Published in Travel in Taiwan magazine (March/April 2010)
Rural Taiwan, has long played second-fiddle to the booming industrial areas in the island’s Economic Miracle, is finally seeing somewhat of a renaissance. City dwellers, longing for fresh air and expansive countryside are looking to the farming areas that once drove the nation’s economy to find the peace and relaxation they seek as well as having a chance to re-discover some of the island’s more unique traditions. TongXiao, in Miaoli County, is just one of the places taking advantage of this new tourism wave and we took the short train ride from Taipei to find out why.
Miaoli County is located in Northern Central Taiwan and is home to less than 2.5% of the islands total population, despite covering an area about twice that size. There are no large cities in the county and as such the whole area has a much less crowded feel to it. The name Miaoli, comes from the word plateau in one of the indigenous languages of the first settlers here and it is a very suitable name given Miaoli’s geographic structure. Most of the population are now of Han or Hakka decent and fishing and agriculture are the main forms of employment outside the growing service industry.
TongXiao is located on the Western coast of Miaoli County and is a short 2 hour train ride from Taipei. The railway system in Taiwan is fantastic, a legacy from the Japanese Occupation Era, and forms a network that circles the entire island making it a really convenient way to get around. As we boarded the train in Taipei a real surge of anticipation for the trip rushed through me. I have never used the train to commute before, so for me, train journeys have always meant going somewhere fun and interesting. As the train rolled out of Taipei station and into the bright winter sunshine, I was filled with excitement at the chance to discover a new part of this intriguing island.
Although the West coast cannot compete with the majestic East coast in terms of scenery it was nevertheless an appealing journey. The West coast line splits at ZhuNan into the coastal and mountain lines and as soon as we veered away from the mountains toward the coast the scenery changed dramatically. The sprawling metropolis’ of Taoyuan and Hsinchu made way for enchanting coastal bluffs and towering wind farms. Despite being thousands of miles away from where I grew up, as I looked out the window I was suddenly taken back to my childhood. The never-ending sand dunes rolling into the deep blue seas of the Taiwan Strait, combined with the faint smell of cool sea air that drifted in through the open windows were almost identical to those in my memories of growing up in a small coastal town in North East England.
As soon as we stepped out of the station at TongXiao it felt like we had been transported to another world, a better, relaxed world. A world with no nine-to-fives, no Monday mornings, no under-hand bosses or over-worked employees. The station-master stamped our tickets with a smile and asks if it is out first visit before wishing us an enjoyable trip. We were greeted at the train station by the affable Mr. Chen, the director of the TongXiao Farmer’s Association, who kindly agreed to be our guide for the day. Enthusiasm just oozes out of him, wearing a TongXiao baseball cap and armed with a myriad of facts and stories about the town he leads us to the car to begin our trip.
The first stop is the TongXiao Salt Factory, which perhaps seems like a strange choice for a tourist site, but it is in fact a fascinating place. We park the car just inside the grounds and Mr.Chen is already directing us to a fountain bubbling with hot water and a crowd of people sitting under a pavilion to shade themselves from the intense sun. The hot water, is in fact, the sea water that has been evaporated at the factory in order to obtain the salt. Instead of just wasting this water by letting it cool and pumping it back out to sea, the water is pumped into a long channel that has become a popular spot for locals and tourists alike to come and soak their feet. The properties of the water make it particularly healthy and the locals we talked to swore that their arthritis had improved greatly since they started their weekly visits. The factory has plans in the near future (currently under construction) to build a spa area, not unlike those of the immensely popular hot spring resorts.
Tours are available to larger groups and highly recommended if you have a chance. The tour guide took us around the different areas of the factory whilst explaining the special electrodialysis process that they use to us. This process negates the need for salt fields and allows the factory to produce salt everyday of the year, no matter what the weather conditions are. This is particularly important here as this small factory in TongXiao provides salt for consumption to the whole of Taiwan. At the end of the tour we were taken to a special area that was another unexpected surprise. Artists have taken over one of the warehouses and are making the most amazing sculptures from the salt produced by the factory. As we strolled through the collection it really was hard to believe that they had been sculpted from salt, the precision and attention to detail was extra-ordinary.
A short drive from the Salt Factory is Tiger’s Head Mountain Park, which in addition to being a lovely place to stroll around also includes a restored Japanese-Era nobleman’s house. Despite it’s meagre height of only 93 metres above sea-level, the park offers spectacular 360 degree views of TongXiao and the surrounding area. At the observation deck on top of the hill, there is a memorial plate and cannon to celebrate the KuoMinTang troops defeating the Japanese and ending the colonial rule. From the deck, the coastline stretches as far as the eye can see to the North and South, with fisheries and farms dotted inland adjoining the coast. The the West, the deep blue of the Taiwan Strait is peppered with shiny white spray from the blustering wind and the Snow Mountain Range sets an imposing backdrop to the East.
