My adventure began when I decided to take a
vacation to the Republic of China on Taiwan with my girlfriend,
Prior to my journey, I tried to make all the
necessary preparations that any would-be international traveler
would need. For example, I used the Internet to check out information
about obtaining a US Passport and information about the country,
visas and any pertinent travelers information.
The R.O.C., or Taiwan as it is more commonly
called, exists in a unique status. The Nationalist Chinese government
was ousted from mainland China by the Communists in the 1940s.
The Nationalists set up a provisional government on the island
of Taiwan, which is off the eastern coast of the mainland. Both
governments still claim to be the one, true government of all
of China, including Taiwan.
In the 1970s the U.S. government formally
transferred recognition of Chinas government to the Peoples
Republic in Beijing, leaving the R.O.C. as a non-government in
the USs official eyes. As they are not the government of
a country, they cannot maintain foreign embassies in the US,
nor do we have embassies in Taiwan. Both governments maintain "Cultural
Exchange" centers, which act as surrogate embassies. Information
on Taiwan can be found at http://www.taipei.org on
the Internet, and it was there that I first turned for my research.
The US and Taiwan maintain friendly relationships,
so a US citizen with a passport valid for at least 6 months,
can enter Taiwan without a visa or any advance paperwork provided
that they have verifiable plans to leave the country within 14
There are no required immunizations to enter
Taiwan, unless you are travelling from a Yellow Fever infested
area, such as Africa. I was pleased no end to learn I wouldnt
need any shots.
As my departure date loomed near, that sudden
grip of paranoia that says, "Youre missing something important.
Theyre going to turn you away at the gate when you arrive," began
to play havoc in my brain, and so I frantically began looking
for every additional scrap of information I could find.
Only a week before my departure I discovered
a little worry. Although no immunizations are required there
were several that were strongly recommended depending
on your circumstances. I had researched the Center for Disease
Controls web page and concluded that I should get Tetanus
and Polio boosters, and that I should also get protection against
Hepatitis A. As a further precaution the CDC strongly recommended
mosquito and insect repellant containing DEET.
With this information in hand, only two days
before my flight, I found myself in the office of a "travel medicine
specialist." He looked over my itinerary, discussed my vaccination
history, and then printed the information from the Center For
Disease Control concerning Taiwan. His conclusion: I needed to
get my Tetanus and Polio boosters, that I should get some protection
against Hepatitis A. and that I should buy plenty of bug spray
Well, its nice to have a professional
opinion, and it only cost me $175. At least that included the
Satisfied that I had taken every possible precaution,
I prepared for departure.
Day 0: Wednesday, May 13, 1998
Destination: Los Angeles
Chu-wan, and I left Phoenix on May 13th, aboard
an early evening flight to Los Angeles. Our goal: a connecting
flight to Taipei on Singapore Air. The flight departed Phoenix
and arrived in Los Angeles on time. We arrived with plenty of
time to catch our connecting flight, and spent a few hours in
LAX late at night, we grabbed dinner at a Japanese fast food
place inside the International Terminal. The food wasnt
very good. I hoped this wasnt going to be an indication
of what was to come we had only traveled a few hundred
miles towards Taiwan and already I wasnt enjoying my meals.
Day 1: Thursday, May 14, 1998
Destination: The Waiting Lounge
We were scheduled to depart Los Angeles at 1:00AM
on May 14th. The Singapore Air flight boarded on time,
but we sat on the runway for an unusually long time. After wed
waited about 45 minutes the pilot announced over the intercom
that "(Theyd) spotted a fuel leak in number two engine
and were investigating. "
15 minutes later, he announced that "Repairs
are estimated to take two hours, please stay seated and thanks
for your patience."
I think its important to explain about
my seat on the plane, or, as I came to think of it: my cell.
The plane was a 747 Megatop 400 a big plane, to be sure.
There must have been 300 or more people on the flight, but the
seats were not designed for someone of my stature. By the time
the pilot explained that we had a additional two-hour wait on
the runway, I had already decided that the 14 hour flight was
going to be miserable, the three extra hours on the plane were
just icing on gravy.
After two hours, the leak had been repaired,
but a problem remained in the system, and so, the flight was
postponed until 12 noon May 14. Relieved as I was that the pilot
chose to have the plane repaired rather than risk the crossing,
I was also annoyed at the delay. The precious hours of my vacation
were ticking away in California.
