A short China Airlines flight conveys us to Taiwan, where we are to only spend a day before traveling to Palau in my next continent to tick off of my list: Oceania. Despite the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I am incredibly excited to explore Taiwan, the sort-of-Chinese-sort-of-not place eighty miles from the mainland. Now, the question we are all wondering: Is Taiwan a country? According to the U.N., it is not recognized as its own state due to China’s veto power, but they do issue their own passports and have their own visa policies. In fact, Americans can travel to Taiwan visa-free, and as a result my mom did not have to get a $160 Chinese visa for this trip. In fact, Americans don’t need visas to travel to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, all of which have their own disputes with China over autonomy.
I have not yet traveled to the mainland, and so I am eager to see Taiwan then compare it to Beijing when I arrive in a week's time. My impressions of Taipei so far are overwhelmingly positive, and I am enamored by the lights, the friendly people, and the enthralling streetscapes as we catch an Uber from the airport to downtown. The first Uber leaves us at our hotel, or, rather a hotel, only to pull away just as we realize that we are at the wrong location. We catch another Uber to our newly-revised destination which happens to be ten blocks away from the actual hotel. Thoroughly annoyed, we walk the last ten blocks and check in to the hotel which, thankfully, offers free coffee and juice to refresh our already exhausting tour of Taipei. My parents decide to spend the night in, while I am determined to see as much of the capital as I can before bed.
I start my hike east toward the Raohe Street night market and observe many of the culinary wonders of the island. Squids on sticks tantalize passersby. Taiwan, based on the day-long layover I spend here, is jam-packed with fascinating culinary delights that your family would never go to, but that they really—and I mean really—should make a visit across the world for.
Every American town of a certain size has two Chinese restaurants: the one you go to and the one you don’t. The one you go to is nice, and you can take your family there on a night out. The other one barely sidesteps being shut down by the health department, and prides itself on economy over quality. There, you can get a dozen dumplings for a dollar-fifty, and you have to assume by that and the strange taste they are made from horse meat, or worse. However, something inside you secretly craves that other restaurant, and you occasionally order take-out from there when you are alone because they make a few dishes that are incredibly good and impossibly cheap, albeit dubious at best. Taiwan is filled with these places, where the owner’s kids are perpetually doing their math homework at a corner table, as they appear to have done 365 days a years since the beginning of time.
Let’s take the first example: 7-11. Though not technically a restaurant, and not at all Taiwanese, capital Taipei is chock full of convenience stores serving up oddly authentic local foods. For instance, Taiwanese apparently thank heaven for abomination under God the “century egg.” These satanic hard-boiled eggs are preserved in ash and clay until they turn dark and give an appearance of being both rotten and possessed by some cosmically evil force. They sell them three for a dollar in big pots at 7-11, and they sell like crazy.
Ok. Maybe I shouldn’t have led with the century egg. But in many ways this proves my point. Taiwan is the place your mother likely warned you about when you were little and wouldn’t eat your green beans. At the many night markets around the city, it is not uncommon to see chicken feet, livers of virtually any mammal, and grilled crustaceans you likely never knew existed.
As much as I want to conquer Taiwanese street food, I am overwhelmed by all that I feel I am supposed to eat. A Taiwanese friend back home recommended restaurant Formosa Chang and bubble tea as two of the best things to try on the island, so I try both as well as some street chicken, or perhaps it was pork?
I take a self-guided tour of Ciyou temple, where incense shrouds the glowing yellow towers containing thousands of Buddha sculptures inside. Next, I see Taipei 101, once the tallest building the world, and stand in awe at the beautiful evening. This part of Taiwan is the least Chinese. Apple Stores and overpriced retail screams “America,” though I struggle to find people who speak English. Here I operate in my less-than-remedial Mandarin, and people are happy to talk to me in the language of the oppressor. This is a country with China on its back, but facing across the Pacific to the United States. I make a mental note that I might want to live and teach English here so I can explore this fascinating country with a little more than twelve hours.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.