Taichung's trying to kick my ass. I won't let it.
I'm on Day 12 of this 24-day trip, my first to Taiwan. The first half I spent in Taipei, and today I started a tour around the island. Itinerary is flexible. Key desires are lively Taichung, the Alishan Mountain Railway, traditional Tainan, industrial Kaohsiung, the southernmost tip at Kending, the tropical eastcoast town of Hualien, and Taroko Gorge. I'll end up back in Taipei to wrap up, and fly back to San Francisco on Sun Oct 12. Dates are flexible, but that's the sequence.
Today I took the Bullet Train from Taipei to Taichung, 49 minutes for maybe 200 miles. The shinkansen stops four miles out of city center, and cabbies were pretty agressive at the gate. I got on the wrong bus, but got to my destination and had fun anyway, with compass and map and peering at the highway signs, chatting with the busdriver's girlfriend, mostly in Mandarin.
I can already see a language difference between Taipei and Taichung. Up north is a more international city, and in the business/tourist hotels I heard a lot of Japanese, tons of Mandarin, snatches of Taiwanese, and many people had schoolbook exposure to English. Down here in Taichung I hear Taiwanese in daily life, and Mandarin for communicating with others. (Hotel clerks and bus transport people are awesome with English... I realize they rarely get a chance to practice it, but their study puts mine to shame. Hats off to 'em.)
The Mandarin/Taiwanese distinction has implications. No one knows how the original inhabitants spoke, when they (presumably) crossed the landbridge from mainland China during one of the great Ice Ages, 30K-40K years ago. These cultures were displaced by successive waves of Micronesian migrants, who set up distinct territories in different parts of the island. The first big migrations from China occurred during the Qing dynasty, 1600s, mostly from Fujian (or Hokkien, pronounced "Ho'lien", don't ask me why) Province, and they spoke a language called Hokkien or Amoy or Minnan, which was mutually unintelligible with Beijing-style speech or with the Cantonese of Guangzhou and Hong Kong. The Fujian people had little arable land but lots of seacoast, so they tended to spread Amoy throughout many islands in Southeast Asia and Micronesia.
(Well, actually, before the Fujians the Hakka came over, and they have their own language. These people are sometimes called "The Jews of China", because they were pushed from the north by prejudice, then pushed from Fujian by prejudice, and ended up on the wild island of Barbarians which the Portuguese called "Ilha Formosa", or "Beautiful Island". The Hakka were again pushed out of prime farmland when the Hokkien later came over, but they retain a distinct culture in many areas and are an important force in Taiwanese economy and politics.)
So, unknown prehistoric languages to a Micronesian melange to Hakka to Fujian/Amoy/Minnan, and a whole lot of different Europeans had established traderoute presences on the island by that time too. (Thank the Portuguese for all the bread in Asia, and for tempura too, but I don't think their languages had much of an impact.)
Up until 1895 Formosa was relatively undeveloped and with low numbers of diverse and distinct populations. But after the first Japanese invasion of China, the Treaty of Shimonoseki ceded Formosa to Japan, and they established a strong presence here for red cypress, camphor, tea, sugar, and other natural resources. In doing so the Japanese built up a lot of infrastructure (roads, rails, cities), and attracted a lot of migrant workers from across the strait in Fujian.
The Japanese held the island for 50 years, and many of the Taiwanese oldtimers schooled during that time still speak Japanese. There was official pressure against Minnan/Amoy, but from what I've picked up it didn't seem too hardcore. Japanese was the official language; Minnan was the language of the people; many groups spoke Hakka or tribal dialects.
And nobody spoke Beijing-style Mandarin. The Imperial Court regarded the island as a liability, and only officiated over part of the western plain to keep the Europeans from taking over the island to slaughter the pirates that disrupted their trade. Then when the Empire was defeated in Mongolia, they gave away the island to Japan.
But after Japan was defeated in World War II, the island was given up, and during the late 40s the official government was still the Republic of China, established in 1911 after the Empire folded. Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomingtang took title to the island, and plundered it of resources in their fight with the Communists.
The Communists won, and pushed the KMT off the mainland. At that point Chiang reversed the resource flow, moving everything to Formosa. This included the Emperors' private art collections, which became the core of Taiwan's National Museum today.
Whew. The KMT pushed Mandarin hard, punishing Japanese and Amoy/Hokkien speech. It was all-Beijinger, all-the-time, while the KMT thought that they might retake the mainland.
That hope faded during the 1980s and 90s, after the perfidious Jimmy Carter cut Taiwan off for Beijing trade. Chiang's son started liberalizing the military government, and first native president Lee Tung-Hei continued the trend.
Over the past two decades there has been much national interest in majority Taiwanese/Minnan speech, which actually came across from the southern coast of China. Other speakers (Hakka eg) are a little ambivalent, but the trend is clear. The KMT's stronghold of Taipei uses Mandarin the most, and the southern parts tend to use Minnan/Amoy during daily life. Schooling, I think, is mostly of Mandarin and English (thanks to the significant US investment in Taiwanese defense and economy during the last half of the 20th Century).
Damn, I knew I put off writing that history for a reason... it's fascinating, but long. Let me get another beer and resume my Taichung story....
So, anyway, I haven't heard any Japanese here at all today, and Mandarin is the lingua franca of business, and I'm hearing tons of Taiwanese during the day, and people surprise me at how much better their English is than my Mandarin (even though there's no reason to speak English besides helping the statistically-abnormal tourist). I knew there was such a distinction between Taipei and Taichung, but I'm still surprised to hear it so distinctly. End language digression.
