The Second City of Taiwan: A Day in Kaohsiung

Entering a city with such a storied maritime past by ship seems only right. Kaohsiung, the second-largest city in Taiwan, emerges from the morning fog as seen from the upper deck of the Silver Whisper cruise ship.

Tuntex Sky Tower, a prominent building with 85 stories, is the first to emerge from the mist. And just like that, towering cliffs surround the cruise ship, windswept black sand beaches appear to be within striking distance, and the ship glides through a narrow harbor mouth into a bustling port where tankers, freighters, and battleships are lined up in orderly rows.

Kaohsiung, currently the home of the Taiwanese navy as well as light and heavy industries thanks to Japanese industrial know-how, was once a sleepy fishing village. Between the mainland and the skinny, attractive island of Cijin are organized maritime channels where ships of all kinds chug up and down like lanes in an Olympic-size swimming pool.

Historically, Kaohsiung has been home to more than simply sailors and fisherman. The area’s many Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist temples have traditionally drawn visitors, and now the sun worshippers of Kenting National Park to the south of the city are joining them. Kaohsiung now has the potential for a tourism renaissance thanks to the installation of a high-speed train from the capital Taipei, which has reduced the journey time from five hours to just 90 minutes.

Tiny ferries buzz across the harbor on their way to Cijin Island as tugboats maneuver the ship into place. Cijin is a natural breakwater for the port and looks and feels very different from the rest of Kaohsiung, with its low-rise residences and waterfront promenades.

If you’re searching for a way to get away from the madness of the city, you can take a ferry from one of two piers, Love and Glory, located on the Love River where it empties into the harbor, or you can take the less romantic path and go via the harbor tunnel. Tourists can enjoy seafood eateries, strolls to the Cihou Lighthouse at the harbor’s entrance, rides in the island’s famous three-wheel pedicabs, and a trip to the Tien Hou Temple, built 300 years ago and dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea.

Not surprisingly, given the superstitious nature of the seafarers who have lived in the area for centuries, temples play a significant role in Kaohsiung’s daily life. Located between the mountains of Guei (Turtle) to the south and Banping (Half-Screen) to the north, the Lotus Pond gets its name from the many lotuses that blossom there in the summer. The Wen Temple, built in 1686, is a popular starting point for tourists exploring the lake’s western coast, which is lined with other religious buildings, parks, and schools. A new poetry promenade along the waterfront features 15 poems written by local poets in traditional Chinese and etched on tablets to honor the city’s literary heritage.

At the Wen Temple, tourists from Asia and beyond retreat from the heat to the shade of the entrance courtyard, a sugar cane vendor working flat out at his crusher trying to quench their thirsts. The air reeks of sweet incense mixed with fresh sugar cane and the hint of durians at nearby market stalls.

In contrast to the Wen Temple’s ancient timber columns, incense clouds and worn stone stairs, the twin Dragon and Tiger Pagodas, located directly across the street, look like a mythical amusement park.

Throngs of tourists saunter down zig-zag pathways, raised on stilts above the lake, before climbing into the yawning mouth of a massive turquoise dragon, sprawled on the pier, its lips bright red and its mane pure white. The “insides” of the concrete dragon are decorated with colorful murals of heaven and hell, and as visitors emerge into the light at the other end, they scale one of two seven-leveled, octagonal pagodas (few climb both), which offer expansive views across the lake. Then it’s reverse through a comical tiger, equally as big as its dragon brother, to emerge from a mouth of sharp teeth.

The flow in through the dragon and out through the tiger symbolizes turning bad luck to good, and proves as popular with smiling grandparents as it is with squealing kids, whose yelps echo off the concrete bowels of the mythical beasts. The contrast between the pagodas and the historic Wen Temple is extreme, making these the two most popular shrines on the shoreline.

Farther down the lakefront and reached by a bridge, the Spring and Autumn Pavilions float out closer to the center of the lake, while beyond, celestial Emperor Bei Ji Zi Wei glares down at tourists in all his warrior regalia. The lakeside road is as busy at night, when the pagodas, dragons, tigers and emperors are lit up, as it is during the day.

At the end of the Lotus Pond, the massive New Confucius Temple was finished in 1976 and is modeled on the temple at Qufu in China’s Shandong Province, the home of Confucius, although the main building at the center of the complex resembles the Forbidden City’s Taihe Hall. Compared to the Wan Temple and the cartoon-like dragon and tiger, Confucius’ temple is stark in its simplicity; the hall is nearly empty and surrounded by a massive, courtyard which lies bare except for signs on the walls telling of Confucius’ teaching and the temple’s construction.

A more contemporary side to Kaohsiung can be found in the city’s Central Park, also known as Rotary Park. Here, nine local artists have collaborated on a project themed on light. Urban Spotlight is a rejuvenated corner of the park, a tree-lined walk punctuated by innovative light exhibits. As the sun hangs low in the sky, families stroll past the light art and take breaks at an open air café, while other people stream from the entrance of the park’s Mass Rapid Transit station – itself a brilliantly lit and imaginative design – searching for dinner.

Kaohsiung comes alive at night, with cultural performance spaces, restaurants (this is Taiwan after all, famous for its food) and a series of bustling night markets. Travelers to the city can follow their taste buds to the Gwanghua Tourist Night Market, in Lingya district, which has been in operation for almost 30 years and offers more than 100 food stalls serving some of Kaohsiung’s delicacies, including bean curd jelly and milkfish congee. Here the air is alive with calls from waitresses to open kitchens filled with cooks and hot woks and the aromas of Taiwan’s pan-Chinese cuisine. A newer night market, next to the General Post Office, specializes in fashion and locally produced jewelery.

When the Silver Whisper leaves Kaohsiung as quietly as it arrived, the harbor is still busy in the inky darkness of night, as fleets of noisy flood-lit fishing boats depart for a night’s angling. Fishermen wave from decks awash with nets and ropes, while paparazzi-like crowds gather to bid farewell to the ship, from Cijin’s Cihou Lighthouse and from Syongihen North Gate, which stands at the lip of the harbor. As the ship turns south, the harbor’s tiny entrance quickly vanishes into the night, and a city waits to be discovered by a host of new travelers.

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