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First impressions of Taipei

Taipei Main Station
It was the 4th of November when I arrived at Taoyuan International Airport. In Europe already time to wear jackets and prepare for the imminent snow. In Taiwan, instead, the weather was hot and humid. People wore short-sleeve shirts and short trousers. Taking off my jacket didn’t help. I still felt really hot. No wonder, there were around 30 degree Celsius outside, and my warm jeans and water-proof shoes were not exactly ideal.

There’s no underground connecting the airport to the city centre, so I took a bus. There are many bus companies that take to different places of the city, like Xindian, Nangang, Zhongxiao Dunhua and so on. So be careful to go to the correct counter and ask. I bought a ticket for Taipei Main Station. When the bus arrived, the bus driver got off and began to shout in Chinese, announcing the destination of the bus. Then he asked passengers where they were going, just to make sure they didn’t get on the wrong one. Fortunately, I could already speak some Chinese. But it might be a little bit tricky for a foreigner who cannot speak any Chinese. Remember: whatever people tell you, it’s not true that everyone in Taiwan can speak English.
A normal street in Taipei

I’d often heard that Taiwanese are really nice to foreigners. That’s why I was surprised when I was at the airport: no one smiled at me although I smiled at them, the girl at the bus ticket counter was absolutely cold, and the bus drivers were quite rude. Not the kind of “Eastern politeness” I’d been expecting.

My Taiwanese friends in Europe had told me that Taiwan is cleaner than Germany. In fact, they often complained that drunk people pee on the street and that they see a lot of cigarette butts and other stuff on the pavement. Which is true. However, when I arrived in Taipei the feeling I got was the exact opposite: I felt it was way dirtier than Germany. To begin with, the buildings are grey and kind of mouldy. This might depend on the weather, but I think that the facades are seldom renovated. Many buildings outside of the most fashionable areas remind of refugee shacks, for example in Gongguan area. Second, the streets are not clean. It’s true you don’t find garbage on the pavement, but it still looks dirty. Besides, close to night markets, meat or vegetables stores you might see mice running around – I even saw some dead mice lying on the street. However, although I think Taiwan is not cleaner than Germany, it is about as clean as Italy, so maybe I felt more at home.
Night view of an alley in Xindian District

If you expect Taipei to be a huge metropolitan conglomerate where the streets are so crowded that you can hardly move – then you’ll be relieved. Taipei isn’t Hong Kong or Beijing.

Taipei consists of two separate administrative areas. Taipei proper is called Taipei City (台北市), while the surrounding area is called New Taipei City (新北市). Taipei City has a population of 3,893,740, New Taipei City 2,618,772. Overall, I found Taipei comparable in size and crowding with other big European cities such as London, at least in the city centre. Taipei has a high density of population, so you won’t see many parks, the streets are narrow and often there’s no pavement. You literally have to walk on the street, skipping parked cars and motorcycles, as well as the vehicles whose drivers feel annoyed at the sight of a pedestrian that stands in their way. Zebra crossing exist only as a decoration. No one will ever even think of stopping to let a pedestrian go. The rule is: I come first. In Europe I had the habit to let elder people and women go first, but whenever I do it here, no one thanks me, and actually since no one expects it I rather hinder the smooth moving of the crowd.
Street restaurants in Gongguan. Not the cleanest ones,
but the food is delicious 

The underground (called Mass Rapid Transit, or simply MRT) was a nice surprise. It’s very clean and efficient, and Taipeinese are very proud of it. They seem to be obsessed with the cleanliness of their underground system. In fact, it’s forbidden to eat, drink, chew gum or betel nut in the metro. When I was in Europe I always ate food in the underground when I was in a hurry and I never thought it was a bad thing to do. In Taipei, it’s taboo even to drink, no matter how long your journey is. On the contrary, Taiwanese don’t seem to care much if the places where they eat are filthy. I’ve seen restaurants here that smelled bad and looked even worse, but no one cares. To be honest, I expect more hygiene in a restaurant than in the metro. But that is a matter of opinion, I suppose. Anyway, the food is delicious, and sometimes the humblest restaurants have the most amazing food. As far as my health is concerned, I never had any problem with the food whatsoever. If you come to Taiwan, please don’t go every day to MacDonald’s.

View of a street and a pedestrian bridge in Fuzhong, in the
Western part of the city
Well, my first day in Taipei was not really so great. Not because of the city itself, but because the girl I’d come to Taiwan for did not treat me the way I’d expected. But perhaps I’ll tell you this story some other time.


Cheers



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