Snakes and Cicadas (Taiwan)

Saturday, July 20, 1996

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial

You may not want to read this while eating.

Taiwan was supposed to be expensive, but I didn’t really notice. Sure, it’s more expensive than China or Thailand, but my basic ‘survival cost’ (i.e. the amount I would spend if I just sat in my room all day and ate enough to live) was under $25. Outside of China my accomodation bill alone has usually been higher than that.

Money is getting to be an issue at this point though. Having worked in a fairly well-paid job before starting this trip I’m not used to having to think before spending $5, whereas I certainly do now. I’m trying to stay under $50 per day on average and by the time I leave Taiwan I’ll have averaged just under that, including $150 worth of RAM for my laptop. It also includes all the departure taxes that I’ve had to pay so far at about $15 per country. As I’m just coming to the end of the freakout zone with one flight every four days or so that’s already accounted for almost 10% of my expenditure!

Japan, of course, is the place to watch out for. I’m hoping I can keep down to perhaps $75 per day, but I can probably afford $100 per day if I have to. That does have to include about $300 in train fares, so I’ll have to find cheap accomodation wherever possible. I’m a little glad now that the space shuttle launch I was going to seems certain to be delayed into February next year as I can get back home a couple of weeks early, save maybe $700 and get a temporary job while I sort out what I’ll be doing.

Now onto more exciting stuff.

Leaving Hong Kong was in many ways far nicer than the previous flights. No need to get up early in the morning, no expensive taxis, just a fast, air-conditioned bus. Also, as I’ve now mailed back almost everything I don’t need my bags are somewhat lighter and just about managable. The flight was my first moniversary, one month since I began this trip. Somehow I couldn’t imagine that I’d been travelling for a month, but also couldn’t imagine that I’d been working only a month before. Sitting in front of a computer terminal all day just seems like a bad dream.

This time I was able to see Hong Kong Airport in the daylight and the area was far more run-down than even Tsimshatsui. I was surprised that some of the buildings were still standing.

Thai Air won the ‘even slower than last time’ award for checking in, though this time they spent over fifteen minutes on just one person and the other two in front of me went through quickly. They seem to be very, very strict on baggage mass, which is strange when the display for the baggage of the passengers in front was oscillating between 12 and 23 kg! They forced the first guy to repack his bags so that he got the weight down to the level they’d allow, but I really don’t trust airport weighing machines any more. So far on this trip they’ve claimed my rucksack was anything from 6kg to 15kg, and I sure haven’t mailed back over half of what I brought with me. The flight was quite entertaining too. One of the stewardesses was very diplomatic when a young kid was in her way and she was trying to serve the meal: “I hit you if you don’t sit down…”

Not that I’m really coming down on the airline, I mean they’re quite cheap and once they’re off the ground they’re great. But I have to have something to moan about.

Someone once told me that Taiwan was more Chinese than China. I think that’s certainly true at the airport. The baggage took an age to turn up and then followed a scene reminiscent of jackals feeding – I guess everyone was by then as fed up as I was. One guy resorted to climbing up on top of the carousel so he could get his bag as soon as it appeared, I pulled mine out of the throng with no worse damage than the totally mangled address tag. Now that’s the kind of airport I expected in Beijing!

I found a hostel in the guidebook, called them, and took a bus to Taipei Railway Station. I thought that Taiwan would be cooler than the rest of Asia, but was sadly mistaken. Almost as soon as I stepped off the bus and crossed the road I was soaked with sweat. By the time I found the place where the hostel was marked on the map and failed to find it I was wishing I had mailed my computer and cameras back to my parents as well.

Luckily an old Chinese guy worked out where I was heading and pointed me towards it. With great relief I dumped my bags, ate the proferred watermelon slice and grabbed a shower. Just in time to change my clothes and then the heavy rain began. I nipped along to the Circle-K to grab some munchies then waited out the rainstorm.


