Sunday, February 21, 2010

Chinese New Year Extrava-freakin'-ganza

So, we set off the day after Chinese New Year for a quick trip to Central Taiwan - the plan was to head up to Cingjing farm and hike a bit - well, walk happily in the mountain air anyway - before heading over Hehuanshan to Lishan, which our friend Emily has never been to. I've been through Cingjing twice but never stopped, but have always wanted to poke around a bit more and figured that this past week was my chance.

Oh, how I was wrong. It rained the entire time we were there, and as we were camping, in a tent, in the cold and the rain, it was mostly just miserable. We didn't feel like hiking because there was no view due to fog, and the rain was cold and horrible, and we were all already damp from tent-livin' and walking around in the cascading streams and rivulets of water around the campsite.

So, we hunkered down at Starbucks for the first day, hoping that our second day would be clearer (we were told it would be cloudy but it was not likely to rain). Emily drew a picture of what we could see from the vantage points around Cingjing:

We woke up the next day and while chilly, the sky had cleared enough to show us what we were missing: lovely views from the campsite. I snapped a few photos and am happy I did; within 20 minutes the fog was back and it was all obscured again for the rest of our stay.

And it rained some more.

Though when NOT raining, it's a gorgeous place, walkable from the bus stop and so good for visitors without their own transport. Traffic was horrible on the main road, which surprised us because it would make more sense for the weather to drive people away despite the national holiday. The owner of the lodge was very brusque and tactless, but also motherly: she'd make fun of us for sleeping in (it was COLD. And WET. And there was no view. Our sleeping bags were warm and dry. What else were we going to do?), drinking too much (it was not too much, it was about what you'd expect from three vacationers stuck in the mountains with nothing to do) and all around being weird...but then provide us with hot cooked meals as we had not brought our own stove and help us out in all sorts of ways. She also cares about aboriginal rights and economic development, and hires only local aboriginal people as workers. She yells at them the way any laobanniang (boss lady) would yell at subordinates, but also looks out for them.

To reserve grass space for a tent (NT300/night), a platform (NT800/night) or a pre-set-up 4-person tent (NT1600-1800/night) or one of their small sheltered rooms with a bathroom, call 049-2801001. The owner speaks some English but not much. To get there, get off the bus at the top of the farm (the final farm stop - NOT the Mist Center as you enter the farm - it's a large gate to a grassland with sheep and a kiosk for NT100 admission tickets). Do not enter (do not buy a ticket) but get back on the main road and walk downhill about 50 meters. Ignore the 1st sign near a parking lot for a campsite - if you can't read Chinese, it's OK, the phone # above is also on all signs - and turn left at the 2nd sign. Go downhill past cows, sheep and a huge creepy mansion. When you get to the bottom, the lodge and campsite is on the right and they play music during business hours. They have outdoor and indoor toilets (indoor open during lodge hours 7am-10:30pm), hot water, food, snacks, extra gas and other supplies for sale, beer, hot water and beverages and will feed you good meals for a fee per meal (breakfast is included free at the whim of the owner). If you bring your own mini-stove you'll be all set. There is parking if you are driving.

We mostly stayed in the lodge the 2nd day - we never wanted to see Starbucks ever again - playing cards, drinking tea and generally socializing because it was either that or stew in our shot-to-hell vacation.

At least the views from the walk up to the main road were nice, with gnarly trees poking through the fog:

...and if you measure your vacations by time spent with friends drinking beer, sharing millet wine with locals and meeting new people as well as reading novels in your spare time, the Cingjing Farm fiasco was a great success. If you measure it by gorgeous views, hiking and outdoorsy activities, it was something of a massive FAIL.

The Fengyuan Bus to Lishan was not running as snow on Hehuanshan had not been cleared from the road. The campsite laobanniang knows a driver named Mr. Chen (I know, everyone is named Mr. Chen here) with snow tires who makes the trip every day and will take people for NT600-800 per person depending on the size of your group (up to 4 I think). There are also taxis in Cingjing who will take you anywhere but they are a lot more expensive. They're run by a guy - Mr. Wang - whose business card denotes him as "Old Master". We thought about it but then called Lishan and learned that it was also raining there, so instead we chose to try it another time and head back to Puli.

Puli is a drab little town with gorgeous views in the foothills of the Central Mountains and a rich history. With no good local public transport and no one spectacular thing to do we probably wouldn't have gone if it hadn't been rainy in the mountains, but once we did we were really happy we chose to check it out. At first it was a "oh well, I guess this will suffice" but by the end of our day there, we were all thinking "man, that was really great!" We even have stuff to return to see - like the massive monastery - so we'll be back.

