Tea culture came to Taiwan with the first Chinese immigrants in the early 17th century. Once an intrinsic part of the island’s life, the tradition and ceremony of tea drinking is rapidly being trampled over in central Taipei by time-poor suits rushing to Starbucks. The tea plantations that used to cover the Maokong Hills have dwindled, but the tea houses remain and their future looks even more certain thanks to a new lift system that will keep them firmly on the tourist map.
The Maokong Gondola, opened in July 2007, travels from south Taipei to the top of Maokong, taking you from traffic-clogged streets to hills dotted with temples and tea houses in 20 minutes. Once there, particularly just around the lift station, take your pick from modern, style-conscious places to the more traditional houses like Yuan
Regardless of design, most tea houses will follow a similar format. You buy a packet of tea from a kiosk (oolong is Taiwan’s speciality tea), then pay a water fee of about NT150 (ï¿_2.50), which includes use of a kettle, pot and tiny tea cups. The traditional ritual involves a complex process of filling the pot and swilling out cups until the tea reaches the desired strength so it’s worth getting someone to show you the first time. Most tea houses will also serve food so you can happily while away an afternoon, chatting and dozing as your caffeine level rises and falls.
To wake yourself up again, take a walk to the nearby San Sanxuan or Tianen temples, or do a tea house crawl.
Back in the city, traditional life might be stifled by the skyscrapers (Taipei 101 is currently the tallest building
in the world) and shopping malls, but it can still be found. Longshan (Dragon Mountain) temple in the Wanhus district, worships Buddhist, Taoist, and folk deities ï¿_ an open-mindedness typical of Taiwan’s temples. From the outside, decorated columns support a tiered, terracotta roof adorned with filigree dragons. Once in the interior courtyard it’s difficult to admire the decor for the throngs of locals and tourists lighting incense, piling tables with offerings of fruit and flowers, and tossing crescent-shaped pieces of wood to find the answer to burning questions (if they both land the same way up the answer is no).
There are various gods to pray to depending on your needs (“different god, different job” says our guide Jessie), and though the method of prayer hasn’t changed, the subject probably has. Today students ask for good exam results, single ladies hope to find the man of their dreams and businessmen pray for successful deals.
The clash of tradition with capitalism is hilariously unabashed at Giwado Chinese Medicine Clinic on Hsin-Sheng North Road. One of the clinic’s specialities is the ancient art of reflexology. Don’t let anyone call it foot massage, it’s not, it’s the painful process of diagnosing and treating health issues through the feet. The hard sell comes whenever you scream particularly loudly, indicating a problem that, according to a well-dressed woman who rushes over, can be solved with the purchase of certain pills or powders. Who’s to say whether or not they work, but the diagnosis (you get a leaflet of circled ailments to take away with you) proved accurate for most members of the group.
As we left the clinic we were seduced upstairs by the promise of a kung fu display. Chinese martial arts remain popular in Taiwan, particularly the gentler forms of Tae Kwan Do and Tai Chi. However, we were in for the traditional, hard-style kung fu it seemed. With a few loud barks, ‘the master’ burst into the room and proceeded to hammer a nail through wood with his fist, and chisel a chewy sweet (they were soft, we’d all had one to eat) through the same piece of wood. All the while a hob was heating up a pan of chains, which were then held out for him to stroke. As the air filled with the smell of burning flesh the master eased his pain by smearing Hu Fu cream over the burn ï¿_ a miracle balm that could be ours for cash or cheque.
The ancient traditions of Taiwan can still be found in the teeming metropolis of Taipei, just don’t be surprised if there’s a modern day twist lurking in the corner when you come across them.
ï¿_ Amy Adams travelled with EVA Airways (020-7380 8300, www.evaair.com). Return flights from Heathrow to Taipei, via Bangkok, start from ï¿_697.
The sweet-potato shaped island is sliced from north to south by the Central Mountain Range, so it follows that there are a fair few options for hiking.
If you’re into ticking off peaks try one of East Asia’s tallest, Jade Mountain (also known as Yushan, 3952m). Another popular climb is the Chilai Trail, a rugged ridge walk. If you’re not hiring a guide be sure to come prepared with cooking and camping equipment.
At some point during your stay you’re bound to come across a hot pot, and as the experience can be quite daunting it’s best to know what to expect.
It’s basically a vat of hot broth filled with meat, seafood and vegetables that each diner scoops from to add to their bowl of rice. The contents can seem weird and wonderful to a first-timer, but are generally tasty. Vegetarians will get a similarly mixed bag of tofu shapes and mushrooms.
If you’re eating at a specialised hot pot restaurant you’ll each get a pot of broth on a burner and a plate of ingredients and sauces. It’s then up to you to make your own hot pot ï¿_ full marks if you make your way through the lot.
Taiwan’s location above restless bedrock makes the island prone to earthquakes, but there is an upside to this underground activity: hot springs. In fact, Taiwan’s geothermal waters are so good they even entice the Japanese down for holidays.
Different springs boast different health benefits ï¿_ the smelly, chalky waters at Beitou are said to be especially good for the skin, and the clear, odourless springs such as Jioshi soothe the nervous system. Generally, you need to be naked for single sex spas but not for mixed.
Taiwan’s top tourist drawcard is Taroko Gorge, a huge marble canyon that follows the Liwu River to the east coast. The gorge itself lies in a national park of the same name and boasts unique wildlife, excellent hiking trails and indigenous Taroko people known for their weaving skills.
Once you’ve admired the park, head to an indigenous restaurant such as Ta Chi Li on the coast (its name means Strong Storm). Here you can have a break from hot pots with the purple-skinned potatoes, tree root and Chinese melon.