How to Cure Travel Fatigue

Hint: not fireworks.

By Steve Burgess 22 Feb 2007 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Year of the Pig oinks it up.

Spending Chinese New Year in a Chinese city sounds like a good idea. So you'd think. I'm here in Taipei for the big Year of the Pig celebration. Based solely on the explosions, it's a little like spending Christmas Eve in Bethlehem.

Old China hands know that the lunar New Year celebrations are not really an optimum time to visit Chinese cities; although, on the positive side, the traffic will be light in your chosen direction. Everybody's heading the other way, back to their hometowns for family reunions. Meanwhile, in the cities, life prepares to shut down. Unlike the Western version, Chinese New Year is not party time. It's family time.

And fireworks time. Long after midnight, the Ximen pedestrian mall outside my hotel still reverberates with blasts. If I manage to get to sleep, I'm afraid of what violent dreams might result -- trapped in the Baghdad Hilton perhaps, where Dick Cheney works the night desk, wearing J. Edgar Hoover's lingerie.

Clearly it's been a long trip. This is pretty much the last stop, save a final two nights in Tokyo. I want to be fair to the fine city of Taipei, but some destination fatigue has set in. The Taiwanese capital is prone to that -- it's a city that falls into several shadows, in many ways a second-string metropolis. Not the first choice when one names vibrant Chinese urban centers, and you can bet the Chinese economic miracle that it's never going to host an Olympics. The entire country exists in a kind of political limbo, a de facto state that dares not describe itself as such. Taipei also boasts a considerable Japanese influence, but it's never going to top a list of Japanese cities either.

Tall tales

Maybe that's why they built the world's tallest building. Taipei 101 holds the title for awhile at least, soon to be surpassed by something in Dubai. Opened in 2004, Taipei 101 is a pretty striking creation, said to resemble a giant bamboo stalk. I'm sure I'm not the first to think that it actually resembles a very tall stack of Chinese take-out boxes. As skyscrapers go, it's pretty cool, with a rather impressive atrium about five floors up.

In truth, Taipei deserves better than also-ran status. It's a friendly and workable city, with enough exotic street life to fascinate, but generally cleaner and more thoroughly modern than the cities of the mainland. (Young English teachers visiting from the chaotic southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung tell me that Taipei is like a different country entirely.)

The Japanese influence is a surprise at first. Teen clothing stores bear names like "Love 2 Japan" and "Harajuku." In most Asian cities one expects overt hostility to the former imperial warlords. But Taiwan was Japan's first colony and was treated as a kind of showcase for benevolent Japanese rule. As a result, there is not much of the bone-deep animosity found in Korea or Mainland China. I was stunned to see, in a shop window near my hotel, a trick watch that featured the slowly spinning red sunrays of the old Imperial Japanese flag. Sell that in Beijing and you'd have a government-sponsored riot. (The Japanese military is attempting to change this image with a new mascot. Japanese military vehicles now feature the rosy-cheeked visage of anime character Prince Pickles. Prince Pickles -- he'll conquer your heart! No, really. He has tanks.)

Tattoo tude

My neighbourhood also boasts open-air tattoo parlours, aimed at the impulse buyer I suppose. As a spectator sport it's pretty entertaining. The subject is required to look hard and unyielding as ink goes on. Dangling cigarette optional.

Unfortunately, things get pretty dead as the lunar holiday approaches. Shops are closing, which is just as well, considering -- I pass by one place where the owner is setting off a cacophonous string of explosives inside his own premises. Adventure shopping -- a retail trend with real potential.

But some spots are still buzzing. At the Longshan Temple, crowds are flocking in to pray for good fortune. A massive, illuminated pig beckons to the throng. Beyond in the temple courtyard, tables full of flowers and fruit surround large brass incense burners, and beyond that, the inner sanctum of the temple itself. Kneeling in the crowd, a young woman throws lucky bones, pausing to gesture in supplication toward the temple.

Did somebody pray for rain? The skies suddenly unleash a torrent. Only the most determined are still out at the brass urns placing their incense. The rest cram under the canopy, perilously close to a large carousel festooned with bunches of thick, flaming candles. The rain falls through the smoke and glances off rows of yellow lanterns. It's Chinese New Year. Not a bad time to be here after all.

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