The Big Puta (my trip to the Far East)

(Last revised and updated 11-12-05)

Well, I’m back and here’s the trip report for Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China brought to you by our sponsor: that nasty bitch Hurricane Wilma.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone how much I didn’t want to go on this trip — anyone who knows me heard me bitching about it relentlessly. It was definitely a bad omened trip from the get-go. My expectations for this trip were lower than Dubya’s approval ratings. However, despite my many complaints, this trip was an experience I will never forget, so in a sense I am glad I went.

The trip to Los Angeles from Miami was uneventful and on-time, which is all you can hope for from a trip. My luggage was checked straight through to Taipei, so I didn’t even have to deal with that. On future trips, I’ve learned that I will take much smaller luggage and use the overpriced hotel dry-cleaning service. The big luggage plan was a disaster at the very best — keeping in mind that our suitcases were bigger than many of the cars we travelled in. Live and learn.

Upon arrival in LAX, I hung around for two hours awaiting Greg’s arrival from Fort Lauderdale. We then walked from Terminal Four to Tom Bradley International Terminal and checked in for Air China of Taiwan. The trip from LAX to Taipei was scheduled at about 14 hours and it, too, was on-time (within 30 minutes qualifies as on-time in my book). At least we got to relax in the China Air business class lounge prior to departure. It was small and cramped, but it beats hanging around a terminal.

Let me tell you, a 14-hour flight seems a lot longer than it sounds, plus coupled with the 6-hour MIA-LAX trip and a four-hour layover, it was a rough trip. All-in-all it was 26-1/2 hours door-to-door. Customs in Taiwan was a breeze, easier than the US in fact. As you walk through the airport towards customs, they have those full-body x-rays that show everything you have on your person. These are the same ones they want to install in the USA, but the ACLU has been adamantly opposed to due to privacy issues. I’ve got to say it was pretty cool to see yourself walking by with all your possessions visible on a screen (colour). I wouldn’t object and it moves a great deal faster than what we have.

A few days prior to our departure, Greg had noticed the reviews on-line of the Westin in Taipei were less than satisfactory with phrases such as “Genghis Khan” populating the reviews. So, at his behest, we picked the Shangri-La Far Eastern Plaza, at NT$10500 (US$315) per night; it was costly but well worth it. It was the second best hotel I’ve ever stayed at and a truly impressive place. It actually helped to have a nice hotel with staff that spoke English (and even an American Breakfast buffet) to ease the transition from US to Chinese culture.

Our first day (Monday 10-17) started with a breakfast meeting. Since most of you don’t care about the business aspect of this trip, I will skip most of that. However, I do have to point out a few things. We learned the average semi-skilled factory worker makes about US$800 per month or US$9600 per year and the working conditions are very rough on them. They work in hot, greasy, caustic environments wearing shorts and sandals. It’s not very pleasant and I felt bad for them. Some factories are much worse than others, but I will skip the descriptions here and just let you see my pictures if you want.

As we drove around, there were a few details worth mentioning. The lowest octane gas they sell there is 93 and the highest is 98. It doesn’t cost much more than here, either and it’s full serve too so I was rather bemused by that. There are 7-11 and Circle-K stores all over Taiwan as well as McDonald’s and KFC and some other names you’d recognize as well: many of these restaurants are two story buildings and are always crowded. But their burgers are often rice-based and not meat based. The popular local chain in Taiwan is Mos-Burger: you figure it out.

Speaking of driving, there are scooters everywhere. They dart in and out of traffic totally disregarding the traffic laws which are, apparently, only polite suggestions not to be taken seriously by any motorized vehicle, and especially not a scooter. It’s amusing and amazing at the same time. And as bad as the drivers in Taiwan could be, they were sane compared to those in Shanghai. I will never set foot in Shanghai again — it was terrifying.

Another oddity to Taiwan (everywhere except in Taipei city) was the Betel Box-Babes as I call them. On many of the roads there are these small glass boxes the size of mini-vans. Inside are very scantily dressed ladies. If you pull up and toot your horn, they run out and hand you their narcotic nuts and gum which helps keeps drivers awake. I can’t explain this any better and our Taiwanese hosts did not discuss it much other than to say it was “bad“. (Three links courtesy of David Higgins.)