Singapore Air arranged ground transportation,
hotel rooms and meals for us. The problem was, there were only
one or two shuttle busses running at 4:00AM, and they werent
very big. We spent nearly 3 hours outside waiting to get on the
shuttles to go to the hotel. It was while trying to get on the
shuttle that I discovered that, unlike the British, Chinese people
do not believe in standing in an orderly queue. Utter chaos ensued
each time the shuttle bus returned as men, women and children
fought to get on the shuttle.
Much the same experience awaited us as we spent
another hour in the hotel lobby trying to check in. Like a scene
from Night of the Living Dead, the passengers from the
plane senselessly, almost instinctively, crowded towards the
front desk, attempting to get at the one, overworked and totally
unprepared graveyard-shirt hotel clerk.
Our free breakfast was an all-you-can-eat breakfast
buffet from 8AM to 9:30 AM, so we had to hurry for our meal.
We couldn't clean up much since our luggage was already stowed
on the plane. Our flight was rescheduled at 12noon, and we knew
it would be a similar nightmare returning to the airport, so
we only had time to catch a shower and about an hour's sleep,
then we made our own way back to the airport.
We arrived back at LAX at around 11:00AM where
we discovered that the flight was further delayed until 1:30PM.
We settled into the airport lounge for an anticipated 2 hour
Day 2: Friday, May 15, 1998
The Flight, the Time Warp and Arrival: Taiwan
The flight finally took off around 2:00PM. For
the next 14 hours I was confined to my cell. I was easily the
tallest person on the plane, and, having a window seat, I was
truly crammed inside the plane.
Taiwan in on the other side of the International
Dateline, so, although as you travel west the time of day creeps
backwards, it finally reaches a point where all of a sudden,
it is tomorrow. Although the filght was only approximately 14
hours in duration, we spent from Thursday at 2:00PM until Friday
at 6:00PM, an apparent flight of 28 hours. It seemed like 40.
I had hit upon the brilliant idea of staying
awake for 36 hours prior to the flight so that I would be able
to sleep most of the flight away. We were planned to arrive at
6:00AM, when I would awake, refreshed and ready to go on my first
day in Taiwan.
The delay in the flight meant that I was awake
an additional 12 hours. I slept through one of my meals on the
plane, but remained awake for the last 10 hours of the flight.
Somehow my sleep plan had gone horrible awry.
Instead of arriving as planned at 6:00AM, we
arrived late at night, and passed smoothly through Customs and
We had been able to inform Chu-wan's parents
about the delay and they were there to meet us. Her father speaks
understandable English, but her mother does not speak any.
We wrestled the luggage into her father's station
wagon and headed off towards Taipei. Their home in Taipei is
about an hour's drive by freeway from the airport. Her father
took to the surface streets for some of the journey, so the drive
took somewhat longer, but I got my first taste of Taiwans
cities. Her father is a perfectly adequate driver, but the traffic
conditions in Taiwan were terrifying! It was only the fact that
it was dark that prevented me from realizing the magnitude of
that observation until the next day. I'll speak more on this
We arrived at her parent's home (which is also
her father's office, Operation De-Handicap) late at night, and
I was shown my room. I had honestly thought she was kidding,
but true to her word, I was to sleep on a board instead of a
mattress. (Hereafter referred to as "The Board") The room was
efficient, clean and, surprisingly, it had a window looking into
her brother's room. Further, the window, which had neither glass
nor screen, had to be left open to allow air circulation. In
addition to air, it also allowed the mosquitoes to circulate
freely. Considering what the CDC had to say about all the indigenous,
mosquito-borne nasties, this was less than comforting.
I thought this was an odd lack of privacy, but
not intolerably so, especially since her brother never seemed
to be in his room. I was further surprised to find out that her
21-year old brother's only means for entering his bedroom was
through his parents bedroom, which he did at all hours
of the night.
Her brother works at Tower Records Taipei, and
likes Metallica, Guns 'n Roses, and the like. If you've ever
seen a Taiwanese person do a Beavis and Butthead imitation, well...
it's pretty funny. Her brother kept pretty odd hours, usually
coming home around 1 or 2, then staying up playing computer games
till sunrise, but not always. At first, I thought he was trying
to avoid walking through his parents room so late at night.
Personally, I would feel uncomfortable having to walk through
my parents room, but apparently this isn't the same kind
of issue with them as it would be with us.
