The population of Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, was incorrectly listed in the story that appeared on March 22. Taipei's population is more than 2 million, while the population of Taiwan is nearly 18 million.
Taipei is one of the most densely-populated places on earth, with almost 18 million people living there. The streets are packed with motorcyles -- the number of vehicles has increased from a mere 630,000 in 1969 to nearly 4 million in 1980 -- and it can be a frightening experience for a timid Westerner to dodge them while crossing the street. (Nearly 2,000 motorcyclists or back-seat passengers were killed in accidents last year, and many people wear face masks because of the pollution caused by the exhaust fumes.)
Exhausted after a hellish taxi ride through town in which I braced myself with my knees on the back of the front seat, alternately opening and closing my eyes, I reached Snake Alley in safety. Enroute I could not believe how tidy and clean everthing appeared to be despite the disorganization of it all. But I was shocked and almost hypnotized by what I encountered after I got out of the cab.
It was a carnival-like scene, with medicine men and con men flanking a dirt road. The message was good health and virility, and most of the people there were young men in search of this magic medicine. One desperate-looking person grabbed my arm and splashed some liquid on my temples. It gave off a burning sensation (to get rid of headaches, I suppose). He was standing by a bicyle with a huge hornet's nest covered in a plastic bag (to keep the hornets inside) and strapped to his bicycle seat. He had a box containing small bottles of a yellow liquid that he was selling -- extracted, perhaps, from the hornets.
Farther on down the line was a fantastic array of food stalls and strange people. But among the most horrible of horrifying sights were several stands containing wire baskets of writhing poisonous snakes. What happened was this: c
A trained monkey, constantly being screamed at by his master, reached into the basket and pulled out a snake, playing with it with a tormented look on his face. He then was told to place the snake in a cage containing a frantically pacing mongoose, who proceeded to tear its head apart. The brave monkey retrieved the snake and handed the carcass to the snake show owner, who slit its belly open and hung it on a line by the stump of its head. The fresh blood, draining into a pot on the ground, was then sold by the cupfuls to be drunk by the mesmerized men who seemed to savor the brutality.
After this, I went looking for some food other than snake meat. Some of the most talented Chinese chefs in the world come from Taipei, who prepare exotic items such as chicken claws, fish lips, fried minced pigeon and webbed duck feet. It is not easy to make a choice from a menu, especially since Chinese service is generally hurried. It would be simpler to list what Chinese do not eat, than to list what they do eat, since they are more than 21,000 Chinese dishes.
The next day I decided to attack something more tranquil like the National Palace Museum, said to house the finest collection of Chinese art in the world. More than 600,000 pieces are now available to the museum which itself resembles an imperial palace. The exquisite artifacts, taken from the imperial palaces when the Nationalist Chinese fled the mainland in 1948, date back some 4,000 years. More than 1.5 million people a year visit this shrine of Chinese treasures but can only see a portion of the collection, because about 8,000 items are on display at any one time.
If the principal commerical landmark of Taipei is the 14-story Grand Hotel -- probably the last and only hotel in the world built on the scale of an imperial palace -- then the palace museum is the cultural landmark. Many tourists come to Taipei primarily to see this museum, situated on the side of a granite mountain and surrounded by a lovely park always crowded with Chinese. (The treasures not on display are stored inside the mountain.)
Throughout the centuries China's emperors collected paintings, bronzes, jades, lacquers, sculpture, embroidery, tapestries and books. They were first publicly displayed in 1912 when the last emperor was overthrown and the Republic established. But because the warfare continued, it was decided to move only the best of the treasures to Taiwan. To pack it all would have taken more than 20,000 crates and only a few thousand crates made it to Taiwan -- but those crates contained the prizes.
Some of the carvings in jade and ivory, especially the miniatures that please the emperors, must be seen through a magnifying glass, so intricate is the design work. Carved from solid pieces of ivory, tiny ships have sliding doors of intricate lattice work and flag staffs as thin as threads. How these pieces survived decades of wars, packers and movers is difficult to understand. Peek inside the ship and count the poeple. There are 14 of them, and all with different facial expressions!
A solid day or more is required at the Palace Museum, where English-speaking tour guides are avilable. As for the value of these treasures, no one can say. The figure probably is incalculable. A twin of just one Ming dynasty vase (1368-1644) on display sold for $1 million recently, yet it is hardly the most valuable piece.
