The next morning we repeated most of our route in reverse: bus to Chiayi, BRT to the THSR station, and then aboard the bullet train again — this time all the way to Taipei Main Station. We’d grabbed some quick convenience store snacks for lunch when Z realized that we had a bottle of oolong tea and half a bottle of Kaoliang, the local 53-degree firewater, and the combination tasted good enough that by the time we arrived in Taiwan it was all gone and we were, as they say in Finland, slightly tilting to the starboard.
We commandeered a taxi and set off to Taipei 101, perhaps no longer the world’s tallest building (Burj Dubai having passed it a few weeks prior), but at least the tallest completed one. I have to say, though, that it’s pretty anticlimactic. Being in an earthquake zone and all, Taipei’s skyline is generally so lowrise that the tower has no points of reference and, while certainly “tall”, doesn’t give much of a feeling of being “the tallest in the world”. We did the tourist thing and headed up on the elevator, which was genuinely impressive — at 1,000 meters per minute, or a total ride time of 40 seconds, the operator girl was hard pressed to complete her spiel in Chinese, English and Japanese — but once up there, Taipei was just a hazy mess fading off into random mountains. Sunsets up there are supposed to be nice, and in better weather it might have been worthwhile to fork out an extra NT$100 to check out the outdoor observation deck, but as it was, it was just a slightly disappointing thing ticked off the to-do list.
Z headed off to the airport and I headed off to the notional reason I was in Taiwan in the first place, the Wikimania 2007 conference. I’d been to hacker conferences before, and I’d been to academic conferences, but this was my first Wiki conference and it was a strange combination of both (lots of geeks, lots of impenetrably technical presentations) plus hippy-ideological messianic Communist-Christian revival (“Have you accepted Jimbo into your heart? All praise the wiki!”). It was all good fun though, with some fascinating presentations (Joichi Ito, Jack Herrick), a dozen Wikitravellers showing up for the Eat-Together at Shilin Night Market, free speech ”and” free beer at the Wikimania Party, and life-sized cartoon cutouts of every geek’s dream come true, Wikipe-tan. And, of course, Wikitravel head honcho Evan and I got to announce Wikitravel Press and even got a mention in the China Times for our pains. Spiffy-keen.
On the last day, I left the conference at around 3:30, figuring that three hours would be plenty of time to get to the airport. Lug bag to Jiantan MRT, hop down one stop to Yuenshan MRT, spot the incoming airport bus dropping off pax by the side of the road… but where, oh where, was the stop for going to the airport? After running around in circles and murdering my severely overworked deodorant, I collared an incoming bus driver, who told me there is no stop and that I’d have to head to Taipei Main Stn. D’oh! I grabbed a taxi; the cabbie of course spoke no English, but pointing at my (Japanese) Chiyu no Arukikata Taiwan’s diagram of buses around Main Stn saved the day and he dropped me off at the bus terminal, which should have had buses to the airport… but didn’t? The Kuo-Kuang desk pointed me over to the competition, Airbus, who had a bus leaving in 25 min. Seeing no choice, I bought a seat (surprisingly cheap at NT$90) and settled down for a wait.
Even by low Taiwanese standards the bus was a total wreck: stuffing was squirting out of those seats that weren’t falling off, half the windows were shattered and the bus set off with a groaning motor that made me seriously doubt it would make it all the way to the airport. The bus sailed off past another bus terminal with a huge sign — Kuo-Kuang to Taoyuan Airport — and I realized that the cabbie had dropped me off at the ”West” terminal, not the ”East” terminal, and this was a “stop at every betel nut stand” local service. It was 35 min before we’d puttered out to the expressway, and with a bit of a slowdown there too (the bus couldn’t do more than 30 km/h or so uphill), an hour had elapsed before we pulled off the expressway and into Taoyuan… the city, not the airport. Endless traffic lights, endless stops, grannies helping kids disembark, 5 km to go and 15 min until checkin closed… after a miniature eternity, we reached the airport and did a couple of scenic loops through the cargo area before the day’s solitary stroke of luck: we first pulled in at Terminal 1, not 2. I ran off into the Departures hall and made it to the by now deserted counter at Row 7A at 17:44 — under minute before the 40 minute (17:45) cutoff. Phew.
Exit immigration took its own sweet time and I had to pretty much head straight to the gate to be herded onto the plane. Takeoff was on time, and with Jori Hulkkonen on the iPod and a gorgeous haze-diffracted sunset over Taipei I could finally relax. Well, almost. I gathered a little good karma on the plane by helping out two young Vietnamese monks with their immigration forms, using our sole common language — Mandarin. (Pointing with fingers was generally rather more effective.) For dinner, I’d planned to use up my last NT$250 on chicken rice, but Jetstar wouldn’t take my coins — so the monks attempted to pay for me! I found a S$2 note and rescued myself, but they then upped the ante by handing over one of their 7-Ups and refusing to take it back.
Monks: “Mei guanxi! Mei guanxi!”
Me: “Bu dui a, you guanxi! Wo bu keyi!”
Monks: “Mei guanxi! Bu keqi!”
Me: “Aa… xiexie…”
I sipped my sickly sweet carbonated nectar and ruminated on the impermanence of worldly things. This was the end of another adventure: up next, a sliver over 12 hours in Singapore, and tomorrow off to India again.