Her mother prepared dinner for us, which was
something very much like beef stew, but served with rice, steamed
cabbage, cooked peanuts and cold chicken. I also gave her parents
the presents I brought them for their hospitality, and they seemed
Since it was late, but we were still internally
on Arizona time, we went walking around the streets of Taipei
and the park across the street from her home. 7-11s and Circle
Ks were welcome reminders of home, as was the Sizzler Steakhouse
down the street.
Taiwan is humid nothing like Arizona!
My hair, which is never very controllable at the best of times,
turned curly and remained totally unmanageable for the entire
trip. No amount of hairspray could contain it. From the moment
I arrived till a few hours after I left, I was never completely
dry. What an odd feeling! No amount of toweling could complete
the job as the water just kept coming back.
Day 3: Saturday, May 16, 1998
My first full day in Taipei was Saturday, and
Chu-wan and I went sightseeing.
Our first stop was a Mongolian BBQ restaurant
for lunch. We stopped at the Kublai Khan restaurant, where for
only $NT249 (for patrons over 140cm tall) you can have a delicious
all-you-can-eat meal. The Mongolian BBQ was not like any Ive
ever had in the states the meat and vegetables were fresh,
the selection much more extensive, and you got plenty of exercise
running up and down the stairs, as the eating area and the food
preparation area were on different floors.
After our meal her father drove us to National
Palace Museum. On the drive over, I began to get the feel of
Taiwan traffic. Its insane. There is only one traffic law
(as you and I in the US would understand it): Stop for red lights.
Otherwise, there is no order, no one pays the slightest attention
to the lines painted on the roads. (Why did they bother?) Unsafe
Lane changes? Ha! The cars spend the whole time weaving in and
out of loosely defined lanes. If there are three lanes painted
on the road, traffic flows in 4 or 5 self-made lanes. Left and
right turns are made at full speed from any lane you want, and
if that means pulling in front of a car going straight ahead
or coming straight on, that's ok too, they'll slow down, or dodge.
The same is true with pedestrians and scooters. There are lots of
scooters in Taiwan!
Pedestrians be warned: The auto traffic would
drive over the curbs if they hadn't placed concrete and metal
barriers on all the corners! As it is, the scooters do that anyway,
when they arent just driving on the sidewalk. What a harrowing
Traffic notwithstanding, we arrived safely at
the National Palace Museum. The collection of art treasures is
impressive! The museum houses the Imperial Art Collection, which
was collected over the last thousand years and contains Chinese
art dating back over 5,000 years. There were lots of interesting
exhibits, but we really didn't have time to cover the whole place
thoroughly, and, of course, you cannot take pictures. The museum
itself can only exhibit a small fraction of the nearly 700,000
pieces of art in its vaults, so the exhibits are changed regularly.
I must admit, by this time, I was already taking
comfort in "hanging" with the guided tours for the Japanese tourists.
At least I could understand the occasional "kore wa...
desu." or "so
desu ne", whereas the Chinese language all around me was
overwhelmingly foreign. (Mandarin, incidentally, doesn't really
sound like Cantonese, which is all I'd been exposed to through
Hong Kong movies.)
After the museum, we went through the magnificent
gardens comprising the museum grounds, then caught a bus back
into town where we ate at Roundtable Pizza! Curiously, Roundtable
is combined with Swenson's Ice Cream in Taiwan.
The simple fact that there was a Roundtable
Pizza in Taiwan was miracle enough for me!
The second most common question I get asked
about Taiwan is: "Does pizza taste the same there?"
The answer is: "No, it isnt the same." Nevertheless
it was still good. Apparently, pepperoni isn't the number 1 choice
of pizza toppings in Taiwan. (Sausage pizza lovers, give up hope!)
They had several standard "combination pizzas" but didn't have "Montague's
All-Meat Marvel" which I figured would have a picture on the
menu and I could just order by pointing. Instead, popular combinations
se|°Ëó to involve corn and peas. Once I had realized that crushing
blow to my international communication skills, I asked Chu-Wan
to order a pepperoni pizza for me.
"I think I got that ordered right", she said
"So, you don't actually know what I'm getting?"
"Im not sure what the characters for pepperoni
are. Think of it as an adventure!"
"I don't want adventure, I want a pepperoni
I was beginning to feel pretty rundown by this
point, so the arrival of the pizza (pepperoni) and Coca Cola
(there's no Dr. Pepper in Taiwan!) was most welcome.
