A Full Day at the National Palace Museum

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March 20th 2011
Published: October 1st 2017
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We woke a little before 7am – perfect! Had a quick shower, then went down for our delicious brekkies – freshly made omelets included. We decided to walk across the street to Starbuck's, partially because it was there, and it's a ritual, and partly so we could check out the weather. It was surprisingly warm, and no sign of rain at all. We got our coffee, returned to the hotel briefly, then headed out to get cash and find the metro. No trouble doing either: there was an ATM just around the corner from our hotel, and the metro stop is right next door, at the end of the cul de sac.

It was easy to figure out how to get tokens for the metro, and easy to figure out which direction to go. The train arrived shortly after we reached the platform, and we took it three stops. Given how inexpensive cabs are, we grabbed a cab right outside the metro stop, instead of looking for a bus, and took it to the National Palace Museum. The cab driver was chewing betel nut … he asked us if we knew what it was. We did, and he thought that was hysterical. He also kept practicing the word, "Museum" … “Moo … see … um” he would say over and over – (we had showed him the name in Congee in the book).

The museum sits in a large building that looks like a conference center with a Chinese roofline, the main structure at the top of a hill and reached by wide steps. Inside, it looks a bit like a convention center, too. Thousands of tour groups were arriving, so we bought our tickets and scurried inside.

The museum is arranged more or less by medium: bronze and metal work; jade and ivory; paintings and calligraphy; porcelain; rare books. We decided to start at the top, with the metal works. Most of the exhibits were very standard museum fare: objects in glass cases, with cards indicating provenance, and some more prominent works described by tombstones. Still, there were some beautiful, highly detailed metal works and some interesting descriptions. One metal work that stood our for me was a ritual vessel, with the resolution of a territorial dispute, a treaty, complete with survey, incised into the bowl. I also appreciated one of the displays: the evolution of bronze, which showed how the various ritual shapes evolved over time.

More truly memorable were the jade and ivory carvings – and carvings in rhinoceros horn: I certainly wasn't aware that rhinos roamed through Asia within the historical period. Many of the carvings were so intricate and so delicate, not only were they beautiful to perceive, but it forced one to consider the skill of the craftsman. Fortunately, one entire exhibit focused on the techniques of jade carving, which provided at least a bit more information about the process. We did find it amusing that one emperor descried the growth of elaborate carvings in jade, and urged people to return to the simpler, more traditional shapes, such as the bi disk. So enamored was he of the ancient, that there was a fair trade in forgeries, some of which were stored in the imperial palace with labels such as “fine example of ancient disk, in good condition” … even though modern tests have shown that they were contemporary fakes, creating with techniques to give them a premature age.

The porcelains were also amazing – here, we truly appreciated the pieces, mostly undecorated, which showed off the luminous quality of the glazes. From robin's egg blue,
to tradition celadon, to glowing whites, yellows, and reds, the variety of glazes, and the quality of techniques, were stunning. We could see why Europeans spent so much money trying to steal or replicate the porcelain-working of China. Some of the glazes took advantage of their imperfections, creating highly-prized “oil drops” or “partridge feather” patterns.

Between the jades and the porcelains, we took a break for lunch, eating at the Silks restaurant near-by. The food was good, the tea was delicious – we tried a variety of dishes including steam buns, noodle soup, curry, stir-fried veggies, veggie roll, and a stir-fried noodle dish.

After the museum, we walked through the Zhishan Garden – some of the azaleas were in bloom, but we were more interested in the people than the flowers. Lots of families were out, picnicking, and feeding the koi and swans. Some of the koi were enormous … there were two monsters that must have been a separate species.

We returned to the hotel via cab … the cost of the cab from the museum to the hotel was exactly the same price as the cost of taking the metro and a cab on the way out. We think we may stick with cabs for the remainder of our visit. Upon return to the hotel, we sat in the pleasant lobby and partook of the afternoon snacks that were available, then repaired to our room to read and put up our feet for a bit.

In the evening, we took the metro to the Taipei Main Station, then walked around for a bit. We walked through the Peace Park, which was well-lit. Our Lonely Planet guide had informed us that it was a pick up point for gay men, so I had to wonder about all the single men hanging out at the pagoda. Then back to the central area, marveling at Central Place Theory run amok: first, a bunch of TOEFL/SAT/GRE prep schools, then book stores … but we were looking for dinner. We found a small snack shop and ordered salad and pizza, didn't linger, then took a taxi back to the hotel, where we promptly went to sleep.

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