Taipei Takeover: Banking with Dinosaurs (Thoughts on a City)

It's hard to put my finger on what I liked so much about Taipei. I can tell you why I love Tokyo or why Beijing really didn't do it for me or why my feelings about Seoul ping pong all over the place. The city itself isn't attractive, it doesn't have the cared for look of Tokyo or the futuristic gilt of Seoul. Like Beijing, mopeds are so numerous it seems like you're always in the middle of a scooter gang. But there's something quite literally in the air in Taipei that makes me immediately more relaxed. As a lifetime coastal dweller, I can appreciate the beauty of the ring of mountains around Seoul but they make me feel as trapped as the stagnant air that often layers on top of the city. I know I'm on a peninsula but why can't I feel the ocean?

Taipei though... Taipei the air moves. The damp chill is familiar and even the buckets of sixty degree rain feel right. While we rode in a taxi from the airport to downtown Taipei, I could let the trees blur and the wide freeway alternating between green hills and city buildings could have easily been in the Bay Area instead. People walk slow, like they do on the West Coast too, I never have been a slow walker so maybe this is my one complaint about Taipei.

The first evening we were in Taipei, a warmish Saturday night, we rounded a corner and almost ran into a group of teenagers screaming and laughing and I was so startled realizing the only time I see kids the same age in Seoul is if I ride the bus immediately after class gets out. Sure, I see toddlers in the park and let them pet our dogs all the time but I don't know the last time I saw teenagers having fun.

In Seoul the buildings are shiny on the outside but built quickly and on the inside there are cracks. In our own apartment, behind its giant gold door, we never know which bathroom lights are going to work and one time our door knob spontaneously combusted. We have a huge jacuzzi tub but the two times I've used it I've listened to the pipes burbling for days wondering if at any moment sewage would be coming back up (a real thing our dogsitter had to deal with once while we were out of town). In the news you read about new towers with cracks in the foundation or aquariums that leak. Rome may not have been built in a day but there's a good chance the current version of your neighborhood in Seoul was.

Taipei might be uglier but at least it seems honest.

Land Bank Evolution Museum, Taipei Taiwan

One morning we walked in the rain to the Taipei Miniature Museum (there is also a Miniature Museum of Taipei) only to find a note taped on the door saying it was closed for two days. We shifted our plans and found ourselves at the 100+ year old National Taiwan Museum wandering through a self described maze analyzing the effect of capitalism on the landscape of Taipei. It ended in a room with a cloud symbolizing The Cloud from which we all access information. Then we walked through another floor with extremely dated dioramas of Taiwan's flora and fauna. Taiwan has had its own problems with maybe bulldozing too much of the old in the name of the new but now instead of a constant battle, the two seem to exist in a comfortable truce.

Across from (but part of) the National Museum is the Land Bank Exhibition Hall. One side of this building is filled with information dense displays about evolution followed by a huge hall of dinosaurs and other creatures (but mostly dinosaurs). The other side of the building is actually in a two story bank vault and discusses the evolution of the banking system in Taiwan. Even to my much more business minded husband, the information on the banking side was boring and repetitive but we both agreed walking through the aisles of a bank vault was cool. I suspect Dan could've spent hours looking a the exposed mechanisms of the bank vault door.

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One morning we went to the National Palace Museum but elbowing through endless tour groups to look at 100 different bronze mirrors didn't do it for us. It's not that I can't appreciate a few cool bronze mirrors or calligraphy sets or celadon plates but that I don't have the patience to be trapped between waves of people in a room full of only that. I'll take the less visited dinosaur bones and a bank vault full of adding machines.

After the Evolution Museum we walked through the 2/28 Peace Park on a hunt for bubble tea. The well tended parks in Seoul are one of the things I like most about the city. In Taipei the parks have more pavement but the trees seem to grow wild.

We continued in search of the nearest Chun Shui Tang (the original maker of bubble tea), not realizing the location I had marked was beneath the National Theater in Liberty Square. We walked a few circles around the slippery bricks before heading under the stairs and being guided to a table where we received a menu slip to fill out. Foolishly, still full from our Sichuan lunch, we each chose to get a medium bubble tea. Dan got classic black milk tea and I got jasmine. We had spent a lot of the day walking in the rain so we also ordered a plate of green tea cookies, content to stay inside and take a break for a while.

Our trudge through the rain was rewarded with glasses of bubble tea bigger than our face and a plate piled with rich, buttery green tea cookies. The milk tea at Chun Shui Tang is unsweetened and the pearls are small and chewy. I prefer my bubble tea on the less sweet side but the pearls here also taste completely unsweetened and I had enjoyed my cup of Happy Lemon bubble tea, purchased at the Taipei 101 food court the night before, more. Maybe sacrilege. But maybe the original just isn't always the best. The teahouse was relaxing and dry though and by the time we drained our huge glasses and conquered the mountain of cookies, we were ready to go back out into the world.

Or at least to the subway that would take us to hot showers and dry socks.

The National Taiwan Museum and Land Bank Exhibition Hall are open Tues-Sun 9:30-5:00pm and admission is a whopping TWD $30 (USD $1.00) for a joint ticket. The National Taiwan Museum is located at No. 2 Xianyang Rd and The Land Bank Exhibition Hall is No. 25 Xianyang Rd. For more information about special exhibits, check their website.

