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.
In casual conversation (but not necessarily in diplomacy or business, mind you) the Chinese are quite direct, even abrupt. In this respect, no one is more Chinese than the Taiwanese. Across most of Asia, passive aggressive introversion holds sway. In China, if you pay attention, you know where you stand. This is a distinguishing feature of the Chinese, one other Asians often find intimidating. Sound familiar, Americans? To an extrovert such as myself, it is an attractive element of their culture.
Less attractive is the Chinese fondness for glass bathrooms. Like most westerners, I prefer to perform my morning ablutions in private, but the glass wall in our hotel room made that impossible. It also left no place to put a mirror, so I shaved by groping. Later I discovered I had missed small patches of whiskers – not an uncommon “look” here.
It was a picture-perfect morning. We had a bus to catch at noon, so we hastened out to rent bicycles for a ride on the well-maintained paths around the lake. This was the first time I had been on a bicycle since my accident-induced knee surgery three months earlier, so I was both nervous and excited. We took it easy, riding for only an hour, and I am delighted to report it felt great to be in the saddle again. The scenery was wonderful. There were a lot of wobbly-wheeled tourists on the flat-as-can-be bicycle paths, so my own initial wobbliness got no attention. Someday, I’d like to come back to do the entire 30 kilometer circuit around the lake.
We left Sun Moon Lake on another tourist bus, this one headed south. The roads through the mountains were even steeper and curvier than those we experienced on ride in from the west. How the driver got that huge bus around some of those corners is beyond comprehension.
Americans and Australians alike sometimes mock Asian drivers with the phrase “driving while Asian”. Make no mistake, that is a racial slur, but like so many racial slurs it has some basis in reality. If you learned to drive in Taipei, Manila, Saigon, Shanghai, Beijing, Bangkok or any of a hundred other Asian cities, chances are you would have little respect for marked lanes or traffic signals. That is unnerving for westerners, particularly when these skills are applied in the west. Yet I have come to appreciate that weaving through oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the road and careening through intersections against the lights is indeed a skill. In many Asian cities, it is a necessary skill, and not only for the driver to get anywhere. It also leverages infrastructure: if there is nobody coming, why keep right or tie up traffic for a silly red light? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_traffic-related_death_rate
The bus left us at the historic Checheng train station, the end of the Jiji rail line, originally built to service the hydropower dams fed by Sun Moon Lake, but now a tourist attraction.Our plan was to have lunch and poke around Checheng’s “old street” before boarding the train. As we got off the bus, a train arrived, and for some reason we decided to catch it. I really don’t know why – the trains ran regularly — but there we were, limping as fast as I can limp up the hill, waving at the conductor to hold the train. He did, although he was none too happy about it. As we boarded he barked “You late!”, the first words in English I had heard from a stranger all day. “Now, we ALL late!” he completed the thought.
We sat down to catch our breath. “Aren’t you hungry?” I asked.
“So – why did we get on the train? Now we have an hour-long ride ahead of us.”
“I thought you wanted to get on the train.”
The train had subway style bench seats, and subway style straps from which standing passengers could dangle. The train entered a number of lengthy tunnels, completing the “tourist subway” theme, although the “Hello Kitty” décor was a bit incongruous. Where there was scenery it was rather ordinary, leading me to suspect we may have missed something special in Checheng, as nothing else I saw had much in the way of tourist appeal.
Bound for Taiwan’s former capital, Tainan, we needed to switch trains in a dismal little city named Ershui. Purchasing our ongoing tickets, the ticket agent was apoplectically fearful she might not understand us properly.She fetched an English-speaking woman from the city’s tourist board next door, who grilled us thoroughly on our plans. With ninety minutes to kill, we set out to get some lunch, which we found in a garage restaurant full of fluorescence and Formica. A nice lunch, really, for four bucks.
Back at the station, waiting on the platform for our train, the tourist board woman re-appeared with an armload of schedules and brochures for every place we were planning to visit in the next week. She was amazingly helpful, and the information she provided proved a gold mine over the coming days.
