The long haul #4: Tainan

As we gradually make our way through our wish list of places to visit, Tainan was the last of the city destinations (for now… the list keeps changing all the time). While it doesn’t exactly trigger the radar of tourism hotspots in Taiwan, there is a lot to see in Tainan, especially for history enthusiasts! The local government is also working to make English the ‘second official language’ of Tainan, and a list of “English Friendly” businesses was given to us when we checked into our hotel!

The city is roughly divided into two sections: Tainan proper and the Anping District, where they keep all the history. Tainan itself is one of the prettier cities we’ve visited, but it isn’t easy to get around in. Plans for a metrorail were abandoned due to lack of funding and the shuttle buses just aren’t quite able to provide the same blissful feeling of ease and comfort as the underground systems in Taipei and Kaoshiung. However, we highly recommend Anping as an interesting, tourist friendly and easy-to-get-around place. Now on to the highlight reel:

We arrived in Tainan late on Saturday morning and made a bee-line for Anping. The shuttle buses do a fine job in this respect. Getting to Anping was really straightforward, and as the whole area is one sprawling tourist attraction, even getting off at the wrong stop is easily remedied on foot.  We started out at the Old Tait & Co. Merchant House, a former Dutch colonial era building, which has been converted into a museum about the history of Anping (essentially a long list colonisations by different countries). The old house is right next to one of the most famous attractions in the area, the Anping Tree House, a huge, abandoned warehouse which has been almost totally overgrown by Banyan trees, to the point where some areas are more tree than building.

Having explored the alien horror movie-esque Tree House, we began strolling along the pretty cobbled street towards the other sites in the area. This led us down a long narrow street lined with street food stalls of every description. As Tainan is a port city, there is a lot of seafood to be found! One of the first things we tried was a mountain of brightly coloured shaved ice, in various fruity flavours. There were also a dozen or so people handing out free samples of prawn crackers, not unlike the ones we remember getting at Chinese restaurants when we were children. We also found some mysterious spiral shaped fried pastry things which were stuffed with green onion – mysterious yet absolutely delicious – and some coriander peanut brittle, a famous creation in the area. Tragically, we did not buy any of the famous brown sugar cake, but we watched a few demonstrations of the unique cooking methods and tried a small sample, which was also delicious!

Our next stop was the Anping Fort, also called Fort Zeelandia. The fort was originally built by Dutch settlers to watch over the merchant houses in Anping. It was then taken over by Chinese settlers and then by the Japanese settlers. There is a watch tower in the fort which you can climb up to look out over the city, and a portion of the massive original outer wall still stands, and the combination of different architectural styles makes the whole area very pretty to walk around in, even if you aren’t into the history.

Close to the fort is a temple to Mazu – one of many tributes to the goddess who protects sailors. The temple itself was very beautiful, with all the usual levels of detail and bright colours, but outside the temple was an special treat: Sun Wu Kong the trickster god, dancing around, collecting money to fund his next trip into the underworld (maybe). Of course we gave him some money, and in return he taught me the art of balance, which I suck at! From the temple, we continued our meandering until we found ourselves in a beautiful park under a giant statue of Mazu, looking out over the harbour. It felt like we had walked into a diorama for some utopian future project. Children were flying kites and chasing bubbles, dogs were playing together, young couples were having picnics, all under the smiling gaze of  Mazu.

Naturally, we followed this up by stopping to look at a naval destroyer anchored in the port. You can actually go onto the ship to look around, but by this time our feet were tired and so we just sat in its shadow and ate our lunch.

Our last stop in Anping was the Eternal Golden Fortress. This military fort was commissioned by the Chinese rulers and built by a French architect to defend against pirates and other sea-based threats. The fort is surrounded by a moat with only one way in and out, through a big archway which opens into the former training grounds, now a big grassy courtyard. This isn’t the kind of place you can spend hours, but it is interesting to look at the old canons and see how the fort was designed for visibility over the sea and defensibility (defendability?).

Having made our way back to Tainan, we checked into our hotel and then set out to find some dinner. Our plan had been to head for the Garden Night Market (not actually a garden), but on the way we found ourselves very near to Shenggong street, a walking district which now hosts trendy craft shops and liberal arts students with old fashioned cameras and asymmetrical haircuts. Here we found a lovely restaurant/bar/cafe/shop thing, run by a young Burmese couple. First of all, the shop was called Do Right Coffee and Green Kitchen, which sounded like a win right off the bat. The style of the shop was casual and homey, with the cafe and bar in the front, and if you are looking for food you simply go to the kitchen at the back, see what the chef is cooking and choose what you want. All the food is vegan, and there is a fridge of eco-friendly craft beers from around the world, as well as a really interesting menu of coffees and teas. We did eventually get to the night market too, which despite not being in a garden, was a surprisingly pleasant experience. Normally, I hate night markets because of the sheer volume of people in a confined space, but the Garden Night Market has multiple entrances and exits, wider pathways and loops around on itself a number of times, creating a good flow of people and preventing that claustrophobic feeling that other night markets have.

