Lone Locust Travel Adventures  

An American Pizzahound in Taiwan

Introduction
Day Zero
Day One
Day Two
Day Three
Day Four
Day Five
Day Six
Day Seven
Day Eight
Day Nine
Day Ten
Day Eleven

My adventure began when I decided to take a vacation to the Republic of China on Taiwan with my girlfriend, Chu-Wan.

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 1940’s. 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 1970’s the U.S. government formally transferred recognition of China’s government to the People’s Republic in Beijing, leaving the R.O.C. as a non-government in the US’s 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 days.

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 wouldn’t need any shots.

As my departure date loomed near, that sudden grip of paranoia that says, "You’re missing something important. They’re 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 Control’s 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 containing DEET.

Well, it’s nice to have a professional opinion, and it only cost me $175. At least that included the shots.

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 wasn’t very good. I hoped this wasn’t going to be an indication of what was to come – we had only traveled a few hundred miles towards Taiwan and already I wasn’t enjoying my meals.

Day 1: Thursday, May 14, 1998

Destination: Taiwan

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 we’d waited about 45 minutes the pilot announced over the intercom that "(They’d) 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 it’s 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 weren’t 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 wait.

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 Immigration.

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 Taiwan’s 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 later.

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 well received.

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

Exploration: Taipei

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 I’ve 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. It’s 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 aren’t just driving on the sidewalk. What a harrowing experience!

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 isn’t 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 after ordering.

"So, you don't actually know what I'm getting?"

"I’m not sure what the characters for pepperoni are. Think of it as an adventure!"

"I don't want adventure, I want a pepperoni pizza!"

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 don’t have toilet paper in the restrooms?" I’ll leave this answer for your imagination, but I will provide one bit of practical advice: If you’re walking along a street and a girl tries to hand you a packet of tissue paper with advertising on it… TAKE IT.

Day 4: Sunday, May 17, 1998

Yangmingshan

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 wasn’t 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 whimper.

Day 5: Monday, May 18, 1998

Taroko Gorge

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 highway.

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 wasn’t worried when our bus was next to the mountain. When our bus was next to the 1,000ft precipice, it wasn’t 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 didn't help).

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 wouldn’t 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 mountains.

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 it.

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 McDonald’s, 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 "…a little town".

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 dog instead.

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 "…pork 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, you’re 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 wasn’t being unfriendly, I just didn’t 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

Taipei

Tuesday was a relaxed day, with no specific itinerary. When I awoke, the fever was gone, for which I was very grateful.

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 Fried Chicken.

She said, "It's like Kentucky Fried Chicken, only better."

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 wasn’t 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. It’s 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. It’s 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 night’s sleep was all I had in mind!

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 another!

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 up.

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 wasn’t 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."

"Snakes?"

"Yes, snakes"

"I thought you said there weren't snakes in Taiwan?"

"Yes, we have snakes"

"Poisonous ones?"

"Yes"

Later, I studied the poisonous snakes of Taiwan, which include Venomous Bamboo Snakes, 100 Pacers (you won’t live 100 paces if one bites you), Banded Kraits, the Taiwan Habu, Russell’s Viper, the Coral Snake, Oshima’s Habu, the Chinese Mountain Pit Viper and even the Cobra. We won’t 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 McDonald’s in Chiayi, this time I tried a special "local" food item: Spicy Fried Chicken. Wow! It was terrific! If only McDonald’s would import it here!

Day 10: Saturday May 23, 1998

Taipei

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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 model! Incredible!

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 hits.

For lunch we stopped at Ruby Tuesday’s, another American chain restaurant. The hostess greeted us in English by saying, "Two persons for seating?"

She seemed very relieved when Chu-wan responded in Chinese.

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 didn’t have the steak sandwich.

"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 wasn’t the steak or burger they didn’t 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-Wan’s 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 couldn’t understand them, but mostly because I wasn’t sure if I could make myself understood.

My biggest surprise was that Chu-wan's mom apparently didn't receive presents.

I did.

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 permission first.

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 weekend’s Dragon Boat Festival. Much like a crew-team, Dragon-shaped boats were racing for practice.

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 connecting flight.



















The online video of this story can also be see here.