Category Archives: Taiwan

Taiwan 2010 – Torn Between a Steak and a Vomitorium

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“At no point in this story is actual vomit involved.”

Honestly, I am seriously torn about how to “pitch” this particular blog post. It all relates to a single story and it has two different facets, it has the comedy vomit angle and it has the high praise for excellent food angle. You’d think they’d be utterly incompatible and yet they are one and the same story. Should I write the article and tell how amazingly wonderful the No. 168 Prime Steakhouse in Taipei is or go with with the “gosh, they sure are different in Taiwan” angle and get the cheap laughs? I am torn.

I’ve decided I’ll just tell the story as it happened.

Longtime readers of my blog will know that I have a very short links list. I read from over 150 blogs and newsfeeds daily, but there are only a few that, for some reason or another, I choose to promote. (Whether or not that promotion is appreciated is another question.)

One of them is A Hungry Girl’s Guide to Taipei. This is a blog that reviews restaurants in Taipei. It’s in English. I speak English. It’s about eating. I eat. it’s about Taipei. I go to Taipei. It’s uncanny. It’s as if it was written just for me.

I corresponded with her a little bit on Twitter and she recommended No. 168 Prime Steakhouse, saying that their “steaks were wonderful”, which is all I need to hear about any restaurant. I admit, I didn’t even go see if she had a review, I just passed the info along to my wife saying, “If your parents are looking for restaurants to take me to, I hear No. 168 Prime Steakhouse is ‘wonderful'”

And so it was on my final night in Taipei, they took the entire family to No. 168 Prime Steakhouse, which, it turns out is in the five-star Grand Victoria Hotel. (To be honest, I couldn’t find any documentation that said it was actually a five-star hotel, but if it isn’t, they’re trying really hard.)

I packed very light for this trip, getting my entire kit inside a piece of luggage could, if lucky, be considered carry-on. I had 4 pair of shorts, 4 t-shirts, one pair of pants, one polo shirt, 2 pair of sandals and 1 pair of tennis shoes. I got all dressed up in the tennis shoes, pants and polo shirt, thinking the place was probably a little more upscale than sandals, shorts and a Loch Ness Monster Adventure Club shirt, which was my typical daily wear. I was; however, still seriously underdressed for the No. 168 Prime. Luckily we had a private room, where they waited on us hand and foot and constantly served us expensive bottled water. Their prices were… high, and I was a little embarrassed to have suggested this restaurant because I knew my father-in-law was paying.

But, he had checked the place out first, so he knew what he was getting into. I only found out when I saw the menu and started doing exchange rate calculations in my head and going, “That can’t be right. US$ 90 for a steak?”

My father-in-law had already decided on their monthly special, which this month was a 45oz American Kobe Beef Ribeye (serves 4-5 people). This was their special for the month and it was, by their own statement, “The best piece of meat we have in the restaurant.” It cost US$ 150.

My mother-in-law doesn’t eat much meat, and my father-in-law can be a fairly moderate eater (except at all-you-can-eat places), so when he suggested that we get the special, I figured that would work out just about right for the four of us. The kids could order a dish and share and my bother-in-law and his girlfriend could get whatever they wanted.

Wrong, my father-in-law ordered the steak with the intention that all eight of us would share it, and then if somehow we we still hungry after each consuming 5.6oz of steak, we could order something else.

I can tell you, unreservedly, it was the best chunk of steak I’ve ever had in my life. It was sublime. I managed to get three strips of it, as did Michelle. Neither one of us got enough, and I can hardly see how there was enough to even get a start for the others.

When it was clear it wasn’t enough, they suggested I pick something else to order, like a New York steak. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. How do you follow up the best steak you’ve ever had? You don’t, and you certainly don’t follow it with a “lesser” piece of steak. (Typically, I’d never call a New York Strip a “lesser” piece of steak than a ribeye, but in this case, it had to be.)

So I am left with the all-too-brief memory of this wonderful steak, which has set the bar very high indeed for future steaks.

I should also mention that their bread, made on the premises by some sort of low-termperature, 16-hour baking process, their Caesar salad and french onion were all also very good.

I will heartily shout the praises for No. 168 Prime Steakhouse. Exquisite!

(Oh, and the hotel had free wifi, so I was able to hook up on the iPhone while at dinner. Another plus.)

Hardly seems appropriate to drift onto the topic of vomit at this point, does it? Let me be very, very clear on this point: At no point in this story is actual vomit involved. There is nothing whatsoever in my opinion that should be associated with vomit and this wonderful steakhouse, or indeed what appears to be an excellent hotel, but they did bring it upon themselves.

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This is all because of a button; a wonderfully mysterious, enigmatic, lovely, classically red button.

