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Taipei: China Without the Hard Bits

I'm a bit of a Sinophile and have been to the People's Republic a few times in the past. I recently returned from a 4 day trip to Taiwan and thought I'd post a report about it for anyone else who's thinking about a visit or looking for inspiration for their next long-haul holiday.

I flew there and back with Cathay Pacific, a trip lasting about 16 hours including a quick aircraft change in Hong Kong. Total cost around £650.00. This is probably the most common route for travellers from the UK, although other routes are available via Beijing or the usual Asian hubs. Air China used to operate a direct flight from London to Taipei but this seems to have been terminated now. In general, they still offer the cheapest fares although, of course, these things fluctuate throughout the year. If you can't face such a long trip all at once, booking seperate flights between London and Hong Kong and then Hong Kong to Taipei a few days later won't work out to be much more expensive (and can actually prove a bit cheaper if you can grab one of the cheap fares offered by Hong Kong Airlines etc). No need to worry though: this being Asia, you can't move for smoking rooms in the departure areas of most airports. Try using momondo or skyscanner to find the best deals and play around with dates.

As a UK citizen (or a Canuck or Kiwi), you can visit Taiwan visa-free for up to 90 days. Aussies and Yanks get 30 days. Almost all international flights arrive at Taipei Taoyuan Airport, which is a bit of a misnomer as Taoyuan is an hour or so away from Taipei itself. The easiest and cheapest way to get to Taipei from the airport is by bus. The bus station is directly underneath the airport, many of the staff speak basic English and the electronic and poster displays are in Chinese and English and, as a laowai, you're likely to be directed to the right desk by a member of staff if you stand around looking confused. Tickets into town cost about £3.50 and the Main Train Station in Taipei is the best place to get off. If you prefer to cut out the ******* around and go direct to your hotel, a taxi will apparently cost you about £20.00.

The drive into Taipei is less than impressive and you'll probably spend the journey thinking that you've arrived in some kind of Asian Bucharest. The city is largely made of crumbling concrete and it doesn't really get much better, even in the centre. This is understandable, given that the Government had to throw up housing at a rate of knots when over 2 million new arrivals rocked up between 1949 and the early 1950s, following the Kuomintang's defeat by Mao's communists in the Chinese Civil War. Most of them never imagined that it would be a permanent move and the Taiwanese Government (still calling their country the Republic of China), dreamed of returning to take over the mainland for decades, seeing Taiwan as a temporary place of exile. Over time, of course, this has looked increasingly unlikely and is now a complete impossibility, so it is only really since the late 1980s that Taipei has been treated like a proper capital city. The universal big-city building materials of steel and glass have been going up since that time but, for the most part, the city is still very rough around the edges.

For once, refreshingly, a poor physical environment doesn't equate to the place being a depressed shit-hole. Quite the opposite in fact: Taipei's energy is almost tangible. Like most places in Asia, it looks at its neon-lit best after dark but you don't have to wait until nightfall to realise that you're not in Kansas anymore. Almost uniquely, you'll find streets that at first glance wouldn't look out of place in the poorest districts of Western cities are actually lined with boutiques, restaurants and offices for important companies. Never has the phrase 'don't judge a book by it's cover' been more appropriate. It's not the mini-Tokyo, Hong Kong or Singapore that most people are expecting and that is precisely what makes it so singular and wonderful.

Finding your way around is reasonably easy and almost all street signs are in English as well as Chinese. Getting about on foot isn't hard with the aid of a good map, although you should be aware that pedestrian crossings don't actually mean 'stop' to drivers, even when the little green man is showing. They just mean 'slow down a bit', so keep your wits about you if you don't fancy dying under the wheels of a little blue motor-scooter. That said, walking really is the best way to get around - even more so than in most cities - if only because you'll stumble across little shopping malls and eating / drinking joints that you won't find in any guidebook. The city is full of subterranean malls in the most unlikely places and you'll never cover them all, making it a great place just to wander around.

That said, as far as typical tourist sites go, there isn't much to be discovered outside of what you'll find in online lists or in the Rough Guide. That isn't to say that Taipei doesn't have much to offer - quite the opposite - but the historic sites, museums etc are quite limited in number. The usual sight-seeing round includes the memorial halls to Chiang Kai-Shek and Sun Yat-Sen, the National Palace Museum, the Longshan, Baoan and Confucius Temples and the Taipei 101 tower. The memorial halls are worth a visit to get a flavour of where modern Taiwan has sprung from (and how far it has come). The temples are a must for a taste of traditional Chinese culture (and are all still fuctioning places of worship, so be respectful). The National Palace Museum is simply stunning. When the Kuomintang retreated from the mainland, they crated up most of the treasures from the Forbidden City, old Nanjing etc and shipped them off with them. You'll be amazed at what Chinese craftsmen could do with a piece of Jade a thousand years ago. It's worth a trip up to the viewing gallery on the 91st floor of the Taipei 101 tower, one of tallest buildings in the world, but be prepared for a long wait.