We were near a Night Market, so afterwards we
made our way through it. Incredible! Take every swap meet in
Arizona, cram it into one square block of small space, pack the
entire population of Rhode Island into that block, light it up
with the collective light bulbs from Las Vegas and you have a
Night Market. It was wall to wall people and I towered over everyone.
By the time I left Taiwan, I concluded that
I was the tallest person on the entire island, including any
foreign visitors - certainly, I hit my head on enough doorways,
trains and buses. Despite my size "advantage" it was slow, slow
moving. My back was killing me and I had a headache, so we gave
up before completing the entire market. We headed home by bus
and I conked out once we returned home.
Incidentally, the question I get asked most often
about Taiwan is: "Is it true they dont have toilet paper
in the restrooms?" Ill leave this answer for your imagination,
but I will provide one bit of practical advice: If youre
walking along a street and a girl tries to hand you a packet
of tissue paper with advertising on it
Day 4: Sunday, May 17, 1998
Sunday morning I awoke with a fever. Apparently,
the shots and the 48 hours of being awake and hungry because
of the plane delay caught up with me. After some mercy administering,
I began to feel better. (The headache passed, at least.) Three
of Chu-wan's college classmates showed up: Nora, Judy and Min-Min.
Nora had a car so we drove to Yangmingshan National Park, which
is north of Taipei.
Yangmingshan is the nearest National Park to
Taipei and is a popular (and crowded) getaway place for the city
residents. Formerly an area of active volcanoes, the park still
spouts fumeroles and hot springs.
This was my first excursion into the countryside
of Taiwan and I began to see some of the beauty of Taiwan, which
had so far, frankly, been lost on me.
For a long time, Taiwan was known in the US
as Formosa, which is Portuguese for "Beautiful". Its full name
was Isla Formosa or "Beautiful Island", and it truly is
a lovely, natural setting. "Steep and mountainous" doesn't do
justice to the description of the hills and countryside. Constantly
wet with tropical, semi-tropical and temperate zones, the island
is lush and green everywhere.
As we traveled around Yangmingshan my fever
returned, as did my headache with a vengeance.
Chu-wan and her friends were catching up on
each other's lives... in Chinese, so I was able to sit back and
soak up the scenery, even if I wasnt feeling in the best
of sorts. Near, or perhaps in, the park, are flower orchards.
We parked and looked through the fields. One shop had small cacti
for sale as some form of exotic plant a small reminder
of home in an alien landscape. Afterwards we walked to a small
tin shack where the girls had bamboo shoot soup.
Since I was not feeling well, bamboo shoot soup
sounded like another phrase for "boiled wood" to me, and so I
abstained. A storm came blowing through with incredible speed,
and we headed back to the car and down the mountain. When we
returned, I passed out from the fever and ended my day with a
Day 5: Monday, May 18, 1998
On Monday, Chu-wan and I boarded a train for
Hualien, a small town halfway down the eastern coast. We arrived
and immediately caught a tour bus running up the East-West coast
The East-West coast highway is an engineering
marvel. It was chipped out of the three thousand-foot shear cliffs
by hand over many years.
Despite the fact that this road has an infinite
amount of tunnels and terrifying overhangs, and would only be
considered a one-lane road in the US, our tour bus ploughed along
at a dizzying rate. More amazingly, it managed to pass other
tour busses going the opposite way! Sometimes we had to stop
and move at a crawl to allow another bus to pass with the two
busses being only an inch or so apart. I wasnt worried
when our bus was next to the mountain. When our bus was next
to the 1,000ft precipice, it wasnt very re-assuring. At
one point, I was trying to estimate if I could leap out the window
and catch hold of the other bus before ours went tumbling to
its destruction on the rocks below.
The road winds its way through Taroko Gorge,
a breathtaking sight!
Roughly at the top of the gorge, we stopped
at a small town and visitor center. Our original plan was to
walk down a 7km trail and catch a bus heading back to Hualien,
but, true to form, it was raining and my fever wasn't any better.
If anything, I was feeling more run down. (Not eating on Sunday
Now, my only thought was "French Fries. I need
French Fries!" But no such food venue was available to me. This
is not to say that food was not available. Even in a town whose
population I estimated to be 15-20 people, there were two restaurants.
