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Moore's Travels: TAIWAN

Discussion in 'Issues Around the World' started by Sierra Mike, Dec 28, 2002.

  1. Sierra Mike

    Sierra Mike The Dude Abides Staff Member

    TAIWAN: THE OTHER CHINA

    History:
    The Taiwan we all know and love today is hardly the Taiwan of old; "ownership" of the island has passed through many hands, most notably the mainland Chinese, who lost it to the Portuguese (who named it illha Formosa, or "beautiful island"), who in turn lost it to the Dutch, who lost it to the Spanish, only to have the Dutch come back and kick the Spanish booties off. The Chinese then managed to snatch the island back sometime in the 17th Century, and held onto it until the late 19th Century, when the ravenous Japanese held the island until after World War II. (Curiously, Taiwan was never "officially" returned to China; the postwar agreements brokered by the US and Britain pretty much overlooked Taiwan in its entirety, beyond wresting it from the Japanese.) After WWII, Taiwan returned to its de facto status as an extension of China's Fujian province until 1949, when Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek claimed the island in the name of the newly-defeated Nationalist party, the Kuomintang, who retreated there in the face of overwhelming defeat by Mao Zedong's Communists. Taiwan does have its own Aborigines, historically found in the central highlands that dominate the center of the island. They have been mostly marginalized by the Taiwanese, but some, such as pop singer A-Mei (whom I've met, and whose music is quite intriguing despite the fact that she is, quite possibly, insane), of the Payuma tribe, do remind others of their legitimacy by maintaining a high profile.

    Getting There: Look, you can take a boat if you want, or a submarine if you work for the US Navy, but I recommend China Airlines for a number of reasons, mainly cost. They fly 747-400s from Anchorage, New York's JFK, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Honolulu, not to mention about half a dozen European gateways, such as Frankfurt and Amsterdam. From the US West Coast, you can fly direct to Taipei's Chiang Kai-shek International (CKS/TPE) in about 14 hours 35 minutes (11 hours 20 on the return), which is non-stop and my preferred method. From JFK, you can make the journey in 20 hours flat with about an hour layover in Anchorage; flip side travel is 15 hours, nonstop. EVA Air also offers direct service, but I have not flown them; they were initially China Air's domestic competition, connecting Taipei, Kaohsuing, and Tainan, but they have grown to a full-fledged international airline, and they were very, very smart in securing a direct airhead at SeaTac, due to Seattle's burgeoning Taiwanese population.

    American citizens do not require a visa if they plan on staying less than two weeks or so, but if you intend to stay longer, you must apply for the visa before arriving in Taiwan. Getting a visa is a royal pain in the ass when you're already on the ground in Taiwan. The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), America's only real presence on the island, is generally powerless to help you in this.

    On the Ground: Unlike Japan and China, Taiwan does not have much in the way of train service, so your best bet upon arrival at CKS/TPE is taxi. Fare to most downtown Taipei destinations is around NT$1,000 (call it $30.00USD, including tip), but most hotels will offer you transportation service. Also available are shuttle buses to most hotels, though I find they run only when you're not at the airport; the second you clear customs, they're gone. Go figure. Welcome to Taiwan, foreign devil!

    Driving in Taiwan is 100% frightening 100% of the time. I've driven in what I thought was the most competitive places on the globe--namely, New York City and France--and a cab ride through Taipei is enough to make me soil my drawers. Technically, the rules of the road closely mirror America's. They also seem to mirror those of Britain, France, Singapore, and the Grand Prix. The rule of thumb is this: drive really, really fast, down any lane, whether it's full of opposing traffic or not. And oh yes, for the Chinese (and Taiwanese are Chinese, though they like to pretend otherwise) red is an extremely auspicious color. This means red lights are not to be viewed as signals to halt traffic; they instead mean (to your cab driver, anyway) that its his good luck, and he should accelerate as fast as possible through the intersection ahead. Turn signals are of dubious value, as they're commonly used for everything but what you would expect. I suspect that most of the drivers in Taipei communicate to each other through Turn Signal Telegraph; "Orgy at Hui-fang's!" "What are the current exchange rates?" "I'll be turning left in four kilometers--just giving you a heads-up!" would be good examples.

