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 #1: Kaoshiung

Having mastered the art of the day trip, we decided to really push the boat out and go away for a whole weekend! I know… Crazy mad! One of our teacher friends talks about Kaoshiung a lot as a place he really enjoys visiting. It doesn’t hurt that his significant otter lives there, but he has a lot of good things to say about the city. For context, it’s the second largest city in Taiwan, and is on the south end of the island, 2.5 hours from Changhua by express train. Something we have since learnt, is that it not only has a large white ex-pat community, but is very popular for Japanese tourists, businessmen and ex-pats. So a lot of the city is very first world and efficient and beautiful. Formerly an industrial port, the city has been working hard to rebuild and rebrand following the industrial market decline in Taiwan. Now “Beautiful Kaoshiung” is the city’s slogan, and literally everything is under renovation!

As it was longish trip, we actually booked train tickets online, to ensure we’d have somewhere comfortable to sit. So worth it! The scenery a dozen other towns and cities whizzed by and after 2.5 hours we stepped out into Kaoshiung train station… Which is huge and has about a million platforms, and is full of people bustling to catch their train because their platform is basically in the next county it’s so far away… And there was us, trying to work out if we needed to take Exit A or B or C or J to get onto the road we needed to be on in order to find our hotel… No, not really. In comparison to Changhua, and even Taichung, the Kaoshiung station is really big and really busy, and it was very intimidating trying to work out where to go without getting in the way of everyone behind us. But truthfully, we just followed the flow of people until we found a quiet corner to duck into, and we were absolutely fine.

Kaoshiung uses a different transport system from the rest of Taiwan, and so our first stop was to buy an iPass, because EasyCards don’t work on the buses or the underground railway. So, with iPass in hand, we set off to find our hotel. Along the way, we stopped and ordered coffee from a bohemian looking cafe, of which there are many! If you are a cafe person (which I am) Kaoshiung is an absolute cornucopia!

Our hotel was only a short walk from the station, and again, it is one of many places to stay. We had been warned by the internet that the staff didn’t speak English, so we got our booking details ready, bracing for the pointing and miming to begin. But as we stepped up to the counter the lady said “Booking.com?” and 2 minutes later we were in our room. The hotel’s gimmick is themed rooms – PacMan, The Union Jack, Daisies etc, so we were quite excited to see what our theme would be. The furniture was minimalist and geometric, the bathroom very nicely done in black and white, the bedding was white and fluffy and offset the chunky wooden base very nicely… And all of this was charmingly highlighted by twenty or so pairs of stuffed boobs hanging from the walls. Hilarity ensued. I wish that we had a bigger and better picture to show, but it’s difficult to remember your camera when a wall of boobs is bearing down on you!

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Anyway, we checked in and then set off at a furious pace for the remainder of our stay. According to the iPhone step counter, we walked 32 km over the course of weekend! Needless to say, we got a lot done!

Our first stop was the Kaoshiung central park, only a short distance from our hotel. It’s a lovely big park with a stream and ponds and modern art and a fountain, so it’s a lovely break from the city. There is also a lovely, but expensive cafe in the park itself, which was our destination for lunch that day, after we had sauntered around the park talking to the ducks and squirrels. The food was delicious, and with full bellies we set off towards the 85 Sky Tower, the second tallest building in Taiwan. It’s not difficult to find, because you can see it from pretty much anywhere in the city, so we just made sure it was always in front of us and set off. The tower houses a department store, a hotel and a restaurant, but the real reason to visit it is to ride in the high-speed elevator to the viewing deck on floor 75. The elevator travels at 10 m/s, which is fast enough to make your ears pop, and the lights dim dramatically as you travel to show off the odometer above the door. It’s all very futuristic and exciting! The viewing deck is definitely worth a visit. There is a gift shop with the obligatory tourist doodads and thingamajigs that seem super necessary when you’re doing something you’ve never done before, and there is also a little coffee shop so you can get a coffee and an ice-cream while you look out over the sprawling city below you. The view is actually incredible, as you have the ocean on one side, a vast expanse of city on another and mountains in the distance. Unfortunately, the Asian Brown Cloud (ABC) was out in full force, but it was a lovely view nonetheless

As the 85 Sky Tower is just shy of the water’s edge, we went down to the ferry wharf, which has been gentrified into a very chic, modern hang out, and many of the old warehouses have been converted into art galleries and exhibitions centers. The day we were there, a pet show was being hosted, so the whole area was filled with dogs and cats and birds of all shapes and colours and sizes!

You simply can’t visit Kaoshiung, without seeing the Love River. It would be like going to London and not seeing the Thames – you’d just be wrong! There is some kind of story behind the name Love River, but the tours are all in Chinese and the internet is very vague on exactly what the “cultural significance” of the river is. However, it is a beautiful spot to visit, particularly at night as the river banks are decorated with fairy lights and the riverside restaurants come alive. There are also gondola and ferry rides along the river – we chose the gondola because it was peaceful and pretty, and also because it’s a gondola!

 

The other major attraction in Kaoshiung is the Dragon and Tiger pagodas at the Lotus Lake. This is a little way from the centre of Kaoshiung and provided us with the opportunity to try out the KRT (the underground railway system). The main station (Formosa Boulevard) is the site of a modern art installation called the Dome of Light, the largest glass art installation in the world. The whole station is a tribute to the Formosa incident  and the Dome of Light promotes a message of love and tolerance through depictions of the four elements.

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On our way to the pagodas we found ourselves at an indigenous botanical garden – read “a tiny patch of indigenous forest in the middle of the city”! It was a lovely surprise, and an excellent opportunity to do some bird watching. We wandered around the forest garden for a short while, saw some squirrels and beautiful birds (including a goshawk!) and got eaten alive by mosquitoes, before we set off for the Lotus Lake. The lake is man made and, as the name suggests, is famous for the lotus flowers which grow there. Unfortunately, they don’t flower in winter, so there weren’t many to see when we were there. There are also a number of temples around the lake, but the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas are by far the most charismatic. The pagodas themselves are twin buildings, joined by a walkway, with an enormous (and rather gaudy) tiger at one door, and dragon at the other. The “auspicious” thing to do, is go into the pagodas through the dragon’s mouth and leave through the tiger’s mouth. Each pagoda has seven levels, with a spiral staircase winding up the middle. It’s quite a steep climb and if you take it too fast, you feel pretty dizzy by the time you reach the top, but we definitely recommend climbing to the top of at least one (or both if you skipped leg day). We only managed one, and then decided we felt quite auspicious enough for one day! The pagodas are free to visit, but are supported and maintained through donations from the public, so if you ever do visit them, do consider leaving a little something in the donation box.

Our final destination for the trip was the British Consulate. We weren’t exactly dying to see the building itself, but it’s set into the side of small mountain (big hill?) with a lovely view over the sea and a view of the lighthouse, which is a little more difficult to get to.There is a tour of the building, if you are a history nerd, but as we were under a little bit of time pressure it just wasn’t an option for us.

Our trip home was pleasantly uneventful, and as the hotel let us leave our bags in the storage room, everything was really quick and easy and convenient. We are talking about going back to Kaoshiung sometime to try some restaurants we liked the look of but didn’t get to eat at, so we may be adding a follow-up Daytrippers post later! If you are a city person, Kaoshiung is definitely somewhere we would recommend, and the number of people who speak English makes it a lot easier to get around! We had a really good time and, even though we aren’t normally city people, there was a lot to do in the city.  The number of green spaces dotted in between the buildings breaks up the concrete and glass really nicely, and the facilities and infrastructure make it a breeze to get around! If we had to live in a city in Taiwan, Kaoshiung would be it!