Chapter 1: What’s a Taiwan, Anyway?

Understanding what in the hell Taiwan even is... well, it’s confusing. You’re better off just accepting that you’re not going to understand it. Not really, anyway. First off, the place isn’t even called Taiwan, that’s just what we call it in an effort to sidestep a big hunk of that confusion. It’s actually called the Republic of China. No, not that other place you’re thinking of with the red flag and all the communists singing the Mao Mix song (“Mao Mao Mao Mao, Mao Mao Mao Mao-”) that also makes your underwear, that’s the People’s Republic of China. We just call that one “China” because “PRC” sounds like a loyalty program from Hollywood Video. And since we’re already calling the PRC China, we can’t call the Republic of China China too, because then Trump would constantly be tweeting about the wrong people.

So we call the ROC Taiwan instead, which is the name of the island that encompasses most of their territory.

Confused yet? Okay, how about now: The ROC used to be in charge of the whole shebang. All the Chinas. They replaced the Qing dynasty in 1912 and during the 1920s they pushed out the various warlords that had fragmented China. But then from 1927 onward they were embroiled in the Chinese Civil War with the communist People’s Liberation Army. The two factions banded together to fight Japan in WWII, then went back to fighting each other after Japan’s surrender, with the PLA emerging victorious in 1949. What was left of the ROC retreated to the island of Taiwan, and never left.

So now you have Taiwan, which is for all intents and purposes a fully-functioning autonomous country. Except you can’t recognize Taiwan as a country if you want to do business with China, and thus it’s not recognized by the UN or most major countries. In various international organizations, it participates as “Chinese Taipei” just to make the name thing even more confusing. China claims Taiwan as part of its territory, which is only fair since Taiwan claims mainland China as part of its territory.

So Taiwan operates as a country without any involvement from China, but if Taiwan were to ever formally declare their independence, they would immediately be invaded by China. So they’re a country as long as they don’t ever call themselves a country. That makes them a… yeah I don’t know what the hell Taiwan is.

Getting to Taiwan was its own adventure, since my nearly 3-hour layover in Shanghai turned out to be not nearly enough time to deal with the Chinese bureaucracy. By the time I’d made it through the Foreigner Fingerprint Self-Collection Area…

…and the walk-through thermal scanners that read your body temperature to make sure you’re not hot for teacher (or carrying the bird flu or whatever), AND the huge line where they verify that your foreigner fingerprints have been self-collected, then discovered that the flights from Shanghai to Taipei don’t fly out of the International terminal (because from China’s perspective it’s all China, right?) and jogged down the endless tunnel to the domestic terminal, it was too late to check in for my Taipei flight.

This was awesome because I’d flown my mom straight from the US to Taipei to meet me and I had already screwed this up at the first possible opportunity. I bought a ticket on the next flight that night and wandered the Shanghai airport, looking for something vegan to eat. It quickly became apparent this was a comically misguided idea.

Maybe I can just get a BOWL OF CHICKEN FEET? Jesus!

In this blog I strive to understand, respect and appreciate foreign cultures and in that spirit I’m here to say Chinese food is fucking gross. At the very end of this long trip through Asia we were at the Shanghai airport again and I was ransacking the biggest snack shop in the joint, looking for something to eat on the long flight since every restaurant in the airport was all ox dicks and eyeballs. The first snack bag I picked up was spicy duck necks. Gah! The second one I grabbed was a sack of chicken beaks. Fucking-A China!

My mom had a rude awakening as well as she went into this trip thinking being vegan would be easy in China, because she read The China Study once, but what they left out was that ever since China got money they’ve been in a massive hurry to leave their peasant-y vegetarian past far in the rear-view, and they do this by eating meat covered in meat out of a bowl made from meat, using Slim Jims as utensils. If a Chinese person eats a vegetable it’s because it looked like a pig’s nard and there was some confusion.

One Subway sandwich hold the everything later, I landed in Taipei and smiled at what I chose to interpret as Taiwan’s support for the vegan diet.

Cool and I’m only five hours late. While I was waiting in Shanghai I’d managed to call the car rental desk in Taipei and got them to hold my rental car until midnight, and convinced our saintly AirBnB host to wait up for us to check in at 2am.

