Go Big or Go Home
I write this post from the Limited Express train from Sapporo, Japan en route to Asahikawa, a major city on Hokkaido Island. I’m a little tardy on my post, but better late than never!
After flying back to Taipei from Bali, we spent a few days spending time with Cathy’s family and eating up a storm. Cathy’s Aunt and Uncle (shout out to Yi and Yifu) are so generous and took us to devour the best dumplings, Thai cuisine, and best of all, the most famous Peking Duck in all of Taipei. I’ve only eaten real Peking Duck one time before, on a short 4 day 18th-birthday trip to Hong Kong with my mom, and I was so excited to get to try it again. This restaurant offered the atmosphere of an ornate banquet hall complete with fancy cutlery and serving dishes. The whole duck was immediately brought out for our viewing, and then was expertly sliced for our first taste with the classic pancakes, scallions and hoison sauce - mmmm so good!! This was followed by several more dishes, including what I’d describe of a vat of congee more suited towards a family of 10 (we were only 4). Truly delicious food all around, and it was very entertaining to see business meetings taking place at lunchtime complete with bottles of whiskey being passed around. The Taiwanese really know how to do it right. Yifu (Uncle) offered me a beer, but I had to turn it down given that I was recovering from being little sick. I chose to eat more greens instead, and Yifu smiled approvingly, being a doctor and all. Truly a fantastic experience and I hope I will continue to return in future years, possibly whiskey in hand.
Another key experience of the last few days in Taipei was visiting the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. For those of you who don’t know, CKS is essentially considered the father of modern Taiwan. Kai-Shek was a Chinese political and military leader, who was the head of the Nationalist government in China from 1928 until 1949, and then the head of the Chinese Nationalist government in exile on Taiwan. By 1949, Communists took control of continental China and the People’s Republic of China was established. This led to the move to Taiwan with the remainder of his Nationalist forces and along with generous aid from the United States, he set Taiwan on its way to modern economic development. The US signed an agreement to support defense, but in 1972, the agreement was in peril, eventually resulting in the break up of relations in 1979 as the US pivoted towards the PRC. Shek died in 1975 and the memorial began construction in 1976, finishing on April 5, 1980.
OK, enough with the history lesson. The memorial hall is a sight to be seen. When I read up on it before going, everyone kept saying, “Wow, the Taiwanese don’t build small, they build big if they build at all." The memorial hall and adjoining gardens are truly magnificent. Impeccably kept and beautifully organized, the hall is entered through several entrances (imagine the whole area amounting to something like 3 large NYC blocks with a number of Washington Square Arches serving as the gates) and we marveled at the view from the entrance.
We proceeded to walk around the perimeter of the park and took a ton of pictures. I’m learning how be a better photographer as we document our journeys - Cathy continues to give me instructions along the way, but I’m getting the hang of it. As we approached the hallmark memorial hall, where a gigantic statue of Shek himself sits, I suddenly felt like I’d seen something so similar before. I asked Cathy, "does this look familiar to you?" … “somewhat" she replied … it reminded me of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC! Perhaps I was trying too hard to find an equivalence but it really stuck with me. I’m a huge fan of the Lincoln Memorial btw, having spent parts of 2 summers in DC, and especially touring it at night. Anyway, we headed up the 89 steps (representing his age at time of death) to the great hall, where the statue resides, especially excited for the hourly changing of the guard ceremony. Ever since visiting London as a little kid, I’ve always been awestruck by the role of these guards who stand completely still for hours at a time. At least in London it barely ever gets above 75 degrees … this was a regular day in Taipei, around 88 degrees with pretty high humidity (although still a major drop from Bali’s 90% humidity), and I swear those two guards had to be so ready to leave their posts by the 4PM changing ceremony we witnessed. We were lucky to have visited mid-week, as it wasn’t crowded and we got to stand right in front as the overseers cleared away the crowd as the hour struck. Three new guards began their procession into the hall, dressed in their perfectly pressed uniforms, shiny combat boots, and expertly maintained rifles complete with bayonets. With the lead guard belting out something undecipherable to me every few seconds and the two behind him clicking their heels, rapping them on the floor, and moving their rifles first in unison, then in sequential order, it really felt like we were living in an older era. It still amazes me the same way it did as a young boy how traditions such as these are maintained by certain societies and passed down from generation to generation. To be a guard here is a huge honor, it’s not a lowly post, and these soldiers and their families are immensely honored to be in this position. Eventually the two new guards replaced the previously standing ones who marched off. By this point, the entire crowd was sweating, and we raced over the fans set up in the corners of the hall. Ahhh, so much better. This capped off our experience at the memorial hall, and wow was I so glad we went. When you’re traveling, there is always a careful balance to strike between culture, partying, food, rest, and the unknown you can’t predict. Having satisfied our cultural needs for the meantime, we headed back to the apartment to take a rest ahead of another fabulous meal.
Look for the next post from Cathy encompassing our first few days in Japan! Until then, Sayonara.