Day 1 CNY 2013 Scooter Trip
Sunday February 10th, 2013
6:45 a.m. Taipei
I am heading off on a short trip this morning. I don’t know that this will be an exciting trip, but I am going to do my best to make it at least interesting.
It is Chinese New Year in Taiwan. In fact, it is officially the first day of the new year (the year of the snake) – if you count the passage of time according to the lunar calendar. The Chinese and Taiwanese often refer to this holiday as the Chinese Thanksgiving in that it is a time for families to gather and have a big meal. However, by that measure, all holidays here could be called Thanksgiving since almost everything involves getting together with friends and family and having a big meal. For foreigners like me, it has an entirely different meaning. It is, more than anything, a week off work.
A week off work sounds pretty sweet, but as with most things in this part of the world it has both a sweet and a sour side. The sour side is that EVERYONE gets a week off work at exactly the same time. All those things that make holidays possible – trains, buses, planes, and hotels – are either fully booked or extremely expensive and usually both. The smart and organized foreigner plans a trip outside of Taiwan and plans this trip months in advance in order to get a relatively cheap fare. I would have done that – being at least an organized foreigner – but I have plans to leave Taiwan on March 31st anyway. No point flying to somewhere warm and exotic for just a week when I am soon to make that same flight for a period of months.
Anyway, that is a very long and convoluted way of saying that I am going on a scooter trip around Taiwan. My plans are pretty open ended. I have no idea where I am going to go. The only thoughts I have and the only plans I’ve made are quite vague and depend more on the weather than anything else. I’m interested in exploring a portion of the southeast coast of Taiwan. However, the weather there is almost always bad and the forecasts are calling for daily rain and drizzle. The eastern mountain ranges are also supposed to be quite wet and overcast. That leaves the extreme south and the west coast (the extreme north is where Taipei is located, and I have explored this area pretty thoroughly). The extreme south is too far away for a scooter trip. Taiwan is a small place, but travel is slow and even a short journey by Canadian standards can take a very long time – particularly on a scooter. That leaves the west coast, and that is sort of where I am headed – not the coast itself, but perhaps to the western foothills of the central mountain ranges. It’s an interesting and beautiful area and the weather there is supposed to be sunny and warm – a rarity at this time of year. I also have a good friend living in one of the cities there and I hope to visit her along the way.
I could have left on Saturday (yesterday), but I wasn’t quite ready to go and I took that day to rest up, pack, and do a bit of sightseeing in Taipei. My sightseeing took the form of a trip to the National Palace Museum. This museum is a world-famous museum and one of the highlights for most tourists that visit Taiwan. I had only been there a couple of times, and I wanted to visit once more before my departure in March. Luckily, there was also a special exhibit I wanted to see.
I went there by scooter, and that was a bit of an adventure. I’ve always found the region north of the rivers in Taipei quite confusing, and that is where the museum is located. I could have taken the MRT and a bus (I think it would have been relatively simple), but I always prefer to use my own transportation if I can, and that consists of my trusty scooter. The first part of the trip is relatively straightforward, but you still really have to be on your toes. I had to drive down a very large and busy street – 8 or 10 lanes across – through a bewildering set of traffic lights and intersections. That little drive alone would defeat most visitors to Taipei, but I zipped through it easily. Driving my scooter is the most enjoyable part of my life here and I’ve had lots of practice. I then had to cross a large bridge. That is always fun. You have to follow special scooter lanes to cross most bridges here, and you never know just where these things will start and where they will go. They’re easy to miss and then you end up in the middle of car-only lanes and you run the risk of a fairly substantial ticket. I’ve crossed this bridge many, many times, so I knew where the scooter lane was and I raced across. I also knew exactly where I was supposed to turn right. There is a large and black iron sculpture right on the corner. From there, things got a bit confusing, but I found my way with only one instance where I found myself in the wrong place entirely – trapped in a set of lanes that forced me to turn right when I wanted to go straight. The roads here are not always sensibly organized and it is easy to get caught in situations like that. I ended up getting honked at irritably by one driver. Then a friendly couple on a nearby scooter indicated where I was supposed to be if I wanted to drive straight through.
The National Palace Museum, as I said, is quite famous. It contains a massive collection of art that was originally housed in the Forbidden City in Beijing – which is where the word “palace” came from in its name. Beginning in 1931, the collection was put into crates and moved into the countryside in China as a war with Japan was getting underway. Then most of the collection – about 600,000 pieces – was spirited out of China by the Nationalist Army during the bad old days when Mao was chasing them around and then out of the country. Chinese tourists from the mainland now come in their thousands to visit this museum and see the collection. There is far more in their collection than can be displayed at one time, and they rotate it. Therefore, there is always something new to see.
