June 5, 2001 – June 14, 2001
We’ve been in Taipei just over a week and things have finally begun shaking.
When we arrived at Chiang Kai-Shek airport I was at first disappointed that we arrived at the old terminal 1 building. They recently opened a newer, bigger, more modern terminal 2. For whatever reason, Singapore Air doesn’t apparently use terminal 2 it’s probably reserved for EVA Air and China Air, the domestic carriers.
After I saw the line at immigrations, though, I was glad we’d come in at terminal 1. I’ve never seen the lines so short, and in mid-day, too! Because of the length of my stay, I couldn’t have a visa-less entry (14 days max), so I had to stop at the immigrations counter and apply for a 30 day entry visa. Once again they didn’t charge me the NT1500 fee – I guess they’re still happy with the United States. It’s nice somebody is. However, once past there, it took us only 5 minutes to clear immigrations – it usually takes 40 minutes.
Chu-Wan’s parents picked us up and were eager to try my Chinese. Unfortunately, my brain was stuck in Japanese mode. I simply couldn’t recall simple Chinese words and phrases. The Japanese equivalent always came to mind. Days spent trying to bring Japanese forward finally paid off, just a day late and a dollar short.
It took me several days to break out of Japanese mode and begin to use Chinese. I’m afraid my Chinese hasn’t been as successful as I’d like. When people speak, it’s still too fast, and even slowed down, they tend to use phrases that are a bit more complex than what I’ve learned, so sometimes they’ll ask me something very simple, but one word will throw me off and I just don’t get it. Still at least I can ask for prices and understand the answer or ask for directions to simple things – that’s something of an accomplishment. I’ve still got 1.5 weeks of practice; we’ll see how it goes.
After arrival, Chu-Wan’s parents took us for a steak lunch. I went to the restroom and promptly cracked my skull on the door. Apparently, doors are taller in Japan than Taiwan – I didn’t once hurt my head in Japan. It had apparently lured me into a false sense of security, because I injured myself on the first interior doorway I passed through in Taiwan.
Taipei is a city in the process of change. Many of you may have read about some of the things I’ve pointed out as standing out to my eyes in the past, and a lot of them seem to be going by the wayside.
It always amazed me how many public restrooms were placed so that passersby got the maximum opportunity to view the occupants of the restrooms and what they were doing. Now, they’ve installed privacy screens outside the subway restrooms, so you can’t just walk by and watch people urinating. I haven’t yet had a single woman walk in on me in the men’s room at a McDonald’s either.
Taipei’s traffic, which at best could be described as insane and at worst completely lawless, is being curbed in. They’ve lowered the speed limit on city streets. (I didn’t even know they had a speed limit to lower on the city streets.) They’ve banned driving and using cell phones. They have new mandatory seat belt and baby seat laws and most importantly, they’ve apparently instructed the police officers to go out and ENFORCE traffic laws, on both cars and pedestrians. It appears they are more successful enforcing against pedestrians, probably because they are easier to catch, because you actually see people waiting for a walk signal, even when there’s no cars coming – something unheard of before. Nonetheless, I’ve seen more police in Taipei on this trip than I’ve ever seen in the past.
Police cars are easy to spot in Taipei – they ALWAYS have their rolling lights on. Apparently if you pull over because on is behind you, they assume you must be feeling guilty about something and will check you out thoroughly. Never pull over for a policeman unless he uses his siren on you. It’s odd when you see a police car with lights on sitting outside a business and you cannot assume that something bad has happened.
Another striking change is that Taipei used to have horrendously awful sidewalks, made of brick tiles. These were uneven from age and earth moment (both quakes and roots pushing them up) and from the constant cutting and digging through them. Combined with really awful cement patches, which were never allowed to dry before people started walking across them, produced a sidewalk-walking environment not unlike crossing a stream full of rocks. Now, they’re tearing them all up and replacing them with nice new sidewalks.
In the interim, however, you practically have to walk in the street all over the city as they seem to have decided to rip all the old ones up before laying down the new. The construction is all over town, but I’ve only run across a few places where they’ve started putting the new bricks down. My guess is that this project is designed to give some people work during the slow economy. They’ve certainly got enough people on the project.
Somehow, I feel saddened by the changes – some of Taipei’s character is being stripped away from it. Such is â€œprogress.â€
Prices on electronics are pretty good this year, and since I experienced first hand the limitations of my digital camera and continued problems with my Hi8 Camcorder, I decided to replace it with a new Mini DV camcorder with a built in megapixel digital still camera. I picked up a Japanese version of a camera not quite out on the US market yet for a great deal (and several hundred less than the projected price in the US when it becomes available this month or next.) The only problem is that it’s in Japanese, menus and all. Fortunately, I can read and use it. I’ll be posting some digital stills from the new camera along with this installment.
Yesterday we went up to Yangmingshan National Park (mountains north of Taipei) and spent the night in a hotel so that we’d be able to explore the park better than we’ve been able to in the past. The problem is, the only time to go is during the week when there are no crowds, but the busses don’t run through the park. In the end, we had to drive. Correction: I had to drive, as Chu-Wan cannot drive a stick shift car.
Taipei’s traffic has improved, but it’s no picnic. It still follows bizarre conventions, such as left lanes that are marked as left turn only, but no one ever does, they continue straight – or occasionally turn right. It also still uses the force your way in principal – the other drivers will let you, but they expect the same from you. I have no trouble forcing myself in, but it’s hard to yield to others doing things that would get you shot dead on US streets.
