Travels with Lois and Jason


November 1998

This was going to be a very strange Thanksgiving holiday for us -- it would be the first year with neither children nor parent to share a turkey dinner (kids away and mom in nursing home). So, when the National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan invited Jason to present three lectures, Thanksgiving week seemed a good time to go. And, except for the weather (rain every day), it was! We were in Taiwan November 21st to 29th. And, as December 5th was election day in Taiwan, we had a week filled with election slogans, banners, a few street parades, and pep rallies (which included a Chinese opera). With so much energy surrounding this important election, we learned a great deal about Taiwan, its history as well as its current political dilemma. And, we were treated like royalty to boot!

Our plans were to spend four days in Taipei, then three days traveling the scenic east coast, and then the last three days in Taipei. Our hosts, the Innovation Incubator Center at National Chengchi University, arranged our hotels and assisted with the entire trip planning. We were to stay the first four nights at the Grand Hotel in Taipei, but the hotel was sold out our first night, so they arranged for us to stay at the new Grand Hyatt (about a year old) in the downtown center. Next door was the World Trade Center, and across the street the only cinema we saw on our entire journey. The cinema was a extremely modern 9-plex, showing the same first run movies that were showing in Los Angeles. Almost all the films were American, shown in English with Chinese "side-titles". A major surprise for us was that the Italian film about the holocaust, "Life is Beautiful," was being shown. This was surprising as we were not aware of any Jewish community in Taipei.

One of the professors and his wife severed as our hosts on Saturday and Sunday. After checking into the Hyatt and having breakfast (a combination western and eastern buffet), we went to Hsing Tien Temple (one of the many hundred in the country -- temples are as common as churches are in the United States). There were numerous people in prayer, burning incense, and having healers (lay-priest) doing various touch-therapy to the believers' arms, backs, and head. The believers' left donations (food or money) as compensation.

We then went to the National Palace Museum which was completed in 1965 to house a collection of Chinese art which spans nearly 5,000-years. There are four floors, with the first and third the permanent collection and the 2nd changing every couple of months. When the Chinese nationalist left the mainland in 1949 they took enough treasures from the various museums that they could change the exhibit at National Palace Museum every month for forty year before having to repeat themselves. This month they were displaying the works of the contemporary masters of the east and west: Ta-Chien Chang and Pablo Picasso. The museum was mobbed and it was fun to see the docent leading hoards of folk through the Picasso exhibit explaining it all in Chinese while we were seeing the Chang exhibit having it explained in English. We had our first formal tea in the Tea Room on the fourth floor, and enjoyed the exquisite grounds and fish pond in the botanical garden.

Saturday night after dinner (Mongolian barbecue) another one of the professors took us to our first night market -- they open when the sun goes down and close when it comes up -- just a huge "flea" market, but definitely for the locals. After visiting these a few times it became obvious what they are the malls of the east, complete with a "food courts"! This is where the locals go to "window shop," take the kids for a night out, and for the young folk to stroll.

Sunday morning we were picked up at the Hyatt and taken to the Grand Hotel, the most exquisite hotel we have ever seen anywhere in the world. This incredible "lacquered" building was built under the supervision of Madam Chiang Kai-shek and was only available to government official and foreign dignitaries until about ten years ago at which time it was opened to the public. Every square inch of the hotel was covered in lacquered paint -- the pillars and columns in solid red, the sides, ceilings, and underside of the roof, and every other nook and cranny in a variety of brilliant colors. The plush red carpets and grand stair case (about 50 feet across) added a sense of royalty to our visit. The hotel is at the north end of Taipei, on a hill side overlooking the Keelung River and the city.

After checking into our room, we drove to Yangmingshan National Park which is only 30 minutes north from downtown Taipei (when there is no traffic). We visited a waterfall, and then a pagoda on a hill top (but the wind and rain were so strong we could not ascend to the second floor). After lunch at our hosts favorite dumpling place we went to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial and received our first in-depth history lesson. In December, 1949, Chiang Kai-shek lead two million Chinese mainlanders (mostly government and military personnel and their families) to Taiwan. They viewed this as a temporary move until they could reclaim the mainland. As such, they did not invest in the development of the country's infrastructure nor in any city planning. The city and landscape reflected this lack of a sense of permanence as was extremely evident when you rode through the streets: building were a hodge-podge with neither rhythm nor reason to them. They were neither friendly to look upon nor warm or inviting to be apart of. The city appeared as a collection of temporary, hurrily built building. We had heard from friends who had been in Taipei just 20 years ago that a vast portion of the city was rice patties. Today we saw no rice patties in the city. And, the buildings had a cement cold, timeless looks. So even though a good many were less than 20 years old, that's not the way they appeared. But the people we encountered were incredibly friendly and upbeat -- everyone seem to walk around with a smile.

