Taiwan: Fashion Houses 101

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We’ve done the Taipei 101 many a time on our travels here in Taiwan, but for this outing, it’s the Fashion Houses in the 509m, bamboo styled building that are doing the business of being breath-taking.

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There’s certainly no expense spared in this complex of 101 floors, and the Fashion Houses of Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, TODs and Burberry certainly take this to heart and I’m drooling over the lavish and intricate window displays of the stores on the third floor with delicate floral backdrops, lush green cactus landscapes and hot-pink, candy-stripe balloons… That is, until I see the bejewelled and sparkling exteriors of the displays on the fourth. It’s worth walking around to appreicate the stores: they’re works of art – as well as powerhouses generating billions of dollars per year purely in attire for us to prance around in a feel pretty (or so I assume it feels to own any of these brands…). But, all joking aside, it’s a delicious rendering of advertising, and if it weren’t for the hawk-like, black-suited attendants intimidating my little self in the doorways, I’d probably take a couple of shots inside with my phone… As it is, I’d probably better not…

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Third Floor Displays.

Dolce & Gabbana Taipei 101

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Louis Vuitton Taipei 101

TOD's Taipei 101

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Fourth Floor Giants.

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Louis Vuitton Taipei

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Dior Taipei 101

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Burberry Taipei 101

The Fourth Floor Taipei 101

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It’s not just me however, who’s got the iphone out to do some gorgeous building papping, the locals are definitely into it to, and as I stroll around the twisted floors of shop after shop, there are people everywhere, from all over the world – posing for their photos in front of the public image of these global brands. It’s a powerful message for the effect that this kind of advertising has, that within what was once the tallest building in the world is housed these commercial, luxury brands that inspire such reverence and desire that couples will pose in front of their gleaming doors – no half-naked models required, Abercrombie.

I mean, please, even the food court is fancy, with its clever, light-dispersing wine glass chandeliers.

A little pretty architectural and advertising planning sure goes a long way.

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Beijing, TUESC: Forbidden City

Forbidden City

It’s a predictably hot day when Emma, Ellie and I chose to visit one of Beijing’s most coveted set of historical buildings: The Forbidden City.

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Rivulets of sweat run happily down my back, my umbrella is up, Chinese-style, and my back-pack of water feels a lot heavier than a litre of water duly should, but nothing can overshadow the sheer scale of the endless courtyards, alleys and royal buildings in the elaborate 15th century complex of beautiful, painted-wood roofing. As we file in under a huge portrait of President Mao, we’re battling with the people towards a small dark tunnel: the entrance to the city itself. It’s hard to believe, given the addition of thousands of tourists, whistles, tour-group speakers and jiggling flags, that this entire area was once a secluded, palace of secrecy and royalty.

Instead of talking the main bee-line up the middle of the complex, we soon veer off to shaded side roads, back alleys of the servants and noticeably less crowded; from these bubbles of quiet. we observing the vast cobbled courtyard space into which the bottleneck of tourists tumble ant-like, and sweating, admiring their hundreds in a space once reserved for ceremonial events and special dignitaries.

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The contents of the exhibitions here are definitely undermined by the misty glass-cum-plastic that divides the sticky fingers and foreheads from what is possibly antique furniture – though it’s hard to tell in the dim rooms, a stark contrast from the blinding sun outside.

Having visited the National Palace Museum in Taipei, which houses many of the original artefacts from the Forbidden City, evacuated after a long trek across the country of China over to the small Formosan Island by Chiang Kai Chek and his followers following the Civil War in China, it is not hard to see that the two heritage sites offer very different experiences. In my opinion, The Forbidden City demonstrates the sheer vastness of the architecture and demonstrates the immense power of space and place in politics and society, whereas for the contents and details of the internal wealth, art and culture, it is best to look to the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

However the souvenir shops and exhibitions in the Forbidden City offer excellent air-conned relief from the scorching morning sun.

