My Taiwan Trip (12/28/22 – 02/11/23)
I landed in Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport after a gruelling 30-hour journey. I had a 13-hour layover in San Francisco. I figured it would be a great opportunity to see more of California. That was far too ambitious!
By my count, it was exactly 60 minutes from the moment I disembarked the plane to standing outside waiting for a cab with my excited and exhausted girlfriend.
This was my first time in Asia.
For the first night, we stayed in Banqiao District (板橋區) in New Taipei City. It was a wonderfully weird experience. I was intimidated by how sprawling and dense the urban environment seemed to be. My Mandarin skills would finally be put to the test.
Taiwan felt like a series of large, populated cities stitched together on an enormous island.
The streets were constantly inundated by motorcyclists and scooters of various kinds. In the first week, I was fascinated by the buzzing of the single-stroke engines. The novelty quickly wore off soon after!
Most streets were very densely packed with a chaotic nature to them. You could tell that there were scores of juxtapositions nestled in every corner. A multi-century year-old temple would coexist next to a 7-Eleven. Ancient landmarks would be preserved and celebrated as they were nestled next to a high-speed rail network.
People were pleasantly surprised by my my needs-improvement-but-proficient Mandarin (我正在学习中文已经两年半了!) They showed me the respect of replying back in Chinese, and some of them relished the opportunity to polish up their English!
I am a very picky eater. I was a vegetarian from November 5, 2019 to January 11, 2023 – I began eating chicken again for experimental reasons, and to broaden my already bleak food horizons. I had to rely on walking to the grocery store or Uber Eats most days, unfortunately. My girlfriend was understandably not shocked and yet still deflated by the prospects of dealing with this picky Westerner at every meal!
The street food (most of it at least) looked delicious – but I am the furthest thing on earth from a chef. Moving on!
The natural agglomeration of driving style coalesced with the ways cities and communities overlapped and sprawled over each other.
There was a Chaotic-Neutral tone to most if not all road conditions. No one was malicious, but everyone was aggressive to some degree. You pretty much need to be. The locals were so primed to deal with the chaos that I learned to let go of my worries after a while.
Highway 9 was the only major road that connected Taipei to Hualien, and we lucked out by avoiding that horrific landslide by mere hours. It rains a lot in most areas of the country, so when you pair
- Lots of cars,
- Mountainous terrain,
- Constant rain,
- Narrow roads, and
- Crazy driving,
you’re in for a treat. It was a neverending psyclone of twists, turns, blinding headlights, sheer drops, and slick road surfaces. Not to mention most of the drive was done in pitch black.
Getting accustomed to the highways and major streets is a lot easier than city driving. You are constantly tested and over-stimulated from every corner in urban areas. The scooters suddenly spawn from hidden crevices like they were destined to humble you in a humiliating poker game you didn’t sign up for.
Surprisingly, people didn’t jaywalk nearly as much as I had expected!
Tainan (台南), The South of Taiwan
We only spent around a day in Hualien. We were off to go to the southern tip of the country, where we’d experience Gaoxiong (高雄) and Tainan (台南). We were going to stay at my girlfriend’s friend’s place, who was nice enough to give us access to a whole block of rooms!
Tainan felt adjacently similar to Taipei. Apart from a different vantage point of the Pacific, the city itself felt a lot more open. It was in a lower-density area in comparison to the metropolitan behemoth of Taipei. The climate was different, too. Rather than constant rain, we were met with sunshine and even more humidity!
Riding on the back of a scooter with my girlfriend zipping through the madness of Tainan traffic is something I will never forget. I had come to genuinely loathe motorbikes due to the droning racket they’d make 24/7.
In Canada/USA, motorcycles have not been integrated into road conditions like in Asia. People are flabberghasted by the sights of them, and the riders experience real danger. In Taiwan, at least, not only did they dominate the roads – they had their own highways. It was completely normal. People learn to ride them very early on.
Which is why I didn’t worry as I laid my life in my loving girlfriend’s hands. She managed to give me the time of my life through Tainan, with enough comfort to carry discussions with me as I tried not to scream.
After about a week driving the entire perimeter of the country, we went back to Taipei. Taipei is simply an incredible place. There’s technically New Taipei City, which is the entire metropolitan area of the city that covers a huge plot of land.
I spent the majority of my time in Xizhi (汐止), Xinzhuang (新庄), and Nangang (南港) districts. Xizhi has a more rainy climate. There’s also Keelung (基隆), which is a breathtaking coastal district of Taipei with insane mountains. We only spent a day there in an Airbnb.
Taipei is an ecclectic mix of imposing skyscrapers, residential and old-world storefronts. They have so much infrastructure that helps people avoid the rain. They have 4 different types of train systems, including the High Speed Rail (高铁) – colloquially known as the bullet train. The bullet train station was like nothing I’ve ever seen. It was like a modern airport terminal.
The streets of Taipei were constantly busy, but you got the sense that the people of this great city lived harmoniously together. There was no litter, no crumbling roads, and no homeless people (so far as I could tell – seek and you shall find.)
An explanation for the lack of litter is Taiwan’s recent heritage in the 20th century as “Garbage Island”. Apparently, the country was struggling so bad with it’s waste management that there were mountains of trash spread out everywhere. Since then, they’ve cracked down, and imposed strict rules including stringent recycling laws, very little to no public trash cans (!) and compulsory disposal of trash via garbage trucks on a tight schedule playing lullaby music.
This program seems to work! It’s mind-blowing to me that there are people that have grown up listening to the same garbage truck tune, daily, for over 60 years.
Taipei 101 (一零一)
On my last day, we went to the world famous Taipei 101. Standing at over half a kilometer tall, this majestic skyscraper represents the modern spirit of Taiwan while acting as the nexus of the financial district. As a Torontonian, I was astonished to learn that the building and it’s adjoined podiums contained 2.4 million square feet more than all of Yorkdale Shopping Center. That means 101 boasts over 4.4 million square feet, making it one of the largest buildings to ever exist by height and gross floor area.
There were international banks, huge floors dedicated to luxury shopping, endless food courts, tours, and even a gym. I’ve also never seen so many foreigners in my entire 6 weeks in the country.
One thing that caught me off guard was seeing a stock price display near a Starbucks. I saw the cascading green acronyms litter the screen. “Must be a great market day,” I thought. There was maybe 1 or two red tickers, unfortunate losers in a massive market rally. Until I realized that in Asia, green means negative and red means positive. I couldn’t stop laughing.
It was a beautiful end to my time in this amazing country. I can’t wait to go back.
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