Mom in tow, I approached the car rental desk. Oh yeah, this.

The night before, I had been packing for the trip and realized I’d need my International Driving Permit to rent a car in Taiwan. This is a bizarre document that looks sort of like a passport and is basically just a translation of your US driver’s license into a bunch of different languages, giving you permission to drive in many different countries. I had got mine in 2017 before my trip to Japan. I scooped up my IDP and just before I stuffed it into my backpack, I noticed something odd on the cover. In the fine print under the date, it mentioned that the IDP was only good for one year after issue. Uh-oh.

I had, I think reasonably, assumed it would be good for as long as my driver’s license that it was linked to. Nope.

It was midnight and my flight to Shanghai was leaving in about six hours. It was way, way, way too late to do anything about this. Only I had to do something, because if I couldn’t rent a car in Taipei there was no way I was going to be able to get us to southeastern Taiwan to hike the Taroko Gorge the next morning. Oh man.

I sat and stared at the long-since-expired IDP. Hmmm. This is so fucked. Hmmm.

Okay, yeah. There’s only one solution to this.

I picked up a pen and with a deft forger’s touch, added a loop to change the handwritten 2017 on the cover to 2019. Voila.

After all, they probably won’t even ask for-

“Welcome sir, may I see your IDP?”

Nards. I handed the permit to the car rental girl. She glanced at it briefly and handed me the rental paperwork to sign. I am the world’s greatest genius.

And just like that, we were pulling away from Taipei’s airport and into the black night.

Google Maps spit directions at me in Chinese that I couldn’t understand at all and I drove through the night with one eye on my phone screen, following the green line like I was playing a video game.

A few times the lines went bananas and I ended up off the freeway, driving through narrow alleyways packed with scooters, between dilapidated apartment flats. This is fantastic.

Out of the city, the road clung to the edges of huge black mountains and endless, endlessly cool tunnels whisked us through the center of the Earth.

Thanks to the lateness of the hour there was no traffic and we made it all the way across the island in a few short hours. A quick stop at 7-11 for water and hallucinogenically tart dried plums and to gawk at the individually wrapped corn on the cob for sale in the refrigerator and I was carrying our 200 pound bags up the narrow stairs of our miraculously accommodating AirBNB before collapsing onto the hard as nails bed.

Oh my God. Somehow, that all worked.

Chapter 2: Zhuilu Old Road Fast Pass

The crack of dawn farted in my face and it was time to get up for our big day of hiking, sleep be damned. Through a massive pit of red tape and extraordinary luck, I’d managed to secure my mom and myself permits to hike the Zhuili Old Road Trail, a highly-restricted path along the sheer cliff faces of the breathtaking Taroko Gorge, Taiwan’s greatest natural wonder. We were into the park right as it opened and parked on the far side of the Swallow Grotto, a cave system full of bird’s nests.

The bust of someone ostensibly important watched over us as I eyeballed all the signs saying please wear a hardhat rocks are going to fall on you right now please thanks.

The guardians of the trail had no difficulty in finding our permits as ours were the only non-Chinese names on the list. The gate was opened and in a daze we were traipsing across the long bridge over the Liwu River.

Across the river, the way was up, up, up, up. Climbing endlessly in the increasing heat of the day was more than my mom had signed up for, so there were ample rest breaks to listen to the eerie electronic buzzing sounds of the cicadas in the trees all around us. The sound was like a bath, holding a vibration in these woods that stood in stark contrast to the city. A wonderful and bracingly cold breeze snaked up from the gorge, feeling like the ocean.

During one of the rest breaks, I tuned into this huge rock, which filled me with an immense sense of solidity in the face of passing time.

When we weren’t climbing up, we were crossing narrow footbridges spanning the chasm from one ridge to the next.

The scenery grew more and more beautiful as we ascended out of the tree cover and the expanse of space from mountain to mountain became visible.

A few hours into the hike, my mom opted to enjoy the mountain from under a tree instead while I continued on up to the cliff trail.

Photo by Sheila O'Donnell

On my way up the mountain, I passed several loud Chinese tourists and their much sweeter and more introverted Taiwanese counterparts. One group of elderly Taiwanese hikers gestured for me to pass them on the trail.

“Welcome to Taiwan!”

