This post was last updated on October 14th, 2013
There are lots of beautiful places in Taiwan. But more often than not, if a tour bus can access it, there will be oodles of people there. It’s inevitable. And although it still drives me crazy when I’m being elbowed incessantly while trying to get my Lantern Festival on, or being pushed around while snapping pictures at a 3D art exhibit, it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it used to. Well, that is until we buy our train tickets ten days early and STILL don’t get a seat because it’s a ‘national holiday’. I swear there is some sort of anti-foreigner train seat rule.
Often the constant hordes of people can take a bit out of a place. What might have been a charming and delightful gem becomes just another tourist trap with over-priced, over-rated food. Luckily, there are still a few places we’ve found that have managed to retain their authenticity. One of them is Jiufen.
Jiufen is a small village on the Northeast coast of Taiwan, with commanding views of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding mountains. The name ‘Jiufen’ directly translates into ‘nine portions’, and is said to originate from the nine families that first made up the town and would always order nine portions of supplies. However, Jiufen wasn’t diminutive for long; when someone struck gold in the late 1800s, it quickly developed into a gold mining town, along with nearby Jinguashi.
The gold mining has long disappeared and in its place left an enchanting, mystical town. Small, stone alleyways zigzag up and down the mountain, beckoning you to leave the main thoroughfares behind. Traditional red Chinese lanterns line the streets, invoking the feeling that you have stepped back in time. And on a beautiful day, stunning views of the Northeast Coast stretch out all around you.
Most of the action—or at least what draws the weekenders from Taipei—is on Jiufen Old Street. Food stalls serving up taro balls, dumplings, and mochi (gelatinous deserts) crowd the perimeter, contesting with numerous souvenir and art shops for customers. Of particular note, there is an awesome hole-in-the-wall that sells hand-painted scrolls for exceptional value. However, other than that, we prefer to leave the Old Street behind in search for quieter, more relaxed meandering of the small town roads.
In addition to the aimless wandering and nostalgic atmosphere, there are also numerous traditional teahouses, which I absolutely adore. The two most popular ones are the Jiufen Tea House and the Ah Mei Tea House. The Jiufen Tea House is decorated exquisitely, with traditional Chinese décor, oil paintings, and an art gallery with large selection of ceramic teapots. The Ah Mei Tea House is just as lovely as the Jiufen Tea House, but in a more laid-back way. It is famed for being the inspiration behind Hayao Miyazaki’s movie Spirited Away, which I guess is a pretty popular animated film in Asia. We ended up choosing the latter venue, as it was the first teahouse we stumbled upon.
Dan and I aren’t tea snobs by any means. In fact, we always have to ask the waitress numerous times to help us sort the gadgets and gizmos laid out before us, meant to assist in the tea drinking process. But regardless of our incompetence, we thoroughly enjoy the traditional process of drinking Chinese tea. The Ah Mei Tea House specializes in Oolong tea, so naturally that’s what we chose. Although we aren’t enough of an expertise to comment on the value of the tea, it tasted top-notch to us, and was certainly priced accordingly.
Drinking Chinese tea is a slow, thoughtful, and social experience. Before one can even think about tasting the delicate leaves, the cups must be doused with warm water; the leaves must be briefly rinsed and soaked; the aroma must be wafted from the smelling cup. And then, finally, after the proper etiquette ahs been displayed and anticipation built up, the doll-sized teacups can deliver the long awaited reward.
This process is repeated again and again, although the initial few steps can be left out after the sipping and savoring has begun. Often it takes hours to finish a batch of tea, although this isn’t a hard thing when relaxing and enjoying the commanding view Jiufen offers. Alternatively, most teahouses will package your remaining tealeaves in adorable doggy bags to go.
Jiufen just emanates of history and tradition. Of a time before apartment buildings rose higher and department stores expanded wider. It’s the reason why so many locals flock there on the weekend. It’s why numerous movies have found inspiration from its winding streets. And it’s why I can tolerate sharing a bit of my highly revered elbow space.