A Better, More Relaxed Life

Visiting Rural Miaoli for a Day

By Phil Dawson
Photos/ Jen-Guo Chen, Joe Lee

Rural Taiwan, which long played second fiddle to the booming industrial areas in the island's economic miracle, is finally seeing something of a renaissance. City dwellers, longing for fresh air and expansive countryside, are now looking to the farming areas that originally drove the nation's economy to find the peace and relaxation they seek and to rediscover some of the island's more unique traditions. Tongxiao Township in Miaoli County is one of those places taking advantage of this new tourism wave. We recently took the short train ride from Taipei to find out why.

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Miaoli County, located in the northern part of central Taiwan, is home to less than 2.5% of the island’s total population, despite covering an area about twice that percentage. There are no large cities in the county, and the area has a much less crowded feel to it than many other parts of Taiwan. “Miaoli” is a transliteration of the word for “plateau” in the language of one of the indigenous tribes that originally lived in the area, a very suitable name given Miaoli’s geographic structure. Most of the present population is of Han or Hakka descent, and fishing and agriculture are the main forms of employment outside the growing service industry.

Tongxiao is located in Miaoli County on the west coast and is a short two-hour train ride from Taipei. The railway system in Taiwan is first-rate, a legacy of the Japanese occupation era (1895-1945), and forms a network that circles the entire island, making rail travel a really convenient way to get around. As we boarded our train in Taipei a real surge of anticipation rushed through me. I have never used trains to commute, so for me train journeys have always meant going somewhere distant, somewhere fun and interesting. As the train rolled out of the main Taipei station and, after a while, into the bright winter sunshine, I was filled with excitement at this chance to discover a new part of this intriguing island.

As we step out of the station at Tongxiao it feels like we have been transported to another world

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Although the west coast cannot compete with the majestic east coast in terms of breathtaking scenery, the ride was nevertheless appealing. The railway line splits at the town of Zhunan into a coastal and a mountain line, and as soon as we veered away from the mountains toward the coast the scenery changed dramatically. The sprawling urban areas centered on the small cities 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 waters 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 northeast England.

As soon as we step out of the station at Tongxiao it feels like we have been transported to another world – perhaps a better, more relaxed world. A world with no nine-to-five existence, no Monday mornings, no demanding bosses or overworked employees. The station-master stamps our tickets with a smile and asks if it is our first visit before wishing us an enjoyable trip. We are greeted at the train station by the affable Mr. Chen Zhong-he, director of the Tongxiao Fuli Rural Village Development Association and owner of the Song Tao Ju B&B, who has kindly agreed to be our guide for the day. Enthusiasm seems to ooze out of him; wearing a “Tongxiao” baseball cap and regaling us with a myriad of facts and stories about the town, he leads us to his car to begin our trip.

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Our first stop is the Tung-Hsiao Electrodialysis Salt Factory, which perhaps seems like a strange choice for a tourist site, but it is in fact a fascinating place. We park just inside the grounds and Mr. Chen directs us to a fountain bubbling with hot water and a crowd of people sitting inside a pavilion to shade themselves from the sun. The hot water is in fact the seawater that has been evaporated at the factory in order to obtain the salt and then recondensed. Instead of just wasting this water by letting it cool and pumping it back out to sea, it 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 some locals we talk to swear that their arthritis has improved greatly since they started weekly visits. The factory has a spa area under construction, to be not unlike the immensely popular hot-spring resorts around Taiwan.

The expansive fields of flowers have become popular for taking wedding pictures

Guided tours are available for larger groups and are highly recommended. Our guide takes us around the different areas of the factory whilst explaining to us the special electrodialysis process that is used. This process negates the need for salt fields and allows the factory to produce salt every day of the year, no matter what the weather conditions are. This is particularly important here, as this small factory in fact provides salt for consumption around the whole of Taiwan. At the end of the tour we are taken to a special area that provides us quite a 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 stroll through the collection of exhibited works it really is hard to believe that they have been sculpted from salt. The precision and attention to detail is extraordinary.

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A short drive from the Salt Factory is Tiger’s Head Mountain Park, which in addition to being a lovely place to walk around also includes a restored Japanese-era shrine. Despite its meager height of only 93 meters 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. This memorial was originally erected by the Japanese to commemorate the important role played by an observation station on this mountain during Japan’s war with Russia in 1904-1905. After Taiwan’s return to Chinese rule in 1945, the memorial’s purpose was changed to commemorate the end of colonial rule. From the deck the coastline stretches as far as the eye can see to the north and south, with fish farms and farm fields dotting the land along the coast. Farther to the west, the deep blue of the Taiwan Strait is peppered with shiny white spray from the blustering wind, and to the east the Snow Mountain Range serves as an imposing backdrop.

