In my last week in Taipei I have finally gotten round to taking the gondola up its steep ascent into the mountings of Maokong 貓空. I ended up going on what has been the wettest and coldest day since my 6 months here. It truly felt like being back in the UK. The cute hello kitty motifs on each gondola car did not make up for the fact there was an icy blast blowing inside as we swung worryingly in the wind. As with everything in Taipei, it was a breeze to get to the gondolas, I hopped on the brown line of the MRT metro and rode to the end at Taipei Zoo station, walked 5 minutes and there I began my journey. Taipei really is the most convenient city I have ever been to.
Thirty freezing minutes later I was 500m up above the city in the lush green fields. I had actually wanted to go on a rainy day, I love the way the clouds hang thick in the mountains. My comrade and I decided to refuel to stay warm before we explored the surrounding trails. Noodles, sticky rice, bamboo shoot soup and a rather gross oyster omelette later we were ready. We decided to save money and not visit one of the tea houses, instead using our feet and eyes to soak up the atmosphere. Though my sense of adventured began to dampened in the rain and wind. It was freezing.
After several tea houses we passed a quaint, Japanese style building. There was not any sign, and I was curious if someone actually lived there. We snuck up some slick stone steps into a small courtyard where a little pond full of carp swirled from the dense drops of rain. I peeked into the house, it was full of old artefacts and was meticulously kept. In the front room a tea ceremony had been laid out but there were no people. It felt like being transported back to another era. A shadowy figure suddenly appeared in the back of the house. ‘Welcome’ boomed a voice. From the gloom appeared a large well built man. His shiny, flowing black hair framed a curiously mischievous face. We had stumbled across a tea house that housed private by appointment only tea classes. This man turned out to be the owner, and I would later discover a wealthy metal tycoon. I apologised and went to back out, but was ushered inside where a group Deans and Professors from the prestigious National University of Business were having their class. Despite my refusal they insisted we join their class for free. Generosity in Taiwan knows no bounds.
We were instructed to chose a cup of choice out of an overwhelming array of all sizes and shapes. Some were gleaming new, other looked dusty and old. It was like the Indian Jones film where he has to chose the cup of longevity or die. I decided to wisely follow Indiana Jones’ logic and choose an ancient looking one. But after seeing the thick layer grime inside and a dead spider I swapped it for a shiny one.
In between sampling 30 year old teas and eating plump tangerines and cranberry cookies, the Master of Tea Ceremonies entertained us with his tea pouring skills, puppet shows, sword display, singing, and flirting. Playing from vinyl, music from the 1940’s accompanied the moment, taking us back in time. He proudly pointed to a well taken photograph of himself pouring tea in a traditional outfit. ‘National Geographic’ he beamed.
. As a fan of tea, this experience was something of a treat. My friend seemed a little less interested and slightly wired from all the tea we tasted. We learned about how Pu’er tea is often rushed in production and can easily turn mouldy if the maturation fermentation process if unnaturally sped up to meet demand. There was nothing mouldy about the tea we tried, and at a generously reduced price I brought 500g of the 30 year old tea for less than than 10 pounds.
Warmed and revitalised by the tea, we set of to find a hiking trail. After stopping by a temple for a quick look and through a garden of cherry trees, we found one called ‘healthy trail／健康道’. This short hike through the forest was enough to satisfy our health and when I realised I could no longer feel my hands we decided to head back. Thanks to the weather the area was peaceful, no hoards of tourists though I am sure this is different on a clear day. I remember a story my friend Tabitha, who I used to live with here, told me. When she took the gondola up in the summer she had be sharing with a Chinese family. As the car started its journey the Mother whipped out and opened a huge umbrella, taking up the whole space inside to avoid the rays of sun light coming through the glass. Only in Asia…
I highly recommend Maokong. I will not say the name of the tea house I stumbled across, Maybe you will be lucky enough to find it yourself if you ever visit. But actually… I never found out the name of the place or the mysterious tea master.