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Deep into Hakka Country – Along the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle Bus’s Lion’s Head Mountain Route

2013/04/24
On a trip to the heartland of Hsinchu and Miaoli counties, you have the chance to learn about Hakka culture, take in enchanting mountain scenery, and even visit an animal farm/theme park. Travel in Taiwan did exactly this on a recent bus trip making use of the convenient Taiwan Tourist Shuttle service.

Text: Joe Henley

Ever since Maureen and Tony Wheeler, founders of the Lonely Planet guidebooks, set out across Asia “on the cheap” in the early 1970s, backpacker travel has become a rite of passage for an ever-increasing percentage of the young and the young at heart. But for every story of triumph and transcendent experiences there are several of missed trains, buses that never came, and taxi rides that ended in driver demands for exorbitant fares. Luckily, none of these negative things are an issue in Taiwan, and now, thanks to the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle bus service (www.taiwantrip.com.tw), traveling around the island has never been easier or more fun.

The Taiwan Tourism Bureau has mapped out 22 convenient routes, all over Taiwan, on which the shuttles stop at specially selected sites. Buses generally run every hour on the hour between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. (for some routes, every half-hour on weekends and holidays), leaving from major railway and High Speed Rail (HSR) stations around Taiwan. This mode of reliable transportation means that it has never been so convenient to visit Taiwan and see what it has to offer. Taking the shuttle is also a great way to meet other travelers in a relaxed setting. Recently, I had the chance to sample one of the shuttle routes through Hsinchu and Miaoli counties, and my accompanying Travel in Taiwan friends threw in a few challenges for me just to make things interesting. I was promised some yummy fruit as reward after completing each. Here’s what happened.

Arriving at the HSR Hsinchu Station, we followed the English signage to Exit 4, made a right outside the door, and quickly located the bus bound for Lion’s Head Mountain. The all-day shuttle-use ticket costs just NT$100. After about 30 minutes the bus dropped us off at our first stop, Green World Ecological Farm. The tourist shuttle stops on the highway where the access road to the farm begins; from there it is about 2km to the farm. We called the farm and asked for the shuttle service it provides. (Note: The owners have applied for the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle bus stop to be relocated closer to the farm, and expect a decision sometime this year.)

A friendly driver from the farm soon picked us up, and in no time we were at the gate to the 70-hectare farm, which is more like a zoo/theme park. It has six different sections, each highlighting a different aspect of nature. Here, my mission was to locate the alpaca pen, give the fuzzy quadrupeds their first meal of the day, and then take them for a run around their large grazing area for a little morning exercise. I quickly got sidetracked, however, for I couldn’t resist stepping into the “Lovely Animal Area” to take a look at the guinea pigs, rabbits, and tiny Formosan Reeves’ muntjac, also known as the barking deer because of its distinctive call.

I also couldn’t pass up the chance to take a quick look at the reptile house and take a picture with a small, slithery coral snake. Now, where was I? Oh yes, the mission! Showing the sign with the Chinese characters for “alpaca” mercifully provided to me by my Travel in Taiwan friends to a smiling member of the staff, I was pointed in the direction of their pen. I soon found myself staring at a herd of hungry and curious South American camelids. Their handler gave me a bucket of alpaca feed, and in an instant I was surrounded by the friendly creatures, with a particularly bossy matriarch by the name of Coffee hogging most of the food. Then it was time for a brisk jog around the pasture, which turned into more of a grazing session than anything else. Alpacas, apparently, have the same aversion to running that I do.

With part one of my mission complete, I was presented with my just reward: a shiny red persimmon, a local Hsinchu delicacy. Then I was off to catch the shuttle, to take me to the scence of my next task.

After being driven back to the bus stop, we hopped on the next bus and made the quick five-minute trip to Beipu, a town known for its Hakka food – a branch of cuisine with roots in China that is distinct from traditional Taiwanese fare. In Beipu I was to track down there different Hakka-diet mainstays, again with the help of some large-print Chinese characters – and a bit of mangled Mandarin on my part. The first dish I was to locate: bantiao, or thick, flat rice noodles served with soy sauce, green onions, garlic, and a bit of pork.

