Last winter I stayed in an apartment near the train station in Changhua City 彰化市 for about six months. This post is all about that apartment: why I decided to move there, how I found the place, what it cost, what the amenities were like, and so on. I am sharing this information mainly for other non-Taiwanese and nomadic types interested in exiting the Taipei 台北 bubble without necessarily speaking a lot of (or any) Chinese or even knowing much about Taiwan 台灣. This isn’t meant to be an endorsement of living in such a place, it’s simply a straight-forward account of what it was like. But first of all, why move south? And why Changhua 彰化 of all places?
As an everyday cyclist winter weather was one of my main reasons for moving south. Compare the climate norms for Taipei to those of Kaohsiung; it’s cold and wet up north and cool and dry down south. Changhua 彰化 is chillier than Kaohsiung 高雄 but just as dry; pretty much anything south of Miaoli is relatively dry in wintertime. I don’t remember bringing out an umbrella at home more than once last year. On the other hand, winter air quality worsens as you move further south so I wasn’t keen on moving too far down the island. Changhua ended up being bad enough—but you won’t be able to enjoy clean winter air in urban Taiwan without moving to the east coast.
Cost was another consideration. Generally speaking, rent is halved when you move outside of Taipei 台北. I dread looking for apartments in Taipei because they’re often ridiculously overpriced for what you get, particularly if you’re looking for a short-term rental, and the quality of the actual units often leaves much to be desired1. You can alleviate the cost of renting in Taipei by sharing a flat but then you’ve got other potential problems to deal with (i.e. roommate drama, something I simply can’t afford to deal with). Renting a small studio down south offers better value and peace of mind.
I also had a personal interest in learning more about central Taiwan having previously enjoyed three months further south in Tainan 台南. Initially I went looking for places in Taichung 台中, the nation’s third-largest city, but wasn’t really feeling it after scoping out a few apartments there. I then turned my attention to the next major city down the line, Changhua City 彰化市, which appealed to me for several reasons: its modest size makes it more bike-friendly; it has good transit connections to the rest of the island (15 minutes by regular rail to Taichung 台中, about an hour by regular and high-speed rail to Taipei 台北, and numerous opportunities for onward exploration in Nantou, Yúnlín 雲林, and so on); it has all the conveniences of any other mid-sized Taiwanese settlement; and it is one of Taiwan’s oldest and most historic cities. Changhua also has YouBike, an inexpensive public bike share system, which wasn’t a draw for me as a bicycle owner, but might be of interest to prospective residents. For more about living in Changhua City 彰化市 I highly recommend browsing these photographs from my first couple months of living there.
I found my place after scoping out several of the major rental sites in Google Chrome with automatic translation switched on2. Most people use 591 but I found this place I eventually rented on HouseFun. The pictures looked fine, it was newly renovated, and the location—mere steps from Changhua Station—seemed perfect for my needs.
If you plan to rent in Taiwan you will probably need some help from someone who speaks Chinese, particularly if you are renting outside of the capital. I asked a friend for help calling up the landlord, viewing the place, and signing the contract. Even if you don’t have any friends in Taiwan you can probably get some help by joining one of the many Facebook groups where locals and foreigners mingle3. I would suggest posting an ad in basic English detailing exactly how much help you need with an offer to pay someone 500 to 1,000 NT for their time. Taiwan also has rental agents who handle this sort of thing but finding someone competent who speaks English in the area you’re looking might be tricky.
Setting up the first meeting wasn’t difficult and after checking out the place I decided it was good enough for a three month stay (which later turned into six months after I continued to renew on a month by month basis). The landlord wasn’t a professional or anything—actually, it was a family operation and I dealt with several different people during my tenure there. Nobody spoke much (or any) English but everyone was friendly and we typically communicated via Line, a popular messaging app, which allowed both parties to translate stuff at our leisure when the need arose. Maybe I lucked out but my landlord(s) were very chill about everything. Pay rent whenever, move in any time, give one month advance notice before moving out. The landlord’s son typically wandered over about once a month to collect rent and fill in some information on both copies of the lease. Easy peasy.
Rent was 7,000 NT a month, or about 210 USD, give or take a bit due to fluctuations in the exchange rate. This price included high-speed internet (we’re talking 30 Mbps down/up) but not a router (an additional 500 NT or so from any given “3C” shop, which, if I’m not mistaken, stands for cameras, computers, and cell phones) or electricity (which only worked out to another 3,000 NT over the six months I was there). I never had any need for maintenance, though the lack of central heating (which is normal across Taiwan) meant I had to go buy an electric heater for the coldest nights, when temperatures fell to about 10 degrees. Overall I probably spent another 3,000 NT on bedding, the router, the heater, various cleaning supplies, and other things to make the place reasonably comfortable for a short-term stay. It was no palace, that’s for sure, but my material needs are meagre.