    The biggest threat to life and limb, other than all those Chinese missiles pointed at the beleaguered nation from Big Brother, would have to be the nefarious motor scooter. They're everywhere. One of the most entertaining things to witness is a young Taiwanese girl wearing the latest fashions, tooling down the street on her way to work, zipping in and out of traffic while talking on her cellphoneand it's not even the hands-free variety. Taipei does finally have a helmet law, though what passes for a helmet is up to anyone's guess. On my last trip there, I saw an elderly man cruising down the street wearing--I kid you not--a steel wok on his head, secured to his aged noggin by a piece of twine. Taped to the side of the wok was a piece of paper with the word "helmet" written in English, traditional Chinese, and zhuyin. I tried to get a picture of this, but alas, this two-wheeled sideshow vanished before I could point and shoot. However, I did make up for this by getting out of a taxi just in time to nail a scooter rider as he accelerated for the red light at the intersection ahead. He was all right, but this did lead to a very interesting three-way cursing match, with the cab driver and scooter rider yelling in Taiwanese and me in Mandarin and English.

    The second biggest road menace in Taiwan is a tie: the ubiquitous gravel trucks which yield to nothing and are responsible for wholesale slaughter of civilians and countless NT$ of property damage. The second contestant for this award is the scooter used to deliver rusty propane tanks, usually ridden by a guy in a T-shirt and flip-flops who's smoking.

    Oh, and there are bicycles everywhere, too. They're just like the scooter riders, complete with their own apparent death wish. As a matter of fact, another funny incident I witnessed in Taipei was the tragic scooter/bicycle/bok choy accident. Again, no photos of this incident are available, because I was too busy laughing my ass off. But the explosion of bok choy flying through the air looked like shrapnel from an artillery barrage.

    Look, chances are good you'll never leave Taipei. So I'd recommend the Taipei Hilton, which is located smack-dab in the middle of this sprawling metropolis. The rooms are a little worn but nice and roomy, complete with king-sized beds in which the normal Taiwanese would get lost (see pic). I would advise you to avoid the nearby Grand Hyatt Taipei; not only is it overpriced and the amenities aren't all that to get worked up over, but the hot water fails on occasion. And it's always mobbed by Taiwanese press, since the Hyatt is the well-known "love hotel" of Taiwan; politicians, actors, high-profile businessmen all flock to this place to get it on. The last thing I ever want to do is unknowingly walk out of that place in a crowd and read in the next edition of The Taipei Times that I'm somehow linked romantically to Vice President Annette Lu. If you have a hankering for such notoriety, or just like to witness bizarre games of journalistic grab-ass up close, then the Hyatt is for you.

    Taipei (pronounced "Tie-Bay") is a spawling city, full of great food and shops. One of the Taiwanese delicacies most enjoyed is something called, simply enough, the Chinese Hot Pot. Chances are good you might have had an encounter with one near your own locality, but the ones in Taiwan are actually mei pot--spicy. And there's a reason you don't have them for lunch and, unless you're damned sure about the establishment you eat them at, during the work week. That reason is explosive diarrhea which comes out hen mei (very spicy!}, so hot that you will be convinced someone activated a Saturn V rocket booster in your butt. Even the water in the toilet will boil. I'm apparently immune to this effect, but I have dined with others who were not--and they were Taiwanese. But flaming toilet sessions aside, Taiwan offers some of the best Chinese cuisine I've ever had, especially since a lot of emphasis is placed on seafood. (Taiwan is, after all, an island with a thriving fishery business.) I've never eaten anything in Taiwan which has made me sick, something I've only experienced in Japan, of all places.

