How did I end up here? Seems I always ask myself that whenever I arrive somewhere new. I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming.
First of all, I have to say that most of the Asian airlines are a reflection of the countries they serve. I’m utterly impressed with their excellent service, friendly attendants, and cleanliness. Flying between cities, I saved myself the money I would have otherwise spent on snacks because they always gave me a meal on board, even if it was only a 2 hour flight. It’s unbelievable, yet I still don’t understand why such simple amenities and service are lacking in many American based airlines.
Anyway, I digress. From Hong Kong’s ultra modern airport to Taipei is like stepping back in ancient history. Taiwan is what I consider “old Asia” in the sense that it is reminiscent of a lot of my grandmother’s belongings. Colorful, authentic, and rightfully stuck in the past.
Taipei is a city that looks like it is reluctant to progress. It’s almost as if someone came and in said that because the rest of the world is evolving and growing into a more modern, tech-savvy lifestyle, you have to too. Like someone slabbed up a new painting over an old one in hopes that nobody would notice, all the restaurant chains and department stores don’t look like they belong. It seems as if Taiwan is losing the battle to keep their history and culture intact, and it’s quite unfortunate because modernistic doesn’t suit Taipei very well.
Although most signs are in English, menus are not. Some shops have pictures so you have an idea of what you’re ordering, others are buffet style so you can actually see the food, but otherwise, you just have to take a shot in the dark and hope for the best. Mandarin is widely spoken throughout the country, although the elderly generations speak Taiwanese. You will find that not many people know or understand English, unless they are in the tourism industry, and the ones that do speak English are afraid to do so, due to a severe lack of confidence. Because Taiwan isn’t accustomed to welcoming high volumes of foreigners or tourism, except people from China, they see no need to learn English.
If you are able to talk to people, even in each other’s broken language, you’ll find that the Taiwanese are some of the friendliest. Sharing a meal with them is perhaps the highest honor and the best way to learn what their day-to-day looks like. One thing I know for sure is that they ride around on scooters everywhere, and I swear that if I lived in Asia, that’s how I would die. Simply crossing the street is putting your life at serious risk as their driving can be rather reckless, especially during rush hours.
When not fending for my life on the streets, I took it easy in Taipei. I didn’t rush around to all the “must sees and dos”. I used my own two feet and rode around on the metro to explore. After all, that’s really when I’m at my best, you know. I perused through the streets and all of the night markets, sampling foods from different stalls, admiring how animated teenagers are, and trying to figure out the obsession with Hello Kitty and Angry Birds.
If you go to Shilin night market, there is a bread store with about 50 different kinds of bread called Top Pot Bakery. They have free samples, and you can buy a loaf for about $2 USD. My favorite is the bread with cranberries, chocolate, and red wine. Oy! Once you get past the desire to buy every loaf, mosey along among the shops flooded with neon vending machines and fluorescent lights, boutique clothing stalls, and street food. The night markets are popular for after-school hangouts and treats, and there are a lot of them so take your pick.
Went to the top of Taipei 101 on a cloudy day, but in retrospect, I would have skipped it. Inside is nothing but high end shopping I can’t afford like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, etc. It’s better to marvel at this architectural beauty from the outside so instead, take a short 20 minute walk to the Elephant Mountain trail where you can get a much more breathtaking view overlooking the city. And it’s free!
Check out the Lungshan temple and visit the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. As you emerge from the metro, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a wide open square with the national concert hall and theater on either side, and it will leave you in awe.
Went to my first couchsurfing hang out and had such a wonderful time. Over a cool autumn night, at a cafe suitably named Route 66, I met and chatted with people born & raised in Taiwan as well as a few American expats. It was a relaxing environment where we learned more than we could’ve asked for about each other’s daily lives and culture and fostered new friendships.
It was from that night I learned that Taiwan is a backpacker’s and expat English teacher’s best kept secret because it hasn’t yet been consumed by heavy tourism and western ideals.