I strode less than confidently up to a couple of gentlemen outside an establishment on Beipu Old Street, lined with tea shops and restaurants, and inquired as to where I might hunker down for some bantiao. “Right here,” the bespectacled man on my right replied in English, waving me inside. I took my time, very much enjoying the delicious, piping-hot noodles (especially good on a chilly winter afternoon), and then launched my search for my next quarry: dried persimmons. The owner of the restaurant spoke English as well, and sent me a short distance to one of many stands in the area that display a wide array of the dried fruit. There, I was educated on the varying tastes and textures of pencil, stone, and cow heart persimmons. At this point I found that I was craving liquid refreshment, for my two-course meal had left me decidedly thirsty.

Luckily, the next job on my to-do list was to find a place selling leicha, or ground tea. Walking through a preserved Japanese colonial-era neighborhood, past the historic Jiang A-Xin Residence, I was able to find the quaint and quiet Shui Jing Teahouse down on one of the narrow cobblestone alleyways. There, the kindly owner showed me how to grind the mix of dried oolong tea leaves, nuts, and grains with a small wooden pestle in a bowl. After a few minutes of grinding, the resulting fine powder was mixed with boiling water and poured into cups containing a mix of dried rice and green beans, making for an earthy, healthy, and thoroughly enjoyable hot beverage.

This concluded the food portion of my journey, and the tea-shop owner giggled as she presented me with my second hard-won persimmon trophy of the day.

Next began the mountainous portion of our trip. First, we caught the next shuttle bus and got off at Lion’s Head Mountain Visitor Center, the terminal stop on this route. Then we transferred to a smaller shuttle bus, beaded for the town of Nanzhuang (NT$43). There were hardly any tourists on this weekday afternoon, and I got an unexpected bonus when the affable driver introduced me to the local attractions. I got off the bus at the next stop, Quanhua Temple. This mountainside temple combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, and also serves as a guesthouse for travelers. I was in search of a few of the temple’s “residents” – five fierce lion statues spread throughout the sprawling grounds. Fortunately, with my helpful guide by my side, I was able to locate them in short order, two framing the gate at the temple’s lower entrance, two at another high gate closer to the temple itself, and one on the temple grounds. That’s three persimmons for your intrepid traveler, for those of you keeping score. (Note: For more info on Lion’s Head Mountain, which is part of the Tri-Mountain National Scenic Area, visit the scenic area’s website at www.trimt-nsa.gov.tw.)

Our final stop for the day was Nanzhuang Old Street. This historic street was built up around a huge temple where the Hakka have long come to give thanks for abundant harvests. There I had to find the town’s old post office, dating back to the Japanese colonial era, and mail a postcard. My savior once again was a restaurateur, who sent me up some steps at the side of the temple, at the top of which the post office came into view. I picked out a card and sent it with the outgoing mail to Taipei City, with greetings from the heart of Hakka country. With the day growing dim in its final lighted hours, we took a stroll down the appropriately named Sweet Osmanthus Lane to sample some local flower-flavored drinks, and took a picture at the end of the lane at an old laundry station, where the women of the town used to gather to wash their clothes in clean, flowing mountain water guided smartly down the side of the artery by concrete culverts. As I watched the cool, crystal-clear liquid pass by at this former meeting place, my day in Hsinchu and Miaoli come to an end. With three sweet persimmons in hand, I had a ready-made snack for the trip home.



English & Chinese
Bantiao 板條
Beipu 北埔
Beipu Old Street 北埔老街
Jiang A-Xin Residence 姜阿新宅
Leicha 擂茶
Lion’s Head Mountain 獅頭山
Nanzhuang 南庄
Nanzhuang Old Street南庄老街
Quanhua Temple 勸化堂
Sweet Osmanthus Lane 桂花巷





INFO
Green World Ecological Farm (綠世界生態農場)
Add: 20, 7 Lin, Dahu Village, Beipu Township, Hsinchu County (新竹縣北埔鄉大湖村7鄰20號)
Tel: (03)580-1000
Website: www.green-world.com.tw

Shui Jing Teahouse (水井茶堂)
Add: 1, Zhongzheng Rd., Beipu Township, Hsinchu County (新竹縣北埔鎮中正路1號)
Tel: (03)580-5122



Provided by Travel in Taiwan Bimonthly March/April Issue, 2013