Hello, Taiwan

Portuguese sailors called it Ilha Formosa when they first saw it in 1542. Even without translation, these words sound enchanting. The Beautiful Island that mariners from the Age of Discovery were so fond of is our next destination. We are going to Taiwan.

Cherry blossom in Taiwan
We haven’t planned for it, but apparently, we arrived at this beautiful island just in time to see it. Good timing!

The name might sound familiar, but the island is not the most popular destination in SE Asia. Come to think of it, how much do you actually know about it? The most common question we got when mentioning our travel plans was: “Isn’t it part of China?” Perhaps, uncertainty comes from its official name, the Republic of China (ROC). It shouldn’t be confused with its big neighbor China’s official name, the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Taipei, the capital of Taiwan
Taipei, the capital of Taiwan

Here is another piece of trivia that I bet would surprise most of our readers. As a founding member of the United Nations, the ROC represented China at the United Nations until 1971, when the PRC assumed China’s seat, causing the ROC to lose its UN membership. Modern days history of Taiwan is as fascinating as the ancient one. I am not plunging into that bottomless pit (history buffs can start with good old Wikipedia and progress from there), but just want to mention that presently, the ROC is recognized and maintains diplomatic relationships with 20 United Nations member states. It also has unofficial relations with 57 UN member states via its representative offices and consulates.

Taiwan’s complicated history: when this old military bunker was in use, temples like this one were banned on the island

Information about Taiwan in English neatly folds into 3 categories. Historical manuscripts and research papers cover the complicated history of this relatively small independent island that managed to survive and thrive despite all odds. Numerous travel guides, ranging from a single post on some random travel blog to detailed itineraries from well-respected resources, provide ubiquitous “top,” “ultimate” or “must see” recommendations for tourists. A few blogs and discussion boards deal with issues applicable to expats. As much as I liked perusing all these fountains of wisdom, none of them were geared toward slow travelers like us.

Taoyuan is our home for the next 3 months

Spending 3 months among locals observing their culture and traditions, eating local food, shopping at local stores still is an uncommon trait. With so few people interested, it falls through the cracks between good old tourism and living on the island full-time.

Sunday afternoon in a neighborhood park

Living among local folks is fascinating. Watching their daily life, observing routines and habits, the way people talk and behave. I often hear “Oh, so you live like locals.” No. Foreigners are foreigners. It takes years and years to assimilate into a new society. We are just mere observers and humble learners grateful for being allowed to take a look into different cultures.

Weekend market

With all that said, Taiwan remained our terra incognita. By the time we were ready to go, potential language barrier had overshadowed all other concerns. “Taiwanese do not speak English” was a recurring narrative from a variety of sources.

Is it possible to survive in Taiwan without speaking Chinese?

We had some experience of living in places where nobody spoke English. Sicily or Andalucia are good examples. It was challenging at times especially when I got sick in Palermo. In the end, a combination of Spanish, English, Google Translate and a pinch of Italian produced amazing results. The medication was for the correct illness, and I was alive and well in no time. It might sound funny to you, my reader, but it was no laughing fit for me. Since then, though, we had a long stretch of destinations where English was either widely spoken or was an official language. Portugal, Australia, and Malaysia spoiled us in that department. I kept repeating that everything would be Ok but was sweating every time memory flashes brought back our short adventure in Urumqi. Have you ever tried to decipher Chinese symbols? They look like a beautiful mysterious art. I had better luck with explaining Piet Mondrian’s paintings than understanding street signs in China.

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Finally, it was time to go. What a whirlwind weekend. From the last glance at balmy Penang Island at 4 in the morning on Saturday to running through an impressively modern terminal of Kuala Lumpur airport to finding ourselves standing on a top of the Sun Fen Mountain overlooking Taoyuan City on Sunday, to admiring impossibly bright colors of Confucius Temple.

Stay tuned for the next installment where we will share our first impressions of Taiwan and talk about a link between music and trash collection.

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Taiwan, the beautiful island: musings before the journey

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25 thoughts on “Hello, Taiwan”

  1. Been to three cities on the west coast so far … Taiwan is a highly modern nation, and yes, many young people speak some English and many signs are in English as well, so you won’t be too lost here!