Taiwan seems to be a very wet country. There was at least a brief rainstorm every day I was there and long ones on two days. As I was only in the country for four days and didn’t feel like walking around in 30+°C temperatures wearing a trenchcoat this meant I didn’t get to see very much. This wasn’t helped by the way I was locked out one night. I came back at 3am after visiting a friend and discovered that someone had bolted the door from the inside as well as using the main lock. As they didn’t answer when I knocked I spent several hours wandering around or dozing on the steps until I was woken by a guy going to work in the morning. Consequently I spent most of the day asleep.

The other people in the hostel were a mixed bunch. A couple worked as English teachers, and there were more ads on the noticeboards from schools who were looking for them. In some respects I wished again that I’d allowed longer for this trip and worked on the way. Another guy was an English businessman who was doing QA work on a product he was having manufactured in a factory there, and another was a writer from Scunthorpe who’d been travelling for five years and was expecting to return to England before the end of the century. Again he’d been working as a teacher for several months, and was about to take the ferry to Japan. He was also wondering how to politely turn down a rich Chinese woman who’d taken a fancy to him.

It was quite a nice place, with a room to myself and a shared kitchen and bathroom. I only spotted a couple of cockroaches scuttling away into hiding when I turned my light on. The owner lived there himself and would often be handing out watermelon slices to anyone who was around. The guys upstairs also fed me mangoes and betel nut while I was waiting for someone to unlock the door to my floor. The mangoes were nice, the betel nut certainly caused a bit of a buzz, but tasted horrid. I eventually threw it away because I couldn’t stand the taste.

Navigation was a big problem. The first night I set out to find an Internet Cafe. I had the address, which put it at lane 60 off a big road. I knew already that lane 60 meant that it was a lane starting at building number sixty on the main road, because I’d discovered that while looking for the hostel. What I didn’t realise was that they also divide the roads up into sections, and in each section reuse the building numbers. So section one will typically run from number 1 to number 150 or so, then section two will start again at number 1. This meant that I spent a long time wandering around lane 60 in section one wondering where the Net Cafe had gone, when it was actually in section three.

Chiang Kai-Shek Museum

After a couple of hours I worked out what was going wrong and found it. The Human Space Cyber Te@house (as they call it) was pretty nice and gave out free coffee to net users. This is a big advantage in a country where coffee can cost $4 a cup!

Outside was a very old yellow car, but I don’t know if that was part of the decor or belonged to a customer. As most people in Taiwan seemed to drive mopeds I guessed perhaps the former. The driving style was less crazed than Bangkok but still fairly Asian, and on the first night I saw someone drive their moped into the back of a taxi, luckily at low speed.

Returning from the Net Cafe at midnight the temperature was still 26°C and the mosquitos were out in force. So were the stray dogs and some stray cats, the former are a very familiar sight in Taipei, the latter quite rare.

I spent much of the time in Taipei with a friend from one of the mailing lists I’m on, who spent years working in America as a truck driver, then moved to Taiwan teaching English and is now working for an ISP and creating Web pages. He demonstrated a lot of really impressive things he could do with his graphics software, and I wished I had a copy for myself. My pages would certainly look a lot more impressive.

He now has a Taiwanese wife and two children, Phoenix, about four who’s always running around, and Zephyr, less than a year old and smiling at everything. One night we went out as group to a restaurant near his house, which was very interesting. The owner used to have a popular restaurant in a building at the end of the lane which was close to collapsing, but that was bought up. The new owner propped up the shell of the building and built a new concrete restaurant inside it. The original guy then set up a restaurant in his living room. The decor was a strange mix, including a rubber moose head, many of the owners paintings and some of other peoples’. The food was certainly good.

Other nights we just grabbed some beers and spent hours wandering around or sitting in the park nearby chatting about all sorts of weird topics. The park seemed very different to those in Europe and America, with parents taking their kids to the swings and slide around midnight, and groups of people having midnight barbeques down by the stream. It made a pleasant change from urban Taipei with the trees all around us and mountains in the distance.

He also gave me a quick Chinese lesson so that I could tell taxis how to get to his house. By this point I could actually understand a small amount of the language, along with counting up to ten with finger signs. Not enough to do much, but a small help in a country where very few signs of any kind are in English as well as Chinese.

