Taiwan is not a country, it’s an island and a sovereign state that’s also called the Republic of China, but which isn’t controlled by the government of China. Interesting right?

In the 80s the Taiwanese government transformed itself from a one-party rule, military dictatorship to a multi-party democracy. Since then Taiwan has sustained the position of an advanced industrial economy in the world as a result of rapid economic growth and industrialisation. With its high-tech industry, Taiwan plays a key role in the global economy. Here freedom of the press, healthcare, public education, economic freedom and human development are at a much higher level than in China.

Due to its differences with China, Taiwanese people refrain from referring to themselves as Chinese and prefer to be seen differently. This is in spite of the fact that almost the whole population of Taiwan is related to the Mandarin speaking Han Chinese ethnic group. As a result, the Taiwanese tend to separate themselves from China based on their nationality.

But just like their chinese neighbours, the taiwanese sleep whenever they wish. A tired local is resting after a long day’s shopping in taipei railway station.
So why did I decide to go to Taiwan? Well it’s a country of many stereotypes; its huge industry, product quality and human labour, but visiting here makes you realise that it’s not all quite so true.

My visit to the Beautiful Island (so-called by the Portuguese, during the “time of discovery”) started in Taiwan’s capital city. At my hostel I met a lot of other guys who had come to see the big city. Along with many others, Chinese visitors were the main group of people staying in the hostel at that time. They had come here for a two week holiday, as the Chinese government only issues 15 day visas. Maybe with more time they would fall under bad influences from the outside world? Not sure, but these guys were super happy to come here. They had contacted other like minded short-term travellers via mobile apps. Which is a great way to team up, socialise and travel together. As the island isn’t so big and has an oval shape their main plan was to travel around the island.

They started from the Ximending area, which is one of the most popular tourist spots among both local and international travellers. Ximending features a wide selection of fashion and a diverse range of entertainment and activities that allures large numbers of young people, including sleeping Chinese. But overall this area is often a gathering site for young people and is noted as the most fashionable and popular shopping area in Taiwan.

Jimmy in Ximending Shopping Area.
Jimmy in Ximending Shopping Area.

Besides the ridiculousness of tourists taking pictures of themselves, the area also offers a wide variety of food, where locals have little stands for individual businesses just like in China. Also like China, in Taiwan there are a lot of “make it yourself” noodle places. Essentially, you are given a basket, which you have to fill up with the ingredients of your choice.

Owner of the stall grills corn and sausages.
A stall owner grills corn and sausages.

Taipei is known for its many night markets, the most famous of which is the Shilin Night Market. The streets surrounding the night markets are extremely crowded during the evening, with the markets usually opening late afternoon and operating well past midnight. This makes access to fresh food easy for locals.

This night market features individual stalls selling a mixture of food. Some even advertise their products by displaying a picture of their own face as a mark of quality. The stalls are great for various of reasons. One, is that they feature a variety of foods and most of them are served in snack size. Walking past the stalls, people can choose lots of different things to eat, filling up as the wander round. Fresh drinks and deserts are served up as treats on other stalls, sometimes located at the end of the market. Second, is that they’re relatively cheap, even for the locals, so loads of people come here to eat at night.

When you are finally full and satisfied, the market also offers other types of entertainment, including carnival-style games, stalls with old-school coin games and even “catch to buy” kind-of-games.

Family is playing coin games.
A Family playing coin games.

The Taiwanese are fans of the Japanese and their cute stuff. This is an apt example of a colony sympathising with its former coloniser. Taiwan was under Japanese rule for over 50 years before it was returned to China, and during this time Japan has frequently set as an example of how to blend multiple cultures into a mutually respectful society. As Japan has been one of the dominant countries since WWI, many Asian countries, which were mostly ruled by Japan, based their expectations of themselves on those of Japan. They were, and still are, interested in the progress their country is making and thus tried to compare their progress with that of their dominator.

Unfortunately for China, after Taiwan was handed back the Chinese could not follow this example. Instead, they tried to strip Taiwan of its identity, and make it 100% Chinese by forcing out any other languages, except Mandarin. That is why the older Taiwanese generation still hesitate to speak Japanese.

So why do they like Japan and the Japanese? Because Japan appeals to the young Taiwanese thanks to its “cool factor”. That is why the Ximending area appeals in a similar way that the Shibuya area does in Tokyo.

Fluffy cute shit.
Fluffy cute shit.

We managed to explore many places in just one evening, eventually coming to the Ciyou Temple, which is situated right on the street. Just like in China, Taiwan has three major religions – Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. But Christian churches can also be found here. In the doorway of the entrance to the temple bags of rice are stacked. They were being kept there for the coming festival, ready to be given away to people.

With their abundance of decorated shrines the temples are striking. Sophisticated details and the use of different material for the shrines, which includes beautiful swastikas, showing painstaking work.

