[This is the final post in the series Smiling Kodiak Laps Up Taiwan}
Our last day in Taiwan was another brilliant day, sunny and warm with a nice breeze. Over the previous three days we discovered another world existed just steps from our Taipei hotel. The banks of the Tamsui (or Danshui) River are cut off from the city by a double-decker superhighway atop a flood wall four stories high.
Determined to lay eyes on the river, at first we walked a mile before we found a break in the flood wall under the highway. Then, walking back along the river, we realized the stairs that appeared to deposit one on the superhighway were actually the access way for the river, immediately adjacent to our hotel. We used those stairs daily or more since.
The river bank offers a myriad of delights. Continue reading 09. Recycled
The midnight fireworks display was over in five minutes. After hours of waiting, a half-million smiling Taiwanese arose from blankets laid on the hard city streets, and headed for the subway, en masse. I knew this was going to happen.
Earlier we had purchased daily tickets for the ride home to avoid needing to buy more tickets after the fireworks, when the stations were sure to be mobbed beyond capacity. Realizing that “daily” tickets might be just that, expiring at midnight, I had asked the ticket lady.
“They expire at midnight.” she confirmed. She also said she couldn’t sell us tomorrow’s daily tickets until tomorrow. I was incredulous.
“Really? Everybody taking the subway home after the fireworks will have to buy tickets in the station? There’s going to be tens, if not hundreds of thousands of us.” Continue reading 08. A Free Country
Three days earlier, the old man in Taitung who had helped me try to get a refund for my unused train ticket made me promise to try again when we reached Taipei. Actually, it was his English-speaking son who had me promise. “He wants you to promise…” the son had relayed.
“Okay, okay, I promise, really.”
To tell the truth, I had completely forgotten about it. As we headed for the exit from Taipei’s Central Train Station, Frank reminded me. I shrugged it off. Frank stopped in his tracks.
“But you promised!”
I rolled my eyes, murmuring the lord’s name in vein. “Fine. Where is this ‘foundation’ or whatever it was that is supposed to be so helpful?” Continue reading 07. Kaboom with a View
If you consider me an incessantly cheerful gunzel, you may be shocked to read I had reached the end of my rope with Taiwan Railways. This was to be expected, I suppose, after a week riding their rumbling leviathans.
Today, the train arrived on time, the interior was spotless and comfortable, the passengers polite, the scenery splendid. Nothing had changed, and perhaps that was the problem: the magic was gone. Today I saw only the disgusting black soot spewed from a roaring diesel engine, passing villages of villagers whose way of life was being trampled by “progress”. I called my lawyer to file for divorce.
Not really. The end of our rail travels was approaching, so I could look past this three-hour journey. Furthermore, I was looking forward to four days in the Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, after a night in Ruifang, only an hour outside the big smoke. Continue reading 06. Fire in the Sky
Arrival at the Hotel Likko in Xincheng was after dark, so in the morning I was surprised to find the Asia Cement Corporation factory looming behind us. It was nestled in the town’s backside, quaintly dwarfed by the pristine mountains behind it. Clouds of smoke spewed from smokestacks, with endless trains carrying raw materials in and processed materials out, adding to a haze of grey dust engulfing the manufactory.
Our brief exploration of the previous evening had already hinted that the town was either very new to, or very bad at, tourism. Here was evidence the town did not intend to depend on tourism for its livelihood. People needed cement, and they clearly had all the ingredients swirling around them. Diversification is a good thing, particularly when it gives folks ill-suited to sucking-up to passing gawkers something else to do.
Even so, it was a bit of a puzzle. The Taiwanese had shown themselves to be highly efficient in providing quality tourism infrastructure, and more than adequate in sucking-up, as the industry demands. Here we were, within sight of Taroko National Park, whose spectacular geology seemed to be on every Taiwan tourist’s must-do list. Yet hotels and restaurants were few and far between – and these folks, although friendly, didn’t seem too interested in sucking up.
At the Taroko National Park Visitor Center, the woman in front of us in line innocently asked the dowdily uniformed middle-aged park ranger “Will it rain today?”
