Starved of its proper global publicity and understanding by Beijing, it is easy to underestimate Taiwan. It has a population of twenty-three million: that is over twice Portugal’s, three times Austria’s and roughly the same as Australia. In land area, it is not quite twice the size of Wales, but rather smaller than the Netherlands. Its GDP per capita is higher than that of Spain’s now, and was roughly equal to Spain in 2007 before the Iberian country entered its downward spiral.
Austria, Spain, Portugal; these are not developing countries, and nor, really, is Taiwan. Yes, it isn’t as developed as the most developed of the West, but in no way does it feel like a third world country. This is a place that can hold its own. It is farcical that the island is left to languish in the penumbra of our ignorance.
Yet the island retains a charm that belies its developed state. It churns out high-technology equipment, scooters and (even) frozen dumplings for sale across the world; Taipei 101, once the world’s tallest building, still impresses. But ten minutes walk from Taipei 101 and you are in jungle, climbing up one of the mountains that ring Taipei.
These mountains are close, but they are also accessible. Paths lead the way for anyone who wants to go hiking. And the jungle is real: dense, lush, green and full of poisonous snakes (or so the signs say).
Standing at the top of one of these mountains affords amazing views back over the city. Taipei 101, the city’s sole skyscraper, can be seen from almost anywhere, but stepping back in the way these mountain trails allow one to, lets you take in the city airport, the rivers and bridges, and the different coloured roofs of the different neighbourhoods.
Further afield, the national park of Yangmingshan (阳明山) presents stunning scenery bathed, when I visited in a warming sun and cooling breathe. To sit and watch the wind dance between the reeds, to watch the clouds race each across the sky, these are simple delights that are rarely so easily found close to a major city. In other places, Taiwan’s geothermal activity comes to the surface in arresting fashion with sulphurous whiffs and steaming, boiling lakes.
Such retreats are, of course, non-existent in Riyadh, but they are also far further from one’s reach in London or Beijing. Yes, Beijing has the Great Wall just outside its limits, but getting there is hardly a fifteen minute walk. Yes, it is said that one can walk across London on the green, but that is not a wild, jungly green.
In this mixture, of being a capital city with a clear international flavour yet with a connection to the countryside that is unurban-like in its immediacy, Taipei has something of a pleasant European capital about it. A real city, with all a city’s advantages, but pleasant, manageable and livable. As a friend once commented, Taipei was like the Lisbon of the East. Indeed, given its uncertain future and its contentious links to a past, it could also be the Vienna of the East (sans the architecture: Taipei is anything but a monumental city).
I always fail utterly to describe exactly why I like Taipei so much. So too do I struggle to say what the city is like. All I can really say is come and visit. But bring some sensible shoes.