Wanhua's Lungshan Temple

On an overcast morning I left my friend's apartment and walked south into Wanhua. For much of Taipei's history, Wanhua was the city's commercial heart. But the center of gravity has shifted; these days it is a blue-collar district dotted with historical buildings.

My objective was Lungshan Temple, one of Taiwan's most famous places of worship. After a quick look at the inner sanctum and a circuit of its compound, I decided that Lungshan's architecture was less interesting than the people it attracted. The forecourt seemed to be populated by cripples, retardates, drunks and beggars. Inside, high school students took snapshots of each other, while worshipers -- mostly middle-aged women who wore black robes over their dresses -- knelt, prayed, stood up, then knelt and prayed some more.

I saw no other Westerners, even though Lungshan Temple is an attraction mentioned in English-language leaflets and marked on every tourist map. It never ceases to amaze me that droves of Europeans and North Americans visit mainland China and Japan, but bypass Taiwan. The temples of Kyoto and Nikko receive far more foreign visitors than those in Tainan, where religion seems more heartfelt. Mount Fuji is climbed by far more Westerners than Taiwan's higher and more beautiful Jade Mountain. Language is no greater an obstacle in Taiwan than in Japan. (It has to be said, however, that the Japanese authorities do use a standard romanization system for street names, and seem to have signs proofread before putting them in place: Taiwan does neither) Japan is perceived to be a safe and orderly society, but Taiwan has never acquired a reputation for violence. Traveling around Taiwan is cheaper than visiting Japan or Hong Kong, and scarcely more expensive than the more developed parts of the mainland. Despite this -- and the efforts of the Tourism Bureau -- non-Asian tourists are conspicuous only by their absence.

Perhaps because I was the only foreigner around, a filthy vagabond who reeked of rice wine began following me around. I decided to move onto another temple in the neighborhood, a dank building dedicated to the god King Chingshan. Legend has it that, more than a century and a half ago, a group of fishermen carrying the king's image found themselves unable to drag it beyond this point. By throwing prognostication blocks they divined that the king wanted to stay there, so money was collected and the shrine built.

The tourist leaflet in my hands implied that this is a temple of significance, but I saw nothing I had not encountered elsewhere: statues of penny-dreadful demons with bug eyes and collar-length eyebrows; helixes of oily smoke slowly uncoiling from votive candles; altars cluttered with offerings of near-rotten fruit and wilting flowers.

Above each flight of stairs there was a list of the gods and deities which could be found on the next level. I worked my way upward, and from the fourth floor -- the top -- gazed out at the nearby buildings. Looking at these grimy, densely-packed blocks, it struck me then what troglodyte lives many Taiwanese lead: after work, retreating behind burglar bars into cramped dwellings where windows are closed for months on end to keep out heat, noise and dust.

Feeling claustrophobic and having inhaled suffocating quantities of incense smoke, I noticed a growing patch of blue in the sky, and decided to get out of the city. I boarded a bus heading northward over the mountains. The first stretch was an dull grind through the downtown and on past Ming Chuan University, a school named for a nineteenth-century governor remembered for his progressive policies. Liu Ming-chuan planned Taiwan's first railroad (it linked Keelung, Taipei and Hsinchu); developed the island's coal mines; established the first electricity grid in the Chinese empire; reformed the tax system; attacked corruption; and encouraged the slaughter of aborigines so Han settlers could take their land.

Then we climbed -- the mountains which ring Taipei are almost as tall as Scotland's -- and passed mansions, churches and army bases before entering Yangmingshan National Park. It is the smallest of Taiwan's national parks, and certainly the most visited, but quite lovely. The road twisted between steep, grass-covered mountains. Almost too quickly for me to notice, a fumarole -- a steam-belching gash big enough to swallow an apartment block -- appeared on the right. Hiking trails crossed the road. I wanted to get off and explore. Then all too soon we began our descent towards the ocean. Winding down past vegetable patches and picturesque stone houses, we approached Chinshan.

Chinshan does not quite touch the coast, but nothing else about the town surprised me. Low-rise and sprawling, its neighborhoods separated by paddy fields, it has a few temples, a lively market, the usual random mix of old and new houses, plus a hillside cemetery crowded with garish graves. The air was clean and the people friendly. I liked the place immediately, but left within an hour to round the cape that is Taiwan's most northerly point.

The bus traveled within spitting distance of the surf; the greenness of the land, the rocky beach and the strong wind reminded me of Ulster. After Sanchih, whose most famous son is former President Lee Teng-hui, we approached bustling Tamsui. The bus slowed as the traffic became heavier; my escape from the city had been brief, but wonderful.

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