At every turn of our journey there have been surprises, Taipei, Taiwan, the Island of Formosa, is yet another example of how our preconceptions can be so easily erased. I'd always thought of Taiwan as a tiny titan, a major manufacturing base for the semiconductor industry, as well as numerous other technology based businesses and light manufacturing, but in truth many of those jobs have left Taiwan for mainland China. There is still wealth and prosperity here but it's not as strong as it once was- Taiwan in many ways is treading water. Like most of Asia, Taiwan is feeling the down turn, suffering with unemployment, inflation, and a softening economy. The smallest denomination of the Taiwan dollar bill is the 100, there are still coins but they cost more to make than they are worth. "We are an orphan country", explained our guide James, a retired Taiwanese naval commander, "We would very much like to join the international organizations such as the United Nations, but they will not accept us- they do not recognize us as an independent country." The US once fully recognized Taiwan, we had an embassy here in Taipei, and full diplomatic relations, but with the opening of China in 1972, and formal diplomatic relations established in 1978 we agreed to abandon our formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, in favor of the trading potential of red China. With the "One China Principal", Taiwan was left out in the cold.
"I was born Japanese in 1945", James says with a smile, "but then after the war, I was told I was now Chinese." In fact I am Taiwanese, but sometimes I don't know what 'nese' I really am!" We are rumbling down the busy streets of Taipei, in a highly over decorated bright pink tour bus. James, in classic tour guide style, is balanced between two fluffy velvet trimmed seats speaking softly into his microphone, talking about the history of Taiwan, how it has been in the hands of many nations and people- Indigenous Polynesian, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese. He is very passionate about his country and its history. "China says to us, 'We are bothers', but if this were really true then why have two thousand nuclear missiles pointed at us?" The approaching Olympic games in China has raised old issues here. China hasn't allowed the torch-run to pass through Taiwan, even though they promised to do so, and there's some controversy over what to officially call Taiwan's Olympic delegation. For the most part, the people seem to take things in stride- they've been dealing with strained relations for many years but they're still disappointed. From the time Taiwan first became an independent nation in 1912, through Mao's cultural revolution in 1949, and the resulting take-over of Taiwan by the military dictator Chiang Kai Shek. Taiwan has survived it all and plans to keep on surviving. There is a great deal of national pride here- "We are a small country but we are strong."
Our city tour takes us to the Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall, and the National Revolutionary Martyrs' Shrine, as with many tours we've had on this trip, the names of the places we visit are often misleading and can sound quite uninteresting at first. Taiwan is known as the ROC- Republic of China, the subtle difference in a name tells all- The People's Republic of China, of course is a very different place all together. Hong Kong is considered part of China but is still independent in many respects as is the island of Macau; Taiwan is even more independent, but is still considered part of China by the international community. It can get pretty confusing, but there seems to be many "Chinas". The Democracy Memorial Hall is actually quite spectacular. Originally built by Chiang Kai Shek as a shrine to himself, it now serves as a museum and cultural center.
three hundred thousand men and women who have died defending Taiwan from China
The "Generalissimo" is still remembered but not in the way that he'd planned. We arrived at the Martyr's Shrine in time for the changing of the guard. The architecture alone is worth the visit, but the flare and regalia of the ceremony is fun to watch too. The Martyr's Shrine honors the three hundred thousand men and women who have died defending Taiwan from China (did you catch that number?? These people are serious about defending their freedom against China). James was fresh out of training from the Naval Academy when he saw action against the Chinese Navy in the Straits of Taiwan. Most of his classmates were killed in that battle, James was seriously wounded.
Taipei 101, for the moment at least, is the tallest building in the world at one hundred and one stories. The tower under construction in Dubai; Burj Khalifa will take its place when it's completed next year. The city of Taipei has a low spread-out skyline leaving Taipei 101 to stand out like a lone gleaming jade pillar amongst a see of very ordinary looking buildings. Such a contrast from Hong Kong, home to three of the world's top ten tallest buildings- the whole city is so tall they hardly stand out from the crowd. After taking the world's fastest elevator (37 miles per hour and pressurized like an aircraft) to the top observation floor- super neat! We went down to the eighty-fifth floor for a nice lunch overlooking Taipei. I have to mention the restroom at the restaurant- it has to be the tallest in the world with a view- the most interesting toilet of the whole trip! After lunch we visited the National Palace Museum and had a far too hasty tour of one of the greatest Asian art collections in the world. When Chiang Kai Shek left China for Taiwan in 1949, he took many Chinese treasures with him. This is also a point of contention even today, but much of what was left behind was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution that followed Chiang's departure from China. After the museum, we took a nice walk through some lovely gardens stopping to feed the Koi fish- a popular activity here. We wound up our tour with a stop at a tea shop where we sampled fine teas grown here in Taiwan and finished up with a tour of one of Taipei's many large markets. we packed a lot into our one-day tour of Taipei but it was fun and interesting. The island is actually quite beautiful with a large mountain range, lovely coast line, and a climate that runs from winter snow on the mountain tops to tropical rain forests.
So here I am at FL270; twenty-seven thousand feet, we're heading for Seoul, South Korea, and the wind-down into Russia. Our journey is beginning to draw to a close. We're currently a full day behind the rest of the group- we arrived at the airport yesterday to find a malfunction in our flap controls. After several hours spent on the phone to Pilatus in Australia and the guys at Epp's Aviation in Atlanta, lots of great advice, and several attempts by Art to correct the malfunction, we decided to cancel our flight and pack it in for the day. The glamour of a trip around the world is often interrupted with the realities of mechanical difficulties, bureaucratic delays, and long hours spent sitting in the hot sun on a deserted ramp at a huge airport. Art returned to the airport this morning and spent a few more hours working on the problem. We still have a problem but we've elected to press-on with no flaps. We just have to change the way we fly the plane a bit but everything else seems to be fine. Art will talk more about it in his pilot entries but I have to say that the guys at China Airlines were wonderful to deal with and took very good care of us. Once again the greatest experience of this trip has been meeting so many interesting, kind, and genuine people. We tend to focus on the differences but it's the similarities in us all that are the most profound.
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