At last - The Ilha Formosa (Taipei, Taiwan)


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September 7th 2009
Published: September 13th 2009
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(Day 521 on the road)"Taiwan really good!". This was literally the very first thing I saw after stepping off the plane in Taipei. I have never fully understood why the Chinese and apparently also Taiwanese never bother to check for spelling and grammatical errors on their billboards and signs, but I am very glad they don't - as it always provides for some of the best spontaneous entertainment possible! T-shirts and posters with writings like "Three win the first", "Happiness just like flowers", "Fuck the hot" (serious), or a hotel named "The trusting hotel" never fail to make me smile.

And how happy I was to have arrived in Taiwan - finally! After I had planned to come here more than two months ago but was delayed by my hospitalisation in Borneo in June, I am very glad I made it at last. I am profoundly exited as I have herd many wonderful things about the country. In fact I have been wanting to go to Taiwan ever since I had a good Taiwanese friend back in my days at university. So here I am. And my travel buddy for the next few weeks is of course my mother, who has come over to travel across Taiwan with me.

But did I say "Taiwan"? I meant to say of course "Republic of China". Or how about "Chinese Taipei"? Or: "Ilha Formosa". Confused? So am I. There are three principal names in use for this small island: The official name is "Republic of China", which the Chinese hate as it suggest that Taiwan somehow lays claim to be the legitimate government of China. That's why, for sporting events and the like, Taiwan has to call itself "Chinese Taipei", a choice seen to be neutral, but which in my opinion is a really strange choice indeed. And finally there is "Taiwan", which is pretty much the name everyone uses these days, and which the Taiwanese seem to identify with, as far as I can judge this. I personally prefer the nickname "Ilha Formosa" (Beautiful Island), and from what I have seen by the time I am writing this blog entry after being in the country for about ten days, this is certainly an apt name.

Most Taiwanese deeply resent any bullying by its big neighbour, "The People's Republic of China", and the political and personal atmosphere is rather charged, though it seems to be improving slowly these days. Some time ago even a few direct flights have been allowed between Taiwan and China; previously, one had to change planes (typically in Hong Kong) to travel between Taiwan and China, how absurd. However, Chinese citizens are still not allowed to go on holiday in Taiwan as individuals; instead, they have to join organised tour groups. Additionally, Taiwan is politically recognised by only about 20 countries or so worldwide, with the rest of the world preferring to hold diplomatic relations with China.

But these things are pretty much invisible to the carefree visitor. Taipei presented itself as a modern and rather trendy capital, especially in the hip neighbourhood of Ximen, where we had based ourselves. The choice of clothing of the many stylish teenagers actually reminded me of Japan somewhat, a point that was confirmed by a Japanese girl I met at the hostel later.

Three things I noticed soon after arriving: The Internet here in Taiwan is unbelievably fast. I have used countless Internet cafes and connections in all sorts of countries during these these past year and a half on the road, but I have never seen anything that comes even close to the speed here. Somebody told me that is because the actual backbone of the Internet is located in Taiwan, but I couldn't confirm this.

The second thing I found odd was that very few people, even here in the capital Taipei, spoke English. Surprisingly, the majority of the young people we spoke to (i.e. asking for directions on the street) spoke very broken English, if at all. I had somehow expected a different level of proficiency, considering Taiwan's economic success, its IT-affinity and its (perceived) good education system.

Lastly: Taiwan is not cheap at all. Especially accommodation and transport is very pricey compared to all other countries in the region, even more expensive than Singapore. The notable exception is food, which is both delicious (as expected) and affordable. On the plus side, standards are high, so at least you are getting something for your money.

On our first day, my mum and I wasted no time and headed straight for Taipei 101, just a short while ago the highest building in the world at 509 metres. We took the high speed elevator to the observation platform at the 89th floor and enjoyed the fantastic views over Taipei and surroundings on a bright and clear day. The elevator is actually by far the fastest in the world at 1010 metres per minute, or roughly 60 km/h, taking just 37 seconds from level 1 to level 89. Compare that to the elevator at your office or a home. Amazing!

Next on our agenda was the Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall. Chiang Kai-shek was the military dictator and leader of the Kuomintang who fled to and founded Taiwan in 1949 after being defeated by Mao's communists in mainland China. He ruled Taiwan with an iron grip, ruthlessly oppressing any possibly opponents, bringing terror and death to countless Taiwanese during his reign that lasted about two and a half decades. Yet at the memorial hall he is on display like a hero.

It is a phenomena that I completely fail to understand: Many countries have done very bad things in the past, but most have the dignity to live up to its darker chapters in history, admitting that they have done wrong and making sure through museums, memorials and education of their youths that these things will never happen again. But here in Taiwan, or in China with its obsession with the mass-murderer Mao Zedong, those criminals are treated like national heroes and are put on display as if they ought to be admired. What is wrong here, am I completely missing the point?

The next day, we made our way to Taipei's relaxed suburb Beitou, famous for its hot springs. Taiwan is a volcanic island and thus boasts hundreds of hot springs. I am very fond of these and was reminded of the six weeks I spent in Japan last year, where I sampled quite a few of the hot springs over there. Some people say that Taiwan is actually superior to Japan in that regard, and I am more than willing to find out. As such, Beitou was a nice introduction but unfortunately pretty crowded due to its proximity to Taipei and because we went on a Sunday. I think I need to explore more of these over the next few weeks!

We ended our stay in Taipei with a visit to a Deaflympics game, which were in town. They are essentially the Olympic Games for deaf people, and we went to see a basketball game where Germany secured a super-narrow victory over Japan. The atmosphere across town and in the stadium was great with athletes from all over the world. In the stadium, almost every seat was taken, even though it was only the first day of the games. We thoroughly enjoyed the evening and were sorry that we wouldn't be able to catch any more games, as we were leaving the next morning.

Next stop: Taroko Gorge (Taiwan).



To view my photos, have a look at pictures.beiske.com. And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).




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13th September 2009

You finally got there!
Been waiting for your blog. Good to know it's all sunny when you got there. How long will you be in Taiwan? Great photos too, give my regards to your mom!

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