In this series, I will enlighten you with wisdom from my travelling past by reviewing – not just a hotel, not just a restaurant, oh no! I am more ambitious and foolhardy than that. I will review… an entire country!
Okay real quick before we go any further: if you are somebody who will feel the need to tell me that Taiwan “isn’t a country”, go away. You’re wrong, I don’t want to hear your opinion on this, this blog is not for you, just go away.
Now that we’ve gotten that over with, let me preface this by saying that this review isn’t really fair to all the other countries in the world because I lived in Taiwan for two and a half years and it was home. It’s the only country other than New Zealand that I would cheer for the sports team of or wear a scarf with the flag on it. But it’s an unusual tourist destination for the English-speaking world so I think I have some useful things to say even considering my bias. If you might consider travelling to Taiwan (if travelling is a thing we ever get to do again) and need somebody to make up your mind for you, read on!
Taiwan is a small (relatively speaking, I mean. I realise it’s a bit rich for a New Zealander to label other countries “small”) island off of the coast of China, plus a few even smaller islands dotted around. Despite all the arguments about who Taiwan actually belongs to (although the answer is, the people of Taiwan), the important thing to know from a traveller’s perspective is that it functions as an antonymous country. And that the status of Taiwan is a political subject and therefore tact is advised when discussing it with the locals. The main languages are Chinese (Mandarin) and Taiwanese. The currency is the New Taiwan Dollar. Population? I don’t know, I’m not Wikipedia. Look, what you need to know is that Taiwan is small and cheerful and packed. It’s a little different from anywhere else. It’s really good fun.
EASE OF TRAVEL: 6/10.
Taiwan is safe and affordable and has good public transport, with English language signs at train stations and comprehensive connections. Taxis are cheap. Despite this, Taiwan is hard to visit in some ways – there isn’t a lot of English language tourist information, for example, and there is a real language barrier. However I don’t think anybody even vaguely intrepid should avoid Taiwan. Sure, outside of the major centres you will struggle to find English speakers but if you find yourself needing help then people will usually try their best to help you anyway. If all else fails, Taiwan is so eager to promote tourism that they have a free multilingual 24/7 tourist helpline. How cool is that! I’ve called it before. They are very nice and they will translate for you. With this and google maps and a menu translator saved to your phone, you’ll be just fine.
I have a theory that there are two sides to Asia – the shiny side (think Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong island) and the gritty side (think Kowloon). Taiwan has some flash bits but is mostly on the gritty side. This isn’t a criticism! I love this about Taiwan. It’s very real. But it can be a bit…jarring…when you first set out to explore. It’s a land of noisy scooters (literally 15 million of them) and huge cockroaches and air pollution and you do not wear sandals if it’s raining. Gross. I tell you this not to scare you but because it’s best that you’re prepared. Before we arrived – and I moved there and was stuck with it – I’d only seen photos of the shiny side of Taiwan. The bits they show in Lonely Planet. It looked like Japan. I’d visited Japan and it was clean and I’d felt safe there. And then we arrived and it was… erm… not what I was expecting. It was nothing like Japan, for one thing. This was in the days before the high-speed train went all the way from the Airport to Taipei so my first impression of Taiwan was, instead of zipping comfortably through the countryside as I imagine you do nowadays, we were stuck on a bus crawling through the seediest bits of Taoyuan. We passed betel-nut girls (that link is NSFW) and grimy looking eateries with little fans going round and round to keep flies off the buffet and old men sitting around with their singlets rolled up to their armpits so their bellies hung out (lots of old dudes do this in Taiwan, I never found out why) and just like miles and miles of grubby urban dystopia. Now, that’s a particularly rough part of Taiwan and actually the cheap eateries have the best food but it took me a long time to get over the culture shock and start appreciating where I was. Consider yourself forewarned, and therefore forearmed. Bring close-toed footwear.
ATTRACTIONS / ACTIVITIES: 7/10
Real talk time. Taiwan is not, you know, Paris. You won’t be bored and it has cool stuff but not on the Louvre/Disneyland level. You need to think differently about how you spend your time while travelling. You don’t pay a lot of money and go to an attraction for a day (except Taroko Gorge). It’s more about fun atmospheres, little excursions, that kind of thing.
Architecture is not a strong point, for a start. Most of their buildings are covered in small white tiles, greying in the air pollution. I have never confessed this to a Taiwanese person but as a New Zealander this has the unfortunate effect of making all the cities look like a giant public toilet. I am so sorry but it’s true. If a building is covered in white tile in New Zealand, it’s a loo or a changing room at the beach. There are some lovely scenic spots in Taiwan but in general it’s not a place you go to for the beauty of it, is what I’m trying to say.
But who cares! There’s other great stuff!