Perhaps "restaurant" is an exaggeration. "Food stall" is a more
accurate term. The stalls served authentic home-style Chinese
food, that is, some boiled cabbage and stuff with rice. I had
a bowl of rice, but when the cockroach crawled up onto the table
to join us, I decided I was done with my meal. He looked so tame
and well fed, I assumed he worked for the restaurant as the bus
boy and was politely waiting his turn at my food.
Despite my frail condition, I managed to cross
the rope suspension bridge and climb up the hill to the Buddhist
monastery, where we had an amazing view of the gorge.
It was here that I got my first experience with
a "Squat Style" toilet. After using it, I sincerely hoped I wouldnt
have the privilege again. They are the toilets from hell. They
are not suitable for someone 6'4" and I vowed never to go to
the bathroom again while in Taiwan. (OK, I vowed, but I didn't
succeed. Please remember, I was feverish at the time.)
Did I mention I wasn't sleeping well on The
Board? Certainly, lack of sleep wasn't helping my condition any.
There was a lovely new hotel, the Formosan, at the top of the
gorge and I ever so much wanted to take a room there and spend
the night on a real, comfy bed. Instead we spent a couple hours
sipping tea and watching the clouds pass across the face of the
Starving and craving French Fries, my salvation
came in a can of Pringles Potato Crisps for sale in the visitor
center gift shop. I don't think I would have survived without
From this point forward I learned to carry snacks
with me whenever we went outside of Taipei.
The trip down the mountain, now in a pouring
rain, was no less harrowing, but as we came into Hualien, I saw
a vision. There, among the incomprehensible Chinese signs were
the Golden Arches of McDonald's. "French Fries!" I shouted, rather
incoherently to Chu-wan. I was going to get French Fries!!!
Neither of us being familiar with Hualien, we
tried to memorize the path from the McDonald's to the train station,
but the driver took an incredibly circuitous route presumably
in a sadistic attempt to thwart my dreams. Successful in his
diabolical plot, we quickly lost the McDonald's.
Then suddenly, another vision appeared another
McDonalds, but we lost it too, and then another, also soon
lost. This cruel game continued until we finally arrived at the
railway station. Maddeningly we had passed and lost no less than
6 McDonald's in that town... which I had been assured was just "
We never got to the McDonald's. By the time
we made it to the train station, we didn't have enough time to
go walking far, so we stopped at a nearby 7-11 and bought a hot
7-11 Hot Dogs do not taste the same in
Taiwan as they do in the U.S. I did not want to explore the contents
of the dog. Chu-wan assured me it was just an ordinary "
hot dog with onions in it." (Pork hot dog? Ordinary? With onions?)
While walking through the streets of Hualien,
two Mormon missionaries rode past us on their bicycles and shouted, "Hey,
youre not Chinese! Hello!"
My mind had already become inured to the sounds
of people talking incomprehensibly to me and they were over a
block down the street before I realized that they had spoken
English to me. Sorry guys, I wasnt being unfriendly, I
just didnt hear you.
The train ride home ended another eventful day,
but not before we stopped at a McDonald's in Taipei and I got
my French Fries. Unlike other American chains that I tried in
Taiwan, McDonald's hamburgers taste the same in Taiwan. More
precisely, that is to say they are exactly as awful as they are
here, but by that point, I didn't care. The fries were great.
Day 6: Tuesday, May 19, 1998
Tuesday was a relaxed day, with no specific
itinerary. When I awoke, the fever was gone, for which I was
We went around Taipei by bus to various stores
and restaurants. I picked up a Mah Jong game set at a Mah Jong
store. At the distinctive Eslite Bookseller I purchased a book
on Mah Jong, including instructions (in English), some Chinese/English
dictionaries and a couple of gifts.
The Eslite Bookseller is an interesting bookstore,
similar to Borders or Barnes & Noble back home. It contains
a large selection of books in Chinese, English and Japanese,
plus a coffee and gift shop. Eslite, unlike the other cramped
and utilitarian bookstores in Taiwan, was open and distinctive a
considerable departure from the others.
I was very disappointed though, I could find
no Japanese Ultraman books, but often saw an Ultraman sticker
on the front of scooters. The sticker was a great pose of Ultraman
firing his beam weapon forward appropriate indeed for
the traffic conditions of Taipei!
