Trials and travails of a Taiwanese-American kid in Taiwan

Saturday, November 10, 2007


A popular summit without karaoke? This would never be allowed to happen in Taiwan.

There's nothing quite like wandering through the lush greenery of a trail through the rolling hills around the cities and towns of Taiwan, only to be greeted by a crude shack at the top with a TV and surround sound system filled with locals singing their hearts out. In hindsight, it seems to be one of the hallmarks of Taiwanese culture: To Go Boldly where No Man Has Gone Before... and to Erect a Karaoke Stand There.

I'm surprised no one has tried doing this on the summit of Yushan yet.

Perhaps it is simply my lack of musical talent, but I never really caught on to the karaoke craze while growing up in Taiwan (or vice versa). Conversely, almost every single Taiwanese student I've known, both in Taiwan and abroad, is crazy about it. Even here in the US, almost every major meeting of Taiwanese students involves a lengthy session of graduate students crooning into a microphone (with the echo effects cranked way up).

Come to think of it, this may explain why we all seem to get along so well, despite our differences. It may be a form of escapism, but with everything else going on, sometimes you just need to escape for a while. And Matsu knows that I've done my share of introducing them to local culture in Colorado, namely: "To Ski, Climb, Run, and Drink Lots of Microbrewed Beer".

"We're having a karaoke session on Saturday, come on by", my friend said. "We even went through the trouble of downloading some English MVs for you."

For the record, my Mandarin is perfectly fine, and liberally sprinkled with language commonly heard from your local betelnut chewing cabbie. But my understanding of Taiwan pop music seems to be stuck from around my high school days in the late '90s. Somewhere along the line, my friends became more interested in having someone who could convincingly (to their ears anyhow) fake a variety of North American accents, than rehash 1997 in Taiwan pop music.

"Why don't we go hiking instead?" I suggested. "Why?" my friend replied, "We'd just start singing at the summit. Why go through all the trouble when we can do it down here? You can bring the beer."

As if to accentuate his point, it rained on Saturday. And so I found myself with 15 other Taiwanese grad students, standing in front of a big screen TV and a karaoke machiene, with a microphone in my hand, awaiting the first song...

... which turned out to be "I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing" by Aerosmith. I spent most of the song with my vocal chords stretched to the breaking point, and no sound coming out of my mouth.

Whatever the beneficial effects of living at high altitude for long periods, singing isn't one of them.

One by one, we went down the ever growing queue of songs. Ballads of love and loss seemed to be the most popular... all sung by everyone in the room (or so it seemed, it was hard to tell with the echo effect of the microphone cranked up to the max). The rain came down outside, we sang offkey, no one cared. Normally reserved students poured their hearts out.

If you've lived in Taiwan long enough you realize that the cynical nature projected by most people is a facade that rarely comes down... except in the presence of very close friends, or barring that, a karaoke machine (or liberal amounts of alcohol). "You can have dreams and ideals", my parents once told me, "as long as you don't tell them to anyone else". You don't do something for some idealogical reason... you do it because "沒辦法" ("I had no other choice"), "警察在看" ("There's a cop looking"), or some similarly pragmatic reason. Sometimes, you even start to believe it. Interestingly however, Taiwanese students arriving here have no problem accepting the idea that "Pedestrians have the right of way", without having to qualify it with "lawsuits are expensive", or "windshields are a pain in the butt to replace".

Just one of those cultural things I suppose.

After my third offkey rendition of "Country Roads", I finally managed to squeeze in a non-English song dating from my last days of high school. Maybe I just needed a reminder of brighter days when the future seemed boundless, untempered by the cynicism of reality. Or maybe I was getting fed up with the love ballads from the latest 星光 talent search stars....

Either way, I was still singing off key.

Title: The Fool
Language: Taiwanese

Artist: Mayday
Original Translation by C.C. and Merry, slightly modified.

我的心內感覺 人生的沈重 不敢來振動
In my heart I feel the seriousness of life, but I don't dare touch it
我不是好子 嘛不是歹人 我只是愛眠夢
I'm not a goody good, and I'm not a bad person either, I just love to dream
我不願隨浪隨風 飄浪西東 親像船無港
I don't want to drift with the wind and tide, like a boat with no harbor
我不願做人 奸巧鑽縫 甘願來作憨人
I don't want to be a devious opportunist person, taking advantage of others. I'd rather be a fool.

我不是頭腦空空 我不是一隻米蟲
My head isn't empty, and I'm not useless
人啊人 一世人 要安怎歡喜 過春夏秋冬
Oh people! A lifetime is so long, how can we happily pass the years?
我有我的路 有我的夢 夢中的那個世界 甘講伊是一場空
I have my own road, I have my dreams. Is the world that I dream of just an illusion?
我走過的路 只有希望 希望你我講過的話 放在心肝內 總有一天
On the road that I have travelled, I have only hope. Hope that all we've talked about is in our hearts, believing one day it will all come true.

