Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Taipei and Hurricane Talim

We stayed in a hotel for the first week in Taipei because my mum felt that the family home was too old and unsafe. The nice hotel in the city had at least one awesome sign. After a week in Taipei, I decided to extend my stay here for another week. My parents left for Taichung to visit a doctor there for the next few days and I checked into Taipei Hostel. The rate for each night was S$25, so it was still OK. Initially, I wanted to find a place near Hsimenting, the place that teens and young people like to go to and which was near the family home. My Taiwanese friend Mavis told me that in some small hotels there, one might get a knock in the middle of the night, with someone offering special services. Wow! Lip my stockings! Mavis took the day off on Tuesday and we went to Dansui River; took a boat across and cycled for a few kilometers to the ShihSanHang museum that showcases the archaeological findings of an ancient Taiwanese culture almost two thousand years old. Very impressive stuff. At Bitan south of Taipei, paddle boats were getting evacuated. Mavis told me that a hurricane was going to hit Taiwan tomorrow. I didn't have a clue until then because I hadn't been following the news. A typhoon is a hurricane that appears in Asia, while a hurricane is a typhoon that occurs in the North Atlantic. I prefer to call them hurricanes because the word appears meaner and stronger. I had one experience with a Taiwanese hurricane. Ten years ago, I'd spent 15 months in a place near HsinChu working for a military contractor. We had to paste ducktape on the windows in case they break... Anyway back to the 21st century, I thought, what the heck, I should move back to the family home instead of staying at Taipei Hostel and paying unnecessary money. This is my dad's family home (both my parents were quitters from Taiwan, my dad became a Singaporean eventually). Our family came here regularly during the June holidays many years ago, and these visits were probably the only happy childhood memories I had. So on Wednesday morning, I checked out of Taipei Hostel and checked into the empty home on Wednesday afternoon. Because all my relatives had already moved to the States, it's quite dilapidated. The rain started to fall in the afternoon, and they came in waves. The wind picked up gradually, and if you didn't know how to maneuver your umbrella, you might as well throw it away. Which was what happened to so many abandoned umbrellas along the roads. I listened to the radio for the latest updates, and it was announced that there would be no school and no work on Thursday. The authorities had expected hurricane Talim to be a force not to be trifled with. (I later learned from Mavis that department stores, KTVs, MacDonalds and 7-11s would still be open.) The other directive was to stock up food and water for a few days. I decided to prepare for this warning by going to 7-11 and buying two two-litre mineral water bottles and a loaf of bread. The bread was for Thursday's breakfast. Hurricane Talim was projected to hit Hualien (on Taiwan's east coast) at 2am Thursday, 1st September. As a mark of respect to this awesome force of nature and also to make sure that I could escape in the event of a failure in the structural integrity of the ceiling, I didn't sleep that night until 3am. The funny thing was as the evening progressed, the winds seemed weaker. Still, there were periodic strong gusts of wind and I could see that some metallic thingys at the construction site next door had already collapsed.

The building was standing its ground, but it was still somewhat scary though. A sudden great pressure difference between the inside and outside could easily take out a window, or worse, the entire plate of the ceiling tiles, I reasoned accurately or inaccurately. I spent the night marvelling at the spectacle of invisible power, and watching the news where TV reporters at Hualien were trying to sensationalise the already quite sensational night by standing outdoors and giving exciting and wet field reports. One reporter couldn't even stand properly in the strong winds. Those guys were nuts! (But they're fun to watch!)

The next morning, the news was that central Taipei had fared quite well. Unfortunately, there were six deaths and more injuries in other places caused by floods and falling debris. Talim was blocked by the Central Mountain Range (screenshot from Google Earth) and the hurricane had spilt into two parts. The section at the higher altitudes continued on to mainland China, where she claimed many lives subsequently in the coming days.

