Thursday, April 26, 2012

Travel Notes from Taiwan: Serendipity and Tea in Jiu Fen 九份 (Part 1) by Josh and Katie

Portrait of Jiu Fen by Ch'ng Kiah Kiean 
Serendipity led us to Jiu Fen, an old gold mining town at the base of Keelung Mountain north of Taipei. Our trip began in Tainan, but we quickly realized our friends were consumed with preparations for the Oolong Conference the following week. We decided that the best thing to do might be to leave town. Later that day, a new tea friend invited us to brewing demonstration in Taipei. I found a name card for an old teahouse in Jiu Fen that someone had previously recommended to me. I am not sure precisely where or when this name card came into my possession. But, nonetheless, it was there and the teahouse manager’s name scribbled on top. I showed the card to a tea friend who said, “Ah, she is a very friendly person. If you choose to go, be sure and let me know so that I can contact this person. She will be a good host.” In this way, our trip north unfolded, one piece at a time.

The next morning we boarded a bus bound for Taipei, which is actually quite comfortable and almost as quiet as traveling in Switzerland. A few hours later, we pulled into the Taipei bus station, which is now part of a multi story intricate transportation hub connecting the high speed rail, local trains, buses, and subway system. This sleek system leaves one wondering where America has gone wrong with its public transportation options. As soon as we arrived at the bus station, we took a short walking tour of the station, including an underground mall that extends six floors below ground. (In Taipei, space is extremely limited. As a result, one can either go down or up. For an entire semester, I attended a Mandarin Chinese class on the seventh floor, underground. This is not recommended for the claustrophobic.)
Creative food cart in the Creative Park
We boarded a local train to take us to the Creative Park. It was here that we planned to attend a free tea service, fashioned after the tea events of old. The Creative Park pulsed with activity: families meandered through outdoor art exhibits and teenagers restlessly waited in line for a rock concert. The tea tasting, however, proved to be a very low key affair in a secluded pavillion. We were introduced to an authentic Dong Ding tea and enjoyed sipping tea with new friends. The hosts brewed the tea light so that it was sweet; which makes tea more appealing to a wide audience. 

Later, we ventured to another section of town and enjoyed dumplings and cucumber salad from one of Taiwan's most famous dumpling houses. Here, the multi-lingual staff cheerfully hosts guests from all over the world. At least 15 chefs, all clad in white, bustled about in the steam-filled kitchen preparing the dumplings. They were soft and light--little pillows filled with a burst ginger and delicate greens. The food here is truly outstanding and it’s a shame that I did not get more pictures to drool over. 

As evening approached, we decided to spend the night in Jiu Fen. Luckily the manager of the tea shop, Miss Zhang, was able to secure us a room for the night. This was no small feat, given our late notice and the fact it was a holiday. We were lucky!  

Our host instructed us to take the bus to Jiu Fen and then call the hotel owner as soon as we arrived at the local 7-11. This seemed straightforward, but soon it became obvious that not that many locals travel to Jiu Fen by bus. After finding the right bus, which was a small trick, we were off. It was an old bus, bearing little resemblance to the modern vehicle that carried us swiftly to Taipei earlier that day. Every time we hit a small bump, the shocks would screetch and shimmy. It was like riding on an old boxspring mattress. We bounced through road improvement: Screetch, Screetch, Screetch. We hit potholes: SCREETCH, SCREETCH, SCREETCH. This went on for a while at which point I realized that some nostalgic part of me has grown fond of such experiences over the years. We inched slowly out of Taipei, making stops seemingly every 50 feet. Clearly, this was an incremental journey, and suddenly it occurred to us that neither one of us knew where we were going or how long it would take. 

Finally at one stop, the driver refused to take any more passengers. “No more local service,” he said, explaining that we were heading onto the freeway. After closing the doors and heading up the freeway on ramp, we were zooming over the nicely paved freeway, and the bus was quiet, except for the occasional grinding of gears and the roaring sound of the aged engine working to catapult the bus at a speed that seemed just a little too fast for this old bus. But this also somehow felt familiar. Going to this place for the first time, with only a vague idea of how far it was, it seemed as though I had lost track of time all together. Although the total travel time was probably around an hour, since I didn't know when we would reach the point marking our final destination, it seemed that minutes were lasting longer, and that time was moving at a slower speed than normal. But it was dark and soon we began passing through cool little towns that had a totally different vibe and culture. One of the great things about Taiwan is that it has maintained a great deal of regional diversity.

Jiu Fen's welcoming committee was ever so thoughtful.

As we climbed into the mountains for the final ascent the excitement continued to build. The bus lurched around tight turns creating an even higher pitch. Climbing the through the curves in the dark, the view unfolded to epic proportions. Misty hills, far away temples set ablaze by lighting and soon Katie questioned the existence of a 7-11 in such a setting.

Stay tuned for Part 2…

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