And the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial was a wonderful gathering place. There were three major structures: the Memorial itself, styled on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC., an Opera House, and a Concert Hall. The two auditoriums were at the south end of a long mall with the Memorial, with its imposing steps, at the north end. The mall was alive with booths and the quad between the concert halls was hosting a high school drill team competition. A dozen marching bands with their flag twirlers and honor guards were performing. Even in the light drizzle, it was pure fun. On our last night we returned to the Opera House for a concert, and afterward joined the throng involved in the political rally taking place in the quad. This rally included a Chinese opera as well as fire works.

Jason's first presentation Monday morning was on the Anderson School and Its Wired Environment. The second Monday afternoon was on Electronic Commerce (co-hosted by Price Waterhouse and presented in their training center on the 30th floor of the World Trade Center). That night we were the guests of the senior PW partner and we ate at a private club in the WTC. Tuesday afternoon Jason's last talk was on Distance Learning and Personal Knowledge Management -- Alternative to the Traditional Classroom (co-hosted by IBM and presented at the Universities Continuing Education Center in downtown Taipei, in a very modern and formal executive classroom). All three lectures were in English without translation and the Q&A sessions were all in English with no apparent comprehension problems. The attendees even laughed at Jason's attempts at humor so it was clear that many had an outstanding command of English.

Wednesday morning we left Taipei via train for Taroko Gorge, a 12 mile narrow ravine created by a river that has cut deeply through mountains of solid marble and granite. The train traveled east from Taipei to the coast and then south along the Pacific to the city of Hualien. We were met by an cabby who spoke some English and who drove us through the gorge to our hotel which overlook a precipice and the river below. The road was build by Chiang Kai-shek for military purposes at a cost of 460 lives, and has numerous tunnel and portions of the road simply hanging over the gorge. Parts of the road were closed by a recent landslide and traffic was let through in only one direction at a time during a ten minute period each hour. For one stretch, the old road was for pedestrian use only along the gorge while the cars, busses, and trucks used a new tunnel. Along this section, the gorge was only a 100 or so feet across and the walls rose almost vertically for 2000 feet. It was quite spectacular.

Thursday, after walking a suspensions bridge over the gorge to a temple, we return to Hualien and caught our next train south to the city of Taitung. We spent the night at the hotel of one of the host professor's family. We had dinner at a local dumpling restaurant and walked the town. We rose the next morning, shopped at the 7-11 (they were everywhere in Taiwan) for breakfast foods and water, and then caught the train for our return trip to Taipei. The trip north traveled through rice patties and along the coast -- seeing it from the other direction may it seem like a whole new journey.

Friday morning we again went to the National Palace Museum, this time to catch the morning English docent tour, learning bits and piece of Chinese culture from the tour of the permanent collection. We tried our hand at tea, this time on our own, on the 4th Floor, and seemed to manage well. In addition to the pot of tea and the cups, a small pouring cup is provided. As the tea sits in the pot, it grows stronger (and more bitter), so by pouring from the tea pot into the pouring cup, and then from the pouring cup into the tea cups, each person receives tea of equal strength. After our tea we headed for the busses to go to town. But outside the museum we were stopped by two university students and asked if we would mind being interviewed. As a project for their English class they were to interview foreigners. They asked us why we had come to Taipei and what food we liked and what we saw, taped recorded it all, and were going to do a report. Great fun!!! (We're still trying to figure out how they knew we were foreigners?) We then took a public bus to the train station so that we could walk around the downtown area. Again the people on the bus were very friendly and helpful. We had the hotel write out the destination we wanted to reach in Chinese characters so that we could just show people and they would point. It worked like a charm every time! When we arrived downtown we discovered one "night market" after another (and it was the middle of the day).

Saturday morning we had yet another fascinating adventure. We went for a walk to the hills behind the Grand Hotel and we were shocked. The hill side was covered (below the trees so it wasn't at all visible) with paved foot paths, with "street" lights, water tanks, and bath rooms. There were what appeared to be "homes" (little shed like structures) with tables and chairs (rather permanent looking) outside. We came across a temple, with a "choir" chanting and a gong player playing. The lower "streets" had an ongoing morning market with fruits, meats, clothing, and a badminton shops with tennis shoes, rackets, and birdies. As we meandered, we discovered dozens of badminton counts, most in excellent condition and a couple "indoors." Young and old were out playing. The hill was alive, and that night as we looked out our window, we could see those street lights but they took on an entirely new meaning.

Our plane Sunday the 29th wasn't until 10 PM Taiwan time (we arrived home in LA at 7 PM the 29th, LA time).  So, our gracious hosts invited us to join them for a "Glass Tasting" party.  Jack Riedel, owner of Riedel Crystal, an Austrian company which has made fine glasses since 1756, came to Taiwan to promote his products and put on a "real glass act" -- why the proper glass made a difference in the taste of wine.  When we went into this session at a rather plush hotel, each seat was set with six glasses, labeled 1 through 6.  Only glasses 1 and 4 had any wine.  Glass 1 had a very large bowl and wide mouth with Burgundy Red wine below the widest point of the bowl.  Mr. Riedel explained why the glass was shaped as it was, had us twirl the wine, and smell it  (no tasting he insisted!).  The large bowl allowed lots of wine to be on the surface so the full aroma was available to us to enjoy and the wide mouth allowed us to get our noses well into the glass.  And, then the taste test.  Mr. Riedel explained the wide mouth enable the wine to be delivered to the very front of the tongue, that portion which senses sweet.  Next he had us transfer the wine to glass 2 (a white wine glass) and taste it -- ooh it was acidic, and then to glass 3 (the standard, cheap thick stem and bowl commercial glass which are so break resistant) and this time the wine was bitter.  Mr. Riedel explained that the shape of the bowl and opening placed the wine on different taste centers of the tongue first (the acid and bitter portions toward the back) and so the same wine tasted very different.  We then repeated the experiment with a Red Bordeaux wine with glasses 5 and 6, and we were converts!  So, now that we have had a "taste of glass" we need to go out and spend $100 a glass to so that $5 a bottle wine tastes right!!!

Our Taiwanese story would be incomplete without a comment about traffic. We were shocked by what we saw. It wasn't the fact that every street was crammed with cars, but that we never heard a horn! The Taiwanese people were the most patient drivers we've ever seen. Traffic jams where everywhere, but people sat patiently, without honking or pushing in for their turn at the right-of-way. The other surprise was the scooters. Where we anticipated bicycles there were none. But the scooters were everywhere. We saw young and old, singles and families, with packages and animals, all traveling via scooter.  And the customer in Taipei was at a red light all the scooters came to the front of the line. So, when a light turned green, dozen of scooters started across the intersection followed by the on-rush of cars.  And, on top of the rush, the concept of staying in a lane was totally unheard of -- people turned right from the left lane, left from the right lane, and wove in and out without concern.  It was truly an "E-ticket ride!"

Another thing that really caught us by surprise (although we're not sure that we should have been) was the number of people with cell phones.  When we were on the train, there were always people talking on their phones.   Walking the streets and night markets, there were always people on their phones.  The cell phone is truly a universally available communication tool.  Our host used them in a very practical way:    Given the parking problems, one of our hosts would get out with us at a site while the other parked.   They would then call each other so that we could hook up together.  This wasn't just once, but many times.

Perhaps the best way to summarize our experience in Taiwan is to relate a fascinating story an Anderson School alum who attended my lecture on distance learning told me. "When you arrive in Taiwan, the immigration officers are suppose to weigh you. When you depart, they weigh you again. And, if you didn't gain any weight, they scold your host!"

You really don't have to believe it, but it summarizes the incredible treatment and hospitality shown by our Taiwanese hosts, including everything from picking us up at the airport (which is an hour drive from Taipei) at 6:00 AM to taking us shopping at the night markets and to their favorite food spots for "authentic" Chinese food!  And this behavior wasn't restricted to our hosts alone as we met so many kind and helpful people on the street -- they made phone calls for us, and when they spoke English, they went to the counter to complete a transaction so that we were well taken care of. We are truly impressed by extreme friendliness of the Taiwanese people.

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Photo journalist Lois Frand
Written by Jason Frand
Edited by Lois Frand
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December 12, 1998