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Monday, August 28, 2006

Taipei - the Pyongyang of Taiwan 台湾のピョンヤン

We made our first overnight trip with Amber this weekend, and what better place to choose as her first destination than the capital of this island, Taipei (Taibei たいほく 台北). It may be the largest city, and the seat of government, but it hardly is representative of life on Formosa. Unlike Osaka and Nagoya in relation to Tokyo, Taiwan's number two and three cities, Kaohsiung (Gaosyong たかお 高雄) and Taichung (Taijhong たいちゅう 台中) bear little similarity to Taipei. I've always considered Taipei to be Taiwan's version of Pyongyang. Just as the latter has long been North Korea's "model city", so Taipei represents an image of a modern Taiwan that the powers-that-be want the outside world to see. Here are a few of the things that you can find in Taipei that you won't find anywhere else on this island:

Abundant Western restaurants
Branches of well-known Japanese eateries
Chic stores
Fashionable people
Level sidewalks
Stroller-friendly sidewalks
Enforced traffic regulations
Drivers that wait for pedestrians to cross the road before making their turns

And here are some things not usually seen in Taipei, but that are easily encountered everywhere else:

Stray dogs
Dog shit on the sidewalks
Betel nut juice on the sidewalks
Girls in skimpy outfits selling betel nuts
Taike (台客) and Taimei (台美)

I suspect that most foreigners who come to Taiwan never venture out of Taipei during their stays, so the government works extra-hard to present the image of Taiwan as being a progressive, prosperous Western(izing) country. It wouldn't suprise me if Taipei turns out to be some kind of Potemkin village, with all the boutiques, department stores and restaurants turning out to be just facades, and all the well-dressed people being paid by the government to look like that. And if you think this is all just paranoia, a few years ago the government of neighboring Taoyuan County tried to crack down on the revealing outfits being worn by the betel nut sellers. The rationale wasn't to crack down on unlicensed businesses peddling an addictive cancer-causing substance, the cultivation of which is also causing great harm to Taiwan's environment. No, the government was worried what foreign visitors going by bus from the airport in Taoyuan to Taipei would think.

As for the trip itself...

Amber on the bed in her first hotel, the Hotel Delight. Located conveniently close to the Chungshan (Jhongshan) MRT subway station and costing an Internet special 1800 NT (US $50 or ¥6400), it wasn't bad. However, the room was small and windowless, and Amber uncharacteristically woke up several times during the night crying, so we didn't get much sleep. To top things off, the power went out around 6:15 in the morning, leaving our windowless room pitch black for a couple of hours, not to mention stuffy.

Our first stop on Saturday after checking in was Taipei 101, currently the world's tallest building. We walked from the hotel to Taipei Main Station and Amber had her first train ride on the MRT.

I first visited Taipei 101 before the building was finished. At the time, it really stood out because there was very little in the surrounding area. Now, the area has undergone rapid development, with new department stores and shopping centers having opened up, with more on the way. One new mall was called "New York, New York" and had the first Mister Donut I've seen in Taiwan. It also had the first long line of people waiting to get inside a Mister Donut I've seen anywhere. This Mister Donut, however, didn't have my favorites. No Honey Dips, no Custard Creams. On the other hand, next door there was an underwear promotion event featuring three dancers. So here are my first photographs of what the Taiwanese call "La mei" or "Spicy girls":


Amber proved to be a great hit. The entire time we were in Taipei people would stop to look at her in her stroller, and comment on how cute she was. Amber has picked up on this very quickly, and now she always smiles when she hears someone say "Hao Keai!" This McDonald's employee gave Amber a free balloon with quickly became her favorite plaything

Oh yeah, Taipei 101. The view from the top is incredible, as you would expect, though our Saturday wasn't the clearest of days.


We also visited the outdoor observatory. We ended up staying there long enough to see the night view as well. Unfortunately, my camera doesn't take very good night shots, which is just as well. Because of the large number of low-rise apartment buildings in Taipei, especially in the vicinity of Taipei 101 itself, there aren't as many lights to see at night as you might expect from a city of 2.64 million people. If you have to choose between day and night, pick a very clear day to go.

On Sunday (today as I write this) we checked out of our hotel (after the power returned) and tried to drive to the Shihlin Official Residence (しりんかんてい 士林官邸), Chiang Kai-shek's former estate. Tried to, as there were no empty parking places anywhere near the grounds. We ended up backtracking to Taipei's soccer stadium, where we parked the car and then hopped on the MRT a couple of stops to Shihlin Station, from where we walked. At the station, we paid special attention to the wind

Chiang certainly lived well. The Shihlin Official Residence contains a number of well-maintained gardens, and admission is free. I imagine Chiang spent a lot of time here thinking about which dissident to lock up next on Green Island, Taiwan's version of Siberia, politically-speaking. Amber was in a good mood

Pamela and I swear we can make out a face in this picture, the altar of what is called the "Victory Chapel"

Chiang's former home, however, appeared to be barred to the public

After lunch, the weather turned nasty. With thunder and lightning all around, Pamela smartly decided to return to the car with Amber and wait things out. I, on the other hand, paid visits to the Confucius Temple (こうしびょう 孔子廟)and Baoan Temple, where one bolt of lighting struck something uncomfortably close by.

We finally said goodbye to Taipei in the late afternoon

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