This piece is part of a series about travel in East Asia.
Since, it's my first time in that part of the world, I wanted to document my fresh look at things. What's weird? What's interesting? What's notable?
These are mildly/wildly interesting things about Taiwan 🇹🇼
Eva Air Is Great ✈️
Taiwan's national airline EVA - which apparently is pronounced E.V.A. - is great:
- They have Hello Kitty-themed airplanes
- There is a direct flight from Vienna to Taipei (12 hours)
- The airline features Asian and Western menu options on the plane. Asian ones were better.
- They provided 3M tooth picks with the food. Dental hygiene FTW!
Random fun fact: The drug-/bomb-sniffing dogs at the Taipei Airport are known as the Beagle Brigade.
TaiwanCore Should Be a Thing 🥾
This is a random observation from the boarding area for our flight.
To me, it seemed that every single person was rocking at least one technical item:
- Jeans, hoodie + hiking boots
- Regular shirt, sneakers + hiking pants
- Normal outfit + outer shell jacket
You get the gist. If TaiwanCore ever becomes a thing, I want my royalties.
Taichung Has a Massive Coal Power Plant
Taichung - the second largest city in Taiwan - operates the 4th largest coal power plant in the world. That's impressive.
Taiwan Is the Country of Mascots 🐱
Mascots are everywhere. People like "cuteness."
But, there's a clear local favorite: The Formosa Bear 🐻
Black with a V on his chest, the Formosa Bear is the native bear species of Taiwan - the island, which was traditionally also referred to as "Formosa."
You can find this little fella partying with tourists in a karaoke bus, giving thumbs up on random roadsides, and as a toy in all sorts of tourist memorabilia stores 👍
- Apple pay everywhere
- I have no idea how to use toilets 🚽 → Honestly, I did not expect that there's so many different modalities of flushing a toilet 🤷♂️
- Animals are different... Duh. But honestly, one of the beauties of travel is to discover new creatures, new vegetation, new cuisines, etc. Everything is different. // In Taipei, I spotted capped herons and green herons for the first time. It's a bird that appears to be frozen in time, but that's its hunting strategy. Don't move, wait for hours, and if a fish swims by... snap!
- The have a hotel-sized karaoke franchise called Party World 🎤
- Guests in game arcade take this shit serious → there was a guy who brought his own gloves to play the button smashing game.
- Tour buses are crazy. It's common for family gatherings to do a road trip in a bus. Since the small buses and the big buses are the same price, people usually opt for the big boys. One notable thing about these journeys is the non-stop entertainment aspect. Good luck if you want to take a nap.
- Shooting balloons at night market is referred to as "paying tuition."
- The former Foxconn boss is now running for political office. His campaign is called "Good Timing" - with a thumbs up. It's a reference to his out-of-pocket procurement of Covid-19 vaccines for Taiwanese citizens.
- Taiwanese hip hop is a thing. Artists to look for: Mj116 & E.SO.
- Soup is the last thing eaten during a meal. 🤷♂️
- The topography and cityscape of Taipei reminds me of CDMX 🇲🇽
Mao = Cat 🐱
The Mandarin word for cat is "mao" ... that's so cool!
I was asking myself if it has something to do with the phonetic sound of the animal... and turns out it does. There's a great Quora thread on it but long story short: 猫 is a semantic-phonetic compound word.
The semantic indicator of 猫 is 犭, which originally means dog. When used as a radical, it indicates that the character is of or related to a four-legged animal. The common words under this radical include 猪 pig, 狗 dog, 狼 wolf, 狐狸 fox, and so on.
The phonetic indicator of 猫 is 苗. The meaning of 苗, which is irrelevant in this case, is sprout. It is pronounced miao, very similar to meow.
When we combine the two parts, we get an animal that meows, which is, you guessed it, a cat.
Mind blown 🤯
Taiwanese People Are Extremely Friendly
This was my first impression from Taiwan was that every single person was open and friendly.
Then, shit got knocked into twelfth gear, and people started approach me on the street:
- Guy at Arcade: "Where are you from? Do you like games? Japan has many more games like these." ... Very wholesome interaction.
- Kid at Sun Moon Lake: A kid approached me and asked if he could interview me for his English-language questionnaire. They received extra points if they manage to interact with a foreigner. "What's your name? My name is Robert. Do you like Taiwan? Is it your first time in Taiwan?..." ... it ended with me taking a picture with the whole class of children and my new friend Robert gifted me a Formosa-bear-themed magnet.
