seen guarding a tiny cub, is the female, while her partner (across the way, not visible in this shot) has his paw wrapped around a small globe.

The temple is primarily devoted to Guanyin (觀音), goddess of mercy and one of the most popular deities worshipped in Taiwan. An interesting tidbit I learned is that Guanyin -- probably because of her association with the ideals of compassion and pity -- is often associated with vegetarianism in East Asia. Often the vegetarian restaurants and buffets you can find here in Taiwan and elsewhere will be decorated with statues or paintings of her likeness.

On the temple wall.

Contrary to popular belief, the swastika was not invented by Hitler or the Nazi party, but was actually adopted by them from ancient sources. It is often associated with Dharmic religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, and is frequently used, as this one is, to mark Buddhist temples in East Asia.

A shot of the beautifully carved ceiling.

Unfortunately, during our visit, much of the temple was hidden by big construction platforms as the temple is being refurbished. However, we made the most of our time after seeing what sights there were by taking some silly pictures in the broiling sun.

Kevin with Sassa, one of our favorite TAs.

Here are some of our pictures with the TAs. As you can see, the sun was still pouring down. Many students sat on the temple steps, angling for some shade, fanning themselves with maps.

Me with some of the best TAs! From left to right: Sassa, Miles, Me, Julia.

Like my shirt? Can you believe several people (American students!) asked me to explain my T-shirt and had, in fact, never even heard of Ithaca, NY? I'm probably way too east-coast-centric in my assumptions about what people should be expected to know about US geography, but I was still surprised. Anyway, we left the temple area soon after, and began our tour of Lukang's twisting historic alleyways -- easily my favorite part of the whole experience.

An alleyway in the old town.

Lukang was built to suit its particular geography -- its port location, and, especially, the strong northeasterly monsoons which blow large amounts of sand and dust into the area. These so-called "September winds" are mostly to blame for the maze-like nature of the town's streets, although security concerns were also important, since the port was vulnerable to attack from bandits and outsiders in its early days.

Greenery in nature and in pots give a tumble-down cottage front some charm.

The best part was probably "Nine-turns Lane" (九曲巷), which some claim was actually named for the September winds (September is literally called "nine-month" in Chinese) rather than for the number of twists in its path. I couldn't keep track of the number of turns we made, but it did seem like more than nine!

A door front with traditional red banners around the frame and some mail wedged in the front window bars.

Most of the houses were still lived-in and well kept-up, as far as I could tell. Little pots of lily-pads and lotuses lined the stone alleyways, bikes rested near brightly-painted doors, and gardening tools leaned up against little greenhouses and sheds. Even the mailman visits regularly, as evidenced by the small bundle of mail in the picture above, although I don't envy his job!! Without Katie, I would have been lost in about 15 seconds.

In one of Lukang's many crowded alleyways.

I'm really starting to like the "potted garden" look which I first noticed in China and is also apparent here. Isn't the turquoise glaze on these pots just lovely? Makes me think of Jess!

I just couldn't stop snapping pictures of the myriad wonderful little compositions of color, size, and historical and organic elements which we encountered around every corner.

The inside of one of the historic buildings.

Many of the old buildings are in disrepair, but the sunlight made everything look bright and clean despite the rubble we occasionally encountered. In a way I really liked the fact that some of the area had not yet been restored and refurbished -- it really helped add to the feeling of genuine historicity that permeated Lukang.

Kevin cools off with a passionfruit slushy.

Of course, I much prefer Lukang with its modern elements as well, not least of all because they helped us survive the long walks in the sweltering sun. I can actually only remember one other day in my entire life that I was ever this sweaty, and that was the day that Kevin and I went to Tian Tan in Beijing, and similarly spent all day trekking around in 90-degree humidity.

The Window of Rememberance.

One of our neat stops along Nine-turns Lane was the "Window of Rememberance." This round window is made of tiles in patterns of calabash gourds and ancient Chinese coins, symbolizing good fortune and wealth. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the window was the story told about a sailor's widow who used to pace the floor behind that window, waiting for a husband who would never return. I was struck (and I'm surprised Katie didn't say something about it as she described the tale) by how similar this story is to the whole western genre of ghost stories involving widow's walks and lonely wives whose lovers were lost to the sea.

Part of the rooftop of the old Dutch fort near the center of the town.

The old Dutch inhabitants have left their architectural impression on the city, and the layers of historical events that have shaped Lukang were apparent again and again as we encountered new sights and cultural relics.

Can you see the sweat glistening on our faces?

This picture was taken just a few minutes before I was able to finally find a vending machine to buy some water and iced tea. We relished the small bit of shade afforded by the trees you see in front of the homestead in the background of the shot, where one of the town's oldest residents lives. He makes his living brewing one of the town's traditional specialties: grass tea, a sweet, black liquid often flavored with chunks of black herbal jelly.

