First experience of driving in Taipei. Stopping at red traffic signals is apparently optional, as is driving within one lane, driving on the same side of the road as everyone else, etc. Thousands of people zoom around on glorified hairdryers, I suspect their life expectancy is measured in weeks and not years. Still shaking too much to write anything more at the moment!
Day Nine to Eleven - Taipei
Taipei is chaos! Even though in Japan the crazy kids are everywhere, at least
they are restricted to amusement arcades and parks. In Taipei they all have
scooters, and bomb around the streets without a care in the world. And certainly
no concern for their own safety. And in a similar way to the Tokyo fish market,
pedestrians are the lowest form of life. A simple task of crossing the road
can turn into a white-knuckle adventure. And as if that isn't bad enough,
required - by law - to park on the pavement, which of course means they are forced to drive on the pavement. And scooters aren't restricted to just spotty teenagers. Fat middle-aged businessmen, mothers carrying their children, entire families, grannies and grandpas. Practically everyone in the city who is tired of living spends their time zooming around on these deathtraps. Our host for the week, Josh, says that he can't think of any of his scooter-riding friends that has NOT had an accident on one.
Getting from one place to another in Taipei, especially if you don't read squiggly Chinese characters, leaves a lot to chance. But as long as you allow around 4 hours for a 30 minute journey, and as long as you don't mind ending up in a completely different place to where you wanted to go, everything is fine. And just when you think that things aren't that bad after all, you realise that there are multiple English versions for each set of Chinese characters. So the sign on a train station platform will say one thing, the electronic 'scoreboard' on the train will say another thing (with a few 'x' and 'z' thrown in), and the guide book will have a third version. So each trip you end up getting off the bus/train and getting a taxi anyway. I think it's an eleborate scam thought up by the taxi companies!
By far the best pastime in Taipei is eating. If something either moves or
grows then it gets eaten. And there are many different methods of preparing
food. A Taiwanese favourite is called the 'Hot Pot'. Basically you sit at
a table with a large pot of boiling water in the middle of it, throw stuff
in it to boil the life out of it, then eat it. The Korean version is slightly
different in that you sit at a table with a large grill in the middle of it,
throw stuff in to burn the life out of it, then eat it. Or a more poncey version
is to point at the food you want as you enter the restaurant, then by the
time you sit down it's ready to eat. It's quite interesting on the way out
to see the remaining lobsters in the tank looking for their friend who was
unceremoniously plucked out of there an hour earlier. And I wonder if it was
a coincidence that we
ordered grilled tongue, and the waiter who greeted us with a heart 'Hello' when we came in only nodded with a closed mouth when we left?
And when you're eating, of course you need to drink. After $10 Guinness in Japan this was quite a worry, but I soon discovered $20 bottles of the local brew called, outrageously, 'Taiwan Beer'. The good news is that they are big bottles, and the better news is that they are priced in Taiwanese dollars (about 35 to the real dollar). So although it tastes like cheap lager that has been sitting in a pub drip-tray for a week, at least it doesn't cost very much!
About an hour outside the city is the equivalent (according to the local
tourist guide) of Disneyland. Getting there involves taking a bus (followed
of course by then getting off the bus and getting on one going in the right
direction!), then a train (after being chastised for eating food in the station!),
then another bus (driven by a mad bus driver swerving through hordes of scooter
riders on winding mountain roads), then a walk through the gauntlet of locals
trying to sell you cheap tat at vastly inflated prices, then a 'mini-train'
(driven by a mad train driverand passing bodies of other tourists who didn't
hang on tight enough!), then another gauntlet of tat, then a cable car to
the top of a waterfall. And THEN you are at the Taiwanese equivalent of Disneyland.
Except it's just like a local funfair, but without most of the rides and of
course without loads of thieving piket rob-dogs. A 5 minute wander around
completed your in-depth tour of Taipei Disneyland, then it's a simple case
of cable car, gauntley, mad train, gauntlet, bus, train and bus to get back
There were some kind words from a youngster to an old man earlier today. Kalita, John & Terry's 3 year-old daughter (who calls me 'Uncle Walrus' because 'Warwick' is difficult to say!) asked me "Are you Sharon's father?" Needless to say, this comment has made my life a total misery ever since. Unbelievable!To cheer me up, I did make a discovery today. On most street corners there are places that sell something called 'Beetle Nut'. Apparently this is something similar to chewing tobacco, and must be what most taxi drivers are munching on when they speak to us with what looks like a mouthful of maggots and bleeding gums. I have no intention of trying this stuff, but the great thing about it
is that the booths selling it are staffed by scantily-clad hot young women. In the interests of experiencing other cultures, I try to slow down every time I pass one!