Their energy and accents were completely endearing.

At the top of the slope, the trail transformed into to a narrow ledge overlooking a breathtaking expanse.

The drop to my left was thousands of feet down to the river and a microscopic curving road far below.

Across the gorge, a massive, beautiful mountain sat with the striking presence of a gargantuan Buddha.

A hilarious sign prompted me to not dilly-dally on the path, lest a boulder from the mountain fall and crush my skull, but the language they choose only made me imagine I was at Disneyland.

Any time I encountered anyone on the perilously narrow trail, one of us had to offer to press our bodies against the cliff face and grip the rock so the other could squeeze by without falling into the chasm.

After copious cliff adventures, I reached the point where the trail had been blocked off and deemed unsafe to pass.

Hmmm. The rest of the hike hadn’t been that bad. I ran back down the mountain until I found the spot where my mom had thrown in the towel. Let’s go the rest of the way up! It’s not that bad. And so she did!

Photo by Sheila O'Donnell
Photo by Sheila O'Donnell

Along the cliff trail there was a small cave where you could make an incense or candy offering to a small statue of Quan Yin.

Photo by Sheila O'Donnell

We eventually reached the trail’s end, sitting on a wobbly log to take a break and politely decline gracious offers of meat dumplings from the beautifully open-hearted Taiwanese resting with us at the end of the trail.

Photo by Sheila O'Donnell

On the way back down the mountain, mystical clouds drifted in across the gorge.

At one point during the long hike back down, I was quiet enough to have a moment with a mountain monkey before he spotted me and frowningly retreated.

Hiking all the way back down the mountain was a trial for the knees. By the time we crossed the gorge again on the final bridge, we were ready for a Gatorade and an everlasting plumstopper.

My plan had been to finish the hike and then race to the northern tip of Taiwan to climb the Pingxi Crags, but before we’d even left Taroko Gorge the rain announced that it had other plans.

Chapter 3: Carpool or Die

I wound my way through the mountain roads in the rain, adjusting to the reality that I wouldn’t be climbing any crags today, Pingxi or other. A franky unnerving number of motorcycles and scooters hovered around my car as we hugged the tight turns on the narrow road, causing me to exclaim “Oh come on!” every time another janky scooter joined the swarm. Somehow by Quan Yin candy magic I managed not to run any of them off the cliff during the long drive.

I did my best to photograph the strange and fascinating industrial landscape when I could do so without dragging a scooter under my car for a quarter of a mile.

This picture is terrible but whoever the eerie, ancient tribal Taiwanese are in this statue I’m still pretty sure they climb down and play cards whenever there aren’t cars going by.

An couple of hours into the drive I saw something that forced me to immediately deviate from Google Maps’ directions just so I could drive over and confirm that yes, I had just seen a massive box of crayons in the city skyline.

This is actually a factory where they make crayons, a reality attested to by all the screaming children in the parking lot who are obviously upset it isn't some kind of Willy Wonka crayon wonderland inside.

The 7-Eleven that shares a parking lot with the factory remained adorable in spite of the hellish wailing of disappointed Taiwanese children.

I didn’t note this at the time, but shortly before I spotted the crayon factory I had driven right past the Nanfangao harbor bridge, which dramatically collapsed last week.

One of the unique oddities of driving in Taiwan is that they are really, really into crazy flashing lights. As my plane was landing in Taipei, I looked out the window and puzzled at the psychedelic array of red lights flashing on one of the streets below. I quickly discovered that this was completely normal in Taiwan, as anything Taiwan wants to draw your attention to is festooned with more swirling, flashing lights than a Las Vegas casino on the 4th of July.

Getting back on track after my crayon factory detour, I steered onto the freeway onramp, only to be stopped by a dude with a flag. Hi dude. Are you claiming this highway for Taiwan? Or is it a some kind of holiday?

He waved the flag, indicating the bus ahead of me could get on the freeway. He then waved the flag at me, indicating that I could not, and needed to steer into an outflow lane to the right, like the “you just lost” outlane on a pinball machine. Huh? What just happened.

I stopped at a red light in the reject lane I had been relegated to. After a minute a policeman ran over and yelled at me to go, in spite of the red light. Okay?

