Monday, 22 December 2014

ni hao China (Republic of)

The ferry journey over the Taiwan Strait is a bit rough.  Gayle can't sleep and the ship groans and creaks with the roll of the waves, the sudden swoop upwards and subsequent fall as the ship bounces across the sea.  It's a nice feeling to reach dry land and because there's only about 60 passengers on the ferry (it's mostly cargo), we are soon through immigration.  We are stamped in, visa free, for 90 days and in the smart clean arrivals hall we set to with breakfast and trying to get on-line.  We are hoping to meet Ryan in Taichung before he heads off to Taipei to catch a flight home to Tasmania.  We met Ryan about two years ago in Tunisia and thanks to the wonders of Facebook, have discovered that our paths are crossing, briefly.  Very briefly in fact.  By the time we get into the city and get on-line we learn that he is about to leave by bus.  It's almost by chance that we eventually sight him at the train station looking out for us.  He looks well and not too unhappy about flying home.
Ryan and me

Our first impressions of Taiwan are all positive.  There's nothing exotic or crazy about the place - it seems very normal and clean - and reminds us of Thailand a bit.  Streets are full of projecting signs and shop hoardings, people on motor-scooters. The traffic follows the road rules.  Nothing like China.  It's all so normal but so refreshing too.  Other cyclists told us it would feel like a holiday being here after China and they might well be right.  At traffic lights a young student asks us if we need any help.  Where are we going?  To the train station, we reply.  Although the route is fairly clear he waits for us at a couple of tricky junctions to navigate us through.  His English is perfect. 

Gayle and Jean
Later on we meet Jean who has kindly offered to be our Warm Showers host.  We are her very first guests and we immediately hit it off (which is a good job really, because she goes off to Cambodia the next day on a short break and leaves us the keys to her flat).  Over wonderful beef noodles we learn a little about each other.  Jean's so friendly and tries to help us out with our immediate problem of getting on-line using Taiwan's wi-fi hotspots.  She works in audio engineering for a local firm.  She has been to China with work and remarks on the difference in working attitudes.  Here in Taiwan they follow the five-day week.  In the office in China the office staff work from 8am to midnight - because that's what the boss does.  And they have no week-end.  This is regardless of the demands of the work.  It's worth noting that Taiwan businesses have invested heavily in China in recent years, probably to the detriment of Taiwan. We don't see Jean off the next morning at 5.30am but we hope to meet again before we leave Taiwan.

er...didn't get their names
The premier of Taiwan has just resigned following heavy losses in local elections aross the country.  His party, the Kuomintang, is the legacy of the nationalists who turned up on the island back in 1949 after Mao won the civil war in mainland China.  The KMT did badly in the elections because the Taiwanese don't like their policy, ironically, of strengthening ties with China.  The economy is also stagnating.  Taiwan was part of the Qing dynasty empire until a war with Japan saw them losing and ceding Taiwan and the Okinawa group of islands to Japan, in a similar way to how the British took Hong Kong following the Opium Wars. The Japanese spent fifty years in Taiwan and the island developed quickly, with planned cities and population growth.  The Japanese left in 1945 and when the KMT arrived the Taiwanese might have had mixed feelings.  It's remarkable to consider that the martial law instigated by Chiang Kai-Shek lasted until 1987 in Taiwan - the longest period in modern world history.  We asked Eddie in Xiamen about the KMT leader and he said that nowadays no-one saw him as a hero.  The Taiwanese are proud of their freedoms now and fear any kind of deal with China.
nor theirs

Taichung is the bike manufacturing city of the world.  But that's no use when you're looking for wheel parts that no-one stocks.  Here there's a cycling scene with fast light road bikes.  In the city there are plenty of bikes around too, but the scooter rules.  Riding around you sometimes feel you've slipped into a mod rally.  After a few days getting ourselves acquainted with the country and planning our route, we move south through the urban landscape to Yuanlin and stop the night with Chris, a young American who has just started teaching English at a 'cram' school.  It's interesting to hear his experience of starting out here.  The 'cram' school is after-hours private lessons and seems as big here as it is in Iran.  Chris has done some cycle-touring across the States and now has a folding bike to use here.  

Chris with Gayle
 From Yuanlin we want to head into the central mountains of Taiwan and escape the built-up western plains so off we go along smallish roads and onto a bike path set up for tourists.  Our first night camping in Taiwan is in a tiny little park, along a bike-path, between villages.  We hide behind a weeping willow, happy to find a place with seats and a bit of grass.  After nodding off around 10 we are woken by car headlights.  We unzip and look out to see red and blue flashing lights.  Busted!  What do vagrants in Taiwan get, I wonder?  We get out to greet the fuzz and they see we are not Taiwanese.  Are we okay? Aren't we cold?  Do we have any questions?  They tell us that their station is just two miles down the road if we need anything, and then they leave.  How about that?

morning after the non-'bust'
something the police forgot to mention....

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