If it isn’t painfully obvious, let me reiterate that I don’t speak much Chinese – certainly not enough to carry on a conversation, although I can sometimes pick up the gist of a conversation. I read even less Chinese, but I do know a few hundred characters (sometimes I know them from my study of Japanese, other times from my study of Chinese.) One of the patterns I can recognize is Chinese for “please don’t.” This is important to my story and not just me rambling, so keep that in the back of your mind: I am functionally illiterate in Chinese, but not completely illiterate. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

James, at 5 years old, as taken up what appears to be an obsession with squat toilets. Whenever he knows there a squat toilet, he wants to go pee in it. (What could be more fun that peeing in a hole in the ground to a five-year old?) Shortly after our arrival at No. 168, James had to go to the bathroom, and someone else took him.

It wasn’t long afterwards that he went again, and again, someone else took him. At this point, I began to suspect that the restroom had a squat toilet and that he was a little bored with the dinner proceedings.

On his third request to go, I took him because I also needed to use the facilities and I was curious if my hypothesis was correct. It turned out that I was only partially correct, because what appeared to be fascinating James was the sink.

As you walk into this immaculately clean restroom, there are sinks on the left, ahead and turning a corner is a wall of urinals and behind them are the stalls. In the corner, next to the last urinal is a large sink. it’s not uncommon for restrooms in Taiwan to have a large laundry sink in them, usually with a mop nearby, and ofttimes with a cleaning lady standing there waiting for you to belly up to the urinal so that she can mop around your feet while you’re urinating. (That takes some getting used to.)

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In this case, the “laundry” sink was spotlessly clean, oval shaped and all gleaming stainless steel, artistically lighted from above. It also had a curious grating at the bottom, which was elevated about one inch above the actual bottom of the basin. If it was a laundry sink (and I had no reason to doubt that it was) it was the most expensive, pretentious laundry sink I’ve ever seen.

It also had, immediately above it, the button. The pretty red button. And the button had a sign, and the sign said, “[gibberish, gibberish]! Please don’t [gibberish] hand.”

Oh, temptation, thy name is “pretty red button that says, ‘please don’t'” on thee!

James, upon finishing up in the stall, went to the “laundry” sink and was about to wash his hands. I stopped him, and explained that this sink was not for washing hands, and that he should go use the regular sinks which had soap and towels available. He seemed remarkably disappointed and I noticed that, while clean, the sink wasn’t dry.

Back at the table, I asked Irene if they had a similar sink in the ladies’ room. She said they did not, so I was no closer to knowing that the pretty red button said.

Throughout the evening, James continued to ask to go back to the bathroom, and every time I’d say to him, “Don’t use that sink” and his face would get all crestfallen.

Finally, I could stand it no more and I went back and took a picture of the sink and the sign and brought it back so that Chu-Wan could tell me what it said. At first she had the most odd look on her face end then she translated it for me.

It says, “This is the sink for vomiting, please do not wash hands here.”

The answer, rather than being satisfying, raised more questions than it answered. Not only does the sign on the button completely fail to tell you what the pretty red button is for, but now I wonder what a classy restaurant needs a vomit sink for??? (Apart from the obvious.)

I can only imagine that, because it is a classy, expensive restaurant, businessmen bring clients here to wine and dine them; mostly wine them, and in the Japanese tradition, get so drunk that they vomit and then sleep on the street because it’s too late to catch the train home.

Anyone who eats at this restaurant and has one of these wonderful steak and then vomits it up is committing a crime the culinary world, if not against humanity itself!!!

What does that damn button do?! Does it operate a garbage disposal and grind up the debris or is it a call switch so that someone from housekeeping can quickly come make the restroom clean and pleasant for the other customers? Why is there a grate at the bottom? Wouldn’t that prevent larger chunks of matter from getting into the drain? Is it to stop the neckties of drunken vomiters from getting stuck in the running disposal unit? Is it some sort of high-tech vomitus splash guard?

Why must my memory of this wonderful restaurant be eternally linked to questions about vomit?

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Bottom line – This is what you should take from this blog post: No. 168 Prime Steakhouse = excellent steak.

(But if you do happen to go there, and you visit the men’s room, don’t wash your hands in that sink, but if you do happen (perhaps by mistake) to push that pretty, red button; that incredibly tempting, wonderfully round and inviting, pretty, red button… post me a comment and tell me what it does.)

Taiwan 2010 – Not My Most Successful Scheme By a Long Shot

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LA sucks.

Jet lag sucks.

Put together they are a massive, steaming pile of suckage.

Make a plan that glosses over those two points and you have a recipe for failure.

The ways in which LA sucks are many and varied, so let me come to them as flows within the narrative. For starters, LAX, the main international airport on the west coast is the worst airport I’ve ever been in. The sum total of things to do at that airport is (a) eat at bad restaurants (b) walk up and down around the outer perimeter of the of the terminals. (At least the weather is usually nice.)

