December 26, 2019
Turn around we did. A curious sight in the middle of the sidewalk deserved our double take: a young man seated on a chair, looking through a portable telescope under an opened umbrella. He called us over along with a lady walking by and handed out sun filters. We became surprised guests in his livestream of the ongoing partial solar eclipse.
Ki and I had just gotten off the MRT. Zuoying Station served with its grand, sleek infrastructure. This was not a stop at some forgotten outskirts, and neither was it another concrete jungle. High-end condo complexes had sprouted around it separated by generous public spaces. The suburb clearly offered a high quality of life as much as real estate costs, most likely.
The pocket development catered to young families as evidenced by a random playground. We stopped by and hammed it up among colorful mythical creatures and Lego blocks set up on the grass. Perhaps it was too early in the afternoon for the kids on the block.
The time was just right, though, for a few young condo-dwellers to share the tree-lined jogging path running parallel to Huantan Road with a few sightseers. This was just one in the extensive network of scenic and tranquil leisure paths in the area. The residents would have no excuse to put off lacing up their sneakers or pedaling that bike.
Through the trees we finally caught sight of Lotus Lake, or more commonly known as Lotus Pond though its size of over 40 hectares challenged that name. This man-made lake teeming with the eponymous water plants near shore was originally intended to be an irrigation reservoir for surrounding farmland in the 1950s. The tourism and real estate boom transformed it into the photogenic centerpiece of Zuoying District, attracting investors and visitors.
The eastern shore was spacious and laid-back. The surrounding well-manicured nature effectively banished the busy city from memory. A handful of locals were taking in the peace and quiet. This particular lazy afternoon, a mother and son, presumably, were spending quality and quantity time seated at a bench facing the lake. The man was speaking as his mom nodded off. Perhaps he said something of note because the mom suddenly perked up. I teared up looking at the scene through the trees, remembering similar bonding time spent with my late mother. There were times that these memories would creep up to cast a poignant shadow on the present.
Then, it occurred to us that the peak of the eclipse was nigh. We took a spot at a lakeside viewing deck to witness “the sky dog swallowing the sun,” as the ancient Chinese put it. A thick cloud cover, however, eclipsed the eclipse. The sky only minimally darkened, not as dramatically as we imagined. If we had not bumped into the roadside astronomy enthusiast earlier, I doubted we would have noticed the celestial phenomenon at all.
We had walked more than a kilometer by then. My old feet needed some downtime at another bench by the shore and I promptly dozed off for some 15 minutes. The same happened the day before in another part of town. I had mastered the art of public sleeping.
The eastern shore showed its progressive face in more ways than one. Even the public restroom was forward-thinking – it was for all genders. Not surprising for a country that was the first in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. We played it up by holding hands for a selfie like in a BL series.
But modern woke culture could not eclipse the cultural heritage of Taiwan. Case in point: Lotus Lake had two faces. In contrast, the western shore showed its traditional face with a history spanning three centuries. Just a pond then, it inspired a mayor to fill it with lotus flowers, a symbol of virtue in Buddhism, and had a temple built on the water’s edge. The pond had since been expanded into a lake.
We found this historical and religious community about three kilometers from Zuoying Station on the other end of the lake. In place of condos and modern amenities, some 20 ornate temples, several colorful pagodas and pavilions, gigantic statues of deities and mythical creatures, and stone fortifications populated the shore. This side of the lake was a window to Zuoying of old. We visited some of these places of worship.
Dragon and Tiger Pagodas
The iconic pair of off-shore towers represented the religious side of Lotus Lake in a colorful, almost whimsical way. We entered and exited through the dragon and tiger passageways that told Taoist stories and explained traditional beliefs in figurines and illustrations on the walls. Entering through the dragon’s mouth and exiting via the tiger’s was believed to be auspicious. Dragon in, tiger out equaled good luck!
Palace in Taoism was synonymous to temple. This spectacularly ornate one was originally built elsewhere in the 18th century and moved to Zuoyang in 1960. Without a guide, we could not identify Baosheng Dadi, a Taoist deity, among the many images in the temple. Legend had it that the god ordered the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas to be built. He was the Dadi of the twin pagodas.
Chi Ming Palace
Unlike in Ciji, we came too late to take a peek inside the gloriously-lit Chi Ming. Also unlike Ciji, this temple was dedicated to actual historical figures in China: Confucius and Guan Yu, not to mythical deities. Later I read that it was a knee-jerk reaction to the propagation of Japanese culture in the island. The Taiwanese built this memorial temple to maintain their traditional heritage.
Spring and Autumn Pavilions
The twin pavilions across from Chi Ming were an extension of the temple. A towering statue of Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, stood between them in commemoration of the legendary appearance of the hovering goddess astride a dragon. She had a familiar face and form; I had seen at least two other Guanyin statues, both towering as well, in other parts of the world. A Buddhist deity in Taoist temple had me scratching my head. In fact, I could not tell between the two religions by their icons alone. No matter, there seemed to be no contradiction.
A more enduring darkness than the eclipse had fallen and fellow tourists had long left. Only Ki and I made our way through a bridge to a smaller pavilion jutting out on the lake, our steps lighted by rows of lanterns on both sides. We were seduced by the soft light cast by the Five Mile Pavilion on the still waters. The scene conjured up Chinese traditional paintings and we seemed to be walking into one.
We climbed up a spiral staircase to the second level of the pavilion and found that we were not alone after all. There was a lot of noise and movement. The top floor had become a roosting place for feral pigeons. They had to share the lake with thousands of visitors during the day; perhaps our intrusion was not appreciated. We lingered and listened to a constant grunting sound and the occasional cooing. A flutter here and there broke the stillness of night.
Alas, the evening came to a close. Reluctantly, we walked to the Ecological District Station some two kilometers away. Going back to Zuoying Station would have been a longer route through a deserted neighborhood at night. Heading south on foot took us through a relatively busy (Kaohsiung standard, not hyperactive Manila) business district with brilliantly-lit grocery stores and neon signs.
There were days I wished would never end; this was one of them spent strolling with Ki, discovering unfamiliar locales from daylight to darkness, sharing both quality and quantity time, and occasionally napping in between. But like a fleeting eclipse, good times were gone before the heart was done.