Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Dec 16 2008

Down to Kaohsiung

I took the noon high speed rail down to Kaohsiung on Monday to attend a wedding, arriving at the new, airport-esque Zuoying Station at 1:30 p.m. I was eager to experience the new MRT that has taken so long and been the subject of so much controversy over the last decade. Fortunately, the HSR station is almost on top of the subway station, so after only a short exposure to the sunshine outside on the way down, I was there.

The first thing I noticed was the level of ambient light; Taipei’s subway stations are very bright in comparison. The low, dark ceiling, festooned with a metal grating, along with the solid glass walls along the platform made it feel like a bar lounge instead of a subway station. The place smelled of fresh concrete, and hardly any people were there. The train, when it came, only covers half of the platform length, so that if you weren’t in front of the right doors you’d miss the train.

Inside the cars, the seats line the sides, Hong Kong-style, rather than utilizing the forward/backward style of Taipei. The seats are molded plastic of an unsettling green hue, but the curvature of the handrails and the white walls and pillars aren’t so bad. It’s like an alternate universe version of Taipei’s system. I wish they accepted the yoyo cards, though.

After getting directions from a good-looking subway employee wearing a baseball cap, I transferred at the Formosa Blvd Station to an even more sparsely populated train to Xiziwan, surfacing a couple of blocks from the harbor. I like cities with harbors, and it’s always the first place I want to go when I get to Kaohsiung. Near the subway exit was a line of tiny scooters, just frames with wheels and a seat, really, under a sign that said “electric scooters”. Intrigued to see whether Taiwan is actually going to follow in Shanghai’s footsteps in promoting electric scooters, I went to the nearby shop, only to be told that the scooters were actually 50cc two-stroke models. I am convinced that you could slap an electric motor, paint the front shell olive drab and have a hit on your hands, but that idea doesn’t seem to have occurred to the manufacturers. “The time to buy one of these is now,” the shop owner told me. “Two-strokes won’t be legally manufactured after this year.” Apparently they’re going to put a 4-stroke engine in instead.

I rented one anyway, just to see how it drove, and rode it out along the coast past the university. Even mild hills challenged it, and the suspension was barely working, but it was light and highly maneuverable. I could pick it up easily, almost like a bicycle. Good for local jaunts but not much else.

The coast road was very pleasant. I stopped to look down at the sun on the incoming waves, while a monkey perched on the railing by the roadside nearby watched me.

Kaohsiung HarborI rode back down to the harbor to watch some of the big ships coming and going through the pass, and then around the neighborhood for a while before returning the scooter and walking back to a bar by the water, where I was the only customer. Kaohsiung feels empty after the crowds of Taipei. Huge cargo ships loomed through the haze, cutting a swath through the paths of the triangular ferries bearing scooters and their riders across to Qijin Island. A black cat yowled at me, wanting food, but all I had was ginger tea. Next door was a Navy port where sailors got off transport ships and flowed per whistle commands into blue buses to take them into the city.

After night fell and I had taken my fill of superfluous pictures of tables and lamps, I headed back to the subway station to board a train for Formosa Blvd Station, where the wedding was being held. Only when I emerged from the station did I realize how grand a station it is. Four shining crystal structures jut out of the ground surrounding the roundabout on the surface, and the effect is quite striking.

Even at rush hour, the city had an evacuated feel to it. Perhaps I’m not used to the wide streets. The new concrete sidewalks have helpful instructions embedded in them, though my phone had already told me where I was going. I arrived at the Howard Plaza and found the wedding party on the fourth floor ballroom. The groom, Chalaw, greeted me at the door, and I found my seat next to David Chen at the same table as Lin Sheng-xiang and the Betelnut Brothers. Kimbo was at the next table, busy downing bottles of wine.

