You Need To Know This About Taiwan

I've been in some fairly disconcerting situations in my 26 years. The time I bounced through a Thai thunderstorm at 30,000 feet while the flight attendants screamed and clutched each other springs to mind, as does the moment the man next to me---pre-9/11---suddenly got down on all fours on the subway in Barcelona and started wailing and praising Allah. And yes, there was, of course, that time those toothless drunk men crashed into the back of my car and then started telling me about the gun they had in the trunk. Such fun! Such mirth! Who could forget it?

But I have to say, for producing that pulse-quickening, gut-wrenching, truly inimitable frisson of fear, nothing takes the cake like being woken suddenly at 1am by a sharp rapping on the door of your train carriage, then sitting up and blinking like a baby as the door is yanked open, the light is slammed on, orders are shouted in a language you don't understand, and a customs official---flanked by four uniformed soldiers---demands your passport. I thought for a second that I'd somehow been transported back to Nazi Germany circa 1941 and wasn't carrying the right papers, and that maybe also I had been secretly hiding a Jewish family in my attic for two years, and they'd found that out too.

So it was frightening. But all we had to do, it soon transpired, was to fill out a customs form. We'd finally arrived at the Chinese-Vietnamese border, after 30 hours on the train---and would, though we didn't know it yet, sit here for another three---so it was business as usual: name, date of birth, passport number, color and style of underwear, and so on.

So my heartbeat having finally slowed to normal, I laughed graciously and passed over the Lonely Planet China when the smirking customs official---actually quite drunk, I think, or else just sweating and lurching for reasons known entirely to him---asked if he could see our book. See our book? Sure! Where have we been? To Shanghai! And Hangzhou! And Beijing! Fun? Oh yes, lots and lots of fun, thank you. We love China! China is great! Oh really, we didn't visit your hometown? I'm sorry! We didn't have time! Yes, I'm sure it's very beautiful, perhaps next time!

We were smiling and laughing, the customs official and Sean and I, smiling and laughing over the Lonely Planet China---goddamn you, book, why couldn't you have been more up to date?---and then suddenly there was no more laughing. At least, there was no more laughing from the customs official; Sean and I giglggled gaily on. But the customs official had turned to the map of China on the front page and he was staring at the quarter-inch blob of Taiwan.

"Excuse me," he said. "This is not right. This says Taipei is the capital of Taiwan. But Taiwan is China now, and this book is wrong. Thank you, but I am taking your book. Beijing is the capital of China---of all of China---and this book is just not right."

"Ha ha ha!" trilled Sean and I (well, I trilled; he did the masculine equivalent.) "The book is not right! Silly book! Taiwan is part of China! The book is wrong! Ha ha ha! Can we have it back now, please? It was expensive!"

"I'm taking it," said the customs official, still sort of lurching. "This book is banned. It is not going to leave China. It has been confiscated. By me. And by the government. Goodbye."

Sean and I turned to each other in disbelief as our FORTY FIVE DOLLAR book---we'd bought it in Hong Kong, home of the most expensive book shops in the world, instead of in the States for half the price---was marched down the aisle of the train in the sweaty grip of this smug customs collector. "Did he actually just take our book?" asked Sean. "Is he actually serious?" I asked in reply. We waited for the customs offical to come back with our book---"ha ha ha! All a big joke! Here it is!"---but he never returned.

And so I got angry. With my hair in sleep-crushed pigtails, my glasses on crooked, and three peanut butter grease stains on my (white, stupid) pants, I marched down the aisle of the train. I was getting that book back. It was coming to Vietnam with me, and then it was coming to Cambodia and Thailand and Burma, and then it was going to sit on my bookshelf in my new place in San Francisco and everyone who came to dinner was going to pick it up and admire it and say "oooh, China! When I was in Beijing..." and then we'd sit and one-up each other over who paid less for an enormous bottle of beer, and eventually I would win. This was my plan for the Lonely Planet China, even though for the next few months I would be using the Lonely Planet Southeast Asia. Who was this man to take a book from me? I would challenge this unrelenting customs officer! I would get arrested for this book! Put me in the shackles and chains! But give me back my book! This, you see, is how much I wanted the Lonely Planet China back.

In the end, I didn't get arrested. (Dad, I swear, it wasn't even close.) But I did get our book back, through a skilled combination of pleading---"but I know Taiwan is part of China! I will tell everyone! The book is wrong!"---and negotiating ("look, what if I just tear the map out at the front? Then Taiwan is part of China again!") And eventually he relented. "Just this one time," he said, handing the contraband back to me, minus the map, which he put in his pocket. "But don't ever bring this book back into China again. It is wrong."

"I know," I said, grabbing it with sweating palms. "And thank you." My breathing returned to normal only when we entered Vietnam.

Aug 19, 2006

I'm not sure what it is - maybe because your writing is just that visceral - but this is one of the best travel stories I've ever read.

I cannot believe you got your book back. But I'm so glad you did, and yes, I'm quite sure you'll win the travel stories.

Aug 19, 2006

Everyone knows that, just as you can't properly prepare for travel without Lonely Planet, after the fact you haven't actually been there unless you display the battered, dog-eared, annotated copy on a shelf. This official was trying to rob you of not a mere book, but of your hard-won China experience. How can you one-up dinner guests over enormous beer bargains without the Lonely Planet backing you up?

