I have been to Taiwan several times in my life. In fact, it was the first place I ever traveled to on a plane, when I was five years old. I cannot remember that first trip but I do remember the more recent trips in my adult life. Most of the time, I visited Taipei, and while Taipei is a nice city (I really enjoyed my last cycling trip there, around the rivers), I longed to see the rest of Taiwan, something different from the city life.
So with the help of Qiito.com, the Taiwan Tourism Bureau-Singapore office, and TransAsia Airways (that's their Business Class in the photo), Ryan and I spent a week exploring the Hsinchu (新竹市) and Miaoli (苗栗市) counties, mostly in the mountain regions (山区) of Taiwan.
The flight was a redeye, so we departed at 1am and reached Taoyuan airport at about 5am, feeling like zombies (note to self, try to sleep instead of watching movies on a night flight). We touched down, we grabbed our luggage and hopped on a super cheap u-bus ride to the nearest bullet train station, then zoomed to the THSR Hsinchu Station (高鐵新竹站).
We grabbed some breakfast at the 7-Eleven there (I LOVE Taiwan's convenience stores!) then took the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle service (台灣好行) The Tourist Shuttle route we took was the Lion's Head Mountain Route. I have to say this service is really useful for the non-driving traveler. For about 100NTD (varies by route), you get to hop on and off the shuttle service at the designated stops for a day. The bus comes hourly but during holiday seasons, it is half-hourly.
Our first stop was Green World Ecological Farm (綠世界生態農場). This is like a cross between a zoo, a botanical gardens and a bird park. Oh, they have fish too. But the highlight of my time here was hanging with the Alpacas. They are called Caonima (草泥马), Grass Mud Horse, in Chinese but you want to be careful with the way you pronounce that because it sounds like a rude phrase.
We also visited Beipu, (北埔) a rural township in Hsinchu county. They have a rich Hakka heritage there, with an old street (北埔老街) and old buildings and temples with many stories to tell. Our guide regaled us with tales of fengshui and the Japanese occupation in Beipu.
Besides eating Hakka dishes for lunch, I also tried my hand at making my own Lei Cha (擂茶), a pounded tea cereal made up of ground up tea, nuts, grains, and herbs. You take one cup of this stuff and it will fill you like a meal.
I also developed a taste for Taiwanese Chinese tea on this trip. I am fond of this Dongfang Meiren oolong tea (東方美人茶), made in Hsinchu. The tea leaves are fed on by a pest, tea green leafhoppers and the insects produce chemicals that give the tea its unique flavour. That means no pesticides are used since you WANT the insects to come.
Our evening was spent at a homestay or B&B (民宿) in Nanzhuang called Nanzhuang Jing Hua (南庄晶華), in Miaoli county. This is my first time staying in a homestay and I have to say it was very pleasant. This is the view from our room.
Ryan and I even bought some food from the convenience store in town to dine beneath the stars for dinner. With temperatures at around 20°C and below, it was pleasantly cool and you could stay all night at the outdoor tables just eating, talking and using the wifi from the lobby.
Breakfast is included so you can eat in-house before setting out for sightseeing.
This is Shenxian Valley (神仙谷) and I tell you, the views are heavenly.
This is Mr Fa Ai (法愛), boss of a newly open eatery 七分醉 (Atayal Restaurant) at Shensian Valley, singing for us, with the valley as his backdrop. It was an impromptu exclusive performance (watch a short video on my Path). He used to be in the singing business as a star and now runs this cafe with an awesome view. You can get great food and even afternoon music performances here.
Bi La Jiao Garden (碧絡角花園咖啡民宿) is a cafe, homestay and farm all rolled into one. The boss lady is known as the Queen of Mushrooms because she grows the most awesome mushrooms around. During the holiday seasons, there are traffic jams in the little road leading up to the cafe, where people go to enjoy the cherry blossoms when they are in bloom.
Speaking of flowers, here are some of the lovely views and flowers we saw in the Miaoli county.
Around our homestay at Nanzhuang Jing Hua (南庄晶華), we took a walk to check out the hiking trails. We found this really lovely place called Fairytale Garden (山芙蓉) nearby, where the lady owner has converted into a garden of the highest order. You can have a coffee or wine or a meal, surrounded by all this beauty.
Another place I really enjoyed in Miaoli county was Shandu Bakery 山度窯烤麵包. The couple who run this place make the most delicious breads I have ever eaten. The bread is freshly baked daily in a wood fired kiln, which is part of its charm.
The wife told me she got the fire going at 6pm the night before, then woke up at 4am that morning to begin baking. That's a lot of work for bread but you can taste it.
Here are some photos from our walks on the creeks and forests of Miaoli.
I miss my walks in the cool misty mountains already.