Three days in the mountains of Cingjing

Since 2005, Taiwan has been a regular holiday spot that we return to every few years. Our initial trips were restricted to only Taipei, but over time, we’ve been going further out to explore the other counties. During the summer of 2012, we decided to head up the mountains of Cingjing (清境) in Nantou (南投) county and spend three days there.

Given the relatively large group of eight family members (including five old folks) traveling together in that trip, we hired a private van to ferry us from Taoyuan International Airport (TPE) straight to our BnB in Cingjing.

We usually travel on our own and rely mainly on trains and buses to get around, but since we were bringing old(er) people, making them lug around their baggage and messing with several transfers would subject them to cruel and unusual punishment. We didn’t want to be accused of elderly abuse, because if we did, you can be sure that they would never let us forget it for the rest of their lives.

By the time we reached the Cingjing Vienna Pleasance Cottage (清境維也納庭園木屋), it was already dark and we quickly checked in and let the old folks rest for the night. We couldn’t see the scenery on our way up, but we took some photos on the way down. This would have been what it looked like if we had gone up the mountain in the daytime.

The BnB was small and cosy with European-inspired architecture, with a small interior courtyard and a deck with views of the mountains. The interior stayed with the same theme and had various decorative pieces that presumably evoked the feeling of staying in a pleasant Viennese cottage. I’ve never been to Vienna and wouldn’t know any better, but we had a peaceful and relaxing time during the three days that we stayed there.

The main draw of going up into the Taiwanese mountains is to get out of the city, breathe the fresh air, experience nature and slow down the pace of life. There’s not too much to do in Cingjing, and that’s really the main point of being there, but there are a few interesting attractions worth spending time to visit.

One of them is the Cingjing Farm (清境農場), which covers a large expansive area 1,750 metres above sea level. Even though it was summer, it was cold and drizzly when we arrived but it wasn’t too wet to make us change our plans for the day.

We spent most of our time in the upper third of the farm, where sheep were peacefully roaming and grazing behind low fencing. The barriers were probably there to protect the innocent sheep from overly-enthusiastic kids that would otherwise have mobbed and terrorised them.

Given the high altitude and the overcast weather that day, we were lucky enough to catch views of “cloud sea”, or 云海 in Mandarin. Watching waves of fluffy white clouds float across mountain tops evokes memories of the Wudang mountains in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Minus the kung fu, of course.

Following the trail, we reached a large plain where you could ride on tiny horses…

… and where the main sheep show is held at regular intervals. It’s the most popular attraction on the farm and people tend to get there before showtime to ensure a seat with good views.

If you manage to sit way up front, you’ll might even get a chance to catch freshly sheared wool that’s thrown into the audience. The shepherds and their dogs even drive the sheep on pathways through the crowd, so that you can see (and smell) them up close.

After the sheep show, we continued our way downwards until we reached a long stretch of stairs with 487 steps that mark the end of the farm. Looking back, this was probably the point that my right knee decided that enough was enough, and started to protest. It’s still protesting to this day.

Another thing that Cingjing is famous for are the High Mountain Oolong (高山乌龙) tea farms, where row after row of green leaves stretch out in front of you. When you visit the farms, you get to sample their product and I’m confident that after you do, you’ll want to buy some back.

They taste clean and fresh, just like the crisp mountain air, and are great when brewed hot or cold. Even though they are not as mind blowing as Japanese gyokuro, they’re still some of the best tea that you’ll have. That’s saying something, especially coming from a life-long coffee addict.

Along the long and winding roads running up the mountain, you can’t miss the many restaurants that specialise in Earthen Jar Chicken (甕缸雞). Cingjing is not the only place in Taiwan that cooks chickens this way, but they’re considered a must-try dish when you’re in the region.

Since there were eight of us, we were able to not just have the chicken, but also a full family-sized lunch set that started with a large wooden bucket of rice. It was followed by a steady procession of meat, vegetables, seafood, the famous chicken and a fish claypot.

The chicken was supposed to be the star of the meal, but the fish claypot stole the show. It was filled with Long Dan (龙旦) fish, beancurd skin, vegetables mushrooms bubbling away in one of the most flavourful broths I’ve ever had.

Our cousin, who was travelling with us, enthusiastically suggested a visit to Carton King (紙箱王). To be honest, the idea of a tourist attraction focusing on cardboard didn’t sound particularly interesting, but I was won over eventually.

Obviously the buildings themselves couldn’t be made of cardboard, especially not in the land of typhoons and earthquakes. But they managed to incorporate it into as many things as they could. From cardboard sheep, to an almost life-size cardboard train engine…

… to cardboard interior décor, more cardboard sheep, cardboard wallpaper…

… cardboard sculptures and even cardboard furniture that was sturdy enough to be functional. I sat down vigorously on the chair and it held up surprisingly well.

We had tea time at the cafe, and had cheesecake (not cardboard!) and drinks. Even the drink cartons were made of cardboard… Oh wait, they’re supposed to be made of cardboard.

And of course, any self-respecting attraction must sell merch, and the store was filled with all sorts of self-assembled cardboard toys, including a very sturdy-looking rocking horse. My favourite though was the well-proportioned pig. We ended up spending an enjoyable afternoon at Carton King.

If there was one regret I had during our three day stay, it would be that we didn’t have lunch or dinner at our BnB until the very last day. For convenience, and since we had a long drive ahead of us, we decided to have lunch at the BnB itself before we checked out.

The hearty home-cooked meal used fresh ingredients and included pork, fish, prawns, eggs, vegetables and soup. The highlight turned out to be the local cabbage simply stir-fried with garlic and chilli. It’s a very common dish that can be found throughout Taiwan, or for that matter, in any Chinese eatery throughout the world. But what we had was the best possible version of it.

Fresh, sweet and crunchy with just the tiniest hit of spiciness. And while I’ve had countless stir-fried cabbage dishes since then, nothing has been as good. The one from White Gourd and Fat Person in Kaohsiung came close, but the cabbage just wasn’t as sweet. Fresh air, clean water and good soil must have made a huge difference.

The simple yet wonderful lunch was a good way to end our three day excursion up in the mountains of Cingjing. I am, and will always be, a city person, but once in a while, it’s refreshing to spend some time closer to nature. As long as I don’t have to climb down another 487 steps.

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