Saturday, September 6, 2008

Old Man's Tea: Teahouses in Taipei and Around

Tea set in Pinglin

This is by no means a comprehensive list of teahouses in the Taipei area - it just makes note of a few of my favorites. I was posting it on LP Thorn Tree and thought, "hey, this oughta be a blog post!" So here it is.

Pinglin is where the tea museum and many teashops and at least one good teahouse are (as well as chances to see tea grown, picked and sorted). The main drag is basically an agglomeration of tea shops, many of whom sell tea harvested from their own fields near (or in) town. A half-box of tea will cost about 400NT, and full boxes usually go for more than that. Smaller canisters are often available. You can also buy "green tea" gooey things with pickled vegetables inside, tea candies, tea caramels, tea-flavored-goop filled cakes and other assorted goodies.

The entire area is decorated with a "tea" theme, as well - especially the bridges.

The museum has good English signage with some amusing twists - the machine that turns the tea leaves over, for example, is called the "turnovering machine". When you pay the NT 100 entrance fee, you get a complimentary bag of silk sachet local tea.

Next to the museum is the shop that sells high quality tea at high quality prices. They also sell tea products - tea caramels, tea and chocolate gummy cookies etc. etc..

"Tea bridge"at Pinglin

Next to that is a lovely traditional-style teahouse. Prices are per person, not per packet of tea. One packet will happily sate two people, but the rule is that you have to buy one packet for each visitor.

Tea shops in town will often let you drink tea for free if you buy some, or will charge you a few hundred kuai if you don't.

There is also a gold Guanyin and small shrine at the top of a nearby mountain - to get there you have to walk behind a middle school and up a lot of stairs. Along the way you'll see tea being grown and harvested. A walk along Pinglin's backstreets will similarly yield people sitting casually in their doorways sorting picked leaves.

Venture out of town to find more tea planting areas as well as a lovely river with many swimming fish. You can easily walk along the river and it rounds out a pleasant day's trip.

Views from the Guanyin in Pinglin

To get to Pinglin, go to Xindian MRT and as you exit, turn left and head up the road. Past the 7-11 there is a bus stop where all Pinglin-bound buses stop. They come approximately once every 30min to an hour. The trip takes approximately one hour. The last bus leaving Pinglin for Taipei departs around 6pm. There are also buses to Yilan earlier in the day.

Closer to the city, you can go to Maokong in Muzha district of Taipei. There is a cable car up there from Taipei Zoo MRT station. Take the bus or walk a ways to get away from the touristy area and you'll run into some wonderful tea houses.

Us at a teahouse in Maokong.

The "Tea Receation Area" (sic) and the teahouse near it both have spectacular views of Taipei. (We usually go to "山茶館" - the unoriginally named "Mountain Tea House" in this complex. "Redwood Tea" (紅木茶) also looks nice.

If you find yourself in Mountain Tea House - fantastic. I recommend the sweet potato leaves, mountain pig and lemon diced chicken.

A few kilometers away from the gondola - yes there is a bus - there are more tea houses. These are quieter and often more intimate, but they lack the wonderful views of Taipei city.

There are also several hiking trails in the area, and Zhinan Temple makes for a good stop.

There are tons of teahouses off the last stop of the gondola - feel free to walk and take your time.

To get to Maokong, take the MRT brown line to Taipei Zoo and turn left as you exit. After a strip of touristy spots you'll come to the gondola. Come early on weekends because lines get long. You can also take a bus from Taipei City Hall MRT (BR15) or from other parts of Muzha (BR10) A taxi from Xindian or Taipei Zoo MRT will cost 150-200 NT.

In Taipei city, some good teahouses and shops include Wang's Tea near Dihua Street (it's not right on the street) at #26 Lane 24 Chongjing N. Road) where you can see tea production machines in the back though they are usually not being used. I recommend their High Mountain Oolong and Oriental Beauty - Wenshan Pouchong is good too. Their matcha is the best value for money I've found. I often buy their teas sold in round tins as a gift for people back home, and it is always appreciated. This is also a good place to pick up tea accessories, cups and other items.

