The Taiwan Area can be divided into six regions:
Map of Taiwan
Taiwan has been populated for thousands of years by more than a dozen aboriginal tribes. However, recent history begins with the colonization of Taiwan by Han Chinese immigrants in the past few hundred years.
In the early 20th century, the Nationalists and Communists fought a major civil war in China. Although the two sides were briefly united against Japan during World War II, they quickly began fighting again after the war was over. Eventually, the Communists were victorious. The Nationalists and hundreds of thousands of their supporters fled to Taiwan. From Taipei, they continued to assert their right as the sole legitimate government of all China.
Taiwan society is highly polarized by political allegiance between those who support reunification with the mainland and those who seek to establish an independent Republic of Taiwan. To this day, the question of just who is a Taiwanese person -- aboriginal, Han Chinese with long roots in Taiwan or so-called 'Mainlanders' who immigrated in 1949 -- and whether Taiwanese are also Chinese is politically controversial. While most Taiwanese will not mind being called Huaren (term for someone with Chinese ancestry), about 40% will object to being called Zhongguoren (term for 'Chinese' with political connotations). A small minority of mainlanders see themselves as exiles and do not identify themselves as Taiwanese.
To avoid offending certain groups, refer to the People's Republic of China as 'Communist China' or 'Mainland China' rather than simply China. Referring to the Republic of China as 'Taiwan Province' will draw a negative reaction from most Taiwanese. 'Greater China' is another more politically neutral term to use.
Citizens of the following counties may enter Taiwan visa-free for thirty days provided that their passports do not expire within six months: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, USA.
There are international flights into the Chiang Kai Shek International Airport in Taoyuan, and to a lesser extent, to the airport at Kaohsiung. A domestic airport is located in Taipei (don't make the mistake of asking a taxi driver to take you to the Taipei airport if you actually mean C.K.S. International). The Kaohsiung domestic and international airports are located in the same complex.
Local carriers include China Airlines and EVA Air. Cathay Pacific schedules many flights to Hong Kong as Taiwanese often have to go to mainland China via a third destination.
There are a number of domestic plane companies, all of which have dinky little planes and get across Taiwan quite quickly. Taipei and Kaohsiung have regular services and links to most other domestic airports; however, it may not be possible to fly from one domestic airport to another.
The high-speed rail, scheduled to start in 2005, is supposed to give the plane companies a run for their money.
Buses run between most Taiwanese cities and are called ke-yun, as opposed to gong-che which run within the county and city. There are many bus lines, as well as a government-run line. Seats are usually pretty comfortable, the bathrooms are usually not too stinky and fares are usually quite good, but it seems like every few months, there is a story in the papers about a bus driver who had a bit to drink before driving. Be aware of this.
In cities, bus transportation can be great. The bus system in Taipei, though complicated, is quite thorough. It's possible to go from almost anywhere in the city to almost anywhere else taking only one bus. However, bus signs are almost entirely in Chinese; English bus maps exist, but can be hard to find. If you're staying at a hotel, have the clerk suggest some routes for you, and hopefully circle your destinations on the map. Show this to the bus driver; they will hopefully tell you when to get off when you get there. In other cities, bus service varies widely. In smaller cities, there is no bus service at all. There are usually taxis waiting at the airport and bus terminals, but these will cost more than a bus unless you have a big group of people.
Taiwan's train system is quite good, and stops in most cities. In addition, the train system allows you to bypass the highways, which can become extremely crowded on weekends and national holidays. The fastest train is Zichiang, and the slowest is Pingkuai. There is often little to choose between prices and destination times for adjacent train classes, but the gap can be quite large between the fastest and the slowest. You can order up to 6 tickets online - in English - at http://railway.hinet.net 2 weeks in advance, or 1 week in advance if you go directly to a train station. Train schedules, pricing etc can be checked at http://www.railway.gov.tw; however, the online services only work between 8am and 9pm or thereabouts. There is a small charge, NT$7, for online bookings. Children under a certain height go free, and taller kids get half-price tickets. If you get return tickets there is a small discount.
