A friend once told me that “if you wish China was more like Japan, you’d really like Taiwan.” I won’t attempt to touch on the myriad of problems with that statement, but I think I know now a bit of what he meant. Our first stop on this little two week family trip is in the capital city of Taipei. Something a little different for this jaunt is that we’re traveling with our 5-year-old niece and her parents, who are all visiting these places for the first time. To that end, Taiwan has been very visitor-friendly. As Americans, we didn’t have to be concerned with any visas. The capital city is clean, with great public transit, and no internet firewall shenanigans. I certainly don’t appreciate all the cultural and political differences between Taiwan and (People’s Republic of) China, but I do understand that they both try to hold the claim to being the “real” China. That’s nothing I can comment on meaningfully. However, if I had to throw in for one side, for purely selfish reasons, I am finding Taiwan to be a vastly more polite and civilized place to visit. As far as comparisons to Japan, I know there is a history of intermingling going back to colonial times, and you can see the influence in the present day as well. There is a lot of culinary and cultural overlap insofar as I can appreciate as a foreigner.
As we have increasingly done over the last few trips, we opted for an AirBnB apartment for our stay in Taipei. For the price of a hotel, we got a nice two-bedroom apartment in a well appointed high-rise building right outside the exit of Taipei Main Station. On our first night, we split up on arrival, with me and my brother-in-law going out foraging for a takeaway dinner feast and everyone else settling down in the apartment and getting our niece Emma ready for bed and such. This was an incredibly long journey for a kindergartner, but she managed to maintain as much or more energy than any of us. It was pretty cool to see her take in things like a subway ride for the first time and trying to process the view of an ocean of nighttime city lights racing by, visible to the horizon. Our apartment has huge windows overlooking the Taipei 101 skyscraper to the east, with a backdrop of mountains, making for a very nice sunrise view.
In addition to arrival and departure days, we spent three full days touring Taiwan. For the first day, we visited Longshan Temple, did some shopping and exploring in Taipei, and visited the Taipei 101 skyscraper. We had lunch reservations at a very unique restaurant that proved absolutely perfect for the elementary-school-aged set: Modern Toilet Restaurant. Everything in the restaurant is toilet and bathroom themed. All the plates, bowls, and cups are shaped like toilets and urinals. All the dishes have some kind of suggestive presentation. The place was packed and reservations were actually necessary. Most of the parties there had small children and all of them seemed to thoroughly enjoy the place. Emma went absolutely nuts when we showed up there for lunch.
For our second full day, we booked a tour bus that made a circuit of several stops outside of Taipei, including Yehliu Geopark, Jiufen, and Shifen. The tour bus was basic and just dropped off at the locations, sans guide, which was a pretty convenient way to see several places with minimal hassle. If we were driving or had a private driver (for much greater expense), we might have opted for longer visits at some of the stops. The Geopark had some very unique rock formations and gorgeous views along the coast. Jiufen is a sleepy little coastal town that provided the inspiration for “Spirited Away” and is lined with narrow pedestrian streets and all manner of fresh cooked treats for sale. A couple favorites included fried salt and pepper squid and grilled and glazed mushrooms. We also went to a famous traditional tea house there. The last stop of the day was another small town called Shifen, famous for sending up hot air lanterns. There are train tracks that run through the center of town where the lanterns are launched and there are really pretty views of the surrounding hills and a suspension bridge with those colorful lanterns drifting off to the horizon. Back in Taipei at the end of the day, we went to a conveyer belt dim sum restaurant, a unique fusion of Chinese food and Japanese dining.
For our last full day in Taipei, we visited Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Park, North Gate, took in lunch at Din Tai Fun, and finished the day at the Shilin Night Market. Din Tai Fun is based in Taiwan, with locations around the world, and is most famous for soup dumplings. We dined at a location in Sydney earlier this year, and the Taipei restaurant did not disappoint. If you enjoy dim sum fare and Chinese dumplings, Din Tai Fun is fantastic.
My only reference for this visit was our time in mainland China back in 2011. Full disclosure: We really disliked China. Scams and con artists at every turn, lousy food, unbreathable air, poor hygienic conditions, some of the rudest people we’ve ever encountered, unreliable transit…. On and on. We came back to China on that 2011 trip from DPRK and were immediately longing for the fresh air, great food, and kind treatment we encountered in North Korea. North Korea, right. Needless to say, I didn’t visit Taipei with the highest of expectations. The bar was quite low. As it turned out though, Taiwan was altogether fantastic. As a group over multiple days, we didn’t encounter a single scammer or aggressive beggar. At every turn, I would be pained to make comparisons between mainland China and Taiwan. The people have been polite without exception. There seems to be an appreciation for safety and hygiene that would be more at home in any developed European country. Crowd behavior is orderly. Culturally, it seemed to me that Japanese and European influences are far more prominent than (mainland) “Chinese”. Everyone had a great time here and I would actually enjoy visiting again.