Taipei 101, Introduction to Taiwan: Eat Drink Man Woman…

IMG_2219Taiwan has a bit of a strange reputation, something like a poor man’s Japan, or a renegade province of China, or an Asian wannabe-Amerika, or none of the above, or all of the above. And the reality itself is a little bit different. In fact it’s some of the above, neither all nor none, but parts of each in selected proportions, and parts entirely unique…

In fact Taiwan is hardly known outside its own borders and somewhat patchy even there. Most famous as last refuge for Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang in 1948, after their defeat by the Communists of Mao Zedong, it was once almost as famous for the phrase ‘Made in Taiwan’ somewhere around the 1980’s, long after ‘Made in Japan’ was forgotten and shortly before ‘Made in China’ became the norm…

IMG_2223In fact, for a long time, to any Westerner, Taiwan WAS China, ROC, Republic of, simply because the mainland—’Red China’—was off-limits—for travel and/or business. But that was then and this is now, so Taiwan gets stuck with the image as the bastard China, the illegitimate one, second son of the second concubine, conceived under a waning moon in the rainy season, and subject to removal at any time, a Tibet-in-waiting…

Actually Taiwan’s ties to China are not so deep, anyway, and those with Japan were once as deep or deeper, they once owning and ruling the country, with no plans to ever leave. Chinese have only been pouring into the country for a few hundred years and there was an entire culture here before that…

In fact, the best guess is that the entire Pacific Ocean was colonized from this portal: Micronesians, Austronesians, Polynesians, etc., the entire region from Hawaii and Easter Island to Madagascar off the coast of Africa, all but the aborigines in Australia, the Papua and the other dark kinky-haired peoples of the region…

IMG_2234And remnants of those people are still here, but it’s the Chinese that run the place, of course. I like to think of their relationship to China as something like that of Sri Lanka to a much larger India, similar but different. And that analogy holds up pretty well, twenty million people on an island off the coast, willing and able to go it alone, but not averse to some interchange…

The irony is that Taiwan is so overlooked internationally since China’s re-emergence on the scene, when in fact it is much wealthier per capita, and all but fully developed, whereas China is dependent on its huge numbers for its international clout, while much of the country is still in poverty. Taiwan is at around 20th in the world in wealth per capita, highest in Asia after the city-states of Singapore and Hong Kong, while China is around a mid-list 80th, about the same as Thailand…

In fact Taiwan’s wealth per capita, based on purchasing power parity would place it above much of Western Europe and all of Eastern. Yet still it suffers the stigma of not being a real country, and its ten million tourists include very few Westerners, almost all Asians and fellow Chinese. And those are not bad numbers, either, but half that of a more populous and expensive Japan, and only a fraction of big bro’ China…

IMG_2217But Taipei is pretty cool, with some interesting neighborhoods, and a lively street scene. In fact I like it a lot. It’s rare to see such liveliness in such a developed country, so maybe the best of both worlds, the liveliness of poor countries with the health and longevity of a wealthy country. And if you’re wondering what all this costs, well: it’s not so bad, not as cheap as Thailand, but not as expensive as Japan, either…

Should I mention that temperatures here are an almost-perfect California/Mediterranean medium, with only rare extremes? Those extremes are earthquakes and cyclones, though, so caution is necessary. Still, I should re-iterate: it’s much cooler than torrid SE Asia, and much warmer than chilly Japan. Actually you can see much of that difference right here on the island, from north to south, which is near tropical, right on the Tropic of Cancer…

Rooms here are costing me around $30-40-50usd per night, where such in Thailand would be more like $10-20-30, and Europe, Japan and US maybe $60-70-80usd (except New York, and with assumptions based on current EUR exchange rates), all at the bottom end of the private-room scale, befitting my self-image as backpacker, and willingness to dorm it if too high. It’s hard to find anything under $50 in the US now, and believe me, I’ve looked…

IMG_2324Full meals are generally $5-10usd, but there are cheaper options, especially if you don’t mind eating out of mini-marts, where that means sushi, oh yeah, pre-packaged from a buck USD on up. And then there are the Indonesian eateries, at least in Taipei, pick from the curry stalls at three bucks USD and some change for a full meal with rice, meat and veggies. I’m good—lebih nikmat…

Indonesians are one of the main immigrant groups here, since Australia doesn’t like them, apparently, so they’re making a living for themselves up here, serving the Taiwanese—and each other. One word of caution: for some reason, the Taiwanese like to print maps here without north in the uppermost position, so be careful—and AVOID them at all costs…

It took me a while to realize that, and I’m not sure I’ve yet recovered fully. Add to that the long walks underground on these rainy days, and you just might lose your little mind. It’s a lot like being in a room with no windows: it’ll f*ck with yer head. And they’ve got some window-less rooms, too, so check in early to get your pick…

Taipei 101 is the tallest building in town and tallest in the world for some six years last decade, before something else took its place in the penis-envy contests among developing countries. But it’s raining, and I’m not here for sight-seeing anyway, so I’ll give it a pass, that mile-a-minute lift ride to the top. I’m here to check out a university, or two, to study Buddhism, and that’s down the road, in Yilan County, next stop on the trail, C U there…

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