看到滿天全金條 要煞無半項 環境來戲弄
Seeing my dreams dance through the sky, I reach out for it but grasp nothing, the world is mocking me
背景無夠強 天才無夠弄 逐項是攏輸人
My background's not strong enough, my talent's not good enough, I lose to others in everything
只好看破這虛華 不怕路歹行 不怕大雨淋
I'd best see through this facade, unafraid of how difficult the road ahead may be, and unafraid of being drenched by the rain
心上一字敢 面對我的夢 甘願來作憨人
On my heart there is one word: daring, when facing my dreams, I'm willing to be a fool.

Outside, the rain kept pouring down, the world moved on, but for a moment, all that was forgotten.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

和平! 人權! An Account of the Executive Yuan Protest

I'm still somewhat shaken from what I just saw. Some 500 students have been peacefully gathered in front of the Executive Yuan for the last day or so to protest the current Parade and Assembly Law (集會遊行法), the abuse of which has led to so much trouble over the last couple of days. The current law restricts the right of citizens to peaceably assemble, by forcing them to apply for permits which the government may deny at will after reviewing the protest topic, allows the government unrestricted rights to close off large areas from protesters, and allows police to forcibly disperse protesters even if they are not violent. The students are demanding the law be revised to require the government to grant permits upon receiving a notification without the current content review ("government shall allow" vs. the current "government may grant a permit"), while requiring police to follow the rule of law and due process in all arrests and detentions. In other words, the law should protect the rights of protesters - not restrict them.

Despite numerous attempts by partisans to connect them to the DPP, the students have steadfastly refused to align themselves with any political party. In fact, speaker after speaker made it clear that while the current Parade and Assembly Law is a relic from martial law, successive administrations from both parties have lost interest in amending or revising the law after assuming the reigns of power, even as they claimed to oppose it while in the opposition... as the saying goes, power corrupts. Even the power that you might not use. Others attempted to link them to the few violent protesters over the last day or so - a patently false claim as the protesters promptly ejected any would-be participants who seemed too agitated, or too close to any partisan cause.

The protesters made it clear that they were not anti-police - in fact, they made a conscientious effort to differentiate between rank and file police officers, who were forced to carry out oppressive policies from their superiors. The current Parade and Assembly Law encourages that type of behavior from the government, victimizing protesters and police alike. As such the real responsibility lies with those who give the orders, and the laws that enable them. Under these considerations, the protesters' demands include apologies from President Ma and Premier Liu, as well as the resignations of the Directors of the National Police Agency and National Security Bureau for the unprecedented abuses of police power over the past few days. Further information can be found in the statement of protest.

Watching the live feed and narration provided by a few students with a webcam, I was struck by the orderliness and relatively relaxed atmosphere throughout. The students spent most of the time calmly seated in front of the gate of the Executive Yuan, listening to speakers who spoke about the need for reform and the rights of citizens to demonstrate peacefully. There was little anger towards police, even as the police raised placards declaring the assembly to be unlawful. (The protesters responded with their own placards reading "Dissent! Police action is unlawful"). Students handed police officers water and flowers, making it clear that they bore them no ill will. Unfortunetely, TVBS, true to its acronym, promptly ran a story claiming that the students supported the actions of the police over the past few days. When this gross distortion became known, the protesters faced the TVBS reporter on scene and chanted "TVBS 不要臉!" ("TVBS, have you no shame?")

By the start of Friday morning, rumors were flying that the police would move in at 4PM. Earlier in the morning, the secretary to Premier Liu came out amid chants of "Ma, Liu apologize!", "NPA and NSB chiefs resign!", "Amend the Parade and Assembly Law!". In response to the students' questions, he provided evasive answers, first claiming that the KMT had supported revising the law over the past 8 years of DPP administration and trying to pass the blame off to the DPP. But he could not answer questions from the protesters as to why the KMT had not done so now that it holds a supermajority in the Legislative Yuan and the Presidency, nor could he provide any assurances or timetables as to when it would be revised in accordance with the protesters' demands. Flustered, he quickly retreated back into the building as the protesters declared his response unsatisfactory and his attitude patronizing. A vote was taken and the protesters agreed to remain until their demands were met.

As the clock neared 4PM, a sense of uncertainty was in the air, as larger groups of police alternately congregated and dispersed. Citizens came with donations of food, water, and blankets. As the time ticked away, the students performed a roll call by institution. Cheers went out as "National Taiwan University!", "National Taipei University of Education!" and other institutions of higher learning went out. But the loudest cheer was reserved for a lone voice which shouted: "Central Police University!" (I don't know who you are buddy, but I salute you sir!).

At 4PM, three large police buses pulled up in the street behind the protesters, with squads of police officers emerging. "Remember!" the organizers shouted: "No violence! It is not the fault of the police that their orders are unconstitutional! No one is wrong here. Remain peaceful! We reassemble in 2 hours at Liberty Square!".

Sitting on the ground, the 500+ students linked hands and sang, in English, "We Shall Overcome". As the last lines of "We are not afraid today" faded, and the crowd of police grew larger, the students chanted "和平!" ("Peace!").