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I am a big cycling enthusiast, and I jump at the chance to rent a bike and ride a bit around Tongxiao. The west-coast plains in this area are ideal for exploring by bicycle, with very little gain in elevation and a nice cool sea breeze to take the edge off the intense sunlight (especially refreshing during the summer). Many guesthouses in the area offer pick-up from the train station and rent out bikes to visitors who want to get around on two wheels. We follow County Highway No. 121, notable for the expansive fields of flowers that have become popular with soon-to-be newlyweds for taking wedding pictures. A total of over 160 hectares of flowers makes this an impressive sight to ride past or stroll through.

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We stop at San Tend Coffee Restaurant, located just off the highway. Sitting in the spacious restaurant, looking out through the expansive windows at the surrounding forest of camphor trees, we feel as though we’re in the middle of nowhere. The coffee served at San Tend is roasted on the premises, and the aroma of freshly roasted beans engulfs you even before you walk into the restaurant. The decor has a wood theme, allowing the building to fit into the natural surroundings, and the atmosphere inside is sophisticated and relaxed. It is quite easy to imagine whiling away warm summer afternoons here, sipping fresh coffee and reading a good book. This day, however, we are here to sample the food, which like everything else in the restaurant has its own unique character. I can’t imagine myself enjoying a salad lavishly covered in coffee-flavor dressing – until I try it – but the real surprise is the coffee hot pot. There is a delicate flavor of roasted coffee in the broth that isn’t entirely evident on first taste, instead seeming to slowly grow and spread, and I am absolutely bowled over by it.

Listening to the birds roosting in the trees and flitting about the sky above, I start to wonder how I can go back to my city life after this

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Tongxiao, like many other rural villages, is a place that is filled with larger-than-life characters, none more so than Mr. Guo Yong-he of the Guo Family Tangerine Orchard, the next stop on our trip. Guo 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 fertilizers. 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 senses this and cuts a particularly shiny tangerine down, then hands it to me. When I bite into the deep orange segments, the zesty juice oozes out of it and the sweetness is incredibly satisfying. Mr. Guo beams at seeing my enjoyment, the fruits of his labor, so to speak. The winter months are the best time to visit the orchard, as this is the season when the fruit ripens and is ready to be picked. Mr. Guo generally offers patrons an individual tree from which to cut tangerines, then gives them 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 not many large hotels in Miaoli, but that is a positive thing, because staying in a guesthouse (“homestay”) offers a far more homey experience. Although we do not have time to stay overnight, we stop by Mr. Chen’s Song Tao Ju B&B. He invites us to some pine-cone tea that he produces himself on-site, grinding cones gathered from the forest that surrounds his quaint little home. Song Tao Ju 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 then his effervescent grandson takes us outside to see his pet rabbits. Sitting on Mr. Chen’s deck, listening to the birds roosting in the trees and flitting about the sky above, I start to wonder how I can go back to my city life after this.

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As the sun begins to set over the Taiwan Strait, we make our way to our final destination, the intriguingly named Flying Cow Ranch. Mr. Chen is unable to explain the bizarre choice of name, but can confirm that we wouldn’t be seeing any airborne bovines during our visit! This ranch is a great place for a day-trip and is especially appropriate for families, giving young children the chance to see the workings of a farm and to feed the cows and goats that reside there. The Flying Cow Ranch is locally renowned for its delicious milk-based products, all made from fresh milk produced on-site, the most unusual of which has to be the bai buding, a milk-pudding balloon. Imagine a water balloon filled with a creamy milk jelly that, when pricked, bursts open to leave a delicious spherical treat on your plate!

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In the evening, as we find ourselves on the station platform waiting for our train to roll in, the sea breeze that was so refreshing during the day has a definite chill to it now, and we are relieved when the train arrives and we can warm ourselves up. We are soon speeding away back to Taipei and, too quickly, the open spaces and green hills of the countryside are replaced by the neon lights of the city. On the trip home my mind has wandered, and I realize upon arrival that I have spent much of the time planning my next trip into beautiful rural Taiwan.