The day Taipei stood still

Although we’ve been here for a year and three months now, every once in a while something happens that serves to remind you just how different this country is from back home.

For instance, take last week. On Tuesdays Jen and I study Chinese for two hours in the afternoon before heading off to work. At 2:20 PM our lesson ended, and we packed up our things, headed down the stairs and stepped out onto the sidewalk of Roosevelt Road, a pretty busy thoroughfare right in the heart of Taipei.

But this day something was different. It took us a few moments to notice anything was wrong, and when we did, it was Jen that mentioned it first. “Why is it so quiet?” It was true - there wasn’t a single car on the street. Nor a bus. Nor a single person walking on the sidewalk. Stores were closed and shuttered. Taipei, with its constant crowds and frantic pace, seemed completely abandoned.

We kept walking, marvelling at the silence, and it was then that I noticed something else - although there were no cars moving, there were lots of cars stopped on the sides of the street, engines off, with the drivers still inside, reading newspapers, talking on cellphones, idly passing the time. Busses too, full of passengers, unmoving. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would have said.

And then the silence was suddenly broken by the shrill sound of a whistle, with a policeman frantically waving for us to get off of the sidewalk. We ducked into an alcove in front of a closed shop, wondering what terrible thing could have happened to shut down a major city. A police car raced by, lights flashing. But then some signal was given, unseen by us, and in a flash cars were moving, crowds of people appeared from nowhere, and storefronts were opened. Within mere seconds Taipei was back to its usual busy self.

With China just a short hop across the Strait of Taiwan, there always exists the spectre of an eventual invasion, the likelihood of which rises and falls with the politics of the time. We discovered later that this was a planned military drill simulating an air attack by China, and for half an hour in the middle of a busy workday, nobody was allowed to be on the streets.

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