Taiwan, the underdog of Asia

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Passport control, Taipei International Airport, 4am. I was stood before a facemask-clad female immigration official who, while pawing through my passport, was sternly asking me exactly what I planned to do in Taiwan.

"Errrr..." came my instant, hesitant reply. "I don't really know to be honest. I decided to come here for a few days after reading about your wonderful country." There. I thought, as I stared deep into her serious eyes. That'll butter it up a bit.

She looked back at me and for a few seconds, the air was tense. Then, she laughed and I could suddenly see a smile peek beyond the boundaries of her mask. "Ohhh!" She marvelled. "You will love it here! I am so happy you came to my country! I am very proud! Please enjoy yourself and don't be afraid to ask anybody for help!"

My passport was returned to me with a stamp and with that, I was on my merry way.

When I first even thought about Taiwan as a travel destination, I remember exactly where it came from. I'd just discovered Lauren's wonderful blog Never Ending Footsteps and read her rave reviews of this wonderful island destination way out there in Eastern Asia. For her, it was her gateway into a brand-new continent near the beginning of her long term travels, and I soaked up every last morsel of her posts with wide-eyed wonder. I thought to myself, "Tai-wanna be startin' something?"

...I didn't really but I had to shoehorn that in somewhere!

I originally wanted to spend way more time in Taiwan, making my way across the whole island from the slicker cities of the north and east coasts to the tropical forests that lay more inland. When my first itinerary came out at 7 weeks, around 10 days of that were solely dedicated to Taiwan. In the end I cut down my trip to a square month and in a last minute booking frenzy, I chucked three full days in Taipei in there. I couldn't not, really. Flights in and out were costing no more than £30 in total and I was addicted to the mere notion of going to Taiwan, knowing no-one who had personally be there. I had the hunger to be a pioneer.

Firstly, I am totally glad I squished in some Taipei time. On the other hand I am completely gutted that it was so short. What was I thinking? I ended up with even less time as at this point I was still getting over jetlag (I'd been away a whole week, do I win any records here?) and one of my Taipei days was spent, again, in bed until 4pm. I was totally unprepared for how much I'd like it, more or less falling head-over-heels in love almost instantly.

I say "almost" because from the moment I landed, I just wasn't sure I'd made the right choice after all. After landing from Macau at 3:30am and with nowhere really to go at that point, I decided to wait in the airport until a more reasonable hour, fuelling myself with coffees from 7/11. 8am finally rolled around and I headed to the bus station to make my way into the centre of the city. This was all a bit frantic, as after buying a cheap ticket I was ferried onto a local bus that smelt of smoke and hosted a driver with an interesting approach to driving (although now I'm in Thailand, I'd go back to that bus in a heartbeat!) The journey into Taipei took about half an hour and you get dropped off at the main station, a central hub for all buses, trains and MRT services, that sprawls out as far as the eye can see. I stepped off the bus, looked around at the uninspiring landscape that surrounded me... and I just wasn't sold.

After struggling with Google Maps a bit in trying to find the best route to my hostel, I resigned my desire to walk everywhere to failure. It was 30 degree heat and I was wearing skinny jeans for crying out loud. I decided to take my first MRT journey of the trip so far, having avoided it in Hong Kong previously. I felt like I'd given up - I didn't want to be hidden away underground, missing all the sights. I wanted to be a proper savvy traveller, soaking it all in and wasting no time at all. But I told myself that I could literally sweat no more and just wanted to dump my 9kg backpack at my hostel and chill the eff out. MRT it was. I suppose this is the perfect time to say that cities like London have a lot to learn from the MRT systems of Asia. Taipei's, I feel, is a force to be reckoned with in the most positive way. Here we have a transport system that is on time, sparkling clean, everybody is polite and totally unpushy, and it costs circa 40p a journey pretty much anywhere on the network. Once I'd got through the initial attempt to buy a ticket without a hitch and had found a seat on the next service, I suddenly felt pretty serene.

The stop closest to my hostel was Ximen and as soon as I peaked at the escalator, I breathed in a sigh of awe: this was more like the Taipei that I had imagined. It felt like Hong Kong but without the crowds and way more vivid. It also smelt just as interesting, but totally different. As I walked down the street lugging my backpack with a map in hand, looking every bit the backpacker, I didn't feel vulnerable at all but instead totally welcome. Locals would smile earnestly at me, sometimes offering a wave, and a couple even stopped when I was probably looking around in a tad of confusion to ask if they could help at all. That's one of the greatest things going for Taiwan, is how friendly everybody is. They are really happy to see tourists in their country - and in return, I was finally incredibly happy to be there.

Has anybody else been to or ever considered going to Taiwan?

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