For Instants, hotelier-writer Marie-Christine Clément shares her travelogue in six exquisite, “unforgettable moments” across China, exploring the land’s traditional crops and culture. For the fifth leg of this journey we meet her in Taipei in a disconcerting hotel of Chinese elegance.
The car glided along, creating a long, hypnotizing tracking shot out the window. The teeming city already seemed far away. Moments ago, we had passed avenues lined with blinking store signs, pointy buildings dripping in noise and light. The Beitou district rises up toward the mountain. On the right, on Zhongshan Road, a quiet wooden vessel houses a library. People were reading peacefully, cocooned in their private thoughts. The car stopped in front of a sinicized luxury hotel, but that was not my destination. I was going next door, right next door. Gray wall. Behind it, more dripping gray walls, wooden walkways lined by bubbling streams, towering century-old camphor trees, maples reaching over the walls, spouting water curving down into heavy bouquets. I had unquestionably passed through the looking glass. Before me was geometric serenity glowing with savvily illumined bay windows that could have been by Mallet-Stevens himself. I was in Taipei.
My room was christened Matsu, the name of that Japanese pine with branch tips pruned into clouds. I slept on the floor, on a futon posed atop straw mats. The sliding doors of my room opened to frame a view of a small interior garden. A maple’s carved silhouette traced a thin pattern of shade on the rice paper. A slender trickle of water made the waterlilies tremble. Reflective water glints on amber pebbles. Rays of light on embossed walls. I wrapped myself in a bathrobe, walked past a hokutolite menhir – assigned miraculous virtues –, and soon was dipping into natural hot-spring pools that rise from nearby in the valley. A blessedly dreamy mist enveloped me: I saw a diminutive pink swan perch on a long branch where sweet treats awaited; a dish of black foods that turned me into a blind gourmand calling upon my senses to surpass appearances; red balls flying over white tablecloths. I dozed off.
The next day, I was seated in an elegant lounge garbed in rich bronze silks. An uncommonly long red chair was set in a corner. I was absorbed in the contemplation of an extraordinary bouquet of chrysanthemums arranged tightly in a ball, forming a large, strange flower. In the window glass, a silver flash caught my attention. I looked up. Reflection of a face, that of the person in the painting hanging on the wall behind me. Then I felt a wave of emotion surge within me, a delicious thrill as I revisited the rare moment of the previous day, when I had dived into the last pool, one filled with cool spring water, arms raised, my body slipping through the liquid with timid caution, hands being the last to touch the surface and only, as they say, to ward off the bite of the cold. Benevolence of reflections, intelligence of contrasts. Contemporary elegance, volcanic magic. I was at Villa 32 in Taipei.