Second day in Taipei. Intermittent rain has Lai and I deciding that we're not gonna do the hike in the hills. Rather, at his suggestion we drive North to the National Palace Museum. This is a must-see for anyone coming to Taiwan. The building itself is massive and sits on the face of a hillside. The hill itself is partially hollowed out to provide storage for the zillions of artifacts that are not on display. There is so much, it seems, curated by the Palace Museum, that they are constantly rotating in and out various works from antiquity. And that, it turns out, is why the Forbidden City in Beijing is bereft of the millennia of dynastic art. It's all here, brought by Chang Kai-shek and the KMT when they fled the mainland in the 1940s on being routed by Mao.
Any attempt to describe the contents in detail would be boastful on my part and would come up short. So I won't. It's breathtaking to be sure, and runs the full gamut from Neolithic jades, through the Bronze age and Chinese mastery of smelting, to the development of exquisitely delicate ceramics and all put in the context of the dynastic successions of Ch'in, Warring States (see "Hero"), up to Ming and Ching and modern time. Roughly five thousand years of history expressed through the rituals, learning and symbolism of the region.
By noon the rain was periodically pouring down. We drove back to the city and wandered into Shida. This is now the neighborhood of Taiwan Normal University. The name "Shida" refers to the fact that this used to be the Teachers' College. It still is in a way. Because most prospective teachers are young women, Lai says that the guys at National Taiwan University call Shida their "garden". It is full of flowers. Because of the soaking we had already received in the morning, we endeavored to find soup and dumplings at one of the shops. The noodles in the soup were unlike any I had yet seen. Rustic and irregular. Lai explained that this noodle is fashioned by shaving them from a block of noodle with something like a carrot peeler. Not to disappoint my curious palate, Lai also snagged us some pickles. Pickled bitter gourd, pickled cabbage and slices pickled pig ear! The latter was chewy as expected but delicate in flavour.
As we left our lunchtime location in the rain I spotted a cart loaded with sundry and various items. A soup cart. Basically, one selects a variety of items, the proprietor pops them all into a cauldron of his broth, boils it all for a time and then ladles all into a bowl for your mid-afternoon or late-night snack. Pig ear (again), various sausages, mushrooms, tripe, rice pressed with pig blood, and all of the parts of a chicken you can imagine: wings, feet, necks, heads, hearts, livers and even assholes. Yep... chicken cloaca, what my mom called the "pope's nose". Apparently Lai's older sister was fond of them until someone told her what it was.
A typical dessert here in Taipei is shaved ice. Not the snow-cone variety infused with artificial flavoured corn syrup that one might be habituated to at the county fair and contributing to many a 5 yr old's brain-freeze. No, truly shaved-of-a-block-of-ice ice, piled high in a bowl and with any number of fruity or sweet combinations. Lai and I shared a bowl of ice infused with green tea sweetened with sugar cane juice, over which was sweet milk to one side and sweet red beans to the other, all topped with a perfectly round ball of green tea ice cream.
The rain hadn't let up. And, having woken up at 5 am this morning I was ready for a nap. Lai drove back the hotel where I could rest for an hour and get dressed a bit more properly for meeting his advisor Dr. Chen.
Chen is a warm and humourous character. Big smile, sarcastic, gregarious, and always making jokes. He's decided to be a cell biologist and an organismal biologist at the same time, so he's looking at the molecular mechanisms of cell signaling... in earthworms! He greeted me warmly right on the heels of his having taught the first class of Biology 101 with 130 students enrolled, cracked a joke, thanked me for having brought Lai to a meeting in France years ago, and then stopped. He looked me up and down, put his hands on his hips and said, disappointed in an amused sort of way, "I am surprised. I had thought you'd be older!"
Lai and I ploughed through his leech collection. I was like a pig in shit with all of the taxa I have never seen or held. Dinobdella ferox! Holy crap. Some poor dog went swimming in the Danshuei River and later was found bleeding from its nose. The vet had a look and pulled out a Dinobdella ferox from the nasal cavity (it's preferred site), called Lai for an identification and let him have it. Odontobdella, Orobdella, Hirudinaria, Myxobdella, Placobdelloides and on and on. I am going to be going home with tissue samples for molecular work. Anna is gonna be sooooooo surprised and soooooo happy. Some of these critters are central to her work.
Four of us went to dinner at a really nice restaurant (relieved that I had thought to change in the afternoon). Talked and talked and talked. Most of dinner was Dim Sum. We started with a dish called Buddha Jumps Over the Wall. It's a soup/potage dish that takes 2 days to make. Going into its making is shark fin, pork feet, abalone, quail eggs, chicken, sherry, several kinds of mushroom and fungus, bamboo, lamb and so on. It has a fantastic earthy aroma and tastes like heaven. Closest thing to Olympian nectar and ambrosia I have had yet (except maybe durian). So... why the name? Well, Buddhists (and Buddha) are vegetarian. It is known to taste so good that, notwithstanding its decidedly meat-basis, even Buddha would jump over a wall to get some.
I nodded off in the car on the way back to the hotel. The rain is passing over in concentrated bands. Typhoon Wipha is coming. Category 4. Yet another goddamned hurricane for me. Last one was Dennis in Mobile Alabama, evacuated for that. The direct hit by Felix in Berrmuda in 1995. Florence. Bertha. Dean. The list is getting longer than coincidence allows. Lai says I am a "rain god". Very powerful, but, ah, no one really wants a rain god around too much. Fitting.