Putting the Tea in Taipei

Need to get away from the hectic streets of Taipei? A peaceful escape is closer than you think…

Taipei is a loud city. That was one of my thoughts as I finally got off the bus after a one hour flight and somehow about two more hours of trying to get out of the dang airport. Any place with as many motorbikes as Taipei is bound to be somewhat deafening, as well as stressful; I’m the type of person who is usually lost in a cloud of half-formed ideas and the narrow side streets built for whizzing motorbikes are not really an awesome place to get wrapped up in deep thought. After almost getting hit at least a dozen times I figured it’d be nice to take a day out of the action.

Luckily it is easy to make a day of an escape to Maokong, a village full of tea plantations located up in the hills surrounding Taipei. The characters for Maokong (猫空) literally mean “cat sky,” and as I found through research afterward it is because the place was at one time overrun with these cute little cat-like things called masked palm civets. Sadly I didn’t see any of those cuties, but I did see lots of tea, with plenty of green space and mountain views too.

1200px-Palm_civet_on_tree_(detail)

Where can I get one? (Photo: Wikipedia)

You can get up to Maokong by taking a gondola ride from the Taipei Zoo, which is at the end of one of the city’s MRT lines. The gondola is a bit expensive at NTD 120 / HKD 30 / USD $4… okay so it’s not that expensive, but keep in mind you can also just take the minibus up for NTD 15 / HKD 4 / USD $0.50! And saving one hundred Taiwan dollars means you’ll have room for an additional snack or two at a night market later on. (Of course, if you take the gondola up you can also get some cool videos and pictures, which I eagerly did—and took the minibus back down at the end)

Up at the top of the mountain you might wonder what exactly you’re supposed to do. At least, you will if you’re anything like me and only do vague research before jetting off on adventures. I saw a map of the layout of the area and decided I’d walk in one direction until I found something cool.

Maokong

The direction chosen turned out to be an excellent choice. There were some great views of the mountains and tea fields from over here, as well as a bunch of cute little cafes which I kept bookmarked in my brain in case I wanted to stop later. After maybe 15 or 20 minutes of walking (and like 30 minutes of stopping to take photos about every 10 feet) I came across the Tea Promotion Center, a small museum-like place with information about the tea-making process and some tables to take a rest at. My favorite part of the promotion center was the free tea on tap and big mugs given to drink it with, so I stopped for a big cup of some nice hot tea, even though the weather was beginning to be sweltering.

Kaylee in MaokongThe next part is where I made the inevitable huge mistake, something I am almost guaranteed to do every time I travel. I saw a place on the map that sounded pretty cool—though I had no justification for that impulse—called Caonan (草南) which was about another 20-30 minutes into the mountains. Yeah, I can go another twenty minutes, I thought with confidence, and headed off, as the sun hit midday and began boring down and burning my snow-white shoulders. As usual I’d brought no sunscreen, though I did have a hat this time—at least my face was spared from the sunburn!

Alas, after walking about twenty minutes downhill and seeing nothing interesting but some pretty grumpy chained-up dogs, I came to a lovely bridge at the bottom of the hill… and then an empty road. I kept going for a few minutes, but it looked like the road just led to a small local village, and I felt like it was the kind of place where it would be weird if I just turned up unannounced. Leaving Caonan, it looked like there was a minibus that could take me elsewhere, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out if it was going uphill back to Maokong or downhill and back to Taipei. Besides, the buses only came like every 30 minutes and I didn’t want to be a lone white girl standing by herself on some empty backroad. I wouldn’t exactly say I’m cautious when it comes to travel, but I do have my limits, and I trust my gut when it tells me not to do something. So I sighed, resigned to my fate, and began trudging back up the mountain.

Caonan Bridge

To be fair it was a really nice bridge…

After edging my way past the dogs again (one of which was untied and running around all growly now, making me freak out a bit about the risk of rabies), I made it back to a more popular part of the hill and spotted a restaurant I’d seen on the way down that quite a few people seemed to be going into, located near the Tea Promotion Center. I figured here was as good as anywhere to eat, so I headed in.

Turns out that restaurant is called the Yao Yue Teahouse (邀月茶坊) and it’s one of the most famous in Maokong (who knew?) That meant unfortunately that it was pretty expensive, at least by my standards, though keep in mind I thought the $4 gondola was a rip-off… At the Yao Yue there were a large variety of classy-sounding teas for sale, but you couldn’t just buy a single cup—you had to buy a small canister. However you got to take the rest home if you couldn’t drink it all, and that soothed my financially anxious heart a little bit.

The teahouse also had both full meals and some dim sum available to eat, so I went with the dim sum and got soup dumplings with tea in them instead of soup, some radish cakes with a wonderful dipping sauce, and scallion pancakes. The food was all super delicious, and the tea was nice too. The waiter even took a few minutes to explain the traditional way in which to brew and pour the tea, so you got a bit of a cultural experience along with the food. In total I spent about NTD 600 / HKD 150 / USD $19, and more than half of that was spent on the classy tea. Considering I was spending about NTD 200 to eat at night markets it felt expensive to me, but also considering I got a very nice atmosphere, unlimited tea, tasty food, and a souvenir to take back with me it really wasn’t so bad.

Maokong Green Tea Ice Cream

After an hour or so of drinking tea and reading Outlander (so addictive!) I headed back to the gondola station, stopping for one last treat—green tea-flavored ice cream. The excursion took most of the day (though it would’ve been shorter if I hadn’t taken my pointless hour-long side trip…) but it was well worth it to get some nice green photos and tasty eats at the top of Taipei.

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