Motorscooters are the number one form of transport in Taiwan. Most families have at least one. They are often very polluting, and leave you exposed to the elements, but they are also cheap to maintain and nimble in Taiwan's alleyways. Travelling long distances by motorscooter could be dangerous, but people have done round-the-island trips by scooter.
Until recently - 2003 - it wasn't even possible to get a scooter above 150cc in Taiwan. Many of the scooters within cities are only 50 cc. The more powerful versions are known as junghsing (heavy format) scooters, are still extremely rare and terribly expensive.
Taiwan is not the place to learn how to ride a scooter; attempting to do so in the busier cities could easily be fatal. However if you know what you're doing, it should be possible to rent a scooter by the day or week, depending on the city in which you're staying. In Taipei, one place to try is the Bikefarm.
Another option is to rent a motorcycle. Many foreigners swear by their 125 CC Wild Wold motorcycles, and a trip around the island on a motorcycle can be a great way to see the island up close.
VIP Rentals in Taipei is quite happy to rent cars to foreigners, and will even deliver the car to a given destination. Be aware that you need an international driving licence, or a local driving licence (converted from the international) if you are going to drive in inner cities like Jiayi. A deposit is often required, and the last day of rental is not pro-rated, but calculated on a per-hour basis at a separate (higher) rate.
A mix of Taiwanese, Mandarin, Hakka and other varieties of Chinese are spoken on the island, as well as many aboriginal languages. Taiwanese is the mother tongue of 70% of the population. In the north where there is a large concetration of Mainlanders, most people speak Mandarin as their primary language, but in the south of the island, Taiwanese becomes more standard. All people schooled after 1945 are generally fluent Mandarin, but some may be hesitant to speak it, as they see Mandarin as a sign of dominance by recent immigrants. Some in the older generation are not fluent, but were schooled in Japanese. Some Mandarin speakers have been refused taxi service in the south for not speaking Taiwanese.
Especially in Taipei, many people are bilingual, speaking at least a little English. The children often understand more English than their parents, especially with the emphasis on English language education today. However, attempts to speak Mandarin or Taiwanese will be met with beaming smiles and encouragement, by and large.
The currency of Taiwan is the New Taiwan Dollar, or NT$. As of mid 2004, the exchange rate was approximately US$1:NT$33. Thus the NT$, Taiwan's smallest denomination, is essentially worth 3 US cents. The simplest method of calculating exchange on the run is to multiply by 3, then divide by 100 for US$.
A meal at a streetside stall may cost NT$50; a meal at a Western fast food restaurant will run you about NT$100; a hotel room at a swanky hotel might cost NT$5000 or more.
As in many Asian countries, night markets are a staple of Taiwanese entertainment, shopping and eating. Every city has at least one night market; larger cities like Taipei may have a dozen or more. The most popular night market in Taipei is at Shilin, where one can dine on snake soup or even knock back a shot of cobra blood. Night markets are crowded so remember to watch out for your wallet!
Night markets are open-air markets, usually on a street or alleyway, with vendors selling all sorts of wares on every side. Many bargains can be had, and wherever prices are not displayed, haggling is assumed.
In the larger cities you will have a night market every night. Sometimes they are only open certain nights of the week so it's best to check their schedule.
Popular things to buy include:
Generally speaking, the foods of Taiwan are derived from mainland Chinese cuisines. It is possible to find Szechuan food, Hunan food, Beifang food, Cantonese food and almost every other Chinese cuisine on the island. Taiwanese renditions of these cuisines tend to be somewhat greasy, though, and completely authentic mainland cuisines are rare. This is especially true for the Cantonese cuisine, as demonstrated by the lack of Cantonese speakers on the island.