There's also Wistaria House, which was closed for renovation when I originally wrote this post, but is now open, and I do intend to go soon. This is a landmark of Taipei, a historic site in its own right, has been featured on film and is a great way to experience old Taipei.

I particularly like Yue, a teahouse on Wenzhou Street near the Gongguan branch (NOT Shida branch) of Bastille. It's just north of Wenzhou St. Lane 86 and there's a willowy tree outside. Good tea, free snacks, food served, and the teahouse itself is beautiful. Japanese style cushions, some tables have fishtanks inside, hanging lotus lamps, and giant painting similar to temple doors, to name a few attractions. To get there, walk north along Wenzhou Street from Gongguan and on the left just past Bastille.

The sign for Yue is not in English. It looks like this: 玥 and it means "relic" (presumably made of jade). The food - especially desserts - here is pretty good, and you can sample many kinds of Taiwanese and Chinese tea. I recommend the kinds where you get a portion of loose tea and a mug - more expensive than a pot of tea at a regular cafe but fun to drink and easier than trying to do the whole "Gongfu" tea making process.

Watermoon is a popular old Shanghai-style teahouse near MRT Technology Building: Fuxing S. Road Sec. 2, Alley 180 #2. It specializes in aged Pu Erh tea. Prices are reasonable but there's a minimum charge - don't feel bad about coming hungry as the food is pretty good.

And finally, there's a teahouse in Bitan across the suspension bridge near Xindian MRT. It's on the left after you cross the bridge and looks out over the river. Good tea, set price 400 NT for leaves, water and your choice of 2 snacks.

To get there, take the MRT to Xindian and upon exiting, turn right and walk past the bus parking lot. Head left and eventually, after a small market, you'll come to a suspension bridge on the right. Cross that and the teahouse is really obvious on your direct left.

You can also buy and drink good tea at Ten Ren shops across the city, or eat a meal of food cooked with tea at their high-end restaurant chain, Cha for Tea. I'm a big fan of their pu-erh based beef noodles.

You might also consider a trip to Jiufen - it's not a famed tea-growing area; in fact, it's famed for its now-depleted gold mines! The old houses there, however, are quite evocative with lovely views, and they do serve good tea. I'll write more about Maokong in another post, but did want to mention it here.

Two photos from Jiufen are shown here.

To get to Jiufen, take a train fromTaipei Main Station to Ruifang and hop on a bus from there. Alternately, you can take a bus from just outside Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT exit 2, at the bus stop in front of the green SOGO.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Christmas on the Cross-Island Highway

View Approaching Lishan

For my first Christmas in Taiwan, my friend Cara and I took a trip through the center of Taiwan to see the fantastic mountains there. We started in Taizhong and took the bus to Puli, where it then headed up into the mountains along the Central Cross Island Expressay. At some point, it turned onto the Northern Cross Island Expressway as chunks of one of the highways are still in disrepair from an earthquake years ago (not to mention several landslides since).

This area is extremely beautiful, quite remote, and the ride there is enough to make even the strongest stomachs hurl their contents.

We stopped in the retired veterans' town of Lishan, north of Taroko National Park, and spent two days there at the lovely Ming Xiu Farm Homestay outside of town. To get to the hotel and back we either walked up and down steep hills or hitched rides from the very friendly locals.

On our free day we took a bus to Wuling Farm, where we wandered along the road - my back hurt too much for hiking.

It was so enjoyable that my boyfriend and I repeated the trip a year and a half later, in the spring. Unfortunately I've lost those photos due to my computer crash, so I am unable to post them here.

To take the bus across the center of the island, you can start in Taizhong or Yilan. From Taizhong the bus leaves at 8am from the Fengyuan Bus Company stop across the street and to the left of the train station. It goes to Puli and passes through the towns of Ren Ai and Cingjing Farm before reaching Hehuanshan, Dayuling and finally Lishan six grueling hours later.

From Yilan the bus leaves similarly early though I don't know from where. Buses from Lishan to Taizhong leave early, but to Yilan there is a bus at 8:30am and a bus at 1:30pm (stopping at Wuling Farm).

There are also buses theoretically available between Hualien and Dayuling, where you can pick up the Fengyuan Bus service in either direction if your timing is right. You can also - theoretically - head down into Taroko Gorge from here.