The night before our trip, Chu-Wan went visiting a friend, so I let my brother-in-law, Johnny, drive me up to Yangmingshan so I could memorize the route. The weather is so much nicer up there. In Taipei it is in the 80s and in the high 90% humidity range, with heavy rain most days.
We explored a few places and I actually got to see the â€œfamousâ€ cows of Chiangtiangang (see my last Taiwan travelogue for the mystery of the cows.) Actually, the cows have very unusual horns and seem more like some form of oxen, but they seemed friendly.
We drove to the highest point you can reach by car and I snapped a few digital pictures. Unfortunately, I wasn’t up to speed on the new camera and didn’t get any good pictures of the cows in â€œSuper NightShotâ€ mode, which allows one to shoot in total darkness.
I picked up the book, Hiking in Taiwan, a local book published in English on trails around Taiwan. I applaud the effort, it’s the only book I’m aware of in English on the subject, but it’s not as informative as I’d like. There are many obstacles to hiking in Taiwan, such as requirements for local guides and permits in many places, but for the readily accessible trails, the guide doesn’t really give the kind of information regarding what to expect along the trail, conditions, etc.
On my last two trips to Yangmingshan, I’ve been at the mercy of someone else’s timetable, so, although there are numerous trails in the park, I’ve not been able to hike any of them. This time, we were in control.
Picking our drive time carefully, we made it out of town during a low traffic period and had no difficulty getting to the park or getting around once we were there. The park was nearly deserted.
First, we went back to Chiangtiangang and walked a 2.5 KM loop trail that was fairly level, with a few steep areas. The cows were out in force and Chu-Wan got to see them at last. When we returned to the car, a note from the police was placed on our windshield warning that thieves were in the area and not to leave anything valuable in the car.
Next we went to Hsiaoyoukan, the first place I was taken in Yangmingshan years ago. There was a trail leading up over the fumeroles that I couldn’t follow and today we took out after it. The trail is only 1.5KM long and leads to the highest peak in the area, Qishinshan (7 star mountain).
This is a brutal hike. It’s paved with stones (like most trails I’ve seen in Taiwan) but in places, and for long distances, it moves straight up the mountain at a 50 to 55 degree incline. It’s an extremely difficult walk and at the same time, the wind blowing through the park was approaching hurricane force. It would, quite literally, blow you off your feet. The going was quite difficult, but we made it to the top.
Rain clouds were moving in, so we headed back for the car. Exhausted, we returned to the hotel.
We stayed at the Landis China Yangmingshan hotel, which, like many hotels in the area has a hot spring. Chu-Wan wanted to spend some time in the pool, but you cannot enter the pool unless you are wearing a hair cap – apparently a common requirement in Taiwan. So, after much gnashing of teeth, we bought the expensive caps for sale at the hotel. Chu-Wan put one foot in the pool and decided she did not want to swim after all – the water was too cold.
We spent time in the sulfurous hot spring instead, which was quite relaxing, if a bit offensive to the nose.
At 9:17 last night, we were sitting on the bed. Chu-Wan was talking to her mother on the phone, when the bed started shaking. She had been moving around, so I really didn’t notice. Then the door started banging, much as if someone was pulling on the handle to see if the door would open. While I was trying to figure out why someone was trying to get into our room, Chu-Wan said, in English, â€œearthquakeâ€ and went back to speaking to her mother.
The banging stopped and that was the end of it. I probably wouldn’t have even figured it out if she hadn’t said something. A few minutes later the news confirmed that a 6.3 earthquake had hit in the ocean of the northeastern coast, near Hualien and Ilan. The quake registered 3.0 in Taipei – not significant, but enough to send news crews out looking for any damage at all to report. An hour or so later they found a broken water pipe to show on the news – otherwise it was a non-event. As far as I can tell reports from Hualien and Ilan where the quake was in the 4.x range were negative as well.
Satisfied that I’d now experienced an earthquake, I decided that I didn’t need anymore, although I would have liked to have captured it on my camcorder.
The hotel has air conditioning, and so we slept in this morning. By the time we woke up and got ready to go it was 10 AM, the optimum time for me to drive back to Taipei and miss the traffic.
We got back to Chu-Wan’s parents’ home at about 10:45AM. I was surprised that there were a couple of tiles from the front of the building lying on the front porch. I figured that they would have picked them up, being in such a well traveled position right out the front door. As it turns out, at 10:35AM another earthquake had hit. This was separate quake, not an aftershock, and was bigger and closer than the first. It was still in the ocean off the northeast coast, but this one registered 5.0 in Taipei. I was either driving across an elevated expressway or forging my way down Jinshan road in Taipei at the time and didn’t notice it at all.
It wouldn’t be surprising if we have more, but none have happened yet. Last I heard the subways were closed for inspection until they are sure there was no damage.
Meanwhile, the southern part of Taiwan has been shut down due to torrential rain. Airports closed due to the weather, highways closed due to mudslides and it’s heading this way and expected to hit Taipei hard. So far, it’s only been a light rain, but the sky is ominous. It’s been a good day to stay indoors and write my logs.
We may have to change our travel plans for next week to the central part of Taiwan. The rains and the quakes make the central mountains a bad place to go. We may end up going back to Kenting on the southern tip of the island for some more ocean fun before the college kids get out for the summer.
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