An early start, a late evening flight … and lots of glorious sightseeing in between.
Let’s take this day in four parts. The first, set out below, is a little low on photographs – the reason for this will be explained later – but the significance of the place I visited warrants a separate treatment. The second and third parts will document a long walk across the historic heart of Taipei … and no worries, those posts will be far more richly illustrated. The final part will be a simple closing post to round off the journey, after which we’ll be hopping over to Japan (again) for a look at my autumn 2014 journey in the Kansai region.
Now then, back to Taiwan, where Friday morning dawned bright and sunny…
…or at least it must have done, somewhere in the world. Not here though, where a thick layer of cloud held the promise – or should I say threat – of rain over the heads of everyone in Taipei.
Fortunately, my first order of business was an indoor appointment to inspect some very special meat and veg, in the shelter of a windowless room labelled “302”.
Right then, let’s get started. I sorted out my breakfast, checked out of the hostel I was staying in, put my luggage out of the way, and set out for the first part of a hectic final day of exploration in Taiwan’s sprawling capital.
At Taipei Main Station, I boarded a Tamsui-Xinyi Line train and headed northwards to Shilin Station (about 15 minutes / TWD 20 with an EasyCard or TWD 25 without), one of the closest metro stops to my first destination.
I was bound for the National Palace Museum, the massive repository for one of the largest collections of Chinese art anywhere on earth, including priceless artefacts of incredible artistic merit that were acquired over the centuries by the Emperors of China and formerly graced the palatial halls of Beijing’s Forbidden City. How such a large and immensely valuable treasure ended up here, so far from their original home, is a story that almost reads like a chapter pulled out of an adventure novel.
I left Shilin Station via exit 1 and walked north to Zhongzheng Road, where a small crowd marked the location of the stop from which I was supposed to take a bus to the museum. Several services ply that route, as explained on the official website, though you may find all of them invariably crowded.
The ride was less than half an hour long, but the discomfort of standing the whole time with a noisy crowd pressing in from all sides made it feel less than enjoyable. I felt quite glad to step out into the fresh air when we were finally disgorged at our common destination.
My fellow visitors started to gravitate towards the museum entrance, so I decided to leave the picture-taking for later and rushed to the yellow-tiled building in the distance as fast as my legs would carry me. The reason was simple: the less I dilly-dallied out here, the fewer people I’d have to contend with in there. Indeed, as far as I was concerned, every man, woman, and child in that front courtyard, whether a wizened old gentleman or a bubbly drooling infant in a pram, was my sworn adversary…
…and I was determined to beat the lot of them to Room 302.
I should probably mention at this point that photography is forbidden inside the exhibition zone, and since I was in such a hurry, I was in no mood to take any indoor snapshots even where it might have been allowed (the lobby, for example). I’ve embedded a number of scenes from Google Maps’ street view service to help illustrate the scene, though the area that can be explored ends at the foot of the main staircase.
I marched straight up to the ticket counter, paid the TWD 250 admission fee, wasted a few moments poking about in the lobby before I snapped back to my senses, and rushed through the security checkpoint into the exhibition area.
Long before I reached Room 302, I began to see signs of the (seemingly desperate) measures that the museum staff had set in place to marshal the crowds … or at least attempt to marshal them. Ribbon barriers delineated a clear but winding route that looped back on itself several times, offering the maximum queueing capacity for the minimum footprint. In addition, the start of the approved path was set some distance away from the hallowed chamber itself, funnelling visitors through and past other exhibition areas (whether or not they cared a whit about what was displayed in them). Inconvenient, perhaps, but quite understandable when one considers the droves of tourists all fighting for a chance to see the goods on display.
I joined the already long line that was inching along this pre-determined route, for the most part moving slow as molasses, but surging forward whenever the attendant manning the barrier allowed a batch of people through. In due course, as the previous group slowly dispersed, the rope barrier was retracted and another carefully controlled chunk of the queue – myself included – was granted admission to the simple, dark-walled confines of Room 302.
And like moths to a flame, we found ourselves drawn inexorably towards the spotlit display cases standing in the middle of the room, within which reposed in near-hallowed glory the museum’s most renowned treasures…
Whether working from a flash of artistic inspiration or drawing upon addled dreams induced by fumes of questionable herbaceous origin, a couple of Qing-dynasty artisans deemed it appropriate to depict in precious jade and banded jasper two objects that would have otherwise escaped notice in their original organic incarnations, breathing life into lifeless stone and bequeathing extraordinary significance to insignificant features of the common householder’s dinner table.
(This would be the perfect place to insert a few photographs; alas, I tend to do as I’m told and I obeyed the no-pictures rule to the letter.)
I must admit, it was hard to enjoy the sight of those two splendid examples of the stonecarver’s prowess … not with so many people crowded around the display cases, lingering as long as they could whilst examining every single detail from all sides. In fact, it was a bit of a challenge to enjoy the museum as a whole, despite the awe-inspiring atmosphere generated by the assemblage of so many artistic treasures under one roof. The crowds were just too much, too thick, too noisy, with the melded chatter of people from all corners of the globe drowning out the whispers of history emanating from the museum’s innumerable exhibits. This mixed experience is reflected in the observations of many visitors – check the reviews on TripAdvisor, for example – with high praises for the collections mingled with frustrated complaints about the overcrowding.
I’m not sure how the museum intends to address this situation in the future, with the number of visitors rising year by year, but I earnestly hope that something will be done to improve the experience.
In any case, despite the large crowds, a visit to the National Palace Museum is something I strongly recommend, especially for those with a certain level of interest in Oriental art and history.
After the tight squeeze I experienced indoors, it came as a relief to finally break free and burst through to the wide open spaces outside. Now, completely at my leisure, I took the opportunity to admire the museum compound and its lush tropical setting.
From the entrance to the museum compound, I took a bus back to Shilin Station and boarded a train bound for downtown Taipei.
En route, I snapped a picture of Taipei’s venerable Grand Hotel, standing proudly upon a hill in the distance.
Coming next: a long walk through the heart of Taipei, and an architectural journey across the city’s richly layered history.