What was originally planned to be a short stay in Taipei with an old acquaintance turned in to a full blown month of travelling through Taiwan. It's a real hybrid of Japanese and Chinese culture which is no suprise considering the country's history. In my experience the Taiwanese people are very proud of their nationality and are very quick to defend its independance as a nation. A very tangible example of this national pride was seen at the recent anti-ECFA demonstration in which thousands of people gathered from all around the country to march in protest of a potential trade agreement with China. I can certainly understand this bitter opposition against China, at least on a certain level. There is a great level of freedom that the people enjoy here which, at times, is severly lacking in China.
The fact that Taiwan is very much its own country is seen in the more traditional elements of the culture: the temples. They are very lively and colourful in their design and frequently feature dragons running along the rooftops and twisting their way around columns - quite different from Japan and China. I was fortunate enough to be around for the annual ShaHai Cheng Huang Festival which featured a group of men carrying a holy palanquin whilst running over exploding firecrackers.
It might sound like an odd complaint but things are too civilised here, at least in comparison to China. That is until you hop on a scooter or motorcycle and hit the streets - then it's like urban warfare on wheels! We took a daytrip around the beautiful northern coastline by motorcycle. Nowhere else in the world has a greater concentration of scooters and mopeds which becomes pretty obvious at the first red light you stop at. Pole position is reserved for these guys and you'll see dozens and dozens of riders filter past in a mad rush to reach the designated scooter zone. Once the lights go green it's like an unofficial drag race. The nutty riders aren't the only threat; I had a couple of heart stopping moments involving buses swerving across my path or scraping footpegs against the curb as I was navigating the dense traffic. Life at 50km/h has never felt so thrilling.
Alongside the futuristic light-rail system which snakes its way through the city and superstructures like the Taipei 101, there is plenty of evidence of the city's past. I was taken to the historical district of Monga which has become somewhat of tourist attraction due to a recent gangster movie of the same name that had been filmed there. The area was one of the first to be built during the development of Taipei before construction headed eastward. As you might expect, it is very old. We followed a series of tiny pathways between the aging buildings, often less than a meter wide. They led us to a tiny shrine perched at the top of an archway. The stairs were so narrow you could barely get a foothold. And then I found $50... not really, but I've been told that's a good way to work your way out of a story which was going nowhere.