When we told people that we were spending two months of our trip in Taiwan, a lot of them had the same reaction: “WHY?!?” Many people couldn’t understand why we would want to spend such a large portion of our of trip on such a tiny little island. Well, guess what? After two months on Isla Formosa, I can’t think of a single reason why someone wouldn’t want to spend two months or a year or maybe five in the Republic of China. I know that we’ve been effusive about several countries so far (New Zealand and Vietnam in particular), but I have to say that tiny Taiwan packs a big enough punch to (maybe, just maybe) take the “favoritest country” award. We LOVE Taiwan. Taipei is the only place so far on out trip where we can actually (realistically) see ourselves living for an extended period of time (as long as we bring a bike for Jeremy when we return), which says a lot about how highly we regard the place.
At first I thought that I was perhaps a tad bit biased due to the fact that my parents grew up here, but given Jeremy, Kara, and Patrick’s reactions to the RoC, I have come to a conclusion: It’s Not Just Me. For a good month into our stay in Taipei, Jeremy was still turning to me daily to exclaim, “I didn’t realize how good it was going to be here!” And he’s right…the food is out of control, the people are incredible, and there is amazing natural beauty right in middle of Taipei. Most of all, Taiwanese people truly seem to live according to their values, and they work together to achieve a peaceful, orderly, and safe society. In short, we respect the way of life here, and the population that cooperates (without coercion) to make that way of life a reality.
But beyond all the high-minded talk about social values, Taiwan was a special experience for me in a personal way, too. I paid respects to my great-grandmother on Tomb Sweeping Day. I saw the town where my mother was born (Chiayi). I visited the city where my Dad went to college (Keelung). It’s hard to explain, but I feel like I understand so many more details about my family now: where they get their habits, what motivates their decisions, why they taught me the lessons they taught me. Being in Taiwan was a big turning point for us, not only because we celebrated 6 months of travel here, and not only because we spent enough time here to really get to know the place, but also because we found another place on this big blue marble where we felt like we actually belonged.
Days spent here: 54
Places we would like to visit next time: The south, and the islands.
Average daily expenditures: approx. US$75 (note that we did not pay for housing, though our classes were a big chunk of our daily expenditures)
Prices: Taiwan cannot be considered cheap by Asian standards. Food and transport are quite affordable, but clothing and other necessities can rival American prices. If you’re not lucky enough to have grandparents who own an apartment in Taipei, housing can be spendy. Even the cheap hostels in Taipei charge at least US$30 for a double room (which is expensive given that similar rooms in SE Asia are between US$6-15). Once you get to the tourist towns outside of Taipei, however, homestays are an option, and are typically good value for the money.
Weather: In two words: totally schizophrenic. The first day we arrived in Taiwan, we pumped the AC in the apartment because it was so hot and humid outside. Two days later, we were wearing long underwear and down jackets. It seems that spring in Taiwan is not a gradual change from winter to summer as it is in other countries. Rather, the weather gods just decide that it’s summer one day and winter the next, which can be quite confusing to both your body and your wardrobe!
Also, the weather forecast (in particular the forecasts from American sources like Google and Yahoo) are just straight-up wrong. If the Google forecast says that it there is a 100% chance of rain, prepare for heat. If it says that it will be sunny and warm, bring your umbrella and your long underwear. The nightly news forecasts are a bit more accurate, but they are still only right about 60% of the time.
Language: I won’t lie, it would be somewhat difficult for a non-Chinese speaker to get around Taiwan, especially once you get out of Taipei. Kids here learn English for their college entrance exams, but when it comes to actual conversational English, well, let’s just say communication can be difficult. Still, Taiwanese people are incredibly, aggressively helpful, so if you can’t speak Chinese, they’ll probably go looking for someone who does, even if they have to go way out of their way to do it.
Transit: Taipei is a transit nerd’s (ahem, Eddo) heaven. The bus system is cheap (NT$15 or approx. US$0.45 per ride), and routes cover the entire Taipei metro area (though they may be a tad slow for those in a hurry). The bus routes in Taipei can be a little bit difficult to figure out, as there are no English bus route guides. But if you know the name of the place you want to go, someone can help you figure it out. The seats in the front of the bus are reserved for the elderly, pregnant, or otherwise needy, and at times I found it quite stressful trying to figure out who was too old to stand and who was just fine without a seat. So, if you’re overly-neurotic about being nice to old people like I am, just head towards the back of the bus.