I felt like a cyberpunk again as I went off one afternoon to visit the Computer Market on a hunt for RAM. My laptop was the cheapest 486/66 I could find for sale last summer, made by a Taiwanese company that even most of the Taiwanese hadn’t heard of. I bought it from ESCOM, a German computer store, and they’d told me that they had no RAM in stock but would get some in a couple of weeks. They maintained that story for nearly a year before I set out on my travels, and I was happy but somewhat amazed to discover the only shop on the planet which actually had the right RAM card for sale. I was a little upset to discover it was $150 for 4MB when 8MB SIMMs were going for more like $50 and guessed I was getting the tourist price, but I couldn’t exactly shop around. I’m glad I bought it, as it’s now a lot faster.


The computer market was quite fun, with a road and lots of alleyways packed with computer stores and guys selling all kinds of software and hardware out of the backs of vans. I also got filmed by yet another TV crew. The real night markets were more impressive though, and much stranger. One of them is at so-called ‘Snake Alley’, the reason being the number of snake restaurants in the area. Although my travel guide claimed this was a tourist area I seemed to be the only non-asian person there the night I visited.

I didn’t really understand what was happening, but the front of one restaurant was truly bizarre. A guy was holding a snake and talking in Chinese through a PA. Behind him a TV played a bad videotape of two dogs fighting, one of them looking badly hurt. After playing with the snake for a while he brought out a rabbit in a cage and kept sticking the snake’s head through the bars. I don’t know if he expected the snake to kill the rabbit and/or eat it, but either way the rabbit survived. A little further down the alley a guy outside another restaurant was happily slicing up and gutting another snake which was still moving. I couldn’t afford to eat any even if I had the desire after that, so I carried on wandering around.

Another alley was full of small food stalls so I grabbed a huge ice-cream then sat at a stall and looked lost. That seemed to work as the owner filled up a bowl for me with strange things and it tasted pretty good. A nearby stall was selling ‘squid-on-a-stick’, and I considered trying one but couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’ve eaten squid before, but only chopped up, not intact on the end of a stick.

I missed my chance to go to the National Museum because of being locked out – I never had the full day I would have needed to go there and see everything. That was a little disappointing, but I did wander around a few other tourist sites in Taipei. The Chiang Kaishek Memorial was very pretty with large park areas to walk around, a museum up on top of a pyramid of steps and numerous kids learning to rollerskate. In the grounds I also found a vending machine with cans of the infamous ‘Pocari Sweat’ drink on offer. The name was so freaky that I was going to buy some to see what it was like, but had no change.

The Lungshan Temple near Snake Alley was very nice. That area seems a lot more Chinese than the part of Taipei where I was staying, but even so the Temple seemed out of place. I arrived late at night, but was still glad to stand for a few minutes next to the illuminated waterfall where the spray could cool me off for a few moments. The temple architecture was very pretty, and the roof covered with large colorful dragons. This is not surprising as the name apparently translates to ‘Dragon Mountain’.

Inside the sounds of modern Taipei were almost inaudible, replaced with very pleasant Chinese music. The air was full of the smoke and smell from incense burning in large golden censers. As the only non-asian in there I sat for a while on a step as I didn’t know anything about Taiwanese temple ettiquette and didn’t want to offend anyone. A very amused young Chinese kid came up to stare at me and left giggling. I watched as numerous people turned up with plates of food as offerings, or lit incense sticks and bowed in front of the statues. Some of the smaller alcoves were also lit by the yellow light of the candles that other worshippers were setting up. Finally I took a brief walk around and left as I had to meet my friend later that night.

Yet again I wish I’d had more time, as I’d originally planned to spend three or four weeks in the country to visit the coast and mountain areas, then booked nine days. Because of my ticket-fiddling in China and Hong Kong I only had four days left. I have a suspicion that this trip will just turn out to be a taste of Asia and I’ll have to come back in the next year or two for longer to see places properly. If I can find a telecommuting job that should be no problem.

Throughout Asia quite a few of the foreign guys I’ve met have commented on how many seriously attractive women there were, but in Taiwan it seemed to be one of the main topics of conversation. They were right too, I don’t know why but they seemed to be everywhere. To an extent I think I’m glad I don’t live there as I’d never be able to decide who I should ask out.

Ah well, on to Japan!

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