- Taiwan has some excellent museums – my favourite is the Taichung Science Museum with its poison dart frogs. The National Palace museum is famous for a reason and you don’t need me to tell you it’s well worth your time.
- Taipei zoo is large and attractive and the animals are well cared for. You can see bears!
- If you’re lucky enough to be in Taiwan when a festival is on, please go. They are energetic, fascinating, exciting and yet you feel completely safe.
- Taiwan is blessed with abundant hot springs. Oh, there’s nothing like a proper Asian-style hot spring, we really don’t get it right in New Zealand. (I spend every winter here cursing this fact. Dammit, Taupo, get your shit together!)
And these aren’t even the best of Taiwan. The very best attractions are the colourful temples, the quirky little towns for day-tripping, and the wonderful night markets. In other words, places you can mingle with the cheerful throng and get a slice of Taiwanese culture.
By contrast, my favourite activity in Taiwan is finding comparative peace and quiet while enjoying the superlative hiking. Really, I come from New Zealand, which is hiking-central, and I loved the hiking in Taiwan. You’ll walk through alarmingly verdant forests and past huge waterfalls, cheeky squirrels, gargantuan spiders, you name it. It’s a vertical kind of place, and this has lead to some fun work-arounds on the tracks that you’d never get away with in New Zealand thanks to our boring health and safety laws.
Did you know that Taipei is the only capital city in the world which has a national park in the city limits? You can spend a wonderful few hours there hiking up Seven Stars Mountain. First you slog uphill through dense forest, then emerge, blinking, into a world of long swaying grass. As you make your way to the summit keep an eye out for butterflies, then take a rest at the top with the swarm of other hikers and try to make out a view through the smog. When you’re ready to go back down, descend the other side of the mountain where the trail leads you right past some exciting geothermic activity. And there’s the bus-stop right there so you can take a well-deserved break. Can you imagine a better way to spend an afternoon?
Surprisingly for an island, Taiwan is not a good beach destination, having very few sandy beaches and a populace deeply suspicious of the water. Don’t go there in the summer, anyway, it’s dreadful! Go in the autumn like a sane person. It might still be warm enough to enjoy the decent scuba-diving, especially on Green Island. If you do go in the summer (don’t) then Taiwan has excellent river tracing and I particularly recommend this, although please prioritise your safety and go with a guide.
Some people like shopping? Taiwan has a lot of shopping. It’s good for cute and silly things – think bags, cell-phone cases, socks with crazy patterns. In hip areas you can find little boutiques with unique items by local designers. For souvenirs, I’d take peanut candy over pineapple cake any day of the year. I like ceramics and had a really lovely day wandering through Yingge, selecting a tea set from one of the dozens of pottery makers. Also the pottery museum there is fantastic, much cooler and more interesting than you would expect. Taiwan is not a good place for clothes shopping if you’re an average or above size for a westerner, ditto shoes.
Why isn’t Taiwanese food more famous? This is the hardest bit for me to review because honestly I like Taiwanese food so much and I think I lack the writing skills necessary to create any kind of impression on a reader. There is, after all, a limit to the amount of times you can read the word “delicious” before you get fed up and close the tab. But I will try. I am a cheap eats person. The linen napkin, the glass of wine, the array of silver cutlery, these are not for me, oh no. I am a firm convert to the way of the plastic table, the bad lighting, the disposable chopsticks. Taiwan is the cause of this. Taiwan is the king of cheap and cheerful food. There is also flash and expensive food obviously but who cares? The other stuff is so much more fun. Taiwanese cheap and cheerful cuisine is salty, savoury, warm, meaty and unfussy. It’s the food of busy people who work hard. There are too many highlights to capture them all so I’ll just touch on a few.
Anyone who’s seriously considering a trip to Taiwan has heard of beef noodle soup and even if you haven’t, Taiwan’s most famous dish isn’t a hard sell – it’s a big bowl of savoury meaty loveliness with a bunch of noodles, what’s not to like? But that’s not what I would eat for lunch if I had just one day to revisit Taiwan. No, I’d want a lunch box. I’m always up for visiting a lunch box shop, especially one that has stewed bamboo on offer. They are self-service so you don’t need to deal with a menu and astonishingly cheap. But if I could eat anything at all, I’d want a Fulong beach train station lunch box, with pressed tofu and a pork chop and a tea egg (You can throw the fish sausage away though. Bleugh!). Imagine getting off the crowded sweaty train that you’ve been stuck on all the way from Taipei and spilling out into the hot sun and getting into line for one of those treasures. What a way to start a day at the beach!
What about dinner? My two favourite options are hot pot or a night market. Hot pot is pretty self-explanatory but I would like to point out that if you go to a flash place then they often have self-service Haagen Dazs or Movenpick in the ice cream fridge. I’d always be way too excited about this and have to start my meal with a dessert course before I could pay attention to my meat and veg.
