Taiwan’s Diplomatic Allies

Taiwan’s diplomatic allies have been much on my mind lately, not so much on a national level like will Honduras be the next to flip but more along the lines of elements within the American government coming out on Twitter to support Taiwan, and, in a few cases are coming to Taiwan personally.

To say that I’m deeply conflicted would be an understatement.

Because while there are some non-right wingers involved (thank you, Senator Edward Markey of the great state of Massachusetts), by and large the people currently speaking out for Taiwan are from America’s deeply right wing, and not the now-comparatively sane right wing of yore that once flocked to the defense of “Free China” because it was an unsinkable battleship with courageous Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (who they called Cash My Check behind his back), but the bat-shit fanatical foot-soldiers of Trump whose motives are far, far uglier, and with whom it seems nearly unthinkable to make common cause.

Ah, for the halcyon days when you could embody the struggle as one between Yippies and the John Birch society. It was an illusion, I know, but one that was easily encapsulated (as this illustration from the Book of the Subgenius does nicely):

Far Left meets Far Right: From the Book of the Subgenius

Far Left meets Far Right: From the Book of the Subgenius

It’s far more complex these days, especially where Taiwan is concerned.

Today’s right wingers aren’t grandpa’s right wingers. Whereas the conservatives of the mid-twentieth century supported “The Republic of China” as a fellow right-wing client state that was a handy bulwark against an ultra-leftist China, today’s Republican party shares far less common ground with the political realities of present day Taiwan. To wit:

Taiwan is a thriving democracy; today’s Republican party subverts democracy at home and abroad.

Taiwan is liberal; today’s Republican party despises liberalism.

Taiwan is a defender of human rights and increasingly considers itself a haven for immigrants. today’s Republicans have turned their back on human rights and are vindictively anti-immigrant.

Taiwan is pro gay rights; today’s Republicans are viciously anti-gay (Which is funny considering the high number of “family values” Republicans that wind up having their pictures splashed across the internet after being caught having gay sex. But I digress.)

Taiwan is pro-universal health care; today’s Republicans are adamantly against universal health care.

I could go on, but you get the point. In nearly every way that matters with the notable exception of cannabis laws (which are about the same in Taiwan as they were in 196o’s Texas), Taiwan is thoroughly progressive and today’s Republican party thoroughly regressive.

Hence, the aforementioned deep conflict at the sudden outcropping of support for Taiwan by people whose politics are so far removed from my own.

(I have more in common with yesterday’s John Birchers than I do with today’s Republicans. We’re both against fluoridation, but for different reasons. But again, I digress.)

A few days ago I watched Metal Politics Taiwan, a film about Freddy Lim. Lim (for readers not familiar with either Taiwanese politics or Heavy Metal) is the lead singer of the band ChthoniC 閃靈. He’s also a member of Taiwan’s parliament. It’s a great film, one which really encapsulates the current zeitgeist in Taiwan.  I hope it gets wide distribution.

Metal Politics Taiwan

Metal Politics Taiwan

One scene from the film sticks out in particular: Lim, having been elected to Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, heads to America for Trump’s inauguration. Clearly not a fan of Trump’s politics, Lim nonetheless had to suit up and show up for the inauguration of a man who’d now become extremely important to Taiwan’s relationship with the USA.

Like Lim clearly did at the inauguration, I, too, feel conflicted with the nature of Taiwan’s new allies.  Taiwan clearly needs every friend it can get, and it’s a well-worn maxim that politics makes strange bedfellows. Equally well worn is the saying the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But I can’t help but also be reminded of a lesser known quote by Henry Kissinger, namely

“To be an enemy of America can be dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal.”

At no point in history has that statement seemed more relevant, and I’ve got no answers at the moment.

Perhaps music is the answer? I’ve gone ahead and embedded Chthonic’s Supreme Pain for the Tyrant below, which in addition to presenting a very clear picture of the band’s feelings towards the regime so beloved by the American right wing of old also seems to illustrate a general antipathy towards authoritarianism.

Looking to read more about Taiwan? My latest book, Formosa Moon (co-written with Stephanie Huffman) will be available for pre-order in July. Click here for more details.

The Four Stages of Life (as experienced through Taiwanese cuisine)

The four stages of life as experienced through Taiwan food

The four stages of life as experienced through Taiwanese Cuisine

SEO-destroying, algorithm-annoying preamble: A lot of my stories have stories of their own. This one about Taiwanese Cuisine (chew on that, WordPress SEO monitor) has two or three, so…read on or not.

One of the pleasures of establishing a long-term working relationship with a particular magazine or editor is that you can pitch your more experimental stuff to them and they’ll not delete your emails unread. Sometimes they’ll even commission the story. In the case of this article, one of the magazines I’ve written for since the early 2000’s is Topics Magazine in Taiwan, whose editor, Don Shapiro – in addition to being an excellent editor – is also, as they say in Yiddish, a real menschFor the last couple of years I’ve been able to pitch more experimental work to what’s primarily a Taiwan-centered business magazine.

The Four Stages of Life as Experienced through Taiwanese Cuisine is one of these, and you can read the original here in all it’s glory.  Basically, what I wanted to do was to write four short vignettes about Taiwanese cuisine, and this seemed a fun way to do it. The first of these stories is about eating at the night market, and it concerns a trip I took to the not-too often visited by westerners Jingmei market in Taipei with William Tang of the website Going Awesome Places.

William Tang of Going Awesome Places

William Tang of Going Awesome Places

The Jingmei trip was the first time Will and I hung out, but not the last. After taking a lengthy trip around Taiwan with my company, MyTaiwanTour (which I wrote about here, though nowhere near as extensively as he did at Going Awesome Places), I took Will out to one of my favorite spots close to Taipei, Wulai, for a soak and a tribal meal.

When I originally turned The Four Stages of Life as Experienced through Taiwanese Cuisine into Don for the January, 2018 issue, it had a completely different vignette to represent Maturity, namely a tribal meal I’d had in Wulai with my good friend, filmmaker, photographer and all around mensch himself, Tobie Openshaw.

A week after I turned the story in, I got an email from Don letting me know that he’d already commissioned a fairly extensive  story about tribal culture and cuisine for the same issue, and could I substitute a different vignette for the Maturity section. So I did, and the version below is the version that ran in the January, 2018 issue of Topics.

However, I still quite like the original version with the Tobie story, and since I’ve been meaning to do a guest column for Going Awesome Places, I thought, hey, why not send the original version over to Will. So that version will run soon, and I’ll link it when it does.

In any event, now that I’ve chased away the Instagram-only crowd, without further delay:

 The Four Stages of Life

(as experienced through Taiwanese cuisine)

Childhood: Consequence-Free Dining at the Night Market

Will was on assignment in Taiwan, one of a group of bloggers, YouTubers, and other influencers invited by the Tourism Bureau to produce millennial-friendly content promoting Taiwan on the internet. It was his first day in town, so I figured the night market was a good place to start.

I texted my suggestion. When he replied, “Take me where the locals go,” I knew I was dealing with a fellow travel professional.