Fushoushan is on a spur, and buses there from Lishan only run during certain seasons (I'm still unclear on which ones). However, it's only 4 kilometers so it should be easy to hitch a ride up there. Our hotel's owner took us. It's uphill heading there, but you can hike downhill on your way back.

From Fushoushan, you can even see Hehuanshan in the distance. To get to the higher altitudes of Fushoushan, you can either hike uphill - it's long and arduous - or hire a car and driver for 150-300 kuai.

Hiking Trails in Fushoushan: the best hiking is near Tianchi at the higher reaches of the farm, close to the camping area. There is a long and winding trail that leads back down to the hotel complex, but start early as it's a long hike and clouds tend to move in during the afternoon.

The views in all places are stunning - the six hour bus ride from Taizhong is worth it just for the scenery.

Accommodation: high end accommodation is available at Lishan (Swallow Castle and Ming Xiu Farm Homestay - Swallow is tacky and monstrous but right in town. Ming Xiu is charming but outside town), Wuling Farm, Cingjing Farm and Fushoushan. More affordable accommodation can be found at Fushoushan for campers, and there is a hostel at Wuling Farm if you're foreign and under the age of 30 or so. Lishan also appears to have some budget choices. Dayuling certainly has a guesthouse or two, and I believe you can camp near Hehuanshan.

Ming Xiu farm hotel is my favorite but you either need strong legs or a car to get there. The address is not terribly useful, as it is only listed as being on "Song Dong Lane off the commercial road", so ask directions in town.

Other information: if you are curious about the area and can speak Chinese, visit Mr. Wang in Lishan and have a pot of traditional tea (300 kuai) at his store at #12 on the main street (Zhongzheng Road, but there's really only one street so...). If you have time, he can give good advice on getting to the far-flung tea plantations and aboriginal villages outside Lishan.
View from Lishan at Sunset

Lishan in the evening

Tudor Architecture (fake, of course) and scenery at Cingjing Farm

A Cloud Sea near Hehuanshan

Sign at Wuling Farm

Near Lishan


Wuling Farm


Xueshan (Snow Mountain) as seen from Wuling Farm

Ren Ai - in my opinion more beautiful than Sun Moon Lake

Thursday, September 4, 2008


Kid playing in rock formations as the sun sets

Yehliu is a small fishing town - and an ugly town at that, sorry - on the northeast coast of Taiwan.

To get there, take the MRT to Taipei Main Station. Exit on the Zhongxiao side of the railway station - 4 or 5 should do, I can't remember which is better. Walk west along Zhongxiao (if you're facing the railway station, turn left) until you come to two bus stations - one for the airport and one for long distance buses. Pass both of these and make your first right, walking away from the Shinkong Life tower that is prominently on your left. On the left, you'll see another bus station servicing Ubus. enter and turn right, walking past the UBus section into the Guo Guang section. On the left, find a departure terminal labeled "Jinshan". Buy tickets to Yehliu from the counter across from that, and get on a Jinshan bound bus. Make sure to have the driver tell you where to get off.
About 1.5 hours later, you'll arrive in Yehliu. Turn right and walk down the hill to the harbor and past it. The good seafood restaurants are here. Turn away from the harbor when you see a V in the road, and you'll come to the Geopark. There's a market selling dried fish and tacky souvenirs as well.

Weird Rocks I

It has two attributes that make it entirely worth a visit, if not a repeat visit: gorgeous eroded rock formations and the best damn seafood you've ever had in your life.

We went for a day last weekend - a second visit for me and Brendan, and a first for my sister and a new friend. As we had all slept in, we didn't arrive until an hour or two before sunset. As it turns out, this is the best time of day to take photos of the compelling rocks that dot the coast, and the staggering cliffs above. The warm sandy color of these formations lends itself particularly well to the orange rays of the setting sun.

The rocks, coast and parts of the cliffs were formed - and are still being formed - by wind, water and sand erosion and (apparently) seismic activity. My students say that this last factor is false - it has nothing to do with the movement of anything below, and everything to do with the unique erosion conditions above.

