After almost two weeks in China, I was due to visit my friend Kevin/Kno/BigWig from my Camp Otterdale days in Taipei, Taiwan. I would have no more than 4 days but I was hoping to catch up on the past few years with him, as we hadn’t seen each other since 2006 (when I last visited Ottawa), visit a country (and a city) which tends to be kept off the radar when one first visits Asia, but which was particularly appealing to me, and to have an overall good time hanging out and sight-seeing. As I shared with you on the last post, it was a particularly long journey from Xi’an all the way to Taipie, where I would arrive a whopping 30 hours after getting on a night train to Beijing, and a Beijing – Hong Kong – Taipei flight.
In spite of what some of you might think, the title of the post is by no means related to Calvin Klein or to some sort of local fast food restaurant. It represents the initials of, quite possibly, the most notable, respected, veneered and meaningful politician in recent Taiwanese history, and effectively the founder of the Republic of China (or modern Taiwan as it is known today to the rest of the world), Chan Kai-Shek. After having lead the National forces and having fought alongside the Chinese communists during WWII against the Japanese, CKS all of a sudden found himself on the wrong end of the political spectrum when Mao rose to power following the 1949 revolution. Instead of admitting defeat and far from surrendering, CKS fled mainland China to the island of Formosa (Ilha Formosa, meaning “beautiful island” in Portuguese), formerly under Japanese control, just 99 miles off the coast. There, with the help, support and political/sovereign recognition from some of the Western bloc’s most relevant powers (mainly the US), at a time when the Cold War and the East vs. West ideological and political divide was shaping up, he established what he claimed to be the Republic of China (or ROC) – vs. the People’s Republic of China, which was established by Mao and his followers on the mainland. From that moment on, each of the “Chinas” would follow their own path, in a political, social and economic way. While one China, Mao’s, would grow up under the influence of the Little Red Book and “suffer” the consequences of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, CKS’s China would have to “endure” The White Terror (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Terror_(Taiwan)) and CKS’ cult of personality and de facto limitless executive powers. These diverging paths would become so acute that, today, the only seemingly apparent common denominator between both China’s is their racial and, to a certain extent, cultural inheritance. Language also, but interestingly enough, while the official language in mainland China is simplified Mandarin, that of Taiwan is traditional Mandarin – not an extremely big divide... but still somewhat different in some respect. As you could certainly tell from my post on China, mainland China, while being a booming (yet less so today than a few years back) economic machine and having become the world’s 2nd biggest GDP, in absolute terms, after overtaking Japan, is still a country full of contrasts. Many richer... yet many poorer. Many more prosperous... yet many more depressed. Meanwhile, Taiwan appears to be a country that has developed and become a leading economic power in the region - one of the four Asian Tigers - (maybe even in the world) based on a solid export-based model for the past 4 decades (cfr. “Made in Taiwan”) and, from my perspective, is more akin to Japan, from a social perspective that to its Chinese neighbour. “Para gustos... colores” (i.e. each one has his/her own opinion) as one would say in Spanish, but I could draw many parallels between Taiwan and Japan – and by no means only from the fact that in both countries Hello Kitty is a more than notable social phenomenon.
I arrived to Taipei international airport quite late on Thursday, June 30th and was expecting to be greeted by what Kevin had described as “his driver”. Just after storming past customs and upon collecting my backpack from the luggage collection area, and as I was on the lookout for Kevin’s “driver”, I spotted a random dude taking a few shots of me from his iPhone. There he was (not the driver), but Kevin himself who had surprised me and come to pick me up. Amazing gesture from an amazing man... Given how late it was (c. 11pm) and due to the fact that we wanted to make the most of our first night, we hopped into a cab and headed off to Taipei city. On the cab ride to Kevin’s place, we chatted about all sorts of things and essentially got up to speed on our current lives. Quite strategically, and given that drinking is pretty much permitted in every space, public or private (except the MRT – i.e. the subway) in Taiwan, Kevin had brought some beers which we started enjoying (and which we wouldn’t stop enjoying during the whole week-end!) right off the bat. Back at his place, I met his cool Canadian flatmates, and a good buddy of his, Kris (aka Sandwich), with whom we went out that night. We hit a local bar/club where we had a more than decent first night out (street food rampage included) during which I managed not to be conquered by the fatigue built up over the past 2 days of non-stop travelling.
