“Where are you from?” asked the taxi driver who picked us up from Taoyuan Airport in Taiwan. He remained silent when we said Scotland.
“In the UK?” husband prompted.
“Ah yes, Scotland at the top of UK,” said the taxi driver. “It is different from rest of UK. Like Taiwan and China – we are Taiwanese, not Chinese.”
And herein lies the history lesson.
Several centuries of alternating nations’ rule I shan’t go into, but it got interesting in 1945, when the Republic of China (ROC) took control of Taiwan. It got even more interesting when the Communists took over China and the ROC fled to Taiwan. The funny thing is, since then the Taiwanese government, or ROC, has continued to claim to be the legitimate government of China. Meanwhile, the Communists in China – the People’s Republic of China – claim sovereignty over Taiwan and says the ROC no longer exists. The PRC refuse diplomatic relations with any country that recognises the ROC. The problem here is that Taiwan is “a multi-party democracy with universal suffrage….; the 22nd-largest economy in the world. It is ranked highly in terms of freedom of the press, health care, public education, economic freedom, and human development.”
I genuinely think this political standoff is hilarious.
If it came down to it and I was important enough to be asked to choose a side, I’d pick Taiwan. From our very arrival on ROC soil, we were back to being greeted by friendly, helpful, non-shouty folk. Our taxi driver was disappointed to hear that we would be based only in Taipei for a few days, with no plans to travel further afield in Taiwan (husband’s commitment to a conference and several meetings in the city limited our movements).
And I think it was a pity we didn’t go further afield. Our first impression of Taipei was of an unattractive, block-built, modern monstrosity – that’s because the jealous old PRC knocked down and destroyed most of Taiwan’s original buildings and cultural heritage.
Fortunately, the ROC top dogs were canny enough to scarper to Taiwan with most of the Chinese artefacts they could carry, so though, on first impressions, Taipei is a fairly ugly city, it has thousands of amazingly beautiful and original Chinese museum pieces in its keep. Suck on that, PRC.
As it happens, our initial perception of Taipei as being a noisy, traffic-heavy series of dual carriageways was dispelled later when we discovered the much quieter and more interesting back streets. The restaurant quarter was beautifully lit and full of character, with mopeds snaking through the ambling pedestrians. (Mopeds – gazillions of them. Taipei could easily take on any Italian moped-heavy city.)
The restaurants competed with street stalls selling seafood even I, a pretty adventurous diner, was wary of. The more popular street stalls had queues up to 100m long, of hungry customers who convinced us that maybe the bizarre looking cuisine was pretty tasty. I say convinced us. Not enough to buy the stuff.
We made do with what turned out to be an apparently trendy restaurant in which you cooked your own soup. A selection of stocks were placed in different pans on induction hobs on the table, and then you chose what to put in it – an astonishing variety of mushrooms (the Taiwanese love their mushrooms), other vegetables we couldn’t identify but ate anyway, melt-in-the-mouth squid, tiny octopuses, beautifully fresh white fish…
It was very exciting, and made all the easier by quite the kindest, most patient waitress.
“To be honest, I would have preferred them just to have cooked and brought the food ready made to me,” said husband, as we walked down the street afterwards. Don’t listen to him. He’s no fun and would live on muesli rather than cook.
Our short time in Taipei allowed us to indulge in only three truly tourist experiences:
1) The Night Market, which the hotel manager recommended, and which husband claimed Taipei was famed for. We dragged children on the Metro to one particular night market. It was a market. At night. It was a bit different, and there is some excitement to be had in being able to buy trainers, sticks of toffee strawberries, cosmetics, inexplicable seafood and sunglasses until midnight, but I can’t say it’s an experience you should necessarily insist on.
2) The Museum of Miniatures, which I’ll confess I dragged children to because I have what is almost a fetish for dolls’ houses and tiny things. Fortunately, they were as fascinated and delighted as I was by the exquisitely detailed miniature scenes. What made it even more entertaining was the quite simply brilliant English translation of each scene’s description. Grammatically questionable but heaving with personality.
3) Taipei 101, the world’s fifth tallest building. Son has declared it his life’s ambition to go to the top of the world’s ten tallest towers, so this was a good start. The lift took about 40 seconds to reach the 88th floor. My ears popped and I felt woozily dizzy when we arrived. Also, the windows were white with cloud cover, which made me laugh, but suddenly the clouds swirled and danced swiftly around the building and we were greeted by tantalising glimpses of the streets hundreds of feet below.
What was bizarre about this expedition was the compulsory walk you made afterwards through a floor of jewellery, statues and artworks all carved from coral and jade. If it had been an exhibition, it would have been understandable, but these pieces were all on sale. Forget the rapid lift – it was my children’s dangerously close proximity to goods worth thousands of pounds that made me most nauseous.
Husband returned from a business dinner late that evening, waking me as he came in. “What time’s our flight to Okinawa tomorrow?” I asked groggily.
“About six, I think, so I’ve booked a taxi for 4.15.”
“But what will we do tomorrow? We have to check out at about 10.”
“No,” said husband. “Six in the morning. The taxi’s here in… five hours.”
I was still, then glanced at the sleeping children, and the exploding suitcases whose uncontrollable contents were still draped around the room.