While Taipei’s night market scene is well-known, the casual traveler generally tends to stick to the big three as promoted heavily by the folks in the aforementioned bureau: the ever-popular yet maddeningly confusing Shilin market (the confusion begins with the fact that if you get off the MRT at the Shilin station, you’ve gone a stop too far), the more traditional Raohe market, and the tourist-friendly Ningxia market.

But Will had requested a local experience, so I brought him to Jingmei, where the only Occidental face (other than my own) occasionally seen chomping down a comically Flintstones-sized grilled octopus tentacle slathered in teriyaki sauce generally belongs to one of the long-term Western denizens of the neighborhood (still reasonably affordable by dint of its being nearly on the city’s outskirts).

Our epicurean excursion began with the tentacle, grilled to moist perfection over hot coals, and I felt strongly that the folks at the bureau would appreciate the film Will was making of our eating this most monstrous of appetizers. After we’d wolfed down our snacks, Will asked me to introduce him to another typical night market dish. Across the lane, an old woman stood behind a metal grill preparing one of Taiwan’s better-known dishes, oh ah jen, the oyster omelet. This artery-clogging fare consists of a dozen or so shucked oysters cooked on a generously lard-lubricated grill in a batter made from egg and cornstarch, fried to the consistency of cold motor oil and served smeared in red sauce.

As a travel blogger, Will couldn’t resist ordering the dish, and being a glutton for punishment, neither could I. “Take that, coronary health, hashtag heart-smart,” I said, doing my bit to promote Taiwanese cuisine to Will’s YouTube subscribers by shoveling a plastic forkful of weapons-grade cholesterol into my mouth.

Will had heard about another typical Taiwanese dishthe famous night market beefsteakAs we walked to a stall specializing in that dish, I sought to explain how it differs from its namesake as he knew it back home.

“Whereas your North American steak is served a cappella, a night market steak is part of an ensemble act including spaghetti, sauce, and a raw egg cracked on top of the beef. The whole thing is served on a heated steel plate.”

“But is it good?” Will asked. I quoted Hamlet in reply: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Will decided to give #IronPlateHeartAttack a pass, so we headed for lighter fare, a dozen deep-fried sweet-potato balls. Afterward, though already stuffed, we felt that something sweet was in order. “How about some cake?” I suggested.

Close to the market’s entrance, a young baker was busy taking a cinderblock-sized pound cake out of a massive oven. Of the various dishes we’d seen and consumed in the past hour, this one struck us both as the least nightmarket-y of the lot.

“What’s in it?” Will asked the baker.

“Flour, eggs, water, sugar. Very simple.”

Will was intrigued. But he had another question. This being his second trip to Taiwan, he’d noted with curiosity that despite the national love for highly caloric dishes, most Taiwanese were fairly svelte. “How do you stay so slim, what with your working in a night market?”

The baker answered by lifting the tray filled with steaming pound cake over his head and shaking it several times like a Russian weightlifter before upending the thing with a dull thud on the stall’s metal counter. “I exercise at work,” he answered.

The cake was delicious, and if it wasn’t the lightest thing we’d had all night, it was likely the healthiest. Though fully sated, we headed back into the market for one last round. After all, the night was still young.

The Jingmei Night Market is located by the Jingmei MRT station.


Maturity: The Business Dinner

Stephanie and I had been awake since before sunrise, and were nearly catatonic by the time we were halfway through the hour-long drive from the Taitung coast to the town of Luye. Hosted by the local tourism bureau as part of the research for an upcoming book, we’d been crammed with activity for three days and were looking forward to a long bath, quick dinner, and lengthy sleep, preferably in that order.

Walking through the lobby of the Luminous Hotel, we saw other guests milling about the buffet. We took the elevator up to our room, looking forward to a low-key dinner. The view from the floor to ceiling window of our room, the outline of the central mountain range, was a welcome sight indeed, and the hot spring tub in the center of the bathroom beckoned.

I’d just started filling the tub when the phone clanged. It was our handler from the tourism bureau. “The Hotel Manager has invited you to dinner in 15 minutes. He wants to tell you about the hotel.”

Our plans for a long soak in the tub would be delayed. We showered quickly and returned to the lobby, where we were greeted enthusiastically by Mr. Pan, the Luminous manager. After the ritualistic two-handed exchange of name cards, I began walking towards the main restaurant, but Mr. Pan gently cradled my arm, leading Stephanie and me away from the buffet room.

“Your visit is very special! Tonight I have arranged for a special meal in our hotel’s second restaurant.

Why are we going away from the restaurant?” whispered Stephanie, not understanding Mandarin. “We’re getting VIP treatment,” I replied, digging deep for some vestige of enthusiasm.

Mr. Pan led us into a smaller restaurant, which I’d assumed on earlier passing was a coffee shop. “You won’t have to get your own food tonight. Everything has been prepared especially for you.”

He waved his hand, and seconds later small plates with three delicately laid out tempura items were placed before each of us. “The bureau told me that your girlfriend is allergic to wheat. This tempura has been prepared with sweet potato starch. Now, I must ask you to please excuse me.”

Without touching his tempura, Mr. Pan got up and departed, leaving us to eat quietly. He returned a few minutes later and ate half a tempura shrimp portion as the second course arrived, delicate cakes made of radish and root vegetables.

“Everything here is prepared using organic vegetables grown in farmland right around the hotel. Local, organic and sustainable. This is the guiding principle of the Luminous.”

Stephanie and I both agreed that these were excellent principles by which to be guided, as Mr. Pan consumed half of his delicate radish root cake before again excusing himself.

“Please continue enjoying your meal.”

“I thought we were going to a buffet…” Stephanie said, eyes half-closed as yellow miso soup with tofu, garnished with a spring of green, was placed before us.

“VIP dinner,” I shrugged. “Welcome to the glamorous life of travel writing.”

Stephanie and I, too tired to think much about the manager’s mercurial presence or much else, continued our meal. Mr. Pan returned shortly after arrival of the fourth course, a brown rice dish containing several varieties of pickled roots. As we ate, he elaborated on the Luminous philosophy.

“City people come to places like Luye and they see in the faces of the local people a serenity, a tranquility, a glow that they lack. Even though the people around here lack money, and even a lot of the material comforts and conveniences that are readily available in places like Taipei and Kaohsiung, there is still something here that they want, something that money really can’t buy.”

The conversation continued along these lines through the fifth course. Though the boneless eel, braised and broiled in a savory sauce, was delicious, Mr. Pan ate only a few mouthfuls before again excusing himself. I watched him as he walked through the lobby and into the buffet dining room. When he returned a few minutes later the plates from our meal had been cleared, and Stephanie and I were working our way through dessert, a vanilla pudding with just a hint of fruit compote.

“I hope you’ve enjoyed your meal, and hope further that you enjoy your stay at the Luminous.”

“We did, thank you, and I am sure we will. The food was outstanding, it’s just that…I can’t help but notice that you’ve barely touched yours.”

“Please accept my deepest apologies,” he said. “These are busy days at the Luminous, and I am currently also having dinner with another group from Hong Kong.”

Smiling in a way that denoted professionalism, wistfulness, and an exhaustion almost rivaling our own, Mr. Pan excused himself one last time.

