The bus from Chiayi bus station to Shizhuo takes about one hour and costs 169 (if you have an easy card). It is one of the best places in the area to visit tea plantations. It is only 5 km down the mountain from Fenqihu (the Jiufen of the south). Once there we tried to find some information about where to go and found no answers. So we just decided to start hiking up towards the tea terraces. We spent some time taking photos and then we got extremely lucky! We saw some workers picking tea leaves and went up the hill to investigate. It was a perfect scene. The fog was rolling down the mountain and the area had a strong earthy aroma. A man waved us over and offered to make us tea. We sat with him for 20 minutes and attempted to communicate in broken Chinese (very broken). He and his family live on the property and own the business. Half way through the tea pot, I saw that the workers were spreading out the leaves on sheets to dry. I asked if I could take photos of them and they enthusiastically nodded. There was a group of people (I assume the man’s family) chatting in the next building. We went over to say hello and ended up having a very enjoyable conversation with them. They told us that they can only pick for four months each year. The season is basically done now. One woman said that it was a beautiful place to live, but the winters are very cold (roughly 30 degrees FJ). I am really impressed by how many people speak English here. In the north there is an almost 85 percent chance that a person will speak English if they are under the age of 35. I have been told that in the south it is much harder to get by with English. So far I have been pleasantly surprised. I have also been amazed by how many Chinese words I know. Before we headed out we got an awesome jump shot with the family. Thus far spending time with them was the highlight of the trip!
We continued to walk up the mountain on foot and realized that it was going to take too long to get to Fenqihu. Now what I am about to share is evidence that I have greatly been changed by living in Asia for two years. I have always been an overly cautious person and normally do not allow there to be any chance of being adult napped, sold into prostitution, or my organs being harvested for the black market. That being said, I hitch hiked. Being the only female out of the three of us and having light hair I was the obvious choice to try and flag down a car. The first compact SUV that passed pulled over and cleared out their back seats. We still had our luck. The couple spoke almost no English, so they called their son who does. It was very cute. They would say something in Chinese and then hand us the phone. We learned that the man was a criminal investigator and that they live in Pingtung. The son lives in Kaohsiung, but spent some time studying in England. They were concerned that we may need help later and offered to give us their son’s phone number. I love the Taiwanese people! They are so caring, helpful, and honest. I can’t say it enough, this is one special country!
We then walked along the 500 meter street that winds through Fenqihu. For those of you who have spent time in the north of Taiwan, the town is very similar to Jiufen. There are many small vendors selling fermented eggs, gelatin concoctions, mochi, and wooden whistles for children. Directly behind this street is a very small bamboo forest. We walked through several tea shops and inquired about prices. One shop had a very friendly owner and she sat us down to serve us honey oolong tea. Apparently, it is a special tea bush that is pollinated by bees and thus they give it the honey sweetness. She also served cold green tea and a couple other varieties of oolong (the tea produced in Alishan). She did not speak English, so she summoned her son’s girlfriend. She was roughly my age and spoke English very well. Her name was Ren Huang. She explained that the green tea is cooked at 75 degrees for about 7 hours. The oolong tea is cooked at 90 degrees for 8 hours. They actually buy the leaves from the nearby farms and cook them themselves in the shop. The older woman’s husband came along and showed us the oven. It was an impressive process to learn about.
After ensuring we had documented the magical feel of the bamboo forest we headed back to Chiayi by bus. Once there we decided it was time to try Chiayi’s famous dish, turkey rice. Now I am a vegetarian, but for the purposes of this trip I have decided to be a flexitarian. Meaning I will eat a little meat once in a while to either be polite or out of necessity. I have no intentions of ever eating pork again though and beef very very very infrequently. With that in mind, it was an awesome meal. Just across the street from the Chiayi train station there are two restaurants that sell it. One with a huge red sign and one with a huge yellow sign. We ate at the one with a red sign. We each bought a bowl of turkey rice and a bowl of veggies. The whole meal per person cost 60 NTD (2 USD)! Cheaper than the stuff we had been buying at 7-Eleven! I asked the staff if we could take a picture together and they were very excited. Afterwards they gave us free sweet potatoes and said thank you. Again the Taiwanese people rock! So far the people have made our first three days so much fun.
- Take the bus to Shizhuo and walk up part way to Fenqihu. Check out the tea plantations and if possible stop and buy some tea from the farms directly. Then either wait at one of the bus stops or hitch hike. Taiwan was just ranked as the second safest country in the world so no worries there.
- Stay in Alishan for only one night and make sure to see the sunrise.
- Double, triple, quadruple check the bus and trains schedules from Chiayi up the mountain. We asked about 5 different English speaking employees at the train station and were given very different information.