    • Thank you, Jane. After a month in Taiwan, I agree with you. Perhaps, lack of English language was a problem in the past, but not anymore 🙂

  2. Hey! If you’d like to ask anything about the island, we lived there for a year and circumnavigated the entire island several times! Our Twitter is @navigate_dreams. We’d love to follow your adventures and we love talking about our little isla formosa!

  3. Taiwan is one of the countries that fascinates me for its rich culture. You are right that most people overlook this destination while traveling in Asia. And also, no matter how slow you travel, foreigners would be foreigners always, but it’s so overwhelming and humbling to learn and observe different cultures!

  4. I love that sign. Don’t feed the dogs…bones?!?! Awesome. I literally just learned that Taipei is the capital Thailand a fewposts back. I love Thai food so this place has been added to my to go to list. I love the pictures!!

  5. Good luck in your Taiwan adventures. At this point in my life, I can’t imagine doing it the way you are — just diving in headfirst! But I’m sure you’ll have some great stories and memories!

    • In terms of prices, Taiwan is the same as everywhere – places, where tourists go, are expensive; out-of-the-way places are affordable (and there are plenty of them). Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, could be insanely expensive (in one weekend, we saw more Ferraris and Lamborghinis zooming by than we saw during the entire year in Europe (except London)). However, we live in a residential part of a neighboring city called Taoyuan, and it is fairly affordable. It is comparable to living in Portugal (outside of Lisbon). It is definitely not as cheap as our previous stop (Penang Island) where we routinely spent $2.50USD for dinner for two ;). Here, the comparable meal costs about $8USD.

      Taiwan is definitely worth a visit. Longer we staying here, more I like it. Surprisingly, on such a relatively small island there are so many different and equally fascinating places. It is also great for hiking and bicycling.

  6. Taiwan is lovely. If you ask China, it’s part of China, although Taiwan would prefer to be separate. It’s been a long time since my last visit (maybe 30 years), it’s time I went back. Looking forward to reading more about your experiences.

  7. Elena, We did a long weekend in Taiwan a few years ago and realized it was no where near enough time to do everything, eat everything, and start to observe the complex culture. I do love staying in a place much longer. I’ll bet three months would do it. I agree, though, a foreigner is a foreigner for a very long time. We carry our culture with us.

  8. I remember when I was a child, not long after the war ended, it was still called Formosa. It seemed mysterious even then. I don’t hear much about Taiwan now, so this post was really interesting to me. Now I would love to go.

  9. I can understand. Taiwan has a complicated relationship with China. When I went there, some of my Taiwanese friends said the same. I love their attitude towards life, and people. Besides Taipei, other towns are also interesting.

    • Thank you, Nisha. I just want to add that after a month on the island, we came to conclusion that Taiwanese are the most cheerful and the friendliest people on earth 🙂

  10. The original name given by the Portuguese (Formosa, meaning beautiful island) is so poetic, while the word current name Taiwan meaning ‘people’ is more practical. 🙂 Seems like a modern city with all those high rises. Was it?

    • Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, is the modern city indeed. It reminded me of the residential parts of Hong Kong. Taiwan has some sizable cities and absolutely stunning nature that proves Portuguese were right when they called it beautiful.

  11. Great to hear from you, Ryan. Enjoy Thailand :). We had so much fun there 3 years ago. BTW, if you are looking for new places in SE Asia, do not overlook Taiwan. Taipei is expensive and too crowded with tourists, but other places are pretty affordable and awesome. 3 weeks into staying on the island, we are thoroughly enjoying it. Cheers!

  12. Hi Elena,

    So cool. We only did a quick Taipei layover nearly 6 years ago, on the way to Bali, on the first day of our trip.

    Looks like a lovely place. Beautiful, fascinating, and even though it is touristed freely it still seems kinda closed off in other regards. In a positive way.

    Ditto on that modern terminal in KL. And it is HUGE! We nearly missed our flight to Sydney when heading to Fiji 3 years back because we mistook the amount of time it’d take us to walk to our gate. Made it with minutes to spare.

    Thanks for sharing Elena 🙂

    Signing off from Thailand.


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