Last Thoughts on Taiwan

Street view of Taipei 101
Street view of Taipei 101
I’ve had this sitting in an unfinished draft on my computer for several weeks now. I figure I should get it up and out before I get any farther in Asia. I don’t want to get more than one country behind or I start to forget to much.

As I noted when I arrived in Taiwan, it is the first country I’ve visited on my trip which I have previously visited. As such, my thoughts on Taiwan aren’t just what I think of the place, but also what I think of the changes in the eight years since I was last there.

Changes

The biggest change I noticed in Taipei was the traffic. When I was last in Taipei, the metro hadn’t yet opened and the thing I remember most of Taipei was the streets jammed with scooters and taxis. There were very few private cars. I remember taking a photo at the time of an intersection which must have had about 100 scooters.

Scooters are still the most popular mode of transportation in Taipei, but there doesn’t seem to be as many as before. Likewise, there are more private cars, pretty much all of which are new and nice. Overall, the traffic in Taipei seems much lighter and the city seems cleaner. Not only is that a function of less traffic, but I think the scooters have gotten cleaner. The newer scooters have four-stroke engines instead of older, dirty two-stroke engines.

I really liked the Taipei metro. Along with Singapore, it one of the best I’ve seen in the world so far. It was very easy to navigate even if you don’t know Mandarin.

When I last spent a week in Taipei, I still felt as if I didn’t know the layout of the city. Now I feel as if I have a good idea of how it works.

The other big change I noticed is the use of English in the population.

In 1999, other than the people in the office I was visiting, I met no one who knew English. This time, about half the people I met in stores and restaurants were able to carry on a reasonable conversation in English. All of those people were probably under the age of 20. Almost everyone at the hostel I was staying at was there to teach English overseas. English has been a high priority for Taiwanese education. In addition to teaching it at school, there are also conversation schools which teach English to students, English schools for little kids, and English schools geared towards business professionals. I even read that there was discussion to make English one of the official languages of Taiwan (along with Mandarin and Taiwanese). I don’t know if they ever did it, but it gives an indication of how high of a priority they have given English instruction.

Chang Kai-Shek Memorial
Chang Kai-Shek Memorial

The Future

I had the pleasure of having dinner with Aaron Mowrey while I was in Taipei. Aaron was a debate coach in Minnesota when I was involved with debate, and he was the first person I’ve seen since I’ve started my trip that I knew before the trip started. He is studying in Taipei on a fellowship from Yale.

We discussed the future of Taiwan, the economy, and how it is doing compared to the rest of east Asia.

One of the things we discussed was the thing which is sort of always hanging over any discussion of Taiwan: relations with China.

Just in case you are not familiar with the history of Taiwan, let me give you the brief, 20 second history. At the beginning of the 20th Century, China is technically still an empire with an Emperor, with European countries heavily influencing the country. A revolutionary leader by the name of Sun Yat-Sen overthrows the Imperial government and establishes the Republic of China. Sun Yat-Sen dies in the 1920s and his replacement is a young Chang Kai-Shek.

During the 20s and 30s, rebel communist groups are active in the hinterlands. Later in the 30s, the Japanese invade Manchuria. The Republican forces are overwhelming compared to the communists, but the communists, under Mao Zedong, use the war, a large amount of Soviet assistance and some very clever tactics to eventually route the Republicans and send them fleeing to the island of Formosa. The government on Formosa continued to keep the Republic of China (RoC). The leadership was the same, the flag was the same, and they continued to be recognized at the legitimate government of China by most of the world after WWII.

Sun Yat-Sen is probably the only figure looked up favorably by both the PRC and the ROC
Sun Yat-Sen is probably the only figure looked up favorably by both the PRC and the ROC

The obvious problem was that they did not control a land mass the size of the United States and billion people. Eventually, reality gave in and in the early 1970s, the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) was recognized by the US and was given the seat that the RoC had on the UN Security Council.

The end result of all of this is that today, Taiwan is sort of in a diplomatic no-man’s land. Very few countries formally recognize Taiwan as China. Those that do are usually tiny nations like the Marshall Islands. The US has to go through some diplomatic contortions to work with Taiwan. They don’t have an embassy in Taiwan, but there is a “non-governmental organization” made up totally of “former” State Department officials who work on visa and passport issues. Officials that resign from the State Department to work there do not have that time count against them for seniority or retirement. Got that?