Chalaw had told me to bring my pocket trumpet, so I had assumed he wanted me to play accompaniment to one of the songs at some point. It turned out, however, that he wanted David and I to go on stage and play something. Consummate musicians that we are, neither of us had prepared anything. David didn’t even know that he was expected to play. Being only one third of the total Muddy Basin Ramblers, and me with a bass, we puzzled over what to do. Eventually, after I hurriedly learned “Nagasaki” on the trumpet in about 30 seconds backstage in case they wanted two songs, we played the Taiwan Song, which worked out pretty well, considering.

Kimbo, who was amazingly still upright after so much wine, played after us. All of the music that night was great, with lots of aboriginal tunes and singalongs. Sitting at the table with the Betelnut Bros., we had the best seats in the house for their impromptu accompaniments. Sheng-xiang sang one song written by his mother, who was at the table as well. She blushed when he mentioned her on stage.

We had to catch the last bullet train back to Taipei at 10:12 p.m., so we couldn’t stay. The party was winding down anyway, as many of the guests were from other parts of the island. A cab ride later we were at the station, and after a momentary panic when my ticket decided to play musical pockets on me, we were on the train back. The train felt like a low-flying airplane as it sped over the lights of villages and rice fields, accompanied by the occasional safety announcement. I played with David’s Ricoh, which made me realize what Internet posters are talking about when they mention a good user interface. If only a camera combined Sigma’s image quality with Ricoh’s interface, they’d sell like hotcakes. Alas, prior to the as yet still-mythical micro 4/3 camera (the G1 doesn’t count, IMHO, as it’s too big), we’re all still waiting.

It was past midnight when I switched on the lights of the Water Curtain Cave. It’s good to get out of town once in a while.

I’m taking this week off to finish up the editing before I leave for Osaka next week. I realize that it’s not the best time of year to go, but it was short notice as I was told by my company that I have more vacation time than I’d thought. I’ve heard that Kyoto is a beautiful city, which is a slightly daunting thing to me, seeing as I don’t usually like to photograph beautiful things (where’s the challenge in that, after all?). Still, it should be interesting, as I know next to nothing about the place.

posted by Poagao at 11:50 pm  


  1. Having reread so many of your posts,can’t help but admire your writing. I throughly enjoyed your Tokyo travelogue last time so looking forward for to read your Osaka/Kyoto experience.

    Comment by Ashish — December 17, 2008 @ 2:23 am

  2. Monkey King is going to have a journey to the east (or north east?)! Enjoy your trip in Osaka and Kyoto. 🙂

    Comment by Daniel — December 17, 2008 @ 7:56 am

  3. If you’re doing another video I’m really looking forward to it. I enjoyed your Tokyo tour.

    Osaka is a good city, the people are so different from what you get out east here in Tokyo. The city has a lot of its own characters, hopefully you’ll be able to meet some of them here and there. The dialect is so interesting and warm too, agressive yet honest. While you’re in Osaka check out little-Korea. Osaka has one of the highest-population of Koreans (due to a long complex history), and not only is there great food but there is a unique culture there too.

    You can always do Kyoto or Nara as a day trip from Osaka too. I recommend them too, they’re great places to get lost in after you grow bored of “concrete jungles.” If only there were more cities like Kyoto, Nara or Kanazawa in Japan…

    Comment by Bryan — December 17, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

  4. Back to Osaka again? Jeez I envy you!

    Comment by Mark — December 17, 2008 @ 1:09 pm

  5. Thanks Ashish.

    I think it’s a journey north, Daniel.

    Bryan, I don’t speak Japanese so I’m not sure if I’ll pick up on that. I really should study some, I guess.

    Mark: I’ve actually never been to Osaka or Kyoto before.

    Comment by Poagao — December 17, 2008 @ 8:33 pm

  6. i love the open feeling of Kaohsiung. eventually we’ll probably move there. it was interesting reading your impressions/descriptions of the place.

    i spent a few days in Kyoto. you are going to like it. be sure to make your way up to the mountain temple where the headwaters of the river are. that’s a great experience and rife with photo ops.

    Comment by MJ Klein — December 19, 2008 @ 12:19 am

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