In this post-9/11 world, where you potentially need hours to clear security before your flight, airlines don’t seem to be willing to schedule connecting flights within sane times of each other. The global economic recession hasn’t help either. Airline flights have been significantly curtailed and your choice of times and airlines has been drastically reduced. We used to try to schedule our flights through San Francisco because it shorten the flight across the ocean (by increasing the length of the domestic flight) and because the airport doesn’t suck as much as LA’s, but those flights are all gone now. You used to be able to schedule a transfer within about two hours of your international departure, now, with the comparative paucity of domestic flights and the potential of long, long security waits, you must wait much longer. (In all fairness to LAX, I’ve never spent more than 10 minutes getting through security, but it isn’t about how efficient they are most of the time, it’s all about the possibility that they might not be. Missing an international flight has a lot of negative ramifications on everyone, and the airlines and the travel agents aren’t willing to take risks. Better that you should suffer with long layovers.) On this trip, our delays were over 6 hours each. 6 hours at LAX is unfavorably comparable to 6 hours reading the white pages of the telephone book on an uncomfortable (broken) bench, while eating flavorless, dry rice cakes without benefit of anything to drink – alcoholic or otherwise.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to do with the family on the way out. 6 hours ought to be enough time to get out and do something, but instead we just ended up riding the train and eating. At least the food didn’t suck.

My flight back, alone, was worse. Not only did I have a 6+ hour layover, but I couldn’t even get a direct flight back to Phoenix. It would take 11 and a half hours for me to get back to Phoenix. It only takes six hours to drive to Phoenix from LA.

And thus begat my plan. To abandon my connecting flight back to Phoenix and simply rent a car one way from LA to Phoenix. I asked myself, “Would six hours in a car, after an 11 hour flight, be safe and possible?” Yes, I decided. First I considered the torture of another 6 hours in a seat: No problem, with a car you can stop and most any time and get out and walk around and stretch. Would jet lag prevent me from driving safely: No. My flight light Taipei at 4:50 in the afternoon and arrived the same day at 1:25 in the after in LA. (Yes, you travel backwards in time going from Taipei to LA) I figured that I’d be on the plane for a couple hours, they’d feed us and I’d go to sleep. It would be a little early going to bed, but I’d been napping in the afternoon lately, anyway. 1:25PM LA time is 4:25AM Taipei time. Again, a little early, but I typically wake up around 5:30, so I should, in theory, be rested and ready for the new day.

I optimistically booked a car for 2:00PM in LA and headed out on my flight, thinking, “This may be the model for all future flights to Taipei for me.”

So what went wrong? Most everything.

  • I didn’t sleep on the flight. I got no more than three hours sleep in three, one-hour blocks.
  • The plane travelled a long route. Typically the flight to Taiwan is up towards the pole and then across at the Aleutian Islands, then down the coast of Siberia, Korea, Japan and then to Taiwan. On the way back, they simply power straight across the ocean. (This has to do with utilizing the earth’s rotation under the plane and competing against or utilizing the jet stream. This is why the flight over is 14.5 hours, and the flight back is only 11.5 hours.) For some reason, this flight pushed us up north, crossing about parallel with Oregon and then down, overland, along the coast of California. We came in almost 30 minutes late.
  • I got through customs in record time, and I foolishly thought that might mean I’d make up some of the lost time towards picking up my car. Wrong – I got through immigration quickly, but my luggage was absolutely the last two bags to come off the plane. By the time I’d retrieved it, the line for customs was a two-hundred strong. (It moved efficiently and quickly but it was still a lot of people.)
  • The rental car place isn’t really even close to the airport. It’s a 10-15 minute drive by shuttle bus – once you’ve caught the bus. I arrived at Alamo at just 15 minutes before 3:00PM.
  • It was 45 minutes to get to me because, despite there being 40 people in line, they only ever had 3 of their 8 representative desks operating at any time, and often, the reps stopped helping customers and stood around and organized their paperwork in full sight of the fuming customers. Once to a representative, my rental took all of 5 minutes to get out the door, and I discovered, to my joy that Shakey’s Pizza (a childhood favorite but now long defunct in Arizona) was 2 blocks away. I was there by 4:00PM.
  • They were the slowest pizza place I’ve been in in years. They did have a children’s birthday party of about 40 kids, which was keeping them busy. It was over an hour to get out the door.
  • It was 5:00PM before I got traveling towards home. Given that it takes 6 hours to get to home, that now put my estimated arrival about 11:00 PM. If I had stayed on the flight, I’d be at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport at 11:30PM. I was still ahead of the plane flight, but now only by an hour to an hour and a half.

Let me talk about another reason why LA sucks for a moment. LA and Phoenix have something in common. They bother are relatively modern cities, and their population explosions occurred since the invention of the automobile. While Los Angeles truly is the archetype of “urban sprawl”, Phoenix is right up there with it, for exactly the same reasons. Phoenix is a vast urban area. Los Angeles is quite a lot bigger still. For the record, let me say that LA is a major international city and Phoenix is a podunk. I would not deign to put these two cities in the same category. LA is in a class with New York, London, Taipei, Shanghai, etc. Phoenix is in a class with Albuquerque.

