Friday, April 30, 2010

Taiwan Day 1: Taipei

After getting to bed at around 11:30, I promptly woke up at 2 or 3 in the morning and could not get back to sleep. My wife was awake by 4 am. If I had have know this then I wouldn't have ordered tickets for the high speed rail at 7am. I would have ordered them for the first train at 6 am.

We started the morning with our first cab ride to the train station. $6 and it was a nice pleasant ride (no one is awake at 6 am). At the train station we picked up our tickets and then found something to eat. I think both my wife and I were determined not to eat at any “American” restaurants until the end of our trip. We picked MOS Burger. This is where I run into my first problem. I speak Chinese decently. I can even read about 1200 of the most common characters which gives me about a 60% comprehension of a newspaper. Unfortunately, menus are primarily made up of food terms which a lot of are among the next 1800 common words. So we ordered based on the pictures.

The high speed rail system in Taiwan is privately owned, privately operated train system that runs the length of the island. The trains travel up to 360 km/hr, although while we were riding it I never saw them post a speed above 295 km/hr (they post the current speed on the message board). To me though, the high speed rail is a trophy for capitalism. My friend had told me that two weeks before, an earthquake had struck Kaohsiung and the high speed rail was shut down for a week because of track damage. One week! Had this been a government operations, it would have been shut down for 6 months, the maximum speed reduced to 150 km/hr for “safety,” and the price of tickets would double. However, being a private corporation, they had every incentive (read profits) to get it back up and running (at normal speeds) as quickly as possible.

The hour and a half journey was a great view of the Taiwan countryside. Rice fields, fruit groves, interspersed among the temples, factories, and homes. We saw plains, hills, mountains, and forests all within the short trip. At Taipei, it was time to figure out how to ride the subway station. We could have just taken a cab, but that would start to get expensive. Fortunately, the subway was similar to every other subway I have ridden with regards to buying tickets and getting on board the correct line. We even got off at the right stop and walked up to the streets of Taipei.

Our first destination was the LDS Temple in Taipei. It was about a half mile walk down AiGuo Rd. from the subway station. This street is called wedding row in Taipei because the street is literally lined with wedding shops. We were later to learn that a wedding party/reception/extravaganza was a far bigger event than we had ever imagined. After wedding row, the street turned into small mom and pop fast food shops. Also, the motorscooters were out in force.

Motorscooters are the major mode of transportation in Taiwan. The rules of the road are a lot more flexible. Surprisingly, I never saw an accident (although I saw plenty of evidence of accidents from the scratched taxis and dented car doors). To put it in perspective, in the United States we rely on the rules of the road to keep us safe (most everyone uses their blinkers, the maintain distance and don't go weaving in and around traffic). In Taiwan, you rely on your driving skills and instincts to keep safe. You have to be aware of what a dozen vehicles around you are doing and be prepared to react in an instant as conditions change. Don't think about crossing the street except at the crosswalk when you have a green light, because you don't know what may be coming around the corner.

At the Taipei temple I learned something about clothes. For the worship service we change into all white clothes. I told the lady at the desk my pants size and she looked at me funny. They didn't have that exact size but she suggested something which to me was 5 sizes larger. I opted for the next closest size to what I thought was correct, which was only two sizes larger, I figured I could roll up the legs if I had too. In the dressing room I found out I was wrong. There was no way those pants would fit they were far too short. As I was taking them back to the desk it dawned on me that perhaps they measure the total length of the pants rather than just the inseam. Sure enough, that was the case in Taiwan. So I ended up with a pair of pants that I originally thought would be 6 sizes too long, but turned out to be just right.

Afterwards, we went across the street and ate at one of the Mom & Pop shops. The owner cajoled us with "Foreign Friends, come on eat here!" So we did. For around $2 we had a meal of soup and dumplings (my wife's favorite). We then walked across the street to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial. Sort of the Lincoln Memorial for Taiwan, except that the size and grandeur of it far outdid every American memorial I have visited.

Next it was time for a subway ride up to the National Palace Museum. While many people would think that Beijing would be the place to go to see ancient Chinese art, they would be wrong. Taipei is the place to go. Back during the Chinese civil war, the Nationalists moved the vast majority of the art from the Palace Museum in Beijing to Taiwan. Probably for good reason since the Communists later purged the country during the cultural revolution. The museum boasts more than 600,000 pieces of which only about 60-70 thousand are on display at one time. The most disappointing part was not being able to take photographs. I understand the ban on photography back when there was only flash photography and preservationists were worried about the effect that the flash would have on old works. But the days of celluloid photography (i.e. film) are over. I can take hundreds of pictures with a digital camera (all without the flash) varying the setting each time until I get the perfect photo. And the effect on the work of art will be no different than if I had have just stood there looking at it.

Anyway, the people watching might actually have been more fun. Since Taiwan has the largest (and best) collection of Chinese art, a lot of mainland Chinese come to see it. Now there are some factors to bear in mind. China has a billion plus people. They have cities that make NY look small, the population density in the cities is extremely high. So people are used to being crowded, bumped into, and pushed out of the way. Additionally, the people from mainland China only have a limited time to visit the museum (talking with some tour groups, about one day) and may never get back to the museum again in their lifetime. Imagine trying to see everything in the Smithsonian in one day.

So, while my wife and I are relative ignoramouses when it comes to Chinese art, we were just there to see it, the people whose ancestors made this art were overbearing in some instances. While we may slowly walk along a display case, reading about each piece shown, a tour group would come up to look at one piece (which probably had a lot of significance to them). They had no problem pushing us out of the way, or just enveloping us (with no chance of excape). After about an hour, we decided what we would look at by going to things where there weren't tour groups.

Its interesting, whenever you see Hollywood depict people in a museum, they show people taking their time and enjoying each work of art. I wonder if Chinese films that depict people in a museum show a cacophony of tour groups running from one exhibit to another, pushing people out of the way for a better look. Pushing people out of the way isn't rude, it is just normal life for them.

After the museum closed at 5:00pm, we took some pictures outside and then walked over to the Silk Palace restaurant next to the museum. They had all you can eat Dim Sum. Dim Sum is a Cantonese cuisine, but I chose it so that my wife could try a multitude of new dishes (her Chinese food sampling in life had been somewhat limited). Then it was a cab ride back to the subway station and a subway ride back to the train station, and we made it to the train with about 10 minutes to spare. I slept on the train all the way back to Kaohsiung (too bad it was only 1 1/2 hours). We were in our hotel by midnight, and went to sleep.

Well, sort of again. The beds in Taiwan are hard, think of it as a board with a 1/4" foam pad on it. So my wife and I were piling pillows under our bodies to try and get a restful sleep. It works OK until you roll over. I was wide awake at 2 am.

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