The daily grind of life here in Taipei has definitely caught up to me. I picked up some extra hours at work, which has helped to fill my empty account at the Hua-Nan Bank of Taipei but has ultimately taken away from my precious free time. I am currently finishing up my second month of Chinese classes at the Taipei Language Institute. These lessons fill my mornings Monday through Friday from 9:30 to 12:30 and have greatly improved my abilities to blend in here. Fewer hand and body gestures are now needed for me to order a glass of juice or a bowl of soup and I feel more confident talking to random locals I meet on the street.
My busy schedule has also made it difficult to get some traveling in, which is one of the main draws for living here in Taiwan for the year. I work every Saturday from 9 in the morning to about 3 PM, which destroys the day and makes weekend getaways fairly difficult. These past couple weekends I was also primarily staying in Taipei to attend the recent Taipei International Film Festival. With most of the screenings on Saturday and Sunday, this too made getting away from life in the big city difficult.
This past Sunday I escaped to the North East part of the Island to the small village, Jioufen, and its sister city Jinguashi. Jiufen is one of those quaint little towns that draw lots of tourists for shopping, scenery, and local eats. The town itself was an old mining base back in the day and Jinguashi, a gold mining village further up in the mountains, also has a great deal of Japanese influence seen in its architecture.
I left Taipei Main Station by local train to the town of Rueifang, which serves as a hub to both Jiufen and Jinguashi by bus. All three of these towns are technically part of Taipei County, which means public transportation is on the same card system as Taipei City’s MRT, a pleasant surprise that enable me to squander my coin kuai on various street snacks and tea.
It’s easy to forget that a mere twenty minutes outside of Taipei’s busy downtown there are lush green hills, mountain views and picturesque streams and rivers bisecting various suburbs. Further North and East you head towards the Pacific, and then things start to get truly breathtaking.
Sundays are understandably busy tourism days and Jiufen, which lies roughly an hour outside of Taipei, is a popular hotspot for locals and foreigners to escape to for the day. The train was crowded, though not as uncomfortable as my Dragon Boat Fest weekend, which, if you’ll recall, had yours truly crammed into a hot train car like livestock on the way to the slaughter.
My friend and I early on decided to save Jiufen for later in the afternoon to hopefully steer clear of the other hordes of tourists hitting the town for lunch and shopping excursions. We decided to ride the local bus from Rueifang past Jiufen to the far less popular but ultimately more rewarding Jinguashi, which, like Jiufen, was also an old gold mining town in the early 20th century.
Jinguashi is probably best known for its access to the Gold Ecological Park, one of Taiwan’s many national parks. The Gold Ecological Park is noteworthy for its abandoned mine (fully accessible for tourists but a bit too juvenile for this intrepid traveler), and its sought after Golden Waterfall, which I learned was only accessible to by car, scooter, or three hour hike into the mountains.
In 2002 the town of Jinguashi and its neighboring park was a possible candidate for inclusion to the oh so sacred UNESCO World Heritage Site master list, a trekker’s Holy Grail catalog that has been teasing travelers with the vast exploration opportunities around the globe since its inception.
The main tourists attractions–the old mine, the various colonial Japanese estates that are now museums and the Temple of Gold–are nice for a peek but the true wonders lay off the beaten path towards the sea. A long trail winds around the mountain side, goes through a beautiful old temple and 35ft-high War God shrine, and eventually ends at a scenic overlook at the Pacific and a small fishing port below.
After surveying all there was to see by foot in Jinguashi we headed back to Jiufen to eat and soak in the town. Between Jiufen and Jinguashi there are thousands of small traditional Chinese burial plots in the hills. These ornately decorated ceramic and stone shrines are the resting places for only the richest and most fortunate of deceased because of their quality and the feng shui of facing both the mountains and the sea. If you are somebody of great worth or fame you may very well be fortunate enough to spend the afterlife in these peaceful green hills.
Jiufen is a pleasant enough village built on a steep hill overlooking a misty bay of hills and one pyramid island. The town is famous for its tight, semi-indoor market that is a maze of vendors slinging salted dried meats and seafood, fish ball soup, dense and sugary pineapple cakes, gooey dumplings, various treats on a stick, all the chotchkies one could want. The town’s other major draws are the many teahouses that have sprung up over the years as the crowds started flocking in.
For those who know me well you will remember that I am a bit of a tea enthusiast back in the states. My dear friend with a knack for dry humor and sarcasm, Jake, once said I have nothing more than a love of “dirty water.” In Taipei I have discovered a number of low-key coffee/tea cafes around the local university that serve up delectable pots of various East Asian aromatic teas. Other than that, I have really only scratched the surface on what is available in this part of the world. My trip to Jiufen proved that artisan tea is way beyond my enthusiasm for green and oolong chá.
But before diving into my memorable experience at The City of the Sky Tea House let’s get through the obligatory offering of food porn.