Nonetheless, the geographic and demographic forces which shaped LA also shaped Phoenix. The major differences are these: LA has lots of things to see and do, but they’re so damned spread out that it’s a nightmare to get to them. Phoenix, on the other hand, is essentially just as spread out but because there’s nothing to do here, the issue of getting from point A to point B isn’t as acute. Also, Phoenix is a newer city and, although our freeway system is a lot smaller than the LA freeway system, our fair city (as well as many others around the US and the world) have benefited greatly because our freeway engineers grew up and were trained with the knowledge of all the freakin’ stupid, idiotic mistakes made when California built their freeway system.

LA’s freeways are extensive, but grew organically. There is no logical pattern to them, they do not use consistent means for onramps, off-ramps, freeway junctions, signage or anything else. It’s a bit like hot and cold taps in Taiwan: You never know which one will be hot and which one will be cold, until you test it by turning it on.

But I was armed with an auto-GPS navigation system, and, for the most part, it kept me well-informed enough to navigate the freeways across the maddening urban sprawl that is LA. Let’s go back to the list.

  • It’s 6 hours from LA to Phoenix. Unless the freeways were moving at 10-20MPH, in which it’s two days travel.
  • Funny thing about being jet lagged and not getting enough sleep, staring at the rear end of the car ahead of you in a traffic jam for nearly two hours can make you incredibly, dangerously tired.
  • When I reached Riverside (which means, basically, I was still in the LA sprawl) I saw a Motel 6 and gave up, pulled in, checked in and within 30 minutes was sound asleep, expecting to have a hard time waking up in the morning and getting going.
  • At 1:30AM I snapped wide awake. Why 1:30? Jet lag sucks, and it rarely makes much sense. 1:30AM, is 4:30PM in Taipei. Why my body spontaneously awoke – and it is like a light switching on – I was completely awake without any of the usual drowsy dragging that normally accompanies my transition from sleep to wakefulness. It was quite clear that the people in the next room hadn’t even gone to be yet.
  • I showered, ambled across the street for a big bacony, eggy breakfast at Denny’s, checked out and was on my way by 3:00AM.

After that it was just a five and a half hour drive, with stops, getting me home at about 8:30AM, just a scant 19 hours after I arrived in LA.

Perhaps next time I go to Taiwan, they’ll have installed a high speed railway between LA and Phoenix. Perhaps I’ll wait until they do.

Taiwan 2010 – There are Stories Left to Tell

There are stories left to tell, like about the vomitorium in the classy restaurant inside the five-star hotel, but they shall have to wait until my return, for in about 30 minutes I’ll be heading out towards the airport to catch in flight 3 hours from then. The family will be staying behind for another 3 weeks and i already (accidentally) reduced James to tears when I told him I’d miss him. I have a feeling this isn’t going to be a pretty farewell at the airport.IMG_0001

Because the flight is in the mid-afternoon, there’s not much really to do today except pack and eat lunch. I convinced them to take Michelle (and therefore me) to Din Tai Fung for lunch. We got there early and between the 7 of us, we ate a full 7 steamers (70 dumplings). Put in perspective, my 18 isn’t that much, but it was a record for me, and this time Michelle was’t even in the running. Last time she polished off 14, this time only 10. James managed 9 this time and he was desperately trying to keep up (and surpass) his big sister.

When we left, the crowd was standing at about 250 people waiting to get in for lunch. Din Tai Fung is never hurting for business – nor should they be.

I didn’t mention much about our flight over on China Air. Frankly, we didn’t want to fly them, but flights were so tight and prices so high we didn’t have a choice. Singapore Air cut back on flights and no longer flies direct to Taipei from LA, which left out our favorite airline. Eva Air, a Taiwanese carrier, couldn’t get us flights on even close to the dates we wanted and were hundreds more per ticket (on days we didn’t want.) I had no major complaints about China Air (Which is, by the way, the national carrier of Taiwan, not China) except that their food isn’t as good or as plentiful, the stewardesses aren’t as good at English, and they’re really skimpy on water and drinks.

We had a 6 hour nightmare of a wait at LAX last time, this time the wait is longer and the flight back to Phoenix isn’t even direct. It would be another 11 hours back to Phoenix! Insanity! I’ve rented a car and will be driving back it will take 6 hours or so, but I can stop, stretch my legs and have pizza and Dr. Pepper.

I’ll see you on the other side of the world!

Taiwan 2010 – Wearing Glasses Sucks

About 3 bus stops away from the house is the Taipei Water Park (which, cleverly, appears to be connected to the water treatment plant.) We’ve been meaning to go there since we arrived, but a variety of things such as rain and trips out of town have stopped us. On weekdays, the place is virtually empty and yet still it’s open, unlike the lame-o water parks in Phoenix that are only open a few weeks a year and then, often, only on weekends.

Today, finally, was the day and also for the first day of the trip it was hot and sunny. So hot and sunny that we considered postponing till another day, but we persevered because the weather forecast made it look like clouds were coming in.

