Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Taiwan pt. 2 (2/4)

After venturing through a good part of Taipei the day before, I decided to do a day trip to Keelung, an hour northeast of Taipei (40-50 minutes by regular train). Keelung is a decent-sized urban port city in the Northeast part of Taiwan that's best known for its fishing and street market, along with its historical significance.

The first glimpse of Keelung as I stepped off the train was how similar it looked compared to Busan, specifically in the Nampo-dong/Jagalchi district, and the urban port of Southern Vietnam. The commonality that these places share are the focus on seafood, vendor stores, cheap clothing, food, local crafts, and accessories, and the condensed, yet laid-back personality that it has. Unlike Busan, Keelung is roughly developed with the exception of the main shopping/street market area, but similar to Vietnam, there were many small villages sprawled out near the harbor. The weather, once again, was dreary with additional overcast throughout the day. It had rained earlier in Keelung, and the streets were wet with muddy soot. The pungent aroma from the harbour permeated the city air which is already mixed in with the unforgiving fumes emanating from the darn motorbikes. Bicycles seem to be a dead form of transportation these days in Asia. I explored the night market streets which took up several blocks. There were many food stalls, and quite a few unsightly ones as whole raw chicken including the head, and feet are on display, fresh seafood lying on the tables, as the water drips from the dead fish and into the sidewalk. There was a beautiful temple in the middle of the market. Several people pay their respect, and the smell of incense can make its presence felt for blocks. In fact, there are generally several temples and shrines every few blocks. It's worth noting that Taiwan has never lost touch with its Confucian/Buddhism heritage, and strongly adheres to its ancient traditon, even more so than Japan and Korea despite the Western modernization that has taken place in all of East Asia.

The choice of food stalls underwhelmed me, and I had difficulty deciding what food I wanted to eat. The biggest challenge facing me was the lack of English signs and photos so it became a hindrance when it came to ordering food. However, I found a great stall that were selling crispy fried dumplings. It was simply delightful. I had myself some nice bubble tea along the way.

I took a walk around the city, and walked up to the top of the hill which allowed me to view Keelung. While I was on top, I visited the Big Buddha park (fairly unremarkable and almost void of Buddhism authenticity due to its sheer tourist commercial appeal). There was also a ghost museum dedicated to keeping the tradition of the ghost festival held every Fall. The purpose of the festival is to offer the dead ancestors to come back into the living world, and not suffer in the afterlife.

As I walked into the tourist office looking to get additional information, the clouds became ominously dark. It looked ripe for a nice thunderstorm, and a nice dent into the rest of my stay in Keelung. I decided to risk it and hop on the bus to see more of the harbour. During the bus ride, I got a closer look at the working-class villages near the bay. The bus signs were in Chinese of course, so I had to keep a close eye on where I was going. The ride was a bit raggedy. I visited the Fairy Buddha Cave which was uniquely impressive because of the carvings, the quiet yet scenic location it was in, and its authenticity.

As raw and honest of a traditional, urban city as Keelung is, I came away feeling underwhelmed by it. Certainly the weather didn't help matters, and I didn't have enough time to visit some of the more popular, out-of-reach areas closer to Keelung. Overall, Keelung certainly is in a much different world than Taipei with its adherence to tradition and focus on the seafood industry.

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