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Chinese Chat

As a last anecdote of the day, a man in his late fifties, thin as a bean pole and wearing heavily clothes as sun-bleached as his skin is tanned, calls out to me with a flash of white teeth and astoundingly well-accented English.

It’s hard to displace the shock of the apparent incongruity of his appearance and his Oxford-style English within the wall of the Forbidden City, and his alarming tendency to peer very closely into my face when speaking knocks me straight out of my historical reverie. But while his enthusiasm to converse with us definitely straddles the border with frightening, it’s an excellent example of the curiosity of being a tourist in China; the people may stare without prejudice, and converse with mild prejudice (rightly assuming the majority of us cannot speak Mandarin), but they for the most part, are purely curious: being foreign in China is certainly an oddity in a way that is no longer common in England.

Considering the vast scale of the country, its tendency to umbrella its many ethnic diversities as a community of one country (in contrast to the emphasised individualism of the West) and it’s relative youth in terms of international tourism and wide-spread immigration it is hardly surprising that two English girls, and one half Northern Irish, half Taiwanese Mandarin-speaking girl (to be precise) can cause a small amount of fuss.

Interestingly, once most people discover I can speak Mandarin, they are suitably unnerved and back off.

It’s the real foreigners that they want photos with.

😉

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Beijing, TUESC: Yuan Ming Yuan Gardens

When they do parks in Beijing, they really go all out.

Yesterday Emma, Ellie and I (all of us Exeter University girls!) headed out to a park not 15 minutes cycle from us; it’s just outside the east entrance to Tsinghua and was a perfect post-teaching day relaxation for three worn-out volunteers. It can be hard to muster up the enthusiasm for trips post 9am-4pm days as it takes huge amounts of enthusiasm, coaxing, encouragement and hard-work to keep next to 60 students motivated!

But a good wander round the park, however, is just what the volunteers ordered!

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The parks are not only absolutely alienly beautiful, they’re full of people! From school children to gossiping women, to old oba-san and oji-san walking arm in arm, the park is at some points along the clean paved paths bustling with Chinese talk and laughter between long, wafting fingers of the willows that tickle the crowd.

We’re drawn into a silent crowd of transfixed children and parents by one of Beijing’s ever present back-drop of hawkers and stalls; this man shows children how to blow a balloon of liquid sugar as he shapes them into animals of their request. This is a real life Willy Wonka and us girls are dumbed as the crowd listening to his heavily accented commentary. It’s something strange to see a late fourties man peddling his sugared sweets in a park, there’s something reminiscent of another age here, which he no doubt capitalises on, but it’s only really looking back at these photos that I think that. That said, his well-prepared mic and sound system bring this fabulous talent well into the 21st century.

Amazing.

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Moving away from the crowds for some peace and quiet we take some of these obvious tourist shots! And I’m mesmerised by an old man weeding glacial pond surface of pond weed – traditional style (Awwww yeah.). It looks like heavy going, but his back remains turned to us and his slow, practised movements are other-worldly.

Maybe I’m just too tired today, but everything seems a little surreal.

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Well, things don’t get much more surreal than the incessant paparazzi style photography that goes off all around us at any tourist spot. Looking foreign (given, some more than others) the girls attract all manners of sly photographs, but none in the realm of surreal as this.

A man, in full camoflague, tripod and ridiculous zoom lens, obviously originally taking nature shots, turns without a single trace of embarrassment to snap several of Emma, Ellie and I as we walk along from the pagoda. It’s impossible to miss the click of the shutter, and completely baffled, we can think of nothing better to do in retaliation than to catch this shot of our perpetrator (courtesy of Emma).

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I’m left pondering what exactly what I should have done in that situation, what I would do differently, and what kind of personal invasion of privacy I feel I’ve experienced. It happens so often here in Beijing that I’m baffled as to any power we have to stop it. I laugh, but I wish I was a law student so I could recite some rights…

Law students, do I even have any in this situation??

Another typical day in China, folks!

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Beijing, TUESC: Tienanmen Square Tourists

Thanks Mr. Hu!

