A Little Town in the Miaoli Countryside
Text: Paul Naylor
Photos: Maggie Song
It was a dark, cold, and rainy day, and we started our trip very early. I got on the train headed south and fell asleep. At some point on the journey from Taipei Railway Station to the town of Zhunan I woke up. All was bright and clear now, and I could even see the Taiwan Strait off in the distance.
We had entered Miaoli in northwest Taiwan, a county characterized by foothills and mountains, with rich rainfall and small rivers, giving it a perfect climate for the cultivation of many types of fruits and vegetables. Miaoli is also culturally significant, as a great number of Taiwan’s Hakka people live here, and it is also home to the small indigenous Saisiat tribe, as well as the Atayal.
The Hakka have been living in this area since the 18th century, and thinking of their long tradition of distinctive cuisine and handicrafts, I was looking forward to a grand adventure in terms of both cultural and culinary exploration. We were heading to the town of Nanzhuang, known as one of the best places on the island to see (and taste) this cultural legacy.
At Zhunan we caught a local bus bound for Nanzhuang. Buses of the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle service’s Nanzhuang Route (www.taiwantrip.com.tw/Besttour/Info/?id=5) also start out from Zhunan, but we didn’t want to wait (the tourist shuttle buses leave once an hour on weekdays). As our bus moved deeper into Miaoli County the countryside came to life. The fields were full of sunflowers and pink garden cosmos, and bright-orange kumquats glistened on dark-green trees. The bus stopped at a morning vegetable market and a lively, colorful group of old men and women got on, talking excitedly in the melodious Hakka language. Accompanying them was the smell of spring onions, fresh soil, and other evidence of intimate contact with Mother Earth. We were definitely out of the city.
After an hour’s ride we arrived at Nanzhuang, where our first stop was the Nanzhuang Visitor Center. The center is well-stocked with information about the area, and the staff has plenty of ideas on where you might journey.
We then walked to close-by Yongchang Temple. Built in 1905, this temple is large and imposing, and features beautifully painted door gods and woodcarvings. The “Three Lords of the World” are worshipped at the temple – they control heaven, earth, and water, respectively.
Next door to the temple is the Nanzhuang Old Post Office. This was built during the time of Japanese rule over Taiwan, around 1900, and still has many of its original features. It is no longer operational, but there is a mailbox outside. These days it houses as an exhibition space and a souvenir shop. Many of the region’s traditional specialty products are sold here, such as kumquat jam and lemongrass oil, as well as the shop’s own signature mosquito repellent!
It may seem strange that Nanzhuang Elementary School was recommended as a destination on our tour, but the school has a feature of special interest to travelers. Beside its playing field is a unique tree. Curved in the shape of a crescent moon and supported by wooden scaffolding, the Nanzhuang Hundred Year Maple Tree is believed to be a century old.
From the elementary school we descended the Nogi Stairs, the building of which was initiated in 1897 by General Nogi Maresuke, the third Japanese governor-general of Taiwan, when he inspected the town. We then came to a cobbled area marking one end of Nanzhuang Market. Here stands the well-known Lao Jin Long (“Old Golden Dragon”) restaurant, which has been satisfying customers with its traditional Hakka food for the past 50 years. However, we had come here for the gourmand’s paradise of snacks found in Sweet Osmanthus Lane.
Sweet Osmanthus Lane is so named because of an old noodle restaurant here named Guihua (“Osmanthus Flower”). In an attempt to make the lane better known to outsiders and boost business, the locals started to call it Sweet Osmanthus Lane and restaurant owners began to add the fragrant osmanthus flower to various foods.