The next morning, after a not-so-late wake up, we headed off downtown to enjoy a day packed of sight-seeing. First up, after a much-required pit stop for breakfast/lunch, was Taipei 101, or the world’s 2nd tallest building (after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai) and just a few metres taller than SWFC in Shanghai (atop of which, if you remember from my last post, I had been on the previous week!). Interestingly enough, when one observes the Taipei skyline, Taipei 101 stands out for being the ONLY sky scraper in the whole city. Fundamental reason behind this is the amount of earthquakes Taiwan, in general, and Taipei, in particular, have to endure. Notwithstanding, Taipei 101, at a whopping 509m is probably the safest place one can find himself/herself in during an earthquake, due to its robust foundations and the anti-seismic technology it was equipped with when it was designed and later erected. We went to the observatory on the last floor and managed to enjoy some breathtaking views (some of which you can see in the pics below) from the outdoor “mirador” which, fortunately, was open due to the mild meteorological conditions and good visibility. Continuing our visit, we went down a few floors to the coral gem stone exhibition, where some truly amazing pieces/sculptures were on display. Some of these were even up for sale and had their own “little” price tags. You’d be surprised by some of the prices... some well above c. USD 1m!!! After 101, in which, by the way, my former employer (Merrill Lynch) has its offices, we walked around the area for a while before heading over to the Chan Kai-Shek memorial, which was located in another part of town. After leaving the MRT station, we walked for a mere 5 minutes and there it was... a gigantic open space in the middle of the city covered with green areas, gardens and flowers. Close to the main entrance, an enormous Chinese-style blue and white arch precedes the long (c. 500m) promenade which leads to the steps of the big man’s memorial. As one covers those 500m, it seems unbelievable how such a massive open area can, firstly, be found in the heart of the city and, secondly, be so well maintained. According to Kevin, CKS himself (or the interests on the fortune and legacy he left his heirs) is paying for the memorial’s maintenance. After climbing 100 marble stairs located on the other end of the promenade, it starts to become visible... a c. 10 metre tall statue of a sitting (and obviously smiling) CKS overlooking the city is located about 5 metres into the memorial building (which, by the way, also serves as a museum). If that weren’t enough, there are 5 guards or so in front of the statue. We were lucky enough to see a changing of the guard, which was full of military chants, rifle moves and loud stomps for at least 15 minutes. Then, inside the museum (which is free for everyone, again thanks to the interests on CKS’s fortune – will not doubt for a minute on the legitimacy of those funds, or at least on the sources. lol) one can walk around selected memorabilia from back in the day: a couple of his armoured and tainted Cadillacs, his day-to-day clothes, his military uniforms and so on. What was most astonishing was how his will (which is also on display inside the museum) was written in tiny Chinese characters which all together sketched out a silhouette of a uniformed CKS. Impressive craftsmanship! After the memorial, and before returning to Kevin’s place, we made a quick stop at the Ximen district, which is, for those of you who have been to Tokyo, very similar to Akihabara (maybe a bit smaller), which is known for its young crowds, lively atmosphere and where one can breathe in the manga/ electronic vibe, while, at the same time, being surrounded by stores of all kinds. Back at Kevin’s, we met up with a few of his friends to go check out a night market. Apparently these are all over Taipei and one can essentially find everything and anything. We mostly walked around the one close to his place and got some street food (dumplings and, luckily, no stinky tofu!) as a snack prior to our meal in a traditional Taiwanese place. Let me tell you in advance... we had a feast. We were able to have truly amazing food as we were in the company of some of Kevin’s Taiwanese friends. Duck blood (something vaguely similar to Spanish “morcilla”) and “yard waste” (or green vegetables) were most certainly my favourite! After that succulent meal and a pertinent photo shoot outside the restaurant we enjoyed a big night out in the city in one of the nicest clubs in town. We’ll leave it at that... There, I was extremely pleased to see my friend Sophia (also from Camp Otterdale), whom I hadn’t seen for almost 10 years!! :)
The next morning and after a rather slow and late wake-up and after the customary morning-after breakfast/lunch blend, we headed out of town to the Taipei Country Club for a pool party. A truly unique setting in the hills surrounding Taipei and which an unbeatable view of downtown and the city’s pinnacle, Taipei 101. We stayed there for most of the day, enjoying the poolside chat, drinks, music and company until the evening. After enjoying a nice meal out, we headed out, yet again, for another big night out. This time it was one of Kevin’s friend’s leaving-away party so he was kind enough to organise a get-together with his group of friends, and where I was kindly invited. If you see this: thanks Jerry! ;)
For my last day in Taipei, Kevin and I (as you can see, the man took such good care of me! Just waiting to return the favour when he comes visit me in Chicago!! Right bud?!) met up with Uni-ce, one of his most special friends in Taipei, for lunch. We went to a very nice Japanese restaurant in a riverside area (forgot the name sorry!) which great views. We managed to make it to the restaurant in time before it began to pour and enjoyed a very pleasant meal. The food was great (you know I love Japanese food!) but the company and the banter was unsurpassable. Quality people those two... so much “feeling” ;) . After chilling for a while and taking in some of the views of the cliffs across the bridge (where sometimes one can see cliff-jumpers working their magic), we returned to Kevin’s to relax for a while until the dinner time. For my last meal in Taipei, we joined one his flatmates (Brodie) and his girlfriend (Morgan) for dinner at Din Tai Fung (http://www.dintaifung.com.tw/en/index.asp) which is a Michelin-star rated restaurant mostly serving small to-share dishes such as dumplings. The restaurant is also quite unique due to the fact that the kitchen area is visible from the restaurant. Literally dozens of chefs efficiently and steadily working on their dumpling-making machines. A real show for anyone, not only for those interested in rare culinary techniques or skills. Beers and dumplings turned out to be an unbeatable fine dining experience, which then got topped off by a pleasant conversation on Morgan’s roof-top terrace which, amazingly enough, had unbelievable views of Taipei 101. After parting ways with Brodie and Morgan, and given that my flight was leaving at 7am on Monday, we decided to top off the week-end in style by enjoying one final night out. Turned out to be quite fun and, surely enough, I reached my goal of not going to bed that night. Mind you, I did have a flight to Hong Kong the next morning in which I could catch up on sleep. Short one-day pit stop in Hong Kong, which would then be followed by two weeks in Thailand and Cambodia. Fun times!
Stay tuned for more news! Some of the credit for the cool pics you can see below goes out to Kevin as I have stolen them off his Facebook albums.