There’s no cutting corners with the volunteer’s first trip outside the safe confines of the Tsinghua University campus.

We’ve get ourselves kitted out with bikes, locks and keys from Mr. Hu (Mr. Who?) the local tough-bargaining student-bike specialist (150RMB for three weeks all-inclusive hire) and we set off to the scene of the 1989 Tianamen Square Protests.

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Tiananmen Square

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It’s a typically over cast day, and though I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever see the sun, I’m fairly glad that I’m out of its rays given the current sticky heat.

We chain up the bikes at the gates of the campus (I’m feeling pretty attached to my transportation already…) and navigate the Beijing Metro to unearth ourselves by the quiet of the square. It’s literally just across the dual carriageway, but it’s a five minute roundabout way to the square’s entrance past politely round-topped fences, and when we get there, we share the space with several other Chinese tourists taking happy photos of the surroundings.

We’re the only foreigners here, and cause some hubbub by sitting wearily in a circle, resting our sagging jet-lagged backpacks in a pile on the ground. And it’s not long before our presence begins to draw attention.

We’re firstly bombarded (although mostly the English looking girls in the group) by Chinese, accents belying their own status as non-Beijing Chinese, and tourists in their own right. We are bemusedly frogmarched into photographs with their children – and them – until a blank-faced khaki guard steps down off his half meter square carpeted block and makes motions for us to move on.

Besides our careful tourist chatter of the revolts in 1989, there’s nothing of the area which would which suggest the murders of peaceful student protesters by military police, but the heavy surveillance, strictly marked walking lines and the relative inaccessibility of the square itself, make me feel like we should take the guards direction and move on.

Luckily, we bypass President Mao’s body entombed in his mausoleum by the square – and in hindsight I think I’m just as happy with the imagined knowledge of the iconography of Mao himself; certainly the other volunteers relish telling us about it.

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The City Gates

The City Gates by the square are a jarring palette of red, blue, green on a back drop of grey; flashes of bright colour in a concrete city. We traispe rather tiredly around the gates, somewhat stunned by their looming structures around which blaring taxis and bicycles and motorbikes fight on the dual lane road. In and out of the market streets, taking many breaks on huge two meter square stone blocks that have been in Beijing over four times our live span, and deciphering dubiously translated English information leaflets.

I had my first green tea flavoured ice cream today.
Ah-mazing.

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Taiwan: Confucius Culture Weekend

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This weekend, I’ve enrolled myself into a World Youth Confucius Camp Culture weekend, to learn a little about Eastern philosophy and religion in Taiwan. Besides learning about the life and times of Confucius himself, we explore the culture that springs up around philosophical thinking: the culture of Confucianism that is prevalent in the Eastern hemisphere from learning about the architectural and decorative construction involved in Taipei’s temples, observing modern and contextual Confucian rites, to lessons on deciphering his readings, acting them and  in the modern day context.

The weekend camp runs in the early summer of each year, and is free to successful applications, so definitely check out their facebook page for details here. Besides being a fantastic introduction to Eastern philosophy, the camp gives an, albeit brief, tour overview of Taiwanese history.

Great trip!

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Taiwan: Surreal Structures

Sometimes I really have to stop and just stare here. Even though this huge structure is looming overhead in an incredible mass of solid concrete, I feel like it’s too surreal to be true. It’s hard to grasp that this isn’t the set of some sci-fi movie, and that this enormous overpass for the MRT has been built over these streets of Nanshijiao. It obscures the sky, and the rush of noise from the overhead trains is barely noticeable through the resounding echo of traffic below. It’s incredible.

I have a similar feeling just moments later, when we step into an elevator in the block of flats, just on the opposite side of this road, and I realise that the MRT line has not only been blocking the sky, but just how high the surrounding flats go. If I’m honest, I’m also feeling slightly uneasy as we keep going up, and I’m more than happy to get off at the 19th floor. But not before I pass a friend the camera and ask her to take a quick picture of the elevator buttons – I’m just happy just to get out…

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