Arriving in Taiwan after our marathon journey of over 24 hours was a great feeling. But we had few expectations that our short stay on this sub tropical South China Sea island better known for business and manufacturing would be so welcoming and enjoyable.
One of the best memories will doubtless be our adventure in the humid sub tropical mountains above the city where we took tea!
It was a humid overcast day and we decided to escape the intense activity of down town Taipei and head up into the hills close to the city centre to have some traditional green tea. The area of Maokong is well known for its tea culture, and is a favourite with city residents wanting to enjoy the Gatou mountain countryside. What unfolded over the following few hours would be one of the most spacial and entertaining episodes of our trip so far.
We saw a sign for a Taiwanese temple, so asked the taxi to leave us on a deserted, leafy street: silent except for the sounds of the forest. The area had a bohemian, scruffy feel, and after visiting the temple, we regained our determination to take tea in a traditional tea house. Yet the very few run-down places nearby were all closed. Not being put off we walked further up the road and found one open; it was empty except for a family eating at a large table surrounded by benches.
A Taiwanese dwarf greeted us and we responded with a smile and a request for tea in English. He just looked at us – it was beginning to feel a little weird. Luckily the woman eating at the other table with her young son and father, interjected, with her very, very poor English, saying hello and confirmed to the host that we wanted tea. She spoke to the dwarf who became a little more animated and went off into the back, whilst the woman signalled for us to sit at the neighbouring table.
The dwarf returned with a large stainless steel tea pot, which he filled with water and placed on a portable gas stove. What was to unfold was to be a traditional Taiwanese tea ceremony yet without the formality of a tourist presentation – this was something truly natural and authentic.
The large pot was taken off the stove and the near boiling water was poured over all the small cups (there were three used for offering the tea to first enjoy the aroma and then three cups for drinking); the clay tea pot; and two jugs used for decanting the tea from the clay pot. Everything was on a large plastic drip tray, which collected all the spills, since the dwarf conducted this as one complete, flowing movement of water.
Once the tea pot had been well and truly warmed and emptied of hot water, the dried leaves of green tea was pushed in using a wooden scoop.
More hot water was poured over the tae and then after what seemed like less than a minute, the tea was poured out into the decanting jugs.
This was discarded by pouring it over the cups and the outside of the tea pot, dripping down into the deep collecting tray; I understood this was the rinsing of the leaves.
The second pot brewed for a little longer, and the tea was poured into the decanting jugs, which were in turn used to fill the cups – again in one continuous, splashing pour.
Rafa and I were each offered a small cup of tea – remember neither of us had appreciated a tea ceremony before and what’s more no one really spoke English (or Spanish!) here, apart from a few words from the charming woman from the adjacent table!
By this time all the staff in the tea house were at our table teasing us and laughing at our total inexperience at drinking tea!!
The small tea cup, more like a tiny espresso cup without a handle, was offered up for us to smell and then we had to place a slightly larger cup over the top, swiftly turn it upside down, placing the tea into the larger drinking cup – speed is the secret to success!
The flavour was fresh and light – in fact the flavour was not unlike the green tea we have in Europe, but what was different was the aroma; it was intense and fresh.
The afternoon was to become even more interesting as the young woman in the tea house introduced herself as Yuan Ying Wang and invited us to eat with her, and her son and father.
Before long we were all at the same table, enjoying amazing, fine green tea flavoured noodles; boiled chicken with mushrooms; and tempura prawns with mayonnaise that looked quite normal but tasted incredible!
The host kindly offered us as a gift a pair of wooden tea tongs, stirring stick and wooden holder – a generous gesture as I had been admiring them earlier! We returned to the city in a private, glass bottomed cable car, travelling the few kilometres down the mountain over the forest canopy listening to the wildlife awake as the city began to wind down for the day. It was a magical way to finish a wonderful day!
We were later told the tea ceremony in Taiwan is quite unique, because due to the island’s complex political history it not only combines Chinese style but also Japanese and Western influences.
This evening of spontaneous generosity and the family and staff’s desire to share their culture with us was really been a high point. In many ways I expected this more in Peru; yet in reality the country was so geared towards tourism that even in the heights of Andes we saw little of the real people’s lives..
Taiwan by contrast is not really on the touristy map; originally it was merely going to be our Asian airline hub for onward travel to Japan and Indonesia, but with Japan being taken out of our itinerary, we decided to stay longer and I’m glad we did. I always thought it was an industrial island, and a base for businessmen, but it’s a beautifully green place, with orchids and stunning butterflies; and fascinating Buddhist temples nestling in amongst office blocks – a really surprising place.
In fact, there are so few European here, that we were sometimes stared at in the street. Waiting for a bus to the south of the city, a group of school kids just came up to us and stared and then after a few seconds smiled and said ‘hel-loo’; there was genuine fascination and excitement.
Taiwan is very civilised. It it’s cleaning up it’s once industrial capital, having built a world class metro system; added a growing number of cultural sites and developed events like the International Flora Expo to showcase the city to a wider audience. The city’s 101 Tower, once the tallest structure on the planet, put Taiwan on the map, but it is really only now that the island is being recognised for the diversity of it’s offering for visitors. interestingly it is now pushing it’s Eco credentials with stunning resorts in it’s national parks – a far cry from the old cliché of an island with polluting factories and a smoggy cities.
We ended our stay chilling out as the locals do – taking a soak in the healing waters of Xin Beitou.
The thermal valley is easy to get to – just take the metro north to Beitou (the journey on the gleaming new MRT costs a euro and takes half an hour), then walk the few hundred metres or so up past the river to the hot springs. The thermal valley has water at temperatures of over 90 degrees, heated by volcanic venting. There a number of spas where you can enjoy the waters, but at a more manageable temperature. The sulphurous smelling springs are amazing, soothing irritated skin in just a few hours and making you feel a new person.
Taiwan is definitive somewhere I would return to – it makes a different and refreshing transit destination instead of the usual Hong Kong or Singapore which I feel I have visited enough times now! From the exceptional attention to detail and hospitality of our hosts, The Shangri-La Far Eastern Hotel (for example when they dry cleaned my suit trousers they managed to perfectly match and replace a missing tortoiseshell back pocket button without me mentioning it! I will be writing a feature on this property and will link to it when published. The plave really lived up to its utopian name); to relaxing in the hot sulphur Xin Beitou springs north of the city (we were the only Europeans there!) we had an exceptional few days in Taiwan.