I followed the road as it curved around and deposited me onto the freeway headed the wrong way. Huh. I drove one exit down and tried to get back on the freeway going toward Taipei. Another dude with a flag. Rejected.

What the hell?

I found a road parallel to the freeway and drove down it a few more miles until I felt like it was safe to attempt the freeway again. Another flag dude. Rejected, again. This is so bizarre.

I proceeded to follow the most parallel route to the freeway that I could, while Google Maps continually freaked out and begged and pleaded with me to get back on the freeway.

“Turn right.”

No. That’s the freeway. We’ve been banned from the freeway for some reason. I think it’s because I stopped trying to understand what Taiwan is.

“Turn right.”

Dammit Google! We can’t go on the freeway! You need to move out of the denial phase and into anger or something dude! Whatever’s after denial, I don’t have the flow chart with me right now.

“Turn right.”

*throws phone out the window*

My mom slept blissfully through all of this.

I continued my jagged, winding path, attempting to get us to where the freeway would have, if the freeway wasn’t a cruel asshole who had rejected us for no reason.

I passed through countless small towns, the main streets a hilarious clusterfudge of scooters and strange homeless people standing in the middle of the road for no reason whatsoever. I drove through rows of houses that had rice paddies instead of lawns. Fascinating.

“Turn right.”

Dammit phone how did you get back in the car??

After an hour of this detour of shame, I decided I had surely paid my penance and attempted to get back on the freeway.

Flag dude.

Goddammit how are there this many of you guys?? Look I’m sorry I said Chinese food is fucking gross, I don’t even think of you guys as Chinese!

I was shunted into a crazy side lane where I had to peel out and weave between several traffic cones to get into a lane that wasn’t going to just redirect me back into another heartbreaking encounter with a flag dude.

After leaving a trail of Taiwanese rubber on the street, I blew past a sign that finally cracked this whole rotten mystery wide open. It was in Chinese, but the pictograms were understandable enough. You had to have at least three people in your car to drive on the freeway between 3 and 10pm on Sunday afternoons. What.

How is a tourist supposed to know or understand this? You’re not. Taiwan is not aware that tourists are visiting Taiwan, which is at least somewhat understandable since we were the only two people on the island who weren’t Chinese or the other Chinese.

So… Jesus, what do I do now? It was only 4:30pm. If I tried to wait this out we’d be getting back to Taipei at two in the morning. So much for sightseeing the city.

I looped back through the town, looking for a homeless person I could pick up so we could drive on the freeway. They were, of course, all gone, surely hiding in the crayon factory and mocking our plight from afar.

I pulled over and instructed Google Maps to find me a way to Taipei without taking the freeway. I laughed out loud when I saw the large intestine colonoscopy result it suggested.

You’ve got to be kidding me. It was like this all the way to Taipei. I checked for other routes. There were not. Good one Taiwan. You may or may not be a country but you’re definitely an asshole.

What the hell are other people doing? There have to be other people driving in Taiwan who don’t have three people in their car. I found the closest freeway onramp and drove along the massive line of cars waiting to get on. Every one of them, and I mean every one, had darkly tinted windows. It was impossible to see how many people they had inside the car. I’m thinking this was by design.

Oh, fine. Large intestine, here we come.

Google instructed me to turn left, onto what was literally a walking path along the river. Oh, this is great start.

I bypassed that turn and the next one my phone demanded, which was clearly marked no cars allowed. The third option didn’t look much better, as it was four feet wide, but I was running out of alternative options.

This driveway led me between cramped buildings and THROUGH the lobby of a temple. Oh Jesus. I’m going to end up in Taiwanese jail for sure. I pulled over to reconsider my options, and realized I was parked in front of a bizarre cemetery.

Okay fine Taiwan, I’m on this route to the bitter end. Show me what you’ve got.

After stoking my fear that I’d be on this ox cart path all the way back to Taipei, Taiwan relented and dumped me onto a steep mountain road. Ah, we’re in the large intestine now. The saving grace of this preposterously inefficient route was that it was breathtakingly beautiful. I drove over every mountain in Taiwan on the way back to Taipei. The 3-hour drive took 9 hours, but I can’t really complain, the drive was pretty awesome.

