Sorry to have lagged on this article, but here are my thoughts on Taiwan!
Though I was already on vacation regardless for China’s National Day holiday, which lasted from at least October 1 to October 7, I decided I should relocate myself like all the other Chinese people. National Day holiday, or Guo Qing Jie 国庆节, is one of the two long holidays in China so there’s a massive flow of people moving around during that time. I was really in the mood for sightseeing, but out of all the other Asian countries on my hit up list, I chose Taiwan because I figured it was the cheapest and still worthwhile in terms of sightseeing. Within a few days of arrival, it already boggled my mind why I don’t ever hear about people visiting Taiwan, except for the actual Taiwanese. So, in case you had even an inkling of interest in going there, let me give you my top 5 simple reasons you should go to Taiwan, and 2 big things you should be aware of:
1. The government helps make life for a tourist so easy. So easy!
There’s a Youth Travel Program for anyone 18-30 years old that’s run by the government. With it, you can borrow a cell phone/SIM card; a handbook with tons of hotels, restaurants and attractions where you can get a discount with their Youth Travel Card, all for free. And the listings don’t restrict you like Disneyland blackout dates do; you can actually use the discounts anytime at places you’d want to visit like the National Palace Museum or Taipei 101 viewing deck. The discounts cover all of Taiwan, from the north to south, down to the offshore islands. You can let them know three days ahead of time over the Internet that you want to pick the phone up at the airport, or you can go to the main office and pick up the whole package. All you need to do is leave two forms of identification with them until you return the stuff.
Outside about every single MTR (Metropolitan Transit Railway) is a Visitor’s Center, where you can pick up region-specific maps and guides in English, Chinese, Japanese…some I saw even had them in French and German, etc. The people there are at least bilingual and can help get you to where you want to be. I found them to all be friendly and helpful.
2. Transportation is efficient and cheap.
Taiwan’s MTR is designed very well and is economical. Unlike Beijing’s subway, which costs a flat rate of ¥2.00 ($0.30 USD) per entry, in Taiwan you pay a slightly different amount depending on the distance you’re traveling, but it’s never more than $1.50 USD each time. And unlike in Beijing, there are an assortment of cards you can buy to get a discount, according to how long your stay is, i.e. Easycard. They basically allow you to milk their transportation systems (subway and bus) for all they’re worth within a certain number of days.
My favorite part was actually how orderly people were in the station. People actually follow the rules in Taiwan! They wait for people to get off the train, then get on. If the subway seems too crowded, people will back up and wait for the next one, which comes no longer than 5 minutes later. On the escalator, 98% of people will stand on the right, allowing people on the left to walk by. This all makes for a very pleasant experience taking the subway. If you’ve lived in Beijing for as long as I have, you’d find this just as shocking, I believe.
3. People are overwhelmingly courteous and helpful.
Not only did I find the customer service in Taiwan to be over the top, I felt as a whole, Taiwanese people are very nice. Never once before has anyone said to me, “Bu hao yi si” when giving me the receipt to sign after a credit card transaction. What is there to be “bu hao yi si” about, in this situation?
One night, I noticed that in nearly a creepy kind of way, there was one person standing at the entrance of each store in a shopping area bowing and saying goodbye to passersby. When I told my friend that nobody in America would stand for that, and that I hope they get paid extra for it, he told me that actually, they don’t, but what motivates them to do it is their hope that customers will revisit their store.
Although people might say that it’s only because of the fact that I’m a young girl that I got this kind of treatment from strangers in Taiwan, there were a few moments where I sensed genuine concern for my well-being from complete strangers. When I hiked Taroko National Park by myself and was in a moment of despair, there was a young man who went out of his way to make sure I was safe and not alone and drove me to a part of the park with taxi drivers. On the way to the airport to go to Hong Kong, the taxi driver asked me if I wanted to have some good Taiwanese breakfast. I said yes, running the risk of getting myself trafficked or worse, but in the end he treated me to Taiwanese breakfast, and it was as delicious as he had described it.
Not everyone will have such luck, perhaps especially if you’re an older male, but you get the idea–people in Taiwan are nice.