Stephanie and I finished our desserts before returning upstairs to pass out in the stone bathtub overlooking the hills of Taitung.

The Luminous Hot Spring & Resort (Tel: 08 955 0999) is located on Zhonghua Road in Luye Township, Taitung County. We stayed there for two nights while researching the Taitung chapter of our book, Formosa Moon. Great place!


Middle Age: The Bill Comes Due

Doctor Yu shook his head as he looked over the results of my recent blood test on the screen in front of him.

“Your cholesterol is elevated from your last checkup. Have you cut back on fried foods as I suggested?”

“Somewhat,” I answered vaguely.

“Cut back more. No more than once a week.”

“Do you mean one fried item a week or one day weekly in which I should solely eat fried food?”

Dr. Yu was not going to dignify the question with a response. He was a busy man, with two dozen patients yet to see before lunch.

“You should be staying away from fried food anyway,” he continued. “As I told you on your last visit, it can trigger your gout.”

Ah, gout. Lifelong unwelcome guest, enemy, and Teacher, shared with luminaries from Henry the Eighth to Benjamin Franklin. The Teacher had made his first appearance right here in Taiwan two decades ago after an all-I-shouldn’t-eat crab buffet, and after many years’ absence had recently returned for more regular calls. In an effort to keep the big G from my doors, I’d cut out all shellfish from my diet. And though night market foie gras isn’t yet a thing in Taipei, I had a ready-made excuse outside of basic decency to turn it down should this ever change.

“I’ve been pretty good about staying away from purine-heavy foods,” I said hopefully. “More pasta and bread, less meat.”

“Yes, about that,” Dr. Yu said, swiveling his monitor until it stared me in the face. “The third number down is your blood sugar. You are now in the pre-diabetic stage, so you should probably not be making carbohydrates the staple of your diet. It just becomes sugar in the body.”

“What about rice?”

“Cut down on rice, too.”

My list of appropriate foods was shrinking fast.

“So what can I eat?” I asked.

Dr. Yu paused, and removed his spectacles in a way that made him seem especially sincere.

“Your best strategy is to not eat too much of any one thing. As you say in the West, ‘Eat the Rainbow.’ Many different things at each meal. Such as you will find at the buffet downstairs.”

I refrained from saying that the last time I’d heard the expression about eating the rainbow, people still thought of margarine as healthful. Dr. Yu replaced his glasses and gestured towards the door. My appointment had already exceeded its allotted time. I got up to leave.

“How about bitter melon?” I asked at the door.

“Eat as much bitter melon as you like,” replied the doctor.

I was about to discover exactly how much bitter melon that was at the vegetarian buffet in the hospital’s basement, Taipei’s most convenient eatery for those who’ve just received advice of the ‘you’d better change your ways’ variety. A steam table of dishes crafted to accommodate both the Hippocratic oath and Buddhist doctrine lay before me.

In its natural form, bitter melon gourd resembles something like a Klingon marital aid, phallic and covered with bumpy nubs. Buffet chefs had sliced it into circular sections about the thickness of a 50 NT coin and thrice the diameter, the outer rings an almost fluorescent green, dimming down to a pale white towards the interior, perhaps in keeping with the first noble truth of Buddhism about life being suffering.

Taking my wellbeing seriously, I fill the corner cube of my cardboard tray with eight slices, arranging them neatly as the smiling nun behind me looks on in passive admiration. I take other items down the line, including a braised gluten and tuber mix, a healthy (literally and figuratively) helping of mixed vegetables, several cubes of bean curd, asparagus and carrot sticks wrapped in long-since-limp seaweed to resemble sushi’s cousin that’s found religion, and two cubes of jiggling yellow custard sprinkled with coconut.

I’d devised a strategy to consume the bitter melon. But I needed first to know what I was up against. The first slice, eaten alone, was unbearably bitter. The second I ate wrapped around sushi’s spiritual cousin, the bitter melon almost completely overwhelming the asparagus-carrot-seaweed roll. A mouthful of braised gluten in brown sauce restored equilibrium, but six slices still stared up at me.

I wrapped the third around the custard, hoping that bitter and sweet cancel each other out both on the tongue and in the intestines. Only my next blood test will speak for the latter, but as for the former the experiment worked well enough to allow for a repeat with the fourth slice.

Having now used the dessert portion of the meal as camouflage, I was forced to combine two more slices with the savory bean curd. By this point the bitter melon had coated my tongue to the extent that everything tasted like Chinese medicine. I couldn’t stomach the final two slices, so I opted for the spiritual path instead, sliding them into the compost bin so that they might lower the blood sugar of some lucky pig.

Minder Vegetarian Restaurant is a chain run by the Tzu Chi Foundation. The one referenced in this story is in the basement of the Tzu Chi Buddhist hospital in Xindian.


Death: Embracing Mortality with Coffin Bread

I hit Tainan feeling like death warmed over, thanks to a cold that had chosen to make its presence known just past the Banqiao HSR station. Too late to turn back from my commitment, the only sensible thing to do was to go looking for a casket. Luckily, I was in the Taiwanese city known for a culinary oddity known as Guancai Ban (棺材板) or “Coffin Bread.”

“Where’s the best Guancai Ban in town?” I asked my taxi driver. I might as well have handed him a business card reading Tourist, but I didn’t care.

“Chi Kan,” he answered “Famous place. You had Guancia Ban before?”

I told the driver that I’d had the dish before in Tainan, years ago, and didn’t remember much outside of having liked it. I had also visited one or two spots in Taipei claiming to serve it, but found these to be pale imitations. Some foods – San Francisco Sourdough, Philly Cheese Steak, Brooklyn Egg Creams – are justifiably best sought out in the city for which they’re named, and such is the case with Tainan Coffin Bread.

The driver dropped me off in front of a bustling if somewhat rundown-looking mall on Hai’an Road in the West Market District. A short walk through a maze of alleys brought me to a colorful, simple eatery with low tables and metal chairs, inside of which a dozen or so diners were scooping creamy filling out of bread with spoons.

Although the placards inside and out indicated that Chi Kan was now primarily popular with tourists, the place still retained a local greasy spoon vibe, and after a bit of chit-chat with my waitress concerning what varieties of Guancai Ban were available (two, it turned out), I settled on the traditional non-curry version.

A few minutes later I was served a slab of bread about three times the thickness of a standard slice. Deep fried and still oily to the touch, it was filled with a creamy, milky chowder of seafood and vegetables.

Though I’d eaten the dish before when I’d first visited Tainan in the nineties, my palate was now far more experienced. This time I found the dish quite curious, far removed from the usual Taiwanese spiciness. It tasted more like the Chicken à la King of my long-lost childhood than anything I’d eaten in years. It was delicious, and filled me with something akin to nostalgia.

I waved the waitress over to order a second serving.

“This really tastes like a Western dish,” I remarked when it came.

“It kind of is,” she replied. “There were a lot of American soldiers stationed around here after the Japanese left, and when the Americans came, the chef realized he’d have to start catering to different tastes. So he invented this dish.”