    As far as shopping goes, head for the Night Markets! Wan-Hua Street Night Market and the Huashi Street Night Market are both fairly close to the Taipei Hilton. While they're called "night markets," they open at around 11:00am on weekdays, but don't get seriously energized until nightfall. Expect lots of jostling. There's also a place called 92, which is more mall-like, and offers everything from a Starbucks (no venti-sized drinks there; apparently, the average Chinese cannot handle that much caffeine, and be prepared to spend NT$175.00 on a latte) to a Barnes and Noble (called "Bahn and Nobrew" by the Taiwanese). But wherever you go, you can find all sorts of curio shops that are more than fleetingly interesting. Many of them have for your perusal some wonderful and strikingly elaborate ivory carvings of cities, deities, landscapes, you name it. I almost bought one for about $15,000 once, but I doubt I could have it shipped to the US legally. To be honest, if Chinese art works are something you're tempted by, then definitely go the mainland; bigger selection and, even if you're ripped off, you can sell it for four times the price you paid on eBay. Not that I've ever done that. Oh no, mercy no, I'm a savvy shopper. Always.

    For cultural sights, check out the National Palace Museum. I found it to be a pretty good way to spend a steamy summer day. Another taste of Taiwan's history can be sampled by checking out the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. Co-located here is the National Theater. For the budding Buddhist in all of us, I'd recommend the Lungshan Temple, where they say around a hundred or so deities can be worshipped (along with the almighty American dollar, I'd say). And don't forget to stop and give your regards to President Chen Shui-bian at his low-rent digs--The Presidential Office Building is on Chungchina Road. Don't mind the security guards with the shiny helmets. They won't bother you. Really.

    The People: I guess I'll just come out and say it: Taiwanese can be rude. Real rude, even to foreigners. From spitting in the street right at your feet (never on purpose, apparently) to being just outright loud and loutish, don't expect your status as a foreign citizen to amount to much. Some people will stare at you very openly, even in Taipei, a city that is no stranger to foreigners. Black men especially will attract a lot of open attention that might make them extremely uncomfortable. If you piss off a Taiwanese, they will tell you, and they can be a very confrontational people. I can say this without ever having suffered any kind of problems myself, except for when I once bandied about the idea of buying some real estate there, and the realtors got pissed with me because I kept asking for measurements in square meters, whereas they use the ancient system of pings, as in "fifty pings, sixty pings," etc. To this day, I still do not know what a ping is, but I can tell you they want way to much for a two bedroom apartment which can apparently hold fifty of them. Pings, that is. Not Taiwanese.

    Taiwanese are very fashion-savvy, though the Hong Kongers would definitely disagree. Taiwanese are also very ostentatious when it comes to flashing their wealth, second only towell, Hong Kongers. Everything can be bought and sold in Taiwan, including drugs, which are strictly prohibited but which creep in regardless. In typical Taiwanese tastelessness, the country's smallish drug problem is blamed on foreigners; for instance, several college-aged men and women were busted in a nightclub for using ecstasy which they said they bought from "foreigners." This is more than slightly unfair, since the Kuomintang, Taiwan's ruling party for decades, was in fact funded by heroin sales through Thailand. I would presume this is no longer true, as it would most certainly give the DPP and other political parties enough clout to put every nail in the Kuomintang's coffin.

    An interesting factoid: Here in the US, captured felons or detainees have to turn their heads away from the cameras in a vain hope they can somehow remain anonymous. In Taiwan, the police very graciously provide their detainees with motorcycle helmets and sunglasses. Very unique. Especially since everyone on the island knows each other.