Taiwan also has many of its own local specialties. Perhaps because of its long isolation from mainland China and distance from other parts of the world, most cities and towns in Taiwan are famous for special foods. For example, Hualian is famous for its mochi, a sticky rice snack often flavored with sesame, peanuts or other flavorings. Yonghe, a suburb of Taipei, is famous for its soy milk and breakfast foods. Taichung is famous for its sun cakes, a kind of sweet stuffed pastry. In Jiayi, it's square cookies, also called cubic pastry, crispy layered cookies cut into squares and sprinkled liberally with sesame seeds. Virtually every city has its famous specialties; many Taiwanese tourists will go visit other cities on the island only to try the local foods, then return home.
Taiwan is a vegetarian's delight. Vegetarian restaurants (called su-shr tsan-ting in Mandarin) can be found in abundance all over the island, and they run from cheap (around NT$80-$100) buffet style to gourmet and organic. All Mahayana Buddhists, which account for the majority of adherents in Taiwan, aspire to be pure vegetarian in deference to the Buddha's teaching of non-violence and compassion.
Taiwan is a great place to find fresh fruit drinks. Vendors in sidewalk stalls are often available to blend watermelon, pineapple, kiwifruit, oranges and other fruit on the spot.
Soy milk, or doujiang, is a great treat. Try it hot or cold. Savoury soy milk is a traditional Taiwanese breakfast dish. It is somewhat of an acquired taste as vinegar is added to curdle the milk. Both sweet and savoury soy milk are often ordered with yutiao, or deep fried dough crullers.
Traditional alcoholic drinks in Taiwan are very strong. Kaoliang is the most famous alcoholic drink. It is extremely strong, usually 140 proof or more, and usually drunk straight.
Taiwanese people often drink beer on ice.
There are a lot of pseudo health drinks in Taiwanese supermarkets and convenience stores. Look out for asparagus juice and lavender milk tea for example.
Pearl milk tea is no longer a fad in Taiwan, but can still be found at nearly every coffee/tea shop. Just don't expect to see everyone in the homeland of pearl milk tea drinking it.
Taiwan doesn't sleep - just look at the number of 24-hour stores out there.
There are many styles of kung fu taught in Taiwan, largely by masters who came here with the KMT in the late 1940's.
Styles include Ba Gua, Tai Chi, Wing Chun, Praying Mantis, Shway Shiao and various weapons systems. Many of the students are westerners in these classes, which has led to the rise of several NHB schools, as well as Ju Jitsu and Akido from Japan.
Some of the more famous teachers will provide you with the paperwork needed to extend a student visa twice.
Many travellers coming to Taiwan pick up temporary jobs teaching English. Most Taiwanese people want to learn English, but due to the country's history, opportunities to use English are rare. English-speaking foreigners are most in demand.
It is illegal to work without a work permit, and legal work requires a college degree and usually a long (two month+) application process, but many travellers nonetheless manage to find managers willing to pay them under the table for short durations.
Taiwan is an extremely safe country, and women generally feel safe walking alone late at night. This is not to say that there is no crime, of course; you should always exercise caution and avoid dangerous neighborhoods. Unlike in many neighbouring countries, it is very rare to see drunks on the street, day or night.
Women should not take taxis alone late at night. If doing so is unavoidable, it's a good idea to arrange to have a friend call you when you get home, and to be seen making the arrangements for this by the cab driver.
Westerners should be cautious of relatively undercooked food. Many of the Taiwanese restaurants offer plates of raw, sliced red meat and uncooked seafood that are brought to the table and either barbecued or simmered in a pot of stock. As this constitutes a staple of the Taiwanese diet, any bacteria that may remain don't affect the locals, but can wreak havoc on foreigners. The best policy is to make sure you cook the food in a manner to which you are accustomed.
Common taboos are:
Note on Romanization
The Romanization of Chinese used in Taiwan is not standardized. Most placenames are derived from a bastardized version of Wade-Giles. Though the government mandated Tongyong Pinyin in 2002, local governments are free to override the order. Some local governments, such as that of Taipei City, have converted their street signs to Hanyu Pinyin. This article attempts to use the Romanizations most commonly used in Taiwan (on street signs, buses, tourist maps, etc.).