We were met with a cacophony of shouts in the narrow, cobbled streets, as stall-holders vied to sell us their wares. As the day was getting colder, we ordered hot osmanthus and kumquat drinks first, and then went on to try some of the snack foods. On the food front, we first sampled some Hakka-style taro fritters, a simple treat made with taro and glutinous-rice paste, then tried some spicy chicken feet, and finished with pork and sausages prepared with Shaoxing wine, a classic Chinese rice wine. These served as splendid appetizers, for lunch-time had arrived and our tummies were growling, demanding satisfaction! We stepped into a small, traditional Hakka-style Sweet Osmanthus Lane restaurant and quickly found that two Hakka must-tries were on the menu, bamboo-shoot soup with meigan cai, a type of pickled Chinese mustard plant unique to the Hakka, and dried beancurd with spring onion and chili. We ordered both. The soup was perfect, especially considering the cold weather, and the dried beancurd had an interesting texture and smoky taste, well complemented by the chili.
Osmanthus flowers are also used by local vendors in dessert items and we were keen to try some of those next. We first sampled some crunchy osmanthus egg rolls, then some taro cakes, and finally a traditional dessert, glutinous-rice balls, with wax apple, banana, and osmanthus honey added. These come either with ice or warming ginger soup. As it was a cold day, I was looking forward to the ginger soup. However, as we would have had to wait for it to be heated, we opted for the ice instead. There was also lavender and lemongrass ice cream available, but after eating up our generous servings of ice we decided to leave these for a warmer day and a return trip.
On the way out of Sweet Osmanthus Lane, we came upon a strange sight. Here, a small stream emerges from under a rock, flows along a short stone trough, and disappears underground once again. This is the Shuibiantou Laundry Trough. In days of old, locals would wash their clothes in the clean spring water; and judging by the traces of washing powder on the stones and the clothes hanging in the sun, at least a few still do.
A short while later we were standing on Kangji Suspension Bridge, a structure of brick-built towers and impressive architectural engineering that spans the stony Penglai River, enjoying the excellent views of Nanzhuang. We spotted a cat prowling around the courtyard of one of Nanzhuang’s traditional three-sided courtyard houses, and savored the quiet, which contrasted dramatically with the hustle and bustle of Sweet Osmanthus Lane.
Walking back towards the town center, down Zhongzheng Road, we did a little browsing in the many traditional craft shops. Nanzhuang, like a number of other places in Miaoli County, is known for quality woodwork, and the shops here sell beautifully crafted items such as images of the Laughing Buddha and, strangely, laughing pigs. There are also tailors and fabric shops where traditional Hakka floral-pattern fabrics are made into clothes, cushions, sheets, and all manner of other things.
The light was now fading, signaling it was time for dinner. Nanzhuang Hand-made Noodles, a 50-year-old noodle shop on Sweet Osmanthus Lane, was the place to go. The walls are covered in notes written by visiting tourists, many in English, a testament to the restaurant’s popularity; I added my own, in rather shaky Chinese characters. The restaurant serves tasty hand-made bantiao (thick rice noodles), a staple of Hakka cuisine, with pork and red onion.
Our stomachs full, our legs tired, we bid goodbye to Nanzhuang, and then to Miaoli County. Nanzhuang is a great destination for a one-day trip from Taipei; but if you have the time, spend more than just a single day in Miaoli County. Our trip presented me with splendid scenery and gave me a fascinating glimpse into the intriguing, timeless cultures of the Hakka and of the area’s indigenous people.
English and Chinese
|Kangji Suspension Bridge||康濟吊橋|
|Lao Jin Long||老金龍|
|Nanzhuang Elementary School||南庄小學|
|Nanzhuang Hand-made Noodles||南庄手工麵|
|Nanzhuang Hundred Year Maple Tree||南庄百年楓樹|
|Nanzhuang Old Post Office||百年南庄郵便局|
|Shuibiantou Laundry Trough||水卞頭洗衫坑|
|Sweet Osmanthus Lane||桂花巷|
|Three Lords of the World||三官大帝|
Nanzhuang Visitor Center (南庄遊客中心)
Add: 43, Datong Rd., Borough 4, Dong Village, Nanzhuang Township, Miaoli County