Taipei itself was a very clean city. Everyone was exceedingly friendly. Many of the signs are bilingual. I’m sure I could find my way around without a guide. We even took the local (new) subway. I enjoyed it there, and wouldn’t mind going back one day. It’s friendly, clean, and safe.

The culture here is different and the businesspeople all try and drink you under the table. The custom there is that if your host takes a drink, you have to drink the same amount. It’s pretty much repeated bottoms-up toasts. After 1-½ vials of sake, I gave up. (Sake is Japanese, but we were at a Japanese restaurant.)

All the meals there are multiple (usually 12) course events, served on a round, spinning table (aka the lazy-Susan-of-death). Some of the items are very good. Others leave a great deal to be desired. Fish heads in jelly, gelatinous eels, and sea cucumber are just some of the ‘delights’ to which I was subjected. Fish-eye soup was the most repulsive looking one, though. I refused to even taste it. I do not like my meal looking back at me. Which reminds me that any dish with fish, lobster, prawns, or chicken is pretty much guaranteed to have the head attached when served — in fact sometimes your fish is still alive when they serve it to you.

This brings us to the Rocky Horror Picture Show Food Moment. (This happened in Tainan, but I’m sticking it here because it’s food related.) That morning our hosts from Taipei pick us up and prepare to take us on some factory tours in Tainan. They ask us what we’d like, and being totally sick of Chinese, I jokingly say ‘a nice juicy steak’ knowing full well we ain’t getting one. So it’s lunch time, and we’re out at lunch with a typical lazy-Susan-of-death meal at a very authentic restaurant (containing no Americans but us and absolutely no trace of the English language). Our host goes to the kitchen area to pick out our meal as is customary, and we’re resigned to another seafood extravaganza, and indeed I am not disappointed as I am served a fin from some unknown sea-entity. Then LO AND BEHOLD! in comes a plate of what appears to be smallish sized pieces of beef. It is handed to me first, and I take a piece and offer it to everyone. My colleague gets a piece as do the ladies from Taiwan. I take one bite and know something is seriously amiss. I’ve eaten cow, bison, deer, elk, moose, caribou, and even horse and this is clearly none of them. I nudge Greg’s foot to stop him from eating more; as I am preparing to do this, the Tainan big-shot looks pointedly at the plate and says (though the interpreter) that “we don’t eat beef because it is bad luck for business.” I’m guessing it was dog, but I really don’t want to know.¨

From Taipei, we went by car to Taichung. The Landis Taichung was a disappointment but even that wasn’t too bad. We proceeded on to Chunghua but did not overnight there. I nearly created a serious incident when our host asked, as I understood it, if we wanted to see a very Big Puta. Speaking Spanish and knowing his company had a Spanish name, I started to laugh. It took me some time to realize his accent made Buddha sound like Puta. (It’s often customary to offer your business guests a ‘massage service’ which I had to decline quite forcefully at times. These services come complete with the ‘happy ending’.) This particular vendor was accommodating and afforded us the rare honour of inviting us into his very grand home for a tour: this is something that is not normally done over there.

We then drove on to Tainan finding the traffic jam from hell — we sat in one spot for nearly an hour, later learning the highway was closed due to a huge accident. On the way to Tainan, we passed the tracks for the new bullet train which will go from Taipei to Kaohsiung in 90 minutes making four stops. That will make any future trip a lot easier. We were told Tainan was an old, small town. It was pretty damned big: their view of small is not the same as our view of small. Each successive town was smaller and less tourist-friendly than the previous. Tainan had virtually no English outside the hotel, but the Tayhih Landis Tainan was very nice and modern. Like all American breakfasts in this country, it was served cold. (I had already learned to stuff myself at breakfast to avoid lunch at all costs.)