I am a big cycling enthusiast and jumped at the chance to get onto a bike and ride around taking in some of the sites myself. The West coasts plains are ideal for exploring by bicycle, with very little gain in elevation and a nice cool sea breeze to take the edge off of the summer sun. The cyclic route starts not far from the train station and most of the local guest houses offer a pick-up and bike rental service to get you on your way. The beginning of the route is notable for the enormous fields of flowers that have become a very popular place for soon-to-be newlyweds to take their wedding pictures. A total of over 300,000 hectares of flowers makes this an impressive sight to ride past or stroll through.
The Shang Tian Coffee shop and restaurant is located just off the main road, but sitting in the spacious restaurant looking out the expansive windows to the surrounding forest of camphor trees, it feels like you are in the middle of nowhere. The coffee served at Shang Tian, is entirely roasted on the premises and the aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans engulfs you even before you walk into the restaurant. The decor is entirely made from wood so that the building fits into it’s surroundings and the atmosphere inside is of sophistication and relaxation. It is quite easy to imagine whiling away warm summer afternoons here, sipping fresh coffee and reading a good book. However, today we were here to sample the food, which like everything in the restaurant is a touch unique. I couldn’t imagine myself enjoying a salad lavishly covered in coffee dressing until I tried it, but the real surprise was the coffee hot pot. There was a very delicate flavor of roasted coffee inside the soup that wasn’t entirely evident on first taste, but slowly seemed to grow and I was absolutely bowled over by it.
TongXiao, like many other rural villages, is a place that is filled with larger-than-life characters. None more so than Mr.Guo of the Guo Family Tangerine Orchard. He greets us at the gate to his property with a smile that is almost as bright as the mass of gleaming orange tangerines that hang from the trees at the entrance. Just looking around his orchard it is hard to believe that he doesn’t use any pesticides or chemical fertilisers. Every tree is positively bursting with fruit, so much so that even after a large lunch I can’t wait to try one. Mr. Guo obviously sensed this and cut a particularly shiny tangerine down and handed it to me. Biting into the deep orange segments, the zesty juice just oozed out of it and the sweetness was incredibly satisfying. Mr. Guo beams as he sees my enjoyment, the fruits of his labor, so to speak. Winter months are the best time to visit the orchard as that is when the fruit ripens and is ready to be picked. Mr. Guo generally offers patrons an individually tree to cut the tangerines from, then the chance to use the cleaning/sizing machine (which wouldn’t look out of place at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory) before taking them home.
There are no large hotels in Miaoli, but that is a positive thing, staying in a guesthouse is are far more homely experience. There are no better guides around than those who have spent their lives in TongXiao and they are all happy to make your visit to TongXiao extra special. Mr. Chen takes us to his guesthouse for some pine cone tea that he produces on site himself, grinding down the pine cones from the forest that surrounds his quaint little home. SongTaoJu B&B is a typical example of what Taiwanese call “Three Generations under one roof” and as Mr. Chen pours more tea, his son teaches us to make a traditional toy from bamboo and his effervescent grandson takes us outside to see his pet rabbits. Sitting on Mr Chen’s deck, listening to the birds fly overhead as the sun begins to set on TongXiao I start to wonder how if I can go back to my city-life after this.
As the sunset began to set over the Taiwan Strait, we made our way our final destination for the day, the intriguingly named Flying Cow Ranch. Mr. Chen was unable to explain the bizarre choice of name, but could confirm that we wouldn’t be seeing any airborne bovine during our visit! The ranch, however, is a fantastic place for a day trip and especially recommended for families, giving young children a chance to see the workings of a farm and a chance to feed the cows and goats that reside there. The Flying Cow Ranch is also famous for it’s delicious milk-based products, all made from fresh milk produced at the farm. The most unusual of which has to be the milk pudding balloon. Try to imagine a water balloon filled with a creamy milk jelly, that when pricked, bursts open to leave a delicious, spherical treat on your plate!
As we find ourselves on the platform waiting for the train to come in, the sea breeze that was so refreshing during the day has a definite chill to it by evening and we are relieved when the train comes in and we can warm ourselves up. The train speeds away and soon the open spaces and green hills of the countryside are replaced by the neon lights of the cities ahead. Heading back to the big city, my mind starts to wander, I can’t help but begin to plan my next trip into beautiful rural Taiwan.