Taiwan, called "Ilha Formosa" (beautiful Island) by 16 century Portuguese sailors, is a mountainous land with an aluvial plain fertile enough to produce food for export beyond the country's needs. The island became a protectorate of the Chinese Empire in 1206, and in 1887 was made a separate province of China under the Manchu dynasty, which was overthrown in 1912. The Japanese occupied the island from 1895 until the end of World War II in 1945, and three years later it became the seat of government for the Nationalist Chinese. The first president, Chiang Kai-shek, died in 1975 after serving 30 years, and the president today is his son, Chiang Chingkuo.
In winter, snow caps the highest mountain in the north where there is skiing; but just a 3-hour train ride away it is like spring. There was not enough time to vist the spectacular Taroko Gorge, or the haunting cities of Lishan or Alishan and the Valley of the Sea of Clouds. The windswept archipelago of the Pescadores in the Formosa Strait where old China thrives also had to wait for another time, as would Lanyu (Orchid Island), 45 miles off the southern tip of Taiwan where the most primitive of Taiwan's aboriginal tribes, the Ami people, live and fish as they have for centuries.
After hectic Taipei -- and a vist to the island fortress of Kinmen (Quemoy) just a mile from the Chinese mainland, where everything is on warlike standby and most of the fortress is buried inside granite mountains -- I was ready for some peace and quiet. That called for Sun Moon Lake in the center of Taiwan, popular for the locals but off the beaten track of Westerners.
The 3-hour train ride to Taichung was a delight. Trains run on time in Taiwan, and are fast, modern and smooth. You can even see through the windows and watch the countryside roll by. Coaches are air-conditioned, and seats have western roominess. Tea is served, and cool face towels are passed out. The most impressive sight on the ride to Taichung was the building boom spurred on by the expanding population (some elementary schools have as many as 10,000 students). In contrast to the gentle architectural curves of ornate and colorful temples, these apartment buildings are graceless and lack beauty of any kind whatever. Uniformly hideous, they are like unpainted boxes made of cement and brick. But, with the sea on one side, the train took us through mountainous gardens of green, and passed in and out of busy villages, always booming with bicycles. At Taichung I got a cab for a two-hour ride through verdant valleys and winding mountain roads to Sun Moon Lake, where weather year-round is like spring. Arriving at sunset I checked into the moderately-priced, 116-room Sun Moon Lake Hotel and settled down on the balcony overlooking this gorgeous lake surrounded by haunting mountains. In the center of the lake is a tiny island visited by small cruise boats. (the boat business is dying off because of a new road constructed around the lake.)
The constantly-changing mood of the mountains surrounding Sun Moon Lake, a most spectacular sight, becomes especially pervasive at dawn and dusk. It is like a Chinese painting unfolding in a thousand different ways as mist rises and settles by the minute, producing new colors and shadows that play upon the stillness of the lake and the green blackness of the mountains. I counted 47 peaks. Sun Moon Lake is a breathtaking experience, especially as seen from the Wen-wu Temple from the top of Tz'u En Pagoda on the summit of Ch'ing Lung Mountain. There is also a so-called aboriginal village at the lake shore, but it is an artificially-rigged tourist stop selling pitiful junk.
The drive back to Taichung, as are all drives in Taiwan, was an amazing demonstration of how to avoid collisions and the art of timing. On more than one small motorcycle I counted a family of five. Momma sits behind poppa, the driver. On her back is a baby, and between them is a young child while another child is sitting on the gas tank. Despite the fatalities that occur, I never saw one accident -- although I did see some fierce arguments involving drivers in Taipei.
At Taihchung we stopped off for a late lunch in a seafood restaurant that looked more like an aquarium. Fish, crabs, eels and shellfish were plucked out live from tanks depending on the individual order. I ordered a large bottle of excellent Taiwan beer, and then another. My driver declined to accept more than one glass. Chinese are very embarrassed when their faces get red from drinking, or at least my driver was.
Back in Taipei I had to forego a side trip to Hong Kong (only $140 round trip from Taipei), but did stop in Tokyo for a few hours at no extra cost. The next free stop, before landing in Los Angeles, was in Honolulu for a few days in the Hawaiian Islands. But that is another story.