Basics 

Taipei is the capital of Taiwan, a small island nation in the South China Sea located north of the Philipines and southwest of Japan. It is a crowded and sprawling city that spreads around the mountains in the country's north. Taipei is the most densesly populated city in Taiwan, which has the second highest population density in the world. It is home to 2.6 million people, 7 million people if you include the metropolitan area. The average resident of Taipei drives a scooter, believes in spirits, and thinks fish flavored candy and chips are normal. 

The main languages are Mandarin, Taiwanese and Hakka. There are a lot of English signs. Some people in Taipei, especially younger people, speak English, but many speak no English at all.  

Reasons to love Taipei

A month after arriving in Taipei I was hooked. Finding a job as an English teacher had been easy and the city was far better than I expected. Taipei seemed nearly perfect, so I sat down to write, Why I love Taipei. The article was going to be a balls out love song to Taiwan’s capital inspired by; 
  • the dozens of unique neighborhoods
  • the great public transit
  • the thousands of restaurants
  • the large, accessible, and well preserved National Park that goes across the top of a mountain range in the north of the city
  • the decent beaches
  • the many coastal hiking trails, junglesque forests, rivers and waterfalls that are all within an hour and a half of the city
  • the nice and helpful people
  • the sexy and accommodating people
  • guanxi and kindness over rightness in conversation
  • the good art galleries and museums
  • the never ending bevy of greasy, salty, sweet, fishy, fruity and MSG filled street foods
  • the volcanically heated hot springs and mud baths
  • the sakura blossoms in April and the other flowering trees throughout the year
  • the bakeries
  • the world’s tallest building, the gigantic bamboo stalk that is Taipei 101.
  • the walks through the botanical gardens of the former dictator Chiang Kai-Shek
  • the strolls on elevated boardwalks through the largest mangrove forest in Asia, which is filled with stilt legged birds devouring the overpopulated communities of large clawed red crabs and mudskippers
  • the relaxing reading beside the ponds and sculptures in the centrally located Memorial Peace Park where synchronized tai chi routines slowly unfold near straight backed mediators relaxing by the koi and turtles that bubble and swim in the water beside them
  • the tons of markets teeming with activity and raw meat and fish and strange fruit
  • the sunsets from the Bali ferry as it makes its way out of the river's mouth and into the ocean 
  • the fact you can get off at any subway stop and find a mountain to hike up
  • the urban farming at the bases of the mountains
  • the rice paddies beside commercial buildings 
  • the cold and honeyed teas that can be filled with an wide array of aloe cubes and tapioca balls and other strange gelatinized things
  • the good sushi and the wide selection of Japanese stuff
  • the siestas on hot days
  • the beef noodle soup
  • the different kinds of palm trees
  • the big bucket gardens in the front of houses and buildings and on balconies
  • the cold tofu desserts
  • the public skateboarding parks and public climbing walls
  • the legality of drinking beer in the open
  • the small community parks that fill up after dinner with exercising neighbors that gather amicably to chat and take turns on steel playground versions of western exercise equipment
  • the public aerobics and dance classes underneath overpasses
  • the trails and parks along the city's rivers
  • the old men that gather to chew betel nut and play Chinese chess and smile horrific red toothless grins and will let you play a game or two before kindly pushing you off the board
  • the cheap and professional dentists and doctors
  • the foreigner help number where operators will answer, in pretty solid English, any question you have whether its about visa inquiries or where to shop, and they will also find any phone number you need, all free of charge. You can chat these people up too, which is often pretty fun.
  • the low cost and high availability of papaya, mango, and pineapple.

Disillusionment

I never finished Why I love Taipei, and I have soured on the city in the meantime.  Specifically, on the weather and food.

The weather

After spending one rain filled year suffering in this wet moldy city, I could not write the glowing review I had originally planned. At times damp and cold, and at times swelteringly hot and humid, Taipei is plagued by an endless and suffocating stratus cloud cover.  Its humidity levels are regularly above 90%.

Read the “When to visit" section of any Taipei travel guide and it will say that, in Taipei, it can rain at any time of the year. This a polite way of saying that it rains all the time and that if it's not raining, it's probably about to.

For instance, in 2005, Taipei got over 3 meters of rainfall. London receives about half a meter of rain a year and famously wet Seattle rarely cracks one meter of rain a year. To find somewhere as rainy as Taipei you need to go to a place like the Amazon Rainforest, which receives around 1.75 to 4 meters of annual rainfall. To sum up, if you need sun don’t come to Taipei.  

At the end of June, when I first arrived, it was the start of the summer typhoon season. I would say the typhoon season is actually the best time to visit. Unless there is a typhoon, the two to three month season will have beautiful and sunny mornings, clouds and rain in the afternoon, and a nice temperate dusk. This is as good as it gets and you must treasure every dry hour, and every fluke rain free afternoon, because for the other 9 or so months it is nothing but rain.     

The food

Taipei is touted as one of the great Asian food capitals but my palate would not agree with that.  To be sure, there is a lot of variety and some great standards like beef noodle soup, onion pancakes and stinky tofu, but by and large the standard fare is poor and doesn't do well on repeated eating.

The biggest problem is the food is way too greasy. It is normal for Taiwanese cooks to actually add extra oil to make food look shinier. This is supposed to improve its appearance.

The vegetables, in general, are also oily and overcooked and contain a mummifyingly dehydrating amount of MSG. Even if you ask for no MSG the request is usually ignored because the cook thinks they have the“good" MSG (it turns out there are different varieties of MSG) or because its impossible to remove MSG for the materials prepared beforehand.

The bread is also not so good. Regular bread and buns are almost all sweetened and most bread is chock full of Taiwan’s favorite ingredient, oil. The oil keeps the bread incredibly soft so you don't have to worry about dropping any crumbs while you smoosh through the sweet oily bread.   

Anyway, there are good restaurants and if you are visiting for a short time the food will probably seem great. But when you live off the food you buy (many people in Taipei do not have kitchens in their apartments and must buy food prepared outside), the regular food gets kinda repulsive. You can buy good food from around the world if you have the money. Everything that's available in a Western city can be bought in Taipei, there is just less selection. 

Even more frustrating then the low quality of the regular food though is its unavailability. There seems to be an iron clad tradition among Taiwanese restaurant owners to only be open from 11-2 and from 5-10.  Nothing but franchises are open from 2-5. After 10, the city becomes a culinary waste land and you are forced to go to the night markets to eat. Intially, the markets are a heart racing people watching experience,  but they soon become a claustrophobic and frustrating place where every food quality corner is cut and you are normally left unsatisfied.

So...

If you are thinking of moving here, Taipei is pretty great. You just need to be able to handle the rain and will probably want to live in a place with a kitchen. If you are just thinking about a vacation, I would recommend it. There is definitely more in Taipei and Taiwan than most people would expect. The country is known more as a manufacturer of cheap goods and LCD screens than for its natural beauty, but Taiwan is gorgeous. And despite being a massive urban center, Taipei manages to retain much of this beauty.

But there is an unbelievable amount of rain.

 

 

 

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