The park is small, with only three slides, a lazy river, a large meter deep pool, a kids pool and sand beach, but big enough to accommodate about a thousand people. While we were there, when it got crowded, there were about 15 people, which is about the single most enjoyable water park experience ever. Most times when I climbed up to the slides, not only was there no waiting, there was no one else on the entire structure. You could absolutely go anywhere and do anything without any competition for resources whatsoever. On top of that, the whole thing; family admission, tube rental and locker rental cost us US$ 24.

We chose correctly, too, because the clouds rolled in when we arrived and it was wonderful. About the time we started to leave, a thunderstorm rolled in and poured buckets on everyone. As we were changing, everyone else was forced to retreat from the pools. Spot on perfect timing – except we got soaked again on the way home. It’s still raining buckets this evening, endangering my dinner plans.

I had no camera to take pictures, but will try to go back and snap some shots of the park from the outside to illustrate.

Oh, “Why does wearing glasses suck?” you ask. Simple; without glasses, I can’t see and it was at times difficult for me to identify Irene and the kids in even the small crowds. If it had been crowded, I’d have lost them for sure. Also, there were two young American women in tiny bikinis playing in the water park and I never did get a good look at them.

Taiwan 2010 – Part VII – In Which I Do Totally Ordinary Stuff

It’s Father’s Day, and I’ve been given a rare opportunity to catch up on “stuff.”

Irene has taken the kids to meet a friend and dubiously “…let them play in a playground, which [I’d] no doubt be bored doing.” Of course, that’s totally true, but at the same time, it’s rather an obvious excuse to get away from me so that the kids can arrange something for Father’s Day. They’ve been on about it for a week, then suddenly yesterday, they didn’t mention it again. Not even this morning, which hurts a little bit.

My choice is to go out, be hot and miserable at the worst time of day, or stay “at home” in the one room with air conditioning and catch up on my blogging. Later today it’s off to Cosi O Cosi for Italian food for lunch where I’l meet up with the family and, presumably, they’ll remember Father’s Day.

I’ve been doing a very poor job of documenting my visit this time, I suppose familiarity has finally drummed in to the point where I mostly just don’t care. Everyone gets up late in the morning, where it’s a daily fight for me to get everyone out for breakfast. In their later years, my in-laws have a adopted a “no flavor” diet. Nothing they cook has flavor. Even when they make something special just for me on the side, it’s totally devoid of seasoning, and, if it’s meat, cooked until it has lost every last molecule that gave it flavor burned away into the grease traps over the cooktop. It is therefore imperative that no meals be taken here unless catered or prepared by my wife.

Meals out are dicey, too, because my mother-in-law has a tendency to complain long and out loud in front of wait staff about how bad the food is (presumably because it has flavor). She does this while the meal is still being served, and worrying us greatly that the wait staff with thoughtfully oblige us with “extra ingredients” to show their appreciation to her – and us in the bargain. She doesn’t seem to do this at Din Tai Fung and I feel reasonably safe there – not to mention, I love the food.

Here's my hamburger at Hello Kitty Sweets.

Michelle’s eighth birthday was this past week and we took her to Hello Kitty Sweet restaurant as a surprise. She thought it was terribly cute, and liked it a lot, so that’s what matters. The atmosphere alone could have induced diabetic shock in someone, but I endured it for my little princess. I had a hamburger (or Kitty Burger, I believe they called it) and it was shaped like Hello Kitty. I enjoyed biting that burger, and it was really rather good. Even the crazy Hello Kitty shaped bun was good.

After that, grandma took us to Din Tai Fung, where Michelle and I polished off 16 dumplings each, we would have eaten more, but we only bought 60. I didn’t have the balls to ask grandma to buy another 10 – and I knew neither one of us needed any more, even if we wanted them.

It’s been rainy, which has curtailed our outdoor excursions, and the kids’ uncle has gotten them addicted to computer games, particularly Plants Vs Zombies. He did it so that they’d leave him and his girlfriend alone. They adore them and won’t give them a minute to themselves when they’re home. I suppose that’s punishment for them being unlikely to ever actually get married and have their own kids when they’re so comfortable living with my in-laws and not paying rent as it is. Why disturb the status quo?

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The last 3 days or so haven’t been rainy, but then it became hot and miserable. Friday we were going to take the kids to the water park, but instead we went to some former gold rush town up near the coast somewhere. I’m not sure I ever got the name of the place, but it was picturesque and made a pleasant diversion for the day.

I’m beginning to feel the sands of time running out here in Taiwan and soon I’ll heading heading back to the States on my own. There’s so much that I usually do on these trips that I haven’t this time. Today was the first day I’ve gotten out and walked around on my own, swinging by the Dead Dictator Hall for the first time, too.

I’m slowing (painfully slowly) getting my pictures from the trip uploaded to flickr, where I try to archive everything, good, bad and indifferent. It’s that age old problem of getting them loaded so that I can use them, or going through them first, photoshopping them and then uploading them. The later is preferable, but the former is expedient. The reality falls somewhere in between.

My nemesis: defeated!