An experience not to be missed (one to be savoured again and again in fact) is a visit to one of Taipei's many night markets. The most famous are in Shilin and just outside the Longshan Temple in the area of Guangzhou Street. As well as the usual jade trinkets and knock-off designer goods, you'll find stall after stall selling the most bizarre foods imaginable. Don't fancy the frogspawn soup? Move on and buy a duck's tongue from the next one. Or try a lovely slice of pig's uterus, a few chicken hearts on a stick or some boiled goose blood. In Huaxi Street (also known as Snake Alley), you can try a warming shot of alcoholic snake's blood (which is actually quite nice) and sample snake meat (which, contrary to popular belief tastes more like cardboard than chicken and is so full of small bones as to be almost inedible). Another staple is stinking tofu, which is beancurd marinated in rotting vegetable matter. It's meant to be quite tasty but, unfortunately, smells like a rubbish dump. You'll smell it everywhere.

A few final points. Cash machines are easy to find, including at airport arrivals, and almost all take foreign cards. Currency is the New Taiwan Dollar, of which you'll currently get about 47 to the pound. The metro system (MRT) is easy to use even without speaking any Chinese and is cheap as well as efficient. There are Western chains like Seven Eleven, McDonalds and Starbucks everywhere should you feel the need for grease, coffee and ciggies you actually recognise. There is none of the spitting you get in mainland China and no one will spare you a second glance for being non-Chinese, in contrast to the staring and shouting you'll experience in much of the People's Republic. If you're a fat bastard, you won't feel as out of place as you would in, say, Shanghai, but be prepared for most of the girls to be stunning. There's no censorship to speak of (at least none that should affect you as a visitor) and if you're stupid enough to be naughty, the police are unlikely to take you away and shoot you, which is always nice.

In short, it's a quality place; cheaper than Hong Kong, more Chinese than Singapore and without the nause of jumping through bureaucratic commie hoops.
Having lived in Taipei for a few months, I'd like to add some additions to Wedge's post (which unfortunately I missed first time round). I think it's an amazing city and a wonderful place to base yourself for exploring the northern part of what is a wonderful island.

Food is a passion amongst all Chinese and Taiwan takes it to extremes even by those standards. You'll find it very difficult to wander round the night markets without grazing every few steps. Apart from those portable barrow-style stalls sellling jianbing, sausage, e-a-zhan seafoods, chicken-sphincter-on-a-stick or chou tofu, there are family-run restaurants which look for all the world like a No.4 cookset set up in someone's garage but which can turn out an amazing dish of spicy beef noodles for a slack handful of TWD. Shilin Night Market's quite recently been moved from it's old pitch by the Jiantan MRT station to a new one a bit further on and while it's a more lavish facility, it's lost some of the cheerful chaos that gave it it's charm. The reduced risk of being in close quarter combat with stinky tofu almost makes up for it, though.

To Wedge's list of memorials and museums to visit, I'd add Zhonglie Ci, the Revolutionary Martyr's Shrine dedicated to those who died in fighting or were executed in anti-Imperial movements of the late 18th and early 19th Century. The Changing of the Guard ceremony there is similar to the ones at CKS or SYS Memorial Halls but the setting is more open and you can get better photos and videos of what has to be the world's slowest march-off carried out by the Sanjun Yidui.

The local subway (MRT) is an excellent way to get around and a Easycard is a good investment. It's a pre-paid Oyster-esque travel card which you can use on the MRT, bus and train within Taipei City itself and New Taipei City, the new municipality formed from Taipei County. Using the Easycard gets you a discount off your journey over paying by cash, so well worth it and they make nice souvenirs too.

The best day-trips out of the city boundaries for my money are Danshui/Bali and the Pingxi train line. Danshui is a small town up river from the city that plays the part of a seaside resort. It's got everything you'd expect, arcade games, bicycle hire, boat trips, serried rows of restaurants and foodstalls. It's a very popular place for those warm, lazy evenings Taiwan has so often and if the mood takes you you can take a ferry across the river to Bali, which is famous for the highest concentration of award-winning seafood restaurants on the island. That's up against some pretty stiff competition, believe me. Pingxi is one of the many ex-mining towns in the north of the island, developed and linked by narrow-gauge railways during the Japanese colonial period. The route is dotted with similar little villages each of which have developed their own tourism 'hook', making it a remarkably pleasant way to see Taiwan's recent history and the local culture: Ruifeng has teashops, potteries and a well-preserved town centre; Houtong is the cat-village where semi-strays wander freely for people to feed and pet; Shifen has mining museums and a pleasant little country park with a waterfall which is pretty spectacular after a few days' heavy rain; Jingtong has a railway mseum and the station is perfectly-preserved station as it was in the 30s; while Pingxi itself is famous for the mass release of lanterns during Lantern Festival. Just be prepared that outside of the big cities you're likely to find very few people speak English all that well. Unless they're preparing to study abroad or a schoolkid being forced by their parents to practice with the ah-do-ge the chances are they'll be too shy.

Someone I worked with who also travelled extensively in the Far East summed Taiwan up as 'China, but with manners'. It was a bit harsh IMO, but then again a bit of reserve in those around you can be a relief if you have boundary issues. All told, it's an incredibly beautiful island and the people are lovely. 'China, the user-friendly version' would be my description but it has enough unique charm of its own to make it worthwhile visiting even if the Chinese cultural side does nothing for you.

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