The outskirts of Puli, where the mountains are more visible than many towns not at a high altitude:

Notice the clouds low-slung above them. This was taken at the entrance to the lane to the Paper Museum.

In town, there were many small but poignant reminders of the 9/21 earthquake, such as spots with demolished buildings, where nobody had bothered or been able to take away striking little details, like books in old bookcases, sitting in a casement high above the ground:

This was taken outside YoYo coffee, the only coffee we could find near our hotel (the youth hostel outlined as a good option in Rough Guide Taiwan). The coffee is good but they don't open early enough! The hostel was great - I highly recommend it. NT600/night and while I guess the apartment-like dorm offered would be crowded if entirely full, it was empty so the four of us felt we were living in absolute luxury for the final day of our trip - and after 2 nights in a freezing wet tent we were grateful for it. The hostel provides rooms off of a central living room with couches and cable TV, a good bathroom with full bath and hot water, towels, a kitchen (no gas hookup though) and several bedrooms. There is internet in the "lobby" (also a lottery store) downstairs on a good computer. The boss (also a woman though a man works there too) is very friendly and speaks good English.

We first stopped by the Shaoxing Brewery which was fun in a corny sort of way, as well as poignant - the English on many signs was horrifically funny. We got a kick out of the commemorative Puli Shaoxing bottles:

You can buy one with Ma Ying-jiu on it in the shop downstairs. They also had one with an old photo of A-bian and Wu Shu-zhen labeled "A-bian and A-zhen: Brewed With Love".

Poignant because of the section dedicated to the damage to the brewery following the 9/21 earthquake.

And corny with little attractions like the House of Drunk Experiencing:

...I am pretty sure that is not how I feel when drunk.

But all in all it was an earnest effort and we had fun, plus the "VIP tasting room" at the end was fantastic - 50 kuai for a free glass and a generous taste of a product of your choice. We got more than one (I tried brandy, Ailian wedding liquor and Shaoxing 10 year aged wine) but I am not sure that is customary. The shops downstairs yielded affordable sake that we enjoyed that night, some snacks and treats and a new jar of face cream for me that is working well.

The next morning we made our way by taxi to the paper factory. The Rough Guide says one should hire a taxi for the day as sites are spread out and there aren't any local buses, but we disagree. We really only needed a taxi for the paper museum, and we'd have needed one to go to the huge monastery, but for the other museums it was really all walkable.

On the way up the road we passed a family producing and selling honey and honey products:

And bought a bottle of their delicious honey.

The paper factory was also fun, and I can see why kids would love it. We got a free, and informative, short guided tour, watching workers creating, drying and peeling paper.

Then we bought some paper (very affordable) at the gift shop and made our own prints: well as buying some very reasonably priced gifts and souvenirs. We then ate lunch and headed to the Museum of Natural Lacquerware, which is not really a "museum" but is a very interesting stop and definitely worth visiting. We learned a bit about Taiwanese lacquer products, and saw the trees that lacquer comes from:

As well as looking at the items - some artifacts, some samples, some setups of different Asian countries' method of lacquer production, some examples of refined, unrefined, clear, brown, black and red lacquers. Apparently this is how they test the quality:

And this is the lacquer master at work making spoons.

The tour is given by this guy's niece, and she's clearly taken a course in giving an engaging tour as she used some of the tricks, hooks and presentation skills I've taught my own students at companies where they will need to give tours or show foreigners around. We appreciated that - it made it, in Emily's words, "more interesting than the National Palace Museum" because the explanations were so good. It was kind of a "toot their own horn" thing - look how great natural lacquer is, by the way you can buy some here", but we honestly didn't mind as it was fun, and the products on sale were quite nice and not astronomically priced.

Our last stop was a taxi ride from Puli to Caotun on the way to Taizhong with heavy packs in the trunk - remembering this post by the Daily Bubble Tea about Ci De Temple in Caotun, we figured we ought to have a look. It's not hard to find if you go to Caotun town, have the name of it written in Chinese and preferably a printout of the map outlined on Todd's website. I recommend taking a taxi if you don't feel like walking up a steep hill. With our heavy bags, the taxi was the right choice and the driver himself was rather astounded at the temple at the top.

Rather than re-describe this masterpiece of weird, read The Daily Bubble Tea's post on it and enjoy some photos!

(On a positive note, we got to meet the guy who built the thing, Mr. Zhang. He's quite a friendly guy and was excited to show us the gift another foreigner had given him - a Batman keychain flashlight).

1 comment:

Todd said...

I can't believe someone voluntarily visited to Caotun!