Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A breath of fresh air

That's, in part, literal, of course - fresh air is hard to come by in Chinese cities. Tibet was nice enough, but Shanghai? Xi'an? Ugh... Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, on the other hand, is actually pleasant. It's still a big city, so it's not actually clean, but there's a lot of parks, a river, with a nice promenade, winds its way through the city, and the air is downright pleasant.

But it goes beyond literal - I was certainly growing tired of China, and I actually found Taiwan really enjoyable. It starts with the people - I'm sure I'm missing all sorts of social nuances and generalizing horribly, but the Chinese people just don't ever seem happy. It's ironic, of course, given their recent respective histories and current world economic standings, but I found the Burmese and the Tibetans to be unfailingly happier than the average Chinese citizen. And just in case you might think it's some sort of an ethnic characteristic, it isn't - the Taiwanese are pretty much the same Han Chinese, ethnically, as the people on the mainland, but, when you meet them, they are far happier, friendlier, willing to help (or wait!). Definitive memory of the people in China: a lady slips and falls to the ground as she's trying to get on a bus in Xi'an. Nobody even attempts to come and help. The woman directly behind her stares in obvious exasperation, then steps around and proceeds to get on the bus. The Taipei metro, on the other hand, has signs encouraging people to give up their seats to those less able, and people actually do it! Willingly and happily... And then, of course, there's the two respective governments... I don't think I have much new insight to add to the differences between them, just suffice to say that both sides are paying lip-service to theoretical unification (Taiwan isn't actually recognized as an independent nation still by most countries, including the US), but after just 50 years apart, the two nations lead such starkly different lifestyles that, to me anyway, any thought of reunification seems far fetched, at best. Well, it's not all that different than re-integrating Hong Kong and Macau into China, I suppose, so we can see how that goes over the next 50 years. I predict, not well. One thing to add about the differences in government and people is the capitalism - in China it is simply characterized by basic, unrestrained human greed - everyone's goal, including the government's, appears to be to extract every last penny from you that they can, rip you off if they can get away with it, institutionalize the ripoff if possible. Which is exactly the atmosphere that seems to contribute to the pervading anger, by the way... In my five days in Taiwan, I got to visit the Taroko Gorge, an incredibly popular (and beautiful) national park, and the Wulai hot-spring, just outside of Taipei, also quite popular. Total spent on admissions: 0. The same happening in China: inconceivable! That being said, Taiwan is certainly more expensive than China, but it feels a lot more worthwhile. (The unrestrained greed, by the way, is quite emblematic of most of these newly free market countries - China, Russia, Vietnam, so it may, admittedly, have a lot more to do with basic human nature than the Chinese government). There's plenty of foreigners in both places, of course - usually there to either teach English or study Chinese, and they tend to fit into the patterns too. The foreigners in Taiwan remained happy, while the longer you stay in China, the more it seems to turn you angry! And speaking of English, it's always an adventure out here - Chinese clearly doesn't translate well, but while it's just amusingly terrible in China (and the people seem too proud/stubborn to ask for help), it's usually relatively decent in Taipei, especially at any official/government places. I wonder if it's just a product of better education, perhaps due to more exposure to foreigners?, or simply a willingness to ask for help... The Taiwanese certainly seem to travel around the world a lot more, which has got to help...

Ok, so I liked being in Taiwan more than I liked being in China (even admitting that China does have some amazing sites to see), but enough with the ranting, time to move on to the actual time in Taiwan, including pictures, of course:

Taipei 101 is over 500 meters tall and absolutely towers over the rest of the city. It has just been surpassed by the very recently completed Burj Dubai as the tallest building in the world.

There are some green, forested hills not far from the tower, which offer some beautiful views of the 101 and the city. Paved, lighted walkways criss-cross the mountains

So, Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, is a rather modern city, with the 5 year old Taipei 101 tower, a source of local pride, clearly serving as a sign of this modernity. While the skyline of places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Shanghai is dotted with various skyscrapers, Taipei 101 pretty much has the city all to itself. The other thing you quickly notice is that the entire city is ringed with green mountains. Taiwan, is basically just a big volcano rising from the bottom of the Pacific - it, in fact, is home to the tallest peak in Eastern Asia (Eastern Asia is kinda hard to define, so let's just say, not including the Himalayas).

The people of Taiwan also happen to be the religious sort, so there's a fair number of intricately decorated temples scattered around town. The Chinese themselves, by the way, seem to be re-discovering religion these days too, with some gentle encouragement from the government...

Taipei's Longshan Temple - absolutely crowded on a weekend afternoon. Admission: free...

Candles burning at the Longshan Temple

A memorial pagoda at the 2-28 Peace Memorial Park

Confucius Temple here - most temples tend to be decorated with lots of dragon motives

More decorations at the Bao-an Temple

And after a couple of days, I decided to get out of the city, and see a bit of the countryside - public transport in Taiwan is pretty trivial and well-organized. It helps that the island is pretty small. The well organized part is more about not being China, but enough about that!

My first stop was the town of Hualien (or Who? Alien? as I came to call it) just down the East coast, where I rented a scooter (leaving my PADI card as collateral, after discovering that I had left my driver's license back in Taipei and the lady telling me that my passport and credit card were each too important to leave with her!) and went off to see the Taroko Gorge, Taiwan's premier outdoor attraction. And just in case I couldn't tell how premier it was, all the tourist buses passing me were there to reinforce the point)

The gorge, with the river carving its way through the rocks

A waterfall coming down into the gorge

Hey, remember, the people are nice and speak English - I got somebody to take a picture of me

This is the Changchun Shrine, not far from the park's entrance, commemorating the people who had died while building the road running through it and across the island. The area is regularly subjected to typhoons and land slides, so not exactly a safe work space...

And after coming back to Taipei the next day, I met up with Lin and three of her friends, and we all headed (biked, 'cause we're the stupid, adventurous sort) to the Wulai hotsprings, some 25km out of Taipei. 25km and over some mountains...

The hotsprings are quite hot, so you take a dive into the cold river, then run back to the hot pool and climb back in there to relax... Then you can try the really hot pool, boil for a moment, and dive right back into the cold river!

Well, that was as much of Taiwan as I had managed to see in my five days there. There's a bunch more sites that I would have loved to see, given more time, including a spot down South, where you can go diving with hammerhead sharks, but I only had five days, so it was time to go - hopefully another time!

No comments: