Maokong by gondola – on the tea trail in Taipei
Taiwan without tea would be as France without cheese. The beverage is central to the island’s identity. The government maintains several offices for the development and promotion of tea, and the nation’s former name of Formosa still serves as a byline for top-notch oolong. Not to mention the country’s more recent gift to the world, that sweetened stew of tea and tapioca known as bubble tea, pearl tea, or boba. Bubble tea shops seem to be on every corner in Taipei (and often mid-block as well) and as more Taiwanese swap the leaf for the bean as their stimulant of choice, it’s become easier than ever to find exceptional espresso. But for old school, classical tea services, or just a high-quality cup of green or black, it’s become a bit harder for the tea tourist. Happily, the shops that remain are worth seeking out.
The change in altitude gives summertime visitors a welcome respite from the downtown city heat
High above Taipei is one of the largest and oldest tea growing regions on the island. Take the brown line MRT to Taipei Zoo Station, then walk 400 meters to the Maokong Gondola. A one-way ticket costs $120 NTD for the 30-minute ride to the top. Many – though not all – of the gondolas are glass-bottomed, giving riders an unparalleled view of forests, ridges, and small farms they ascend. The system does occasionally close due to high winds. Check information at Taipei Zoo Station.
Technically, Maokong is a suburb of Taipei. Visitors are only about 8 kilometres from downtown and Taipei 101 is almost never out of view. But the elevation change – about 500 meters higher than the rest of the city – gives a visitor the feeling of having been transported to one of the more remote parts of the island. The change in altitude gives summertime visitors a welcome respite from the downtown city heat. During the rest of the year, pack a light sweater for the drop in temperature and higher winds.
Traffic slows noticeably in Maokong. There are public transit buses, but most locals opt to walk or bicycle, giving the suburb a much more relaxed feel, and a good option for visitors looking for a hike or a ride during their visit.
Tea is grown at a small scale here in artisanal, family run growing operations, akin to microbreweries or small family vineyards. It’s hard to go wrong in Maokong. Excellent tea houses and tea gardens abound. The Yao Yueh Teahouse, Maokong Teahouse, and Shan Shui Ke Teahouse are all good options, offering classical services and dinner and lunch menus as well as unparalleled views of the city below.
Tea in Maokong tends to be both very high quality and very affordable. Check out the Taipei Tea Promotion Center to learn the history of tea cultivation in Taiwan and be sure to get a tea tasting as well. English language tours and tastings are available. But if you arrive on a Monday, when the centre is closed, try the Tea Master Chang Nai-Miao Memorial Hall, just a few hundred meters up the road.
While the Taipei Tea Promotion Center is run by the city tourism bureau, Tea Master Chang Nai-Miao Memorial Hall is a small family business. Tours and tastings are available in English, Taiwanese, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Owner Angela Szeto is a third-generation tea aficionado. Her husband’s grandfather, the eponymous Chang Nai-Miao, began the plantation and earned acclaim for introducing Taiwan’s oolongs to Japan, then the colonial ruling power of the island.
Upstairs, the museum features a tidy collection of tea memorabilia, which Angela will happily expound upon at length. But if collections of teapots and early 20th-century portraiture aren’t quite your thing, the tasting is well worth the visit, even if you’ve already stopped elsewhere. Angela is happy to discuss any questions visitors to Taiwan might have, about tea culture, current Taiwanese affairs, her opinions on bubble tea (“not real tea”) and such perpetually thorny issues as the island’s relationship with the mainland. Visitors may get any three teas included in their tasting but would do well to make at least one of those selections a tiekuanyin. This tea is not only a family speciality, but unique to the island, and bears the same name as the Buddhist deity Guanyin – or Kuan Yin – the principal deity of the nearby Zhangshan Temple, which, if opting for the walk back to Taipei, you will pass en route.
Looking for a post-prandial hike? A visitor could spend a whole day picking and choosing their way through a vegetated labyrinth on the cobweb of trails in Maokong. The Camphor Trail and the Zhangshu trail are both very well marked. If you’re looking to get straight back to Taipei, follow the latter trail to Zhangshan Temple. (Signs are in both English and Chinese.) Past the temple, follow signs for National Chengchi University, and then follow signs to Daonan Riverside Park. Keep the river on your left and it will lead you back to the Taipei Zoo MRT Station, and the means to reach your next adventure.
For those looking for the calm of the country in the heart of the city, the Wistaria Teahouseis an exceptional choice. The Japanese-style house had been the residence of a former university professor, who in the 1950s sought to create a salon that combined the cultures of Japanese and Taiwanese tea services with Western-style critical and philosophical debate. Visitors can still find both of the former options on the extensive tea menu, though will have to provide the latter themselves.
The front of the building was westernized in 1961, and one of the larger rooms transformed into an art gallery. But visitors looking for the formal yet relaxed atmosphere of a teahouse will be well rewarded in their visit. Menus and services are available in Mandarin and English, and staff will be happy to offer instruction and demonstration on any of the dozens of teas served, all of which are grown and processed in Taiwan.
Wistaria also offers a lunch menu and a menu featuring small snacks like dried mango, tea-cured plums, and the smoothest mochi one is likely to find anywhere on the island. The teahouse is quite popular but waits rarely exceed ten minutes. If weather permits, ask to be served in the garden, where even though traffic rushes by just outside on Xinsheng Road, deep in a cup and in thought, one feels worlds away.
Wisteria Tea House | Photo: Cirrus Wood
Photo: Chris Yang
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