Photography by Alexander Synaptic
As cities morph into ever-more-consuming nuclei of culture and commerce, nature lovers must often sacrifice their fondness of the outdoors to live in them. Residents of Taipei, however, are blessed with the opportunity to escape for the hills of Maokong, a suburb that sits on the southern cliff of a basin that wraps around the city, serving sublime views of the cityscape night and day. The many tea establishments that line the streets of Maokong are geared for tourists, to be sure, but walk among the trees, along the cliff, and through the sweeping fields of tea, and you’ll be taken in by the charm.
HEAD FOR THE HILLS – 9.00 — 9.30
It’s a long day ahead, so grab breakfast in the city before hopping on the Brown Line of the Taipei Metro to Taipei Zoo Station, which is located at the foot of the hill. For those who can handle the height, and for those who don’t have the stomach for a scenic-but-tumultuous bus ride up winding roads, the four-kilometer-long gondola lift is the best way to reach the top.
An attraction in and of itself, the 10-minute ride offers views of Taipei and the lush Zhinan River Valley below. Opt for one of the glass-bottomed cars and watch as refracted light oozes into your capsule.
A SPIRITUAL STOP-OFF – 9.30 — 10.30
Alight at the stop before the Maokong terminus, Zhinan Temple, to visit the temple of Lu Tung Pin, one of the eight immortals of classic Chinese mythology. This jilted lover is notorious for splitting up unmarried couples, so you won’t see much young love here.
Perched above the valley, with converging rivers and verdant woods flanking its exterior, the complex is said to approach the perfect balance of feng shui. Browse the various shrines and temples, which exhibit a mix of Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist motifs. If you’re lucky, one of the volunteers will guide you through and take you to your “protector”—the god of your birth year.
Hop back on the gondola and head to Maokong Station.
ONCE UPON A WATERFALL – 10.30 — 12.00
Work up your appetite with a hike that starts from Maokong Station. Besides the forest path, which promises sightings of butterflies, caterpillars, a bamboo grove, and more, the main attraction here is Yinhe (“silver stream”) Cave.
After climbing down some steep steps, you’ll hear the waterfall gush as you approach the dramatic sheer cliff. Behind the waterfall is the cave in which a temple has been carved. Take it in and proceed back toward the gondola station.
A GENTLE STROLL THROUGH TIME – 12.00 — 13.00
Just before reaching the gondola station, turn onto the Camphor Tree Trail. The camphor tree—which produces camphor, historically used as a medicinal product and as an ingredient in gunpowder and celluloid—played a critical role in the subsistence of the Maokong area.
The rammed earth houses, pigsties, charcoal kilns, and oxcarts create a farmhouse atmosphere that stands in stark contrast to Taipei 101, which remains in sight. Depending on the season, you may also chance upon lupin and sakura blossoms on the trail.
LUNCH WITH A VIEW – 13.00 — 14.30
Suspended over the rolling tea fields on the busiest lane in the Maokong area is Dachahu (“big teapot”) Restaurant. Tea features in many of the dishes here; help yourself to some tea seed oil noodles, tea-scented fried taro, or even tea-steamed cod.
RECEIVE AN EDUCATION – 14.30 — 16.00
Visit the Taipei Tea Promotion Center to learn about the tea-production process for tieguanyin and baozhong tea. Here you can get properly acquainted with the scientific, cultural, and industrial dimensions of the Taiwanese tea trade and learn to drink tea yourself.
Take some time to enjoy the outdoor education area, where a variety of plants, including osmanthus, camellia, and Oliver’s maple, can be found. There’s also a tea garden, an eco-pond, a meteorological observatory, and a soil-erosion simulator that uses artificial rainfall to demonstrate the importance of soil conservation.
WALK AROUND A DISTINGUISHED TEA FARM OR TWO – 16.00 — 17:30
As the afternoon starts to cool, backtrack and explore the many tea farms scattered around the main road—almost all are open for sightseeing. One to explore in particular is Liujixiang Teahouse; the owner and steward is a fourth-generation descendant of the family that first brought tieguanyin tea to Taiwan and cultivated it in the hills of Maokong during the Japanese colonial era.
Although most teahouses serve tieguanyin tea, variations in production methods mean each tea is a little different from the next, so taste away. You’ll get to sample a bit of Taiwanese hospitality to boot.
YAOYUE TEA HOUSE – 17.30 — 19.30
No trip to Maokong would be complete without a pot of tea to say goodbye to the afternoon and hello to the night. The classic choice is Yaoyue (“invite the moon”) Teahouse—a fitting name, considering it’s open 24 hours. Nestled into the hillside and outfitted with outdoor seating, the teahouse offers a fantastic view of the valley. Unfortunately, it’s a favorite hangout for mosquitoes, too, but the waitstaff will light up repellent coils to keep them at bay.
Here, tea is charged per guest. Select a tea, brew, and converse. After a cup of two, you should have worked up an appetite. Tea seed oil chicken with ginger, oolong-infused dumplings, tea-fried spiced pumpkins, red bean pancakes, and a plethora of quintessentially Taiwanese dishes await.
A SURREAL RETURN JOURNEY TO THE CITY – 19.30 — 20.00
From Yaoyue, follow the lights, and within 10 minutes you’ll be back at the station to take the gondola back to the city. Amble across what is suddenly a busy street. Colorful lanterns light up the street, and street food carts serve up staples like squid, sausage, and stinky tofu—not quite as refined as at Yaoyue Teahouse, but with more spirit.
Hop on the gondola to descend into the city. The caffeine buzz should be coming on a little thick right now, which might just make the evening ride a little more surreal than the morning ascent.