I’ve been specifically requested not to recount my epic battle with a squat toilet there other day. I make it a point of pride to avoid using squat toilets whenever possible. Well, excluding urination as that doesn’t matter. That’s just like peeing in a hole in the ground, which is just fun. (Which, it seems Taiwanese men cannot hit, either) It’s the “other” use of a squat toilet that I try to avoid and usually can, in fact, it’s been at least 5 years and three trips since I last got caught, but not the other day in the gold mining town. I can tell you, if Asians were all 6’3″ and long-legged, they would not have invented the squat toilet. Ever.

All I will say is it was a darned good thing this particular bathroom had a coat hook and a nearby door handle or it would have been a catastrophe!

Taiwan 2010 – Part VI – Taichung Science Adventure

Oh, I may make fun of their mystical Chinese medicine, Feng Shui, superstitions, ghost concerns and a host of other completely illogical remnants to the dark ages of man’s reason, but that notwithstanding, the Taiwanese are at heart a science-loving, technology-obsessed people, which makes them infinitely superior to a vast swath of science-denialist Americans who constantly cause problems for our own country.

It somewhat surprised me, then, that we had to travel to Taichung to go to the science museum. I suppose on an island this size, that’s little more than having to travel to Tucson from Phoenix, but it seems odd that it wouldn’t be in Taipei. Nonetheless, we have friends in Taichung and so we decided to

  1. Enjoy a trip on the High Speed Rail
  2. Spend the day at the science museum
  3. Visit with our friends at their home

The Hight Speed Rail (HSR) is awesome. You can purchase your tickets at 7-11. It’s a short walk or bus ride from my in-laws house, a two-stop subway ride to the main train station and under an hour (at 300kph) to Taichung, where, they give you free bus rides to major destinations in town, including the science museum. It was effectively door-to-door service.

Irene’s never been to the Taichung science museum and, even for her, the admissions process was a bit confusing. Apparently, there’s multiple areas, including the Natural History area, the Science area and the Space theatre. I didn’t realize it at the time but it’s a massive two-building, four-storey complex. We were, predominantly there to see the natural history museum and when Irene asked about the science hall, they gave her some explanation about it being an exhibition of some company’s products, so we decided to skip it. Mistake. That was apparently only the roving exhibit, and the rest is four-storeys of hands on science fun. Still we just barely had enough time to cover the natural history area before it was time to meet our friends. I can’t help thinking that I need to go back before I leave, although that would be a little expensive.

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The natural history area was beautiful, perhaps a little bit light on exhibits, but most were in both Chinese and English, well laid out and attractive. (Perhaps they brought a Feng Shui master in to get it “just right”) The kids (and I) had a lot of fun and that’s what counts.

Here’s one that will shock you though. You don’t have to exit the museum through a gift shop!

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We met our friends and traveled by taxi to their home. Never travel by taxi. Our driver’s very instincts were different from my own. For example, when we’d be on a single lane road (well, single lane with a sort of side area for scooters and pedestrians) and the traffic in front would slow to a stop, instead of slowing down as would seem prudent to me, he would instead swerve to either side, sometimes into oncoming traffic but most times into the scooter pedestrian area. In one instance at an intersection, the car in the oncoming lane looked as if it was going to make a left turn in front of him. (That’s common) So he aimed his cab at exactly the oncoming lane, with the intention of occupying that space as the other car left it. The other car chickened out and we came to a deadlock, while all the cars that were behind us continued on, passing us on the right. I can’t say for certain that the traffic in Taichung is scarier than the traffic in Taipei, but it sure felt like it.

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Our friend, Don, is from the US and teaches at a nearby university. They live near the university and the area is full of restaurant choices of various ethic types. We chose Indian food and it was excellent. We went back to their place to let the kids play for a while and I was very impressed. Unlike my in-law’s place in Taipei, which was built in the 1970’s, their home, built this century was vastly advanced in terms of comfort and modern conveniences. One area that is so difficult to judge about a country are the homes. So rarely do we get to go inside anyone’s home – apart from those people who live in their shops – that it’s hard to decide what is a “typical” Taiwanese home. I believe I’ve been inside five, total. Perhaps I’ll never know.

Then is was back to the HSR for a smooth, effortless ride into Taipei and “home.”

Taiwan 2010 – Part V – Jhihben, Chrben, Jhiben, Chiben, Jiben

At last I’ve finally caught up. All that cow excitement was beginning to make me fall behind, but I’ve got a couple more hours on the train from Taitung to Taipei and nothing to do except burn out my batteries. Michelle has exhausted all but the last of my iPhone’s battery playing Monopoly and now she’s working on the iPad’s battery reading The Lightening Thief.

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Last time I blogged some photos of our wonderful, Japanese-style spa room. The whole resort is built about the spa, but we weren’t able to go last night as a thunderstorm came up, and I wasn’t too keen to be sitting in the water during an electrical storm. In the morning, the spa didn’t open early enough, and by the time it did, it was raining again.