“So it’s not really a ‘traditional’ Tainan dish?”

The waitress shrugged.

“It is now. But it’s not ancient, if that’s what you mean.”

“But what about the name coffin bread”?

“That came later. Because it looks like a coffin.”

I could see the resemblance to a Chinese-style casket. I dug into my second serving, which was even greasier and even more delicious than the first. I wasn’t worried about my health. That ship had already sailed.

Chi Kan Guan Cai Ban is located at 180 Zhongzheng Rd., West Central Dist., Tainan City 700. Tel: 06-2240014.



Influential Mothers in My Life

Seeing as it’s mother’s day I thought I’d relate a tale from the early eighties concerning two influential mothers from my childhood. This story is a reprint, having run in Funny Times a few years back. Of course, it’s old news to my mom.

Onto the influential Mothers.

The Mothers of Invention: Freak Out

The Mothers of Invention: Freak Out

(Not these Mothers, who would only be influential a few years later)

The first mother was my own.

My Mother

My Mother was quite a looker in her day

She’d been divorced from my father for a few years at that point, and had been

dating a guy for a couple of months.


My mother’s paramour – Bill? Chuck? Who can remember these things? – decided to take her to see at movie at one of those second run movie theaters that once upon a time could afford to exist in Brooklyn.

My mother couldn’t find a babysitter, so, being a good and liberated 1970’s parent, she decided to take me, her 11 year old son, along on the date.

Enter the second Mother:

The Alien Mother

The Other Mother

My mother’s date (Bert? Ernie?) picked the movie. He decided to take us to see Alien. A movie about a very different sort of mother, with very different mating habits.


It was an evening show on a school night, and I think the ticket seller looked askance at my mother and her date as they brought me into what was considered among the most frightening movies made to date. But the eighties were a more permissive time, and would get more permissive still.

It’s worth noting here that the Alien’s children would have needed no babysitter, pouncing as they did into the world fully equipped to take care of themselves.

Myself, lacking claws, fangs or acid blood, was less equipped for self-protection from whatever sort of dangers might have awaited a young boy, so Rob or Charlie or whoever convinced my mother that bringing me along would be a reasonable show of good parenting.

My mother and her date settled in the back of the theater. Bob or Eddie or whoever gave me a few dollars for popcorn and soda, encouraging me to sit as far away from the grownups as possible. Perhaps there was a wink involved. This is not the part of the evening that sticks out in my memory.

Neither, ironically, do the next 98 minutes. It was just a surreal nightmare of blood and terror as the crew of the Nostromo were stalked and killed by the titular Alien, described by the Nostromo’s android shipmate as “the perfect organism”.

Actually, this line was said by the android’s severed head, through a pool of its own semen-like goo after being reanimated by jumper cables.

Also, there was a computer called “Mother” in there somewhere. “Mother” the computer was about as much use to the crew of the Nostromo as my own mother was to me at that point in the film, being fondled by Archie or Jughead or whatever his name was twenty rows back.

They were younger then than I am now. Who can blame them?

When the movie ended, I had to be pried from my seat.  I think the imprints made by my fingers clutching the armrests tightly for 117 minutes were there until the theater itself was gentrified along with the rest of Brooklyn.

I remember the drive home, not to my own home (which would have been a small comfort), but to the Brooklyn home of Jones or Brett or whoever. He’d managed to convince my mother to spend the night, and thought that my sleeping on the lower bunk in his daughter’s bedroom was a reasonable idea.

I spent the entire night with my eyes open, staring at the underside of the upper bunk, listening to a stranger’s breathing mingling with unmentionable sounds from the rest of the house.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.


Like my writing? Dig exotic Places? Buy my Ebook, How Not To Avoid Jet Lag & other tales of travel madness, 19 illustrated stories, observations, and exotic hallucinations from the increasingly demented mind of Travel Writer Joshua Samuel Brown, with illustrations by David Lee Ingersoll.


Eight Hour Taipei Layover, Midnight Special

I used to write a lot of articles on the theme of short layovers around Asia.

Seven hours in Seoul,”  “A Day, a Night and Some Petty Larceny in Okinawa,” that sort of thing. When I was younger, I did a lot more of these super-short duration trips that would leave me trying to get the most of of short visits to exotic spots.

A few days back I got a message from a friend of a friend from the Nomadness Travel Tribe asking advice on a stopover she’ll have in Taipei in a couple of weeks on a flight from the states to Bangkok. Nikky told me that she wanted to experience as much of Taipei as she could in eight hours, basically a 12-or-so hour layover with two hours on each end for a safe buffer for clearing customs on both ends, storing and collecting her luggage and getting between Taoyuan Airport and Taipei.

I searched my database for a previous “Things to do with eight hours in Taipei” article, only to realize that I’d never written one.  And why would I have? I live here, so it’s one of the few cities I’ve never actually visited under time constraints.

So I started this article:

Things to do with eight hours in Taipei

But here’s where it got complicated. I started thinking of the usual things that could be done with eight hours: A good meal, a visit to a couple of museums and temples, maybe even a guided tour. (My company, MyTaiwanTour, does tons of customized tours exactly like this, with airport pickup and delivery.)

But before I got halfway in, I realized that I ought to ask Nikky what her time-frame was. Because, you know, logistics.

She told me she’d be landing at around 8pm on a Sunday night and taking off at 8pm the next morning.

This, of course, changed things entirely, since at that hour the museums are all closed, there are less temples to visit, and once you hit the city you’ve only got a couple of hours until Taipei’s fabulous MRT system shuts down for the night.

So halfway through, I changed the article title to 

Eight Hour Taipei Layover: Midnight Special

And here we are.

In a nutshell, I’ll be offering a few suggested activities that’ll allow you to cram maximum Taipei experience into the eight hours before dawn. If you’re the sort of reader who’s already got their finger hovering over the TL:DLR button, I’ll front load the important fact: Safety.

Q: Is Taipei safe  for a solo female traveler to  wander around at night?

A: Taipei is among the safest in the world. Taipei has a very low crime rate, similar to Tokyo. Shit does happen, but our shit happening rate is ridiculously low compared to pretty much any city in America. Furthermore, if you do encounter a problem – or if you need directions – you can approach any cop and they’ll do their best to help you out.

(For more on the topic of safety in Taiwan, check out this article from Taiwan Scene.)

OK, now that that’s out of the way. First, lets get the boring stuff out of the way:

  1. Go through customs. As an American, you don’t need a visa for your 12 hour romp. Hell, if you fall in love with the place, you can stay 2 months on your landing visa. Or is it three months these days…anyway, it’s beyond the scope of this essay.
  2. Change some money in the airport. You won’t be able to do it in Taipei in the middle of the night. $100 USD will turn into just a tad under $3000 New Taiwan Dollars. Your biggest expense will be the taxi back to the airport (see above note about MRT schedule). It shouldn’t be more than 1200 NT, but let’s budget 1500 just to be safe. So $100 US bucks should be enough for food, transportation and a foot massage. If you want to get a drink or two, a full body massage, or a more expensive meal, get $200 to be on the safe side. You can change it back on the way out.
  3. Stow your luggage. This website lays out the options nicely. I’ve not confirmed the info, but it seems correct to me. (To paraphrase Jay Z, “Taiwan’s got 99 problems, but not being able to store your luggage at an airport, bus or train station ain’t one.”) Moving on…
  4. Hop on the new MRT that goes directly to Taipei. It takes a bit under 40 minutes and costs NT$160. It lets you off (1) within walking distance of the neighborhood you’ll want to explore first.
Eight hours in Taipei map

Eight hours in Taipei map

Now lets get to the more interesting stuff.

