Jun 242010

Sitou (Thursday, June 24, 2010)

I awoke early for a change and thought I might catch a sunrise. Being surrounded by trees was quite disorienting; which direction was East? After roaming the grounds for a while, I hit the shower and packed. We would be leaving immediately after breakfast.

The hostel offered a comprehensive buffet. Of course, there was rice porridge and the obligatory toast machine (you feed white bread in the top, and eventually browned white bread appears at the bottom). Of greater interest were the scrambled eggs with tomatoes, fried noodles, stir-fried greens, stir-fried cabbage, and fried peanuts. The latter would have made a great beer snack.

There were no decent beverages; coffee and tea must be too expensive. I had my tea from a bottle and we got on the road.

Alishan (Thursday, June 24, 2010)

To get to the Alishan National Recreation Area we first had to descend to the plain where we could reconnect with the highway. Until it was wiped out by typhoon Morakot last year, there was a pretty narrow gauge railway to Alishan from Chiayi. With the tracks and much of the road washed out, it is now more of a challenge to visit the park, and we encountered a few construction zones along the way.

Our principal destination was a grove of very old trees. Here the park has built a walkway and signposted the oldest ones. Normally there is quite a walk from the park entrance, but perhaps because the internal train system is out of commission, no one stopped us from driving right up to the trailhead. This was lucky because less than half an hour into our hike the skies opened and we had to take shelter at the base of a very old, very large red cypress. Richard ran back for our umbrellas and we were able to complete the loop. Unfortunately, surrounding this protected grove of 800-2000 year old trees are plantations of straight, tall trees suitable for the lumber trade. I guess a little conservation is better than none.

We were exhausted by the uphill leg of the hike and caught our breath in a little museum off the side of the trail. Here, local birds were perched in lifelike poses by little signs with their names. Dad had many questions. Once the rain tapered off a bit, we headed back to the van and, eventually, down to the “village.” Like a ski resort, it’s not a real village, but an assemblage of park buildings, retail shops, and restaurants oriented toward the tourist trade. We headed for a restaurant where the wait staff was woefully underemployed and placed our order. It was a basic meal of soup noodles and fried noodles, and their version of kung pao chicken (which I think was supposed to include peanuts, but I don’t recall seeing any). Apparently not all of the restaurants in Taiwan offer a transcendent experience.

We headed over to the visitor center to talk trees with the staff there. We watched a long, slow video about the history and tourist attractions of the area, but efforts to learn more about the trees was not very availing. By mid-afternoon it was time to head back down the hill.

One of my priorities in visiting this area was to stop in at a tea plantation and learn more about the growing and processing of tea. Richard turned in at a place with many rows of tea bushes but little signage, and we walked into a warehouse where several men were tumbling teas leaves in machines that looked like deep clothes dryers. After a certain amount of time or when the tea reached a certain temperature, the leaves would be dumped out into a basket, then into a cloth bag that was tied and lined up with several other cloth bags. Round and round the tea went, with no apparent indication of when the process would end. The men revealed few trade secrets so we headed over to the show room for a tasting.

We tasted two teas, one a traditional high mountain oolong and the other a higher priced variant they have developed in recent years. The salesman did not speak English, so Richard asked questions and translated for me. For the most part, all I had to do was watch and drink. The tea ceremony begins with boiling water and a pot containing a substantial quantity of tea leaves. Boiling water was poured over the leaves and promptly poured out. This initial infusion or “washing” was used to rinse the serving vessel and cups. This might have had the effect of slightly decaffeinating the leaves, but only slightly. Several rounds of “washings” followed.

Subsequent infusions were for a couple minutes at most, and the tea was drained from the leaves into a separate serving vessel for service. This helped preserve the light and slightly sweet flavor of the tea and avoid oversteeping. When tasting, the first step always is to take a deep sniff of the tea to imbibe its floral aroma, and then to sip it and savor its changing flavor. Stronger floral and vegetal flavors gave way to softer, sweeter ones which gradually faded after five or six rounds. Our salesman participated, checking the flavor and aroma. I think the tea helped keep his energy up. Each serving was only a few ounces, but after more than a dozen shots, I could hardly drink another drop. It was time to buy a couple bags of tea and continue down the hill.

Richard dropped us back at the HSR station, and we thanked him for all his assistance, not to mention the loan of dry clothing we would have to return later. Although our journey down to Chiayi had been pleasant, we decided to upgrade to the business class cabin for the return journey. With larger seats, more leg room, and very prompt beverage and snack service — crunchy rice crackers and pound cake, of all things — it was nicer, but the 40% premium over economy was hard to justify. The efficiency of the system is undeniable, whisking us back to Taipei on pleasantly smooth tracks in less than half the time of the older system. I think we got in a little nap along the way.

Taipei (Thursday, June 24, 2010)

Our bullet train glided into Taipei main station at 8:00 PM sharp. We were very hungry by this time, and had heard that the restaurants on the top floor of the train station were pretty good. Considering the hour, we thought we would give them a try, even though we hadn’t done much research in advance. After roaming the storefronts puzzling over mysterious plastic food models, we ended up at a Japanese restaurant with a broad menu and laconic service. The food was average, but more than filling. It was time to turn in after a busy two days.

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