Time and distance in Taiwan

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!


4 Responses to “Time and distance in Taiwan”

  1. 1 Nathan Abner Rubio April 9, 2013 at 8:23 am

    When I first moved to Taiwan I felt pretty much the same way. Being from Texas I was used to driving fairly long distances to get anywhere. I did not understand why the Taiwanese did not travel very much around their island, especially considering how small it is.

    Fast forward 2 years and I now know why they do not like to do it. Having a car myself and making drives to Taipei, Hsinchu, Taichung, Tainan, Hualien, etc I have had a lot of experience on the roads. The problem is that while the distances are very short, the amount of time involved is not set. There are sometimes when the trip from Zhongli to Taipei is 45 mins and other times where it is an hour and a half or 2 hours. All it takes is bad traffic and your trip time can be doubled or tripled. Unfortunately bad traffic is not limited to rush hour. There have been times when I have been driving back to Zhongli from Taipei or Hsinchu and experienced 20kph traffic the entire drive at 11PM-12AM at night.

    And this is just counting the highway time. Once off the highway it can be the same. A trip across Zhongli with light traffic can take 15 minutes, but if there happens to be a wreck or some light construction it easily becomes half an hour or more. The worst part of it is that if there is a wreck, the cars will not be moved off of the road until the police come and take pictures and measurements of where all of the vehicles are at after the accident.

    If you are travelling across the island using mass transit and taxis then it is very convenient, however, most Taiwanese are not going to travel by themselves. They will need to take their families with them. This means that if they use mass transit it can be very inconvenient, trying to find seating that is all together or keeping young ones from trailing behind.

    If the family has a vehicle, it means dealing with bad traffic (on and off of the highway). Most of these trips will more than likely also be made during the weekends when traffic is the worst and when the most people are using the mass transit system. Holiday traffic is even worse than weekend traffic. It can mean driving 20kph or less for distances of 50-100km.

    A good example is this last Chinese New Year. My family went down to Hualien for CNY. Fortunately I was able to convince my father-in-law and mother in-law for us to drive back at around 830PM instead of 8AM the next morning. By the time we got to Yilan it was 11PM. In Taipei it was around 12PM and we got home at 1AM. The trip took 4.5 hours. Not bad at all. The rest of my in-laws left the next morning around 8AM and arrived home around 6PM. Same distance, double the time.

    Some of your observations are true, a lot of Taiwanese just don’t like to move around much. However, they may not have always felt that way. After 5-10 years of travelling on the island and having to deal with these kinds of things, the novelty can wear off very quickly.

    • 2 islandsidechronicles April 9, 2013 at 3:44 pm

      In terms of traffic, that’s definitely a valid point, and one I haven’t experienced yet because I’m always zooming around on my scooter. Easy to avoid jams, but not ideal for long trips – for that it’s the trains. I guess it’s easy for me because I travel alone, and public transit, like you said is super convenient. I’ll definitely keep your tips in mind when travelling the east coast though – leave later on at night instead of the mornings. Thanks for the info and detailed response. Cheers!

  2. 3 trentusjuventus April 10, 2013 at 1:42 am

    Great article, and this something I have also often thought about. I’d agree with the above reply regarding the traffic, its something that can drive you crazy. Also, I think that the Taiwanese work very long hours, and therefore they very rarely have the time to travel, and also might just want to relax when they do have free time. We are rather privelliged as foreigners to mostly have a 5 day workweek, with the weekends being off. Many Taiwanese, particularly younger ones do not have this luxury, and if they do, it is unlikely that many of their friends or potential traveling companions have time off at the same time. In the same vane, this means that everyone travels on long weekends and public holidays, and also means that train/bus/hotels etc are usually fully booked many weeks in advance, making planning difficult.
    As for having a car, that’s also another luxury many Taiwanese don’t have, meaning that they are either restricted to public transport, or have to do things on a scooter, and many of them wouldn’t even dare leave their city on a scooter, let alone drive many km through the mountains.
    All in all, you’ve got some great points and there are some factors I’d never even thought of!

    • 4 islandsidechronicles April 10, 2013 at 4:39 am

      The infamous long work hours! Yes, that’s definitely a major point why Taiwanese won’t venture out too often. I didn’t think of that one. I know I’d be burned out and sitting on the couch gaining calories if I had to work that much. Good point. And to go hand in hand with the weekend rush of travelling thing, Taiwanese will travel with their families, so getting a booking for large groups in an already crowded environment would also be a deterrent. Easier to stay at home and chill. Thanks for the input!

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