I wasn’t interested in the main exhibit, however. I wanted to see a special exhibit dating from the 13th to the 10th centuries B.C. during the Shang Dynasty. I don’t really know much about all the various dynasties, but I go through periods when I’m interested in them and some facts stick in my memory. Lately, I’ve been thinking about this or that dynasty. The Shang is one of the oldest and it is also one of the most impressive and interesting. I believe some call it the Bronze Age of China since metalwork with bronze reached a peak at that time.
There had been bits of evidence of a very famous and somewhat enlightened ruler from that time. His name was King Hu Ding, and his name was always linked with a powerful consort of his named Lady Hao. Then, in 1928, some archaeologists stumbled across their royal tombs. These tombs had lain underground untouched for 3,000 years and contained thousands of pieces of art and other things. The exhibit at the museum was of a selection of the things they found in these tombs. Luckily, I had read a lot about this emperor and his lady before I went, so I could put much of what I saw into context. I knew, for example, that Lady Hao commanded armies for the king. She had even led an army of 13,000 soldiers into battle – the largest army that China had ever fielded up to that point. This made her an extraordinary person – one of the most powerful women in history, in fact, and this is from 3,000 years ago.
Without having done the reading beforehand, I might not have found the exhibit all that interesting. How interesting, after all, can a roomful of old bronze pots be? From that point of view, I find most museum exhibits somewhat lacking. They put the items on display, but they often fail to give them the proper context to bring them to life. In this case, they had several astonishing stories that they could have brought to life – including the story of the discovery and excavation of the tombs themselves. There was some information about that but not nearly enough. They also glossed over a lot. This emperor, for all his patronage of the arts and enlightenment, was also very keen on large-scale human sacrifices. Row upon row of human skulls were found inside the tombs laid out neatly on shelves. The exhibit mentioned this aspect of the Shang Dynasty, but only in passing. It seems like a fairly important thing to come to grips with, but it was only alluded to and no more.
King Wu Ding was also very into spirituality and divination. At that time, turtle shells were a popular form of divination. I don’t understand all the steps, but the ceremony involved writing on the shells and then heating them until they cracked. The pattern of the cracks was then read along with the text to interpret the signs and portents for the future. It sounds rather silly to a modern ear, but the Chinese took this very seriously. I believe in these two tombs alone, over 17,000 of these “oracle bones” were found. Their effectiveness at foretelling the future aside, they turned out to be very useful to historians as these oracle bones contained detailed written records of all the things that the people at that time were concerned about. They also represent the very beginnings of the written Chinese language, which makes them a fascinating bit of history. I’ll have to find out more about just how they used these oracle bones.
I spent only a short time in the main part of the museum after I saw this exhibit. I had seen what I came to see, and there is so much in the main museum collection that it can be a bit overwhelming. Plus, there were large numbers of people there by that point and it was a bit uncomfortable. The rest of the day was spent at home packing for my trip.
A big problem with Taiwan from my point of view is the lack of affordable budget accommodation. In any other country in this part of the world, there is a type of hotel that caters to backpackers – people willing to put up with a rustic atmosphere in exchange for a cheap price. Taiwan is not on the backpacker circuit at all, so this type of hotel never developed here. Most hotels are expensive and you can’t count on getting a room at this time of the year anyway. So just in case of emergency, I often bring along my camping gear. I’ve almost never used it. I get lucky most of the time and find some kind of reasonable accommodation – reasonable for Taiwan would be between $35 and $50 a night. For Canada, that counts as very cheap, but if you want to be on the road for seven or eight days, it adds up and quickly becomes expensive.
Anyway, I passed a few happy hours packing my camping gear and figuring out a way to put it on my scooter – not an easy task. Oddly enough, it’s easier to put my gear on a bicycle. Scooters just aren’t designed to carry complicated loads like that. With my scooter, I’ve figured out that I can simply lash my backpack behind me on the seat. It works out relatively well. In order to bring my tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping mat and sleeping sheet, it ends up being a bulky mess, but it tends to work out. It’s even more difficult this time of year because I also have to carry warm clothing. In the summer, I just wear shorts, a T-shirt and sandals. Now I have to wear long pants and shoes and a heavy coat plus rain gear. So it’s a bit of an effort putting all this together.
Well, I’ve had a cup of coffee, and it is time to lash my backpack to the scooter and hit the road.