Days 12 to 13 - Taroko Gorge, Taiwan
About halfway down the island (a three hour train journey) is Taroko Gorge, which is probably the number one tourist attraction in Taiwan. Except for the Beetle Nut girls, obviously! It is a national park similar to Yosemite, with lots of cool mountains, rivers, caves, hikes, etc. It also has natural hot springs where you can strip off to your speedos (Taiwanese men) or frilly pink tutu-style outfit with matching frilly cap (Taiwanese women) - neither particularly fetching! - and sit by the side of the river while hot water bubbles up from the rocks beside you.
But seeing the sights is only part of the fun - getting there is way more exciting! The nearest railway station is around an hour away from the gorge itself, and the only way to get there (except for an extortionate taxi ride) is by ... scooter! The whole area around the train station is filled with scooter rental places and locals pulling you along to get you to rent theirs. After a quick 'too young to die' conversation we decided to go for it, with Josh and Sharon on one scooter (Josh is used to these things so he was okay) and me left to fend for myself. After putting what looked (and smelled!) like an old potty on my head to use as a helmet, I got on my bike. Five minutes later I worked out how to start it (turn a key, push it in, pull the brake then press another button - simple!) and we were ready to go. I steeled myself to venture out into the traffic, then ... vroom, vroom, vroom! Now, this vrooming would have been far more impressive, and effective, if I had taken the bike off it's kickstand first! The face of the man who had rented us the scooters then listened to us reassure him that we knew what we were doing (his own stupid fault for believing us!), and whose hair was now blowing in the breeze created by my back wheel spinning in mid-air at a million miles an hour was a real picture!
There are a few important 'Rules of the Road' for driving in Taiwan:
1. Never look behind you. Ever! This is seen to be a sign of weakness.
2. When pulling into traffic, never look to see if there is anything coming, just go.
3. When turning left, go into any lane you want to, The right lane is fine
4. When turning right, go into any lane you want to, The left lane is fine
5. When going straight on, try to get either on the left hand side of somebody turning left, or the right hand side of somebody turning right. Change lanes every 50 yards to help achieve this.
6. Traffic lights are there to brighten up the road and serve no other purpose
7. Not tooting your horn every 5 seconds is an offence punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment
8. Turn signals may cause problems for epileptics and should not be used.
9. At night, do not switch your lights on
10. Pray. A lot!
Although traffic is light in the mountains, this is made up for by the number of tour buses. They roar up behind you, swerve out to overtake giving you half an inch of space, then cut back in right in front of you, depositing a lungful of diesel fumes as they go by. And while car can only take out two, maybe three scooters at a time, a tour bus can mow down 20 without even slowing down.
We decided to forego the posh hotel and went for the $10 per night Catholic Hostel. Once again our lack of Chinese let us down, or we would surely have been able to read a sign that said "our beds are the hardest in the world, and our pillows are concrete blocks with a pillowcase around them"! Got back to Taipei to be greeted by Kalita telling me that my head is "all bumpy, just like a lizard". Nice!
Day Fourteen - Taipei
According to the increasingly unreliable guide book, Snake Alley is a bustling night market where you can see snake charmers, eat snake-on-a-stick, and drink snake bile to improve your libido. Well, we did pass a couple of stores with snakes in cages but everything seemed pretty run down. The one place that did seem interesting had a snake in one cage and a small rabbit in the cage next to it, but the bloke said that is wasn't going to be fed today. Boo! The most interest among the locals was a stall selling teapots! Oh well, at least I can say I have been to Teapot Alley in Taipei! And if anyone wants to know where to buy a flying mouse, just let me know.
And the moment you've all been waiting for - the final scores for Taiwan:
Beer: 8/10. After Japan, bliss.
Food: 7/10. Very nice, and lots of it.
Chances of staying alive: 2/10. Don't cross the road. Or stay on the pavement!
Getting around: 3/10. Horrible, but always a taxi there to bail you out.
Things to do: 5/10. Not much in the city, but great national parks.
People: 5/10. Friendly enough, but nobody speaks English.
Weather: 5/10. Got to show off my legs a few times.
Taxi drivers: 2/10. Too pushy. And lose the maggots!
Disneyland: 1/10. Pah!
Beetle Nut Girls: 10/10. Hubba, hubba, hubba!
Beer and girls definitely making a large contribution to Taiwan's score!