No doubt I’ve mentioned before that Taiwan has an extremely poor track record of “romanizing” their language into western characters. Whereas China simply issued a decree and forced everyone (on pain of death, no doubt) to use a newly-developed system called Pinyin, Taiwan never went through that phase, and they’ve been damn stubborn about adopting the Chinese system because… well.. because it’s Chinese and they’re not Chinese enough. (I kid you not.)

Consequently, Taiwan has been using the old Wade-Giles system, which, to my uneducated eye, sucks. Now, I’m sure Messrs. Wade and Giles knew a lot more about language than I do, but I do know one thing: If you use their system of romanizing and you try to pronounce the word, no Chinese speaking person will ever understand what you’re trying to say.

Let me demonstrate. Take for example these two words, “Peking” and “Beijing.” Those are two words you’ve probably heard before. Everyone has heard of Peking Duck and everyone knows the capital of China is Beijing. Here’s a dirty little secret: They’re the same word using the two different romanization systems and they’re pronounced the same way. What you know as Peking Duck should be pronounced more like Beijing Duck. (Although they have their own word for “duck”, too.) “Taipei” become “Daibei” and my wife’s name, Chu-Wan, would become “Zhuwan” and she’d immediately move to the back of the alphabet.

Taiwan is slowly adopting the Chinese system, mostly because it’s all that’s taught in schools and universities around the world anymore. If you want foreigners to read your romanized text and be able to do business in Taiwan, you must use the Chinese Pinyin system. There’s another problem with the older Wade-Giles system – apparently no one in Taiwan knew how to use it either.

I mention all this because we spent a long time today driving around Taitung (Daidong) and so no fewer than 7 spellings for “Jhihben” on official signs. I have no clue how it would properly be spelled, but I think it would be “zhiben.” I never saw it spelled that way, though.

I also mentioned all that because much of the day was spent driving around in circles.

After we checked out of our room (I’ll miss it!) we drove out towards the beach where sunrise first greats Taiwan each morning and that on Jan 1, 2000 it was packed with thousands of people. Fortunately, it wasn’t at sunrise when we arrived. I’ve seen more “special” sunrises in Taiwan than I’ve seen cows, and that’s saying a lot.Not only is it a rocky, nasty beach, cluttered with a huge accumulation of garbage, but it doesn’t even appear to be the easternmost point on the island, which would seem to me to be the point that would see the sunrise first.

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Afterwards, we stopped at Xiaoyehlieu (or is that hsiaoyehlieu?) which is a series of interesting rock formations on the coast. There’s a similar, larger formation on the northern coast called Yehlieu.

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By this time, I was completely knackered. It’s hot and oppressively humid. (I’ve included this picture of me sweating by way of demonstration.) I settled into the car and started watching the Man From Atlantis on my iPad. I was only vaguely aware of what was going on. Periodically, I’d look up and spot a new spelling of Jhihben but otherwise, as far as I could tell, we were just driving around in circles in Taitung. Like any city in Taiwan, it’s hardly picturesque.

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Eventually, we decided to eat before our train ride back to Taipei, but it was a little too early, so we stopped at a nearby park, which, like seemingly all parks of interest in these southern towns, was a great big set of stairs…and mosquitoes. Lots of mosquitoes. They didn’t even bother to run when you swatted at them, They just dropped their little mosquito pants, waved their privates parts at us in defiance and attacked again. It was, as usual, a nice view at the top, but I wonder if it was worth the bloodletting.

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We stopped at a steakhouse we’d seen the day before. They had a distinctly American sales gimmick of selling a 1 Kilogram steak, which, if you could eat the whole thing, you got for half price. I didn’t try that, but I did figure this would be a very down-to-earth steakhouse. Was I wrong! It’s was one of the most pretentious steak places yet. Every course was served with a flourish of pretense of a high-end restaurant wishing to charge ridiculous prices for nothing of substance, yet this was, as far as I could tell, just a low-end Taiwanese-style steak shop. Here’s a picture of the prawn appetizer, with its single stick of fried spaghetti.

At lunch, I learned the truth about our earlier excursion around Taitung: We were just driving in circles. A few years ago, they moved the train station and my father-in-law wanted to locate the station for later. He never found it. At lunch, no fewer than three people gave us directions to the stations, none of which seemed to make sense. Whipping out the iPhone and the GPS, I quickly located the train station and we had no further trouble locating it. Score one for technology, none for human interaction.

It’s a full four hours back to Taipei on the slow (but not slowest) train. The east coast simply isn’t populated enough for a high speed train like on the west coast, but they do have some of the new “rocking trains” which I’m not too familiar with, but I understand they achieve their extra speed by not slowing down on turns. The rocking train was my requirement for this trip as I’m fascinated by different forms of train technology; unfortunately, these trains are popular and no seats were available. We were stuck on an “express” train which achieves a bit of speed by not stopping at many stations. It’s still painfully slow.

And so ended our mini-trip to the rift valley of Taiwan.