An alternative to the bus in Taipei is the MRT (subway), which is fast as a whip, modern, super affordable, and ultra clean. Even the public toilets in Taipei Metro stations are impeccable, which we find astonishing (imagine going to the bathroom in BART or the NYC subway…ew). . MRT routes are not as extensive as the bus routes, but they are building new lines all the time (the line that will run on Nanjing East Road near my grandparents’ apartment is scheduled to be completed in 2012).
If you want to get out of Taipei, a train ticket is, well, your ticket. Taiwan has two train systems: the high-speed rail (which can whisk you from the north end of the island to the south in 3 hours), and the regular train, which is still pretty fast but stops more often. We never rode the high-speed train in Taiwan, partially because tickets cost twice as much as the regular train, and partially because the high-speed train stations are often out in the middle of nowhere (which means a high-speed rail trip could end up taking the same or even more time once you factor in cab/bus rides to your final destination). The high-speed rail is built for a Taiwan that doesn’t exist yet, one that looks towards the future, when urban sprawl finally reaches those fancy train stations out in the boondocks. In the meantime (meaning the next 10-15 years), the regular train will be just for us, thankyouverymuch.
Shopping: Taiwanese peeps sure like to get their shop on! Indeed, it seems more like a hobby here than just “something you need to do in order to get stuff.”
The Taiwanese system of discounts can be quite confusing to Westerners. When Taiwanese shops have sales, they do not say “30% off!” In fact, the discount is marked in the exact opposite manner, as “70% of the price.” I know, it’s confusing! To add to the confusion, discounts are denoted with the character “折,” which means 1/10th, or 10%. So a 30% off sale will be announced with a sign that says “7折.”
And, good luck finding your size. Women in Taiwan are tiny; not just short, but skin and bones. I wear a 6/8 in the States, but an XL in Taiwan. A lot of cheap clothing sold at the night markets is “one size fits all,” which is totally accurate if by “all” you mean “size 0.” Still, there are good deals to be had for “big” girls like me, you just have to look.
Internet: Internet coverage in Taipei is great, as long as you purchase a WiFly card from any one of the 17 gagillion 7-Eleven stores they have in the city. You can get a card for NT$500 (approx US$15), which gives you access for a full month; WiFly has blanket coverage in Taipei (even in the subway!) so it’s very convenient. Outside of Taipei, we had no problems with coverage either; our hotels/guesthouses usually offered access.
Food: I know, I know, I’ve already written a novel about the food. But I just have one more thing to add, OK? So just bear with me.
Wanna know why the food is so good in Taiwan? I mean, besides the fact that the climate makes for some of the freshest veggies and the juiciest, sweetest fruits we’ve ever tasted. It’s because of the Communists. Seriously. All those people that fled the mainland during the Cultural Revolution? Well, they brought the best of their regional cuisines to Taiwan. Take all that variation in flavor, mix in some amazingly fresh produce (and meat) (and while we’re at it, fish), and simmer until you’ve got a culinary explosion. Add soy sauce and vinegar to taste.
Hot springs: The hot springs in Taiwan are ah-mazing! But watch out…they can be ridiculously hot (the hottest pools often get up to 110°F), though most hot springs have several different pools of differing temperatures so you don’t have to be cooked like a human lobster (unless you want to).
There are so many hot springs in Taiwan that there is really one to please everyone. We’ve been to hot springs that cost US$1 and seen hot springs that cost US$50; hot springs where people are wearing wetsuits, and hot springs where everyone is naked (except for shower caps, for some reason); we’ve even been to hot springs with tea and bamboo infused waters, giant water slides, and pools with tiny fish that eat the dead skin off your feet!
Hotel Alert: Taiwanese like their beds hard! Not just firm, but straight-up hard. Jeremy and I like a firm bed, but it can get pretty ridiculous in Taiwan. In fact, I found out (about 1.5 months too late) that I had been sleeping on a wooden board in my grandma’s apartment. Apparently, the beds weren’t hard enough for my her, so she put some batting on top of a wooden board and slept on that. Needless to say, I was pretty upset when I found out.
Also, this is kind of perplexing to me, but Taiwanese people use hand towels as bath towels. I have no idea why, but we couldn’t find a towel larger than a square meter in my grandma’s apartment or in either of the hotels we stayed in while we were in Alishan.
In short: Taiwan RoCs! We haven’t been this sad to leave a country since New Zealand. We *will* come back here one day soon, perhaps with our little pups in tow so they can learn Chinese in the motherland too. ‘Nuff said.