Time to talk about night markets. Taiwanese night markets and the culture of “small bites” are legendary. They are all different but I can make one generalisation – night markets are the best! Honestly they are among the funnest and tastiest ways to spend an evening that I have encountered in the entire world. Some would say to select your market carefully but I would encourage you to try a selection. I’ve been to most of the most popular tourist ones – Shulin, Raohe (I did not like this night market and expect most animal lovers to feel the same way), Taichung, etc, and I liked our local in Banqiao best – Nanya night market, it is called. It has a more relaxed atmosphere and fewer space-wasting oyster omelette stalls.
What culinary delights await you at Nanya night market! The blender place will whip you up a cold, fruity drink while you wait – pineapple juice for the beginners, watermelon juice or a papaya milkshake for night market veterans. The skewer place will baste your selection in barbecue sauce and roast it while you wander around looking at other things. I particularly like the spring onion wrapped in bacon. Hot Star Chicken is a Taiwanese institution. They bash a chicken fillet until it’s absolutely enormous and then deep-fry it to perfection. There is a sesame oil chicken place which is terrifying to order from if your Chinese is bad (mine was appalling) – they are immensely popular and always in a huge rush and there’s invariably a queue building up behind you by the time you’ve got their attention – but it’s worth facing that ordeal for the bowl of absolute perfection you eventually wind up with. I could go on and on but I think you get the point and anyway night markets are made for wandering and speculating so telling you the specific stalls I liked is actually doing you a disservice. It’s not just because my memory sucks, no. It’s for your sake. But I will leave you with two tips: 1) don’t worry about the horrid smell you will encounter from time to time when wandering a night market. It is not, as I believed for an embarrassingly long time, because night markets exist in areas with sewer problems. Taiwan is more sanitary than that. The smell is merely stinky tofu. I never learnt to enjoy this local delicacy but the ex-boyfriend was a fan. 2) whichever night market you visit, when in doubt, do as the Taiwanese do and join the end of the longest queue.
Taiwan has the best and nicest people in the entire world. They are incredibly proud of their little country and will show hospitality to travellers whenever they can. I was assisted by total strangers when I was struggling dozens of times. When we couldn’t find a loo at a festival, a local stall-holder let my mum use the one in her house. When I got hopelessly lost in a rural area trying to find a train station, I was given a lift. I had been hiking and was muddy, stinky, and exhausted and my rescuers, dressed up to the nines for a party, let me into their immaculate car without hesitation. This was during moon festival so the car was full of food and they spent the entire trip plying me with moon cakes and drunken chicken. A cup was somehow procured in a moving vehicle and I was poured a glass of Sprite. Taiwan is just that kind of place.
It can take a while to tune in to the kindness of the Taiwanese people. It is not a culture that is big on smiling at strangers. Also, people will stare at you. But once you get used to these things, I’m sure you’ll start to notice how lovely people are, and how cheerful. The Taiwanese are a people who are not beaten down because they’re too busy enjoying themselves. Really, the best thing about the whole country is the mood. “Cool culture” never infected Taiwan. It’s not cynical. Instead, there’s an infectious optimism, a buoyancy, that permeates the place. It’s such a fun place to be. I can’t tell you how much I miss it.
Need more convincing? Okay, imagine you are in Taipei. Here’s how to have a perfect day. Sleep in. Dawdle a bit. Go to a local breakfast place and have dan bing, taro cake and warm soy milk for breakfast. Catch the MRT to Xindian Station. It’ll take a while so make sure you pack a book. When you get to Xindian, catch the bus to Wulai. As you wander through the village you will pass dozens of hot spring resorts. Select and book the private hot spring that appeals the most for about an hour and a half from whenever “now” is. Splurge on a nice place with a river view. Now you’ve recovered from the bumpy bus trip have some pork skewers from a street vendor for lunch. Take a picture on the bridge. Wend your way out of the village and take the road to the waterfall. It’s an easy 25 minute stroll. Soak up some peace and quiet. Enjoy the view of the river and the forest. Breathe in a lot when you get to the waterfall. Apparently the negative ions are good for you. Don’t rush any of this but make sure you head back in time for your hot spring booking. Enjoy your soak. Luxuriate. It’ll probably be dark by the time your hour is up – the sun always sets early in Taiwan – so select one of the local aboriginal places for dinner. Feast on earthy wild pork, bamboo, ferns, mushrooms. Catch the bus back to town, or even better, don’t. Spend the night, dreaming of the hot spring that awaits you in the morning. When the day comes that you have to leave Taiwan, you’ll keep dreaming of it. I promise you that.