“How do I know? I’m not god!” she shot back. I have to admit, the response made my day – but the woman on the receiving end was rather offended. Continue reading 05. Dust in Time
It is a pleasure to wake up on Boxing Day in a place where nobody has ever heard of Boxing Day, as one need not fear a conversation might turn to the dreary subject of cricket. We enjoyed a rare morning of relative silence, so our conversations didn’t turn to anything, dreary or otherwise, as we didn’t have any.
There was a bit of an altercation with the wait staff at breakfast. After handing over our breakfast vouchers to the woman at a reception podium, a host escorted us to a table at the very rear of the restaurant. It was adjacent to the toilets and next to a table piled high with dirty dishes, not just the previous dinners’ dishes, mind you, but three or four teetering piles of ten or twelve plates and bowls, a trough of half-eaten food at one side, soiled flatware scattered about.
I looked across at a restaurant full of empty tables, all set tidily and offering views of the sea. The table she was seating us at was so plainly the most horrible in the place, and it was so plainly unnecessary to seat us there, I had to stifle I laugh.
“Are you kidding me?” I asked. Continue reading 04. The Deep South
Another perfect morning. For the first time in daylight I scanned the view from our Tainan hotel room window, congratulating myself on having asked for the better room. Where the fireworks had been launched the previous evening, a family now picnicked along the canal. Who picnics at seven o’clock in the morning? Other hotel guests, if the oversized hotel robes worn by the children were any indication. They probably hadn’t asked for a better room, I thought, smugly.
One or two bicyclists rolled by now and again, enjoying the safe, wide, flat cycling paths. I craned my neck out the window to see how the paths went, but couldn’t see past the first bridge. Frank suggested we use the hotel bicycles – another freebie – but I demurred. While I had come up just fine from the previous day’s ride – a major victory, both physically and psychologically – riding in a big city is a very different thing to riding in a rural setting, bike paths or not. “My next cycling accident is likely to be my last cycling accident” I told him, “and it isn’t going to be today.” Continue reading 03. Dutch Retreat
This is my sixth visit to China, if you include Taiwan as part of China. Oh, also, you’ll have to include Hong Kong as part of China. I am assuming you concede Shanghai as part of China. And Beijing? Surely, Beijing is part of China.
Wherever you draw the political borders, ten minutes in Taiwan leaves one sure the place is Chinese. Mandarin is the language, and a traditional form of it at that, like a Bostonian’s version of English or a Montrealer’s version of French. The food is undoubtedly Chinese, albeit on the noodley side, rather than the ricey or dumplingey side. The commerce is aggressively capitalist with an overlay of familial dysfunction: more American than the Americans, a trait I have often attributed to the Chinese.
The Taiwanese are most Chinese, though, when speaking to each other in exchanges that sound like a New York taxi driver discussing politics with the French Ambassador to the United Nations. Or a Parisian taxi driver discussing economics with the President of the World Bank. That is to say their conversational tone of voice is harsh, almost violent. If you don’t speak the language, what sounds like an accusation of murder may be a compliment on the quality of the fish intestines served. Continue reading 02. Traincatching
“Taiwan? Why would you go to Taiwan for Christmas? There aren’t many Christians there, you know. I don’t think they even celebrate Christmas as a holiday!”
With our flight to Taiwan departing at 7:30 am, Frank and I somnambulated into a taxi to Manila’s Ninoy Acquino International Airport at four o’clock in the morning. We had twelve days of fun and relaxation ahead, yet I had spent the previous three days dreading this taxi ride. Even at this early hour it was a real possibility that we’d get stuck in Manila’s infamous traffic and miss the flight. Normally, I hate early flights requiring middle-of-the-night mobilization, but in this case it offered some degree of solace: any other time of day we would have been guaranteed to be stuck in traffic for hours. This morning, though, I was stunned to find we could make it from our Quezon City apartment to the airport in thirty minutes – a full four hours less than it took when we arrived in Manila last June.
All day, things went like clockwork, albeit overly complicated clockwork. We arrived at Taipei’s major airport, Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, two hours later, right on time. Taoyuan airport is about an hour to the west of central Taipei, but our plan was to put off visiting Taipei for last. Instead, we headed south to start a week-long lap of the entire island. Continue reading 01. A Breath of Fresh Air