Everywhere I went in Taipei you would see signs advocating Taiwanese membership in the UN. Taiwan has backed away from claims of being the government of all of China and have been moving to just claiming to be the government of Taiwan. However, they have not declared themselves independent. The PRC still considers Taiwan to be part of China. If Taiwan declares themselves independent, China has said they would invade. The US has said they would defend Taiwan.

It has been a potential mess in the making for decades.

Personally, I think the odds of a war happening over Taiwan are small. There are several reasons for this:

  • if it was going to happen, it would have happened under Mao. Much more is at stake now and the Chinese and Taiwanese leaders seem more rational.
  • China has more to lose now that it is more tightly integrated into the world economy. While Taiwan is important, the implications of an embargo or sanctions could crush the Chinese economy. It is much easier for western nations to find low cost supplies of products than it is for China to find new buyers.
  • Relations have been improving between Taiwan and China. While I was in Taiwan, the communist party had their congress in Beijing. Hu Jintao announced he would be open to talk with Taiwan. China has proven they can think long term with Hong Kong, I don’t see why they can’t wait out Taiwan, especially since they can do business with them in the mean time.
  • An invasion would destroy Taiwan which would defeat the purpose of invasion.
  • A move towards independence would risk Taiwanese assets in China. Even if China didn’t invade, they could seize Taiwanese assets and stop trade and investment. Taiwan has an enormous amount at stake in China economically and it would cripple them if they announced independence.
  • A personally think that a Puerto Rico solution might be the end result. Puerto Rico is part of the United States, yet they pretty much run their own show, have their own olympic teams, etc. I could easily see a compromise where Taiwan is part of “China” (whatever that means) yet they have their own government, own currency (like Hong Kong), own olympic team and military. They would send advisors to Beijing (like Puerto Rico has representatives in Congress who don’t vote), perhaps have some officials at the UN in a non-voting status, have joint military exercises, etc.

If this issue can be resolved peacefully (and it is in the interest of all parties to do so), there is really no reason for armed conflict between the US and China, who are a world apart. While I don’t think the probability of a conflict it high, I do think it is one of the most important areas for future diplomatic efforts.

Taipei at night
Taipei at night

Economy

Aaron pointed out how the Taiwanese feel like they are slipping economically, especially compared to other Asian countries, specifically South Korea. I certainly don’t see any signs of slippage from the changes I’ve seen over the last eight years. While other nations have caught up to Taiwan, I don’t think it means that Taiwan has gotten any worse.

The most important industry in Taiwan seems to the computer electronics industry. Unlike Japan or Korea, much of the industry in Taiwan seems centered around personal computers, in particular processors, memory and laptops. If you have a laptop, there is a good change it was manufactured in Taiwan, regardless of the brand.

The problem is, the industry has pretty much become a commodity business. There is only one Taiwanese brand I can think of and that’s Acer. Acer isn’t really what you’d call a high end brand. Certainly not thought of in the same way as a Samsung, Sony, or Apple. Taiwan needs to start moving up the food chain. The business they had being the location of preference for manufacturing is quickly being taken over by China. They need to focus more on creating strong brands, design, and engineering. Basically, get out of the commodity business or find a way to de-commodify what they do.

Taiwan also needs to figure out how it fits into the rest of China. China already has two strong finance centers in Hong Kong and Shanghai. I think Taiwan’s best bet would be to become the Silicon Valley of China. China has the finance and manufacturing in place. What they need is place for entrepreneurs to flourish. While many businesses are starting right and left in China, being on an island away from the mainland and outside of the control of the PRC makes it an ideal candidate for being the Chinese launching pad for new ideas and entrepreneurs.

I really enjoyed Taipei. I was there a week longer than I had originally planned because I found it such and comfortable place to be. It will be interesting to see how it compares to Hong Kong and mainland China.

National Day

The flag of the Republic of China
The flag of the Republic of China
I am a member of Couchsurfing.com. While I have used it to get information, I have never used it to actually stay at someone’s house or to meet someone. The first person I’ve met on from Couchsurfing was Ruby, who agreed to show me around Taipei on National Day. (October 10)

This is the story of that very interesting day….

Morning

The primary festivities were supposed to take place at the Peace Park in Taipei. I was told to get there early, about 7am, so I got up really early just to make sure I was able to find my way there on time. The Peace Park is on the metro line so it isn’t hard to get to, but I hadn’t used the Taipei metro at that time, and the park was in walking distance of my hostel, so I figured I’d just walk.

