On the Move

6 Things You Probably Don’t Know about Taiwan

When it comes to travel (or pretty much anything else), the island of Taiwan more often than not gets overlooked by many who head instead to Japan, Thailand, or mainland China. Why is this? The island seems to suffer most from its image as some sort of “generic Asian nation.” This is both unfortunate and undeserved, as there are more than a few notables which make Taiwan stand out.

Up until a few years after the end of World War II, the Republic of China (ROC) included Taiwan as well as most of mainland China. With the communists victory in 1949, however, mainland China became unified under the banner of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Taiwan did not. This is important to note. Since then, the island has (arguably) operated as a sovereign state.

Simply put, in practice Taiwan functions as an independent nation. They have their own government, military, economy, and overall national identity. On paper, they abide by the all-encompassing “One China” rule, and are considered a province of mainland China.

The PRC does not recognize the reality of Taiwan existing more or less as an independent nation. At the same time, PRC nationals are required to get a special travel permit in order to visit the island.

While Taiwan actually had representation in the UN under the title of “China” until 1971, the island is no longer recognized as a qualifying member. This is an issue mired in complexity, controversy, and begrudging compromises. For now, particularly with representation in the Olympic Games or in finance, Taiwan often chooses to go by the name “Chinese Taipei.” And yet despite using this name in its bid to join as a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Beijing still rejected them. Response to this decision—and any likelihood of a reversal—has been vague and noncommittal.

Like many nearby nations, Taiwan experienced numerous periods of aggressive trading and colonization from various European powers as well as the Japanese. Much of this took place in the 1600s (particularly with the Dutch) on into the 20th century (Japanese colonial rule). The name “Formosa” was given to the island by the Portuguese, and this is what it was known as up until the end of World War 2.

There are numerous (and surprisingly extensive) bike paths in and around the cities as well as more rural areas throughout Taiwan. This is probably unexpected to those who have done little traveling to Asia and imagine Taiwan to be dominated by factories and congested, chaotic streets.

It is more than a little refreshing to see that the development of cycling infrastructure received a higher priority here than in other Asian nations. This applies to greater Taipei, Kaohsiung, the rugged east coast, and down through Kenting in the far south. If there are not designated bike lanes on the roads themselves, there is at least enough of a regular “biker” presence that it has influenced how most people drive. With perhaps mainly tourists in mind, there are many designated bike paths which are separate from the roads. These often take you through some beautiful natural scenery.

Unlike mainland China, Taiwan is quite relaxed in this regard. So when it comes to Internet access, there is no need to worry about having your favorite sites blocked, or to watch the media go into a fit over too much cleavage. And while Internet speeds have not yet made the global top 10 in rankings, overall they are faster than average. Plus, there is free Wi-Fi in most public areas in major cities.

Just to make this clear: Taiwan is not the same as Thailand. A surprising number of people confuse the two, embarrassing themselves with comments such as “Taiwan? Oh, I love Thai food” or “So did you learn any Thai while you were there?”

Also definitely worth a mention is that Taiwan is home to the highest peak in East Asia. Standing at almost 4,000 m (13,000 ft) is Yushan (Jade Mountain). So while, yes, there exists the urban reality of flat, densely populated cities, also keep in mind that approximately two-thirds of the island is dominated by rugged mountains and hills.

  • Michael Musashi

    I love Taiwan. Taipei is like Tokyo but with a Chinese twist. A metropolis filled with friendly people too which is rare.

    Taiwan has some great hikes and MB trails, too. And if you want to have some fun in the sun you can head south to Kaohsiung.

    Definitely worth a visit–maybe even a long stay if you can get a visa.

  • big in japan

    Living in nearby Japan for as long as I have makes it all the more embarrassing that I didn’t know half of this about Taiwan. Basic history of “Formosa” up to and including WWII, yep. After that it’s a big blank. Seems like I’m missing out.