Depending on various factors, you should now find yourself at the northern end of Taipei Main Station (1), and it should be around 9:30 PM.  You could hop on the MRT to Ximen station, or you could walk. I’d suggest the latter.

See that big (and quite professionally rendered, if I do say so myself) circled area with the “2”? That, roughly speaking, is the Ximending district, Taipei’s answer to Tokyo’s Ginza. Wander there first. The massive pedestrian mall has tons to see and do. There’s street food, good restaurants, shopping and people watching galore.

Ximending One by Jean-Jaques Chen

Ximending One by Jean-Jaques Chen

This building is a landmark. I don’t know why.

The pedestrian mall has tons of stuff. Wander to the west of the pedestrian mall and you’ll find alleys filled with tattoo shops, skate punks, more street food, more little shops, street art, stuff like that. You’ll find about half a dozen good massage places (foot & full body) on Kunming and Xinning streets (two main drags running north to south). Just south of the plaza where exit six of the Ximen MRT station is located (kind of the heart of the neighborhood – there’s a jumbotron that shows movie previews) is where the Red House is. It’s Taipei’s main GLBTQ nexus is, so tons of bars surrounding a restored Japanese colonial era building. You can’t miss it.

Photo courtesy of Jean-Jaques Chen

Pedestrian Mall, Ximending. Photo courtesy of Jean-Jaques Chen


Though not a night market, Ximending tends to be more happening at night then in the day.  Most restaurants will close around midnight, but you won’t have trouble finding something to eat at any hour. There are a few 24 hour places in the neighborhood.

So let’s assume at this point it’s, oh, 1:30 am. You’ve eaten, explored the area, gotten a massage, and now you’re having a drink somewhere around the Red House. (It’s Sunday night, so it’s entirely possible that this area won’t be as happening as it would have been were it Saturday. You’ve still got 3-4 hours to kill before having to hop a taxi back to the airport.

Grab yourself a cappuccino at a 7-11 or Family Mart. (You’ll have no problem finding one.) Start walking eastward, towards the area circled in the map above and labeled “3”.

How do you know which way is east? Look for this building in the distance:

Taipei 101 Shutterstock

Taipei 101 Shutterstock










That’s Taipei 101, the tallest building in Taipei. It’s East of you. Do not confuse it with this building:

Shin Gong Tower

Shin Gong Tower

That’s the Shin Gong Tower. It’s much closer (you could walk to it in 15 minutes), and throughout your brief evening stroll, it should remain to your north.

(Sorry for using Shutterstock photos. I’m too lazy to search through my hard drive at the moment for photos. Take some of your own!)

Heading directly east from the Red House will bring you into 2-28 Memorial park, which has some lovely gazebos, a band shell, a foot massage path, a monument to the massacre for which the park is named and more.

Though the park won’t be deserted at that time of night, there should be a few people wandering around. It’s a fairly well known meeting place for local gay men, or at least it used to be when Taiwanese society was a bit more repressed. It’s a peaceful spot, day or night.

South of the park, you’ll see the Presidential Palace. If you’re lost, or just feel lonely, have a chat with one of the soldiers guarding the place. They’re probably bored at this hour.  Keep heading east past the Presidential Palace and you’ll walk into Liberty Square, a massive plaza that’s home to Chiang Kai-shek memorial. The memorial and museum are closed, which is just as well. But the plaza is open, and who knows? You may see some super-early risers doing TaiChi here.  Lots of cool stuff to look at.

Depending on your pace, and whether or not you’ve run into the president out for a late night stroll with her cats (I have no idea if the president takes her cats for walks, but we have to assume that if she does she does it late at night), it’s probably about time for you to think about getting yourself back to the airport.

If you still have an hour to kill and are feeling a bit hungry, you can either wander back to the Ximending area (there are a few 24 hour restaurants there, and there’ll probably be a couple of street food vendors still out as well, and of course, 24/7 convenience stores) or head down to Roosevelt Road (where the red and green lines meet way down on the bottom edge of the map below) and walk a bit. You’ll find something.

Since the MRT won’t start running until 6am, trying to use it to catch an 8am flight seems a bit risky (especially since you’ve got to grab your luggage in an unfamiliar airport and clear customs). If it were me, I’d hop in a taxi no later than 5am to get to the airport around six. (Traffic is usually pretty light this early)

From this neighborhood, a taxi to the airport should be around NT 1200, about $35 bucks. But let’s say NT 1500 just to be safe. Most taxi drivers can understand “Taoyuan Airport”. If not, show them this: 台灣桃園國際機場, and your ticket, which should also have the terminal number and so forth.

So there you have it, my suggestion at least, an uncomplicated single pot meal visit requiring no extra transportation outside of your trip back and forth from the airport.  You’ll experience some neon glitter, exotic culture, Taiwanese cuisine, historical architecture, a sliver or two of nature, and whatever other surprises unscripted travel can bring.

Here’s another map with some possible walking routes. You’ll be able to see Shin Kong Tower, represented with the reddish-purple blob

walking route for 8 hours in Taipei

walking route for 8 hours in Taipei

Let me know how it goes. Leave a comment below.


Grace versus brute force: Mixed Martial Arts in Taiwan

It’s five in the afternoon at Hsinchu’s Municipal Stadium, inside of which a crowd of about twelve hundred have gathered, their vibe rowdy, but polite. Welcome to the world of Mixed Martial Arts in Taiwan.

Heavy Metal music blares over loudspeakers, and around the still-empty battle octagon, anticipation mingles with dry-ice fog.  Outside of the stadium doors an ambulance sits waiting.  “Just in case,” announces an event organizer.

Welcome to the world of MMA – Mixed Martial Arts – in Taiwan

The concept of MMA is simple: Fighters trained in different schools and styles compete. They are matched up roughly by height and weight, but this is generally where their similarities end.  A typical MMA match might see a Kung Fu fighter going toe-to-toe with a wrestler, a judoka may be pitted against a boxer, or a jujitsu master might find himself facing a straight-up barroom brawler.

Grace versus brute force. Strikers fighting grapplers. Pit bulls against alligators.

The first round pits two roughly-evenly matched strikers against one another.  It is over before I can get any meaningful notes.

MMA in Taiwan 1

Mixed Martial Arts in Taiwan, Round One

The second round begins similarly, with both fighters trading blows and displaying beautiful striking form.  However, it’s clear that one of the fighters, a Taiwanese with blue gloves and buck teeth, is more interested in grappling than striking.   In short order, he drags his opponent down gets him in a classic triangle hold with his legs. Pulling him tighter and tighter, the grappler looks like a python taking its time with its prey – and the conclusion is foregone by the one minute mark. Hold broken by the bell, the two men embrace like long lost brothers – a beautiful moment in man-to-man combat.

The crowd is getting more worked up as the third round opponents come out, the first match pitting a local fighter against a western import.  Lin, a freestyle Kung fu fighter looks nervous early on but still draws first blood from his opponent, James, an American whose listed skills include Brazilian jujitsu and some sort of Muy Thai hybrid.  But Lin is a striker, clearly unprepared for James’ plan B, which entails pulling his opponent to the ground and quickly pummeling him into submission.

MMA in Taiwan

“These Kung Fu guys get wiped out”

“These kung fu guys get wiped out,”  Paulo, a NYC native working in Hsinchu says to me as James is declared the winner. “Kung fu is a soft art.”

I agree with him. The other guy didn’t have the eye of the tiger.

It’s in the next round that the meaning of “just in case” becomes clear.  Victor is a Canadian specializing in Taikwondo and freestyle fighting, and his opponent is a shorter, thicker kick boxer with massive legs.

“Look at those legs,” Says Paulo. “The Canadian is going to go for the legs first.”

Paulo’s words are frighteningly prescient, as Victor comes out after the bell and, using his longer reach, begins systematically chopping his opponent’s legs as if they were wood. Both men are strikers, but deprived of his legs the Taiwanese kick boxer is powerless.  Victor lunges with a devastating punch to the head, dropping his opponent like a dead tree.

Down for the count

Down for the count

For a full three minutes the crowd buzzes with nervous excitement as the smaller fighter stays down, eyes staring blankly at the ceiling high above.  It is an ugly end to a brutal match, and a collective sigh of relief is breathed when the smaller fighter stands. He leaves the ring beaten, and possibly concussive, but vertically – proving the maxim that any fight you can walk away from is a good one.

The event goes into intermission. A good excuse for the drinkers in the audience to sneak more beer (Verboten in the stadium, being city property) and for me to get a few photos of the event’s beautiful and scantily-clad ring girls.

MMA in Taiwan

Me and the Beer Girls

The fifth match – the first after the break – is a quick one. Wu and Cheng seem equally matched, being roughly the same size and practitioners in disciplines involving both striking and grappling.  But again, it boils down to that elusive psychological aspect.  The look on Wu’s face tells the story. He seems nervous. His opponent, red-gloved Cheng, seems not merely confident but angry.  Wu gets in a few strikes, but these are matched by Cheng who quickly takes him to the mat.  Wu struggles, striking in so far as he is able, but as Cheng holds him firm from behind Wu’s blows fail to land with any meaning.   After less than thirty seconds of ground struggle, Wu strikes his final blow, not on Cheng but to the ground,  the internationally accepted cry of “Uncle!”   The sound of air filling Wu’s lungs competes with the roar of the crowd.

Wu and Chang, not so evenly matched.

Wu and Chang, not so evenly matched.

The next match is between a French mixed martial artist / Judoka and a Taiwanese striker.  It is a round completely devoid of foreplay as the Frenchman gets down to business quickly. Any dubiousness I feel about the applications of Judo in a mixed match ring are quickly dispelled. Within the first five seconds the Frenchman has his opponent in a choke hold, and the striker can get neither leverage to break the hold nor opportunity to punch his way out. Before a minute has passed, the striker is pinned, and the Frenchman declared the winner.

The seventh round is a painful mismatch. Sammy is a South African with the build, swagger and paunch of a barroom brawler. His fighting style, according to several ringside friends who know him, is simply “South African.”   His opponent, Wu, while of the same weight class, is close to a twelve centimeters shorter and in reach.  To make matters even stranger, Wu comes out wearing a cheaply made cloth gladiator costume. “Is this some sort of a psyche out,” I wonder. “What sort of a fighter comes out against a monster dressed like a Chinese court jester?”

Remembering the words of Sun Tzu advising the strong to appear weak,  I begin to entertain the idea that this might indeed be a psychological ploy.  This is swiftly dispelled at the fourteen second mark.  Sammy’s first blow, a knee to the face (or, as they say in the back streets of Cape Town, “n Snotklap teen die kop”) knocks Wu unconscious.

Audience Watching the fight

Audience Watching the fight

The South African giant is graceful in victory. “It seems we have a little extra time here,” he begins, before launching into a good-natured soliloquy that ends with an invitation for the audience to join him in a post-brawl barbecue.

It’s during the last fight that the beauty, majesty, and brutality of MMA truly comes to life.  Wu Dongxing  is a Taiwanese brawler, a specialist in a kind of striking and kicking art known as Sanda.  Weighing in at 105 kilos and 175 cm, Wu’s build could charitably be described as portly.  His opponent, American-born Pete, though ten kilos lighter, is also a head taller. A student of Brazilian Jujitsu at a respected Filipino Martial arts academy, Pete (who begins the match with humility, kneeling in prayer in the center of the ring) seems to outclass his heavy opponent.

This final match, and with it the event, seems poised to end quickly.  Faster, more agile, and with more moves than Wu, Pete circles his opponent like a shark, every now and then lunging in for a blow.  The fat man absorbs most of these, seemingly unconcerned with even rudiments like blocking.  Whereas Pete is dancing, using footwork, Wu just stands there, rooted to one spot. Until, that is, the western fighter gets in close.

MMA in Taiwan

Beauty and the Beast

There is a heavy thud, like the sound made by a truck hitting a cow. Wu’s sledgehammer of a foot connects with his opponent’s midsection. As  Pete grimaces in pain, wu stands still, his posture saying come closer, have another.

Pete, chastened, dances more carefully around Wu, carefully aiming blows of varying style and intensity to his heavy opponent’s face, head, and body.  Wu absorbs them all, not seeming to react to any in particular. But collectively, they are taking their toll, and the blows, along with the effort of moving his own weight around the ring, seem to portend the end is near.

Or is it? Wu is striking slowly now, with neither charm nor grace, landing only one blow in three. But each that lands seems to make Pete a little more careful, a little more reluctant to move in for the kill.

A punch is thrown, and caught, and soon the pair are on the ground. Wu is on his back, and at first glance it looks like the heavier fighter is being pinned. Only when I move closer do I see that Wu has Pete in a vicious chokehold, pulling the back of the taller fighter’s head into his fat stomach, growling like a wounded bear.

The American is in agony, his neck twisted backwards. He must be running out of air. He lashes out at the only target available, the sides of the fat fighter’s stomach. The clench is held for over a minute, the taller fighter trying desperately to break his opponent’s grip, managing eventually to do so with his left arm.

Wu is still on the ground. Pete is winded.  Both stand up and assess the damage slowly.

More ring work. Wu launches himself head first like a cannonball into Pete’s midsection, smacking him back into the octagon gate. The ground shakes.  Both men are breathing hard. The bell rings, and for the first time tonight a match goes into round two. Wu leans into the gate as his friends try to staunch the bleeding from a cut above his eye. Across the octagon, Pete may be wondering about the efficacy of his pre-match prayers.

The bell rings again, and the fighters come out for round two. Both are exhausted, bloody and battered. Both seem chastened, as if they’d underestimated their opponents. Wu is still breathing hard, and Pete dances around him, launching fist after fist into Wu’s face with horrifying cracking sounds.  Wu is bleeding from both nostrils now, and Pete is grimacing as well.  His body language suggests that the cracking sound just heard was that of his own fist breaking on Wu’s nose.  Wu tries to launch a roundhouse kick but, exhausted and slow, fails to connect. Pete, knowing another kick might be his last, has no intention of getting that close. He continues dancing.

The end comes without drama. Wu, eyes nearly swollen shut, backs into one end of the Octagon while his opponent remains at a distance.  The referee calls a quick pause to inspect Wu’s badly damaged face; whether it’s the fighter or the ref who makes the call is unclear, but the determination is made that Wu should not be allowed to continue.   The crowd screams as Pete is declared the winner. Bleeding but unbowed, the portly Wu exits the octagon with his entourage.

The end came quickly

The end came quickly

Somewhere in my head, I hear the nasal, ghostly voice of legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell:

A brutal end to a brutal match in a brutal sport; Not since Santa spent Christmas delivering presents during the great reindeer strike of ’57 has a fat man tried so valiantly to beat the odds. And for that, you just have to give him credit. 


Special Thanks to Tobie Openshaw for suggesting the phrase “n Snotklap teen die kop”)

Cold War Cuisine

Artist: David Lee Ingersoll

My photographer is surrounded by waitresses wearing starch-pressed uniforms. They are grabbing his camera, repeating “no photos” in halting Mandarin. The editor and his girlfriend hang by the entrance, clearly regretting their decision to join the magazine’s newest writer on his first restaurant review.

An aura of fear hangs in the air. Our dog meat soup has yet to arrive.

Welcome to the Pyongyang BBQ, the only North Korean eatery in Beijing.

I attempt to sooth the desperate waitresses, telling them that we are fellow workers, comrades. Harsh stares penetrate the barbecue smoke from the neighboring table, and there is some quick chatter in a Korean dialect few Americans will ever hear. She shoots a glance that puts ice in my bowels.


It is both question and accusation.

I wrack my brain. What country would be least offensive to North Korean sensibilities?


Their moon-faces soften slightly. There is more chatter in the North Korean dialect.

“You may photograph the dishes,” one says. “No faces.”

We agree that strict anonymity will be maintained.

Our menu is produced, a black folder with numerous plastic sleeves holding hundreds of index cards on which are handwritten dish-names in Korean and Chinese. The Chinese characters are meaningless phonetic transliterations of the original Korean. There are neither pictures nor colorfully worded descriptions.

Such trivial details are for the bourgeois!

Our waitress hovers rigidly above our table, pencil impatiently tapping pad.

“Can you recommend some typical Korean dishes?” I ask.

She stiffens as if touched with a cattle prod, icy stare deepening.

“We are North Korean.” She corrects me before resuming her pad-tapping. We quickly order several dishes at random.

The first thing to arrive is the kimchi. I eagerly shove a chunk into my mouth, regretting it immediately.

“Is this your spiciest kimchi?” I ask, my face turning scarlet.

“Our second most spicy. We would not serve a foreigner our most spicy kimchi unless we wished them dead.”

These will be the kindest words she says all night.

More dishes arrive. My photographer is nowhere to be seen. I envision him hog-tied in the trunk of a car with diplomatic plates, racing towards the border.

Perhaps his insistence on photographing the North Korean opera blaring from the television was a bad move.

To hell with this restaurant. This review is over!

I get up as inconspicuously as possible, muttering something about needing the toilet and walk sideways like a crab towards the door, my eyes twitching from the smoke. I am about to bolt for freedom when I spot my photographer coming out of the kitchen.

“I was trying to chat up a prep chef, but he wouldn’t tell me anything.”

“What the hell did you expect? Shit, lower that camera before they crucify us. We have many, many dishes to get through.”

We return through the smoke to our table, blinded and choking as surely as if the bartender had detonated a tear gas grenade. My dining comrades are chatting, filtering the air through lit cigarettes.

I say something like “the meat…cough…is…cough…flavorful.”

They nod in agreement.

We are given a plate stacked high with tomato, onion and garlic, all of it raw. We cannot figure out how to cook it on our table without having it fall through the grill, and wind up shoveling it into our mouths uncooked. This turns out to be good practice for the next dish, small bowls filled with raw chopped beef. A raw egg has been cracked in each bowl.

I ask the waitress how it the dish is best enjoyed. She takes my bowl and mixes it until it becomes a glutinous meat paste.

“Eat,” she commands.

The oily mixture slides down my throat like a wad of meat-flavored phlegm. I surreptitiously slide the bowl across the table: best to save my appetite for the restaurant’s apparent specialty, the pot of dog meat soup that the waitress has just placed on our table. Our request for bowls are ignored, so we eat straight from the pot.

Dog meat is a dark pungent meat with a somewhat stringy texture. It is said to be a warming meat with yang-strengthening properties, equally good for cold winter days or long passion-filled nights. Try to ignore the theme to Lassie which will inevitably run through your head while you eat.

There is very little at the Pyongyang BBQ for the vegetarian to enjoy. The editor’s girlfriend refused to even touch her chopsticks. She fled from the table when the raw beef came out and did not return. We ordered a spicy cold noodle dish that never arrived. We got a small dish which we didn’t order, a plate of two kinds of glutinous cakes. I assumed that this was dessert, and ate a piece expecting it to be sweet. It tasted like sawdust and had the texture of hardening denture paste.

How does one explain the difference between excellent dog meat soup and dog meat soup that is merely mediocre? The Pyongyang BBQ restaurant calls for a different review metric entirely, and in this metric the restaurant earns high marks in all categories. Cuisine is clearly authentically North Korean and earns four stars. Ambiance hearkens back to China’s bygone days of constant paranoia, earning again four stars. And service is as good as you’d expect in Pyongyang, so four stars again.

Pyongyang BBQ is a restaurant that fulfills the needs of a worker’s state. It is not a good place to take a skittish first date. Do not harangue the wait-staff with petty questions. Keep your nationality to yourself. Avoid “Pyongyang Star,” the North Korean National Beer — it’s vile.

Return at reasonably spaced intervals. The Permanent Revolution is best enjoyed in small doses.

Cold War Cuisine ran originally in Beijing Scene Magazine, Summer 1999.

Want to read more stories like these? Order How Not to Avoid Jet Lag ~ Nineteen stories from the increasingly deranged mind of travel Writer Joshua Samuel Brown, with illustrations by David Lee Ingersoll.

Click here for the Kindle Version (Amazon)

Click Here for all other E-book formats. (Smashwords)


How Not to Avoid Jet Lag

Nineteen tales ranging from new journalism to exotic hallucination.

Click here for the Kindle Version (Amazon)

Click Here for all other E-book formats. (Smashwords)

How Not to Avoid Jet Lag Nineteen stories from the increasingly deranged mind of travel Writer Joshua Samuel Brown, with illustrations by David Lee Ingersoll.

