In all the time I've spent so far in Taiwan, I haven't managed to travel further south than the edge of Taipei, so I was delighted to accept the invitation of a friend to join her for a couple of days in Tainan, which is about 170 miles south of Taipei. Conrad and I had the pleasure of travelling down by High Speed Rail. Here he is relaxing in the extremely generous legroom provided:
|CC Lemon and Harry Potter at the ready|
We experienced a hitherto unknown level of pampering on our journey. The seats were reclining, there were notices to put your mobile on vibrate and speak quietly when answering it (a request not, I have to say, always complied with), a snacks trolley and only the most necessary announcements over the intercom.
The trip took less than two hours, travelling at speeds up to 294 km/h, and I was enjoying myself so much reading and relaxing that it passed too quickly for me. I was surprised when I realised we were only 15 minutes from our destination - how could we possibly have come so far so effortlessly?
As we travelled much of the length of Taiwan, the countryside underwent a transformation from forested mountains to completely flat, farmed plains. The weather also changed markedly from damp clouds to clear, dry and blue skies. The smell of the air on leaving the train was noticeably different - light and dry with a faint perfume.
The first place we visited was the Confucius Temple in Tainan City.
This building is also known as the Scholarly Temple, and education was to become the theme of the day. Students concerned about exam results come to the temple to pray and put in their requests for a happy outcome from their tests:
|It can't hurt to ask, can it?|
One of the things I really appreciated about Tainan was the pleasure of visiting older buildings. Either due to the drier climate, greater availability of space or stricter planning regulations, or most probably a little of all three, it seemed that Tainan had a greater number of preserved old buildings, and indeed it is regarded as the cultural capital of Taiwan. It is also the oldest city in Taiwan.
The advantage of accompanying Taiwanese friends was that I heard many interesting anecdotes and reflections on how things had changed in Taiwan in the last thirty years. In the temple, for example, there is a small wooden fence to step over to enter. I learned that this was a feature of all old-style Taiwanese buildings, and the reason for it was to keep roaming animals out. At the entrance to the temple grounds, there is a much higher fence that now has steps to help tourists climb it. In the past, however, it was used to keep the women out! Their dress wouldn't allow the movement to surmount it.
The next stop was another site of educational worship:
This is Chikan Lou, also known as Chikan Tower and Fort Provintia. Formerly the site of a Dutch colonial fort, and now a top tourist attraction, the building also doubles as another place that students can come and hedge their bets for good exam results.
Downstairs the gods of education are on display.
Upstairs you can divine your educational outcome by casting two crescent-shaped blocks to the floor. Here I am, trying to see what the fates have decided. The happy result is when the crescents land in opposite positions.
Unfortunately I forgot to think of what I wanted to know before throwing the crescents, so only time will tell me what they really meant.
The next stop was Anping Fort, another historic building originally erected by the Dutch to protect their interests in Taiwan. The children had a brilliant time here, irreverently clambering over the structure. Does anyone else's child completely fail to appreciate the significance of the places they visit and see them only as glorified climbing frames?
The following day we headed out of Tainan to explore some more of the region's history. This place was first on our itinerary:
How is it possible for the children to be playing in snow? No, we weren't at high altitude, the 'snow' is in fact salt!
This salt mountain is next door to the Salt Museum.
There used to be a thriving salt industry in the salty soils that surround the estuarine waters of Tainan. We spent a couple of hours at the salt mountain and in the museum itself, learning all about both the history of the area and the many uses of salt today.
Conrad found out what it felt like to lift the heavy baskets of salt onto your shoulders.
In the same area as the Salt Museum is a Black-Faced Spoonbill sanctuary and educational centre, where we learned about the successful fight to save one of the birds' few remaining over-wintering habitats from development.
Back in Tainan city, there were more sites of architectural interest. Taiwan developers are not slow to pull down old buildings and erect new, more profitable ones in their place, so seeing an example of an example of a typical Taiwanese house of yesteryear was an unusual pleasure:
Here, you can see the construction aimed at minimising the effects of earthquakes:
Only the lowest layer of the wall is made of brick. The main supports are flexible bamboo, and the infill is a mixture of clay, grass and, from memory, some animal hair too.
An old-fashioned rice shop. My friend explained how a rice merchant was a rich man in older times. Rice used to be an expensive luxury. Poor people ate sweet potatoes as their staple, and nowadays the older generation spurn this vegetable, seeing it as a poor person's food.
Speaking of food, no excursion with Taiwanese friends is complete without several stops to enjoy the specialities of the district, or simply to have a good meal. On our first day, amongst several other meals, we had shaved ice treats. Here is my friend and her husband with a creme caramel version:
These are my friend's friend's children, finding Conrad just as interesting as their shaved ice dessert.
The centrepiece. Absolutely delicious:
|A little depleted at the time of the photo!|