Friday, August 03, 2007

A Day in Taipei

Taiwan's National Palace Museum.

We arrived back in Taipei late at night, and took a bus and then some taxis to A-ma's apartment. Dragging our luggage behind us, silence settled as we fought against our exhaustion. Imagine our shock when we arrived at the apartment with the clock hands nearing 2:30am, and who comes to open the door for us but A-ma herself!! She is one tough little old lady. After getting us all showered and settled, she finally went off to bed, and we shortly thereafter.

The next morning we were up early again -- details needed to be arranged for our meeting with the other students who were all coming to Taipei from Taichung. Kevin had tried to make contact with the program director earlier to no avail, with plans of storing our luggage in train stations and organizing mass subway outings to try and find our comrades, but it took just one phone call by A-ma to the director, and suddenly the chartered bus from Taichung was coming to A-ma's to pick all of us and our luggage up!

Breakfast with A-ma!
From left to right: Gabe, Shela, A-ma, Kevin, me, Chris, Eric.
(There in spirit: Matt and Manuel.)

This pleasant new arrangement gave us time for a traditional Taiwanese breakfast of scallion pancakes and hot, sweet soymilk, which we all devoured at a roadside stand across the bridge from A-ma's apartment. After that, it was time to return (quickly!) to the house, grab our things, and head back up the street to meet the bus. I felt we must have made a funny little parade down the sidewalk, six gangly foreigners lugging suitcases and backpacks, all in a little line behind A-ma, who walked serenely ahead (all 4'10" of her) with her parasol overhead and a magisterial air, for all the world like some stately duck leading her ducklings down the road.

Our first stop after re-joining our friends and teachers was the National Palace Museum, which Kevin and I had already visited. It was as incredible as ever, and I spent a lot of the time wandering the museum by myself, wrapped in contemplation of the exhibits and treasures on display. (This one was probably my favorite, although there were incredible ones about scholarly exams, rare books, and calligraphic tools that were also just enthralling; partial list of current, future, and past exhibits available here). Far too quickly, it was time to go -- I could have stayed there for days, or at least for another few hours! Still, I was comforted by the thought of our next destination, one which, unlike the National Palace Museum, I had so far only seen from afar...

Taipei 101!

...the tallest* building in the world!! I had, of course, seen it hovering in the skyline during other trips to Taipei, and had even taken a picture of it with the Jwos when they visited, but now it was our chance to see it up close and personal, inside and out.

We had a quick (and delicious!! Taiwan, how I will miss your food) lunch in the lavish food court in the building's base, then peeked at a few of the high-end stores that compromise the four-story mall on the building's lower floors. Still, I hadn't come to shop (not that I could have afforded anything in these stores); I had come to see the view. With this plan in mind, Kevin, a few other students, and I lined up for the next elevator journey to the top.

Getting ready to board the elevator.
Pictured at far right: Hank (Boston College).

The elevator was quite nice. I don't think I've ever had so smooth a ride, and it was remarkably quick when you consider how many floors it had to traverse. As we rode, a digital ticker on the wall spun off the floor numbers as the overhead lights dimmed, a glittering panorama of the night sky twinkled overhead, and our hostess repeated her welcome in Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, and English.

The view from the top.

Despite the foggy weather, the view from Taipei 101 was still stunning. I can't even imagine how amazing it must be on clear days. The top floor was filled with exhibits of native Taiwanese art, display boards explaining the technology and cultural elements which had been combined to create this building. Each of the four facets of the building was equipped with a labeled drawing of the view before you, allowing you to pick out buildings, rivers, mountains, and other landmarks. Guided audio tours also enabled you to learn more about each of a series of stations set up to describe various aspects of the project.

Me with "Damper Baby."

One of the coolest technological aspects was the enormous gold-plated "damper" which helps increase the building's stability, an especially important task in earthquake-ridden Taiwan. The damper weighs more than 600 tons, and hangs as a pendulum to offset structural agitation caused by earthquakes or high winds. (Popular Mechanics has an interesting article about the damper here.) Of course, since this is Taiwan, the damper has been "cutified" into "Damper Baby," a cartoon character with big baby eyes that says cute, baby-ish things like "Wee!" and "I love to swing!"** in pictures alongside explanations of the damper's mechanical purpose. I love Taiwan.

It was cold up top -- in the picture above you can see me clutching a cup of what turned out to be lavender tea, which I purchased for warmth in the frigid AC. I had a really awesome time at the top of Taipei 101, and perhaps the best part was that I was able to send "Mail from the Sky" to my family back home! This postcard will race its Chinese counterpart (mailed from Hong Kong the day before) to the States. My money's on the one from Taiwan.

Hsinchu Station -- note the "bamboo" motif in the architecture (hsin chu literally means "new bamboo" in Chinese). Gorgeous!

Again, all too soon, it was time to descend and rejoin the main group for a trip back to Taichung. We took the first part of the journey on Taiwan's justly famous High Speed Rail, disembarking at Hsinchu (or Xinzhu, for pinyin diehards like me) Station (with simply the most gorgeous train station architecture I have ever seen) before meeting up with our driver from earlier in the day. As the bus snaked its way back through the Taiwanese countryside, the rice paddies, stray dogs, and distant smoky mountains almost felt like a kind of homecoming after so many days of city excitement. It was good to be back.

*Tallest completed building, anyway. Apparently the "new" tallest building in the world, still under construction in Dubai, recently surpassed the height of Taipei 101 in its scaffolding. Still, it's not completed yet, and no one but workers can climb that high, so I think I'm justified in thinking I really did go to "the top of the [man-made] world" that day.

**Actually, it just said "I love swing!" Adorably incorrect English translations also make Taiwan fun.