We boarded our train, and as it left the station, the next tourist train from Checheng — the one on which we had originally planned to be — arrived. It was a couple minutes late (did we cause that?) so had missed its connection, that is, the train we were on. In the end, rushing to catch the earlier train got us a nice, cheap, relaxed lunch, a bevy of useful information, and kept us on schedule. It turned out a good thing after all.
Tainan is a big city. We arrived in the bedlam of the evening commuter rush. Viewing the traffic outside, we decided to wait it out a little by purchasing our train tickets for the remainder of our travels. Here, the ticket agent spoke enough English to service us with confidence. The bad news was there were no seats available for the longest leg of our journey, the five hour train ride up the east coast of Taiwan, three days hence. With Herculean effort the ticket agent managed to get us seats for the last three hours, but as it stood, we would have to stand for the first two. I wasn’t sure my knee would stand for that, but we bought the tickets.
At the Kindness Hotel we checked into a dark room with a small window that stared into a busy office across an alley. Ugh. Before exploding into the room, I went back to the front desk.
“Are there any rooms available on the rear of the building, overlooking the canal?”
The ladies looked at me sheepishly. “There may be extra charge…” one said apologetically.
“I am happy to pay for an upgrade.” I responded. I might have paid another hundred dollars a night for a good room.
As it happened, four bucks (the magic amount, today) got us a corner room overlooking Tainan Canal, with a sweeping view of the city, resplendent with Christmas lights. I was very pleased.
Indeed, we were very pleased with everything about the Kindness Hotel. The hotel is a chain, and if the others are anywhere near as good, I would highly recommend them. Simply put, they had thought of everything, and everything was free for the asking. Excellent WiFi, slippers, robes, pillow bar, laundry (washer, dryer, detergent, static cling sheets), stationery, every imaginable toiletry, breakfast, evening snacks, the list went on and on.I suppose a swimming pool and a fitness center would have been nice – but they made up for it by offering free ice cream, a dozen flavors, all the time!
For dinner, the front desk staff suggested we try the trendy Hai ‘an Street, a kilometer down the road, where they assured us we’d find “burger and beer”. It was past eight o’clock before we got out, surprised to find many restaurants had already closed.A place named Bark had a reasonable menu in the window, so we ordered up a couple of beers while perusing the menu at our sidewalk table. The beers came – not only were they huge, but it was two-for-one happy hour. Then the waiter informed us the kitchen was closed, “No hot on menu.” Others had hot food in front of them, so I got the sense the real problem was that they didn’t want frumpy middle-aged men eating on their sidewalk — we just weren’t cool enough for the place. I wasn’t about to argue the point, happy to take our business elsewhere. Thus each of us drank a gallon of beer on an empty stomach before stumbling forth in search of sustenance.
At this point we came across a large drugstore kind of place, Poya by name. I remembered we had run out of mosquito repellant, deodorant and shaving cream. Let me tell you, if you are looking for a good time, drink a gallon of beer on an empty stomach and then go shopping for cosmetics where you don’t understand the alphabet, much less the language. The Taiwanese are renowned for being well-quaffed, so Poya has every quaffing powder, cream, spray, liquid and mechanism ever devised, spread over two football field sized floors. For an hour we wandered the aisles trying to discern hair spray from shoe polish from candy, howling in laughter. The store clerks were certain we were nuts.
Finally, we found some street food. I’m really not sure what it was, something on a stick with a sauce. It worked.
Back at the hotel, I flung open the windows to let the fresh night air flow through the room. Just as we dozed off, KABOOM!! Kaboom, kaboom, KABOOM!! I really thought it was gunfire, or worse. I fell out of bed and crawled to the window as if under seize by an Aleppo sniper. Right outside some locals had decided to have a not-so-little private fireworks display.
Frank reminded me “They invented those things, you know…”