If the rain hadn't persisted, I'd planned on spending my final two days in Taipei riding the superb bike paths that go on for miles and miles along the several rivers that intersect the city. But weather systems can become snagged on the mountains of this island nation one thousand miles off the coast of China and take awhile to move on. I wasn't to be deterred though. With the rain mostly misty and drizzly with just occasional mild hard spells, I gave in to my longings and did some pedaling on the bike paths, knowing shelter was never too distant and that I had a warm, dry abode awaiting me at the end of the day.
I had the paths pretty much to myself. About the only others out in the rain were a few fishermen and the many feral dogs who inhabit the strips of parkland along the rivers. They weren't chasing dogs, so they were of no concern. They raised their eyes to me, hoping I might be one of their patrons who bring them food scraps. Taiwan is a country of stray dogs, but rarely do they bark or give chase. Surprisingly, I didn't see a single carcass along the road and only an occasional pile of excrement. They reflected the considerate and tidy behavior of the Taiwanese.
Though the paths were wet and I needed to keep the hood of my jacket up to keep my head dry, I could merrily glide along enjoying the corridors of tranquility from the urban maelstrom all about me. I would have preferred to have been sharing a contagion of pleasure with others partaking of the path and the tennis and badminton and basketball courts and baseball diamonds, but it was just fine to be undistracted by others and simply let my thought wander. Once again I was reminded that Taiwan is not China, not only by the level of affluence and this sense of order, but also by the lack of ping pong tables. If this had been China the parks would have been filled with them.
Though I am invariably initially repelled by huge urban environments and want to escape as soon as possible, I am prone to taking a liking to them with time, and that has been the case with Taipei. It may be a densely populated, sprawling metropolis, but it's not choked by cars, thanks to an extensive, inexpensive bus and subway system and many people on motorbikes. The smallest percentage of vehicles, even fewer than buses, are pedal bikes, despite plenty of bikes for rent.
The rental bikes are heavily promoted and are monogrammed with a smile and the word "Smile" in English and Mandarin.
Though the fast flying motorcycles might seem a menace, they observe an exemplary code of conduct. At major intersections they have two designated boxes set aside for them ahead of all other vehicles when waiting for a light to turn green. There is a large box behind the pedestrian crosswalk where most congregate.
In front of the crosswalk is a smaller box for motorcycles coming from the left who are turning on to the road, as on four-lane streets they are not allowed in the left lane, even if they are making a left-hand turn.
Very rarely does a motorcyclist creep ahead from behind the crosswalk to this box to get a jump on everyone else. That box is nearly universally given respect as the domain of those who are in the process of a left-turn. I had to fight the temptation to sneak up to it myself, but came to enjoy sitting back and observing everyone else deferring to those coming from our left who were turning onto our road.
Another of the small Taiwanese gestures I have come to develop a fondness for and that I will miss is the two-handed presentation of my receipt whenever I buy anything. Early on I wouldn't wait around for my receipt until all too often the cashier would chase after me to give it to me.
One of my rides on the paths took me fifteen miles along the rivers to Taipei's one hundred year old zoo. It is nestled up against a ridge of mountains that one can be transported to from the zoo via a gondola. Even in the rainy conditions it was well-attended by families with young children and hand-holding young folk in the early stages of a relationship. All were remarkably well-mannered and respectful, causing no commotion or disturbance, fully obedient to the no feeding of the animals and no knocking on the window signs. No one taunted the various primates trying to provoke a reaction or showed any impatient in being where they were. It was a pleasure to be amongst such a civilized people.
Most popular was a pair of pandas, a gift from China, that were part of a huge complex with multiple stores selling panda products. It wasn't until 2005 that relations between the two countries had thawed enough that China made the symbolic gesture of the pandas. Taiwan's president at the time refused the gift. It wasn't until three years later that a new president accepted the pandas.
Not much more than a dozen zoos around the world outside of China have pandas. There are five in North America (San Diego, Memphis, Atlanta, Washington D.C. and Toronto) and none in South America and Africa. They subsist largely on bamboo, as this one was nibbling.