- Dude Who Couldn't Believe that I Was Eating Fan Tuan: Waiting in line for Fan Tuan - the delicious street food snack - a man approached me and asked: "Where are you from? Are you waiting to eat the Fan Tuan? Enjoy Taiwan." ... It was great and he was giggling throughout because he couldn't believe it.
The people of Taiwan deserve a medal. Seriously.
Matchmaking Is a Thing
Cousin Tony got almost matched up at sushi lunch by a friend of the family.
"Are you single? ... I'll be blunt, is matchmaking something that you would be interested in?"
"Appreciate the honesty. Let's eat."
- Taiwanese language - Hokkien - is very different from Mandarin
- Taiwanese dialect of Mandarin is softer and considered to be "feminine"
- Taiwanese script of Mandarin uses traditional symbols (vs. simplified symbols in Mainland China)
- People love the #8 because the word for it sounds like "fortune" // on the other hand #4 is associated with bad luck because it sounds like "death"
- As a result, it's easier to sell the same house on street #8 vs. totally impossible to sell it on street #4
- Also, doctors are top-shelf influencers → if a doctor says or endorses something, it is like god's seal of approval
- Tele-shopping channels make use of this by carting out doctors to approve of the purchase right before asking for the credit card info + discounts are usually advertised as 88% off or something like that.
Food & Beverage
Taiwan's Coffee Culture Is World Class ☕️
One of the biggest surprises to me was how hip and how good the coffee scene was.
Chief among all places was Simple Kaffa - started by 2016 barrista world champ Berg Wu - specializing on pour-over coffee.
As one reddit user put it "the barista basically do an entire world barista championship routine for ya haha."
By now, the shop has expanded to multiple locations - one at the Taipei airport - and their prices are quite high (€5 - €20 per cup of joe). One of the nifty little details is that their cups have a velvet-y touch to them.
Throughout my travels in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, I would say that Taiwan - Taipei in particular - had the best coffee.
Taiwan Has "Better Sushi Than Japan" 🍣
Sara's dad surprised us with a bold claim that "Taiwan has better sushi than Japan."
Naturally, we said: "We'll be the judge." and holy smokes did it deliver.
Fatty tuna belly with kelp on top might have been one of the best bites of food I've ever tasted. The flavors, the texture, the rush of endorphins. Wow.
Taiwanese Cocktail Culture Is Out of This World 🍸
Taiwanese tea-infused cocktails seems to be the hottest thing right now.
Everywhere from Taipei to Tokyo you would find bars, which pride themselves on using a variety teas (red oolong; matcha; etc.) for their signature cocktails.
Probably the best bar I've been to in my life is unDer Lab bar in Taipei. It is an unassuming building with a tiny staircase leading down into the basement. There, you are greeted by a host and the rest is history.
The seating arrangement is U-shaped around the lab bench-styled bar. Each seat has a spotlight pointing down to present the cocktails in the best light.
My choice of the night was a Red Oolong-infused Teagroni - long conversation with the bar keeper included. This was hands down the best spirited drink I had in my life 👌
Street Food Is Life
Night markets are a huge deal. Tons of people, tons of choice, and everyone's chomping on boiling-hot delicacies.
As Sara would put it "You don't understand how much Asians looooooooooove food."
And nowhere is that more obvious than on these nutty little night markets.
There's a super interesting YouTube channel called Ku's dream where a Frenchman is documenting his life in Taiwan.
He speaks fluent Mandarin and usually covers foreigners trying Taiwanese food for the first time 👇
Convenience Stores Are Legit
Another surprising thing is that locals would tell you to "try the food at 7-Eleven"
WTF? Why would I go to a convenience store that sells rotating sausages? ... But you'd be surprised how different the Asian 7-Eleven experience is from let's say the American experience.
Much more variety in terms of food (onigiri; sushi boxes; egg sandwiches; fried curry pockets; crazy-flavored Hard Seltzers; Nap Tea; etc.) and much higher quality overall.
It's not only 7-Eleven but Family Mart and (GS25 in South Korea).
Club Culture Is Growing
We went to a place called Pawn Shop - an "underground techno club" in Taipei.
Coming from Berlin it was interesting to see that they also put stickers on the phone cameras to protect the privacy of the club goers. A very Berlin thing to do.
Overall it feels that something is brewing in the local scene.
No Water. Just Tea. 🍵
I have a working hypothesis that everyone in Taiwan must have a crippling caffeine addiction.
They drink Tea in all shapes (hot; cold; sweet; unsweetened; etc.) and at all times (breakfast; lunch; dinner). Do you know what no one ever drinks? Water.
Innovative Tea Culture
Besides drinking tea at all times, Taiwan is inventing new ways to drink everyone's favorite beverage.
