Thursday, January 25, 2007

Taiwan: A few hours in historic Lukang

I had been planning to go to Lukang for the longest time after finding out that this heritage town was very near Taichung. But for some reason or another, we always had something to do. It was our last day so it was now or never. After our group heard Mass (it was like we were in the Philippines since the priest and churchgoers were all Filipinos) and had lunch at this Filipino restaurant in front, there were proposals to do some last-minute shopping. Since I had no intention of doing that, I made my move and asked permission to make my own plans.

So as soon as it was given a go, I took a cab to the Taichung Train Station, which itself was an important heritage structure. It's sad that we no longer have our grand old train stations in the Philippines. Tutuban Station, our central train station at the time it was still in use, although the facade had been preserved, the interiors and the surrounding environment had been altered beyond recognition.

Some quarters say it should have been preserved as a train station since in most parts of the world, even in countries close to home, they still have their grand old train stations to be proud of. Other noteworthy stations in the Philippines include the Paco Train Station which is close to 100 percent demolished again under Mayor Atienza's watch, to be converted as always, into another shopping mall; and the major provincial stations in the cities of Malolos, San Fernando, Tarlac and Dagupan which, if Northrail does things right, will be restored and integrated into the newer terminals they will be building.

Talk about communication gap since no one in the station knew how to speak English and purchasing a ticket was close to impossible! It was a good thing one of the staff was helpful enough and asked among passengers entering the station who understood English. We finally found a kind soul to whom I explained that I wanted to purchase a ticket to Changhua since there was no direct train to Lukang. When the station staff finally understood, he even accompanied me to the ticket booth and pointed me to the train which I had to board.

I read in Wikipedia that the train did not pass by Lukang because of "the city's refusal to allow railroads to pass through the city led to losses in trade in commerce, which, in turn led to Lukang's decline. This same decline, however, averted the modernization processes that demolished historical buildings in Tainan and Taipei, leaving Lukang preserved as it was in its heyday."

The train trip was less than an hour. In Changhua City, I proceeded to the bus station conveniently located in front of the train station. I boarded a bus to Lukang which was 45 minutes away. I don't remember how much I spent since in both rides, they got the tickets from me (I usually keep the tickets in my albums). But I know it was very affordable.

Taiwan's three largest cities today are Taipei, Kaohsiung and Taichung. But in the 19th century, it was Tainan (the former capital), Lukang and Bangka (now a district of Taipei). During the Qing Dynasty, Lukang was an major trading port owing to its close proximity to Fujian Province as well as the depth of its harbour. The subsequent silting of the harbour and bypass of the railway system led to the city's decline, but as a result, left behind a well-preserved heritage town.

Anyway, I arrived in Lukang at about 3 p.m. which gave me about two hours to walk around before I went back to Taichung. My first stop was the Wenkai Academy, Civil Shrine and Martial Temple. Wenkai Academy nurtured many of Lukang's cultural elite before the establishment of a school system. The Civil Shrine served as home to Lukang's first literary group. In fact, two of its walls contain works of prominent calligraphers.

The Martial Temple's main deity is Kuan Kung, the God of War. He is a symbol of uprightness and bravery, but was also good at accounting and the management of finances. This is why his followers among business people worship him as the God of Commerce too.

My next stop was Lungshan Temple, said to be the best-preserved and most beautiful Ching Dynasty building in Taiwan. Transferred to its present site in 1786, it is the foremost of all Taiwan temples because of its excellent construction and exquisite carvings.

I stopped by many more sites along the way. One peculiar structure was called the half-side well. During the olden days, it was only the wealthy who could afford to own wells. But the kind-hearted owner of this well, placed half of it outside the walls of his home so that the less-fortunate could partake of his water supply. Although no longer in use, the well reminds us of the magnanimous spirit of Lukang and its people.

At the end of the road, actually its the first stop if you followed the prescribed walking tour, is Tienhou Temple, dedicated to Matsu, Goddess of the Sea, who was believed to have protected early immigrants to Taiwan. The temple was buzzing with so much activity since there was some sort of festival. I was in fact, treated to the acrobatic antics of a lion dance troupe when I arrived. The performance was very entertaining!

Anyway, it was about to get dark and I had to rush back to Taichung for the festival. At the bus station, while I was trying to find the right bus back to Changhua, I chanced upon a group speaking in Filipino. So I approached them and asked which was the most convenient way to get to Taichung. They pointed me to a coaster which went direct to the city. Perfect! So I was back in time for our booth duty and to pack my stuff for our departure the next day. Hehe!
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