Taiwan is a country in limbo yet it is first world, has a growing economy, a technologically savvy young workforce and is so terribly polite that public notices remind the populace to show decorum at all times even on the metro. While the burning issue on the national news is independence, the only other headlines are the road accidents involving trucks. buses and scooters, making this one of the safest countries I have ever visited. You can wander down side streets at night and there is relatively little theft and no scams.
Geographically, the island of Taiwan lies some 110 miles off the southeastern coast of mainland China. It is smaller than Switzerland and larger than Belgium, but the island lies in a complex tectonic area and major seismic faults have produced massive earthquakes throughout Taiwan's history. The seismic hazard map for Taiwan by the USGS shows 9/10 of the island as the highest rating (most hazardous). If this wasn't dangerous enough, the island is also prone to summer typhoons that cause flooding and high winds.
Ruins of Guangfu Junior High School, 921 Earthquake Museum
One of the contentious issues which was has been highlighted during our time here by President Elect Donald Trump, is whether Taiwan should be recognized as an independent country. Suffice to say that the Taiwanese media weren't impressed by Trump using Taiwan as a 'bargaining chip' to negotiate a better trade deal with China and a peaceful demonstration was in full flow in Taichung, a few days before we left, advocating an independent Taiwan.
One Chinese state newspaper stated that China was ready to invade Taiwan if Trump decided to view Taiwan as an independent country and not follow the 'One China' policy. The press in Taiwan regularly feature Trump on their front pages (normally pointing in an angry stance) and he always makes the news on TV here. Taiwan is officially the Republic of China (ROC) and is the most populous state that is not a member of the United Nations, also having the largest economy.
The People's Republic of China (PRC) has consistently claimed sovereignty over Taiwan, and refused diplomatic relations with any country that recognizes the ROC. Although Taiwan is fully self-governing, most international organizations either refuse it membership or allow it to participate only as a non-state actor. Internally, the major division in politics is between the aspirations of eventual Chinese unification or Taiwanese independence, though both sides have moderated their positions to broaden their appeal.
It has been a difficult transition to leave sunny, happy go lucky, taco loving, mariarchi singing Mexico and touch down in Taiwan, the antithesis of Central America. Not only did we lose ten hours from the two flights via Los Angeles, we also crossed the International Dateline, gaining a day, so our body clocks barely knew whether they were coming or going after the second leg of our flight lasting 15 hours. We all seemed to contract various illnesses from the flights which meant none of us were 100% ready to navigate Taiwan.
Even though I hadn't realised it while in Mexico, my mind had become acutely attuned to Spanish intonation, picking out odd words and phrases, then trying to formulate the next question or statement in basic Spanish. I'd even watched 'Jurassic World' dubbed into Spanish on the bus journey to Guadalajara, so Mandarin and Taiwanese barely registered in my confused brain. Even Thomas was suffering from post Spanish language withdrawal, repeating key phrases to air stewards in Spanish and when saying thank you at Taipei airport.
It is winter in Taiwan and the summer rains are long gone, replaced by dry days. Daytime temperature in the north can get up to 21 degrees but as we moved further south, it reached a pleasant sunny 26 degrees in some places.
First impressions is that there is a uniformity to Taiwanese society, everyone conducts themselves in an orderly fashion, queuing in perfectly formed lines for buses and the MRT (underground metro) - there is never any danger of anyone not minding the gap or breaking the rules of not eating or drinking. The transport systems are modern and always run to time. Buses between cities are incredibly comfortable with only three reclining seats across.
Long Distance Buses (U-Bus), comfortable travelling in Taiwan
Working out how to use MRT Token Machines, Taipei Main Station
Taipei Bus Station, Taipei
Taichung Railway Message Board, which platform is it for Changhua?
Everyone is incredibly helpful, whether it is finding an exit from the metro, finding the right street or cycle route, knowing when you have reached a destination on the bus or buying metro tickets. At Taipei Main Station, which is huge and houses the High Speed Rail (HSR) link, local trains and the MRT, a Taiwanese lady assisted us when we tried to find exit (Y13) with our backpacks on, walking with us for over 10 minutes in the wrong direction to where she was heading. There are over 100 named exits from the station and it becomes a vast subterranean shopping mall beneath the station - the Taiwanese love basement levels.
All the streets and signs are in Mandarin and we rely on any English translations we can find, whether on maps or on the bus/train ticker tape signs. Ordering food either consists of pointing to an actual dish that you see someone else have, pointing to a photo or asking if there is an English menu or translation. Sometimes you just take a punt and hope for the best.
Order Form for restaurant serving pot stickers and soup, takes a while to decipher
There are normally tourist information centres at most major train stations, so we have often gone in to get an English map, ask for a destination to be written down in Mandarin and what the pronunciation is, or ask for a timetable to be translated into English.
Apart from the numerous Chinese tour groups, who faithfully follow their guide en mass as he shouts out orders and waves a small flag or umbrella above his head, there are very few Western travellers here. Not sure whether this is the language barrier, the cost of accommodation or 'no go with the flow'. We discovered that it was impossible to backpack round the country without booking hotels in advance, especially on Friday/Saturday nights when the room prices double. This goes against our backpacking ethos of turning up somewhere, seeing how it pans out and deciding whether to stay or go. If we walked in and asked for a room, hotels charged the rack rate even though it could be 50% cheaper online and it was low season when discounts should be given, or the hotels were full with Taiwan tourists or Chinese tour groups or so grim we cannot stay there. This is probably compounded by us needing a triple room which in Taiwan is normally twice as expensive as a double. It detracts from drifting from place to place and we've noticed that it is a foreign way of travelling for the Taiwanese - they seem surprised we don't have a tour guide or are using public transport to get everywhere. We illustrated to Thomas what a room would be like in a hotel that charges fifty percent less than the places we were staying in and he was horrified - the rooms we've seen reminded me of some dives Edward and I have slept in in Hong Kong.
This has also meant meticulously planning our days, destinations, hotels and transport in Taiwan which we never expected to do and sacrificing quite a few places we had intended to try, for example the Sun Moon Lake was fully booked when we wanted to go - we just couldn't find any accommodation online for a triple. Another oddity about hotel rooms, that Thomas loves, is that they all have door bells which range from chirping birds to the more familiar 'ding dong' and a light switching on above your room.
I was horrified that we have come across the dreaded bed bugs in Taiwan (a first world country) of all places. We paid 42 pounds a night in Tainin for a very mediocre hotel. It was clean and there was no evidence on the walls that anyone had squashed bugs filled with blood. Poor Thomas ended up covered in small bites all over his body which I recognised straight away as bed bugs and he had to part with his teddy bear, as we suspected it might now be infested.
Edward and I dodged the bed bugs, but the hotel was also swarming with mosquitos and they really are large and ferocious in Taiwan. I haven't been bitten on my face for over twenty years, not since I bush camped in the outback in Australia. Even though I almost bathed myself in repellent, my face was peppered with at least six bites which I had a bad reaction to, and then I'd been bitten on my neck and shoulders. Such is life though and thankfully we were only booked in there for two nights - at least our next destination Kaohsiung was warm, sunny and not a breeding ground for mosquitos.