I had seen several Kentucky Fried Chicken shops
in Taipei and decided I needed good old-fashioned fried chicken
for lunch. Instead of KFC, Chu-wan took me to TKK International
She said, "It's like Kentucky Fried Chicken,
Well, her definition of "better" turns out to
be fried chicken without batter, but it was pretty good nonetheless!
The French Fries were another story. They were
made from sweet potatoes. Yams. Yuck. I suspect the expression
on my face was somewhere between comical and horrific as I chomped
into that first "french fry".
Dinner was at Sizzler.
I loved their little picture menus that made
it easy for the illiterate foreign traveler to order a meal.
I just pointed at the picture on the menu of what I wanted, in
this case, the Sizzler Sirloin Steak, and they responded by telling
me (through my companion interpreter, of course), "Sorry, we
don't sell sirloin steaks anymore."
Well, a ribeye steak and the salad bar made
a good dinner anyway. One odd thing was that the steak tasted...
different. It wasnt bad, just
different. It was as
if the very cow itself had a different underlying genetic structure.
Day 7: Wednesday, May 20, 1998
Up the Forest Railway
Wednesday we caught a train to Chiayi, which
is a bit further south than Hualien, but on the western side
of the island instead. I caught a brief look at the Taiwan Straits
and the East China Sea, but couldn't see the mainland. Its
apparently too far away. Chiayi is a large tropical town with
lots of insects, and a McDonalds, where I discovered that the
McFish Sandwich tastes more "fishy" in Taiwan, and that the Chicken
McNuggets are just as awful as there are in the states.
From Chiayi we took the "world-famous" Forest
Railway, an old, small gauge train built by the Japanese in 1912
that winds it's way up the steep and beautiful mountains from
31 meters at Chiayi to over 2000 meters at the town of Alishan.
I was repeatedly told that the Forest Railway
is world-famous, but have yet to meet a non-Taiwanese person
who has heard of it. Its quite impressive, nonetheless.
The entire journey begins in a tropical rainforest,
and takes you through semi-tropical forests and then finally
into a temperate forest where ancient pines grow.
Shrouded in clouds, the mountains around Alishan
(including Alishan, which is also a mountain) are eerie. The
small clouds crawl across the surface of the mountains like living
creatures. At anytime, these roving amoebae-like monsters might
swallow the ground you stand upon.
We arrived at sundown and were warned to stay
in our hotel room for the night as there are no streetlights
in Alishan and people get lost if they go out.
Go out? What? Were they crazy? I had a hotel
room, with a bed! A full nights sleep was all I had in
The bed was a board.
Luckily, in the closet they had these "Chinese
Blankets" as Chu-Wan called them. Personally, I think they were
futons. Picture sleeping with a futon over you. They weighed
about 25 pounds, were mostly stiff (they had to be rolled up
in the closet) and about 2 inches thick. I slept on one and under
During the night (while I slept) there was a
small earthquake. I complained afterwards to Chu-wan that she
should have woke me up, but by then it was too late.
Day 8: Thursday May 21, 1998
Alishan and Fen Chi Hu
Apparently sunrises are a big deal, because
they organize tour buses just to see the sunrise over Yushan,
a neighboring mountain. So, at 3:40 in the morning Chu-wan and
I were standing outside the hotel waiting for the bus to show
Yushan (Jade Mountain, roughly translated) is
the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. Known as Mt. Morrison
to westerners, the mountain was also known as Nitakayama during
the Japanese occupation. The name refers to the fact that Yushan
is taller than Fujiyama, displacing it (at that time) as the
tallest mountain in the Japanese Empire.
Yushan was popularly believed to be 3,997 meters
(13,190ft), and a 3 meter tall statue stands at the top making
the mountain 4,000 meters tall. In fact, whether due to improvements
in measuring devices or changes due to the earth shifting, Yushan
is really only some 3,950 meters (13,035ft) tall, although, the
3 meter statue does stand at the top of the mountain.
Sunrise was beautiful, and luckily I didn't
yawn at just the wrong moment. I got a number of photos and video
of the whole thing. As soon as the sun rose, the tour guide drove
us back into the bus like cattle, and down we went from our vantage
point, stopping at several scenic spots along the way. On the
way back we could at least see the scenery as the sun had risen.
Once we returned to Alishan, we walked through
the forests and ponds while the clouds created impervious mists
and eerie shadows among the green, soaked forest.
In the afternoon, we caught the forest train
halfway back down the mountain to Fen Chi Hu, a town dependent
on wood carving and the vast lumber resources of the area.
