To be honest, one of the reasons we came to Taiwan is because I wanted to add another country to the list of those I’ve visited. That wasn’t the only reason. Because we were flying to Singapore on EVA Air (Taiwan’s well-respected airline), we could spend a few days on this beautiful island off the coast of China at no extra cost for the transportation. Such a stop would help break up the grimly long trip from Los Angeles (13-plus hours just to Taipei alone). Steve could once again see the city that he and his mom toured for a day (via bicycle rickshaw!) back in 1958 (when it took them 3 weeks to cross the Pacific by freighter).
So yesterday, when I learned (was reminded?) that Taiwan is not universally recognized to be a separate country, I was dismayed. (Somehow, I thought the Chinese along the line gave up their claims to it. Which, apparently they haven’t.) But after some reflection, I’ve decided I don’t care. I think Taiwan deserves to be on my list at least as much as Tibet and Palestine. And even if isn’t a separate country, after less than 24 hours here, we’ve seen much to justify a visit. Here are three things that have most impressed us:
1) Taipei has one of the best public subway systems we’ve used anywhere in the world. We figured it out almost instantly. Even though we can’t read most of the signs, they include enough Roman lettering to enable non-Chinese speakers to get by. All the trains are immaculate and quiet and they come along every 5 minutes or less.
Best of all is the brilliant way the systems handles single-ride payment. From easy-to-use machines, you buy tokens that look like cheap poker chips.
But they have some kind of electronic signaler in them, so when you touch them to a pad at each turnstile, they make the gates open. At the end of your ride you insert them into a slot that lets you exit. Most rides cost about 60 cents.
2) This is a city of passionate eaters. That seems true of most of the Chinese-influenced cities I’ve ever visited. But it meant on our very first day, we had two great meals, both in atmospheric joints. For lunch, we made our way to one of the supposedly best sources of meat-stuffed dumplings in the city — a gritty jammed second-story room above a sweltering kitchen open to the street. We ordered two types of dumplings, fat ones filled with seasoned ground pork and smaller ones served with soup broth, and each one felt like a gift.
You bit into the delicate packaging of pasta to encounter a delicious present within. We ate dinner in another dive reputed to have the best beef noodles in the city. The line to get in stretched out into the street even when we arrived after 7:30.
But all the families and working folk inside ate fast and paid fast; no sitting around and gabbing and digesting at those tables. We followed suit, then hit the street in search of a current fad in Taipei — soft-serve ice cream.
3) Though Taipei feels extremely Chinese in many ways, almost everyone seems to speak at least a bit of English. Children start to study it in grade school and continue into secondary school. And folks young and old don’t seem afraid to use it. That’s one thing that makes the place feel friendly. Within just a few hours of our taking to the street, we had a late-middle-age guy stop his bike and roll it up to us to ask if we needed help finding someplace. (We actually did — but just didn’t realize it when he asked us) Despite their linguistic skills, the locals never seem to use them to hustle or harangue visitors to buy stuff. That may be because so few Westerners come here. Steve and I counted no more than a dozen or two out of the thousands upon thousands of people we walked by our first day here. It also may reflect how prosperous people are here. According to the CIA Fact Book, the Taiwanese rank just behind Germany in their economic output per person — ahead of Britain, France, Canada, and Japan!
If we had more time to range out into the country, I’m sure we’d find even more to dazzle us. But we have only one more full day in Taiwan before pushing on to the strange little city-state of Singapore.