Bad move. I ended up far away from where I was supposed to be and eventually had to take the metro just to get back to where I started. I did get to the Peace Park finally, but I was late so I figured I had missed Ruby. I had no idea what she looked like, so I figured I had screwed up and should just make the best of it.

Police at National Day celebration
Police at National Day celebration
I had no idea what was going on at the park. Police were everywhere. Not only were the police there, but they were loaded for bear. They had the riot gear out, trailers designed to deploy razor wire barricades, large steel barricades with barbed wire, and rocket launchers. Yes, rocket launchers.

Bus loads of kids from local high schools were showing up. Everyone was dress in similar school jogging suits. Being the only white guy in the area, I got lots of kids that would wave at me in the bus or try to practice their English with me (“Where you from? You like Taiwan? Do you like the Yankees?” See my Taiwan McDonald’s post for why the Yankees are popular in Taiwan…)

Being “the white guy” paid off as Ruby eventually found me wandering around with my camera. She didn’t know what was going on with all the police either. There was supposed to be some sort of parade/performace with all the high school kids. From what I could gather, there were protests last year so this year the police went way out of their way to have a strong show of force. The missile launchers were there as a sort of show of force to China.

We kept waiting around for something to happen, but nothing ever did. A bigger crowd showed up, including quite a few German tourists, some Boy Scouts, and a guy walking around with a sign giving out free hugs. (guess who got questioned by the Police…)

We eventually decided to leave as nothing was really happening. Ruby helped me through the process of getting a card for the Metro and we went to the Metro mall inside the Taipei Main Train Station. In particular we went to a restaurant called Din Tai Fung, which specialized in steamed dumplings. They had a window where you could see them making the dumplings. It sort of reminded me of an upscale Chinese version of Denny’s.

Steamed dumplings are not something new to me, but I did learn the proper way to eat them. I had always just grabbed them with chopsticks and put it into my mouth. I was shown how to put it on a spoon and add ginger with vinegar or soy sauce on top. We also had some other dishes as you can see from the photos.

After we were finished eating, it was still pretty early, so she took me to a city outside of Taipei near the coast, Jiou-Fen.

This is a bean soup and a dessert
This is a bean soup and a dessert

Afternoon

The trip there was about an hour via train and bus. The city was a just a small town was some temples. It was where a lot of people from the city would come on their days off. Because it was National Day, there were a fair number of people there.

It was also raining. It has been overcast or raining my entire time in Taipei up until the last few days I was there. It was the leftovers of the typhoon which passed by a a few days before I arrived. The area we walked around was partially covered, so I only had to occasionally jump between awnings to avoid getting wet.

The market was sort of a day equivalent of the night markets in Taipei. Lots of food vendors, lots of souvenirs, lots of things to cater to tourist (mostly from Taiwan. I don’t really seeing any westerners there).

I got the impression that this was the “keepin it real” part of Taiwan. I’ve eaten at tons of Chinese restaurants in my life, but I have never seen many of the foods offered here. Stinky tofu, pies with meat and tapioca, and something that I don’t know the proper name of, that I can only describe as bean soup dessert.

Fish ball vendor in Jiou-Fen
Fish ball vendor in Jiou-Fen
Stinky tofu does indeed stink. It has a smell very similar to that of a strong blue cheese. It isn’t as bad as a Limburger, but it’s pretty strong. The taste is just like tofu, which is to say there really isn’t much taste to it at all. The stuff we had was fried, but I saw it served other ways as well.

The bean soup dessert really wierded me out. It didn’t taste bad, it was just a very different combination of tastes that what I normally expect when eating bean soup. For starters, it was literally bean soup. It was full of beans and sweet potatoes. As if you purchased a bag of beans to make a bean soup. Second, The sweetness didn’t come from the sweet potatoes either. This was very sweet. Like they dumped a bag of sugar into a pot of bean soup. Also, it was also served hot. I had the simultaneous sensation of eating a hot soup for desert and sugary beans. It was very odd. I ate everything, but I couldn’t really finish off the broth. Hot, sugary, bean water didn’t appeal to me.

On the way back to Taipei City, we stopped and checked out some of the local souviner places and had dinner at a local restaurant which was near the hostel I was staying at. When you are in a place where you don`t know the language, it is easy to eat street food but much harder to eat at proper sit down restaurants. With street food, you just point at what you want, but if it is a legit restaurant, you have to read from a menu. Having Ruby there to order made the entire process easy.