On a daily basis people come here to pray and pay respect to the deceased. They take incense, make a wish and then throw kidney shaped wood blocks onto the ground until they face opposite ways. They are then allowed to take a long stick from the shrine. This stick can be exchanged for a piece paper that has a riddle or a poem on it, which will advise them on their wish. As with any other temple the patrons offer donations.

Because of its culture Taipei is full of temples and shrines, but what really interested me here were the buildings. Taipei was the next stop for me after Hong Kong, where I enjoyed accessing the rooftops for amazing views. Here I found only a few roofs that were open access, so I had to drop the idea of repeating that experience. However, on the way up I noticed the same practice I’d seen in Hong Kong, of leaving shoes outside, trailing up the staircase.

Instead of rooftops, the city offers some viewing points where you find very few other people. And the view was just what i needed.
The city is not small and during my stay here I primarily used public transport, sometimes walking tens of kilometres per day.

I wrote a while back about the Chinese tendency for pushing and jumping the line to get on public transport. Here, this problem is solved by drawing cells on the platforms, which are used by people to line up. This stops the rude Chinese from squeezing ahead in the line and also prevents people from pushing onto the train before others have alighted. I’ve heard that new platforms in China are being created with the same principles. They will also have platforms on both sides of the train, so that when people alight from one side, straight after the set of doors on the other side will open, allowing people to come in. Which would prevent people pushing in perfectly.

There is so much clothing business in Taipei, that even metro women’s voice on stops says “doors clothing”. Girl on the escalator.
There are so many clothing businesses in taipei, that even the metro woman’s voice that announces the stops says “doors clothing”. Girl on an escalator.

Unlike in China, Taiwanese people do not make eye contact in public. If I caught someone’s eye they quickly looked away. Eye contact, even with a friendly smile, is uncomfortable for the Taiwanese in public. This is partly because Taiwanese unlike Chinese respect personal space. Very often I could feel eyes all over me, but as soon as I turned my head their eyes would glance away. But in the metro, just like the rest of the modern world, people stop looking around and their eyes are glued to their phones.

A few days of intensive walking took its toll and I could no longer walk such long distances. Luckily, I found that my driver’s license was accepted here so I rented a motorbike and made the trip around the rest of Taipei by scooter.

The Taiwanese and Chinese are often travel on a moped as a family and stay safe. The usual set up is two people behind the driver with a newborn baby in the driver’s arm and a dog or another (small) passenger between the driver’s legs.

A rare sight in Taiwan — a child in helmet.
One of the typical set ups, dog is sitting in the legs of the driver.
A typical set up, a dog is sitting between the legs of the driver.

Taiwan sits on a part of the earth where two tectonic plates collide. Due to this, a unique environment has evolved in Taiwan that produces high-temperature springs with crystal-clear water, usually both clean and safe to drink. These hot springs are not only clean and potable but also commonly used for spas and resorts. Being on the bike allowed me to see much more than I expected of the city. I also managed to see one of these hot springs for the first time in my life.

This one is a Beitou Thermal Valley, a depression which was formed before a volcano eruption. The hot spring here can reach over 90°. Initially it was opened to public to cook eggs in, after which lots of people got hot burns and polluted the pond. Later on, the government reopened the place for recreational purposes.

The hot springs comes from deep inside the volcano, and acidify with volcanic gas. The hot water rises to the earth surface and mixes with the surface water to form a hot spring. It’s called green sulphur and the water is light green and contains a lot of sulphate minerals and radioactive matter.

It is said that the green sulphur has healing and restorative properties and is also offered to people as a hot spring recreational facility. It’s very cheap to go to but many people come here just to take pictures of themselves on front of the pond. The water is very close to boiling temperature which is why it is steaming.

The last place I visited in Taipei was Liberty Square. With its grand Chinese design the square became Taipei’s site of choice for mass gatherings as soon as it opened. The name of the square recalls the important historical role it played in Taiwan’s transition from one-party rule to modern democracy.

National Theatre facade and entrance ceiling on Liberty Square.

So it happened to be that the last stop on my list of places to visit in Taipei was the first Square of modern Taiwan. The Square that helped to shape the new, modern, Taiwanese society.

Historically Taiwan was an island inhabited by indigenous Taiwanese people, before the settlement of the Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese, with time the number of native Taiwanese has significantly decreased.

Today Taiwanese people refer to individuals with a cultural identity focused on Taiwan. There are three typical patterns that are used to identify someone as a Taiwanese person: nationalist criteria, self-identification criteria and social and cultural criteria. The difficulty, which has arisen from competing and evolving standards, is compounded by a larger dispute regarding Taiwan’s identity (the political status of Taiwan), and its potential independence or integration with China.

Students on the Independence Square.