We may have over done the walking a little because the next day we both felt distinctly tired and just a little bit grouchy, but we had things to see! Outside of Anping, sight-seeing requires a little more effort as points of interest are much further apart, and the shuttle buses are a lot less helpful here! One of the main things to see in the Chihkan Tower, also known as Fort Provintia (yep, another fort. The Dutch settlers were a little obsessive). This fort was meant to connect this part of Tainan with the Anping district to strengthen Dutch influence in Taiwan, except that it was also captured by the Chinese settlers, and the story continues! The building is now a temple to the god of learning and is often visited by students about to write important exams.

The largest and more famous Grand Mazu Temple was closed for renovations, so we weren’t able to visit it, but this did give us more time to explore another walking district where we tried Thai milk tea (green tea with condensed milk, yum!), waited in a long queue outside a famous ice cream shop but eventually gave up, and bought some cute Studio Ghibli figures. From here, we visited the Blueprint Culture and Creative Park, a small stretch of old street which has been closed off and turned into a very pretty boutique shopping district, with striking murals on the walls, and a cool mix of modern  art and old architecture.

Our final stop, before our legs gave out, was the Tainan Confucian Temple, the oldest temple to Confucius in Taiwan. It’s one of the most famous temples in Taiwan too, and is right next door to a former martial arts academy built during Japanese occupation, which is now not open to the public, but still very beautiful to look at.

Although Tainan was not the most convenient city to visit, it was definitely worth it. If you are a history buff like Brendan, Anping is like Christmas town, and if you can get the hang of the buses, or don’t mind spending the money on taxis, Tainan itself is a lovely city to be in. It’s quieter than Taipei, but doesn’t have that massive, sprawling, overwhelming feeling of Kaoshiung. Also, the push to make English ubiquitous could make it a fantastic tourist location in the near future!

The long haul #3.5: Spirited away in Jiufen

I could barely contain my Studio Ghibli fanboy excitement as we thundered up the winding mountain road to the small town of Jiufen, about an hour out of Taipei. We had caught an express train out of Taipei to Ruifang, where we were greeted by a collection of costumed teddy bear statues (including the least scary vampirate, Zeus, and Einstein) while we figured out which bus to take. While the trip was about 15 minutes from Riufang station to Jiufen, the speed-racing and liberally honking bus driver wanted us to use that time to fully consider our own mortality. We almost kissed the sweet solid ground at our stop, before making our way to our B&B.

Jiufen is a pretty famous sightseeing spot in Taiwan. It’s a historic gold mining town, with many of its old buildings still intact. If you, like me, love Hayao Miyazaki’s films, you’ve seen the heart of Jiufen in Spirited Away‘s winding and confusing stairs, towering ancient bath house, and overall feeling of wonder. Miyazaki, like so many others, visited the town and came away inspired by it. The town itself was built during the Japanese occupation, and so it’s architecture has a strong Japanese style in the old district. The old tea house (faithfully recreated in the Amei Tea House in the centre of the town) was one classic example – and Miyazaki drew on it for the bath house in Spirited Away.

Before even starting on the wonderful small town, it’s worth talking about our amazing host. We found our B&B at the edge of the town, looking right down into a gorge that ran right to the sea. After tenatively pressing what we hoped was the doorbell, a husky voice called from somewhere above that he’d be down now. We were greeted by Uncle Xie, who waved us in and excitedly checked up after our health. Uncle Xie was everything you could want from a host. He was friendly, usually soft spoken except for his excited “yaaaah” when we agreed with anything you said, and full of advice on the way to have a wonderful trip to Jiufen. He organised us breakfast (traditional Taiwan style o-nigiri and warm soymilk), and even lent us umbrellas so that ours could be packed away dryly for the trip home. His weathered face and Buddai-like earlobes really made him feel like a larger-than-life character like Uncle Iroh from Avatar: the Last Airbender.

With Uncle Xie’s battleplan for taking in all of Jiufen, we set out to find the famous staircase that cuts through the centre of the town. The eaves of the old buildings are lined with red lanterns that lead you up the many, many stone steps into the town itself. We were even accompanied by a funny little dog that led our way. It really felt like the universe was giving us the full Ghibli experience, and that the dog was going to be some magic spirit guide. He wasn’t, but he did take us all the way up to Jiufen’s old ironworks turned restored Japanese-style tea house and historic cinema.