Queen's Head Rock

The rocks are classified by their shape - there are "tofu rocks", "ginger rocks" and apparently even "brain rocks". The most famous is nu wang tou, or Queen's Head, shown below. We personally found the odd "garlic"-topped mini-volcanoes at the other end to be more compelling.

More weird rocks

Couple at sunset

After the sun properly set we made our way to a seafood restaurant, choosing based on the abundance of plastic bins holding live seafood. "You guys got a menu?" I asked in Chinese.

"This is our menu," the owner answered, gesturing to the bins.

We had cuttlefish sashimi with a spicy dipping sauce, a plate of basil clams, a steamed fish, four barbecued crabs and a plate of stir-fried cabbage. The entire meal came to under $2000 NT for four people. Delicious!

My sister enjoying the local marine life

Sand dollar fossil

Fishermen flagrantly disobeying the rules

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Some Photos from the 8/30 Protest

Other Taiwan bloggers have already done a good job talking about and reporting on the anti-everything-that's-going-on-now rally last Saturday so I'll mostly just share a few pictures and make a few notes.

First of all, having been to quite a few rallies and protests - generally as a bystander although I'm not shy about discussing my own political views on Taiwan or the world in general - this one has to be the friendliest one I've ever seen.

Seriously. The 10/10 "A-bian Xia Tai" folks were so...serious. They either ignored or seemed wary of observers, and weren't quite sure what to make of foreign observers. Having attended university in Washington DC, obviously I've been to my share of protests there as well. Anti-World Bank? Check. Anti-Bush? Yep. Anti-Iraq war? You betcha. They all had similar atmospheres.

This one was different. People were outgoing and genuinely happy to see foreigners there. I suppose, it helped that I was wearing a bright green t-shirt. People shook my hand just for caring enough to show up. People took the time to tell me what they thought - some more exuberantly than others. Some, for the record, acted as though they'd chewed one too many betel nuts. The crowd was a lot older - there were kids and lots of little dogs, but the bent was definitely in favor of the senior citizen.

People smiled. I haven't been to such a smiley protest...well, ever. I also noticed that I couldn't understand most of what was going on, as it was all in Taiwanese. Not all of it...but enough that I was a bit lost. The only Chinese I heard were a few of the speakers on the main stage (and not always then) and from the many people who went out of their way to talk to me.

Water was free, and the younger set went out of their way to be courteous to the seniors who ruled the streets. Someone ran up and gave me a free keychain because "You understand how we love Taiwan!"

228 Peace Park was practically overrun with old folks, which meant it was...well, just like 228 Park on any other day.

Near the Chinese-style gate in front of the Presidential building - which I'm sorry, looks like an old-timey European train station, it really does - there was a fairly large shrine dedicated to the activists who died under the KMT's former dictatorship.

(I also learned that the "jiu" in "Ma Ying Jiu" sounds like "gou" in Taiwanese, so his name can carry the connotation of a dog in that language. Huh. The Things You Learn.)

I can't estimate the attendance, and people say that the 10/10/06 anti-Chen protest was bigger, but this one sure felt as big.

Frankly, anyone who says that the Taiwanese don't want independence really should have seen this rally. If they could draw such a big crowd in a blue-leaning city like Taipei, then obviously lots of people do not consider themselves Chinese.

Finally, someone told me today that the signs brandished were in English (and German) because the organizers hoped for coverage on CNN. I didn't see any international news coverage, though.

Auntie Xie's

Auntie Xie's - Taipei City, Zhongzheng District, Bo-ai Road #122 B-1

"I think it's down wait, maybe we passed it by," my friend said as we stared down the brightly lit lanes south and west of Taipei Main Station.

"It looks like we've overshot it - is this Wuchang Street?"

"I think it's down there." (It wasn't down there.)

After about a half hour of searching in this way, we finally located Auntie Xie's (Xie A-yi) on a quiet stretch of Bo'ai Road between Taipei Main and Ximen. My friend had been there once before, taken there by a local who knew just where to go for good food. This time, he was bringing us along for a real treat.