Then suddenly, the police officers turned around, reboarded their buses and left. The students cheered... it was as if a miracle had occurred. Plans were made to stay till a satisfactory answer was given by the government.

The moment proved to be short lived. Rumors began flying again that the police intended to detain them, then release them somewhere far away from public transportation. Calls went out across the web as individuals and groups promised to provide transportation for any stranded students.

About 20 minutes later, a large phalanx of police carrying riot shields poured out of the Executive Yuan and the 3 police buses which had suddenly returned. As the police surrounded the students, the students chanted "Peace!" again, joined by a growing crowd of citizens in the street. A group from the pan-green aligned Taiwan North Society attempted to offer their assistance, but were politely and firmly rejected by the students. "We are not rejecting your ideas, but we reject partisanship in this demonstration."

Finally, police officers began to forcibly remove the students dragging the limp, unresisting students, still chanting, into the police buses. The students began chanting "人權!" ("Human Rights!"), along with the crowd which quickly joined in.

Then the feed cut off.

It took over an hour to remove all 500 students. The latest report from the restored feed indicates that they were dropped off at the rear gate of National Taiwan University. The protesters are now reassembling at Liberty Square, welcoming anyone who is willing to join in peaceably, without political flags or placards, and without a partisan agenda. Reports indicate taxi drivers who heard of their plight are picking them up and taking them to Liberty Square for free.

The gate of the Executive Yuan is now clear of students. But the citizens who gathered have now taken up the students' cause, launching their own sit-in, and are now chanting the students' three demands: "Ma and Liu apologize", "NPA and NSB chiefs step down", and "Amend the Parade and Assembly Law!" The crowd is still growing as I type this, chanting "同學加油!" ("Go students!")

I am an engineering graduate student. For a long time, I considered myself cynical about anyone who randomly invoked Godwin's Law. The last few days, and what I saw today have now changed that. The Parade and Assembly Law isn't just a blue problem or a green problem, it is a threat to all of our civil liberties. Citizens do not spontaneously become violent - and while there are always people in any demonstration who simply seek to cause chaos, they are vastly outnumbered by ordinary citizens who simply wish to express their dissent. It is only when those in power seek to use their authority to silence dissenting voices that good people may feel that they have little recourse. Successive administrations from both parties have been loath to relinquish the promise of almost unlimited authority offered by the current Parade and Assembly Law. What we saw over the last two days is simply the culmination of that process. The government could not resist the temptation to overstep their bounds far beyond what was required for public safety, and ended up facing the inevitable backlash.

Today I saw peaceful idealistic students not so unlike myself who chose to show resolve and restraint in the face of great adversity. Not one broke and ran. Not one struck back at the police officers, and the police officers did not use excessive force on the students. Everyone stayed on message. The students may have begun the movement, but it is now something bigger as nonstudents have joined in as well.

As the police officers carried the students away, the voice of the student announcer on the feed broke as he said "This is how a police state begins. It's been 20 years since martial law ended and the law still hasn't been amended!"

For once, I am inclined to agree.

Protest photos from participants.

Live feed from Liberty Square.

Several similar protests are now being organized by students across Taiwan. In particular, a sit-in is now planned in front of the Kaohsiung Police Department.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Riding the rails in the American Southwest

Like a lot of kids, I went through a phase growing up where I was obsessed with trains and rail travel. As a kid in California, we spent a good chunk of our elementary school social studies classes on the role of railroads - namely, the US Transcontinental Railroad on the development of the American West. Later, living in Taiwan throughout my teenage years, I raked up god knows how many miles riding on Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) trains and later on, aboard the MRT and now the High Speed Rail. Railways were cool. On holidays I'd hop a cheap local train and end up a few hours later in some random city or town ready for a couple hours of wandering around gawking at the local sights. When I got tired of it, I'd head back to the station and hop on the next train back to Taipei. As much as I enjoyed bitching about the surly blue collar nature of TRA, the hilarious Chinglish signage, and how my last train was all of 5 minutes late, the TRA was sort of my ticket to adventures (if you can call them that) outside the hordes of people in the city, and at the same time, sort of a safety line. Who cares if Chongde Station is in the middle of nowhere when I can just hop on the next local train out in about half an hour and get back to Taipei for under US$5?

Imagine my horror then, the first time I took an Amtrak train (the Coast Starlight) in California as a college student back in 2001.

"Fearful that losses from passenger service would contribute to the weakening of other railroads, policymakers looked for a way to relieve the freight railroads of that burden. The result was the passage of the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970, which created Amtrak. The company began operating on May 1, 1971." --
The Past and Future of U.S. Passenger Rail Service, Congressional Budget Office, 9/2003. Ch. 2: A Brief History of Amtrak
I can overlook the fact that for most routes outside the Northeast Corridor, it generally isn't practical to run more than one train a day. And to be fair, the onboard service I experienced was quite good, the dining car food excellent, and the cars clean and well maintained.

None of that makes up for the fact however, that we were eight hours late pulling into San Jose.