Taiwan 2010 – Part IV – My Life After the Cows

I knew that after a visit to the Pastureland Resort Experience, life was going to be a pale imitation of its former self, but I was determined to soldier on.

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It seems that Guanshan Township is part of the great Taiwanese bicycle experience. Sometime after our last visit, a bicycling craze overtook the island, with thousands of people touring round the island. As a former long distance bicycle rider, it’s a craze I can approve of, even if the idea of riding a bike on Taiwan’s roads fills me terror.

Dozens of places in Guanshan rent bicycles and several of the hotels offer bicycles for their guests. Neither of my kids can ride a bike, but the hotel offered bicycles built for two and we were able to coax Michelle onto one. (James was not the slightest bit worried about it.) Michelle road with me and, unfortunately, none of the bicycles were big enough for someone 6’3″. I extended the rusty seat post well past the minimum insertion line, just enough to let me peddle without smacking the handlebars with my knees (except when turning) and we were off. Still, a full downstroke, my knees still fully bent and I couldn’t get much power, making the ride difficult.

We rode about 5 km part way around the nicely built bicycle path that circles the town and the important part was that Michelle had a lot of fun and I have hopes she’ll really try to learn to ride her bike when we return to Arizona.

Between the incredibly uncomfortable seat, heavy bike weight, Michelle’s extra weight, poor gear ratio, no leg extension, high humidity and most importantly, my complete lack of shape, it was a brutal 5km.

I really want a bike like this. (OK, technically a trike)

After we checked out it was on to Taitung and then the Jhihben Hot Springs, or so I thought, but this trip had at least one more surprise for me.

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A Visit to the Chu Lu Ranch! A tourist dairy farm! Oh Joy, I feel I was dealt a Royal Fizzbin.

So, after an hour or so, plowing around another dairy farm, in deadening heat and humidity, I can honestly say I’ve seen all the dairy farms I ever want to see in Taiwan, if not the entire world!

I must say, Chu Lu Ranch is better than Rareseed Ranch, if you must go to one or the other.

As we had to pass through (or at least near) Taitung before we went to Jhihben, I decided enough was enough. I wanted to eat at McDonald’s. I’ve been in Jhihben before and I know the food selection is limited. I was prepared for that, but I wanted a western meal on the way through, and I wasn’t above priming the kids to get them to want McDonald’s, too. My father-in-law clearly didn’t want to go, but I did, and he subjected me to a second cow farm. Fair is fair. I deserved McDonald’s. (Really, is that a sentence that’s ever been written in English before?)

Leaving the cow farm and with the GPS and the iPhone, I was able to navigate us directly to the nearest McDonald’s, where I had fried chicken. (McDonald’s in Taiwan, and indeed throughout much of Asia, sells fried chicken. It’s really quite the best thing on their menu, I don’t know why they don’t have it in the US.)

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That bit of necessary business out of the way, we headed on to Jhihben, where we got a resort hot spring spa room that is to die for. Not only do they have the standard outdoor spas, but the pipe it into the spa rooms, too. (OK, the whole nonsense about the natural water being any different than heating water is just a huge marketing thing, but it’s still nice to soak in the hot, hot water.) The rains came, which prevented us from doing much outside, but I soaked my weary, bicycled-tortured legs and it was good.

We slipped back into Taitung for dinner and, after much wandering the streets, we ended up at the only Indian restaurant in Taitung. The menu was limited, but it was good.

Tomorrow, we take the day in Jhihben before catching the train back to Taipei. I’m taking things one day at a time, but my goal for tomorrow is simple: no cows.

Wish me luck.

Taiwan 2010 – Part IIIb – Pastureland Resort Experience Area (Episode 3)

If I haven’t got you confused with my post numbering by now, I never will.

Let’s see, I left off at the sugar refinery, on our way to the cows.

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Oh, OK, right… so, we left the sugar refinery and we went to the cow place, known formally (in English) as Rareseed Ranch, where they have some dairy cows and ostriches, although the purpose of the ostriches is somewhat murky.

They make milk at this ranch and they sell milk products. People come and feed the cows and look at them.

We stopped at the snack bar where they sell ice cream – which comes in one flavor: milk flavor. They also sell cheesecake, which tastes like milk and I also had a glass of milk, which, reassuringly, tasted like milk. I believe I am now totally cowed out and do not need see any more cows, ever.

We pulled into a really nice looking resort in Guanshan township, but it was too expensive, so we went to their cheaper sister hotel, right next to the train station. Apparently bike rental comes with the room and we plan to go riding in the morning. At least it doesn’t involve cows.

Food pickings were slim, but we ate a passable chinese-style pork chop at a bien dan shop near the hotel.

Our hotel has free wireless (at least, I assume it’s free wireless from the hotel, the access point name is “default”), so I’ve had my first opportunity to catch up on my blogging and newsreading. The data connection on the iPhone is a life saver, but I’m still using it sparingly. Opportunities to tap into wi-fi are like gold.

We’ve no left the “planned” part of our itinerary. I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but this much I can guarantee: It will not involve cows.