Evening

The goal for the evening was to go and catch the National Day fireworks display. We managed to get out of the restaurant, take the metro, get on a shuttle bus and made it to the harbor where the fireworks were being displayed, just in time. The street in front of the harbor was packed with people. It looked like Times Square on New Years Eve.

Dried fish vendor
Dried fish vendor
I have no photos of what happened this evening. I was carrying around my camera in my camera bag and I wasn`t able to take it out. I had planned on taking photos of the fireworks, and I brought my tripod along so I could shoot it, but if I had taken the camera out it probably would have been destroyed.

I need to describe the set up where everyone was taken to view the fireworks. The harbor, where all the shuttle busses dropped everyone off, is surrounded by a very high wall. The wall goes down the length of the river, so there is no way to really go over or around it. There was however a gate and a small area on the other side of the gate near the river.

The fireworks were being set off on the other side of the river. This means that the wall prevented pretty much everyone who was there on the street from seeing them.

Oh, and the Chinese really like fireworks…..

We eventually worked our way op to the harbor wall, which was right at the point where the entire street of people was trying to get to. The crush of everyone trying to see the fireworks was to the point where I felt I was going to have the wind crushed out of me. Little kids were screaming and it was near impossible for their parents to get them out. I kept having headlines from the 1979 Cincinnati Who concert flashing in my head.

This is literally the only time on my trip where I felt like I was in any sort of danger. When you are in a crowd like that, there isn’t much you can do. You can’t run. You can’t walk. Eventually a flow of people moving the opposite direction opened up and Ruby and I got out that way. It was really crazy.

My day began with a failed parade and a show of Taiwanese police and military force and ended with fireworks show that could have ended up in a mass trampling, and in between, lots of Chinese food.

I’d really like to thank Ruby for showing me a side of Taipei I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. It was a helluva day…

Zai Jian Taiwan

Longshan Temple
Longshan Temple
My stay here was about a week longer than I expected, but I’m booked to leave here tomorrow and arrive in Okinawa. I’ll be there for three days then I fly to Kagoshima in southern Japan. I got my Japan Rail pass so I’ll be able to explore the country by rail for 21 days.

This is the first time I’ve needed to get a ticket in well over a month and a half. I last purchased tickets way back in Guam. No longer island hopping like I was in the Pacific has reduced my costs dramatically. (That is why I did the Pacific countries first actually. I wanted to get the most difficult, expensive part of the trip out of the way first) I currently only have tickets booked to Kagoshima. I think I’ll take a ferry to South Korea from Japan. I have found that there is a ferry that goes from Japan and South Korea to Vladivostok. I’d be very interested in going, but the problem will be getting the visa from the Russians. I’d have to do it in either Seoul or Tokyo and the application process would probably take longer than the length of time I’d be in Vladivostok. I think a visit to Vladivostok would be very cool, but I’m not going to do it if the visa is too big of a pain in the ass.

My reason for going to Kagoshima is to visit Yakushima island, a World Heritage Site. It is supposed to be one of the most beautiful places in Japan, and the forest that inspired Princess Mononoke.

If anyone has suggestions for what to do, where to go, things to see in Japan, don’t hesitate to make suggestions. The suggestions I’ve gotten from this website have proven more valuable that the information I get from guidebooks.

The Happy Prosperous Restaurant of the Golden Arch

Rice Burger
Rice Burger
For all the new readers, you can get the background on why I’m writing about McDonald’s here.

McDonald’s Taiwan is the first McDonald’s I’ve experienced since New Zealand to have a completely unique item on the menu: the rice burger.

The rice burger is a burger where the bun is replaced with rice and the patty is replaced with pork and there is a sweet sauce on the meat. It is basically everything you would get in a pork dish at a Chinese restaurant but in burger form.

Unlike most burgers, it didn’t come in a wrapper or a clam shell burger box. The container looked like a french fry container with a lid. The package had a baseball theme going with Chien-Ming Wang on the package. Chien-Ming Wang is the Michael Jordan of Taiwan. He is a starting pitcher for the Yankees and has won 19 games in each of the last two seasons. I went to the McDonald’s a block away from my hostel one morning when I first arrived and they had a projector set up and were showing the Yankees/Indians game live. I’ll talk more about Taiwanese baseball at a later date.