"Once one of the most popular train lines in the world, the Coast Starlight is in jeopardy because it consistently runs five to 15 hours late due to neglect by Amtrak and the Union Pacific Railroad, said Gerald Cauthen, president of the Train Riders Association of California... the Coast Starlight has delivered only 2 percent of its passengers to their destinations on time since October of last year." -- San Francisco Chronicle, 8/8/2006

Kind of sad, considering that the US passenger rail system was once one of the best in the world... fifty some odd years ago. For intercity travel these days, it's generally a toss up between driving yourself for hours, or flying. Now, I like airplanes as much as the next aerospace engineer, but frankly for domestic travel, I think they are way too overused. I've heard it argued that massive federal subsidies for the airline industry and the interstate highway system create an environment favoring cars and planes as a one size fits all solution as far as transportation is concerned. Certainly cars and planes have their place, but sometimes it does seem like they dominate excessively here in the US due to an artificial scarcity of other options.

But let's be fair here, west of Chicago, using Amtrak is virtually unheard of. Plane tickets cost about the same as intercity rail tickets. Reasonable people fly or drive.

When it comes to traveling though, I am not a reasonable person. :D
"Today, having received a total of about $27 billion in federal subsidies over 32 years, Amtrak is still teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and policymakers are still struggling to find a workable plan for intercity passenger rail." -- The Past and Future of U.S. Passenger Rail Service, Congressional Budget Office, 9/2003. Ch. 2: A Brief History of Amtrak

It's 5:50 AM in Downtown Denver, Colorado. The streets are still mostly empty as I step off the RTD B bus. The air is cool, but there are already signs of the dry noontime heat that is yet to come.

Like most major train stations in American cities, Union Station Denver is located near the heart of downtown. Built in the late 19th century before automobiles became commonplace, and the urban exodus that ensued, railroad passengers are spared a long drive from airports located in the outskirts of the city.

The waiting room is large, spacious, and evocative of another era. Rows of tall backed wooden benches line the interior. Only one of the four ticket counters is still operational, manned by a single lady in an Amtrak uniform. Though renovated and clean, there is still a sense of a place whose best days have passed. Though generally well maintained, most everything in Union Station looks old and somewhat worn.

The waiting room is mostly empty this time of morning, aside for a few passengers who still insist on taking the Los Angeles bound Southwest Chief. There are no security checks. No long lines. Just a quick direction from the ticket counter to wait outside for the connecting bus to arrive.

The only long distance service from Denver is run by Amtrak. The only train that actually stops at Denver is the California Zephyr (Chicago, IL - Emeryville, CA), with one train in either direction per day. Other connections can only be made by chartered busses. The small number of trains on Amtrak's western long distance routes makes train to train transfers difficult. The first leg of my journey to Los Angeles is actually not by train but by a bus to Raton, New Mexico, where I will catch the Southwest Chief at it's 10:50AM stop there.

Four hours after boarding the connecting bus from Denver, I wake up was we cross the Colorado-New Mexico state line at the Raton Pass. We've gone south from Denver on I-25 and picked up more people at Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and Trinidad. The driver is a middle aged gentleman who cheerfully instructs us in the use of the bus's bathroom doorknob, which evokes a few laughs. The passengers keep mostly to themselves as we roll along and the ride is mostly silent except for a mother and two children behind me who are playing a "Guess the person" game. I am pleasantly surprised that one of the kids actually knows who Eleanor Roosevelt is.

Racing ahead of the train on the railroad tracks below us, the bus drives into the town of Raton, New Mexico, population 7282 at the last census. The town is quintessentially Small Town America, with most businesses and small shops clustering around a single Main Street. We pass hardware stores and a small movie theater that looks like it was taken out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

The Raton train station is a small building, built in the whole mission style that seems to be so popular in the Southwest. The station seems to be shared between Amtrak and the BNSF Railroad (freight). It's not much to look at but is the main transfer point for Los Angeles bound Amtrak passengers from Colorado.

Half of the station seems to be occupied by a small waiting room. The aged look is even more apparent here, with a vending machine that looks like it was manufactured in the 60s, and separate hot and cold water taps in the restroom faucets. The actual Amtrak ticket office is actually located in a temporary prefab building outside the station itself.

Nonetheless, there seems to be quite a bit of passenger activity here, most of it being a troupe of boy scouts headed back to Albuquerque after some type of camping trip.

We finally hear the train whistle and see the train itself as it rounds the bend just before the station. The Southwest Chief slowly pulls into the station as activity on the platform starts to pick up. Conductors emerge from the trains placing down yellow stools in front of the doors. I present my ticket to the conductor of a coach class car, while he checks the passenger manifest.

"LA? Okay, head on upstairs to the front of the car. There's an open reserved seat for LA right across from two young ladies on the other side of the aisle. I believe that you'll be sitting with an older gentleman to your left."

I soon learn that the conductors know virtually everyone in their designated cars... where they're going, when they want to eat, and even where they usually hang out on the train...

