First off, Colin is typing away as furiously as I am for his blog, and he writes much more interestingly than I do, so you should check it out. Now back to our regularly scheduled program.
Further developing our characters of the poor tourists, Colin and I left Saturday afternoon for the free extended hours at the National Palace Museum, which would be followed with a trip to the nearby Shilin Night Market.
We got off the MRT (after missing our stop initially—no matter) and jumped right on a crowded bus that wound through the traffic to a quieter, more lush area of Taipei (County). Plopped in the middle of a hill of leafy green, with a number of large marble staircases leading up to it, was nestled a beautiful palace.
The National Palace Museum houses much of the art that was taken from mainland China when Chiang Kai-Shek and his nationalist party retreated to Taiwan in the late 1940s after several years of civil war with the Communist Party. On four floors, the art that they rescued and more tells the history of the region from almost before the time history was recorded.
We hit only the first two, wandering among gold Buddhas, watercolor scrolls, Ming Dynasty porcelain vases discretely tied to their stands for damage control during an earthquake, and poorly lit Qing Dynasty curios boxes that were intricate and interesting nonetheless. Hands down most interesting were the delicately carved pieces of ivory from the Qing Dynasty that had to be viewed under a magnifying glass to be fully appreciated: nine lattice boxes and chains, carved out of ivory, that could all fit inside one another and still be no bigger than my pinky finger; a ship about the size of a fist with people interacting inside of it; a hanging decoration whose main attraction was an ornate orb, which had started out as a solid block of ivory, that had concentric spheres inside of it that could move freely (kind of like this).
Colin admired the calligraphy while I rested on the cushioned bench and tried to memorize a few new phrases in Mandarin (Duōshăo qián? [How much?] Wŏ bùchī zhūròu. [I don’t eat pork.])
You read about getting chills and colds in Taiwan because of the air conditioned buildings. You’re moving around outside and sweat, then you go inside an air conditioned building in your wet clothes and catch a cold if you stay too long. Though I didn’t quite feel a cold coming on, I certainly was getting chilled sitting in the quiet, dark calligraphy room. Chilled and tired and hungry, I was all-around ready to leave the museum. Colin agreed we could leave the other two floors for another night, and we caught the bus back 30 minutes before closing time.
We hopped off at the MRT station and walked the three or so blocks to the Shilin Night Market. It was impossible to miss—the narrow street (at least it felt narrow) burst with young Taiwanese couples and friends with the occasional foreign face dotting the throng. We joined a line for steamed buns filled with green onion, mushrooms, and cabbage or pork (for Colin only, wŏ bùchī zhūròu).
I can’t pretend the experience went as smoothly as that. We studied the words for vegetable and pork in my phrase book while waiting in line, and when we got to the front, the woman (who didn’t have a lot of time for fumbling tourists with a huge line behind them) greeted me with a “Nĭhăo!” that totally threw me off balance. “Um, um…” My mind was as empty as the Nexus on a Friday night.
“‘Um, um’ Hello! What do you want?” Drat, English. Failure.
Our buns were too hot to handle, so we walked through the neon maze of carts and stalls for awhile before pulling off to a less-hectic alley to eat. Colin was in hot-mouthed heaven with his; I gave myself a bit more time to get used to the taste and had only three of my five.
The foods and their smells fascinate me. My eyes could never look long enough on some of these dishes—platters with whole fishes, with piles of gray or white or fried-golden balls, with black and yellowish gelatinous blocks the size of collegiate dictionaries, with vegetables I know I’ve seen but couldn’t name and fruits I’ve never seen before now.
Some stands pass out tiny cups of juice—deep pink cranberry limeade with bits of the tart skins floating about—or toothpicks with pieces of barbecued meat or peanut powder-coated mochi (rice paste) on the end.
There are stalls with nothing but person-sized bags of dried tea leaves. Some carts sell baked goods that call to my sweet tooth every time we pass. Carts that are usually attached to more permanent shops have a cold treat that seems like a sno-cone to the extreme. All I can really see is the fruit or beans (they’re sweet here) or smaller cubes of aforementioned gelatinous bricks, but we think they’re covering shaved ice. Did I already call this stuff fascinating?
Just ahead of the number of food stands—or perhaps just behind—were stalls for clothing and shoes, with easily 90 percent of them being for women. The women here are trendy. They never underdress for anything, and they go full out with the hair and make up and shiny accessories whenever they can. Never have I ever felt so outclassed so frequently.
We staggered back to the MRT station, drunk with cranberry limeade and weary from pushing through crowds for the last three hours or so, and returned to our hostel for our final night there.