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Charlie in Taipei

Taipei traffic in motionFor the first time in my life, I wish I had a video camera. I want to show Taipei traffic in motion to the folks back home; they'll never believe me else. It is an astonishing thing, a field day for chaos theorists. Even to those of us who don't drive, some of the antics of the drivers here provide moments of pure wonder and disbelief; and that's just what they get up to on the road, on the highway, where they're meant to be.

In every other city I've ever been to, the little green man at pedestrian crossings means that the traffic's stopped and it's safe to cross. Not here. In Taipei he means that the traffic's sneaking up behind you, coming round the corner at your back and you can cross at your own risk if you dare to. Sometimes he comes complete with a countdown, a clock ticking off the seconds until the main stream of traffic is unleashed; at those crossings his little legs are animated, and he runs faster and faster as time runs out.

What he doesn't do is warn you to look over your shoulder, you have to remember that yourself. Chances are there's a couple of scooters following you and itching to overtake; pavements are not exactly reserved for pedestrians here, they function as scooter-parks and bike lanes largely. Sometimes more, sometimes taxi lanes too; at least once a day you can reckon to look over your shoulder and see a yellow cab following you over a pedestrian crossing, and then mounting the pavement at your back. It's a joy. At home I get infuriated by cars that park half a wheel on the pavement; here there's just no point, nothing you can do but giggle as the beast creeps along at your heels. Certainly you don't get out of the way. No one ever gets out of the way of anything in Taipei.

Softly puts on the RitzStuff falls from the sky here that is not quite rain. The cars and scooters - two to one, in favour of the scooters - are filthy with it. The whole city is layered with grime; so, inevitably, am I. Taking a shower at the Ritz is kind of like standing under a hot waterfall, which is great; getting your clothes cleaned at the Ritz is kind of like tossing real money on top of the ghost-money in a temple furnace, which is not great (they burn money in the street here too, in little braziers that the shops supply: ghost-money and god-money, silver and gold, because gods need cash as much as ancestors do. Inarguable, really). Luckily there's a laundry round the corner that washes kilos for coins, so that my garb and I are kept equally pristine. Now I need to find a similar service for my lungs; at street level the air is hot petrol and burning toast, and my coughing is spectacular.

Off to a concert tonight: the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra with Yin Cheng-Zong, courtesy of the Taipei City Government, to whom all thanks are due. Off on my own, though, there and back by taxi with drivers who don't speak English, when my destination is too far to walk and I don't know the way, I can't read the roadsigns, I don't even know what half these shopfronts are for. Anyone who knows me will recognise this as a list of my neuroses.

So getting there was fun. Getting there is always a significant part of the fun, in both the honest and the ironic senses, but like every truism - or so it seems - this one is more true in Taiwan. I had a half-hour's taxi drive in a city that cannot be more than a quarter of an hour in diameter (that traffic again, not only insane but insanely jammed - no one should choose to drive in such conditions, but everyone does), and found myself dropped at the portico of a massive convention centre that was advertising half a dozen colloquia for dentists and not a word (at least, not a word in English) about a concert. I'd been - of course - half convinced all the way that I'd be dumped in the wrong place; now I was sure. And, as so often, I was wrong. A few kind smiles and helping hands (it's the reverse of the does-he-take-sugar principle - people always seem to assume that bewilderment and mild panic equate to a physical disability that requires physical assistance to overcome) led me up a couple of escalators and down a corridor to a hall vast enough to warrant a building of its own, though here it was only a chamber on the fifth floor. That was when total confusion overtook me, as people kept directing me towards my seat and I kept not being able to find it. Turned out that the seat number on the ticket was actually the floor; the row was the seat, the floor the row. Oh, and they started counting in the middle, and even numbers went to the left while odd numbers went to the right. Obvious, really...

Glinka, Rachmaninov, Shostakovitch. The programme was lyrical and sweeping, spacious and unhurried, with always that sense of the darkness, the fimbulwinter coming - how could it have been more Russian? Well, really only if they enamelled the piano scarlet and painted the Winter Palace inside the lid. So they've done that too, just to make sure we get the message. They might perhaps be regretting the scarlet now, but they can't lose that without damaging the Winter Palace. Besides - as the programme reminds us, being distinctly out of date in its patriotic fervour - Shostakovich was a truly Soviet composer, so this is history incarnate up on the platform there. History incarnadine, of the music and the orchestra and the country too, and how much more Russian can you get...?

By contrast, the lifts at the hotel play Asian remixes of Xmas carols. Thank God they do it quietly.

