The vibrancy and excitement found in Taipei surpasses New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo. It’s a city where street performances are done just for the sake of performing, where most of the locals are eager to try their English and where the collage of cultures supersedes even the USA (in many ways).
The streets aren’t clean, the food probably isn’t all that safe, traffic is pure chaos and the nightlife is addictive; but the city, for all its flaws, should rank at the top of bucket lists.
Stuff to Do
Taipei is packed with all sorts of museums and monuments. (The Republic of China essentially considers it to be the capital of the entire mainland, so there’s lots of measuring up to do.) The massive Chiang Kai-Shek memorial and surrounding plaza is a necessary spot to visit; the most necessary however is Taipei 101, which was once the tallest building in the world (and remains the “greenest” skyscraper in the world). Other than these two necessary items, the city caters to a wide variety of interests: temples, shopping, food and night life.
The food is a necessary highlight because I am a fan of all things spicy and most things exotic. Taiwan has an unreal cuisine convergence from China, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, other parts of southeast Asia and even the USA; the flavors and styles are combined in a flavorful, bold and often fiery way. Picky eaters might find the street food challenging, but I couldn’t get enough.
The club scene is also top notch. There’s no better place to be than young and in Taipei. The locals are outgoing and curious, which makes westerners both approachable and interesting (which is exactly what you want to be when dancing the night away). I also found it (and understood it) to be a distinctly safe country (which is good if you plan to drink heavily), not as ridiculously safe as Japan though (so be reasonably vigilant).
If I were forced to place a third necessity in visiting Taipei, it would have to be the Maokong Gondola. After taking in so much of the city, the cable cars that penetrated deep into the forested mountains were a welcome break. The temple at the end of the ride wasn’t mind-blowing, but the view back at the city, the lushness of the forest and the freshly sautéed snacks were. The gondola proves that even an island as densely populated as Taiwan, can still contain a great deal of wilderness.
Getting to Taipei is pretty straightforward from the states. It’s about average as far as prices to Asian countries go. Eva Air (Taiwan’s second largest airline) was my choice and by a remarkable event of luck I ended up taking the trip to the island on the infamous Hello Kitty Plane (when taking the link, utilize the un-mute button at the top of the screen for full effect). This flying anomaly is Hello Kitty themed down to the compressed fish-paste-cake; I walked away from the experience with Hello Kitty themed eating utensils, playing cards and postcards (I refrained from taking the pink headrest cover). Like many airlines of the region, Eva Air had fantastic service and was very friendly to English speakers.
Once in Taipei, travelers will likely need to take a taxi. Taxi drivers were some of the only people who didn’t readily speak English, but I was able to bypass any confusion by simply pointing at a map and gesturing.
Though for general travel around Taipei, I found that the Subway system worked better than anything. The trains were frequent, somewhat crowded (not bad though by Tokyo standards) and overall had a good vibe. It may have helped that I had a resident friend helping me (thanks Abe) for much of it, but I never felt lost in the stations.
A Country with Everything and Nothing to Lose
While conversing with Taiwanese, I sensed an undertone of both fear and freedom from the very nature of their country. The government (The Republic of China) of the island claims to control all of mainland China (thus declaring itself the largest country by population in the world). This lingering effect of a fifty-year-old civil war weighs on the islanders. There is the prospect of being wiped out, at any moment, by the other China hanging over their heads at all times.
The fear and freedom of this prospect combine to cultivate a deep sense of impermanence and celebration for the present moment. Even the deep inner divides between Mandarin Chinese (who came in droves from the mainland due to the civil war) and native Taiwanese (who have seen their fair share of would-be masters) seems to disperse in most situations in favor of embracing a budding, eclectic, creative and diverse culture. Taipei is the nexus to it all.
In a weird way Taiwan is like the USA in an alternate universe. Many of its fundamental problems are the same, but they are different in their respective scale and manner; but for both Taiwanese and Americans, if we really look at each other we’ll like what we see.
Globalization in all its Forms: Many Taiwanese-Americans in Taipei
Unlike Japanese-Americans or even Korean-Americans, many Taiwanese-Americans move back to the island or are frequent visitors. I don’t think they move back to Taiwan completely out of necessity or for its inexpensive living cost and generally nice climate. I think it’s a place people don’t want to give up on. Big dreams still rub off on the islanders and there is a deep love for the many virtues the island has gained from its respective influences.
With an adventurous and outgoing attitude, Americans (and Minnesotans in particular) will find a great deal of fun and inspiration in Taipei.
Photos by: Erik Bergs