Getting Lost in Jiufen (Part Three): Jinguashi Gold Museum

We took our map and immediately found a short queue of people being ushered into a room, so we joined, finding space in the back of one room of the "Japanese Four Family House" and a woman came in and began speaking in rapid fire Mandarin. We gave each other a look, had we accidentally just joined a lecture? I began looking for subtle escape routes but being the only westerners and furthest seats from the door, things weren't looking good. Just as I had resigned myself to sitting through a lecture in a language I don't even understand a little bit, she put on a video with English subtitles explaining the process of restoration for the house and bit of the history behind the Gold Ecological Park.

The video ended and we were shuffled through the house, descriptions of the rooms were once again given entirely in Mandarin but there was some English signage, if I could get myself in a position in the crowd to read it. The hallways were narrow and the older man behind us kept pushing even though there was nowhere to go. It would be nice to explore the house on your own, but as it was, we were relieved when we finally found ourselves back in the bracing sea air.

After a quick bathroom and snack break, and some encounters with very friendly attendants that made us afraid we were going to be stuck in another claustrophobic tour experience, we started our exploration of the grounds in earnest, struck by the juxtaposition of the well maintained and restored buildings surrounded by barely contained, or sometimes not contained at all forest.

There are occasionally groups of people but it's one of the few places we've traveled in Asia with nary a tour guide flag in site. This combined with the muffling fog and our recent walk through shrines and abandoned homes, gave everything a bit of surreal dreamlike tone.

"This place is pretty weird"

"That's why I chose it, are you happy with our tour of Taiwan's quirkiest museums so far?" 

The day before I had taken him to the Landbank Museum of Evolution featuring both animal evolution and the evolution of Taiwan's banking system. "Dinosaurs and business business business, husband will love this," he quipped but while the banking related placards were a bit boring and repetitive, exploring the old bank vault they were hung in wasn't.

"YES! What are those? Why are we allowed to walk on this track? Look, here's a warning sign for snakes and wasps on this end? I don't want to go to the wasps."

We'd been vaguely following the signs for the "Benshan Fifth Tunnel" which thankfully pointed us along the cart tracks and away from the snakes and wasps. We slowly walked along, capturing occasional glimpses of the ocean and the huge bronze statue of Guan Gong in the town below until we find ourselves it what seems to be the museum proper. There are more people but it's still not really a crowd. We walk by a few huts selling more fish ball soup towards a huge air compressor that I can only describe as being what steampunk dreams are made of. Nobody else seems to be as fascinated by the air compressors as we are, perhaps distracted by the proximity of the world's largest gold bar.

Giant Air Compressor at the Jinguashi Gold Museum, Taiwan

"Here's the tunnel! Let's get our tickets!"

We get our tickets and a disposable cap. Next a man gives us a hard hat and rapidly ushers us to join the group ahead. Once again the tour is in Mandarin but there's plenty of English writing around me if I could just see it clearly. We exit the hall into a courtyard and cross to the tunnel. While I'm reading the "Past Taboos in the Tunnel," our group quickly continues ahead. We enter the cave and while I'm attempting to adjust the settings on the camera, we soon lose sight of the bulk of our group. Unlike the "four family house," there don't seem to be any rules or effort to keep the group together despite the dark cavern and slippery footing.

There are few cheesy tableaux but otherwise we're really just walking unsupervised through a mine shaft. There seems to be water everywhere, dripping from above, in rivulets next to the path and down the wall, beading up on the metal foot path.

"This is so cool! It's like the hospital under the rock in Budapest but better because we get to just go at our own pace. This doesn't seem entirely safe but whatever"

We have no idea where the rest of our group has gone, we don't even hear voices. Luckily there are no turns and eventually we see a light in the distance. A bit reluctantly we throw our hard hats in the bucket and rejoin the outside world.

Still excited from exploring the tunnel, we forget about the world's largest gold bar and move on to try to find somewhere to snack on our pastries. All the benches in the area are crowded so we move onto the Crown Prince Chalet hoping to find somewhere to sit in between.

There's a small loop to walk around in front the the building built to house the former Crown Prince of Japan had he ever visited, but the house is closed up and even the garden I thought we could walk through was closed for the winter. We find a bench with a view and unearth our cakes, each of us taking one of the sesame covered ones that had been labeled "pork and mushroom".

"This is really not pork and mushrooms"

"Why is it sweet? Is this figs?"

"It kind of tastes like walnut and raisin rugelach. This isn't what I was expecting but I guess it's ok?"

After one pastry each we look at our map to decide if we need to see anything else. Outside the museum ground proper is the Gold Ecological Park but it's mid afternoon now and we want to get to our next stop, the Golden Waterfall before dark.

"How long will it take to get there?"

"Well... it's forty minutes by bus OR 42 minutes walking"

My husband gives me a look before adjusting his backpack straps, full well knowing which one I'll think is better.

"We can take the bus back to Juifen from there, I promise"

"Ok, let's go"

And we begin to make our way out of the park...

The Gold Museum and Ecological Park is open 7 days a week (closed the first Monday of the month) and is located at No. 8號, Jinguang Rd, Ruifang District, New Taipei City, Taiwan 224. You can get there via the 788 "gold route" bus from Jiufen if you're not feeling as trusting in GoogleMaps as I am.

Parts One & Two