4. The food and milk tea are delicious.
The Taiwanese appear to be extremely innovative with food. There are so many interesting things to try; so many combinations you’d never think would make good ones. The most memorable one for me was something I don’t know the name of but was made up of the following: a very thin white pancake, peanut shavings (from a block of peanut and candy), taro ice cream, and cilantro. Cilantro! After my first bite, I was so surprised at how good it was. And it’s a good thing things like that are appropriately deemed “snacks” because they’re usually in portions that leave room for trying other things. I think milk tea/boba milk tea was invented in Taiwan, so naturally, every cup I tried while I was there I pretty much liked. When in San Gabriel, I like getting Green Milk Tea from the Tea Station (same company as Ten Ren) on Valley Blvd. But after trying a cup from Ten Ren in Taiwan, I realized I’d been drinking 60% sugar, 20% milk and 20% tea all the time in the states. I think the difference is in the milk they use, but really, nothing gets more authentic than milk tea from Ten Ren in Taiwan. My favorite drink, by the way, is Oolong Milk Tea, which a lot of tea places sadly don’t have in the San Gabriel Valley.
5. The 7-11’s (yes, the convenience store chain) are awesome.
It might be just me, but I think I could just live in a 7-11 in Taiwan. It has everything: onigiri, tea eggs, readily refrigerated bottled coffee, salads. Okay, I know I just named foods, but those things are all incredibly yummy. Oh, and they have the other regular convenience store stuff, too. But what tops it off is a machine that you can use to buy a phone card, pay your bills, find a job, even call a taxi ($2 discount if you use the machine), etc. It’s kind of strange that the machine is usually free, really.
Obviously, there are tons of things to like about Taiwan that I’ve left out, like the historical monuments and scenery, but that’s any place. Although I had a good journey, there were two things about it that bothered me a lot about it and to this day cannot fathom:
1. The legality of betel nuts, aka bing lang 槟榔.
Google it, but be warned, the images of what people’s teeth look like after prolonged chewing are repulsive. Before going to Taiwan, I’d never heard of such things, but it’s actually characteristic of Taiwan. I’d choose Beijing’s spitting on the ground over Taiwan’s betel nut chewing any day.
Anywhere you see a bright, neon-lit wheel in front of a shop, which is sometimes twice every block, that’s where they have them. They’re known for having “betel nut girls”–scantily clad, skinny, attractive girls who sell them. From reading tour guide books and my own encounters, the typical buyer is a taxi driver or shop owner; anyone whose work requires long hours of concentration or attention. I was on a bus with a few friends going home and we saw a lady chewing on something. We waited for her to smile and when she did, we saw a few black teeth. Another time, I was stranded at a national park and there were three taxi drivers who were trying to figure out who could take me to my desired destination. I was glad the guy who was spitting red stuff on the floor (seeds from the betel nut) and had BLACK AND RED teeth didn’t end up being my driver. I couldn’t even bear to look at him in the face when he tried to give me his business card. Basically, the addicts scare the shit out of me when they smile! Taiwanese people may not be bothered by it, they may shrug it off and say “that’s just how it is”, and it may not even bother other tourists, but if I lived in Taiwan I would actively campaign for it to be illegal, because if I were a child growing up Taiwan, I think I’d have nightmares all the time.
2. Trash cans are scarce.
Trash cans are SO hard to find in Taiwan. Especially when you’re a tourist in Taiwan, it’s a given that you’ll be walking around with skewers, napkins, cones, and cups that you want to get rid of. But if you go to Taiwan, be prepared to carry around your trash with you for an hour or more, or bring a big plastic bag with you and tie it to your belt loop, because it’s not easy to find a trash can, even at a fairly touristy attraction. Coming from America, I didn’t realize this would be such a peeve, because I never had to look so hard and long for a trash can before. I kept turning to places I instinctively thought there would be a trash can in Taiwan, like in the corner of a room, or by the walkway at a historical attraction, but it was 90 percent of the time a failed mission. I know there are some legitimate reasons for this (a friend told me it’s to prevent people from throwing their house trash into public trash cans, trash bags can be costly, etc.), but it was a major inconvenience I didn’t expect for such a metropolitan city.
Aside from those two things to bear in mind, Taiwan is definitely worth at least a visit or two!