We stayed in a hotel again that night. (This
time with real beds!)
Day 9: Friday, May 22, 1998
Down the Forest Railway
Friday morning we were informed that the roads
were still impassable because of the earthquake two nights before,
so no tour busses were coming up from Chiayi. We had been planning
on taking one of the tour busses around town to see the sights.
Now we were on foot and on our own.
There were three or four potential sights of
interest in the area, but without transporation we were limited
to choosing one. We chose the bat caves, mostly because of the
distance - about a one hour hike.
Down the bamboo forested road we went. Down,
down, down the steep roads until we came to the turnoff. It was
hot and humid and I was giving my Tevas and trail shorts a workout.
Finally, after an hour walking we reached a
trail which continued on after the road ended. Well, it wasnt
so much a trail as a slight indentation in the vegetation, steeply
heading down toward the river. As I stepped toward the overgrown
path, Chu-wan said just one word, "Snakes."
"I thought you said there weren't snakes in
"Yes, we have snakes"
Later, I studied the poisonous snakes of Taiwan,
which include Venomous Bamboo Snakes, 100 Pacers (you wont
live 100 paces if one bites you), Banded Kraits, the Taiwan Habu,
Russells Viper, the Coral Snake, Oshimas Habu, the
Chinese Mountain Pit Viper and even the Cobra. We wont
mention sea snakes, all of which are poisonous.
Without seeing the bat caves, we turned around
and headed back to the hotel. The pleasant one hour downhill
walk became and exhausting two and half hour trek back up the
mountain, till finally we reached the hotel.
The hotel was an interesting place. It was wood not
wood in the common sense of the word, but wood in the everything sense
of the word. Floor, walls, ceiling, ceiling fan, desk, chairs,
bed, bathtub (bathtub? Yep.) were all highly polished wood with
bamboo wood inlays. Only the mattresses and parts of the bathroom
were of conventional origin.
That afternoon, we caught the forest train down
to Chiayi, then caught the regular train back to Taipei, getting
in after 11:00PM.
Once again we stopped in the McDonalds
in Chiayi, this time I tried a special "local" food item: Spicy
Fried Chicken. Wow! It was terrific! If only McDonalds
would import it here!
Day 10: Saturday May 23, 1998
Saturday was both Chu-Wan's mother's and brother's
birthday. I was surprised when, first thing in the morning, her
mother gave me a present. It was rather awkward as I didnt
really understand how to interpret this. The present was a very
nice (and expensive) designer belt from Paris. Unfortunately,
it was too big and we took it back to the Sogo Department store
to exchange it for a smaller one.
What is Sogo, you say? Picture in your mind
a 10-story tall Department Store. It's huge, massive, and Japanese.
It contained all sorts of cool Japanese merchandise exactly
the kind of things I had hoped to find.
First, we took the belt back. Chu-wan explained
the size problem to sales clerk. She looked at us rather oddly.
She put the belt around my waist, popped the buckle off the belt
and cut the leather to size with a pair of scissors. Who knew?
I'm sure she had a laugh with her friends over that one!
There's a Kinokuniya book store inside Sogo
and I knew I was going to have a good day, if perhaps an expensive
one. There was the Ultraman Tiga & Ultraman Dyna book! (Which
I bought.) There were Megaranger and other Ultraman books, but
they were mostly activity books for children and didnt
interest me much. I was stunned when I saw the Ultraman paper
kit. It was a 12 inch tall model of Ultraman to be assembled
out of paper. Not square and blocky, but a rounded, real looking
Next came the toy section. As I peered over
the heads of the crowds, there on a TV screen across the floor,
was Gingaman, the most recent Japanese Sentai series,
playing on a video tape. Next to the screen were 12 inch soft
vinyl Guyferd and Deathferd figures. On the other side was a
large scale Mechagodzilla. (Somewhere in the junk area they also
had the American Godzilla Travesty Toys.)
The video of Gingaman gave way to Ultraman Dyna,
but I wasn't watching. I was staring at the sea of Ultraman figures...
all of them. 29 figures in all, less than $5 each at current
exchange rates. As I calculated my luggage space I realized there
was no chance, then my eye got pulled away by the metal Megaranger
figures ($9 each), and then by the sea of Kamen Riders all
19 of those. Tokusatsu toys as far as the eye could see.
After an hour of so, Chu-Wan dragged me out
of the toy section, we left and went to Tower Records Taipei.
