My friend and I arrive in the town of Shihzhuo, Taiwan by bus. The sky is clear and the mountain air tastes sweet on my lips. A small downtown commercial district is situated along the main highway. Across the street I see a western style mini-mart packed with teenagers. They gossip and flirt while buying candy and soda. Next door, an old man sits beneath a speckled umbrella. He is selling homegrown cabbage and reading the newspaper. As we walk further down the road we can see a small police station, several tea shops, and a few restaurants. Beyond the main road, a handful of dramatic mountain peaks form a loose cradle. They are shielding many rows of healthy tea bushes that cling to the hillside. The sight is breathtaking beyond words.
We are met by a local tea farmer with a comfortable room to rent. Tonight he will bring us to a workshop where high mountain tea is being crafted. In the meantime we are dropped off in the scenic old town of Fenchihu. Once a logging town in Japanese colonial times, Fenchihu is now a popular tourism stop for people eager to get away from the big cities and enjoy good food and easy hiking in the mountains. We buy a tasty vegetarian lunch box, with rice, veggies and sweet spiced gluten, and sit down to enjoy the pleasant atmosphere. After lunch we hike a trail through dense bamboo. (I was hoping to see a wild monkey, but sadly it was not to be.) We come across a group of school girls posing for a few photos at a scenic vista.
I ask in Mandarin if any of them can speak English, and a few giggle before they reply, “a little.” I compliment the beautiful forest and tell them we are visiting Americans. They giggle a little more as we say goodbye. We continue along the trail. As the afternoon passed, a thick layer of mist could be seen gathering at the tops of the nearby mountains. In a few hours the mist had rolled down the hillsides, making for a cooler and more agreeable evening. This natural occurrence improves the flavor of the local tea by shielding it from the direct sun, forcing the leaves to grow more slowly.
After returning to Fenchihu, we enjoy a few fresh baked pies and a delicious bowl of Ai-Yu jelly. This vegetarian treat comes from a plant that grows wild in the area and there are several small cafes devoted to its production. We have a couple of hours to kill before we are scheduled to meet our host, so we decide to find a tea merchant and drink a few cups of afternoon tea. The first shop we find is run by an old mountain man and his wife. He chain-smokes and has an unusual tuft of thick black hair erupting from a mole on his neck. I consider myself a tea connoisseur, but I am not too proud or snobbish. Who knows, perhaps this man will be a very skilled tea brewer? Unfortunately he was not. His old clay pot was blackened with tea stains and the high mountain tea flowing from its spout was bitter and poor. We sip slowly while making pleasant small talk in elementary Mandarin. His shop is filled with many cool things, such as chipped and stained tea ware, weathered old furniture and faded posters. I looked at a shelf of dusty clay pots that the man had for sale. Before saying goodbye, I purchased a small teapot. I suspect that when it is cleaned up it will become a great brewing vessel.
Later, in Stone Table, my friend and I are treated to an unforgettable evening. The sun had just set but the air is still warm and fresh. We travel with our host by car to an oolong workshop further down the highway. Two large tarps covered with raw green leaves lay withering in the open air. We continue downstairs where a team of five tea producers, dressed in solid white tea-shirts, jeans, and sandals are busy crafting tea. We are in oolong heaven, watching the complex process of making these special teas. They spread the leaves out on circular rattan baskets and stack them in tall metal racks. The tea makers take care to mix the baskets every thirty minutes so that the leaves will wither evenly. The whole room smells amazing, like a garden in full bloom. Our host shows us all the machines involved, and enthusiastically describes the process in good English. After oxidizing for many hours the leaves will be heated, shaped, and roasted to produce fresh tea ready to be sold.
Before bed time, we are invited to take a walk with two young families who are also staying at our hosts’ homestay. Between the two families, there are four small children who are very excited to see the fireflies that are blinking softly in the grass near the tea plants. It is also my first time ever seeing fireflies, and I also am captivated by the stunning little sparks that keep popping up in the grass. As we stand looking at the dazzling lights, the children sing a melodious nursery rhyme in Mandarin. Our host translates it to me as “little lightning bug, little lightning bug, flies to the east, flies to the west, now there is light everywhere, like a hundred little lanterns.” It is the perfect finale to a truly magical day!
This post was written by Bret Boynton; first published on the blog 6 February 2008.