Spending a Day in Taiwan’s Second City, KAOHSIUNG

Considering the city’s extensive nautical past, arriving there by ship seems like the only appropriate method of arrival. The second-largest city in Taiwan, Kaohsiung, emerges from the dawn fog as seen from the observation platform of the Silver Whisper cruise ship.

Tuntex Sky Tower, an iconic building with 85 stories, is the first to emerge from the mist. Suddenly, cliffs appear alongside the cruise ship, wind-whipped black sand beaches look within striking distance, and the ship squeezes through the narrow entrance of a harbor into a bustling port where tankers, freighters, and battleships are lined up in neat rows.

Kaohsiung, now the home of the Taiwanese navy as well as light and heavy manufacturing thanks to the assistance of Japanese industrial know-how, was once a sleepy fishing town. Between the mainland and the skinny, picture-perfect island of Cijin, there are orderly cargo channels where ships of all kinds chug up and down like lanes in an Olympic-size swimming pool.

Kaohsiung has always been home to more than just mariners and fishers. Kenting National Park, located south of the city, has become a popular destination for sun worshippers, joining the region’s traditional attractions—the many Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist sanctuaries. Kaohsiung now has the potential for a tourism renaissance thanks to the construction of a high-speed train from the capital Taipei, which has reduced the travel time from five hours to just 90 minutes.

Tiny ferries buzz across the bay on their way to Cijin Island as the ship is maneuvered into place by tugs. Cijin, which serves as a natural breakwater for the harbor, is a distinct contrast to the rest of Kaohsiung, feeling more like a slender seaside retreat with its low-rise homes and waterside promenades.

To get out of the city, tourists can take ferries from the quaintly named Love and Glory piers on the Love River, which empties into the harbor, or they can take the less romantic path and travel through the harbor tunnel. The 300-year-old Tien Hou Temple, dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea, is a popular tourist attraction, as are the island’s seafood restaurants, nighttime strolls to the Cihou Lighthouse at the harbor’s entrance, and rides in the island’s distinctive three-wheel pedicabs.

Not surprisingly given the superstitious nature of the seafarers who have settled in the area for hundreds of years, temples play a significant part in Kaohsiung’s daily life. Nestled between the mountains of Guei (Turtle Mountain) to the south and Banping (Half-Screen Mountain) to the north is the artificial lake known as the Lotus Pond, so called for the profusion of lotuses that bloom there in the summer. Visitors strolling along the lake’s western shore, which is dotted with temples, shrines, parks, and religious institutions, often begin their journey at the Wen Temple, which was built in 1686 and is still a popular first stop. A new poetry stroll along the waterfront features 15 poems written by local poets in traditional Chinese and inscribed on tablets to honor the city’s literary heritage.

Visitors from all over Asia and the world come to the Wen Temple to cool off in the entry courtyard, where a sugar cane vendor is working tirelessly at his crusher. Nearby market booths emit a heady aroma of incense, sugar cane, and durians.

Just across the street from the ancient timber columns, incense clouds, and worn stone steps of the Wen Temple are the twin Dragon and Tiger Pagodas, which look like something out of a mythical amusement park.

A massive turquoise dragon, its lips bright red and its mane pure white, lays on the pier as crowds of visitors stroll down zigzag pathways built on stilts above the lake and clamber into its gaping mouth. Colorful murals depict scenes from heaven and hell adorn the “insides” of the concrete dragon, and once visitors reach the light at the other end, they can ascend one of two seven-level, octagonal pagodas (few climb both) to take in the breathtaking vistas across the lake. Next, you’ll go backwards through a tiger that’s just as large as its dragon sibling, before finally emerging from its gaping maw.

Everyone from doting grandmothers to squealing toddlers enjoys hearing their screams echo off the concrete caverns of the mythical beasts as water flows in through the dragon and out through the tiger, a symbolic representation of turning bad fate into good. Both the pagodas and the ancient Wen Temple are incredibly well-known because of the striking difference between the two.

The Spring and Autumn Pavilions, located further down the lakefront and accessible via bridge, appear to float out closer to the lake’s center, while beyond, the heavenly Emperor Bei Ji Zi Wei glares down at visitors while dressed in full warrior attire. At night, when the pagodas, dragons, tigers, and emperors along the lakeside road are illuminated, the road is just as crowded as it is during the day.

The massive New Confucius Temple, located at the end of the Lotus Pond, was completed in 1976. It was inspired by the temple at Qufu in China’s Shandong Province, the home of Confucius, though its central structure, Taihe Hall, is reminiscent of the Forbidden City. The hall of Confucius’ temple is almost empty, and it is encircled by a massive courtyard that lays bare save for signs on the walls that tell of Confucius’ teaching and the temple’s construction, in stark contrast to the Wan Temple and its cartoonish dragon and tiger.

Kaohsiung’s Central Park, also known as Rotary Park, showcases the city’s more modern aspect. A group of nine artists from the area got together to make this illumination-themed artwork. A revitalized section of the park, the path through Urban Spotlight is bordered with trees and features cutting-edge light installations. As the sun sinks in the western sky, families stroll past the light sculptures and stop for refreshments at the park’s outdoor café, while commuters pour out of the park’s Mass Rapid Transit station (a work of art in and of itself) in quest of dinner.

At night, Kaohsiung comes to life with a plethora of restaurants (this is Taiwan, home to some of the world’s best cuisine), cultural performance places, and lively night markets. The Gwanghua Tourist Night Market in the Lingya neighborhood has been serving visitors’ stomachs for almost 30 years, and features more than 100 food stalls selling some of Kaohsiung’s most famous specialties like bean curd jelly and milkfish congee. The waitresses’ calls to open kitchens brimming with chefs, their hot woks, and the aromas of Taiwan’s pan-Chinese food fill the air. Next to the main post office is a relatively new night market that sells mostly clothing and handcrafted jewelry.

When the Silver Whisper departs Kaohsiung, it does so as quietly as it came, but the harbor is still bustling with activity as noisy, flood-lit fishing boats head out for a night of angling. Cijin’s Cihou Lighthouse and Syongihen North Gate, located at the harbor’s edge, play host to paparazzi-style crowds who assemble to say goodbye to the ship as it departs. Fishermen wave from decks awash with nets and ropes. As the ship heads south, the narrow entry to the harbor disappears into the darkness, revealing a city that sits in wait for a swarm of new explorers.

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