Marina (teal shirt) talks with the aged grass-tea maker. It looks like she is trying to offer him some of her water, and he is refusing, but I'm not entirely sure.

I tried some of the grass tea -- it was an interesting flavor, intensely sweet, and just a bit too black for my comfort. Some of my classmates loved it, but I was more excited about trying some of the town's other culinary delights, which we came across as we left Nine-turns Lane and entered the old market area of the town.

In the main village shopping area. Katie, a classmate, is seen at the center with an umbrella she presumably acquired that day in an effort to avoid the sun.

Of course, the heat only increased with the activities we began around noon, which involved baking some traditional Taiwanese cakes known as 牛舌餅 ("cow-tongue cakes," thankfully named for their shape rather than their ingredients). Half the class piled into a tiny vendor's area at the side of an alley, where a family who specializes in 牛舌餅 graciously shared their supplies with us and showed us how to prepare the sweet, oblong cakes.

Making the cakes.

After we had each prepared a cake or two, we filed out into the street to watch one of the women quick-fry the little cakes, flipping each one over numerous times on a hot surface with a flat wooden paddle.

Proudly displaying the finished product!

At last, the piping hot cakes were slid into little paper bags and delivered into our waiting hands. The flavor was nice -- very sweet, sporting a flaky exterior dotted with black sesame seeds and an almond-paste like filling with a similar taste.

After that, it was definitely time for lunch. Katie informed us of the two restaurants in the area that had AC, and we flew there like moths to a light. My group wound up eating in a fairly expensive but really cute restaurant which seemed to have a kitschy, 1940s and 1950s theme, with old Taiwanese movie posters on the wall and antique toys displayed beneath glass on our table tops. I ordered the vegetarian hotpot, which actually came with its own burner and spices, for me to add ingredients and cook the pot to my liking, just as in real hotpot restaurants.

Some of the delicious treats on offer, including you tiao (fried dough, front right), small filled cakes, and what looks like xiao long bao (steamed dumplings, back left).

Of course, as you can see above, there was no shortage of other stuff to eat in Lukang, and after cooling off enough in the AC, we were primed for another round of snacking and shopping. I purchased a giant bag of sweet potato chips to share with Sassa from a vendor selling several varieties of fried treats, while other classmates were even more adventurous. Although technically no longer a harbor town, Lukang still prides itself on traditional seafood dishes and snacks. My friend Manuel, above, actually ate one of the things in shells below -- and lived to tell the tale!

Manuel samples a tiny (fried?) hermit crab.

After that, we did a bit of wandering, then visited another temple closer to the center of town, where I illustrated the method of Buddhist worship I had learned in Beijing, and we burned some incense at the rear-most part of the temple.

At the second temple.

The building was truly beautiful, and, unlike Longshan temple, not under construction, so many more areas were open to the public. Unfortunately, our visit was cut short by our next group activity, which involved making a different kind of traditional Taiwanese cake, called "phoenix-eye cake" (also, like "cow-tongue cake," thankfully named for its shape rather than its constituent parts). This cake required no baking at all, but involved pressing a mixture of ingredients into an ancient-looking wooden mold, then releasing it in pressed form.

The smell of incense was everywhere.
In the foreground, silhouetted: classmates Christian and Sasha.

Many people disliked the powdery texture of the cake (particularly on such a hot day), but I quite liked it. Some of the boys challenged each other to a cake-eating contest, to determine who could swallow a huge mouthful of the powdery cake first. Kevin triumphed, but I hardly had enough time to tease him about participating in such juvenile activities before I, too, was challenged to a competition among the girls. I tend to hate these kinds of things, but went along with it.

The first few seconds of chewing were the most painful -- my mouth felt as if it were filled with cement and for a few terrifying moments it was actually impossible to move my jaw. The funniest part was watching the faces of the other girls as they also struggled with the sand-like powder in their mouths, and the most pleasant part was when I regained my power to chew. However, the most satisfying part was when I won!!

A traditional painting.

The childish games did not end at our next stop, the Lukang Folk Arts Museum. This is truly a remarkable building, a mansion constructued in Western style during the Japanese colonial period, which looks more like the Barker Center back at school than anything else. It was a giant, maze-like building with myriad exhibitions of traditional Taiwanese artwork, as well as exhibits about the town of Lukang and its history. By far our favorite part, though, was the big selection of toys and games which were simply available to us in a shed outside the museum in the mansion gardens. A big wooden swing hung from a tree; stilts and hoops and a feathered hacky-sack were quickly discovered; an artificial river laced with stepping-stones bubbled nearby. The biggest hit of all was a Chinese yo-yo, which Kevin couldn't resist picking up and then showing off his skills.

After that, it was time to leave. We stopped for bubble tea and iced lattes at a little tea and coffee shop nearby, then piled into the bus for the long, mercifully air-conditioned ride home. I, for one, couldn't wait to get into the shower.