McDonalds Near My Hostel in Taipei
McDonalds Near My Hostel in Taipei
Back to the burger….

The rice bun wasn’t like a rice cake. It was moist, freshly cooked rice packed into a patty. It came wrapped in a wax paper like container. In hindsight, I think I ate it incorrectly. I think you were supposed to eat it with the paper around it. I ate it like a regular hamburger and the rice started to fall apart. I’m not sure if the rice was weirder than the pork or the sweet sauce. It was different, but it wasn’t bad. From what I understand, the rice burger got its start in Taiwan but has since spread through the rest of East Asia.

Unlike the Philippines, the rice burger was the only rice on the menu at the Taipei McDonald’s. The primary side item was french fries, but they also had a bowl of corn you could get. They also had corn soup on the menu. McDonald’s was the only place I saw corn for sale in Taiwan.

The rest of the menu was very heavy on chicken. Other than a Big Mac and a basic hamburger, there was no beef on the menu. No quarterpounder. No double cheeseburger. No McDLT. No The Big Mac, along with the basic chicken and fish sandwich, are the only items I’ve seen at every McDonald’s on my trip so far.

Crispy McChicken
Crispy McChicken
I had plain fried chicken at a McDonald’s for the first time in Taipei. It was really good. Like, unusually good. I ate chicken at McDonald’s for three days straight I liked it so much. I don’t know why it was so good, but it was.

To give you an idea of the cost of things in Taiwan, a basic Big Mac meal was NTD$99 (US$3). They did offer larger sizes for both fries and drinks, but they didn’t really publicize it. It was NDT$5 to up size either the fries or the drink. Portions were the same size as you would find in the US.

While Coke products were big on the menu, cold green tea seemed like the most popular beverage amongst locals.

I saw one Burger King in Taipei, one KFC, zero Domino’s, a few Pizza Huts and a few Subways.

I did see a bunch of Starbucks, and I saw even more Starbuck ripoffs. There were no fewer than three chains of coffee stores I saw that were ripoffs of Starbucks with very similar logos: Barista Coffee, Mr. Brown Coffee, and IS Coffee. They all had similar round logos with an image in the middle. There was also a burger chain which was probably as popular or more popular than McDonald’s called MOS Burger, but I think they are out of Japan and I’ll probably write about them more when I’m there.

Frankly, there are a LOT of food options in Taipei and western fast food is really a tiny part of the mix. The vast majority of the restaurants and food stalls are Chinese (or Taiwanese. I can’t say I’m that well versed to know the subtle differences).

I’ll be posting the story of my National Day adventure in Taipei soon, which will have more details on my local food adventures.

…I didn’t come all this way just to eat at McDonald’s :)

Stuck in Taiwan

My stay in Taiwan has lasted longer than I had originally expected. This is mostly due to my sloth and the fact that I’m living here so cheap. I’m literally spending less than $20 per day on everything.  Despite this being the most difficult place to communicate on my trip so far, I’ve found it easy to get around in Taipei. I really like the city.

I’ve spent the last few days trying to find a place that sells Japan Rail passes because I can’t get them once I’m in Japan. I finally found one but it is going to take a few days to process the pass. So now I have to wait until Monday evening to pick up the pass and then I can leave on Tuesday afternoon to Okinawa.

My goal between now and then is to be completely caught up on all my posts from the Philippines and Taiwan before I begin the adventure which is Japan.

Before I get to Okinawa, if anyone knows how I can get in touch with a Mr. Hanzo and a Mr. Miyagi, it would be appreciated. Thanks.

CameraQuest

Guang Hua Electronics Market....with Buddahist Monks
Guang Hua Electronics Market....with Buddahist Monks
I got a link from PVP today, so hello to everyone who is new. I also should take this time to pander to all the new fellow geeks who are reading, so today I’ll be talking about my trip to the Guang Hua Electronics Market in Taipei.

If you have assembled a computer or have ever paid any attention to packaging, you probably are familiar with the phrase “Made in Taiwan”. Taiwan has established themselves as probably the primary source of many computer products. Over 60% of the laptops in the world are created here. Acer (who just purchased Gateway) is headquartered here. They make most of the motherboards for computers as well as a lot of the memory. Even though much of the actual manufacturing is moving to China, many of the companies are still owned and operated out of Taiwan. (there is surprisingly more economic activity between China and Taiwan than you’d think).