One small problem I dealt with involved my chosen method of transportation. The narrow stairway leading up to the apartment could not accommodate my bicycle. This was, in turn, a consequence of the building having been split in two at some point in the past, which is not uncommon. I ended up parking out front but soon received notice from the wig shop downstairs that I wasn’t allowed to park there. Eventually I found a place to lock up next to a pile of broken concrete adjacent to the parking lot next door. Not the most scenic place and it offered no protection from the elements but it didn’t rain much at all and, in any case, bike theft in Taiwan is not much of a concern. That being said, anytime I left home for more than about three days I left my bicycle at a 24 hour scooter parking service next to the train station so I had one less thing to worry about. You’ll find similar parking lots next to every train station in urban Taiwan. The cost is usually around 25 NT a day.
Two other things worth mentioning: laundry and garbage. This building had a single laundry machine on the top floor that was free to use but no dryer. I somewhat loathe hanging clothes to dry, particularly in Taiwan’s often damp winter chill, so I often cycled out to one of several coin-operated laundromats to dry a load4. Garbage handling is rather unique in Taiwan. If you don’t live in a big building with internal garbage service you’ll have to trundle downstairs and personally drop your bagged garbage and recycling into a passing truck. These trucks play classical music so you’ll hear them coming and eventually learn what their schedule is for your particular apartment. It’s less hassle than it sounds—and a fun way to meet the neighbours.
So, what was life like so far outside the usual nomad circuit and expat bubble? Not bad, really. On any given day I had my choice of cafes, tea shops, and restaurants to choose from5. Despite not being one of the biggest cities in the nation there were many 24 hour eateries to patronize when working late into the night. Convenience stores are ubiquitous and open around the clock just like any other place in Taiwan. Whenever I was in the mood for a break I rode around and explored some of Changhua’s many historic sites and abandoned buildings, often by accident rather than with any advance planning. After working for a few days I’d often hop on the train or my bike and go check out someplace nearby like Lukang 鹿港, Jiji, Dǒuliù 斗六, or wherever. Changhua also has a bunch of decent night markets, most prominently this one, which I would visit once or twice every week to soak in the vibe.
The people I interacted with were always pleasant—though I can’t say I made any friends while living there. Almost all the local people I met who could speak a little English were very shy and reserved and the few non-Taiwanese I met were all English teachers with whom I did not many any deep and lasting connections with, though not for any particular reason.
Taiwan is paradise for introverts—but I’m nowhere near as introverted as it may seem from this rather solipsistic blog. Actually, I grew somewhat more antisocial in response to living in places like Changhua, for the social isolation starts to become habitual. I will admit it was rather good for my productivity for a while before it turned around and became the exact opposite. Thankfully it wasn’t hard to head over to Taichung 台中 for a day to break routine—or even zip up to Taipei 台北 anytime the need arose. It wasn’t so bad but I generally wouldn’t recommend staying outside Taipei for months on end if you require a lively social scene with international flavour and don’t speak any local language.
As for the apartment, it was good enough. A bit cold in the dead of winter but otherwise nice and spacious and clean. Never saw a single cockroach. Not much noise from the neighbours. Fast, reliable internet. It was a good place to get some work done for a while—which is what I was after last winter.
Hopefully this account may be of use to someone out there.
- For reference you might like to check out AirBNB or this Facebook group. AirBNB in Taiwan sucks, to be honest, and the Facebook group isn’t much better, but these are two of the main ways members of my target audience are likely to find short-term rentals in Taiwan. ↩
- This is neither simple nor straight-forward. Depending on the site you may have to switch translation on and off to use certain forms and set search parameters. The translations themselves also suck most of the time—but it’s better than nothing. For more help with these web sites check out this article from Focus Taiwan. ↩
- Search for “language exchange”, “foreigners”, “English teachers”, and “Taiwan” or your target city and you’ll almost certainly turn something up. ↩
- Google Maps is inconsistent in its coverage of such places but you might have some luck searching for “自助洗衣店”. ↩
- I didn’t keep track of my spending in Changhua but it’s quite affordable. Good tea costs about 40 NT, a square meal is about 80 NT if you’re going local and about 250 NT if you opt for questionable western fare, and a nice cappuccino will set you back 100 to 120 NT—but you’ll be able to hang out in a cafe with good wifi and outlets for as long as you like. You can spend more than this (or a bit less) as you like. ↩