The more rural the city, the more likely you were to find the dreaded squat-toilet. There are very few western style toilets there where you can sit in comfort. They have a porcelain bowl (an oblong sink) right in the center of the floor. You squat over it and go. Oh, yeah, I hope you brought toilet paper because they generally don’t provide it. Don’t put your toilet paper in there either. There’s a small wastebasket next to the squat-toilet for the paper as the pipes can’t handle the paper. In modern places you will find a stall with a sign on the door “Western Toilet” or “Sitting Toilet” — even in parts of Hong Kong this is true.

From Tainan we went on to Kaohsiung, which was a bustling city; however, the air was bit hazy and it had a certain odour about it. We stayed at the Grand Hi Lai which was a cool hotel with a fantastic view — too bad the smog blocked it. We were luckily upgraded to an executive floor which made the stay enjoyable. The lobby sold chocolates which we partook of regularly. They also had erotic chocolates in amazing detail, and they were just embarrassing to look at but quite amusing. I wonder if there were nuts in that one piece…. On a nearby cluster of buildings there was an entire amusement park built on the rooftops with a roller coaster, Ferris Wheel, carousels, etcetera; truly a sight to behold. In the lobby, I ran into someone I knew from the USA. It really and truly is a small world.

It was a very friendly town, but air-quality-wise not unlike Newark on a bad day. Like all Far Eastern cities, they have department stores. But these are stores with very specific departments and not like what we have now — more like the old traditional department stores of yore (closer to Harrod’s than Sears). It’s sort of like individual offices that sell one brand (Burberry) with its own employees, and everything. It’s closer to being a mall that a department store. We wasted some time at the mall here looking for a Buddha for Greg’s desk. One of the factories we visited (a coating company) was bragging how the average worker lived to be almost 40 years old. Imagine that.

Once again, we noticed some rather overt apparently racist attitudes which we found shocking. Invariably the topic of hurricanes came up and Katrina was part of that. They expressed universal disgust at the way it was handled, and we basically agreed. However more upsetting were their comments that at least it was just the poor people or weren’t they all black, anyway and other remarks. We got this a number of times, and it was shocking. I’m not sure what to make of it.

From Kaohsiung we flew to Hong Kong on DragonAir. Security here is like it used to be in the 1970s in the USA, that is to say virtually non-existent. I could have carried pretty much anything other than live ammunition through and I doubt they would have cared. I highly recommend DragonAir. The flight was fantastic, the service was friendly, and the plane left early because everyone was on board! They didn’t make us sit around pointlessly awaiting a phantom departure time.

Hong Kong (locally known as Hongkong, SAR, PRC) customs was relatively easy. Although it returned to Chinese rule in 1997 after England’s lease expired, it remains entirely British down to left-hand driving. Everything is in English or bilingual. Much of the population speaks English, and they’re very friendly. The subway is awesome, clean, convenient, and we used it extensively. They also have an Airport Express train which goes from the airport to both Kowloon and Hong Kong proper saving you a very expensive cab ride. Sort of like Heathrow Express but more modern and much faster.

Hong Kong is beyond description, and I will gladly return there one day to spend some time. This is one of those rare cities I fell in love with. Hong Kong is a very tall city. There are 100s of buildings over 60 floors many of which are residences/condominiums all of which were embarrassingly small and overpriced at the same time. There is lots of green. Victoria Harbour is amazing as is the Peak’s view of the city. We did both of those famous places, took the Walk of Stars, traipsed along Nathan Road, and even took the Star Ferry. We saw an authentic Chinese Junk sailing by. We went to a Night Market where you can buy all sorts of overpriced stuff, but you can often haggle it down to nearly half of the asking price.

This is one of those rare cities you can fall in love with. It is, however, embarrassingly expensive, in fact although it ranks below London and Tokyo on the ‘most expensive cities in the world list’ I found it to be considerably more expensive. An iced tea is around US$7 and no free refills either. There are many shops, but the famed Hong Kong bargain no longer exists for standard items, though for bespoke clothing you can’t go wrong here.

We went to Hong Kong Disney for about 3 hours. It just opened in September 2005 and is accessible by its own private subway/metro route. It’s not overly expensive but it’s very, very small. Space Mountain (very cool) is the only coaster attraction, and many big attractions simply aren’t here: Pirates, Big Thunder, Haunted Mansion, are all missing here. We were done in 3 hours having done all the rides we wanted to. Although they have FastPass, it’s not needed. As much as I hate to say it, if you take a pass on this park, you aren’t missing anything but the spectacular view of the castle with a background of a mountain.

