Sunday, May 09, 2010

I don't recognize it either

Taiwan is unique in the world in that it is, by all measures, a stable developed democracy that is its own country, but no one else seems to think so. Of the 200 countries in the world, the only ones to recognize Taiwan are tiny central American or Pacific countries. (An interesting sidebar on that old One China conflict is that neither Kosovo nor Bhutan recognize either Taiwan nor the PRC).

At any rate, if you go to Taipei, on a smaller level, you won't be able to figure out just what it is either. It generally seems like a very developed version of China, though not quite at the levels of Hong Kong. The nicer parts of Shanghai or Beijing are good stand-ins for Taiwan, and the uglier parts, well, they find a home too.

I inevitably compare all destinations in East Asia to Seoul and South Korea. Appearance-conscious South Korea with its shiny suits, shiny airports and shiny lights makes a remarkable first impression. Taiwan defies you to like it, with a hideous coral airport that looks like a paint job that followed a fire. The ceiling in the terminal is about 6'4" high, and the only things to be found in the arrivals terminal is an information desk and two restaurants.

The bus ride from the city is not unlike Beijing, with hideous grayscale apartment buildings that threaten collapse any second and, for some reason, with dark blotches indicative of fire damage. For a relatively young city that presumably changed significantly during Taiwan's industrialization in the late twentieth-century, the architecture and overall shabbiness of restaurants and streets is remarkably bad.

Every now and then, neighbourhoods appear different and reminiscent of the first world, but what's remarkable about Taiwan and Taipei is that it's nice in spite of its appearances. There are no shortage of expensive stores and restaurants, though its smaller size makes its shabby streets and crooked sidewalks less interesting in comparison.

Taiwan has a GDP per capita comparable to many industrialized countries, but it is remarkably cheap. Meals, transportation and shopping were alarmingly cheap. In keeping with my coffee index, which was about $1.50 in Toronto, 65 cents in Detroit, $4 in Bishkek, $11 in Beijing and about $4 in Seoul, Taiwan rates at having a decent latte at a nice streetside cafe with inexplicably shabby plastic tables for $1.50. Personally, I recommend the volatile blend of tea, coffee and brown sugar, which can be purchased for about $1.20.

Taiwan really does have a phenomenal weird quotient. Having been to many other large East Asian cities, including Hong Kong and Tokyo, it was only in Taipei that I found myself weirded out. It was the stinky tofu at the bustling night market, the bizarre $3 hotpot at midnight, the man selling rabbits in cages that reeked of urine, and the thousands of ways meat can be skewered and tea can be made that made me take a step back, and then take a step forward. For those interested in a little bit of grit, cheap prices and old buildings where the interior has fallen out, I strongly recommend Taiwan.

No comments: