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?”
Countless times I have observed that capital cities have little in common with the rest of the country of which they are capital. Such would prove to be the case in Taipei. For one thing, everybody here spoke English, at least some English. For another, they could spot a pushy tourist from a mile away, and knew how to palm them off on someone else.
The man at the ticket counter listened to my unused ticket tragedy with obvious impatience, interrupting me with a “speak to the hand” gesture halfway through. “Go talk to the Station Master” he instructed, pointing us in the direction of that office.
Minutes later I was going through the sad tale once again, once again to a woman standing in front of a collection of lost umbrellas and water bottles. I had gotten so good at telling the story, I had convinced myself I was the victim of a grave injustice. She actually laughed at me, shaking her head. “There is no way you are getting a refund for these tickets.”, she chuckled, handing them back to me.
I was incensed. I snatched the tickets from her hand, crumpled them up, and tossed them down on her desk. “That’s rubbish!” I snapped. At that moment, I became aware that a police officer had witnessed this, stopping in his tracks behind me. I considered the possibility that my actions might be construed as assault.
“Thank you!” I purred to the lady in a decidedly different tone, then hastening for a speedy exit. The officer followed, ten steps behind. I actually prayed. “Please lord, do not have me spend my first night in Taipei in jail…”
The lord complied, bless him. Outside I took stock of the city, trying to get my bearings. We had planned to walk the mile or so to the FuChang Hotel, our residence for the next four nights. I had already “walked” the entire distance using Google Streetview. From that the street scene was already familiar, confirming we had egressed at the correct exit. But I had made a mental note of a distinctive building that marked the street we needed to take – a handsome, yellow art deco structure – which was missing, simply nowhere to be found.
Scanning the skyline, I twirled around three or four times, no doubt rising the eyebrows of my police escort who still watched from inside the station. Finally, I realized the building was indeed not where it belonged. Where it had stood was nothing but a big hole. “Buildings come and go so quickly around here.”
Except for that hiccup we located the hotel without difficulty. It was in the Ximen district, supposedly Taipei’s hippest and trendiest, and no surprise, gayest. It was also alongside from the Tamsui (Danshui?) River, promising access to ample open space and parklands.
The FuChang Hotel itself was rather drab and ordinary, both inside and out. The rooms were clean and functional, although the vague odor of cigarette smoke could be discerned. Family run for forty years, the staff was responsive and friendly, if not effusive. Our room was available and ready four hours before the scheduled 3 pm check-in, which is always nice. For sixty-five bucks a night in a big city, one cannot reasonably expect much more.
My cousin Vincent and his wife Liza were expected later in the afternoon, flying in from their home in South Korea to join us for tomorrow’s New Year’s Eve festivities, including the fireworks. In the meantime, we grabbed some lunch at a “construct your own hamburger” joint on the adjacent pedestrian walking mall that bisects the Ximen District. After being seated I noticed we were the only folks in there over the age of twenty, staff included. Every one of them had their eyes glued to their “personal device”, probably messaging the person sitting across the table from them, possibly making ungracious comments about the two frumpy old men who had invaded their realm. Other than our sparse conversation and their occasional giggles, the place was silent. It was quite strange. The burgers, by the way, were quite ordinary.
After Liza and Vincent arrived and got themselves settled in, the four of us headed out to explore. Exploring the environs built up a powerful thirst, which we whetted with several beers on a café balcony watching the street life.
Before long it was dinner time. In our modestly lubricated state, we agreed that a nearby Huaxi Night Market might provide a memorable dining experience. The Huaxi Night Market was not so nearby as we thought. Complicating matters, we got rather lost in Taipei’s unfamiliar streets, despite the streets being well-marked and laid out in a grid, for the most part.
We wandered down narrow back alleyways where families gathered for their dinner, surprised to see the likes of us. Here and there a miniature shrine to the diverse gods of eastern religion was tucked in a red-brick alcove, incense alight, Buddha relaxed as ever, the practical and metaphysical insights of Confucius scrawled in Chinese characters.
After a while Liza started asking directions – women do that, I have come to learn; it may be the shoes. In response to her earnest plea “Huaxi Night Market?”, one adorable couple pointed in opposite directions, realized they were doing so, giggled, and walked away. They were both right, a night market was just around the corner in ether direction. After what seemed miles of walking around in circles, we had stumbled across it – although even now I can’t be sure it was the Huaxi Night Market.
