Taiwan is a tiny island (at least compared to Canada) and travelling to different places here is incredibly easy. The train system in Taiwan can take you from Taipei (north) to Kaohsiung (south) in a matter of 4.5 hours. If you take the high speed train, that time gets cut down to 1.5 hrs, and by plane, about an hour. From the point of view of anyone coming from North America, this is peanuts.
Back home, I’d regularly drive 1 – 1.5 hrs. to meet a friend for dinner, then drive back. Just driving across my town could take 30 mins, so when I landed in Taiwan, I was pleasantly surprised at how close everything seemed to be. Travelling across the island would be easy. So, I was astonished when Taiwanese people described a city 100 kms away as very, very far!
It seems that the Taiwanese perception of distance is quite different than mine. Granted, living in a country that’s as vast as Canada will make one used to longer distances, but I didn’t expect the difference in attitudes to be this large. I’ve met people who don’t drive over to neighbouring towns because a 30 km drive is too far. A far cry from people back home who drive 50+ kms just to go to work everyday!
Also, Taiwan is full of beautiful little areas all over the place, but a lot of the locals I’ve met haven’t been to any of these places because it would take too long.
Initially, I couldn’t understand this mentality. After the “charm” of my small town wore off (about a month), I’d hop on a train and head down to Kaohsiung for the weekend. When I told my Taiwanese friends this, the looks I’d get were akin ones you’d give a 2 headed monkey walking down a street while juggling babies – astonishment/shock/disbelief and a little bit of fear.
“That’s soooo far!” they would say, “Crazy weiguo ren (foreigner)!” But really, it would only be a 1.5 hour journey.
So why do Taiwanese people have this perception?
It could be that most of the Taiwanese that I’ve met are sedentary rocks, rather than rolling stones. In small towns, it seems that not too many people like to travel beyond the boundaries of what they know. Like the hobbits of the Shire, people are perfectly content to grow up, work, get married, raise families and grow old in their childhood stomping grounds. Unlike us wandering nomads, these people have deep roots that don’t like to be moved.
It’s a given that Taiwanese families are a very tightly knit bunch, so the instinct of wanderlust is probably squashed at a young age. Because of this, people rarely stray, and then, understandably, anything more than 10 kms would be too far.
Another thing may be the income level. Most small town Taiwanese don’t make as much money as westerners working here, so the focus is saving money instead of throwing it away on frivolous things like travelling. Why sit on a train wasting precious NT, when you could be saving it for that house you want to buy when you get married? Again, a prohibitive measure to wandering resulting in a perception that the world is larger than it really is.
And finally the roads. While driving back home, you can cover 30 kms in 15-20 mins, but because Taiwan is mountainous, there are some areas where going 30 kms can take you over an hour because of the windy mountain roads. This I have experienced, and it’s definitely a deterrent (at least time wise) to going the distance.
Even on highways, it takes longer. For example, Taipei is about 100 kms from my town – which at a normal speed (100 kms/hr) should be covered in 1 hour. But it takes about 1.5 hrs to cover this distance on the highway. The way the road winds makes the journey longer than it would take back home. So, naturally the distance seems further.
Whatever the case may be, I still consider Taiwan’s cities very close to each other, and easy to travel to. And besides that, I enjoy mildly shocking Taiwanese people when I announce that I’m off for yet another 3 hour journey for the weekend!