A Unique History
One of the most interesting things I found out about Taiwan while I was there was that Taiwan has a large traditional Chinese population. I knew very little about Chinese history and the relationship between mainland China and Taiwan to be honest. Without getting into too much detail, what I basically learned was that many Chinese people came to Taiwan after World War II to escape the new Communist party that arose in China. They brought with them many relics, pantings, and anything they could carry with them to the island. Many of these can be seen at the National Palace Museum, one of the top museums in the world. Taiwanese people also use the traditional Chinese writing system as opposed to the simplified version used in the mainland. Before the war, many people from China came to Taiwan in the 18th and 19th centuries living together with the native aboriginals. These three different groups bring different and intersting perspectives on what it means to be Taiwanese.
I probably could write a whole article just on the food in Taiwan. If you remember anything from this article remember night markets. Night markets are a section of town people gather to eat street food that is the best thing you have ever tasted. Taiwanese food is spicy, flavorful, and absolutely delicious. Before I went to Taiwan this was the one thing people told me about so my expectations were high, and I was not disappointed. Try the dumplings, try the rice cake, try the stinky tofu (yes it does smell), try everything! Tainan is known as the city that doesn’t stop eating but I found the night market in Kaohsiung to be my favorite.
Taiwan is located further south than Okinawa but further west so wind chills from mainland China and Russia are a factor. I went in the dead of winter and wore short sleeves and shorts in the south (Kaohsiung and Tainan), but I did need a jacket in Taipei in the north because of the perpetual clouds and rain. Whatever your forte is for weather you can find it between the diverse landscape of the island (maybe not so much for snow lovers).
Variety of Cities
Taipei is the big capital city where you are sure to find anything and everything that a city has to offer. There is even a Voodoo Donuts store from Portland, Oregon. I was impressed with how vibrant and cosmopolitan the city was and enjoyed it more than many of the bigger Japanese cities. In the south, Kaohsiung is the second largest city and definitely has a more laid-back vibe. Most of the residents travel around by moped (scooter) as opposed to the public transport in Taipei, although there is a less extensive subway in Kaohsiung. The old capital of Tainan is more of cultural city with many temples, monuments, and other historical buildings to snap photos of. If big cities aren’t your things, Taiwan has many smaller towns like Jiufen and Hualien that have their own unique things to see and do.
“But I don’t go to exotic locations to spend time shopping!” Well I don’t either, but this is worth a mention. Taiwan is CHEAP. If you need a new outfit or two while on vacation, you’d be wise to save your pennies for Taiwan. I brought around $700 with me for a week’s worth of spending money, and I thought I would probably end up withdrawing more from an ATM. Instead of needing more I was left with an excess which I had to convert back into Japanese yen. Restaurants are cheap, shopping is cheap, taxis are cheap, I honestly didn’t see anything expensive except for the luxury brands. And they are there in full force, in Taipei you’ll find everything from Louis to Chanel to Tiffany. They’ve got it all, aimed particularly at mainland Chinese tourists that can buy these commodities cheaper due to the high tax in their home country.
The Taiwanese take a page from Japan’s polite demeanor while retaining their more aggressive nature. The Japanese are always smiling and bowing whether or not they are genuinely happy or not. The Taiwanese, while always remaining courteous and nice, are a little more “real” making it easier to read their true feelings. It felt refreshing because I knew if they understood me or not and if I had done something wrong or right. I love living in Japan and Japanese people, but constantly guessing if you did something right or wrong gets old.
Living in Okinawa has somehow brainwashed me into thinking that islanders just can’t have good transportation. Looking back at other islands I’ve been to, Puerto Rico pretty much had nothing but a few poorly timed buses, The Dominican Republic also had some pretty sketchy buses, Palma de Mallorca had an old train for tourists, and in Hawaii we dealt with the horrible traffic in Honolulu. Get ready for Taiwan because it’s amazing! Not every city has such an extensive system as Taipei but you do have access to the high speed trains that reach all major cities. For 100NT (New Taiwanese Dollar) or about $3 I got an EasyCard that is like a reloadable metro card (think London’s Oyster Card) that can be used on the underground and on the buses. You can even use it at the convenience store if you want, sure does beat carrying around all those coins…
I’ll be honest, I usually like to roll into a new country without knowing anything. I don’t have any preconceived notions about the place, I don’t know what the “best” places are, or even what the “must try” foods are. So I ask. I ask every local, foreigner, visitor that I run across. I think it’s more fun that way than looking at a book or website. Taiwan has no shortage of awesome architecture, temples, and historical buildings. My favorites are: Taipei 101 (Taipei), the Lotus Pond aka Lian Lake (Kaohsiung), Chihkan Tower (Tainan), Confucian Temple (Tainan), and The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (Taipei).
Beaches, mountains, hiking trails, greenery everywhere, what more could you ask for? Some might say “snow” to that I will immediately disregard. Seriously, Taiwan is beautiful and I went in the middle of winter, I could only imagine how it must be in the spring and summer. Mountains are in the east and the best beaches can be found in the south. Also don’t forget about the famous Sun Moon Lake that will be my next destination when I return.
Throughout my trip, especially in Taipei, I heard conversations in Spanish, French, Japanese, Korean, English, and Portuguese. In Kaohsiung I met a friendly Croatian that was working on his MBA. In Tainan, I stayed with a group of guys: two from Paraguay and one from Canada all working on their master degree. In Taipei, I ran into some Brits and Australians having a good time enjoying the nightlife. I’m used to seeing Americans in Japan but I think Taiwan is on another level when it comes to the variety of foreigners in the country (excluding Tokyo). One of the biggest advantages that Taiwan has in promoting tourists is that the majority of the country speaks English extremely well. This comes as a huge shock when comparing it to Japan. I’m not talking about a few people here and there that can form a simple idea into English, but legit fluent conversation with near perfect pronunciation. I take my hat off to you, Taiwan, you’ve more than impressed this wanderer.