Taiwan and China
14-24 April 2009
random trip report
I land in Taipei at 6:30 AM, change $100, and locate the driver of the limo sent by Academia Sinica. The ride to A.S. takes an hour. The driver offers me a bag of candy or something, and I take a small packet from it and tear it open. It's some kind of powder - maybe an exotic Taiwanese fruit flavor that will explode in my mouth! But when I empty the packet into my mouth there's an unexpected dry feeling, and simultaneously I notice the word 'Dessicant' on the packet. I spew it discreetly onto the floor, and wash the taste away with the actual item: gum.
Taipei sits in a basin ringed with steep jungle-covered hills; the A.S. campus is at the base of one. I check into the guest house, which is a nice hotel. The staff is very accommodating when I ask to switch rooms due to a noisy ventilation unit.
I meet Nicolas, Francois, and Ben in the cafe. We set up in the conference room and meet Kiwi and Felix Lee, sharp computer guys. Later, Francois and I explore the hills a little. One path dead-ends at a house with inhospitable occupants. Another, under construction, ends at a pagoda. We try to continue but the jungle is dense and full of spider webs.
I eat dinner at the guest house's student dining hall, which is extremely cheap and features free soup in a giant drum. In my room, as always, I seek sports on TV. There are lots of local baseball games; each team has one or two American players. There's a peculiar obsession with the NY Yankees; one station shows their games in replay day and night.
The workshop banquet is held at a fancy hotel downtown. Very lavish, but unfortunately my stomach hurts and I don't eat much.
The post-workshop dinner is at a 'Tea House' in the nearby hills. All the dishes involve tea and local ingredients, and are unusual and delicious. More and more dishes arrive, culminating in a whole fish in orange sauce with pieces of Chinese doughnut - mmm mmm! Easily the most enjoyable meal I've had in the last decade. Afterwards the hostess prepares extra-special tea in an elaborate ritual. It has an interesting buttery flavor; I drink quite a bit and feel good all over. On the ride back I pretend that the tea is an aphrodisiac and I have my eye on Ben; this gets a big laugh.
Simon touts the biological and cultural diversity of Taiwan, and I for one am very taken with the place, and wish I had more time to explore it on this trip.
At bedtime, there's a mosquito in my room, but I can't locate and kill it.
At 7 AM Francois, Ben, Derrick, Nicolas and I board a van to the airport. At the airline counter we're told that we've been bumped and will have to go via Macau, but Francois puts on a very impressive display of indignation and outrage (WE ARE SCIENTISTS, NOT TOURISTS!) et voila! we get on after all. A less fortunate Chinese woman sits and spews venom to no one in particular.
The Beijing airport is glossy and vast - part of their big Olympics display. Francois goes home, and a van takes the rest of us to the IHEP guest house. We take the subway to Tienanmen Square.
We spot and surreptitiously photograph a British tourist with a huge gut, a rolling waddle, a fat cigar, and an air of supreme self-satisfaction. A video is here.
We try to synchronize with Francois via SMS to meet at a Peking duck restaurant, but his directions are bad and we end up hanging out with some street vendors; Nicolas buys a Chairman Mao watch with a hand that waves up and down every second.
We finally hook up with Francois/Sara/kids and go in tricycle-taxis to the restaurant, a hole-in-the-wall on the aptly-named Roast Duck Road. Francois has ordered 3 ducks and there's an extravagant amount of food.
We navigate back on the subway thanks to Ben's recollection of Fuxingmen station.
Impressions of China: The Communist party is a quasi-aristocracy, hanging onto power by censorship and repression, but also by trying to keep the masses reasonably happy. (On balance, maybe this isn't such a bad system.) Party members drive black high-end cars (Audi, Mercedes, Passat, Accord) with sinister tinted windows. Beijing is vast (15M people). Its old and poor sections are rapidly being replaced with high-rise apartments and glossy Western-style development. Young people are Westernized; old people are bewildered.
The hike goes up and down some alarmingly steep and crumbly stairs, and is moderately strenuous. There are ticket booths every so often. We cross a river via a long footbridge. There's a zip line for Y45, which Nicolas takes. At the end the van meets us and we return to Beijing.
We visit the Olympic plaza, bird's nest stadium etc. We see the 'Flame building': a 7-star hotel (what exactly do you get?) with an immense TV on the side.
We have dinner at a Mongolian restaurant, with brief music and dance by a loud and enthusiastic troupe, who grab several of us (including me, unfortunately) for dancing.
We fly back via Hong Kong, getting in around 11 PM. There's ground fog at Taipei, and the pilot aborts the first landing attempt, slamming the engines to full power and climbing steeply. Scary. Ben, who knows exactly what's going on, is a calming influence.
Ben/Christian/Nicolas/Daniel and I go to the Taipei 101 skyscraper, which features a huge dazzling atrium, the world's fastest elevator (101 floors in 37 sec) and a giant concrete sphere - a 'passive wind damper' - on the 89-90th floor. There's a display of highly detailed gold insect sculptures and giant jade cabbages. One runs a gauntlet of jewelry counters to reach the Down elevator; the slightly aggressive salesgirls evoke the Mongolian T-shirt ladies. I'm not in a great mood.
Thanks to Daniel's reconnaisance, we escape the glossy skyscrapers and find a funky street with low-end restaurants. We have beer and Udon - very satisfying.
We take the metro to Yugang station, and Nicolas and I take a cab the rest of the way. The driver has multi-Megawatt high-on-life energy. A sample of dialog (all of it shouted at top of lungs):
HELLO! HELLO! YOU AMERICAN? I LOVE AMERICAN - VERY BIG PENIS! HAHAHA! LOVE AMERICAN, HATE JAPANESE! HAHAHA! ... YOU LIKE MUSIC? (turns up dance music extremely loud) I LIKE DANCE - YOU LIKE DANCE? (wiggles rhythmically in seat). ... HOW OLD YOU THINK I? FFFTY FIVE!! (forty-five?) NO - FFFFTY FIVE! VERY YOUNG!! (indeed, he looks 35-ish) HERE PICTURE ME TWENTY, CAPTAIN ARMY! (shows picture of himself in uniform, leading some soldiers) ... LIFE! LIFE! HAHAHA!... and so on. I absorb his positive energy like a lightning rod, and feel embarrassed by the cold, uptight, inhibited nature of westerners like me and Nicolas.
The trail continues along a ridge, passes a small Buddhist temple and an exercise area, and reaches a junction. We continue a bit past it, and are treated to a close-up panoramic view of downtown Taipei; the 101 skyscraper is not far away.
We descend by a different path, then have a suprisingly good lunch of breaded chicken and noodle soup at a student hole-in-the-wall.
The conference banquet is at the Silks Palace of the National Museum, or something like that. Another fancy 10-dish banquet. I chat with a hydrologist from Thailand.
We return to the guest house around 10:30. Nicolas and I decide we need beer, and the vending machine is empty, so we walk to a convenience store, then sit outside and talk about sailing etc. until way too late.
The Taipei airport - like all the big ones these days - is an endless gauntlet of glittery luxury stores, selling designer bags, perfume, beauty crap, watches, jewelry, etc. Dozens and hundreds of these stores. No one seems to be buying anything. I try to find some goddamned food, and finally succeed after walking past miles of Gucci, Coach, Fendi, Chanel, and Bvlgari.