Having traveled around Asia, I’ve encountered my share of surprises. And although I tried my hardest to learn about the cities I was going to visit before I even left home, no amount of planning would have prepared me for a lot of this stuff.
In the days before Google Earth, a person had to be pretty resourceful – or persistent – to get guides, maps, and the inside information that’s so easily available now at the click of a mouse.
What I didn’t take into account was that sometimes the cities I was visiting didn’t want visitors to know exactly how far it was from one point to another. In the ’80s and ’90s, it was nigh impossible to get a proper scaled street map of Taipei, or of any city anywhere in Mainland China. Seoul was another place I could never get an accurate map of.
First trip to Taipei, finally had my feet on the ground, and was heading out on my own to visit a computer parts factory on Fu Hsing Bei Lu. There’s a Canadian trade office there now. I was coming from the Hilton International on Chung Hsiao Dong Lu.
Chung Hsiao East Road was a 12-lane road — six lanes in each direction — which meant it was 8-10 cars wide, plus as many scooters as would fit in between. Lane stripes in Taipei are just for decoration, I learned rather quickly. I headed out of my hotel and made a right, walking along this huge street, where traffic didn’t let up for a minute.
Every five or six blocks there was a large stairway marked “Subway,” like I used to ride in New York. It was one of the few signs in English. I thought they were pretty close together for subway stops, and there didn’t seem to be crowds of people rushing up or down the stairs, but I didn’t think much of it.
At some point, maybe a mile or two later, I came to the spot where I would inevitably have to cross this major thoroughfare and peel off to the left. I waited for the light to change at the corner, but the drivers wouldn’t necessarily stop at the lights; most of them either inched their way, or simply raced, across the intersection and went on their way, oblivious to the lights or the cross-traffic, and there didn’t seem to be many pedestrians around to group up with — you know, seek safety in numbers.. Well, this wasn’t Hong Kong, and that wouldn’t work here.
I stood there for about five light cycles — about 10 minutes, maybe more — and finally timed it so I’d make it at least halfway across the street to the narrow center island without having to dodge a truck or anything bigger than a scooter.
I might as well have been holding up a red cape in a bull-ring. Horns rang, people yelled from their car windows; I could make one person who was carrying his entire family on a scooter yelling “you faaking idiot” at me. Funny. He had his wife riding sidesaddle on the back seat, with one kid strapped to her chest, and another one strapped to her back on a 6-lane road that was packed ten vehicles wide, and I’m the fucking idiot?
So, I made it halfway. Another ten or fifteen minutes later — people seemed to be having fun with the fat white guy standing in the middle of the road, and they were passing through the intersection with even more abandon — I managed to get across, this time getting brushed by a red taxi whose driver was probably stoned on beetle-nut.
Although the map indicated I was more than halfway there, the walk from that point to the factory was almost twice as long as the walk from the hotel to the point where I’d crossed the street. Finally, feeling like I was wearing an inch of soot and traffic grime, I arrived at my destination about an hour and a half late. Success, finally! And I didn’t even get lost.
I apologized to the factory manager, which he accepted graciously — it was my first time in a new city, after all — and he asked me how I got there. When I told him I’d walked from the hotel, he was quite surprised I’d set out to take a walk like that.
“You didn’t take subway?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “I didn’t know what train to catch, and I didn’t want to get lost.” He looked at me quizzically, but I thought maybe he didn’t understand me, and he called over one of his assistants, asked him a question in Chinese. The guy answered him, and they both started snickering; then he went back and told a couple of his co-workers, and apparently they thought something was amusing too.
Well, now I was pissed. Not only had I spent the better part of two hours walking alongside a dirty, smoky, polluted major thoroughfare, but I’d had to dodge traffic, and it took me almost half an hour to cross the goddamn street.
So, I said to the manager, “Hey, you know, would you mind telling me just what the hell is so funny? That was a long walk, I’m sweating my ass off, I almost got hit by a car when I was crossing the damn street, and I’m not in a real good mood right now, and you all think something about that is funny!”
He stopped laughing. “I don’t mean to laugh. But there is no train in subway. It’s just a pedestrian tunnel to cross underneath street. Very dangerous to cross street with all the crazy drivers in Taipei!”
Next: Misogyny in the Middle Kingdom
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