My regular readers will be aware that, of late, I have not been particularly, er, regular with my updates. There was a summer to be had in London, albeit only two weeks of sunshine for me slotted in between holidaying in Serbia and Montenegro and successfully completing the London Triathlon. Now, though, I am back in earnest on the data collection trail and over the next six weeks I hope to be posting regularly from my travels through Asia, taking in Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia.
I’m in the cosmopolitan capital of Taiwan – Taipei, but first I must go off on a tangent. People often ask me how many countries there are in the world and my answer is always the same – 196 (well it changed back in 2011 when Sudan split in two but that is by the by). This figure is open to debate and many readers will disagree with me for various reasons as to what makes a country a country but, for me, I use the 193 United Nation states and Vatican City, Kosovo and Taiwan. The reasons as to whether Kosovo or Taiwan are independent nation states or not can be controversial depending on who you speak to but the point of this ‘tangent’ is that when I’m asked how many countries there are I always include Taiwan on this list whereas others may not!
The name Taiwan first seeped in to my consciousness back in the 1980s as a child. It seemed that every toy I joyously unwrapped at Christmas or on my birthday had ‘Made in Taiwan’ embossed on it. Later it became all sorts of electronic gadgets that would wear the ‘Made in Taiwan’ tag and so, in many ways, it’s probably one of the first countries I knew of. Of course we now know Taiwan as an electronics and IT powerhouse but it hasn’t always been that way. In the early 1960s Taiwan had a similar GDP per capita to that of the Republic of Congo (still today one of the poorest countries in the world). From the 1960s through to the 1990s, though, the country blossomed economically and was dubbed one of the four ‘Asian Tigers’ along with Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea. Today, even amongst the global economic downturn, Taiwan has managed to keep afloat and the country is still abuzz with optimism.
It has very close links to China and, to me, Taipei seems like many of the major Chinese cities minus the bad bits plus an extra dose of efficiency. On the surface it seems that poverty is not much of a problem, certainly not in the city centre, and there is bustle everywhere you turn. The Taipei 101 building is THE symbol of Taiwan and can be seen from seemingly every street in the capital. It narrowly missed out in my ‘top five’ skyscrapers list in an earlier blog of mine and has won many accolades for its unique shape and design. At 509m high it was the tallest building in the world for six years until the gargantuan Burj Khalifa opened in Dubai in 2010, and only two days ago it was ousted from second spot by the new Shanghai Tower in China. At the foot of the tower is a major shopping mall with all of the goods and gadgets on sale that you can find anywhere in the world. It makes for a pleasant change to be collecting data in a place of plenty after spending much of the year so far in the likes of sub-Saharan Africa.
Another change, which I was not used to in Africa, is the efficiency of everyone and everything. The taxi drivers may not speak a syllable of English but they will bend over backwards to get you to your destination quickly and safely – and honestly (no fare meter cheating here!). Everyone seems happy and smiley and it really is a gem of a place to be. There is also a large slice of kitsch to be had as you stroll around town. Public art, both permanent and temporary, is big here and it seems the brighter and more out there, the better. Well, it has all certainly helped to keep a constant grin on my face.
Taiwan is not the largest of islands but there is still a good 200km between Taipei and my current location of Taichung. Still, the High Speed Railway – one of the fastest in the world – made a mockery of the distance in no time. Taichung is Taiwan’s third city and is also the city where bubble tea was invented – possibly (in my humble opinion) the vilest drink I’ve ever tasted! Anyway, more from Taichung in my next blog.
My impressions of Taiwan so far have all been positive and the people are a joy but I’m glad I don’t work in the Taiwanese parliament where it seems the folk are a little less restrained than on the street. This rather amusing video from last Friday shows why: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23544737