When a local Chinese-language newspaper held a poll recently, which begged its' readers the question; "if you could live the life of another individual, then who would you choose to be?" A majority of people opted to be Peter Hsui (眭澔平).
Hsui is not as talented as Ang Lee (李安), as rich as Wang Yung-ching (王永慶) or as fashionable as Jay Chou (周杰倫), but his lifestyle is, according to the poll, the one that most people in Taiwan envy over everybody else's.
He's published 29 books -- five of which were bestsellers -- and appeared on and/or produced a total of 31 albums. He's been the recipient of five Golden Melody Awards (金曲獎) and four Golden Bell Awards (金鐘獎) and, when he's not receiving golden trophies he's often giving them away as the host.
His position as freelance historian means he is regular guest on TV and radio chat shows and, as he holds a PhD from the UK's University of Leeds, he's in demand as a guest speaker at universities up and down the country.
While all these achievements may go some way to explaining why so many people want to be him, it is in fact Hsui's life away from the limelight that is really the envy of so many. Hsui is one of the most traveled Taiwanese nationals of all time and he's got something to show for every port of call he's made over the past 15 years.
"I think people wanted to be me because I go traveling a lot and don't have to go to an office every day," Hsui said. "I reckon people think that my life is one big adventure."
And a mighty adventure it certainly has been, as is evident on entering Hsui's five-story apartment block in downtown Taipei, which is a cross between walking into Aladdin's cave and entering a disorderly museum.
From the ground floor to the fourth floor every room is packed wall-to-wall with an assortment of paraphernalia ranging from 100 year-old Russian icons to Amazonian tribal costumes made of bark and the huge fossilized head of a long-dead dinosaur. Along with the more eye-catching pieces there are plenty of other knickknacks of all shapes and sizes crammed into every nook and cranny of his apartment.
The most striking of all of Hsui's "souvenirs" is the 1,000 year-old Bible from Ethiopia, the pages of which are made of sheep skin and the text of which is handwritten using inks made from plant extract. In total Hsui has over 40,000 artifacts in his private collection and there's a story behind each and every one of them.
"You could ask me about any of the objects in my collection and I'd tell you how and where it came into my possession," said Hsui. "They're like souvenirs, but instead of purchasing them from a tourist shops I've been lucky enough to have been able to obtain all of them from people I've met during my travels."
Until 1990 Hsui worked as a journalist for TTV's (
"I already had the nickname `reporter of disasters.' I'd either travel to hot spots in order to report on horrific events already underway or I'd got somewhere and something untoward would happen," he said. "I thought I'd be covering some boring financial debate and was looking forward to some peace and quiet."
Hsui's peace and quite proved short-lived, however, and he found himself embroiled in events that were unfolding in Tiananman Square. Instead of covering the forum he took his cameraman out onto the streets and began filing stories about the protests that had rocked Beijing since April of that year and were soon to come to a bloody climax.
Within a year of making a splash as one of the few local reporters to have covered the bloody crackdown, Hsui decided to quit TTV and took up an offer to host the 1990 Miss Taiwan competition, which was being held in Paris.
Instead of returning to Taiwan directly he decided to travel back home overland. He first crossed Europe, entered and exited the Middle East, traveled through India, Nepal and Tibet and finally arrived home two months later via China and Hong Kong. Although he didn't know it at the time it was an experience that would shape his future career as a traveler/travel writer.
"I was in no hurry. I had no job to go back to and simply decided that I'd become a backpacker for a while," Hsui said. "I had no idea and certainly no plans to make a living out of traveling when I set out."
Since he discovered his true calling Hsui has visited 160
countries and documented each and every one of his trips on both film and photograph. In all he's filmed more then 3,000 hours worth of footage, some of which has been used by television companies, but much of which sits in his apartment along with all his other mementoes.
"I've always traveled alone, which does have its drawbacks. I quite often rely on locals to film me and they don't always known how to use a camera and I have had people film their feet rather then me," he said. "But I've managed quite well so far and have enough film to start a small television station."
There's footage of him being tackled to the floor by an adult female tiger and there's a hilarious scene in which he's fishing for piranha in the Amazon and inadvertently falls off the boat into the carnivorous fish-filled water. Hsui also has plenty of more serious National Geographic-like footage, which was shot whilst living with tribes in sub-Saharan Africa and in the depths of the South American
Of course, Hsui's life as a traveler hasn't always been fun and games. His luggage was removed from an airplane by state security forces in Paraguay; he was nearly robbed and beaten to death by a gang of thugs in Mumbai; and he got caught up in a civil war whilst visiting the Congo and was forced to hide in a cave only meters from where rival factions were exchanging gunfire.
But while he modestly shrugs off these incidents as "experiences," he still balks when he recalls his first trip to Mongolia, where he had an unforgettable and rather unpleasant experience with a local homebrew known as horse milk wine.
"Oh! It was terrible, they use a recently skinned horses' hide, fill it with horse milk and let it sit for a few days. Of course, it ends up like runny stinky cheese and as a guest I had to drink three huge bowls of this stuff," Hsui said. "It's not something I plan to do ever again."