Fish ball soup is exactly what it sounds like, unappetizing white balls of dough and protein that floats in a rich broth with vegetables and the occasional surprise mystery meatball thrown in for kicks. Since Jiufen is fairly famous this dish I felt obligated to try it out. For all the hype fish balls are about as boring as they sound. Perhaps I chose the wrong vendor but a general rule of thumb is go to where the locals are, and this particular hole in the wall was hopping.
Rice with savory minced meat is a common side dish in all of Taiwan. Best not to ask what’s in the grind.
After eating sparingly at the fish ball soup stand, we made are way to another Taiwanese delicacy, Ba-Wan, translated to ‘Meat Circle,’ which are large, gelatinous meat filled dumplings served either in a thick sauce or accompanied with soup.
There were at least seven shops selling these curious culinary wonders, which look very much like the treacherous jellyfish that wash up on beaches around the world. Are particular stand looked decent enough from the outside so we gave it a shot. Later on as we were navigating through the gooey mess of bamboo shoots, mushroom and odd pieces of meat, we noticed that two Buddhist nuns sat down next to us and were also enjoying what we thought were pork filled dumplings but were in reality all vegetarian. Turns out of all the shops in Jiufen serving up Ba-Wan we ended up at the vegan stop. The pieces of red protein were either tofu or some oddly formed piece of gluten.
The dish was actually very tasty and is something that I would like to try in different incarnations some time down the road.
My Lonely Planet guide lists a number of “famous” teahouses in Jiufen, all of which served pretty much similar forms of brew but differed in their interior atmospheres and their views of the sea. Walking down a narrow side street we stumbled upon The City of the Sky Tea House, a charming little three-story café fully furnished with folk art pieces, antique furnishings and a stunning view of the port. Like most of Jiufen the café was perched high on a cliff overlooking the Pacific and in the distance Jinguashi. After settling in on the balcony of the third floor we ordered a rather expensive bag of locally grown and aged Oolong tea.
One thing about Asia that I’ve learned is that even the simplest of things, like tea or as I’ve mentioned chicken, are ultimately a lot more complex than you might think.
This was hardly my first experience with artisan tea however, I was clearly unprepared for the proper (and traditional) preparation and serving of tea of this quality. Whereas most of the world casually throw some tea bags or loose leaves into a pot of boiling water or even the unromantic mug of H2O, the Chinese are very particular about the order and purity of the tea tasting experience.
The shop’s proprietor did not speak English so I had to rely on my limited vocabulary and my friend to interpret the woman’s directions.
First off, the tea set that our tea was served in was a piece of art in itself. We learned that the sets were custom made for the teahouse and were modern interpretations of traditional sets. Basically with tea of this caliber your water is boiled over coals on the floor in a large ceramic teapot. The tea itself will never go near this pot, which is nothing more than a utility vehicle for water at a constant boil.
Instead, the boiling water is slowly poured into one of the two larger white ceramic bowls seen below where it is left to cool to a perfect 85 degrees Celsius, the optimal temperature for steeping tea leaves.
After the water has rested a bit it is poured over the loose tea leaves that are resting on the top of the small teapot, the only piece on the table set that has a top. It is given a couple minutes to steep then is poured off into the second large white boil. From there it is poured into the two smaller drinking cups, which offer only two or three small sips per serving. It seems like a lot of work for nothing more than the aforementioned soiled water, however, there is something quite romantic and beautiful about this system. It’s nice to know that people have been drinking their tea in this manner for thousands of years and that the procedure is still practiced today.
Every piece in the set had a purpose. The pot for the tea leaves was specially made to strain the loose tea leaves, the small cylinder on the left side of the tray was made to rest the teapot’s top, the small curved piece in the back (shown in photo above) was for scooping the dried tea leaves from the bag into the pot, and the small aromatic twig hiding in the back was for tidying up any wet tea leaf that stuck to the top of the pot. The large dark ceramic bowl was for the wasted water or cold tea. Only the purest form of the brew is supposed to be taken to the lips. If you let it get too cool or leave it steeping too long, it’s best to just dump it and start over.
Our tea choice was very good. The local specialty was naturally sweet, with a hint of bitterness. It tasted different served in a small sipping cup, rather than a larger Western mug and overall the experience was very refreshing even on a hot day summer afternoon.
The tea that was served ended up lasting at least three hours and we ended up waiting for the sun to set before heading off into the maze of Jiufen again. Please break for a series of scenic photographs that really don’t do justice to just how stunning our view was during the precious twilight hours.
It started to rain right as we boarded the train back to Taipei City. Damn I’m good. Our train ride back was standing room only, which was a bit of a drag but we opted for the faster rail line so the time passed with ease.
I’m hoping to head down South to a famous waterfall in the town of Wulai during my next weekend excursion. I won’t be able to do any serious travel in the far Southern regions of the Island till I have an entire weekend to devote but there is plenty to do up in Northern and Central Taiwan till then.
Till next time, your devoted lover of filthy water and gooey meat circle enthusiast.