Another perfect morning. For the first time in daylight I scanned the view from our Tainan hotel room window, congratulating myself on having asked for the better room. Where the fireworks had been launched the previous evening, a family now picnicked along the canal. Who picnics at seven o’clock in the morning? Other hotel guests, if the oversized hotel robes worn by the children were any indication. They probably hadn’t asked for a better room, I thought, smugly.
One or two bicyclists rolled by now and again, enjoying the safe, wide, flat cycling paths. I craned my neck out the window to see how the paths went, but couldn’t see past the first bridge. Frank suggested we use the hotel bicycles – another freebie – but I demurred. While I had come up just fine from the previous day’s ride – a major victory, both physically and psychologically – riding in a big city is a very different thing to riding in a rural setting, bike paths or not. “My next cycling accident is likely to be my last cycling accident” I told him, “and it isn’t going to be today.”
After loading up on the hotel breakfast buffet, we walked the canal towards the port, the old city centered on an old fort, an area known as Anping. The cycling paths proved very long, wide, and safe; I regretted my decision not to cycle. The Tainan Canal is long and wide, too, approaching a hundred meters wide in some spots. It made for a very pleasant walk, zig-zagging back-and-forth across it, admiring the modern sculptures around it and ancient fishing vessels within.
The streets of Tainan showed themselves clean and orderly. The footpaths were wide and passable, not blocked with vehicles or commerce, as one finds in many Asian cities. It was a treat to walk next to each other, actually having a conversation, rather than to walk single file dodging traffic whilst shouting warnings, as is the rule in Manila.
Comfortable in our shorts and T-shirts, we smiled at the Tainanese who, like Melburnians, shiver through their mild winter in attire more suited for skiing. They followed the road rules, even the rule requiring scooters to wait on the right for a left turn across traffic (Melburnians would call this a “hook turn”), in effect making them wait through two signal changes to take a left. The motorcycles are well-regulated, too, each with an effective noise muffler and heat guard on an exhaust pipe that spewed relatively little exhaust. Law-abiding bikies; now I have seen everything.
Eventually we reached Anping, finding a plaque signed by Tainan’s Mayor calling it “the birthplace of Taiwan’s recorded history”. Apparently, prior to 1624, no literate person ever stepped foot in Taiwan. Humbug. No, more likely, His Honor needs a better translator.
The Dutch settled here in 1624, Taiwan’s first European settlement. Looking at the original layout of the place, I had to wonder what they were thinking, establishing a city in a flood-prone swamp. But the Dutch are unusually well-accustomed to getting along with dykes, so they were happy to do so, as they have done so often, from Amsterdam to Jakarta to Staten Island. Fishing was big, but so too was salt production, the coastal shallows being perfect for salt flats. Surely the indigenous population did it first, but the Dutch brought the scale that comes with international trade. To this day, the local foods tend to be quite salty – which is okay by this salt fiend.
A major attraction in the area is the “Tree House”, an ancient warehouse that has been peculiarly swallowed almost completely by a banyan tree. It once belonged to one of the major trading companies that were established here subsequent to the Opium Wars, trading mostly in the tea, camphor and of course opium. It is a well-presented museum, although they downplay the importance of opium, which is a bit like forgetting to mention tea in a history of the Boston Tea Party.
Lunch time approached as we spiraled in towards the fort. A street hawker with a megaphone inches from my back blared dining invitations at us in Mandarin. It was so loud I thought the noise was a floor show in an adjacent restaurant and hastened to move along. Frustrated, she grabbed my hand, and simultaneously stuck a menu in Frank’s hand, demanding “You eat!” It was a bit two-fisted, but it worked. We didn’t need much convincing.
We were getting the hang of this: Formica and fluorescent lighting meant a bowl of salty broth with noodles, a token green leaf, and [main ingredient] was on the way. It didn’t matter what kind of broth or noodles or leaf it was, or what the [main ingredient] was (usually chicken, pork, or clams). It always cost between one and two bucks, and was served in an instant, at a scalding temperature no bacteria could survive. Easy, cheap, fast, healthy and yummy. No complaints from me.
Afterwards, a cross-eyed hawker enticed me to try my luck at a carnival game. Being cross-eyed myself, I have an affinity for the cross-eyed. There are a lot of us here. Anyway, for a buck I “won” a piece of penny candy. Good fun.
The fort itself was something of an anti-climax. It had the usual accoutrements: towers, walls, cannons, guns, holes in the towers and walls to shoot cannons and guns through. Yawn. It was time for a nap. We flagged down a taxi and returned to the hotel for a siesta.
As the sun set, the city’s fairy lights lit up, reminding us it was Christmas Eve. Somehow a dinner of noodle soup just didn’t seem appropriate. With the assistance of internet and the front desk staff we scoured the city for an expat restaurant serving a Christmas Eve dinner. Surprisingly, we found a few; less surprisingly each was either sold out or charging a fortune. Instead, we ate a local joint named Frank Texas BBQ.
The restaurant was more genuinely Texan than desirable: forty ounces steaks served in an ongoing soap opera about a swaggering Texan named Frank bilking his estranged wife (and cancer victim) out of her restaurant (www.chinapost.com.tw/taiwan/local/taipei/2009/09/22/225635/Couple-feuds.htm). To our own amazement, we both ordered salads. Barbecue is easy to come by in both Taiwan and the Philippines – but big salads full of green leafy vegetables are rare. I saw spinach for the first time in months.
We spent a traditional Christmas morning in Tainan, wandering the streets in search of an open wine shop. (You make your traditions, I’ll make mine.) Our next destination would be the relatively remote Kenting National Park, where wine promised to be expensive, if indeed there was any. A massive Carrefour supermarket answered our prayers.
This Christmas was a Sunday morning, too, so Tainan’s streets were quiet. Except, that is, for a strange ceremony which involved participants in towering, ferocious costumes holding up what little traffic there was. Drums were banged noisily, and schreechy music schreeched. I have no idea what that was all about. Colorful, though.
A forty-minute taxi ride took us to a thirteen-minute high speed rail trip to meet a “shuttle bus”, delivering us another two hours (plus) to Chateau Beach Resort, in the national park on Taiwan’s southernmost tip. We arrived in time for a sunset walk on the beach. Huge swells smashed onto the beach, not for the first time, either, from the look of the beach erosion. Some of the resort buildings teetered at the edge of approaching sandy cliffs. The surf on this day happened to be a side-effect of Typhoon Nina which was at that very moment wreaking havoc in Metro Manila, a thousand kilometers south across the South China Sea. For us, here, now, it was a just a pretty show.
It being Christmas, we had splurged on a room with a deck overlooking the beach. And the swimming pool. And the bus parking area, as it turned out. No matter. With our hard-found wine, we relaxed on the deck. A cat startled me, curling up at my feet, purring madly. I had grown accustom to avoiding, nay, dreading cats and dogs in the Philippines, but here in rabies-free Taiwan it was a pleasure to connect with a friendly feline.