Feasting on the sight and the aromaCome rain, come sun (and this morning the sun is come again, hurrah), I like to start my day at the xingtian gong, the temple down the road. It's big and busy and recklessly devout, and no one seems to mind this giant Westerner nor his camera, though I'm careful to shoot from the hip when I can, not to be intrusive. Tiny wizened women - shrivelled, I like to think, by decades of holiness - thrust smoking joss sticks and little packets of food into my hands, to be offered up to Kuankung, the god of war and martial arts and patron-god of businesspeople. I'm curious about his appeal, as his devotees are not noticeably either warlike or businesslike (in one corner there's a Red Cross station, a couple of nurses with a blood-pressure machine, and they always have a queue of those same wizened women, it's a big thing here, a kind of double indemnity, pray for health and get yourself checked out in case you should be praying harder, louder, it's a useful thing to know); but I guess they acquire merit from the joss, and I'm fairly sure they reclaim the cakes and fruit at the end of the day. The gods feast on the sight and the aroma, apparently, they don't require the actual substance.

The sight and the aroma are enough for me too, or almost so; all I want else is the sounds of the place. There's always a guttural lone voice chanting to drum and bell, and I could sit and listen to it all day while I watch the woman who seems resolved to sanctify herself in every ping of the courtyard (they measure & sell their houses by the ping here, it's approximately the area of a double bed). She paces relentlessly, hands pressed together and lips in motion; at every third pace, she prostrates herself in a full kowtow. And stands, and paces, and kowtows again. Over and over, back and forth. She fascinates me; I want to know if she's asking for a really big present or atoning for a really bad sin, and of course I cannot ask. In the end, I just have to come back to the hotel, where the lift enfolds me to the strains of Rudolf played on what sounds like an electronic gamelan. Oh, puh-lease...

Actually, when I come back to Taipei (and I will, and soon, in a month or two: I'll have to), I'll be glad not to be staying at the Ritz. Not that it's not wonderful, because it is - dinner with the president of the hotel last night, and the customer-care manager is offering serious care to this customer, taking me out to a jazz bar later - but there's a fundamental displacement between the hotel and the street outside, a kind of culture-shock every time I pass through the door. Maybe 'tis ever thus for the transient wealthy, I guess it probably is, tho' I think Taipei likely underscores it; in other cities, grand hotels have grand settings. Not here. A bare thirty seconds from the Ritz and you could be almost anywhere in the city, lost amid a crush of cafes and scooter-repair shops, broken pavements, street traders and back-alley barter. I'm no more real in that world outside, of course, than it is real in here; my height and appearance and credit card shelter me as much as the walls of the hotel, but at least such shelter is transparent if not intangible, at least I can pretend it isn't there.

I am also sheltered by new friends, to an astonishing degree. Even the people being paid to look after us are doing far more than they're paid for, and I exploit their willingness shamelessly. Someone suggests that I make friends easily; perhaps they're right, perhaps I do. It's no part of my own self-image, but that was set and fixed twenty years ago, when I was gawky and socially awkward and really rather unlovely; I find it impossibly hard to remember that some parts of this at least are perhaps no longer true. Midnight snacking, midnight shopping at the night market What is certain, though, is that people are kind, beyond the call of duty. I do an interview in Taipei's biggest bookshop (with a woman who only wants to talk about angels, although I've made it clear very early on that I believe in them only in a fictional sense, as creatures of the Chazian universe, my own make), and my interpreter takes us out for dinner afterwards, me and Bernard who's here from Australia or London, depending on your definitions. Dinner is authentic Taiwanese food, in a place called the Indian Bar (which culture-clash is authentic Taipei, up to the eyebrows). Alas, no one would join me for the deep-fried crickets, neither the spicy duck's blood with pig's intestine and sour cabbage; but it's okay, I'm coming back. And last night I went to the night market with a Canadian who works at their non-embassy here, and is totally up for eating the weird and the wonderful. Night markets are great: midnight snacking, midnight shopping, and don't tell me you can get the same in any twenty-four hour mall back home. Trust me, this is different. I have seen a man stand on a log with a shoe on his head; it's not an experience you survive unchanged. This is the very opposite of malldom, the reverse of that bland uniformity that pervades the life of the Western shopper.

Everyone goes to temple sometime, believer or not. All the college students go before their finals: for luck, for hope, because all their friends are going and they don't want to be the one to break the circle. Even I, cynical as a camel: it's my last day, I've just been told that I've been radically burgled back home, I don't know what I'm returning to, so even I go to temple as more than an observer this last time. I don't pray, I can't be that dishonest, and I can't draw a qian for a serious reading because I can't even read the number on the stick, let alone understand the interpretation. But I do throw the shimbui, asking if I'm going to be happier as a result of this trip; I'd been sure so for a fortnight, but suddenly I've lost grip on my certainty. The shimbui tell me yes, first time of throwing. So that's okay, then.

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Photographs © Chaz Brenchley 2001