Lanterns, cats, and stairs were all in absolute abundance, and it is very easy to wander the twisting paths around the town for ages, never entirely sure what you will see if you leave the tourist-filled stairs and Old Street. After taking the necessary classic photos, we decided to try and find the smaller gold mining museum in the town itself (more on the other museum later). This was a challenge that saw us stumble across the entrance to one of the old mining tunnels and a kind of spooky statue park.

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Us, basically.

Doubling back we tried again to get to the museum and found ourselves almost back where we started. And then, doubling back again (quadrupling back?) we ran right into the museum. Sadly, the usual English guide wasn’t around, so we could only look at the displays. However, the museum gave out fantastic tourist maps with history and info written by the ex-miner who started the museum, and this really helped us to get around without getting lost so often.

Jiufen has lots to see. The Shenping Theatre was the first large movie theatre in Taiwan, built to supply entertainment to the miners, and to keep them from the Korean House up the street (apparently a significant example of Jiufen’s old red light district). There was even a film being shown (with no English subtitles unfortunately), as well as a recreation of the concessions stand.

Just a short way up the famous stairs from the theatre is Amei Tea House, a recreation of the old tea house that used to stand at the top of the hill. Because of its connection to Spirited Away we HAD to go there, and it was well worth what seemed at first a pricy NT$300. With the mountain cold and the persistent drizzle, the warm interior was a welcome escape. We were given a window table looking down to the sea and over the mountains west of the town. One of the waitresses taught us waiguoren how to brew tea in the traditional way, a methodical process that was really theraputic. We first had to warm the leaves, teapot and cups. Then we brewed and strained the tea, and had to do some sleight of hand before drinking. You start by pouring into tall and thin cups which you cover with the drinking cup. You then flip them around and slowly lift the thin cup, breaking the vacuum and filling your drinking cup. This thin cup is for smelling the steam, and then warming your hands – a real necessity! We were given enough high mountain oolong leaves to brew ourselves into oblivion, as well as a number of nibbles including some tasty green bean paste cookies, thin black and white sesame crackers, sugar coated preserved plums, and small lumps of mochi.  It’s definitely not to be missed!

By night, with the red lanterns aglow the Ghiblifeel intensified as we found our way down from the old cemetery and miner’s monument, past temples, and to the other must-see in Jiufen: the old street market. The similarity to the ghostly market of Spirited Away was palpable, as you smell food being cooked all around. Since it was a holiday weekend, the market was very full of other hungry sightseers, but we found our way to some very tasty food, including ice-cream and shaved peanut brittle rolls that were really delicious. The market is an interesting mix of traditional handicrafts, including many ocarinas, leather being worked in the shops, and even custom-made wooden shoes, as well as general market gewgaws and commercialized stalls peddling the ubiquitous Totoro keychains. We did find a famous cat, who adopted a store’s owner (not the other way around). Other unusual sights included an ocarina store shaped like an ocarina, a gallery of really creepy looking masks, and a window display of studio Ghibli characters, eerily lit behind misty glass. In spite of the crowding, the market was a lot of fun to visit, and perhaps on a quieter night it would be easier to navigate through the bookending photo opportunities that cause a traffic jam. But, since it is Jiufen, there are also countless side streets and stairs (of course) to help you get into and out of Old Street more easily.

On our second day, helped again by Uncle Xie’s advice, we climbed aboard another deathbus to get to Jinguashi mining museum. This is another part of the Japanese-started gold mines, and it has reconstructed buildings made from the original materials (as far as possible) to show how the miners lived during the Japanese occupation and afterwards. There was also a lot of information about the large house built to accommodate the Japanese Crown Prince (who never got to visit), and a section of old mine tunnel that for a very cheap NT$50 you could get a hardhat and walk through. Most of the visitors go to see the immense gold brick in the final museum building, but it is really worth taking the time to explore the mine compound area and see the scenery and other buildings, including a special art gallery dedicated to the miners, and the sections of museum with artifacts from the miners, including items from British POWs who worked the mines in terrible conditions during WWII, as well as a large gold orb that had been illegally smelted and hidden by some of the town’s inhabitants.

Jiufen really was a wonderful town to visit, from the calming teahouse to the exhausting up-and-down stairs, to the bustling market. I was worried I had overhyped myself, but I wasn’t disappointed at all, and it was sad to say goodbye to Uncle Xie and to see the town disappear past our taxi windows – three bus rides had given us a reluctance to risk an unlucky number four!