As with so many things in life, the search was more fulfilling than the discovery. I guess I just don’t “get” night markets. Why is shopping in poor light an attractive proposition? Surely one would not favor such inadequate infrastructure of, say, a hair stylist.
Nevertheless, the four of us are well-travelled, adventurous eaters.Mysterious epicurean delights beckoned. Duck tongue, chicken hearts, and assorted other unidentifiable animal parts sizzled on sticks in stinky sauces, filling the air with acrid smoke. Repressing a gag reflex, Vincent remarked “I saw a good Japanese restaurant a few blocks back.”
“Yes! YES!!” we all responded, one adding “There’s nowhere to sit here, anyway.”
“Yes! YES!! Nowhere to sit!”
The hostess at the Japanese restaurant made it clear our shoes would have to come off – no problem. Then she invited us to sit on the floor, a tradition that makes me wonder just how respectful the Japanese really are of their elderly. I haven’t been able to sit crossed-legged for more than five minutes since I was eight years old. After knee surgery at fifty-six it is simply an impossibility. After a vaudevillian demonstration of my incapacity, our party was led to sunken table in a private room permitting upright seating.
Thence forward we were treated like royalty. Was this “save face” backlash? Did they feel responsible for me “losing face” for being unable to sit at the table they offered? Whatever the reason, they served at least two extra courses on the house. Huh. And the food was great.
Saturday, being New Years Eve in Taipei, had planned itself. The midnight fireworks would be launched off of the skyscraper Taipei101, the city’s icon, an architectural masterpiece blending the ancient pagoda with modern steel and glass, if you believe the sort of people that write that sort of nonsense. We determined to find a suitable viewing point, taking the subway several kilometers across town to the Taipei101 neighborhood.
There, we and ten thousand others with same idea hiked up Elephant Mountain, which looms beside Taipei101. Elephant Mountain is part of a well-maintained urban park, the hike being more stair-climbing than trail walking. Yet to completely recover from recent surgery, the thousand-plus steps were a bit of a challenge for my right knee. Had he known, my orthopedic surgeon would have had a fit.
We reached the summit out-of-breath, but without medical calamity. The mountain provided some spectacular vistas across sprawling Taipei, giving a real sense as to the scale of the city. It is BIG.
Elephant Mountain also offered some perfect spots to view the fireworks. Too perfect, in fact. Every such area already had been staked out by patient pyrophiles, reclining in beach chairs, dressed as if for a winter expedition in Siberia. When we arrived, these folks still had thirteen hours to wait, and they looked as if they had been there for many hours already.Many pretended to be asleep despite the hoards clambered over them for a quick glimpse of the panorama, stepping on toes and worse. It looked like a truly miserable way to spend one’s New Years Eve.
We trudged down the backside of the mountain which was much less crowded and thus more pleasant. From there, Taipei101 was not far, and we enjoyed a progressive lunch: first beer, then some excellent dumplings in an expensive department store’s basement food court. Yum. The place also sold all sorts of delicious tidbits suitable for a picnic dinner to consume while awaiting the fireworks — including, importantly, wine.
Outside we discovered a series of free, loud concerts had begun, making verbal communication difficult. We agreed on the perfect place for our picnic later, and headed back to the hotel to rest up.
At nine o’clock we returned to find the area covered in a sea of people. That was no surprize, really, although I was a bit flummoxed that I could not locate the “perfect place” we had agreed on. No matter. The streets were closed, so we planted ourselves on a curb in full view of Taipei101, about five blocks away. Tens of thousands of others were doing the same, sitting cross-legged on picnic blankets laid upon the street pavement. Plenty of infrastructure was provided, including food stalls and portable toilets, making for a remarkably civilized event with minimal police presence.
One thing about New Year’s fireworks is that they have to go off on time. They did, right at midnight. They were spectacular, spraying off of every level of the building, every imaginable (and some unimaginable) combination of explosive devices. Then, at 12:05 am, it stopped. Everybody got up and began to leave.
“Is that it?” Frank asked, incredulous.
“No, that cannot be it…” I said, even more incredulous.
That was it. Five minutes, poof!
I felt bad for the idiots on Elephant Mountain.