Shops in the Guang Hua Area
Shops in the Guang Hua Area
Given all the manufacturing here, you’d think that this would be an excellent place to buy computer parts, and you’d be right. In addition to the actual official market which is in a series of very long buildings and sort of looks like a farmers market out of Blade Runner, there are many small shops around it for several blocks. All of them open right up to the sidewalk so you can look around and talk to vendors (assuming they speak English) without leaving the sidewalk.

Many of the vendors have very extreme niches. I saw one store which was nothing but computer cases. Some shops are only cell phones. Some specialize in memory. I went into one store which was bigger than most and had a wall of fans. Nothing but CPU fans. They also had shops that would make any cable you need. USB. Firewire. Crossovers. You name it. I found the biggest selection of volt and ammeters I’ve ever seen and tons of crap which would put even the best Radio Shack to shame.

Because its Taiwan, you also see a lot of stores with nothing but laptops. Not all the deals you will find are equal, but the laptops and PC parts are particularly cheap.

The is the biggest selection of CPU fans I've ever seen
The is the biggest selection of CPU fans I've ever seen
Unfortunately, I don’t need a laptop and can’t really lug around a desktop PC. What I was in need of was a camera.

I have a Nikon D200. It’s a great camera. It is also a big camera. It’s heavy and very conspicuous. It is great for taking photographs, but not very good at taking simple pictures. If you want to take a photo of some food or a sign you see when you are walking down the street, carrying this big hunk of glass around your neck doesn’t cut it. I wanted a small point and shoot camera that I could carry in my pocket for taking simple every day photos. I had a Sony DSC T1 for several years and I really liked it. It was thin, easy to use and took fine photos. Unfortunately, the AC adaptor for it got lost along the way so I needed to get something else.

The deals on small electronic items like cameras isn’t as good as what you’ll find on computer parts at Guang Hua because they are not manufactured in Taiwan. However, the fact that you have so many stores in competition with each other in such a small space means you will still get a better price than you would find at a normal camera store.

I eventually purchased the Sony Cybershot DSC T-100 which is the current generation of the camera I used to have. It can do simple video, it has a very large LCD on the back and it can easily fit in my pocket. All of the photos taken for this post were taken with my camera right after I took it out of the box. I was also able to get a 2gb memory card for it for about $20.

Having used a SLR since the start of the trip, I can tell the obvious limitations of the camera. It doesn’t save as high of quality images as my SLR. I can’t zoom as much nor can I take as wide angle photos as well. I don’t really have any control over the exposure or sensitivity of the camera. It isn’t as responsive as an SLR nor can it take photos as fast. Nonetheless, I like it because it fills the role I wanted it to fill really well and it is still 8.2 megapixels. I got mine for about US$300 and most of the prices you see online are between US$350-400.

If you are ever in Taipei and want to check out Guang Hua, it is really easy to get to. Just get on the metro, take the blue line to the Zhongxaio Xinsheng station. Walk about one block north and you can’t miss it. You will be hit over the head with stores and ads for electronics.

Taipei 101, The Biggest Building In the World…….For Now

I like big things. Big buildings. Big bridges. Big boats. One of my favorite places in the world is the St. Louis Arch. It is neat to be able to stand directly under something 600 feet talk.

Taipei 101 is one of those big, neat places.

In most major cities, you will see a skyline of big building and one of those buildings will be larger than the others. Taiwan really has no skyline to speak of. Due to earthquakes, the buildings in Taiwan have never been much larger than, say, 12 stories. Taiwan has spread out and has never really felt a lot of need to spread up.

Major cities of the world have something iconic about them. Some sort of stereotypical photo which is shown every time that city is in the news. New York has the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. Los Angles has the Hollywood sign. San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. Paris has the Eiffel Tower. London has Big Ben. Sydney has the Opera House. You get the idea….

Taipei had nothing.

The decision to build Taipei 101 really wasn’t because of a desperate need for office and retail space. It was to create something iconic for Taipei. I think they succeeded.

For starters, Taipei 101 was designed to be the tallest building in the world. It took the title away from the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The act of having the tallest building in the world is something which up and coming nations tend to compete for because it is a (relatively) cheap way to get some instant credibility. The US did it in the 1930s with the Chrysler tower in New York and the Empire State Building. Chicago did it to take the title away from New York with the Sears Tower. Malaysia did it. Taiwan did it. Soon Dubai will do it.