We were somehow, inexplicably, right on time to return the rental car at the airport, even after a comedy routine where Google Maps had me circle the airport three times before it would let me in on the big secret of where the gas station was. By some additional miracle I found the one hidden parking space in the taxi loading area where we were allowed to return the rental car.

Oh my God. Somehow, that all worked.

Some car rental lackey was taking photos of our tire.

“Hold on a minute sir, we need to check to see if this tire was damaged when you picked up the car.”

Oh man, I did everything to this car except damage that tire, I’m pretty sure. Maybe I did run a scooter off the mountain.

“It’s okay sir, we have confirmed this was pre-existing damage.”

I was too tired to even consider taking the train an hour into the city to find our AirBnB, especially considering we were flying back out again early the next morning. I booked a hostel near the airport on my phone and we climbed into an Uber.

Our driver dropped us off in a nondescript alleyway. This is our-?

“Yes, down here-“ he gestured distractedly before peeling out. Okay?

Down the alleyway we found the hostel. The door was locked. I picked up the phone outside and called the front desk. Simultaneously, some random dude walked up to me in the dark alleyway.

“This hostel is full, but I will give you a ride to our other location.”

Yeah. Who the fuck are you?

Someone was speaking Chinese at me on the phone. The random alley guy took the phone and Chinesed back at the disembodied voice briefly before hanging up.

Oh man this is getting really weird.

Before I knew what was happening, the rando was loading our luggage into the back of his car and we were pulling away.

My mind reeled as I tried to figure out if we were being kidnapped or what. I was pretty sure I could take this guy if things went sideways. That was the only thing I was sure of at the moment. He pulled into a small parking lot in front of a dark building.

Inside, the guy behind the desk informed us that this hostel was also full, but they could drive us to their other, other location. The only reason I had picked the first place was that it was close to the airport for our early morning flight, now we were getting further and further away.

I wasn’t even sure if I believed these guys had anything to do with the first hostel. It seemed possible that the rando guy just hung out in that alley and redirected people trying to check into the first hostel, which may have been a competitor. Or maybe they were telling the truth and Taiwan was just insane? Everything about the day made that seem very possible as well.

I gave the front desk guy my best “You gotta be shitting me” face and he switched gears and resolved to figure out how we had managed to book a room in their full hostel. It turned out someone else had cancelled, so we did have a room after all. Sure, whatever. I don’t seem to have lost any money in the deal regardless of what happened and also I’m so tired I couldn’t spell my name right now. We crashed out in the room and slept the sleep of the deeply confused.

In the morning, we were halfway into a waiting taxi that turned out not to be ours. Our driver showed up and the entire way to the airport I was waiting for him to tell us this airport was full, but don’t worry, he’d take us to his brother’s airport, no problem. I gazed out the window and laughed at the scene of people on scooters eating their breakfast as they motored down the road. Oh Taiwan, you are charming.

Things went smoothly at the airport and we were on our way to Hong Kong, where I was confident there wouldn’t be any craziness going on.

. . .

October 07, 2019
It all worked out because you had something considerable on your side.
And making that face is sometimes needed. Especially when the internet is firmly in your favor!
"What have we learned, charlie brown?" - perhaps, that foreign nations really are foreign to us, aside from their fabulous and unique scenery and amazingly miraculously narrow mountainside pilgrim paths.
Thank you.


The West I gazed at the distant mountains and the clouds hanging above them. The sense of space was overwhelming. And then, in an instant, my awareness opened up and I experienced viscerally that I was one with all of this. I was those mountains off in the distance, and the wide open yellow plains. I was the blue sky and I was all the air. Everything I could see, I was that too. And then my perspective flipped and I realized that I was even the mountain I was sitting on.

Bolivia There are good and bad times to suddenly realize you haven’t been on a bicycle in 15 years. Barreling down a steep mountain in Bolivia at dizzying speeds is one of the bad times. You might think it would be comforting to find yourself on a $3,000 downhill racing bike at this moment, but in actuality it’s like realizing you can’t drive while you’re behind the wheel of a Lamborghini and all the cops are chasing you.

Luxembourg “Luxem- Dammit Sean stop making up countries.” I did indeed go to a place called Luxembourg, where the Luxembourgers live. The people there speak Luxembourgish and I am totally not making that up.