But the reason Taichung is kicking my butt is that it's unkind to pedestrians. Taipei surprised me by a walking environment like Tokyo... more sidewalk disruptions, but the intersections were well laid out, the traffic in them predictable. Taichung has broken sidewalks like Xi'an, and a greedy disregard for others as in Shanghai.
I tried to walk the six blocks from the main railroad station (a beautiful Japanese imitation of British style, by the way), and should've just gotten snagged by an agressive cabbie instead. The height of the sidewalk between adjacent buildings varies. Scooters and cars will park on them without bothering to leave room for others to pass -- not by necessity, just by negligence. Bicyclists passing from behind on the sidewalk will pass within an elbow's length of a pedestrian on the edge of the walkway... no damn reason at all, other than that it fences off more territory, Go-ishly. If you acknowledge that the sidewalk is impassable to someone pushing luggage, then in the street scooters will nudge over and block you, needlessly. I really wanted to use a bazooka on some of these people, just to show them that a little pedestrian like me is actually as big as their scooter or taxi. I'm still angry.
Seems to be more horns than in Taipei too, but I'm not sure about this part yet.
Oh, and the UNDERPASSES! It's like Beijing, but worse... pedestrians are barred from major intersections, and must go down two crumbling flights of stairs to an underground sleeping passageway for vagrants, before climbing up to surface again. I did it four times before giving up and trying to navigate offstreets, or using a cab. You don't love pedestrians, buster, and I don't love you.
I'm staying in the old central section of town. Last time I take advice from a Lonely Planet writer who uses a backpack. It's grungy, and the cheap-o doorlock had been jimmied at one point. I locked my bags in the room before leaving, carrying all valuables on an exploratory walk of the town. The newer part, the more modern part, looks like San Francisco's Mission District... only with a different sidewalk every hundred feet.
I left in late afternoon, and the sun set earlier than I had expected. I hadn't brought my high-power Surefire flashlight, and only had a small Photon (best for reading a menu or finding something on the floor), and a little windup Adobe-branded emergency flashlight (bright when pointed at your eyes, but doesn't illuminate at a distance). I was very gracious to others, but when I had no chance to be gracious I was a porcupine. I hate being forced into a corner like that.
Anyway, my mood's better now. I had been about to chuck it and go back to Taipei, but instead checked into a modern international hotel up in the new end of town, hundreds of rooms, the National. I'm paying rackrate (not much on Internet bargains in Taichung, even if I had a printer), but it's only about $120US, compared to the $50 this place near the train station turned out to be. My plan is to try to visit Sun-Moon Lake or Puli Village tomorrow, and see if I have to stay overnight in Chiayi in order to catch the 1pm Alishan Train to the top of the mountain to spend a weekday night.
But that isn't really what I wanted to talk about... ;-)
I realized today that there's a novel difficulty to foreign travel within Taiwan. It's a language complication.
Chinese characters are easy. They may have different pronunications, but the "da" character always means "big", the "jie" character always means "street" and so on.
The problem starts when you try to pronounce the character... Minnanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, even Korean all might have different sounds associated with those brushstrokes which are associated with a static universal meaning.
Then, to turn those sounds into an alphabet... whoa. Remember when Beijing was called Peking, or even Peping? Same meaning, same characters, same speech, just different ways to turn the sounds into an alphabet. Fortunately the mainland mandated one after the other, and using an alternate romanization would only make you incorrect, but not too confused.
Taiwan hasn't really had a centralized authority that people really bought into until the last decade or so. There have been successive waves of transliteration schemes (Wade-Giles, Yales, and PRC-style Pinyin), and they have been maintained by different groups (a city government may be at odds with national government's preferred transliteration, and of course you have to make exceptions for famous historical usage). The result is that an English reader would have to realize that Kaohsiung on one map might be Gaoxiong on another... street names even change mid-block on maps and street signs. I'm getting better at anticipating how different Latin letters might represent the same set of Chinese characters, but it'd really be easier to have both the characters and a Latin-letter hint. Can't always get both, though. It's an extra cost.
And I finally realized why I'm having such a hard time at the night markets, and usually end up getting rice balls at the 7-11. The guidebooks say "night markets are great, just point to what you want!", but most of the night markets I've seen display the freshness of their ingredients in the rack, and the actual dishes you can order from those ingredients are listed on signboards up above. I can do okay on these, but most of my study recently has been of the simplified characters used on the mainland, while Taiwan (like Hong Kong and Japan) uses the more complex traditional characters. I see stuff I know, but can't recognize it, so I can't order a dish unless I go through a whole schtick routine with "chao fan, hao ma?" pidgeon routine. I wish I had printed up flashcards of the characters for common nightmarket dishes before leaving home; I'd be eating a lot better now.
One more tip (if you're driven enough to have read this far ;-) -- the taxi drivers really, really, really want to study your hotel's "mingpian" namecard before deciding that they know where you want to go. Doesn't matter if I've spoken it, described the direction, marked it on a Chinese map, or hand-written the hotel's names in characters on it... I've been in too many big multi-cabbie/bellhop discussions where people debate what the map might mean. Do yourself a favor, take the little card, give 'em a familiar routine.
(And, of course, the internet hotel-booking sites never even think of such a simple thing. Before leaving for a trip, do a search for your hotel's Asian-language pages, and print out the map they provide for their native-speaking customers. You need it far more than they do!!)
My first day in Taichung has been difficult. It feels distinctly different than Taipei to me, more challenging. I'm adjusting my plans, and will persevere. G'night.