What things to do if you are in Taiwan and you have little time? How to get from airport to hotel the quickest? What are the things that will surprise you the most?
Sometimes when you are headed to one destination, you get a chance to visit another one, if you have a stopover in your flight, or, you can choose to include one. Before buying such a ticket, however, there are a few things to consider:
- How much will it cost you to get from the airport to the city?
- What are the costs of the hotel, if you need to spent the night?
- Do you need a visa to exit?
- Are there any additional taxes or departure fees to be paid if you leave the airport (for example, in Thailand)?
- Does the airline provide complimentary hotel or free excursions in the city?
- And the main question – is your stopover longth enough for you to be able to see anything in the city?
Heading to Palau
In my recent trip to Palau, I needed to spend the night in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, both going there and returning. I saw it as an opportunity to see another culture and also rest my legs between the flights.
There was not too much time for me to see something in Taipei, as both times I arrived in the evening (on the way back, really late), and my flight away was at 1pm. But in total I had about 24 hours, in which I also had to sleep, and I managed to get an immense amount of experience in Taipei and I definitely want to come back!
Taiwan has a population of 23.5 million people, and I realize that I don’t know much about it’s culture or history. In my school we did not cover any of the history bits about Asia, and the more I visit, the more I feel that I dearly miss this knowledge. Actually, up to the time of my visit, my only knowledge about Taiwan was that Chinese people live there and not Taiwanese, gained from American series “Fresh Off the Boat”, so not very book-based. But it did made my wonder how come that those are not indigenous people of Taiwan. The island of Taiwan did have local Taiwanese people who had come there 6000 years ago from mainland China and spoke Austronesian language. They were warriors who protected their land and it was almost not visited by anyone up to the 16th century, when pirates visit became more often. Dutch and Spanish colonists came around 17th century and called the island Ilha Formosa or the beautiful island, and at this time immigrants from mainland China started coming it. The territory also was part of Qing Dinasty lands for a while, until it was given to Japan (turns out, many older people speak Japanese). As communism rose in the mainland territory, the followers of the republic came to Taiwan, as this is the reason for the tense relationships.
The full name of Taiwan is the Republic of China or ROC, and China is People’s Republic of China or PRC. PRC believes there is one China, but then there is the question of which government is the real one – nationalist or communist. PRC refuses diplomatic relationships with any country that acknowledges Taiwan, and tos there are only 22 that do, including Palau where I am headed to next. Until 1971 It was ROC that was representing China in the UN, until PRC took the seat. Taiwan is the largest economy with most of inhabitants that isn’t represented in the UN. In other important institutions it is known as Chinese Taipei, due to pressure from China.
We are headed to Taiwan with Latvian chocolates and dark bread, as we are supposed to meet a Latvian girl who lives there. She promised us to show the city a bit and we agreed to go out for a bubble tea. But during the flight from Bangkok to Taipei, her plans change, so we end up alone and have to use our time to the most. Good that we had a plan B and had looked up good sights to see on our own!
To exit the airport, all of the visitors must go through a scanner that measures your temperature. Some people get stopped for additional screening. It’s not a good idea to fly to Taiwan if you are sick! Then we wait in line for passport control, not much questions and we get a new stamp in the passport that says ROC. No visa needed for Latvian citizens.
Getting from the Airport to the City Center
We want to get to the city as soon as possible, and have read that the best way is by bus 1819, going to Taipei Main Station from platform 5. Ticket costs NT$125, which around 3.80eur, cash only (you can get money in the ATM at the airport). The suitcases have to be left in the suitcase are of the bus, you get a ticket for them an a sticker on your bag (very hard to get it off later). Be cautious that you might need to wait in the line for quite a bit, as many people want to take the bus, same for the return journey. However, since March 2nd there is a new alternative, the newly opened metro line that costs just a bit more, NT$160, is a bit faster and will get you to the center in 38 minutes. This is only an option if you go during the day, as this metro line works from 6am til 11pm (bus is operational a little longer).
By the way, there are two international airports in Taipei! Taipei International (TSA) and Taiwan Taoyuan International (TPE), which is located a little further away from the center, most European airlines fly there. It’s worth to know where exactly you will land to plan how far you need to go. Taoyuan is the base for China Airlines (they provide daily tours for free for all and accommodation for business passengers), which provides further flights to many Oceania destinations. When I was buying the tickets and saw the airline name, I was confused to why the name has “China”in it, but the ROC/PRC situation made it clear.
The bus takes around an hour, as it’s the traffic jam time, and stops in several places on the way. Outside the weather is very warm and humid, but inside the A/C is on and a jacket comes in handy. We see weird advertisements for the whole drive time, and get acquainted with noodles that will make you strong and able to play basketball as noone else (all girls will love you and white teeth as a bonus!) and a backpack that lets you pack both laptop and sport shoes for gym after work. There are also various household objects ads that we don’t get.
Where to Stay in Taipei?