Our train is one of Amtrak's Superliner fleet. Though built in the late 70s and renovated in the 90s, the cars are surprisingly comfortable. Our train is comprised of (in order from the two locomotives) a checked baggage car, a sleeping car, three coach class cars, a lounge/observation car, a dining car, and another sleeper.

The coach class car that will be my home for the next 26 or so hours to Los Angeles is comprised of two rows of two seats each. Compared to typical passenger airliner seats, the train seats are heaven. Each seat is about twice as wide as an airline seat and swings backwards into a recliner like position, complete with a recliner chair like footrest.

I sit beside an elderly gentlemen who seems mostly preoccupied with his iPod. Looking around the interior of the car, I see what can only be described as a cross section of America. Adults, children, students, retirees, black people, white people... etc. I find that many people preferred to wander about the train during the day, and can rarely be found in their seats.

The lower level of the coach class car contains the entryway as well as four lavatories. There's also a large rack for carry on baggage and a large empty space for more cargo. Not much to say here, except that the cargo space soon became a mini campground for a group of girl scouts who spread their sleeping bags there and spent the evening hours telling ghost stories.

The sleepers are Amtrak's version of first class. A single sleeper compartment contains a fold down bunk above two seats and a table beside a window, all in a private compartment. The lower seats can also be converted into a second bunk. Sleeper class passengers get complementary coffee, and do not have to pay for eating in the dining car.

Very nice, but a bit pricey, especially when you're traveling alone. Besides, I found I spent most of my time in the lounge car anyhow, talking with other passengers and taking in the view.

The Lounge Car is like a miniature town square, it's the center of activity for most passengers from both coach and sleeper classes. The upper level of the lounge car is a large observation room, almost always buzzing with activity and sightseers throughout the day. The single rows of seats facing the windows on either side encourage seat sharing, and indirectly, conversation between passengers.

Spending the rest of the morning in the lounge car, I talk to a couple from Pennsylvania, taking the train to Vegas ("We decided to go retro"). I ask them about the scenery so far ("Lots of grassland"). They ask me where I'm coming from ("Colorado!"), where I was originally from ("California, where all the fruits and nuts come from!"), and what I've heard about the route from my friends ("Assorted varieties of tumbleweed.")

I run into a couple from the San Fernando Valley, leading the girl scout troupe on a train trip returning from Chicago ("We always take the girls on a long train ride each year"). I make a remark about loving trains but having been burned pretty badly on my last Amtrak trip (Them: "Let me guess, Coast Starlight from LA to SF?" Me: "Yeah." Them: "Oh yes, we were late 15 hours into Seattle when we tried taking that one. The girls made us promise never to do that one again.")

Them: "You sound like you grew up in California, which part?"
Me: "Is it really that obvious?"
Them: "You said 'soda' instead of 'pop' and also used the term 'back east'."

The lower level of the lounge car is designated as the "coach cafe". It's basically a simple dining area with a small convenience store like fixture where the cafe dude (for the lack of a better term) sells drinks, snacks, and microwavable meals. He also functions as a bartender, and a source of gossip and information.

This is separate from the dining car (no photos unfortunately), the next car down from the lounge car. To accommodate all the passengers who want to eat in the dinning car, the conductors periodically check through their cars asking passengers to make reservations. Parties smaller than four are also seated together.

As lunchtime rolls around, I find myself seated at a table in the dining car, while we roll through a New Mexico river valley flanked by red rocks and the occasional pueblo style mansion. My tablemates are a diverse group, an Asian American civil engineer in his 30s working for a transportation consulting company in the Bay Area, returning from a trip to Oklahoma; a middle aged African American lady going home to Las Vegas; and a British lady visiting her son in Santa Fe, who opted to take the train from Denver over her son's suggestion to just fly down because she wanted to take the scenic route.

We talk about public transportation in America ("Hey, were you involved in the whole FasTracks project up in Denver?"), bemoan how sad the nation's passenger rail infrastructure has become ("... and they now serve preheated food on plastic plates. Still much better then airline food."), relay the whole General Motors streetcar conspiracy theory ("... and so GM donated busses to various cities leading to the shut down of the light rail lines we had back in the 50s..."), water problems and growth in Vegas ("...we can't keep growing at that rate, there isn't enough water"), and explain the concept of "stone fired pizza" to our British contingent ("It's a fancy way of saying oven baked").

Half way through lunch, the train pulls into Lamy station. We hear a broadcast over the intercom for someone's arriving early to pick up a passenger to Santa Fe. Our British friend excuses herself quickly scooping up the last of her stone fired pizza as we shake hands and exchange pleasantries. Then we're off again through the New Mexico countryside.

By 4PM, we've gone halfway across the State of New Mexico. The farms, small towns, river valleys, and rocky southwestern landscape have given way to residential areas, warehouses, and finally, the skyscrapers of Downtown Albuquerque come into view. The train rolls into Albuquerque Station for a 40 minute layover to refuel to locomotives. As at the other stations, the passengers are allowed onto the platform to stretch their legs.

A furnace-like blast of hot air greets me as I step out of the air conditioned train onto the platform. It's 104 degrees Fahrenheit out. Almost immediately, I feel the moisture in my skin start to evaporate.

