Impressions of Taipei
So, while Astrid was enjoying the Royal Wedding, I was working in Taipei. I know my last blog post was from Bangkok, but I of course did make it back safely to London last Wednesday and then went to work Thursday and Friday. The weekend was a good opportunity to catch up on some sleep and get back on the right time. Ultimately the trip home was 25 actual hours from leaving Central in Hong Kong to head to the airport to home here at our flat. I’ve got lots of pictures from the trip (admittedly, mostly of the transit!), but I thought I would start with some general impressions of Taipei.
Of course, I have to offer a few facts. I won’t go into the intricacies of the Taiwan/China relationship, except to say that it was quite interesting hearing the locals I met with talk about “Red China.” Although Taiwan is officially the Republic of China (as opposed to the People’s Republic), I actually read somewhere that lately they have been officially changing documents from ROC to Taiwan. The real status is still unclear and unresolved.
Anyway, Taiwan is a country of about 23 million people that is a large island – I was quite surprised to find out that it is just slightly larger than the land area of Maryland. It is located only about 100-150 miles east of mainland China, stretching a bit south of halfway between Hong Kong and Shanghai; it is north of the Philippines and Japan is its next neighbor to the north and east (albeit not all that close). Taipei is the capital city, with about 2.6 million people in the city proper and 6.9 million in the metropolitan area – so it definitely dominates the small country.
Overall, Taipei was the most westernized of the Asian cities I’d been to so far…although now Hong Kong certainly vies for that label too. However, while Hong Kong obviously has long-time British influence, Taipei appears to have had much more American influence. In fact, many of the senior metro managers I met with had been educated at US universities, and their English was better than I found in Shanghai or Tokyo.
The weather was a bit oppressive; at the end of April it was about 85 F each day with humidity to the point that stepping outside felt like a sauna. Thankfully, the metro is fully air-conditioned (including stations), although the ability to cool stations more than 5-10 degrees below the outside temp is very limited.
The air quality is quite bad; walking along any street, such as those near the hotel, would lead to nothing but breaths-full of exhaust. This is largely because of the overall traffic congestion, but especially because of the motorcycles. I didn’t get many pictures, unfortunately, but the cycles are everywhere and very polluting. The arcades or colonnades as shown above along the streets provide a combination of features – shelter from the sun and rain, a middle ground acting as a marketplace (they are typically filled with tables and people selling all sorts of foods and goods), and a through-way apart from where the motorcycles predominate.
You can see the row of motorcycles parked between the curb and the arcade forming the real sidewalk. The motorcycles also made it more difficult to cross streets, as they are faster and more agile than cars. In many places I saw motorcycles swinging to the right to join cross-traffic rather than waiting to make left turns. Despite this, people seemed to not use the pedestrian underpasses (subways in British parlance) at major intersections.
Overall, it seemed like quite a safe city, although I can’t really back that up with numbers. The Mayor of Taipei City made an appearance for the opening of my meeting, and aside from offering lots of hospitality, I thought it was quite interesting that one of the points he made was that Taipei was a very convenient city. As I pondered what that meant, he told us – that there is a convenience store within 500 meters (1,640 feet) of any point in the city! I thought that was quite a funny point, but I did subsequently see 7-Elevens on what seemed like every block.
Taipei also appears to be pretty wealthy and advanced. While things were quite cheap when converting to £s, the standards seemed pretty high, and I don’t think I saw any beggars or panhandlers. Commerce was certainly ruling everywhere too, with lots of big shops and malls. Currency was a bit confusing, as the Taiwan New Dollar (TWD offically, but usually shown as NT$) is about 3.5 US cents or 2 UK pence. Although this means what should be a simple “divide by 50” for conversion to pounds, that isn’t as easy as it seems. Alas, my hotel bill was nearly NT$40,000, which sounds like a ton!
I will have more posts on some specific Taipei items – the metro (of course!), Taipei 101 (currently the world’s second-tallest building), and the International Flora Exposition – but I wanted to start with some overall impressions.