The restaurant is below street level, down a long flight of red linoleum stairs, marked by a small backlit sign (Chinese only) that's easy to pass by. Inside is some of the best food I've had in Taipei in a long time. (If you can't read Chinese easily, look up the "xie" in "xiexie" before you go - it's the same one).

Night markets have long been considered bastions of Taiwanese food, and in a way they are - oyster omelets, mba wan (rou yuan), chicken feet, stinky tofu, shaved ice and other treats that are hard to find outside of Taiwan abound there. (An exception being the shaved ice - the Philippines has a similar dessert called halo-halo that's heavier on the gooey colorful stuff and lighter on the ice).

The food at Auntie Xie's is not like that at all - it's the food you'd be served if invited to the home of a local friend for dinner; it's the food a Taiwanese housewife might whip up for a special guest. It's Chinese, no doubt, but didn't quite taste like any food I've tried in China.

We arrived late - 8:20pm for an 8:30 closing. The staff seemed surprised and pleased that four foreigners showed up and were happy to feed us regardless. Instead of providing a menu, they brought out dishes of spicy tofu with peanuts, fried, eggy silken tofu, taro congee, noodle soup with cabbage and pork, savory beef laden with streaks of fat and flavorful sauce, cold chicken and dipping sauce (similar to a Hakka dish I've had) and the piece de resistance, a huge orange-red fish with an odd face, splayed and steamed in a tasty broth.

My friend is pretty sure that the place is a buffet rather than a menu restaurant during it's regular hours, hence their comfort with just plopping food down at our table.

And it was delicious. All of it. Amazing stuff.

In the background a combination of Hollywood (a B-grade movie network), National Geographic and Taiwanese soap operas played on a flat-screen TV, and the lao ban niang watched all of it raptly...and yet still managed to provide impeccable service. The decor is homey, with a small mounted shrine, checked tablecloths and a visible kitchen area.

All in all, a great place to go if you want delicious local food but don't care for the usual market fare.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Inaugural Post - Firewalking and More

I'm starting this blog for the sake of collecting information on Taiwan, with a focus on cultural activities or other events and activities of interest to a visitor, student or expat here.

The thing is that most of this information is available only in Chinese, or in English, but sporadically; often, it's out there, but you have to hunt it down in person, which can be time-consuming or even impossible for a shorter term traveler or someone on a busy work schedule.

With that, I bring you information gleaned from Bao'An Temple regarding their annual cultural festival. It's based on the lunar calendar so I've looked up dates in my 2009 daybook as needed.

Activity 2009 / Date / Lunar Calendar Date / Time

Temple Parade - Baosheng Dadi
Thurs. April 9
Lunar 3/14
1pm +/-

Friday April 10
Lunar 3/15
1:30-3:30 +/-

Temple Parade - Sengung Dadi
Wed. May 20th
Lunar 4/26
12:30-1:30 +/-

All of these events begin at Bao'An Temple near Yuanshan MRT in Taipei City. It's on the map in the station there, and noted on most city maps, including those in the major guidebooks.

The information comes from a 2008 brochure, with the lunar calendar dates projected forward into 2009 - fortunately my daybook cites the lunar calendar date for each day under the main calendar. If there are any changes or other interesting activities during that time, I'll update when I become aware of them.

What to expect at one of these events? The "parades" are really "God's Border Inspection Tours" - the idols from the temple are taken out on palanquins and paraded around town. They are usually accompanied by a long parade including martial artists in traditional face make-up, large "puppet" costumes (they're not really puppets - they're immortals and other spiritual beings) that tower ten feet or higher, lion dancers, ceramic animal floats blowing steam, music and all sorts of other fun stuff.

The firewalking is probably the most fascinating of the activities. The same palanquins are brought out along with slightly different "lion" heads while young men run around a spread of blazing hot coals. Then some people come forth with baskets of salt and pour it on the coals, creating billows of smoke. The men carrying the idols are said to become "possessed" by the gods and walk across the coals as such. Apparently, they are not injured.

At least one student of mine has said that the bearers are, in fact, injured - usually with 2nd degree burns on their feet (big surprise). "Are they really possessed?" I asked.

Apparently not. Some say they are, others just go with the flow, but aren't 'possessed' in any way.