Several local Native American artists and peddlers have set up shop on the platform, hawking jewelry, blankets, and other souvenirs to the passengers. Someone mentions that there is a store in the station that sells ice cream. Judging by the crowd that immediately made for the station, I think they probably had a good business day that day. As the 40 minute time limit creeps up, everyone scrambles back aboard the train as the whistle sounds, and we start rolling again, making for the Arizona state line.

Dinnertime rolls around again. I am seated with a family of three from Missouri headed to LA for a vacation. Conversation is polite, but distant. Excusing myself at the earliest opportune moment, I make my way back to the lounge car in time to see the sun setting behind the desert horizon as we change into Arizona.

The crowd in the lounge car gradually trickles away as the sun slowly sets around 9PM. The conductor announces over the intercom that we are now on Pacific time as we cross the state line.

I find myself seated next to a young man about my age carrying a fancy looking camera. "Where are you from?", I ask. "I am from Taiwan" he says in halting English.

Me: "幹!我也是台灣人ㄟ!" ("F***! I'm also from Taiwan!")

As it turns out, he was on his third month of a backpacking trip across the US that started from New York. He had spent the last two months gradually working his way across the country by rental car and train, and was planning to get off at Flagstaff, before continuing on to Los Angeles.

Me: "Don't you know anyone there?"
Him: "No, not really."

Apparently, I was the first Taiwanese person he'd seen for quite some time. After a long conversation about everything from military service in Taiwan, to US travel tips, we exchange emails before he gets off at Flagstaff.

It's around 9PM when we approach Flagstaff, AZ. We experience an unexpected complication just outside the station. The train rolls to a stop just before the station, while the crew checks the engine. The station appears to be located in part of town with quite a bit of nightlife going on. Outside, we can see the lights of clubs and bars, and people who appear to be partygoers walking along the track.

While the inspection is going on, our car is stopped right smack in the middle of a railroad crossing, blocking vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Standing near the lower level entryway along with the conductor, and a few other passengers desperate to go outside for a smoke, we see some curious looking pedestrians walking up to the door and staring at us.

The conductor opens the window. A gentleman walks up to the train speaking to us in German accented English.

German dude (GD): "Wheah ah you heading?"
Conductor (C): "Los Angeles."
GD: "Wheah ah you coming from?"
C: "Chicago."
GD: "Thea ah still trains that go from Chicago to Califohnia?"

Thankfully for all involved, the train starts moving again after about 5 minutes, finally rolling into Flagstaff Station. A larger stop, we get about 10 minutes on the platform to stretch our legs and for those inclined to (as one passenger put it) "pollute their lungs".

I talk with the conductor while waiting for departure. A distinguished looking gentleman, I am surprised when he mentions that he is originally from Kenya, studied geology, and choose to work on the railroad for two years to see America. "I'm coming up on the two years. It's been fun, but soon it'll be time to move on to other things" he says in flawless American English.

As the lights of Flagstaff fade behind us, we roll again out into the open desert. The lights dim and passengers head back to their seats and compartments to rest. I can't sleep so I head down to the cafe in the lounge car and order a beer. Unfortunately they ran out of Sam Adams, so I found myself sitting in the cafe with a can of Miller Lite.

I talk with the only other passenger in the cafe, an older looking lady eating a midnight snack. I find that she is an ESL teacher hailing from Northern California and coincidentally, her first job was teaching at the University of Colorado, where I now study.

"I loved Boulder, but couldn't stand the snow."

We talk about snow, Colorado, California, teaching ESL, the grad student life. She inquires about my research, which somehow leads to a whole new discussion on sustainable living. Finally, my beer finished, and the feeling of sleep slowly setting in, I wish her a pleasant trip back up to NorCal, and retire back to my darkened coach seat for the night.

Through the night, the train passes across the deserts of Arizona and California, stopping briefly at Barstow. When I wake up to the sight of the sun slowly rising, I see a familiar sight. The rocky yellowed desert hills making way into rows of palm trees and identical looking suburban neighborhoods.

It's been three years since I left but the memories of high school and college start flooding back. Southland. Home. (Or one of the many homes for someone who moves around as much as me.) The six years I spent in SoCal seem like they happened to someone else in another life on another planet, even though it's only been 3 years. We pass through stations with names of places I remember frequenting via the tangle of freeways. San Bernardino, Fullerton...

The smoggy sky slowly brightens, and the giant megalopolis we are passing through slowly comes to life.

I return to my seat as we make our final approach into LA Union Station. The elderly gentleman seated next to me has finally removed the iPod headphones from his ears and nods a good morning to me as I sit down. He's coming to Los Angeles to visit his son and has taken the train all the way from Ohio.

"I normally get a sleeper but they were out this time. For a young guy like you coach is fine, but for an old man like me it's terrible."

We talk briefly about where we're coming from...

Him: "My other son is in Denver, fine city. I like it a lot more than I do LA."
Me: "LA is an acquired taste I think. I disliked it when I was living here, then hated it when I was away, but coming back to it it sorta grows on you."

