At the same time.
HOB and I have a friend named Paul. He’s the best sort of friend: an Art Friend, a friend whose eyes sparkle when he talks about art, live performance and books. Paul’s eyes are at their most sparkly when discussing Chinese landscape painting, especially the painter Fan Kuan’s sublime Travelers among Mountains and Streams.
Fan Kuan’s masterpiece, along with many of the world’s most treasured Chinese landscape paintings, are in the collection of the National Palace Museum of Taipei. Of course we planned a day at the museum (how could we disappoint Paul?) but first we wanted to experience a real life classical landscape—in Taroko National Park.
Taroko National Park is the site for tourists in Taiwan. Think hordes of tour buses. I’m not into tourist sites for their own sake but I do make an effort to see art in situ. Prior to our trip I studied up on Chinese classical landscape painting in the National Palace Museum, with a focus on the Sung and Ming Dynasties. Once we began our hike through Taroko, well, this sounds cheesy but here goes: I hiked up inside those paintings.
In these paintings, just as in the Taroko park, movement is essential. Your eyes and your body travel through and around the landscape. This is art for travelers.
The mist makes you lose perspective. Are you above, below or inside the picture?
When the paintings show bridges, streets or buildings, they are overwhelmed by natural landscape.
The Eternal Spring Shrine inside Taroko park feels precarious, as if it may tumble down the mountain any day now.
Prior to our trip, I thought the squiggly mountains in many of the paintings looked weird and mannerist.
Once we hiked inside the gorge, however, we found the squiggly rocks near the river bed. Our excellent tour guide was a retired geologist and he taught us about the process of shaping Taroko’s layers of sediment into a squiggly gorge. Through the ages, multi-colored layers sediment were squished from a straight line into painterly zig zags.
A constant theme in Chinese landscape painting is the arrival of spring. I love how this composition just disappears on the right side, as if the traveler will willingly follow the seductive scent of early spring into the unknown.
February was the perfect time to visit Taroko park—the foliage was turning green but many tree branches still had a bare, late-winter quality, like ink paintings against the sky.
A few words of advice:
- Visit Taroko with a guide. I recommend Vincent from Meet My Guide.
- Book a guided tour in English at the National Palace Museum. Hopefully you’ll get lucky and the marvelous guide Cindy will be your docent.
- Be aware that many paintings at the National Palace Museum are not on view. That’s a good thing—they’re being preserved and are only exposed to light for short periods of time. Don’t freak out if you find out (like we did) that Travelers Among Mountains and Streams is not currently on exhibit in the museum. It gives you an excuse to come back, right?
- Study the paintings in advance and to save frustration, don’t try to photograph them because the light conditions in the museum are low. I took all the above painting images from Wikipedia. (The Taroko park photos are my own).
- Have a great friend like Paul, preferably with sparkly eyes, who will prepare you for the enchanting experience of Chinese classical painting and landscape.
- Now give it a try: hike into the living painting of Taroko National Park. Enter the misty middle distance, a traveler among mountains and streams.
How we got to Taroko National Park: train from Taitung to Hualien and then our guide drove us to the park.
Where we slept: The Fantasy Apartment. Price: €45 for a double. Recommended: yes
How we got to Taipei: train from Hualien.