HSINCHU Mention It, Taiwan is Great

Aboriginal waterhole in Neiwan, TaiwanYou’ll hear it time and time again from local expats: “I came for a year, and I’m going on three”. Or five, or ten. Like so many, I touched base on Ilha Formosa with the idea of staying for a short six months to teach English, save some hard-earned cash and quickly jump on the backpacker scene. That was some time ago; I’ve been here over three years with no clear plan of departure. With so much to see and do in this great country, it's most definitely a great place in which to live and travel.

Once friends and family back home realize that I'm in Taiwan and not Thailand - which is what they think they hear when I first tell them - they almost immediately offer up a dazed and confused look and want to know why. Sometimes it's hard to say, particularly because I hadn't planned on Taiwan. Back in the spring of 2007, I was just itching to leave home after graduating university. I couldn’t have been more excited to start the Asian chapter of my adventures abroad, so I did like any other broke, newly graduated 20-something: I hopped on the Korean Seoul Train, and disembarked in the southern city of Busan. After a year of Cass beers, way too many soju games and overdosing on kimchi, I realized I was far from finished my Asian adventure. I did what most ESLers did with their piggy banks full of Korean won: I blew it all backpacking through Southeast Asia. So why did I end up in Taiwan? Honestly, I heard that’s where the money was.

As I reserved my seat on a flight from Bangkok to Taipei, it dawned on me that I knew nothing about the place. When I thought Taiwan, all that came to mind was that it was the place where all my childhood toys were made in the 80’s.

The real shock for me was the diversity of the people. Having lived in South Korea for a year, the land of morning calm and where everybody looks a little 'same same', the ethnic diversity of Taiwan blew me away. The original population consists of Taiwanese Aborigines, but after the immigration of the Han Chinese beginning in the 13th century, a huge percentage of the population today is made up of the latter. Taiwan was also colonized by the Spanish and the Dutch in the 17th century, followed by the imminent arrival of the Japanese after the first Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95. After the defeat of Imperial Japan in the Second World War, Taiwan was placed under the control of the Kuomintang, or Chinese Nationalist Party, led by the Republic of China. In short - or in other words more aptly - this gives you a bit of an idea of the ethnic blends and cultural influences on the island.

Taiwanese people are some of the friendliest and proudest people I have ever met, at home and abroad. If you want to feel like a rock star, do as the locals do and hit up a night market for some hawker food. The squeals of excitement over you chowing down - and actually enjoying! - local favourites such as stinky tofu, chicken butts or dried squid on a stick, provides that little extra ego boost that makes you feel all warm and tingly inside. The Taiwanese are curious about you, because you are curious about them. They are readily available to show you around, provide you with some friendly chit chat and show you how to order food, as well as how to eat it. Nothing quite says “Welcome to Taiwan!” like a few too many beers with the locals! So give the betel nut chewing a go, and flash that red-stained smile proudly!

Far off the Banana Pancake Trail, Taiwan sees fewer visitors than its surrounding neighbours, but a visit to Taroko Gorge will leave you wondering why that is. From luscious green mountains for hiking to emerald waters for scuba diving, it’s an above and below and everything in between kind of destination. A favourite with local expats is the drive around the island. Whether it’s in the comfort of a car, braving the elements on a scooter or going extreme on a bicycle, this is the Taiwanese version of a Jack Kerouac-esque discovery of a nation.

Home is where you hang your rice picking hat, or so the saying goes, so let me give you a brief overview of Hsinchu City, where my hat currently hangs. It’s the oldest city in Northern Taiwan and is famous for local artisans’ glass production, its delicious pork meatballs and its rice noodles. It has a small population of about 350,000 and is the 'Silicon Valley' of Taiwan with its Science Park of semiconductor manufacturers. It is referred to as the 'Windy City' because of the constant gales blowing in from the Taiwan Strait. During the Qing Dynasty, a wall was constructed that surrounded the city - perhaps as shelter from the ancient breezes. Today, only its East Gate remains, offering up a stage on which local artists perform on weekends. Hsinchu’s City God Temple is the highest ranking of all City God Temples in Taiwan.

Exploring Taroko Gorge

I'm often asked by other expats and travellers who focus their attentions on Taipei or the country's second biggest city, Kaohsiung, whether Hsinchu is boring. Many who have lived and travelled here are likely to agree with me when I say that it - like anywhere in the world, really - is what you make of it.

The local watering holes, and thus meeting points, are concentrated downtown by the canal near Minzu Road, also known as 'Bar Alley'. Hsinchu’s oldest pub is Seaman’s, where the local celeb band of foreigners Windy City 4 rocks out for charity. Black, A Mess Hall is a favourite of mine. It’s an old style Taiwanese house with a great outdoor courtyard where yummy local dishes like braised pork are served. BBQ houses and shrimp fishing restaurants are also popular options for DIY (do it yourself or fish it yourself) dinners. A national pastime is KTV, or Karaoke TV, where even the shyest of people will bust out into song. Don’t be shy; the locals love to hear you sing!

Hsinchu County provides endless 'Motorcycle Diaries' type road trips and adventures. With lush green mountains, rice paddies, green tea plantations and hot and cold springs, you can easily make a new discovery every time you get on your scooter! A summertime getaway spot is a waterhole near the town of Neiwan, where the Aboriginals gather for a dip. They are always very excited to us, as very few foreigners know of the spot. It’s an afternoon of barbecued chicken, sweet potatoes, beers and gao liang - a strong distilled liquor - with some betel nut thrown in there for good measure. Perhaps the best way to explore the surrounding area is by meeting up with Hsinchu’s Hash House Harriers. Known internationally as “a drinking club with a running problem”, this group of hashers meets once a month for a run in the county. They take you up mountains, through rice paddies, with a little river tracing, and sometimes some inner tubing down the river.

No matter how long you decide to visit or what you plan to do while you're here, just remember that Hsinchu city and county, like the rest of Taiwan, is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. There's more than just a little to enjoy in this small island nation, which must be why foreigners keep pouring it, and never seem to pour back out.

C. Lapierre is a wander-struck Canadian who is making her way around the world by studying, working and backpacking. She currently resides in Hsinchu City, Taiwan, where she works as a program specialist and teacher trainer.

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 Full name: Taiwan/Republic of China

 Population: 23.11 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Taipei City

 Largest city: Taipei City

 Area: 35,980 sq.km. (13,892 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Mandarin, Taiwanese,  Other

 Major religions: Buddhist, Taoist, Christian,  Other

 Monetary unit: New Taiwan Dollar

 GDP per capita: US $37,900

 Internet domain: .tw

 International dialling code: +886

 Source: CIA World Factbook