The sprawling grounds of the zoo with lush vegetation and rocky backdrops was well-represented with animals large and small from all over the world. One section was devoted to the animals of Taiwan. I was happy to get a close-up view of the island's only primate, the Formosan Rock Macaque, who inhabit the entire country. I had gotten an occasional glimpse of them scampering across the road or darting among the trees, but nothing of significance. I feared they might be drawn to my tent out of curiosity, but that never happened. Those at the zoo on this day were huddled together trying to keep warm.
Before I began my ride back to my hostel I took a rest in the zoo's library. It had zoological magazines from all over the world in many different languages. I also dropped in on the National Library just a mike down the road from where I was staying.
It faced the huge square with the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial and the National Theater and National Concert Hall.
Of the twenty newspapers it carried, only one was in English--The Taipei Times. It had a couple of stories on how the country is trying to encourage tourism. The country's policy fluctuates on the number of mainland Chinese it allows to visit and whether in tour groups or independently. Many come via Hong Kong with sixty flights a day making making the eighty minute hop across the Taiwan Strait.
My hostel was just a block from the city's premiere Art Movie House--SPOT. It was playing two films from Japan and a documentary, "The Moment," commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the country's premiere film festival, the Golden Horse.
It had had its world premiere the week before. I couldn't have asked for a more appropriate film. It provided not only a history of Taiwanese cinema with an emphasis on its three leading directors (Ang Lee, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang), but also a commentary on what was going on in the country over the years.
It included snippets from many of its award-winning films and interviews with actors and directors and also footage of significant events in the country's history. For the first fifteen years of the festival its awards night coincided with the birthday celebration of Chiang Kai-shek, a national holiday, until even after his death. At the fifteenth festival in 1976, the year after Chiang's death, Elizabeth Taylor became the first Hollywood star to attend the festival, not with a film, but as a presenter at the awards ceremony.
The film festival covered the period during which Taiwan was transformed from an agrarian to an industrial country. One film from the early days of industrialization showed factory workers streaming into their factory, all on bicycles. During the early years of the festival, there was a strong degree of censorship, what with the country under martial law. All along directors challenged taboos. When the United States cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979, eight years after China replaced Taiwan in the United Nations, it led to anti-American rioting. One director said he got in trouble with his mother for taking eggs from her refrigerator, which were costly, and throwing them at Americans.
It was a significant event in the festival's history in 1996 when it allowed films from mainland China into the festival. A year later was the "Hand-Over" of Hong Kong to China. The film included footage of Prince Charles at that event. Hong Kong dominated the awards in the early years of the festival. Hou Hsiao-Hsien won the best picture award in 1989 with "A City of Sadness" on the February 28, 1947 massacre of protesters, a seminal event in the country's history, simply known as "228," that is remembered with a national holiday. Ang Lee said he was brought to tears when his first film "Pushing Hands," won the best picture award in 1992. There was no commentary from Edward Yang, as he died a few years ago, but many of the directors paid him tribute. Some worked with him and others were students of his.
The film captured the gentle demeanor that has been my perception of so many of the people I have met here. I'm happy I allowed more than just the couple of weeks that is all I would have needed to make an easy circuit of the 750-mike bike route around the coast line of the country and took the time for extra exploration to get to know the country and its people a little bit better.
My lone disappointment is that, despite being so bike-friendly, there is not a bicycle route into the airport. One can get within a mile of it, but then is blocked. I scouted out the twenty-five mile route from Taipei to it a week ago, and was halted by a concerned employee after I pretended I didn't understand the no bicycling sign. I feared I'd have to resort to a cab, but I learned there was a regular bus to the airport with a large cargo compartment that made pickups just two blocks from where I was staying at the nominal cost of $2.60.
I regretted being denied the challenge of carrying a folded-up bike box under my arm for twenty-five miles, including a three-mile 800-foot climb, but taking the bus spared me the worries of the overcast skies soaking and ruining the box. Riding out to the airport would have been a triumphal finale to my time in Taiwan, but I hardly needed any more icing to my wonderful time. It was nice to be the lone Westerner on a packed bus of Taiwanese, and it enabled me to partake of more of their goodwill--a hotel concierge helping me to lug my bike box and duffel the final half-block to the bus stop and then a young fellow passenger grabbing my duffel to load it on as I loaded the bike.