Having the map torn out makes your book immeasurably more valuable in this regard. I'm glad you went out on that limb.

Aug 19, 2006

Agreed about it being more valuable! Just think about it, thanks to that Chinese official you now have an extra story - plot twists, suspense building and social commentary all included gratis - with which to regale your house guest who spots the book on your shelf. Hope the rest of your trip goes smoothly but interestingly!

Aug 19, 2006

That sounds like a scene from a film! NBB - the movie!

I like your style...and your guts.

Aug 19, 2006

Wow. To the whole story. I'm so impressed that you got your book back, good for you!
These travel stories are wonderful, by the way. I love your sense of humour.

Aug 19, 2006

I would definitely have been arrested, thrown into a 4 x 5 x 3 cell, and probably beaten...with the book. It was definitely the crooked glasses/PB stains on white pants that won him over. That and your lovely, pleading smile. I love the stories here soooo much!

Aug 19, 2006

ahh another great post. cant wait to hear about (and see pics from)the next stop... can i link you so i can quit going through kristins site to get to you?
safe travels, sweets!

Aug 19, 2006

For a moment I thought perhaps he was offended by the color and style of someone's underwear. But I'm sure you were wearing your Days of the Week knickers, so all is well.

(And PHEW. Stop scaring me like that.)

Aug 20, 2006

I certainly wouldn't have had the courage to run after the officer to get that book back. I would have worried that I would end up in a foreign prison, trying to hire a lawyer, eating nothing but white rice. Good for you - and great story! :)

Aug 20, 2006

The phrase that leaps to mind is Douglas Adams': blind bureaucratic impossibility. Spoo-kee. Well, you certainly are living in interesting times.

Aug 20, 2006

I LOVED this story, and it`s happy ending!

I`m almost ashamed to think this, but I wonder if he would have given you back your book if your weren`t a lovely, charming woman? If a dumpy, middle-aged woman like me ever tried it, would I end up in Chinese immigration jail for, oh, forever?

Aug 21, 2006

yeah, i probably would have ended up in jail. i liked your last sentence; you don't hear that kind of happiness for vietnam very often! i love reading about your adventures. keep it up and have safe travels!

Aug 21, 2006

Bless your heart. And OH MY GOD. Thank all the saints you didn't get arrested. Now, quick, take a picture of your book for posterity's sake.

You are one brave woman, Holly. I love your negotiating skills.

Aug 21, 2006

Ah, the power of the pigtails! That's your secret weapon, right? No man can resist the adorable allure of the messy pigtails. It has worked for me for years!

I could not be more jealous of your adventures right now, as I sit reclined on the couch relieving a backache with a heating pad while Dave feeds Cheez-Its to the dog and we watch today's golf tournament on TiVo. HOLY LORD we are boring.

So glad that you're not and that you're willing to share it with the rest of us. Please post again soon, preferably before we run out of fake cheese crackers over here.

Horrible Warning
Aug 21, 2006

Once again, I feel ever so boring. My closest call was worrying about whether I would be able to get back into the States when we returned on the ferry to Port Angeles, WA from a day trip to Victoria, BC. That's barely in Canada, and there is no language barrier. The only problem was that I merely had my CA driver's license, and in a post 9/11 world, it's still easy to get INTO Canada, but maybe not so easy to get back.

Yeah, they let me in, no questions asked. Told you, I'm boooo-ring...

Aug 21, 2006

I promise not to tell that you actually ARE going to bring the book back to China again. And I can totally believe, but am still astounded, that he made you tear that map out. My God: The Horror! I think I would have wept at the site of the crumpled map disappearing into the unrelenting customs officer's pocket.

Aug 21, 2006

Just be glad he didn't find out about your non-existent traces of Tibetan heritage - he would have clubbed you on the head and no one would have heard from you again.

And... your boyfriend let you go chasing down drunk Chinese officials BY YOURSELF?


Aug 21, 2006


I've just been reading all your China entries, which has been like a little trip down ye olde memory lane because I used to live in China until last year. (I now live in Singapore -- I'll be sure and keep an eye out for your parents around town.) I think you may have captured the country perfectly. I also think you had some of the best weather I have ever seen in China. The Bund? With blue skies and fluffy white clouds? I have been there at least nine times and the best I have ever gotten was partial smog. How lucky.

Aug 21, 2006

ARG. That whole situation is infuriating to this daughter of a Taiwan native.

debra s
Aug 21, 2006

Thank you for the story. I've been following along with your travels and, in the process, re-living my own. I spent all of 1998 in Asia & Southeast Asia. Nice to know that as much as it's changed, it has basically remained the same -- in spirit. I could regale you with my own stories about Chinese customs officials (and Vietnamese ones for that matter) but this blog is about you. Suffice it to say that in China I had my visa cancelled (by mistake) and a border guard had to travel one hour to his house and then one hour back to get an "uncancelled" stamp to uncanel the cancel. He might have even had to have it made. Enjoy Vietnam. I look forward to each an every installment.

Sarcastic Journalist
Aug 21, 2006

How do you get to live such excitement???? Oh yes, you went to CHINA.

Aug 21, 2006

You got moxie, kid. And big brass balls.

Aug 22, 2006

$45 for a book?!? I would have fought for it too! Good for you!