I left the apartment the afternoon. The rain had almost stopped falling; I was more worried about loose projectiles flying at great speeds. One thing that had always intrigued me was the haze in large cities. Taipei has this haze that just won't go away. I had always thought that it was due to pollution. But what I saw in Alaska told me that this needn't be the case. Haze or fuzziness in the air could be due to inherent weather conditions. To find out the real story, I decided to visit Taipei 101, temporarily the tallest building in the world. The hurricane would have blown pollutants in the air far away, and if it was still hazy, the pollution account would be weakened. The trees had been bent by the winds...

Oops, the place was closed.

Even without going up the observatory, I could see that the air was still a little hazy, so I reckoned pollution need not be a cause of the hazy conditions in Taipei skies. I went back the next day.

The following is actually a screenshot from SimCity4.

An NBA star was there too; I had no idea who he was.

The 101 skyscraper was beautiful! It's looked like eight huge Chinese takeaway lunch boxes stacked up nicely! (I later learnt that the official account is that it's supposed to represent a tall bamboo. I like my account better.)

Anyway, I hope I can return to Taipei and do interesting things someday. This place is chaotic, but it has its charms. My feeling is that a newcomer here might absolutely hate it. But give yourself one week, and you might not want to leave. Or not. The guidebooks on Taiwan more often than not refer to Taiwanese as the most hospitable and warmest people. Guidebooks sometimes get things wrong, but I believe they are right about this. The funny thing is that in other countries I've visited, there are very nice and beautiful buildings, but not so nice people inside. Taipei seems to me the opposite. Old or quickly worn out new buildings, but relatively beautiful and unaloof people inside. Maybe I'm biased to a certain extent and have lowered expectations; I don't know.

Another fluffball thing is the 'cuteness' of women here speaking through their noses (like how Chinese cartoon characters speak). They don't do this to seduce people, it's really quite natural. LOL That's another thing about the Taiwanese. They're natural. And the service at restaurants, shopping centres is just great. Folks talk to you like they talk to their own grandmothers, informal, but professional, and non-descriminating. No doubt there're plenty of bad people around and things can be very bad in some areas, but the variation is great, so one can find excellent stuff here too. I like the variability here.

We've all heard about the chaotic Taiwanese traffic. It is still happening now, but this time I had a different perspective. Taiwanese drivers are one of a kind. I'd recommend all tourists to sit at least once in the front seat and zoom through Taipei. A health warning for folks with weak hearts is appropriate here. The skill of the driver will certainly impress you, simply because you will not meet with an accident, I hope. It's a little like Formula One; you just can't figure out how anyone would survive in those tough conditions. Anyway, at first I reckon that folks were bad to drive so madly across town, but this time, I realise that sometimes, there's no road rage involved, strangely enough. The taxi driver I had was smiling when someone else cut abruptly into his lane. It's all taken in stride. Ironically, because there're so many scooters zooming around, so motorists need to heighten their senses and not take anything for granted. Still, there are those who won't dare drive in Taiwan; perfectly understandable.

To all tourists, treat the red lights as a guide. The old joke is that to be able to cross the road successfully and safely, just follow a dog that's doing the same thing. No motorist would want to hit a dog. I'm no longer that afraid to cross the road this time. Crossing a road would mean turning cars won't care and might cut across you. But they are so good that they can estimate exactly when you'd be in the car's path, and they would stop accordingly. This is one assurance I didn't have before. Your mileage may vary. Please be careful at all times!

I took the bus and it's now much improved. There's this scrolling display and it tells what the next stop is. Never get lost again! The MRT is also now very convenient. As usual, I continued my usual MRT observations to see whether folks outside trains waited for those inside first to alight first. If there're lots of people in the train going out, those outside would wait. Sometimes, if there's not a lot of people alighting, they won't. But those outside didn't insist their way, so it was still quite good. And people liked to queue up...

Overall, I'm not sure what's going to happen to Taiwan. Despite the oppression from across the Straits, things seem to be still going OK. So I'm still quite optimistic...fingers crossed...
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tinkertailor said...

the nba star is tracy mcgrady - plays on the same team as yao ming (houston rockets.

jeffyen said...

Cool, thanks!