Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Our Chinese New Year's Trip

Our plan for Lunar New Year had been to go hiking and camping in the mountains of central Taiwan. We would enjoy some spectacular views and get some much-needed exercise in. And most importantly, we would get ourselves out of Taipei City during the week-long break when Taipei empties out and the city becomes a dull, boring place.

The plan once we realized the weather would be rotten was to spend the night in Taichung, then head up through Puli into the Cingjing Farm area. Cingjing's got some beautiful scenery, and we found a campground where we could pitch our tents. Then it would be a bus ride to Lishan, a little town near the Central Cross-Island Highway with beautiful views across the valleys of Taiwan's central mountain range.

As it happened, the weather turned really sour. Cingjing Farm's views were obscured by fog, and the rain was near-incessant. Good news #1: our tent was waterproof. (Joseph and Emily's tent was somewhat less than waterproof, we heard.) Good news #2: Cingjing Farm contains not only a Starbucks (good for passing a couple of hours when the rain is nonstop outside), but also several decent places for food, particularly a non-pretentious place where we got excellent mutton hotpot.

This is more or less what I picture the English countryside as looking like in parts, but it's a sheep-filled meadow near Cingjing, draped in fog.

So we spent much of the time in the campsite lodge playing cards. On the bright side, my first real sleeping-in-a-tent experience was one with nonstop rain, so my next one will almost certainly be pleasant by comparison.

We nixed the idea of traveling on to Lishan when we called ahead and confirmed that the weather wasn't terribly different from the weather in Cingjing. In addition, the bus wasn't running because of snow on the route; we had the option of getting a ride from someone who drove to Lishan every day anyway, but in the end we decided to go back to Puli, where at least the fog wouldn't be as bad. In a way it's too bad; I've never seen snow in Taiwan, and this would have been my chance.

Puli is a small city down in the Taiwanese lowlands, with a couple of interesting sights. The four of us got rooms at a hostel and explored the town. Puli's sights include the Shaohsing wine brewery, which includes a museum and a sizable market where one can browse several wine-based products, including candies and soap. The signature alcohol itself is a bit strange-tasting if you're not used to savory beverages, but several varieties of wine and liquor are available.

The next morning we started out at the Kuanhsing paper factory, where we took a guided tour showing us the art of making paper by hand. Of course, there is a sizable gift shop; there's also an area (popular with schoolkids) where visitors can put designs onto handmade paper.

It's kind of fun for people who haven't tried arts and crafts since elementary school.

Near the paper museum/shop we found some vendors selling fresh honey, with their bees right on the premises.

I'd never been so close to such swarms of bees, but I felt remarkably safe. The bees didn't care about human interlopers at all.

For whatever reason, they also had some cute little bunny rabbits on the premises, one month old, which we were assured were being raised as pets, not meat.

Puli also has a lacquerware museum and shop, where you can buy high-quality lacquer cups, bowls, and chopsticks.

When we were finished with Puli, we hired a taxi (rather than a bus, because of our heavy packs) to take us to the town of Caotun, an otherwise unremarkable town, not even mentioned in Rough Guide, that we visited for its Tzude Temple, as described here and here.

Apparently the temple is based on a dream that the builder had. As the result shows, it's incredibly ostentatious and looks nothing like any other temple in Taiwan.

There's a garden of little religious statuettes behind the temple.

Overall, our last day of travel and the decent weather we had on that day improved our spirits considerably. Read Jenna's account of the trip and the excellent pictures she took here.