Singapore Airlines flight 5 was a surprisingly pleasant way to spend 13 hours and 20 minutes flying across the Pacific. Traveling with an infant entitled us to bulkhead seats and Kathryn to a little bassinet mounted to the wall. After she fell asleep we used her as a shelf for the odds and ends that accumulate on a long flight. The stewardesses wore curvaceous uniforms and spoke with refined accents as they handed out hot towels, slippers, and, for Kathryn, a baby flight kit with diapers, lotion, and a little purple hand puppet.
We flew in something called a “Megatop”, the latest Boeing 747-400. Our plane came with “KrisWorld”, Singapore Air’s in-flight entertainment system providing some forty selections of movies, television channels, and video games on individual flat-panel TV screens. My favorite KrisWorld xnxx option was the realtime display that showed our flight data and flight path on an animated map. According to this display, our Megatop travelled a great arc, heading northward up the California coast, curving along the coast of Alaska, brushing the Aleutian Islands, and then dropping south, following the east coast of the former USSR, overflying Japan, and headed south-west towards Taiwan.
There must be a reason for such a circuitous route but despite drawing many diagrams on a handy orange we failed to discern it. It cannot be favorable winds, since our LCD displays reported headwinds of over 200 km/hr, holding our ground speed to just 720 km/hr (447 mph.) Hmmm. A head wind of 124 mph. Things tukif must be very harsh at 11,900 m (39,400 ft) where the outside temperature is -53C (-63F) and the wind chill can hardly be imagined.
Our first stop was the Republic of China, usually called Taiwan. When the Communist Revolution swept over mainland China and established the People’s Republic of China, the former Nationalist Chinese government retreated to the island of Taiwan. This little country has only 21 million inhabitants and is diplomatically isolated, due to pressure from mainland China, which does not permit a country to have diplomatic relations with both it and Taiwan. Yet in forty years Taiwan has grown into an economic power, one of the United States’ largest trading partners and holding more beeg currency reserves than any country except the United States. After an extended period of martial law, Taiwan recently made a transition to democracy and last year the Taiwanese held popular elections for their President; people in Taiwan boasted to us that this was the first time in history that any Chinese people have democratically elected their top leader.
China and Taiwan have an interesting relationship. On the one hand China officially views Taiwan as a renegade province, and prevents most countries (including the United States) from having diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Over the decades military tensions between China and Taiwan have at times been high; during last year’s Taiwanese Presidential elections the Chinese Navy held missile tests and combined navy-army-air force exercises in the narrow straits between the two countries, leading the U.S. Navy to send a carrier group into the area. When I visited Taiwan twenty years beurette ago, if your passport contained a Taiwan stamp you were barred from entering China, and vice-versa, and tourists wishing to visit both countries had to resort to various subterfuges such as carrying two passports. On the other hand, as China has opened up to the outside world, Taiwanese businessmen have been traveling freely to China and Taiwanese companies are the largest foreign investors in China. With the return of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule this year, Taiwan will be the only remaining Chinese country not under Beijing’s rule, and people in Taiwan are closely watching what happens to Hong Kong.
A third of Taiwan lives in greater Taipei, the capital city, where we spent our four day stay. Taipei is sort of like Park Avenue meets the Third World. Over here is a gorgeous high-rise office building, sheathed with gleaming marble and furnished in polished rosewood, boasting the Pacific headquarters of famous American, Japanese, and German multinational companies. A block down the street a family makes their repairing motor scooters in a tiny, poorly lit concrete stall. This way is the world-class department store “SOGO”, where immaculately dressed salesladies and glittering display cases offer every designer label I had ever heard of. A block away in a small stall, an old lady sells chickens and their feet, cooked or raw. At night the main streets light up in a blaze of illuminated signs and traffic lights. Through all these incongruities the residents of Taipei hustle and bustle to work and home in chaotic streets crammed with gleaming Mercedes and BMWs, the occasional Chrysler, all sorts of Japanese, Italian and French makes, yellow Ford and Toyota taxis — and tens of thousands of motor scooters, buzzing by or parked tightly, filling every nook and cranny of the city.
I loved watching the scooters and their riders. Everyone rides a scooter. Crisply dressed businessmen, young girls in pink leather jackets, even whole families of dad, mom and a little child, all get around on scooters. I saw scooters with windshield wipers, roofs, rear windows, and trunks. I saw scooters hauling trash and delivering boxes. One day, when we experienced a sudden and remarkable downpour that left ankle-drowning lakes all over the sidewalks and rivers of water pouring down the streets, all the scooter riders suddenly sprouted brightly-colored ponchos and rode on.