Thursday, December 2, 2010


An army of scooters waiting for the light in Taipei.

From Monday Nov 22 to Monday Nov 29 I took a break from everything that is Japanese and went to visit Glen, a Czech high school friend of mine who is currently studying in Taipei, Taiwan. We spent one day sightseeing in Taipei, then went up north for a day to the Yehliu National Park full of interesting stone shapes, and finally left for a four day long road trip of the island's east coast. As you may well imagine, we wasted not a single minute of our time and did and experienced a great lot of things. In addition, visiting Taiwan was interesting for me because I spent one semester studying about Taiwan's politics at Colby. As a result, there are great many things that I can tell you about Taiwan, both political and human in nature. But given that our time is limited, I will only give you a brief lesson in Taiwan's political history and then I will present you with a series of randomly ordered bullet points containing the most important things I experienced and/or think you should know about Taiwan. But first, please, turn up your sound as loud as it gets click to play the song below, and listen to it again and again, and again, and again. You will soon understand why.

Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, or ROC, is an island off the east coast of the People's Republic of China, the PRC. In the international community, Taiwan has a very special status because of its political history: it is not recognized by most of the world's countries as a sovereign state but neither is it seen as a part of the PRC. Here is Taiwan's long (his)story short. In 1544, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to discover the island and gave it the name Ilha Formosa, or Beautiful Island. The first foreigners to rule the island were the Dutch about a hundred years later. Not too long after that Formosa became a part of China which administered it until 1895, when the weakening empire lost to the newly industrialized Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese occupied the island starting then until 1945 when they ceded it back to China, which was by that time not an empire anymore but a Republic with Chiang-Kai Shek as president. However, four years later Chiang lost the Chinese Civil War to the Chinese Communists led by Mao Zedong and retreated from the then-capital of China, Nanjing, to Taiwan. Because the communists had enough trouble administering their newly-won mainland, and because Chiang's occupation of Taiwan was backed by the communist-fearing Americans, the communists never attacked the island. Hence there were two Chinas: the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan and the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland. Gradually, the PRC grew in power and prestige, and became known as the "real" China. Finally, in 1971 it took ROC's permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Given the growing political and economic importance of the PRC in the world, most countries eventually cut diplomatic relations with the ROC in favor of those with the PRC. Now there are only a handful of countries which recognize the ROC as a sovereign state, which among other things means that Taiwanese embassies in most countries are called Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office. PRC calls Taiwan a "rebellious province" and Taiwan cannot call itself an independent nation because otherwise PRC would attack it (though there are many Taiwanese who do not want Taiwan to be independent but rather a part of China). This creates a dangerous situation in the Taiwan Strait: when Taiwan's president Lee Teng-hui talked about Taiwan's independence in 1995, the PRC reacted by conducting missile tests and amphibious assault exercises in the Taiwan Strait. If a conflict were to happen, it would definitely also involve the US and possibly Japan as well, causing a war we don't want to imagine, with deep global economic consequences. There is much more to Taiwan's politics than this, so if you are interested, please send me an email and I will point you to some good sources. But for now, let's see how life on Taiwan actually looks like.
  1. Garbage trucks on Taiwan drive all day long and play the same tune VERY LOUDLY ALL THE TIME: the same tune which you are listening to right now. I wonder how the garbage truck workers cope with this. Do they turn mad or do they just start ignoring it, or both? Garbage trucks in Japan also play music, but far not as loud and do not drive as chaotically all over the place.
  2. There are millions of scooters everywhere in Taiwan. Literally, they take over the streets as well as the sidewalks. There even are special lanes set up for them on the roads and they get to go first on the lights, and they park on every sidewalk.
  3. You can smell Stinky Tofu on every street in every city. I did not grow to be a big fan of it though.
  4. There are earthquakes in Taiwan almost daily. Most happen on the east coast and are small, but from time to time one causes cracks in the earth, landslides, etc. We bore witness to the landslides on many roads in the island's east.
  5. Taiwan has everything one might need: huge mountains (over 3000m), tropical forests, as well as awesome beaches. Chiang Kai-Shek indeed picked a good place to escape to.
  6. A specialty called Bethel Nuts is sold by scarcely-clad women everywhere on Taiwan. You chew on it and it is supposed to give you a high and red, "bloody" saliva. It didn't give me the high, but I definitely got the bloody saliva. The taste is something between liquorice and ginger, and is not so bad.
  7. All kinds of foods are sold in Taiwan's night markets. These markets only start living at night and sell anything from Bethel nuts to chopped goose heads and fried chicken talons.
  8. Except for the mountains, Taiwan's roads are exceptionally wide (and the speed limits exceptionally low).
  9. The waves on the east coast are enormous and surfers love them. The swimmers not so much I imagine.
  10. Taiwanese beer actually tastes very decently, though they usually only sell it in bottles, and not on tap.
  11. Local elections took place during the time when I was in Taiwan. Election posters, flyers, and flags were everywhere, and large processions of cars were driving even in the most remote, mountainous regions, playing propaganda songs in huge amplifiers. Amusing as it was, this is how Taiwan's relationship with the PRC gets to be decided. This time the pro-China party won, which will likely lead to more linking of Taiwan's economy with the PRC (
  12. Prices in Taiwan are about one third of what they are in Japan. For example, a decent restaurant meal can easily be bought for under US$5.
  13. There are beautiful red temples everywhere.
  14. After hearing the music, I hope you now understand the plight of Taiwan's garbage men!
Goose heads sold at a night market.
A woman chewing and preparing Bethel Nuts.
A view of the mountainous east coast.
The mountains in the center of the island. Notice the fog in the back.
A Sunset at a beach in Kenting, southern Taiwan.


  1. Something obviously went pear-shaped here. Where should the song be?
    But otherwise, another interesting post. I actually learned something about history and quite enjoyed it. That's rare for me.

  2. Sorry, it was working only on some computers only as I found out. Now you can play it yourself!