Woke up this morning with the following realisation: I skipped jetlag and managed to score a normal night’s sleep! The trade off? A migraine that lasted until about lunchtime which meant I had to wear sunglasses for two hours because of light sensitivity. If this had been a regular day I would have called in sick and just closed my eyes until it went away – but I’m on the other side of the world and we kinda overslept.
Now, we had planned today to spend the bulk of the morning and early afternoon in the National Palace Museum and then hike around one of the national parks. Yes, we were still going to do this despite it raining all day. This didn’t happen because we ended up spending over six hours inside the main exhibition hall – so we weren’t even able to go into the special exhibition hall or the nearby gardens (the sun had set by the time we exited).
To put it simply, the National Palace Museum is an extensive and impressive collection of Chinese culture. What they have on display is a fraction of what is within their archives and, unlike a lot of other museums, they rotate a lot of these around to the point where (if what I overheard was correct) you could visit every three months for ten years and still not see everything they have on offer. The only other museum I can think of that boasts a similar timeline for seeing everything is The Hermitage in St Petersburg.
Of course there are some particular artefacts that are never moved into storage because they are considered such national treasures. One of these is a cabbage carved out of jadeite and was the thing I was looking forward to seeing – but we missed it as it has been loaned to an event in Southern Taiwan just two days prior.
Sad cabbage times aside – this is an incredible museum. I don’t know quite how the suggested time for it on Google is 2.5 hours, unless you have very limited time and only want to see the greatest hits. However, if you have the time there is so much that can be gained from going on a proper deep dive.
The main exhibition space of the main museum is set over three nearly equally sized floors and features a seemingly comprehensive look at the different types of artefacts that an outsider would consider as quintessentially Chinese – as well as a host of other things that you would never have imagined.
By the latter statement in the previous paragraph I am referring to one of the most impressive things I saw in display – nested balls of concentric openwork free-moving spheres that had all been carved from the same piece of ivory. I know it isn’t politically correct to be wowed by a piece of ivorywork, but the work that went into this is so mindbogglingly precise that I couldn’t help but stand in awe at it (whilst nursing a throbbing migraine).
These ivory balls were part of the ‘A Garland of Treasures’ gallery which gathered some of the most impressive pieces of handicrafts within the collection. Other things including olive pit carving (like, how?), beautifully ornate curio boxes, a goose-shaped censer and a planter featuring an incredibly dynamic coral carving of a civil service deity. On average this was probably the most impressive of the galleries, and it’s one of the first you’re likely to see.
There are also multiple galleries that offer a near encyclopaedic look at the different forms of Chinese ceramics. I began to wonder if I would suffer some sort of content fatigue with there being three huge ceramic galleries one after the other, but they found new ways to engage and impress me. It really goes to show how what a westerner like myself knows about Chinese ceramics (and jade) really is the very top of the iceberg.
Before I go further into the exhibitions, just want to reap some praise onto the restaurant. We went there for lunch (where I had my first bubble tea) and the prices were incredibly reasonable. I think we paid less than 200$ (about £5) each for a hot sandwich and a bubble beverage – the latter of which I think was the cure for my migraine.
Anyway, even with the jadeite cabbage gone – three of the four big beloved attractions were still available for viewing. The most interesting (and weird) of these is the meat shaped stone – a piece of carved jasper that looks like a beautiful piece of roast pork. I knew this was here and thought the idea a bit daft, but no this is a uniquely strange piece of art that left me hungry and confused.
There other two treasures include a perfectly preserved two-tone bronze bell from the 9th century BC and a bronze cauldron that contains the worlds longest engraving in bronze. Both are very impressive pieces, but I think my memory of the meat stone will outlast both of them.
Being a museum of Chinese culture there was always going to be a bountiful supply of calligraphy, ancient books and paintings. I honestly think we spent too long in some of these rooms as the dim light (due to the perishable nature of the pieces) made me want to nod off. Also, I have no knowledge to allow me to appreciate the works of calligraphy… some of the paintings were great though, but these were some of the rare galleries that allowed no photography whatsoever.
All this and there are still the vast collections of jade and bronze work that I could go into! I hope that you can see how, upon exiting the museum, it was dark. I am aware that, when this post goes up, a number of the things I marvelled at may no longer be on display and instead be replaced by some new marvels.
So by the time we left via the gift shop it was gone six in the evening and we took the bus from the National Palace Museum to Shilin Night Market. Now, where yesterday’s night market was a bit on the small side – the night market at Shilin is vast. It’s a warren of food, clothes and tech stores where you could easily get lost or spend all your savings on the cast array of carnival games (if I had decent shooting skills I would have tried for one of the big plushies). Not to mention there is a large subterranean food court.
It was in this food court that we had the bulk of our dinner for the cheap price of 310$ (£7-8) for two. Considering that we have more night market visits to come we thought it would be worth getting the safer options out of the way first, this meant another plate of delicious steamed dumplings, pork fried rice and the quintessentially Taiwanese beef noodle soup. For the price we didn’t quite expect the large portions that we received, but boy were we happy to have our first proper meal in 2-3 days.
We roamed the streets for a while, picking up some cheese filled sweet potato puffs and sugar cane juice along the way. If we get a chance to come back here before leaving Taipei, there are a number of stores I would want to hit up for souvenirs. Not just the ones with all the Studio Ghibli and anime merchandise – but I wouldn’t be opposed to buying a bunch of things from there
Now here’s something I did not expect to find on this holiday, and there were two stands selling this within spitting distance of each other. Grilled conch meat on a skewer with your choice of sauce – I went with the one with Taiwanese in its name because the others looked like they might blow my head off. The taste was somewhere between scallops and squid with quite a rubbery texture. It was also a bit gritty, but I’m guessing that more down to the conches not being thoroughly cleaned out before being slapped on the grill.
So here I am now. Two hours after starting this write up and, thankfully, migraine free. Tomorrow shouldn’t be a rainy day so we’ll be actually venturing outside. Time for sleep, Lord knows I need it.