    But enough of all this namby-pamby talk about the people of Taiwan. I know what you really want to read about, you mangy hound-dogs, you:

    Sex In Taiwan: Well look, one of the great things about Taiwan is that they're a pretty open people. Hardly a day--well, let's be more realistic, hard a microsecond--goes by that there's not a political sex scandal in Taiwan. In fact, former politician Chu Mei-feng is a national icon now, with her amateur sex video still one of the most in-demand items on the Taiwanese (and HK, Japan, Korean, Chinese, and Singaporean) marketplace. It's not legal to buy itbut since when have little piracy laws stopped anyone in Asia from making a buck? (The charming Miss Chu has since fled the island and supposedly married a Chinese artist, actor, or music star, depending on which editorial you read.) This stuff is consumed most eagerly by the hungry masses, who love and crave for more and more. The only women who like Sex and the City more than Taiwanese women are those of Singaporebut unlike that stuffy authoritarian regime, the Taiwanese haven't banned it. In Taiwan, you can find things from the most casual encounters to the extremely risqu; clearly, some Japanese influences have remained on the island, but it's all good. Unless you're a woman. Then it's all bad.

    Women in Taiwan are actually fairly encouraged to be promiscuous; or, at the very least, trained not make a big squabble when the boss tries to hit on them. On the other hand, women's rights, while guaranteed under the national laws, could use a bit of a brush-up. One example of such inequality is that it's not illegal for a man to buy sex in Taiwan; but it's highly illegal for a woman to sell it. Nevertheless, betel nut girls swarm through the island, wearing nothing but skimpy negligees while hawking these tasty drinks on the street. I have some pictures of these lovely ladies that I'll unfortunately have to post in The Gin Room. Technically, they are illegal; technically, they are not supposed to expose themselves; technically, whenever they approach my cab, I should not be able to see their breasts and genitals through their skimpy teddies. Technically, I'm outraged. Realistically, they probably make lousy dates, and are almost always financially desperate. I've been told they can be had for around NT$2,000 which is not a bad price for Taiwanbut I cannot recommend it. There's a reason these girls didn't go to college, because education in Taiwan is a cultural imperative, and that's enough for me.

    Overall: Taiwan is a chaotic place, easily the most bizarre jigsaw puzzle of humanity I've visited. With circus-like politics, a real monolithic threat, inane law enforcement (jaywalkers are the big thing now; personally, I'd be more for traffic enforcement), credible gang activity, and the rather odd social stresses that come from half the population hating the other, it can be quite harrowing. At the same time, technology is readily available, excellent--and I mean exceptional--medical care is the norm, the literacy rate is among the highest in the world, and the people are both combative yet idealistic. To be honest, Taiwan is almost 80% like America to me. But there's that other 20%, which is the real oddball stuff. I love Taiwan because it's total chaos--but amidst the chaos are thousands of convenience stores. You have to check this place out to believe it, folks.

    SM (Scourge of Asia)
     
  2. ethics

    ethics Pomp-Dumpster Staff Member

    Nice post... :)
     
  3. Sierra Mike

    Sierra Mike The Dude Abides Staff Member

    Thanks...I'm still busting my ass on China!

    SM
     
  4. Sierra Mike

    Sierra Mike The Dude Abides Staff Member

    Addendum #1

    One of the more disgusting things one can witness in Taiwan is the horrid betel nut, which some of the locals chew. It turns their teeth nearly black, inflames their lungs, and makes them spit long streams of black saliva every couple of minutes. I haven't seen this in Taipei very often, but outside the city, it's much more popular. I've also never been tempted to try it, and would advise any of you out there to refrain.

    SM
     
  5. fritzmp

    fritzmp Fire Fire For Effect

    Re: Addendum #1

    Sounds like population control to me.

    On another note, I think Steve has a hooch in Taiwan.
     
  6. Sierra Mike

    Sierra Mike The Dude Abides Staff Member

    I wish.

    SM
     
  7. Allene

    Allene Registered User

    Steve,

    Another fascinating travelogue. Have you missed your calling?

    LOL about the wok helmet! From now on, whenever I take out my wok, I will remember that old man.

    I didn't know the Chinese used betel nut, but I've read a lot on India where it is also used. Sounds horrible!

    I shudder at the thought of the jet lag engendered by such a long trip. Russia nearly killed me!

    Allene
     

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