Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Day 7: Shihlin Saves the Day

For the first time since we arrived in Taiwan, we woke up late. The weather forecast said rain. That was a little depressing but since we planned to be indoors the whole day, it didn't really matter.

When we finally stepped out past 10 a.m., the weather was still fine - 16 degrees and just a few clouds. Our agenda for the day was the National Palace Museum. We took a train to Shihlin Station and then a bus.

a resourceful ah yi on the bus

By the time we got to the museum though, dark clouds had rolled in. We scuttled into the museum, glad that we had arrived before the storm.

The National Palace Museum collection is the jewel in Taiwan's crown.

"look what we have and you don't"

Originally one formidable collection of artwork amassed over the centuries, the Chinese Imperial Family's treasure trove was inadvertantly split during the Chinese Civil War, when the retreating Nationalists lugged a significant portion (and some will say the most valuable parts) of it with them all over mainland China, and finally to Taiwan, in a bid to keep it out of the hands of the Communists. Since then, the museum has become a must-visit for visitors from all over the world, including those from the mainland.

"look what we have and don't want - your falungong protestors"

We eschewed the museum tours and opted to rent audio guides instead, for 100NT (S$5) per pax, with 1000NT (S$50) OR passport deposit. That way, we could decide for ourselves the sequence to do the galleries in and take our time to view the exhibits.

We didn't dawdle that long in each gallery and yet the day flew by. The collection was extensive - ceramics, calligraphy, books, objets d'art, sculpture, furniture and more - all curated as exhibitions with important-sounding names like "Gems in the Rare Books Collection", "The Ancient Art of Writing", "Stunning Decorative Porcelains from the Ch'ien-lung Reign", "Tracing the Che School in Chinese Painting". Unfortunately photography was only allowed in certain areas and for certain exhibits.

The museum's star exhibits were a jade carving resembling a cabbage and a jasper carving resembling a piece of dong po rou no less! My favourites though were the Chinese paintings, such "Along the River during the Ch'ing-ming Festival" and "A Palace Concert", with their myriad details depicting life in ancient times. Of course we couldn't leave without first collecting all the stamps in our guide book, having fun at the children's gallery and doing a little shopping at the souvenir shop.

In the midst of all this, we actually did not get the opportunity to have lunch. For one thing, we didn't chance upon any eateries other than this one below where all we could find was something hot to drink and something sweet to eat:

a latte

a pot of rose tea

and a waffle

At NT$450 (S$22.50), it wasn't exactly value for money. Nevertheless, in the absence of an alternative, it had to do.

By the time we left the museum at 5 p.m. it was peak hour. The bus back to Shihlin Station was packed with schoolkids and the roads were jammed. We arrived at Shihlin Station a little worse for wear and needing a pick-me-up. We settled for a latte (50NT/S$2.50) at Café 85 - our first local coffee joint. Our conclusion? The Taiwanese should stick to brewing tea.

Still needing something more substantial, we visited Xiao Hong Mao, a bakery right next to the station that had a steady stream of customers.

"Little Red Hat"

For 130NT (S$6.50), we acquired five buns -beef, cha siew, tuna, California maki, and egg and potato salad. Guess which is which.

Sadly, it was not a nice night to be out on the streets. With temperatures averaging 15°C, not including wind chill factor, it was a little cold and a trifle damp, sufficiently so that we felt morose. How did we cheer ourselves up? We headed back to Shihlin Night Market.

One big bowl of Ay Chung Mian Xian (NT$55/S$2.70) later, we felt better.

our fellow diners

We washed that down with some gui hua or osmanthus tea (35NT/S$1.70), and then went shopping. We found some shops selling Nike products, and putting aside niggling doubts about the authenticity of the products (the prices weren't that ridiculously cheap, or so we reasoned), we bought ourselves some shoes, socks and such.

Stumbling through the crowds, and crowded it was, we came across the Cicheng Temple which was right smack in the heart of the night market.

It was yet another small but striking temple.

Before we left for the night, I couldn't resist trying out the crab (2 small ones for 80NT or S$4).

garlic-encrusted crab

HM made me eat up the crab on the sidewalk, rather than back "home" in our hotel, so as not to smell up our rather cosy room. The crab was alright, not a big deal compared to the other small eats that Shihlin is famous for.

Last but not least, we bought a huge bag of cut fruit for 300NT (S$15). There was some kind of apple, some kind of melon, even some persimmon. It took us three whole days to finish all that fruit!

Finally, we returned to our hotel with our good humour restored.

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