IN AND AROUND TAINAN

Text / Steven Crook
Photos / Vision Int'l

Following the resounding success of the 2005 Taiwan Lantern Festival, the 2006 event will again be held in Taiwan's first capital and bastion of its traditional culture: Tainan City. This edition of the Lantern Festival (there are other major city-sponsored events in Taipei and Kaohsiung) is expected to draw large crowds, and for out-of-towners it's also an ideal opportunity to enjoy the historical, natural, and culinary attractions of this southern city and its surroundings.

pic

he festival will be based in Anping, a neighborhood near the sea where, in some respects, Taiwan's history began. The oldest Han Chinese settlement on the island, it's also where the Dutch East India Company established a trading base before being ejected by Jheng Chenggong , also known as Koxinga, in 1662.

Fort Zeelandia, the ruins extant today called the Old Fort of Anping, was the center of the Dutch colony. The original fortress was destroyed long ago, but remnants of the walls can still be seen. Probably the best way to appreciate the neighborhood's traditional character is to go on foot into the nearby streets. Many of the old houses hereabouts are uninhabited and decaying ?but the sense of antiquity is tangible. A few have incorporated bricks long ago "borrowed" from the old fort.

Tainan's bus network is not very comprehensive, but City Bus No. 2 links Tainan Railway Station with Anping.

Downtown Tainan

pic

The Dutch built two forts. The second, Fort Provintia, was on the site of present-day Chihkan Towers, located downtown. The foundations of the fort, razed long ago, today serve as the foundation of two proud classical Chinese towers raised in the latter period of the Cing Dynasty.

The site is very close to two of Tainan's most impressive temples. Across Minzu Road you'll see the Sacrificial Rites Martial Temple. Beyond it, out of sight down narrow Lane 227, Yongfu Road, is the Great Queen of Heaven Temple. Both date from the late 1600s, when Koxinga and his supporters imported elements of classical Chinese culture to Taiwan.

The lane, which starts right beside the front entrance to the first temple, is home to several fortune-tellers.

The traffic circle where Nanmen Road, Jhongjheng Road, and Kaishan Road meet is considered by many to be the exact center of Tainan. On its southwestern side, what used to be Tainan's city hall is now the National Museum of Taiwanese Literature (NMTL: www.nmtl.gov.tw). Drop in even if you can't read Chinese: Admission is free, and the architecture is superb.

pic

The Tainan Confucius Temple is a must-see. At 2 Nanmen Rd., this venerable complex of shrines and antechambers, built in 1665 and dedicated to the eponymous sage, lacks the clutter and tumult of the island's Buddhist temples. It's perhaps the most serene spot in the center of Tainan. If you plan to spend any time here, first take the excellent online English-language tour at http://confucius.cca.gov.tw.

History buffs will enjoy South Gate Park on the corner of Nanmen Road and Shulin Street, a 10-minute walk south of Confucius Temple. In the 1700s Tainan was a walled city and South Gate Park features a preserved section of the granite-and-brick wall, complete with cannons and a gate through which merchants, mandarins, soldiers, and peasants could enter and leave the city.

The park also boasts an interesting collection of stelae ?stone tablets used by the authorities in days of yore to promulgate new laws or commemorate local worthies and events. Bilingual explanations attached to each of the slabs make for interesting reading.

City Bus No. 2 passes South Gate Park, Tainan Confucius Temple, and the NMTL. From the NMTL traffic circle, one can wander down Cingnian Road to the Prefectural City God Temple, and then over to Mincyuan Road.

pic

The latter thoroughfare is lined with shops selling a fascinating range of religious necessities: joss sticks, censers, special cloths for altars and offertory tables, candles as big as a child, and bundles of spirit money that are burned to propitiate gods, spirits, and ancestors.

pic

Mention Tainan to people in other parts of Taiwan and they'll probably talk about some of the city's famous snacks. These foods are best sampled in any of the several night markets; one that is active every night is called Siaobei Tourist Night Market, which is located to the north of the city center on Simen Road. Look out for oyster omelets, toasted "coffin" sandwiches, and other treats.

Tainan County

pic

Tainan County has more than ten times the land area of Tainan City, and a population that tops 1.1 million. Like the city, the county has dozens of historical sites, and is inhabited by hardworking, unostentatious folk. It also has a reputation for producing some of Taiwan's best fruit, and is known internationally as the main winter home of the black-faced spoonbill, an endangered bird species whose numbers have recently recovered after dwindling to fewer than 500 worldwide.

To see the spoonbills, take a bus to Jiali from the city's Singnan Bus Co. stop on Jhongshan Road, very close to Tainan Railway Station. Then hail a taxi to Cigu. Nowadays the birds are the township's main claim to fame (and have inspired some interesting public art there), but decades ago Cigu depended on fish farms and salt production. The Taiwan Salt Museum can be found beside what is the highest hill in the area ?a huge pile of salt (more info on the museum can be found at the Chinese website of the museum: www.twsalt.org).

pic

If you have your own transportation, you can drive north on Highway 17 from Tainan City to reach Cigu. Most of Tainan County's coastline lies within the Southwest Coast National Scenic Area, which was established at the end of 2003 (for more info on this national scenic area, log on to www.swcoast-nsa.gov.tw).

Highway 19 is another north-south route. It leads from the city to Yanshuei, a small town that gets tens of thousands of visitors in a single evening around the time of the Lantern Festival (see our main article on the Lantern Festival on pages 33 ~ 37), and very few throughout the rest of the year.

Each year, Yanshuei hosts a fireworks event like no other. Growing out of a 19th century plague-expulsion ritual, the modern-day celebrations see religious icons paraded through the streets while vast numbers of bottle rockets in what are called "beehives" are fired at the idols and into the crowds. Needless to say it's highly dangerous; those attending usually wear crash helmets, gloves, and layers of old clothing.

The county has plenty of other attractions. One of South Taiwan's major roads is Highway 20, which heads inland from downtown Tainan, through the county's hilly eastern districts, and then across the Central Mountain Range to Taiwan's East Coast.

Singnan Bus Co. has frequent services to the towns on this road, as far inland as the Holy Glory Temple. A leading center of the once-proscribed Yiguandao sect, the Holy Glory Temple is impressive in terms of both size and decoration.

If you continue on Highway 20 a few kilometers past the Holy Glory Temple, you'll see one of Taiwan's most beautiful artificial lakes, Nanhua Reservoir.

The attractions mentioned here are just a sampling. If you've lots of time, or a particular interest in matters religious or rural, seek out additional information before arriving. A good place to start is the Tourism Bureau website. There's no shortage of things to do and see in the Tainan area!