(Actually, there is a great deal of debate as to what building is the tallest. If you go by the top floor, the Sears Tower is the tallest. If you go to the top of the antenna, the Sears Tower is the tallest. If you go by the top architectural spire, then Taipei 101 is the tallest. All of this will be moot in two year.)

Records my come and go, but what really matters to an iconic building is how it looks. The Golden Gate Bridge isn’t the largest building the world, but it still is among the most beautiful. Taipei 101 was designed to look like a stalk of bamboo. Personally, I think it looks like eight boxes of Chinese food takeout stacked on one another. If you look closely, you will see I’m right.

It is also unique among large buildings in that there is nothing even remotely close in height to it in Taipei. It is this giant tower standing out in the middle of much smaller buildings. Some people have taken it to be a giant middle finger extended to China. They might be right….

The reason why Taipei 101 was able to be built was due to advancements in engineering which made tall buildings in earthquake areas possible. The most visible engineering addition is the large mass dampening ball at the top. The ball has large hydraulic legs underneath which will move the ball counter to movements in the building caused by wind or earthquake. In theory, the building should be able to withstand 130 mph winds and a once every 2,500-year earthquake.

The elevator to the observation deck in Taipei 101 is also the fastest elevator in the world. It is really impressive actually. The elevator moves at 38 mph straight up and can go to the top in 37 seconds. It is so fast, you can feel the pressure in your ears change as you go up.

The observation deck gives you a great view of Taipei. I stayed up on top for about 90 minutes and watched the sun set. (or as much as you could see given how overcast it has been here). They have all the normal tourist stuff you’d expect, including a cafe, souvenir shop, etc. For an extra US$3 you can take the stairs up another two stories and check out the outdoor observation deck. The bars on the outdoor observation deck really takes away from the experience, but it is still pretty cool to feel the wind whip around at over 1,000 feet. You are also right below the spire which at night is lit up like a Christmas tree.

At the foot of 101 is a very large, high end mall. Probably the largest in Taipei based on what I’ve seen. It is full of luxury stores, nice restaurants and the largest English language bookstore I’ve seen since I’ve been in Auckland. I had dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Taipei 101 with Aaron Mowrey, a former debate coach I knew in Minnesota who is taking classes in Taipei. He is the first person I’ve seen in seven months who I knew before my trip started.

I should also note that Taipei 101 has already, unofficially been surpassed as the tallest building in the world. In July, the Burj Dubai passed Taipei 101 and just recently it passed the CN Tower to be the tallest structure in the world. By the time it is done, it will be the tallest structure of any type, surpassing even the KVLY-TV tower in Fargo, North Dakota. By the time I reach Dubai, I should be able to write another post about the tallest building in the world.

Taipei Minute

Man. I’m way behind on posting, but it for a good reason.

In the last two days I’ve seen Taiwanese rocket launchers, riot police, almost been crushed in a crowd at a fireworks celebration, rode the fastest elevator in the world. was on top of the tallest building in the world. had great Chinese food, and I’m still going to the night market and snake alley tonight.

I’ve pretty much figured out the Taipei transportation system, which is making getting around really easy.

I also finally got my laundry done….

Cartographic Madness

I’ve spent the last two days in Taipei doing nothing. I’ve been making use of the wireless connection catching up on podcasts, downloading episodes of TV shows I’ve missed (Heroes and Entourage). I like the hostel I’m staying at, it is cheap and the neighborhood is nice. I might stay a few days longer. I still need to do some laundry and buy a few odds and ends.

I’ve also taken the time to upgrade and fix some things with my website. In particular, my map. I attempted to integrate a map when I first launched the site, but it really didn’t work that well. Integrating Google maps into my site was really a kludge. The few WordPress plugins that existed weren’t very good and I eventually gave up on maintaining it.

Since then, Google has enabled embedded maps and also allowed for Google Earth files to be displayed in Google Maps. This is the result:


View Larger Map

Red lines are where I’ve been. Green lines are where I’m going. You can click on pins to see photos and links.

It isn’t perfect. You might need to move the map a bit to see some of the paths and pins. I’ve been keeping a KMZ file for Google Earth and I need to go back and make some changes to have photos fit inside of Google Maps. However, I can just keep updating the same Google Earth file now to keep the map updated (in theory). I have a permanent link to the map now in the menu on the left.

If you haven’t seen the map in Google Earth before, this should give you a sense of scale of where I’ve been so far on the trip.