First Impressions: Taipei

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial on a rainy afternoon
Chiang Kai-shek Memorial on a rainy afternoon

I feel like I’ve been here before. The sights, sounds, and smells are all familiar. But something is different.

I see signs in Chinese and hear the language, but it’s not all the same—they use traditional characters instead of the simplified characters I learned in mainland China, but that’s ok because I’m used to seeing those same characters in Hong Kong and Macau. However, there’s more English on the signs than in mainland China and Macau, which gives Taipei a feel that’s more similar to Hong Kong. But this still doesn’t quite feel like Hong Kong, and it’s not just because I don’t hear Cantonese everywhere or see throngs of mainland tourists.

Taipei has metropolitan feel like Hong Kong, but lacks the chaos of the former British colony with its winding narrow streets. Most of the streets here are a grid, like in Manhattan, so it’s easier to navigate without a map, which is great because I don’t have a map.

nanjing road taipei
Looking down Nanjing East Road

Transportation in Taipei

I haven’t had much experience with the metro yet, but so far it has been easy to navigate, cheap, and efficient. It’s also rather crowded most of the time. But when almost every ride from my station to anywhere else in the city costs less than $1, I find the Taipei metro to be a blessing. Buses are also nice, plentiful, and, in some cases, have English announcements (I’ve only been on one bus and I was shown where to go, so I can’t speak for all of Taipei’s bus system yet).

god hair salon taipei
I even found God in my neighborhood, and it happens to be a hair salon

There’s even public bikes everywhere. You have to have the EasyCard metro card, which gives you a 20% discount on subway rides, to rent the bikes, but they’re free for the first half hour. Weather has prohibited me from riding anywhere, but I will definitely take them out when the sun returns.

Speaking Mandarin in Taipei

With all this convenience, language continues to challenge me here. Aside from the traditional vs. simplified Chinese characters, speaking the language isn’t always easy. The vocabulary is different–Taiwan uses different words than I learned in mainland China. Some of these are simple like sandwich and potato, but all of it adds up to confusion.

Ronald McDonald was speaking Chinese to children across the street from an nuclear power protest
Ronald McDonald was speaking Chinese to children across the street from a nuclear power protest

And then there’s the fact that almost everyone speaks to me in clearly spoken English–after months of playing charades in Japan and Vietnam, this has come as a shock to me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate people speaking my native language well, but it throws me off as I prepare myself to communicate in their language. A few times I’ve completely frozen and I forgot which language to speak.

Some of the sculptures outside Zhongshan Station
Some of the sculptures outside Zhongshan Station

Accommodation in Taipei

Of course, none of this relates to my first drowsy morning in Taipei after my overnight flight from Ho Chi Minh City via Kuala Lumpur. I figured I had a great little apartment reserved via Airbnb for my time here–it was only a 10-minute walk from Zhongshan metro station, and near a park. But I had a different impression of the neighborhood as I turned down the alley to my new home.

I saw nothing but signs indicating a great many bars with names like Mistletoe, T Night, and Yuki. I even recognized a recruitment sign seeking “beautiful female servers.” As I soon discovered, my neighborhood is known for Japanese businessmen and supposedly high-end prostitution. And yet, my apartment is rather quiet in the evening (and it has nothing to do with soundproof windows). There are some things that don’t get mentioned in Airbnb listings, which also explains why there weren’t any photos of the outside of the building.

There’s still much more of Taipei to explore and plenty of time.

Have you been to Taipei? What did you think of it?

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