off the Beaten Path

Escaping the Ordinary Tourist Hotspots to Explore an Extraordinary Side of Taiwan

Text / Lauren Mack
Photos / Taoyuan County Government, National Youth Commission, Sanyi Wood Sculpture Museum
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Taiwan is a small island with many attractions (including much smaller outlying islands) many of which are easily overlooked by first-time visitors. The counties of Taoyuan, Hsinchu, and Miaoli, for example, are close to Taipei but usually not atop the list of must-sees. If you want to get a taste of the heart and soul of Taiwan, however, heading off into the countryside of these slower-paced locales with a friend and an adventurous spirit is a great idea.

It was August and my friends and I needed a vacation. We had three days off from work and a limited budget. We wanted an adventurous journey that would take us to "the soul" of Taiwan. We ended up with an unforgettable trip through the countryside that exceeded our expectations.

Our three-day trip crisscrossed the Tri-Mountain National Scenic Area , part of which is in Miaoli County and Hsinchu County , took us through small woodcarving shops in Miaoli's Sanyi, and ended with a relaxing commune with nature at the Shihmen Reservoir in Taoyuan County .

If you want to plan a trip like ours, check out the following Internet sites: www.miaoli.gov.tw, www.trimt-nsa.gov.tw, and www.taiwan.net.tw. The Tourism Bureau runs a 24-hour tourist hotline that travelers can call for information on virtually any destination in Taiwan: 0800-011-765. The friendly staff on the other end can also help set up budget accommodation, including homestays.

All the places we visited are accessible by train, bus, and taxi (sometimes by combining different forms of transport). The great thing about the counties of Miaoli and Taoyuan is that they are so close to Taipei that the trip can be broken up into several day-trips or combined for the ultimate backpacking experience. Many bus tours are offered but traveling independently provides that much more freedom. Traveling by car or scooter is even better.

Some advice for students: Make sure you bring along your International Student Identity Card (ISIC) to take advantage of discount fares on trains. It is the only card accepted for student discounts. Take plenty of cash because there are few ATMs in these rural areas, and keep in mind that many shops and restaurants in the countryside close early in the evening.

Lion' Head Mountain (Shihtoushan)

Situated in the northwest of the island, the majestic Lion's Head Mountain Scenic Area is a leisurely two-hour ride by car, or four hours by bus and train, from Taipei. If you rely on public transportation you can take an intercity bus or train to Hsinchu station and transfer to the Neiwan branch line. Get off at Jhudong Station, and transfer to a Hsinchu bus. Buses serve most places of interest in the area.

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Part of the Tri-Mountain National Scenic Area, this expansive scenic area encompasses the townships of Beipu, Emei, and Jhudong in Hsinchu County and the townships of Sanwan and Nanjhuang in Miaoli County.

Lush forest with exotic plants, lakes, waterfalls, and numerous hiking trails dot the picturesque landscape. There are so many trails here that visitors have a hard time settling on one.

The Shihtoushan Hiking Trail , with its winding paved pathway and the 11 temples scattered along it, is a tourist favorite. It climbs up the center of the scenic area, Lion's Head Mountain itself. This is one of the most peaceful and serene places in Taiwan. There is no entrance fee and useful maps, brochures, and help are offered at the visitor's center near the entrance of the trail. The walk is easy, even for those who have never hiked before. The paved route has many signs, and there are only a few steep inclines.

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Get a taste of the monastic life at what is one of the island's main centers of Buddhist worship by staying in one of the temples. An economical choice, this is the perfect place to unwind and get away from the hustle and bustle of major cities. Visitors can stay in two of the 11 temples, including Cyuanhua Hall (Tel: 037-822-563). One room for three people costs NT$1,100 a night.

The meals are all vegetarian. The huge breakfast is a great deal ?bamboo shoots, seaweed, peanuts, green vegetables, fried beancurd, and soup for NT$50. Visitors can eat outside and enjoy the crisp mountain air.

Sanyi

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After a night in the mountains and a long day of hiking, drive or take a train or bus via Jhudong and Hsinchu to Sanyi in Miaoli County. Since Miaoli is home to a large contingent of Taiwan's Hakka population, Sanyi is a great place to learn about traditional Hakka culture and sample delicious Hakka food. One specialty that visitors should definitely try is lei tea ("ground/pestled tea"), a special blend of Chinese herbs, rice, beans, sesame, and peanuts. At some restaurants you can even try your hand at grinding your own lei tea with mortar and pestle. When the ingredients are combined you get a dark-green sand-like mix. Add boiling water and you have a tea unlike any other. Restaurants serve the tea with green-tea sponge cakes and puff-rice pieces, which can be added to the drink to make it sweeter.

Continue on the culinary tour by sampling other Hakka recipes. Oil chicken, stir-fry with wild boar meat, fried-egg omelets with finely chopped dried meat, pickled vegetables, and turnip soup are part of a traditional meal.

The town of Sanyi is most famous for its woodcarving art. It is Taiwan's undisputed woodcarving capital and a must-visit for art enthusiasts and for those who just want to appreciate a great craft-demanding skill.

You can meander down Shueimei Street, Sanyi's main woodcarving-outlet artery, into the dozens of shops brimming with woodcarvings of the Buddha and Daoist saints, tables and other furniture items, as well as novelty items. The smell of freshly cut wood permeates the air.

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The Sanyi Wood Sculpture Museum at the south end of Shueimei Street is a great place to get an overview of the town and the history of woodcarving. It is closed on Mondays; admission is NT$50 for students.

If you plan to stay overnight in Sanyi, try a homestay: a family-run accommodation similar to a bed-and-breakfast. At Sanyi, some homestays are located right over woodcarving stores and restaurants. Doubles at a homestay are usually priced around NT$1,500 per night.

Shihmen Reservoir

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Shihmen Reservoir in Taoyuan County is a nature retreat situated one hour from Taipei. It is built at the mid-section of Dahan River where the river emerges from the mountains.

As outdoor attractions there is an overwhelming number of trails, boats to sail up and down the reservoir, and picturesque spots near the maple woods to picnic and camp. Several hotels are in the reservoir area, enabling visitors to spend more time to tour the majestic landscape. The main attraction of Shihmen is the 133-meter-high dam.

There is a lot of ground to cover so riding a bike or scooter or taking a car is ideal, though there are public buses that go to the reservoir as well.

The Taiwanese we met on our trip were exceedingly friendly and welcoming, and the scenery of Taoyuan, Hsinchu, and Miaoli was really wonderful. Though often overlooked by international travelers, the simplicity and idyllic ambiance we found here is truly Taiwan's countryside at its best!