Taiwan - China without Culture Shock

When we arrived in Taiwan, the news were all about the relationship between Taiwan and China. Locals were speculating whether the big brother would invade, and Taiwan strengthened its coast guard. We came from South Korea where there was a border dispute with North-Korea with similar speculations. Unlike the two Koreas, Taiwan and China have coexisted under a consensus. They accept that there is “One China”, but they have different interpretations of what it means. This time the upcoming election was causing tensions in Taiwan. We travelled to Taiwan for work exchange like to South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, and Costa Rica earlier this year.

Peaceful and not touristy

In general, Taiwan is one of the most peaceful travel destinations at the moment. They are not directly involved in the raging oil wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, ad Syria, so there is little to no threat of terrorist attacks. The whole world could easily be equally safe if the car industry subsidies were used for implementing free public transportation. That would ease up auto sprawl and oil dependency causing mayhem in the Middle-East.

There is very little crime against tourists — you won't get harassed or hassled — and excluding occasional typhoons and earthquakes, there is really nothing going on. The only place where you will be robbed is at ATM. Some of the local banks, for example China Trust Bank, will rip you off with a hefty 8 per cent marginal if you use a foreign card to withdraw money. After trial and error we learned that Jih Sun Bank takes only 3 per cent.

Taiwan is not a popular tourist destination among Westerners. Nearly half of the 10 million annual tourists come from the mainland. They move in big, noisy groups. Locals don't like them too much, because they leave a terrible mess behind and smoke everywhere ignoring “No smoking” signs. Westerners in Taiwan are likely English teachers. This is also what locals will think of you. One day we were stopped in the street by a couple who asked if we wanted to teach at their school.

Kaohsiung City

Everyday life in Taiwan is easy. There are huge supermarket chains including Carrefour, where you can buy almost anything except spices. The Taiwanese use various seasonings for cooking such as soy sauce, sesame oil and vinegar, but spices are limited to salt, MSG, black and white pepper, chili, and the Chinese five spice mix. It is impossible to find, for example garam masala and cayenne pepper, and there are no herbs available. There is some curry but it was weirdly seasoned. If you like cooking, bring your own spices with you.

Public transport in Taiwan is efficient and affordable. For example a bus trip from Taipei to Kaohsiung, a five-hour drive, costs NT $470 (approximately 13 euro). We stayed most of the time in Kaohsiung, where there are plenty of parks, pedestrian streets and bike paths for exercise, and even sidewalks. Traffic culture, however, is not particularly developed. Scooters drive on pedestrians walkways and if you're at a zebra crossing, be sure to let cars go first or you will get overrun. Of course traffic in Taiwan is nothing compared to India.

Kaohsiung is famous for its harbour and cargo traffic, mostly from Hong Kong, and there is a cool art district called Pier-2 built in old harbour warehouses. The city appears to invest in the well-being of its people and in tourism, although some attractions are rather funny from the European perspective. In Love River, which crosses the city, motorised Venetian gondolas drift by, and at nightfall turn their neon lights on.

Weather wise, Kaohsiung is quite ideal, except for excessive humidity on summer. There is very little wind considering it's a coastal city, and the air is often stagnant. Sewage aromas can be pungent, but you will quickly learn to hold your breath in those locations. Dengue mosquitoes love sewers and there was a big dengue outbreak while we were there.

China with more blue sky

At first glimpse, Taiwan appears more civilised than China: less spitting, less rubbish, visa-free, and a little bit less pollution — you can even see blue sky almost daily. Although China has finally awakened to how badly polluted the country has become, they are just shifting from polluting with fossil fuels to polluting with renewables leaving the end result unchanged.

After a few months, we started to notice also similarities between Taiwan and China. Spitting is more common than in the Western world, which has to have something to do with the traditional Chinese medicine. The Chinese believe that phlegm is bad for you and you need to get rid of it immediately regardless of where and how. South Korea was similar thanks to the heavy Chinese influence.

We recommend Taiwan for those who want to get to know Chinese culture without a culture shock. Taiwan is Western enough with all the comforts while it also has remnants of traditional Chinese culture, friendly people and a welcoming attitude.

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