Finally we reach the city center at the Taipei Main Station and our hotel is just a short 5 min walk away. If you fly in late, check the hours of reception! Our return flight was delayed and we got lucky that the guy at the reception waited for us, I don’t know what we would have done if he hadn’t! We stayed in Relax 3 on the way there and Orange Hotel on the way back, just 20 m further from the first one (both around $100 per night). Both hotels had breakfast included, and we also had free water in the rooms and various little additional things – snacks and a very broad selection of toiletries, including face masks and a warm toilet seat with buttons to get water fountain!
In this area there are many small cafes and 7eleven store to get juice, newspaper or sandwich. The metro is very close by and very easy to use. You can get a ticket in the machine (English as well) and select which station you will go to. One ride was usually around NT$20-25. Day pass is NT$150. People wait in line for the train and there is music playing when the train is approaching. In metro stations we noticed another particular style of advertising in Taiwan – seems they really like cartoon heroes! And cats are beloved too. We also take a picture in the metro photo booth to get a picture with skyline of Taipei and cats.
Later we see cats everyone – on purses, T-shirts, and you can get them in Shilin Night Market (even the very fancy kind). There are bowls with cats, little toys with cats and clothing with cats. I read that cats have become increasingly popular in the Chinese culture in the last decade, as it lucky cat charm originally comes from Japan. There are many stories about how cat was not included in the zodiacs, usually involving a rat who pushed him or cheated him in some way. Ir read that Vietnamese zodiac includes the cat, but some say it’s because of the similarity of the words rabbit and cat (Mao). Historians believe that cats were brought in from India with Buddhism much later than zodiac signs developed and this is the reason it is not included.
Shilin Night Market
We walk in the Shilin market after 9 pm and it’s still full of people eating food cooked on the spot, sitting on stairs across the street. If suddenly you feel a whiff of dirty socks and smelly towels, you can be sure stinky tofu stand is nearby!
You can also get a massage and buy souvenirs here. We also tried the traditional bubble tea here, called also pearl milk tea. It’s black, green or fruit tea that has tapioca or fruit jelly balls inside, and milk. Usually cold and sealed in the machine, given with a sharp straw in a bag, so you can take it home!
If bubble tea isn’t your thing, Taiwan has plenty of opportunity to get other teas – especially tasty oolong tea, as 20% of world production of tea comes from here and is called the “champagne of teas” due to special growing conditions. If you have more than one night in Taiwan, visiting one of the tea gardens can be a good idea! This time I just buy some tea at a vendor in the Main Station, and it’s a whole ritual with tasting and tea preparation, and a business card given to me at the end. Cheapest were around NT$150, more expensive NT$500, all tastes really, really good.
Apart from Shilin Night Market, we also visit the Lungshan Buddhist temple that is a few metro stops away. Taoism worshippers come here too and it has altars for Chinese sea goddess Matsu.
It was originally built in 1738, but significantly renovated in 1919 after earthquakes, typhoons and war damage. We come here on a Saturday morning and there is a celebration.
People sing and bring food, flowers and little bins with sharps. We feel a little out of place in the holy moment, but it’s very interesting to observe!
There is also a little waterfall at the entrance and a pond where children feed koi fish. An artist is painting the temple nearby and more and more worshippers show up.
We also manage to see another iconic place in Taipei, the famous skyscraper Taipei 101 that used to be the tallest building in the world from 2004 til 2009 when Burj Khalifa in Dubai took over the title.
It’s the postcard place of Taipei and there are always many visitors here. We are the only Europeans here and get stopped by a filming crew who ask us our opinion about new Taiwan tourism slogan.
Just opposite the skyscraper there is a little park with a colorful cow exhibit and on the other side an exhibit dedicated to “When the Moon Forgot”, a very popular children’s book by Jimmy Lao, written in 1999 (available also in English). It’s about a little boy who takes care of a fallen Moon and helps it go back.
Soon our time in Taipei is over and we head to the airport. Our selfie stick gets measured very strictly here and just barely passes the allowed limit. We laugh that it’s good we didn’t take our big tripod, which we wanted to use during the hike in Xiangshan or Elephant mountain (but did not get the time to do it).
The Best Airport
Walking in the airport we are not surprised it has been mentioned as one of the best airports in the world, as there are many places to eat and sit, and it is very green (beautiful, enormous orchids everywhere). I try matcha crepe cake for the first time here with a tall tea from Starbucks.
I am mostly surprised by the theme gates here, one is dedicated for music awards, another to aviation, but the most popular to Hello Kitty, where every sofa is fitting, and you can even get a Hello Kitty stamp when boarding from this gate. Turns out, there even is an airplane flying to various destinations all over world that is all designed in Hello Kitty, even toilet paper has the pictures! Of course, there is a Hello Kitty store near the gate.
When we board the plane to head back to Europe in October, it’s still 30 degrees Celsius here and we think – why isn’t this route more popular with Europeans? It’s possible to sunbathe here (in all-inclusive resorts even, if you wish), dive with colorful fish, learn more about the culture and have some tasty food. Also, the nature is beautiful here! Locals seemed very kind and we found common language even with those who didn’t speak much English (but the younger generation does). 24 hours was enough to understand we definitely need to come back to Taiwan!