[We considered going home before Wilma once we were aware of it and how severe it might be. For days it looked like it might not hit, or if it did it would be a minor storm. By the time the forecast changed, there was no way we could make it home before the storm hit. So, we opted to be productive and continue our trip, figuring we could fly home after it passed. We would find out that the airports were damaged as was everything else. Airports back in our area resumed operations 10-28, and we were scheduled to be back home on 10-30, so at that point we finished the trip. I put this in because so many people asked what our thinking was.]

Because China doesn’t recognize Taiwan as an independent nation, converting currency is done in Hong Kong where they take your NT$ convert them to any third currency and then that third currency to Yuan (RMB). It’s a very costly procedure. Don’t go to Hong Kong or China with Taiwanese money. We took DragonAir on to Shanghai, one of the most populated cities on earth at over 17 million people (more than most countries). We landed through a smogish haze reminiscent of 1980s Los Angeles only worse.

Chinese customs is scary. First, the paperwork is a lot more complex than anywhere else I’ve been (US included) and there’s a medical form to fill out. As you stand in line — which moves at a glacial pace — there are doctors scanning the crowd along with lots of police. After medical clearance, you move to passport control where they check your passport, visa, and finally send you through. This process is slow because they study every single stamp in your passport — and mine is nearly full. There is a big sign that says “The People’s Republic of China may refuse to allow you entry into or exit from China without providing any reason” in many languages. Also, they have a separate customs line for Taiwanese citizens. Taiwanese citizens can’t fly to China directly: they have to take a 90-minute detour, fly to Hong Kong and then into China because China also will not allow flights from their ‘renegade province’ — to say political relations are strained is an understatement. The citizens don’t much seem to care.

When you get your first whiff of Shanghai air, you will quote Gollum. “It burns! It burns!” And it’s brown and thick. I have to tell you, it’s just grotesque. The drivers here are the worst drivers in the universe: they make New Yorkers and Bostonians seem positively calm. In our “pray we make it” car ride to the city, we passed the world’s only commercially operating MagLev train which gets from the airport to the city’s main train station in 8 minutes going almost 300 miles per hour. It’s amazing and I wish we’d have taken it, but our luggage made it impractical, so we were stuck in the one-hour car ride from hell.

Shanghai has bicycles like Taiwan has scooters. They’re everywhere and they drive no better than the cars. Shanghai is a fascinating city, and I’m sure many people would like it, but I can’t say much except it was a unique experience. Greg and I spent more time walking around Shanghai than any of the other cities simply because we had more time. The city is dirty, I can’t emphasize that enough. My eyes, two days later, still are burning like hell and my lungs won’t be clear for days. We walked down Nanjing Road, the Bund, and saw the Yangtze which makes the Hudson look like a pristine mountain lake.

The trip home was on China Eastern Airlines. It might not mean much to you, and it didn’t mean much to us either. Before I rant, I want to say the flight attendants were delightful and put up with us in good humour. Other than that, I want to remind everyone to never, ever, no matter what, fly an airline owned by a Communist government. The “food” was ample but if you don’t want to eat the “meal” who cares. I did not eat my lamb chops for lunch because they were too greasy and unappetizing. When my breakfast came, they put my uneaten lamb chops on top of my omelette. The seats while big could use more padding, the waiting area for the flight was Spartan at best. And, while I’m at it, Pudong airport makes any other major look like a masterpiece. (The design is nice, it’s what’s IN the airport: nothing.) Did you know you can’t get a chocolate bar at the airport? Really.

Customs in LAX was a breeze, though they didn’t have luggage transfer points, so we had to haul our luggage from Tom Bradley to Terminal four. Although we were worried we’d miss our flight, it ended up being an hour late so we were cool. Greg conned us into the Admiral’s Club where we waited for the trip home. The rest of the flight was uneventful, and I’ll end my tale here so you don’t have to hear the agony of me coming home to what Wilma did to my home.

I will gladly answer questions if you have any.

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