Tall Taiwan Tales: Fast Trains, Ugly Towns and Turkey Rice

The plane landed into a hazy dusk and rolled up to Taipei Taoyuan Airport Terminal 1, a building sufficiently old and moldy that Chiang Kai-Shek’s ghost was probably happy to get his name off the thing. After a lenghty wait at immigration that caused us to just miss our bus, we chowed down on the first of many bowls of beef noodles to come (damn, this stuff is good) and hopped on the next bus to the day’s first destination — Taiwan High Speed Rail‘s Taoyuan station.

THSR Taoyuan station Taiwan High Speed 700T train pulling into Taoyuan station

The station is a space-age structure of glass and steel, set squarely in the middle of nothing much at all, 15 min away from the airport. Luckily enough, THSR had just doubled the number of trains per hour one day before we arrived, and getting seats for the next one was no problem at all. I’ve ridden a fair few high-speed trains in my time (Shinkansen, KTX, Thalys, TGV, ICE, Shanghai Maglev…) and I can without hesitation say that the THSR 700T is the slickest-looking train I’ve ever been on. It’s huge, airy, whisper-quiet and so smooth that (especially at night) you need to look up at the speed gauge to remember that, yes, you are hurtling on an elevated track at 300 km/h through the Taiwanese countryside.

We arrived at THSR Chiayi station just over an hour later, and hopped on the remarkably anti-climactic Chiayi “Bus Rapid Transit”, which seems to mean old, clapped out buses running on perfectly ordinary road at perfectly ordinary speeds, the only sign of modernity being an LED displays crudely hacked above the entrance with epoxy squirting out the seams. We hopped off at Chiayi Rear Station (as they termed the entrance on the “wrong” side of the tracks), crossed a footbridge, forded our way through an army of taxi touts, dumped out bags in the first tolerable motel we came across (NT$600/night, or slightly under US$20) and set off to explore a bit.

299 km/h in the THS700T Chiayi by night

I’ll give a handy hint to any prospective Taiwan travellers: if you want a positive first impression of the island, don’t spend your first night in Chiayi. At the risk of understatement, Chiayi is not an attractive city, especially in the heat of summer, when the Bangkok-y stench of untreated sewage wafts up from the open sewers, old guys sit around in their underpants scratching their balls at betel nut stands and cockroaches skitter in the shadows. Zhongshan Rd, Chiayi’s main drag, is a hotch-potch assemblage of ugly lowrise houses with the most ludicrous attempt at a pedestrian walkway I’ve ever seen — every shop has built its own, so they’re all at wildly varying heights. I pity the drunk and the disabled in this town. (And everybody else, for that matter.)

On the admittedly limited upside, Chiayi is full of shops selling the local speciality, turkey rice. The name is accurate: you get a bowl of rice (Japanese-style short-grain), a few shreds of steamed turkey, a spoonful of translucent, garlicky gravy and a token half-slice of pickle that tries to brighten it up and fails. It doesn’t taste half-bad though, it’s just a little… boring. Nightlife in Chiayi follows much the same pattern: try as we might, we couldn’t find any place that would sell us beer without subjecting us to karaoke at the same time, so we had to settle for a mango ice and call it a night.

Up next: Alishan