Today: Taipei, Taiwan.
What a fantastic way to spend the day, on the hoof in a strange big city in Asia; for my money it just doesn't get any better (well, except for a feeding frenzy of Guangzhou's knock-off shopping).
It was a gray morning that threatened rain (but held off all day) and I left the hotel about 10:30 and had a panini across the street for breakfast before headed out. After the 100+ degree temps in Singapore, I was shocked to step outside to a blustery 55 degrees! I had to go back for a sweatshirt. (It was a reminder of how difficult it is to pack for a trip like this: two weeks beginning with the 15 degrees of Appleton to the 40 degrees of Louisville to the 65 degrees of Ontario to the 80 degrees of Honolulu and Sydney to the 100 humid degrees of Singapore and back down in temps as we head up to Alaska.) The hotel had a tourist map similar to the one I got at Guangzhou, and the concierge had indicated a few points of interest. I had several places in mind to possibly visit--suggestions from the crewmember who wasn't boasting about his attendance at a Tea-Baggers' seance (I thank you all for your pity and sympathy)--but instead opted, as I always do, to just spend the day walking. Nine miles wandering around central Taipei; I can hardly fathom a way to better spend four hours of my life. (The map of today's walk is here. I'm not sure if these links work or if the route is of interest to anyone, but it helps me remember what I saw when the whole two-week trip begins to blur together.)
Taipei has a metropolitan population of about seven million (2.5 million in the city proper) and is the capital city of Taiwan. I confess I'm simply not attuned enough to the cultural nuances of this region to differentiate much between Shanghai and Guangzhou on the one hand and Taipei on the other. It has very much the feel of these two Chinese cities, but without quite the density. It's still a busy, hectic place, but it seems not quite so densely-packed, and the infrastructure seems a trifle more advanced than what I've seen in China (though Guangzhou is frantically at work updating theirs). But as it is, the density makes it hard to get very good photos--at least for my skill level.
A few things stand out. First, this is the land of the scooter. I began taking photos each time I'd see a group of them, thinking I was witnessing something unique. But it became clear very quickly that the scooters are Taipei's primary mode of travel, outnumbering cars by, I'd say, 10 or 20 to one. I naturally wanted to translate my motorcycling experience to this, imagining my Buell in this setting. But I saw not a single motorcycle anything like mine, and there's clearly a wisdom to the widespread public habit--the scooters are really ideal for this usage. They're not terribly expensive (certainly compared to a car), and very cheap to operate. There is little need for speed in a dense city, and they all easily out-accelerate car traffic, even with two (or more!) aboard. They can be parked anywhere, and they are reliable and relatively cheap and easy to repair. I saw countless families going about their business on one, with zillions of husbands and wives together (as we'd see couples in a car in the US), and sometimes with a child to boot (three on a scooter seems, well, other-worldly to an American).
They work their way through traffic, in the manner of scooters everywhere, like sand trickling thru gravel; they trickle through the cars piled up at a traffic light and form a disorderly blob at the front of the line. Then, when the light turns, they shoot away ahead of the cars like debris spraying from a gun barrel. The little open footwell business that differentiates a scooter from a motorcycle (there are relatively few motorcycles compared to the scooters, and I saw no bike above 400cc; most scooters and bikes are in the 125cc range) has a couple advantages. It lets your young child stand upright between your knees where s/he is relatively safe from falling off, and it gives a place to carry the odds and ends that always accompany our daily tasks. I saw zillions of people carrying a bag of groceries or stuff that way--even a couple dogs!--and lots of people carried their soup here.
(Speaking of soup, whatever is the deal with the fetish about chunks of unmentionable in watery chicken tea? I saw a hundred soup kitchens on my walk, and there were always people, young and old, waiting in a line for take-away containers of the stuff. Soup seems to me like vitamin water from the stone age; obviously I'm missing something here.)
There is food everywhere, covering the whole range from expensive exclusive restaurants to big chains to my favorite, the seemingly-impromptu kitchens that popped up as lunchtime neared. Huge steaming kettles of rice and godknowswhat could be seen around corners in alleys and inside doorways or right out on the sidewalks, sitting on hotplates on the ground or over little gas fires. Often around this little improvised setup would be a collection of folding tables and chairs, and there seemed to be no shortage of customers despite the "restaurant" consisting of something so ephemeral that no trace of it would remain after the day was done. Amazing! It would be like my setting up a charcoal grill and a card table underneath a freeway overpass in Appleton, and developing a following for my fabulous cooking--but then not moving into more permanent digs.