We arrive at Los Angeles Union Station at 7:38 AM. 37 minutes ahead of schedule. This has been an interesting trip. In Taiwan, while pervasive, a train ride was an ordinary affair. You got on, sat (or stood) till you got to your stop, then got off. This ride was different. Boarding the train and mingling with the other passengers was like meeting a cross section of ordinary America. No glitz, no glamor, just ordinary people who happened to run into one another on their respective ways. We often hear people complaining about Americans being stupid, apathetic, or dense... perhaps they should consider taking a long distance train ride across America. All I can say is, for someone as pessimistic as me, this trip has gone a long way in restoring my faith in my fellow man. At heart, we are all decent people making our way through life one day at a time.

I will definitely come this way again.

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see. The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land.”
--G. K. Chesterton

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Random pics: Biking along the rivers of Taipei

One pleasant little surprise that I've noticed is the increased proliferation of bicycle paths and recreational biking in Taipei. It's actually not too uncommon nowadays to run into people commuting by bike, or simply biking for the fun of it. While the city streets remain rather hazardous for bikers, several new bike paths have been constructed along the riverside parks which flank the shores of the rivers and streams running throughout the Taipei metro area. It is now possible to bike all the way from Neihu (內湖) to Danshuei (淡水) along the Keelung and Danshuei Rivers.

Considering that Taiwan is one of the world's biggest producers of bicycles, it seems only fitting that folks here are finally taking up recreational bicycling again. Bicycle repair and rental shops (some publicly funded) have been popping up along the bike paths and weekends find many a family rolling along together on two wheels. Perhaps in a few years we'll finally start to get over our fixation on motorscooters.

The Dajih Bridge (大直橋) and the Grand Hotel in the distance.
New apartment towers near Dajih.
Commuters near Beitou.
Cloud covered Yangmingshan and an expressway in the foreground.Mangrove swamps near Guandu.
The Guandu Temple.
A nearby bicycle repair and rental shop.
The Guandu Bridge.
Looking towards Danshuei and out to sea.

(If you're wondering why the weather is different in some of the photos, they were taken on two separate trips.)

Monday, January 08, 2007

Riding the THSR: Banciao to Taichung

After almost six years of construction, the Taiwan High Speed Rail system finally began trial runs open to the public on Friday. Since then, we've heard news of all sorts of bugs floating to the surface, everything from malfunctioning ticket gates, buggy booking software, bird strikes on moving trains, to passengers being unfarmiliar with toilets actually capable of processing toilet paper (as any decent toilet should!). Yet the core system continues to function mostly without incident, and the apocalypse scenario predicted by critics with trains derailing and exploding left and right has not materialized. And crowds of people continue to line up at HSR stations up and down the western corridor, eager to try out the train for themselves, some coming from as far as Japan just for the experience.

As I blogged earlier, I was lucky enough to get tickets for the fourth train to run - Train 405 from HSR Banciao Station in Taipei County to HSR Taichung Station located in the township of Wu Erh (烏日) last Friday. My original plan was to spend about two hours around HSR Taichung Station, but family obligations necessitated that I continue on to Tainan... thus giving me a chance to see how smoothly I could make the connection from the THSR to a TRA train (THSR tickets were sold out for all trains on Friday and Saturday by early morning Thursday).

HSR Banciao Station is located in the same building as the TRA and MRT stations of the same name. It's also one of the two HSR stations to the built underground into a preexisting facility (the other being the yet to be opened HSR Taipei Station), a giant new glass and pink granite tower more reminiscent of a shopping mall than a train station. Arriving at Banciao Station about twenty minutes before departure time I found my way to the B1 level where the ticket gates for HSR and TRA are located. Being the first day of operations, there were several passengers and HSR personnel milling around the area and there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air. Needless to say there were a lot of cameras out, flashbulbs going off, and people giving the two fingered salute.

At the ticket gates, an HSR employee stood around reminding passengers to insert their tickets into the gates with the magnetic stripe facing up. Short explanation: the HSR tickets are thin card stock with a magnetic stripe and instructions on one side, and the passenger's train and itinerary information printed on the other. Despite instructions on the gates (and the ticket for that matter... though not in English), most passengers, myself included are tempted to automatically stick the tickets into the gates with the magnetic stripe down, in which case the gates won't work. This seems to be a design flaw. Being an engineer myself I can empathize a bit with the difficulties of creating an idiot-proof interface, but really, this was something the designers could have thought of. Aside from that issue, I did not experience any problems with the ticket gates though there were continuous reports throughout the weekend of gates malfunctioning due to folded or bent tickets. Perhaps I was just lucky to get there earlier than most of the weekend crowds.