There I found my next quest: Jackie Chan movie soundtracks! Between
Tower and a dozen other CD stores we hit that day I managed to
get Soundtracks to Drunken Master II, Supercop, Mr.
Nice Guy, Who Am I? and Jackie Chan's Greatest Movie
For lunch we stopped at Ruby Tuesdays,
another American chain restaurant. The hostess greeted us in
English by saying, "Two persons for seating?"
She seemed very relieved when Chu-wan responded
We were taken to our table and given menus.
The menus were in English, with Chinese subtitles, as was the
décor of the restaurant. I eyed the sirloin steak, but,
since I was expecting a large dinner, I opted instead for the
steak sandwich. Unfortunately, they didnt have the steak
"Damn", I thought, "they must not have steak
here, either!" So I chose again, this time selecting the cheeseburger.
No luck no cheeseburgers.
Going back for a third try, I chose the steak
pita, fully expecting it not to be available either. To my surprise,
it was, and so that was my lunch.
Again the odd taste of the beef was unnerving,
but combined with an awful yogurt sauce it was next to inedible.
Halfway through my pita, which had the same beef as the steak
sandwich would have had, I realized that it wasnt the steak
or burger they didnt have, it was the buns! I should have
gone for the plain steak instead of the sandwich!
After lunch, we passed a store called "Area
51" which was a collectible toy store featuring American and
Japanese collectible toys, but it was closed that afternoon.
I wanted to hunt more in the shopping district,
but it was time for her mother's birthday dinner.
Dinner was at a hotel. We had a private room
with a large circular table. Chu-Wan's parents were there, plus
Chu-wan's three friends from the previous Sunday's excursion,
and another Mr. and Mrs. Huang and their daughter. Chu-Wan's
father's best friend happens to have exactly the same name as
her father. Chu-Wans brother was not there as he had to
work that evening.
The conversation was a bit awkward, only Chu-Wan
and I were fluent in English so the conversation tended to be
in Chinese all evening. From time to time my hosts or the other
guests would try to make conversation in English with me, but
it was difficult not that I couldnt understand them,
but mostly because I wasnt sure if I could make myself
My biggest surprise was that Chu-wan's mom apparently
didn't receive presents.
The family friends, who I had never met or heard
of before I walked into the room, walked up as Chu-wan and I
entered, introduced themselves, and gave me a present a
very nice porcelain dragon emblem, framed, which now is hanging
on the wall of my living room. Chu-wan's friends also gave me
presents. I was totally lost.
Dinner consisted of having food brought out,
dish after dish and placed on a huge rotating centerpiece, people
pulled items by rotating the center and picking up what they
wanted. When one dish was completed, something new was brought
in to replace it. This went on for over two hours.
The Chinese love to eat!
There was some pretty good food and I thoroughly
enjoyed dinner. Dinner lapsed into conversation in which I would
occasionally be asked to comment on my trip so far. Frankly,
despite the fact that I was enjoying my trip immensely, I don't
think I gave a very compelling version of my story.
The highlight of the evening was (in my opinion)
when I asked Chu-Wan to marry me, and she accepted.
I think everyone else was quite shocked. I may
have stepped on some traditional toes by not asking her parents
After dinner we went to a men's wear place and
had a suit tailored for me, which I picked up Sunday on the way
out of town.
Day 11: Sunday May 24, 1998
Tanshui and Departure: Taiwan
Sunday we caught the Taipei Rapid Transit System
(TRTS) train north to Tanshui which is at the mouth of the Tanshui
river as it spills out into the East China Sea.
A festival was going on which apparently had
something to do with fireflies. We walked up and down the streets
among the crowds eating food and watching people. Teams were
practicing in the river for the next weekends Dragon Boat
Festival. Much like a crew-team, Dragon-shaped boats were racing
The TRTS was impressive. Clearly, a foreign-designed
train of some kind, it really could move quickly, unfortunately,
it stopped so often I don't think it ever got up to full speed.
That evening the Huangs ordered pizza from Pizza
Hut while I packed. Then they drove me to the airport.
My flight home was uneventful but boring, as
Chu-wan remained in Taiwan through the end of June.
We had a good tailwind and the plane made it
in about 45 minutes early on the normally 11-hour flight. Of
course, that just meant 45 more minutes in LAX waiting for the
The online video of this story can also be see here.