“I’ve often thought that guidebook writing attracts the mad, the bad and the slightly crazed. If he didn’t start that way – perhaps a pre-writing career as a bike messenger helped – his years on the road have certainly contributed to Joshua’s off-kilter take on the world.”
 – Tony Wheeler, Lonely Planet Co-founder.

The unique aspect of How Not to Avoid Jet Lag… is the almost psychedelic feel to several of the narratives without clarification of what’s real and what’s not. For instance, in the story “The Worst Place in the World”, the author describes a trip to IKEA as “Distortion of the time/space continuum coupled with an overwhelming sense of despair as everyday items take on strange, menacing dimensions and reality becomes a grotesquely exaggerated nightmare from which only the passage of time offers release.” His “reality” becomes progressively more distorted and reminiscent of scenes from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Hayley Swinson, www.savvygirltravel.com


Click here to read more reviews at Amazon.com

Among the illustrated tales of travel writing, new journalism and straight up hallucination you’ll find in How Not to Avoid Jet Lag & Other Tales of Travel Madness are:

  • My Parents Are Little People, a story of the bizarre lengths a travel writer will go in pursuit of a hotel review;
  • Supper in Uyghurville, a gritty tale of menace, drugs and journalism from Beijing’s darkest hutong;
  • The Milky Teat of Serendipity, a hallucinatory flight of fancy featuring Singaporean Prime Ministers, Taiwanese presidents and a wandering goat-milk salesgirl;
  • The Worst Place in the World, strong contender for the “Travel story most likely to garner a cease and desist letter from Ikea” award.

Buy the Kindle Version (Amazon)

Click Here for all other E-book formats. (Smashwords)

Taiwan: from Bike Kingdom to Cyclist’s Paradise

One of two articles generated from my recent Taiwan trip, sponsored by the Taiwan Trade Association.  Story begins here, click link to follow on to Topics Magazine, wherein lies the original in its digital glory (with photos):

Taiwan: from Bike Kingdom to Cyclist’s Paradise

“Ni Fengle!” (You’re crazy!)

I remember fondly those words, spoken by my Taiwanese landlady Ms. Yeh on hearing my plan to cycle to Taipei from our shared home in Shuangshi, a small town on the outskirts of the Hsinchu Science Park. She’d never seen a man clad head to toe in skin-tight spandex and apparently found my costume shocking.  But Ms. Yeh was not alone in thinking me mad. Ours was a small town, and as the strange foreign transplant I was often Shuangshi’s unofficial source of entertainment. Before I’d gotten past the betel nut stand marking the town’s edge, several neighbors had come out to wish me well on my journey, with more than a few casually dropping a derogatory comment about the helmet.

It was Spring 1995, and while Taiwan was being called The Bicycle Kingdom…

(continue reading here)

Taiwan as my literary muse

I was honored last month with an offer to speak on the subject of Taiwan in Literature and Taiwan as my literary muse at a panel at the Bay Area Book Festival called  “The Beautiful Island: Taiwan in the Literary Imagination.”

The panel will be held on June 4 at 11:45am, and if you’re interested in showing up, come to the Journey’s Stage at the Osher Studio (map here) in downtown Berkeley.  

The invitation comes at an interesting time for me personally, as I’m working on the second draft of my novel Spinning Karma, a story in which Taiwan plays a major role. (Currently in deep edit of the middle act, or the muddle. Fellow writers will know what I’m talking about.)

Taiwan, due to its strange geopolitical status, can be a tricky muse. Yet its been mine for as long as I can remember. So long, in fact, that I sometimes forget why. An incident a few days ago reminded me.

Specifically, a friend of mine got run over. By a truck. In Taiwan.

(No, this is not the stuff of usual travel writing!)

So as not to risk burying the lede, this friend is fine (at least as fine as can be expected after such an event) and already planning his return trip to ride around Taiwan in the autumn.

I met Jeff Barth last year after taking a gig as consultant and tour guide with a company called Bicycle Adventures.  We led two tours 11-day together through Taiwan last autumn, and got to know each other pretty well. (Spending close to a month in hotel rooms with a guy you’ve just met will do that.)

Though I couldn’t do the spring trip, Jeff and I have remained friends and I’ve been following his current cycling trip through over Facebook, happy to see that a new group of people are learning to love cycling in Taiwan.

So naturally, I was concerned a few days ago to see a photo of Jeff laid up in a hospital bed. The photos had been posted not by him but by one of the drivers from the group, Simon Lee.  I made a few calls and found out what happened. Near as I can tell, the details were Windy road, fast descent, and a truck driver who….well, Jeff said it best on his own Facebook post a few hours later:

“He is a good man who made a terrible mistake.”

Jeff made the quip after the driver came to visit him, both to make amends verbally through a translator and to work out a reparation plan. The post was beneath this photo.

Inline image 1

Jeff, shaking hands with the driver through a hole in the bicycling jersey he’d been wearing when hit.


For me, the take-away from this is that decency is so ingrained in Taiwanese society that even an incident as objectively awful as being run over by a truck can end on a positive note. Something…life affirming, even.

Which brings me back to thoughts of Taiwan as my muse.

Though it’s been ten years since I wrote my first book, Vignettes of Taiwan, it remains the one I’m still most proud of. Some of the stories in it are more of the travel journalism variety, while others are more personal vignettes. Of the latter category, about half fall under the category stories about things not going as planned.

These include

The Unhappy Affair at Happy Kids Kindergarten (Getting hauled in by the police for teaching at an unlicensed school)….Fight Club (having my ass kicked by a kid half my age, in front of an audience no less)…Shotgun Wedding (a cultural misunderstanding turns a first date very awkward).

These things were not fun while they were happening. (I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they didn’t suck as much in the moment as, say, two bone fractures requiring surgery; in my defense, the cop who interrogated me for four hours in Hsinchu didn’t offer me codeine first.)

But the events made for good stories, made all the more good by the fact that they a) taught me things, and b) ended well.

Taiwan has never bored me, often taught me, and has yet to kill me.

Could anyone ask for a better muse?

Get well soon, Jeff, and see you on the road!

48 Hours Around Taiwan – Travel Journalism By Bicycle

Cycling in Taiwan

Taken somewhere on the road from our 2015 Taiwan cycling tour.

48 Hours Around Formosa – Travel Journalism by Bicycle

My most recent travel journalism article – with many excellent photos -just came out in Road Bike Action Magazine.

It began with a countdown: San…er…yi…

And with an air horn’s blast they were off, 186 cyclists determined to test the upper limits of their endurance by riding close to 1000 kilometers in 48 near sleepless hours. They came from both sides of the Taiwan Straits, with a couple of European riders thrown in for good measure. If pre-race chatter was anything to go by, there was little in the way of cross-strait tension in the air. Whether from Beijing or Taipei, Shanghai or Kaohsiung, each knew they’d be facing the common enemies of pain, cramping and sheer exhaustion as they attempted to ride the perimeter of Taiwan. What would differ from rider to rider would be their own inner voices. Whether it told them jia you! (keep going!) more often than ...bu neng! (…cannot!) would make all the difference.

(Continue reading at Road Bike Action)