Proceeding past the ticket gates and the small waiting area, I headed down the escalators to the platforms on the B2 level. As it turned out, our train was already there, though the doors were blocked off for cleaning, giving me a chance to look around. Though built into what I believe was a former TRA facility, the HSR platforms already showed signs of the slick high tech image that THSR has been working to cultivate. The styling is noticeably cleaner and, tickets not withstanding, there is a greater proliferation of English signage. The slowly growing crowd of passengers seemed to be a pretty diverse mix of students, retirees, businessmen, and the occasional Japanese tourist. All excited at the prospect of trying out the future of Taiwan's public transit system and cheerfully snapping away with their cameras at pretty much anything that moved. Throughout the trip I also noticed several Asian and European people with THSR badges, engineers I think, walking around checking things.
Most passengers ignored the bit on cell phone etiquette.
Economy class seating.

About five minutes before the scheduled departure time, the janitors finished up their cleaning work and we were allowed to board the trains. Somehow I managed to be the second person aboard my train car. The interior compartments of the trains are brightly lit, spotlessly clean (hopefully they still are), and a faint plasticky "new train" smell hung in the air. My economy class compartment consisted of a long aisle of turquoise cloth covered seats arranged in two long columns with two seats on one side and three on the other. Fold down coathangers were located in each row, and each reclining seat had a fold down airplane style tray table with a diagram showing the layout of the train on the backside. The seats were wide and quite comfortable, about the width of seating on a typical TRA express train, with legroom much larger than what you'd find on a plane.
Some of the intercar compartments contain beverage vending machines.
No, I didn't actually test it.

The compartments between the cars contained the lavatories, as well as vending machines selling some beverages in a few of the cars. Due to the longest trip being around 2 hours there is no 高鐵便當 (Correction: Apparently there is.), though passengers are allowed to bring their own food and drink aboard provided it is not too strong smelling (stinky tofu and durians are banned). There are also food carts pushed up and down the trains by attendants where one may buy snacks or drinks, though I did not see any sign of them throughout my 55 minute trip to Taichung.
Hsinchu Station.
What's wrong with this picture? (Hint: Lower left corner)

At precisely 9:25AM, our train pulled out of Banciao Station beginning our trip south. The THSR 700T trains are noticeably smoother and quieter than your typical TRA train, with much less vibration though some noise is still detectable, especially from what I think was the electrical system during acceleration. The acceleration is gradual so there really isn't a sense of being thrown back into your seat as you might expect, but the increased speed is definitely noticeable as you speed through the cities and countryside. The train speed was displayed periodically in a scrolling display at either ends of the compartment, and mostly hovered somewhere around 290 km/h throughout most of the trip, though I did see it go as high as 298 km/h (the max speed is 315 km/h). In about 15 minutes, we had left Taipei County and were pulling into Taoyuan Station. In another 15 we were at Hsinchu Station where I was able to poke my head out for a quick photo.
Arriving at Taichung Station.
Strong presence from the police...
... and the media.
And the crowds at the ticket counters are as big as ever.

After only 55 minutes, we arrived at HSR Taichung Station, located in Wu Erh Township on the outskirts of Taichung City. As the major midway point, the station was filled with passengers, press, and police officers. The station itself is, like most of the other new THSR stations, a very modern looking structure of glass and aluminum and steel struts. Coming down the escalators from the platform into the main concourse, one finds a scene more evocative of an airport terminal than a train station, with restaurants, stores and such. Outside, there are already signs of new developments springing up in what used to be rice paddies.
Transferring to TRA.
The old and the new.

Transiting from THSR to TRA is actually easier than I expected. Like several of the THSR stations, HSR Taichung Station is located along a TRA rail line. The TRA New Wu Erh Station is connected to the HSR station by a covered overpass, from which one may transfer to local commuter trains.

Having experienced the THSR firsthand, there are definitely some problems and flaws which need to be worked out, especially in terms of the effects of handling large amounts of people as well as providing a more user friendly interface, but overall, I have to say that I'm quite impressed by what I saw. Some growing pains are inevitable but the THSR is definitely a system which we can all be proud of once the kinks are ironed out. With the increasing urbanization of Taiwan's west coast it will definitely play an important part in transportation between the major metropolitan areas in the years to come.

The THSR is certainly impressive but it is by no means the death kneel for the comparatively more "blue collar" TRA. As many have noted, perhaps the greatest weakness of the THSR is the fact that many of the stations are located outside major metropolitan areas. It is also important to note that the THSR functions as only one component of a larger transit net, providing high speed travel over sparsely spaced nodes, with other forms of transportation filling in the gaps to local areas... a function which TRA fills nicely, and has in fact been slowly turning to with the increased emphasis on short distance commuter trains in recent years. It is reassuring that the powers that be have noticed this and from what I have seen at stations such as Banciao and Taichung, facilitated relatively smooth transfers between the HSR and the TRA (as well as the Taipei MRT for the former). It remains to be seen however, whether this can be achieved at HSR stations not in close proximity to TRA lines, such as Tainan, though there are encouraging signs with local bus companies setting up shuttle services.

In the coming days we're sure to hear more first hand accounts of the THSR around the blogosphere. David on Formosa will be taking the HSR fairly soon, and has in the past made several very insightful observations on the THSR, urban design, and mass transit in general. I'm sure there will be others as well.

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