Also on the topic of food, my favorite find of the day was a meat market that I just stumbled upon. Walking East from the hotel, I passed a couple really ramshackle-looking buildings that I HAD to try and photograph, and they turned out to be a portal for a pretty large network of covered alleyways between a collection of really decrepit-looking buildings. Looking like something straight out of Blade Runner, the labyrinth, a couple blocks long in several directions, had been covered with trussed-up corrugated metal sheets, and the whole business had become a permanent fixture. These alleys were packed with tiny, makeshift stalls selling mostly meat and fish, stalls which ranged from clean, established restaurants (which seemed utterly incongruous in this slum-like setting) to nothing more elaborate than an old wooden table and a bare light bulb. Most had a collection of much-worn furnishings and running water over a cement floor. I didn't see any actual butchering, but there were live animals right here and VERY fresh looking pieces-parts over here (with lots of scrubbing and running water in between) so that not much imagination was required. I was particularly mesmerized by an older gentleman who was evidently cleaning up after the day's dirty work was done. He was in his 60s, and his stall was so modest and crumbling and ancient that it's hard to see the point in keeping it clean. But there he was, taking care of his facility, such as it was, as he had doubtless done for decades. It's hard to fathom this little booth in this grungiest setting providing a family's living. I took a couple pictures despite pretty low light levels, and vowed to make a return on my next layover.
About 1/3 of the population, and slightly more of the scooter-riding population, wears SARS masks. I can't tell if this is for disease prevention or if it's to keep warm, especially on the scooters. Some of the masks are of disposable paper, but many people have fabric ones that look like a permanent item of clothing. I saw at least a couple women looking in scooter mirrors to see if their hair and eyes looked good and if their mask was straight. Ah, the new fashion.
I find myself snapping the same couple of photographs over and over again: 25 shots of scooters; 20 cityscapes with their cacophony of colored signs and laundry hanging out windows. But I think it's because the senses are overwhelmed in a new place like this and I struggle to capture some essence of that thing, that density and all the smells and sounds and the assault of sights that come with. Like a photograph of the mountains, none of these pictures of mine captures much of anything, but taken as a whole they begin to give an impression.
I came back to the hotel and finished the day with a quick trip to the Taipei 101. Located just across the street from our hotel, the Taipei 101 was the world's tallest building until very recently, and it contains a gigantic high-end shopping mall and a large food court. After spending time in China, I find I'm a bit unmoved by conventional shopping. There seems to be little here or in Singapore or Sydney that I can't conveniently get at home--and indeed, everything I saw here in Taipei was trés expensive. In Guangzhou I'm able to buy things I simply wouldn't see otherwise, and so I find myself eager to shop. But I figured I needed to visit Taipei 101 and see what all the fuss is about. I decided against going up to the observation deck (some 90 floors up) since A.) it was a cloudy day and the top of the building is at or near the cloud deck (ergo, I would likely have seen nothing), and B.) I'm harder than many to impress with height; I get that all the time! But I spent some time wandering around the attached mall, which exists on five or six levels and has to count as among the most expensive retail space on the planet. Much of each floor opens onto a couple central courts, with sky bridges criss-crossing the void, and towering a couple hundred feet above the bottom level (or so it seems) a huge vaulted roof like a 23rd Century cathedral. There are a great number of shops scattered over the levels, mostly of the snootiest watch and jewelry and fashion boutiques.
I bought nothing, of course, and after wandering the very nice food court for 20 minutes felt homesick for some kind of food I could at least identify. I'm sure what was on offer was all of excellent quality, but I'm reminded of the culinary gulf between East and West. I ended up eating--I'm ashamed to say it!--at McDonald's. Big Mac and fries with a scoop of Haagen Dazs to wash it down. I've rarely hated myself so much for enjoying my dinner.
Tomorrow, a short ride on Cathay Pacific to the place in our system I've wanted most to see: Hong Kong.