24 June 2008

The Rest of the Weekend

To continue---I don't remember exactly all the locations and sights that we saw, nor the order in which the pictures were taken, but here's what I do remember:

It seems like we drove for days. This might sound taxing, and perhaps it was. But the long ride was frequently segmented into bite size pieces by many engaging stops along the way. Our guide, Xiǎo Zhào (the name 小照, interestingly enough, has a lot to do with illuminating things) seemed to know exactly what we should see, and Prof. Smith had a few connections that he called upon to give us tours, drink tea and educate us about Chinese culture.

A lone man watches tourists

At Ālǐshān, we found this temple to the Daoist earth god. I mentioned in a previous post that at many Daoist temples, people "cast lots of sorts" to divine information from the metaphysical. This time, several of us got to ask him to answer our questions about the future or some as-of-yet unrevealed truth. The gods decide whether or not to answer your question, and communicate this through moon blocks. The Process in Chinese is called 擲筊 (Zhì Jiǎo, tossing the bamboo blocks). The blocks are made out of wood today and are crescent shaped. One side is flat, one convex. You throw two of them and if they land one flat-side-down, and the other flat-side-up, it's a positive answer to your question. If both are up or both down, then it's a negative answer. After bowing three times and paying reverence to the god, you toss the blocks up to three times asking if you can have your question answered. If the answer is yes, you pick a stick out of a vase which will have a number on it. That number has a corresponding drawer in a round wooden box. Inside that drawer is an excerpt of classical poetry which should help you answer your question. Of course, it's up to your interpretation, but some students' questions were answered surprisingly well. My question didn't even get permitted to be asked. Perhaps that god couldn't be bothered with my question. Perhaps I'm not meant to know. I'm okay with that.

Another dragon motif at the Earth God temple

A bit more about temples before we move on. There's an interesting mix of three (plus) religions in Taiwan. Confucianism, which from what I'm gathering is the philosophical foundation on which the others lie. It's also the social code, as that's basically the heart of the philosophy. Then there's Daoism, which is also a bit philosophical, but seems more religioius: temples to different gods and goddesses are all over. Then there's Buddhism, which kinda gets mixed in with the medley of the other two, so you have Buddhist gods next to Daoist gods in temples, and a mashup of the two philosophies. The social mandate of Confucianism and Taoism gets cemented and policed with ideas of Buddhism's karma and the like. The Dao is Nirvana is Right Living. 

So temples come in two main flavors. Confucian temples are quite austere, and simple. Reflection pools and benches line the courtyards. 

The Daoist/Buddhist temples are quite different. Because there are ideas about afterlife, gods, and the like, these temples are places for petition. Incense fills the air in and around these temples, colors excite your eyes, and the sounds of birds and worshipers shuffling about the deserted courtyards. Overlay all this in the context of a bustling street corner on which the temple sits, and the experience is even more unusual. The rumble of car engines, the laughter of kids walking home from school, and the sounds of street vendors waft over the walls of the temple courtyards in exchange for the incense smoke. It's a very honest metaphor of the religious and social becoming one.

Later, we stopped at Nantou on the way to wherever we were headed. Here, we found a Daoist temple that had been newly finished when an earthquake struck. The best laid plans! I thought this picture has a bit of cruel and/or poignant humor in it, and would be much better if the air conditioning hadn't cooled my camera down so that the lens fogged up before I could take any pictures... Perhaps the gods were averting bad PR.

Laughter, in spite or because of destruction?

The level you're looking at above used to be the third level of the building. This city was very close to the epicenter of the 2001 earthquake in Taiwan. The earthquake, on top of causing widespread damage and several deaths, also hit this temple pretty hard. It's as if the earth swallowed the first two floors.

Just around the corner however, literally within 3 yards of the fence around the devastated temple, these bees were busy as they proverbially are, producing Lotus Flower Honey, which, upon sampling, was found to be delicious.

Honey factory

The drawer in this pic is a catch-basin for the pollen on the bees' knees, which is sold for medicinal purposes: eat it and you're assured a healthy complexion and reduced allergies...

Sometime after Ālǐshān we wound up at Yùshān (玉山, or Jade Mountain) National Park. There, we spent the night in a nice hotel with a nifty tea store where, for NT$700, we got a couple hours and 12 seats at a tea making table complete with plenty of delicious Oolong tea.

The next morning, we were in for some more looking around, and some serious stair climbing. Fighting through droves of about 300 elderly women from Mainland China there with a Taoist dancing group, we boarded a bus that took us to a "trailhead." The "trail" was really a semi-paved path that had far more stairs than I could count. We climbed what seemed like endless stairs until we reached the Eyes of Heaven and Earth, naturally formed giant gouges in the earth. Professor Smith, Pat, and I got separated from the group and it was good to have such a knowledgeable tour guide. We talked history and Chinese philosophy until we arrived at our next stop on the trail...

Cascade of liquid life

A pretty pretty waterfall. The path lead right in front of the waterfall and we enjoyed soaking up the spray of the water, an "ion bath." This was especially refreshing, as the temperature was at least 90°F (32°C).

After being reunited with the group, and getting our belonings together, it was back on the bus.

Husband and Wife, 
famous trees in central Taiwan

We stopped off at the Husband and Wife, a pair of what seem to be deceased trees leaning away fron the slope of the mountain. They're austere, and solemn, but if you look closely, you can see some green opportunists perched high on the wife's (she's the closer one) left side branch. Click to enlarge. :-)

Our last stop was Sitou Forest Recreation Area, home of National Taiwan University's Experimental Forest. We climbed around, and, despite the Canopy walk being closed, saw plenty of interesting things. It was a fun place to wander around as a group. Big enough, not too crowded, not too deserted. Good place. I found some Red Cyprus oil, and some giftie things there.

Landscape painter in the park

Perhaps the best part ws this tree. 2,800 years old makes this tree well on its way to having a triply special spirit.

Grand Valley Taiwan group
And our special, elderly, botanical friend

Then, it was back home, about a 2.5 hour bus ride. We all got home and most of us were zonked by the time our heads hit our pillows. Exhausting, as I've mentioned, but well worth it. 

I have more pictures and another post in the works, so stay tuned. Now, though, it's homework time!

3 comments:

Britney said...

I love love love your pictures. I think the stories about the trees were just lovely and I feel must be true. your updates always make my day :]

TongueTied said...

It's SO nice to hear that A: People read this blog. It often feels that I'm writing into a vacuum. and B: I can make your day! I'm glad that I can do that, and wish I could do more. Rest assured that there are many tea parties in the makings when I return.

Abi said...

This post is so interesting to me. I love the info about and photos of the temples. Anthropological experiences like that are what I envy most about your trip. Good to hear you are starting to feel better.