The last time we were in Taiwan, we were left with the impression that the country was ready for war to break out at any moment. Armed soldiers lingered on many street corners and left us with a somewhat uneasy impression. Statues of Chiang Kai Chek, the leader of this little island which broke away from the rest of China following his defeat by Mao were everywhere. It felt like a cult of personality. However, people were so happy to be living here rather than under Communism and the place buzzed with industrious people free to work for themselves and do as they pleased.
Last night our captain was very dubious that we would be able to come here at all. CNN reported high winds and downpours. During the night as we approached the island the seas got so rough we began to wonder if we would fly out of the bed. However, the skill of our beloved captain brought us into into the narrow harbor entrance to a basin where we twirled around and he backed us the rest of the way in. Remarkable! On land we saw few signs of typhoon damage. Clean up crews were trimming trees and removing brush as they might after a bad thunderstorm at home, but except for the lack of sunshine, it was a nice day to explore.
Taipei was a short bus ride from the port and we had a full day of touring. But I'm afraid after the energy and growth we witnessed on mainland China, Taipei felt somewhat second rate. We've heard that some of the most energetic Taiwanese have returned to the mainland and are fueling the explosive growth and innovation we saw there, now that the government encourages free enterprise. Taiwan has the same Chinese culture and traditions, but has just quietly been moving along rather than exploding as we saw in Shanghai. Kind of like visiting Rhode Island after you've been to Texas. Sure there was new construction and some fine high rise buildings, but the quantity was missing. Taipei 101 a modern new sky scraper dominated the skyline and the locals are justly proud of this building which was briefly the world's tallest.
Our guide told us that the days of Chiang Kai Chek worship are pretty much over. School children are being taught that he and his regime killed 20,000 Taiwanese residents as they took over the island and it sounded like he ruled the place with an iron fist for about forty years. The Chiang Kai Chek Memorial Hall, an overwhelming magnificent building, had recently been renamed the Taiwanese Democracy Memorial Hall. The change was so recent that the interior of the place still felt like a Chiang Kai Chek temple. Huge photographs of CKC were displayed; his favorite bullet proof limo with the lucky license plate 8888 was there. His office had been moved there lock, stock, and barrel and reconstructed with a lifelike wax figure sitting at his desk.
Chiang Kai Chek had the Martyr's Shrine built to resemble the Forbidden City. It was bright and beautifully painted, but the changing of the guard ceremony was as lengthy and ominous looking as it had been twenty years ago. Attitudes and traditions are changing, but it will take time.
We ate lunch at the aptly named Grand Hotel. This monstrous building which dominates the sky line had also belonged to old CKC. He had knocked down an old Japanese temple and built this edifice for his entertaining needs. The buffet was a mixture of oriental and western and we ate as if we had come from a desert island rather than a cruise ship.
When we toured the Pao-on Temple, I tried very hard to listen to the guide as he explained the elements inside. At a picture above an altar, he explained that it portrayed a famous warrior and was prayed to by soldiers. Ok, that made sense, but when he said he is also prayed to by accountants, he lost me. This temple was so ornate and filled with symbolic art, that it was hard to know where to look As we swarmed about the place, locals lit incense sticks and prayed before various images. We felt rather disrespectful, but the worshippers were nonplused. Large collections of illuminated lamps reminded me of votive candles in Catholic churches. The guide said he buys one every new year and it guarantees that he is prayed for in his temple once a month. Kind of like an insurance policy. .
Then we went to Ken's favorite place, the National Palace Museum, a collection of jade, pottery and bronze ware that CKC had stolen from the Forbidden City when he fled the mainland. Our guide said it was a good thing he had done so, because so much head been destroyed on the mainland during the Cultural Revolution. Surely one could see both sides of this question. The museum swarmed with tourists, but we were all issued headsets and could hear our guide even when we were't close by. Some of us enjoyed the stop and learned a lot. Others wished they could go outside and buy another "lolex."