- Bubble Tea: Taiwan is the inventor of Bubble Tea - in particular Pearl Milk Tea (mmmm.... delicious).
- Third-wave Tea Shops: They even turned iced tea a hipster affair via Oolong Tea Project.
Personal Food Discoveries on this Trip
Some wild things they gots ova there:
- Fan Tuan: Perfect street food snack. Bunch of stuff in a rice crust.
- Stinky Tofu: Love it or hate it. But don't ignore it. // I actually don't mind the stink and enjoy the flavors. Pro tip: Always order/start with the fried Stinky Tofu. The other type might be too extreme.
- Papaya Milk: Tasty!
- Mala Chicken at McDonalds: Wow! Taiwanese cuisine features lots of dishes with the amazing Mala spice - the numbing cousin of the "hot spice." The crazy food designers at McDonald's said "fuck it! Let's go ham!" and created a Mala-glazed Fried Chicken that they serve you with a glove because it's so messy. But it's soooo good.
Beer Flavors in Taiwan Are Wild
Some countries have beer, others have top-fermented ales, and Taiwan has bat-shit-cray-cray-level flavors:
- Star Fruit Juice
- Green Plum
- Watermelon Lemon
- ...and my favorite: Tomato + Plum 🍅
Baijiu Is Biiiiiiiiiiiiiiig
The favorite spirit in this part of the world is Baijiu.
And surprisingly, it's the most consumed spirit in the world:
Vodka, gin, rum, whiskey, Scotch, tequila, considering the amounts that are published on these spirits, the outside reader would imagine that these are the most consumed spirits in the world. Research shows that when put together these known western spirits don’t get close to the consumption of Baijiu in China and suggest that Baijiu is the highest volume spirit consumed globally.
Taiwan Is Known as Formosa
In 1895, Taiwan existed as the Republic of Formosa. It lasted 151 days.
The name Formosa dates from 1542 when Portugese sailors sighted an uncharted island and noted it on their maps as Ilha Formosa ("beautiful island"). The name Formosa eventually "replaced all others in European literature" and remained in common use among English speakers into the 20th century.
History of Being Colonized
At various points in history, Taiwan was colonized by the Dutch, the Spanish, and the Japanese.
You can still feel the Japanese influence. Some metro announcements are still in Japanese. Older generations still speak Japanese at home.
Taiwan's Progressive Immigration Policies
Taiwan wants foreign professionals to come and stay.
A couple of years ago, my friend Paul moved to Taiwan. He said that the immigration procedure was super easy. You apply for a Taiwan Employment Gold Card and can live and work there for up to 3 years.
New reforms are also aimed at streamlining immigration from South-East Asian countries like Philippines and Indonesia.
Crazy town ambition: Taiwan is planning to roll out English as a second official language by 2030. Cool idea but the execution has fallen flat so far.
Plan to introduce English as a second language by 2033
Taiwan's land reform of the late 40s/early 50s is seen as a key step in transforming the wealth distribution amongst its citizens.
Bad for some families who used to own the majority of the land but great for the population as a whole.
Looming Security Concerns
The China-Taiwan topic is present.
Over the course of my trip, I have talked with people who were on all parts of the spectrum:
- Hawk → One person told me to visit a famous site so that "when the unthinkable happens, you'll have some good memories from the place."
- Neutral → "Is this topic shown in your local media? For us it's nothing new. We have to deal with it every single day, so we're not concerned."
- Pragmatist → "China's current generation of landing vessels have a low weight-baring capacity. This means they cannot deploy the newest generation of their tanks to Taiwan via water. Also, wind and current are going in opposed directions in the Taiwan straight. Flat-bedded landing vessels struggle with that. If China would have invaded Taiwan if they could. But they can't. And on top, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has shown that the cost-benefit calculation is not in favor of the attacking party."
Alishan Mountains Are Very High 🏔️
Taiwan's beautiful Alishan National Park is a mountainous area in the middle of the island.
Surprisingly, the tallest mountains are all around ~3k+ in height and are higher than Mount Fuji - the tallest mountain in Japan.
This region is also the origin of the famous Taiwanese Mountain Tea.
The mountain area also has a small railway network of tiny trains, which used to be used for extraction/industry purposes but now host touristic rides.
Trees Can Get Really Old
The Alishan National Park also features the Holy Tree of Taiwan - that mad man is more than 3,000 years old. Three. Thousand.
What the hell!
Unfortunately, that beautiful tree was struck by lightning twice and burned from the inside out. The remnants can still be visited in the park.
Sun Moon Lake Is Wild
Sun Moon Lake is beautiful.