21 February 2010

Taipei: National Palace Museum, 101, Longshan temple

National Palace Museum
My morning is entirely devoted to the National Palace Museum. I was here eight years ago but I am just as excited today. The best museum for Chinese art in the world. The story is well known. Chiang kai-shek took about 20,000 trunks wirth of art from the imperial collection of the forbidden city when he had to leave Beijing during the civil war. All that stuff traveled around China, but when Chiang saw that he was losing to mao, he had his staff pack "only" about 7,000 trunks of the best items and shipped it over to Taiwan. This treasure is still a major bone of contention with Beijing, though in recent years there have been cooperation programs with museums in the mainland.

This is la crème de la crème of Chinese art, collected by emperors as far back as the Tang dynasty. Chiang had a nuclear bomb proof vault buil in a mountain next to Taipei and then, next to the mountain, this museum. The world is lucky that the stuff is here, or it would probably have been dstroyed during the cultural revolution in China. Today, only about one percent of the items are on display, and the Museum's staff rotates it ever so many months. Incredibly refined, pottery, ceramics, calligraphy, jewellery, jade, bronze...

I can see myself coming back here many, many times...

Leaving the Museum I head to the XXI symbol of pride of Taiwan, Taipei 101. When it was completed in 2004 it was the tallest building in the world, and it remained that until last month, when Burj Khalifa opened in Dubai. Taipei 101 is a controversial project. My friend S., who openly sympathizes for the independentist school of thought in Taiwan, says it was not really necessary and it was motly a trick by the Nationalists to impress an increasingly disillusioned electorate.

Taipei 101

Moving fast in 101 elevator
Be that as it may, it is still impressive. Inside, there is a slurpy food center in the basement. Then several floors of shopping mall, and what a shopping mall! Luxur brands from all over the world and a pleasant yet awe inspiring carousel of escalators, lifts, lights, and immense empty spaces that provide a welcoming and warm atmosphere.

At the top, it is cold and windy today. Not the best day to enjoy the landscape. I don't spend much time there, but again I must admit to being impressed: this time by the elevator, the fastest (at this time) in the world, going up and down at 17 meters per second without the slightest discomfort for the user. Well, may I should say the traveler, since it's over half a kilometer up from ground level!
Inside 101

An impressive 730 tons tuned mass damper is installed near the top to absorb shocks caused by wind or earthquakes.

tuned mass damper in 101
In the evening I went to the Longshan temple, where I spent some time looking at the faithful perform Buddhist ceremonies and giving offerings. It is a mystic atmosphere, welcoming and somewhat magic. Free CDs with Buddhist music ara available.
Longshan temple

20 February 2010

Taipei, Taiwan: Shilin night market

After eight years, I am back in Taiwan. Taipei fascinates me, a small capital city of a fiercely proud nation that wants to be a country. It is in fact a country, except the politics of the world don't allow it to call itself so.

I fly in from Hong Kong and check in my hotel in Da 'an. It's sort of late for a proper tour of the city so I opt to go to Shilin night market and have dinner on the go, and watch people.

It's a lively scene, the food available is beyond description, you can sit down at any of the countless stalls and have anything prepared for your as you wait. Actually, as you watch, it is done right there in front of your eyes.

Lots of games of skill around, people have fun, quietly, between a bite and a drink. I wish I had a month to come back every night and taste all of this tempting food!

There is people of all ages. Families with children playing around, adolescents on a date, older people savoring the atmosphere. A bustling yet serene night market.

18 February 2010

A few days eating around in Hong Kong

I have spent a few days in Hong Kong, and I am so impressed. This is a fantastic city, so full of life, energy, fun and culture. And amazing food, cheap and tasty! I have eaten all kinds of stuff, some that not even J. could quite explain what it was... I tried hard but could not find anything, I mean ANYTHING, I did not like. The one plate that stuck most in my memory was pig's lungs in almonds' soup. OK a bit unusual, not even J. ate the lungs, she was happy with just the soup, but I found it all quite well matched. Which was followed by pork liver. WOW!

Often J. and I would eat at street stalls, delicious and cheap food served in paper bags, so cheap and so tasty I had to really make an effort to stop.

For food shopping, there are countless markets of all kinds. I found the "wet markets" especially interesting. They are called so because fish is so fresh... it is fact sold alive! Instead of dead fish on ice or shrinkwraps you buy fish here that is still swimming in styrofoam boxes. One day J. bought an octopus, which was still alive when we took it home for cooking. I was slightly shocked to see her cutting it up as it was moving around the kitchen table, but it was definitely fresh!

We even found a specialty shop with Italian produce, you can get real mozzarella di bufala flown in from Italy daily. I could buy some pancetta and Roman pecorino cheese, and was proud to make some authentic amatriciana at J.'s home for all the family! OK OK for purists: I did not find the mandatory guanciale, but maybe I did not look well enough!

Touring Hong Kong is fun in the traditional two-storied trams, that apparently were now bought by Veolia, a French company which however has pledged to keep the traditional trams running. However, for longer distances, and to cross over to Kowloon, the metro system is fast and superefficient. Taxis are convenient and cheap too.

15 February 2010

Arrival in Hong Kong for Chinese New Year's celebrations

It's my first time back in Hong Kong after 14 years. Last time I landed in the old airport, an experience I will never forget! This time I am welcomed by the new airport, an architectural and logistical masterpiece that is voted best airport in the world over and over again... This, also, is a great experience!

13 February 2010

Film Review: War Photographer, by Christian Frei, *****

An Oscar nominee for best documentary, 'War Photographer' was directed by Swiss filmmaker Christian Frei, who followed Nachtwey, who for many is the greatest war photographer of his generation, to Kosovo, Palestine and Indonesia.

We see the photographer in combat zones and pockets of horrific poverty, approaching his subjects slowly, with a hand raised in peace. After 20 years of covering war, poverty and famine Nachtwey still sees his work as an antidote to war and his photographs as a graphic 'negotiation for peace.'

Christian Frei is never in want of original ideas for his films. Here he mounts mini movie cameras on Hachtwey's photo cameras and shows us the world's tragedies as Jim himself saw them. From war theaters in Bosnia, Kosovo, Palestine, Somalia (hence the title) to poverty and gruesome mines in Indonesia, Jim has seen it all. His goal: to make people around the world aware of the horrors of war so as to build up forces to prevent this tragedy from happening again. A bit idealistic perhaps, but he puts immensely powerful images behind this goal.

Jim took all black and white pictures, and some scenes of this documentary are shot back home in NY and show Jim working with his assistants in the darkroom (this is predigital) to make perfect prints of his negatives.

You might want to buy his superlative photography book on the wars of the 1990s. It is a big, heavy and expensive book but worth every cent you pay for it.