First of all, thanks to anyone who has visited this site in the past year and wondered why there haven’t been any new posts put up, and my sincerest apologies for abandoning you. No, I haven’t been in a coma, jail, or lost on a deserted island (I was actually a bit lost on an inhabited island, but that’s a long story!). As convenient as any of those excuses might be, the truth is I’ve had a lot of personal issues to deal with, and I simply lost my path, and my connection with tea and the Dao, and as a consequence I stopped writing for awhile . I’m happy to say that, through an extraordinarily lucky series of events, I’m (nearly) back where I belong, and it’s time to catch up with everything tea that is so dear to me.
So we’ll start with the most exciting news. I just returned from my first trip back to Taiwan in almost 2 years, where we conducted a really amazing tour of northern Taiwan tea growing regions, tea factories, and tea houses with some of our good friends from the International Tea and Coffee Academy in the Netherlands. We were able to have tea classes with my Tea Master, David Tsai, and also my good friend and teacher, Mr. Aliang Ong, owner of the Hsi Tang Tea Company in the Mucha District of New Taipei City. We also visited the Tea Research & Extension Station in Yangmei, a Tie Kuan Yin tea factory in Pinglin (plus a visit to the tea museum there), and also a cutting-edge technology high mountain tea production facility in the famous Li Shan (Pear Mountain) region, home of Taiwan’s best oolongs. Looking back at it now, it’s incredible how much territory we covered in such a short time, and yet still left so much more to do, see, and learn. I collected over 60G of photos and videos from our group members, and will post in detail on each day of the trip as I process through everything, but for now here’s an overview to whet your appetite.
Our group members arrived on a Friday, so after collecting everyone and getting them settled at their hotel, we went to the Bi Tan (Green Lake) Scenic Area in the Xin Dien district for dinner. I used to live in the hills just southwest of there, so it was a return to my old stomping grounds for me. After dinner we had tea at a scenic tea house on a cliff overlooking the lake. Then it was back to the hotel for some rest.
On Saturday we had an orientation and introduction to tea culture and brewing, then traveled to Taipei for lunch and an afternoon class with Tea Master David Tsai, founder of Lung Tsuey Fong tea house, and the man most influential on my own philosophy of tea. We were treated to a formal tea presentation to start things off, then sampled several wonderful organic Taiwan oolongs brewed by the man himself, who patiently answered as many questions as I could translate (and even some I couldn’t!).
For dinner we went on an adventure tour of Taiwan’s busy and crowded streets while I tried to remember the correct route to a mountainside restaurant and tea room I used to frequent when I lived in the Shijr district of New Taipei City back in the late 1990s. The tea gods were absolutely smiling on us, as not only did I find the road, but the restaurant was still there, it was completely devoid of customers (it was a cool rainy night), and the hostess even remembered me from the ‘old days’ – I was the strange foreigner who would come up on Saturday afternoons, eat Cha Ye Tofu (A tofu dish cooked with tea leaves – absolute heaven!) and strum his guitar while drinking tea. On one of my trips, I lost a shoe, and one of the cooks gave me his flip flops – literally off of his feet – so I could get home on my motorcycle in the rain. Now, back after a 12-year absence, she asked if I still had the flip flops or not (sadly, a ‘not’). I couldn’t help but think our tour was off to a grand start, and even better things were to come.
On Sunday, better things came. In the morning we stopped by the Chr Nan Temple complex in Mucha for a quick look while the weather was good, then headed over to meet Aliang and learn about Taiwan oolongs. He had an impressive presentation prepared for us, mixing power point with tea samples and tea wares spread across the table. While we ended up not having time to finish everything he had for us (too many questions – right Danny?), we did get to have a go at loading the roasting racks before heading out to lunch.
Boss Man gets his hands dirty
After lunch, we visited the famous Mao Kung (literally means ‘no cats’) area in Mucha, famous for its dark-roasted Tie Kuan Yin teas. We toured some tea fields for awhile, then walked to one of the many tea houses on the mountainside for dinner and some lessons on handling gaiwans, with a lot of tea drinking mixed in, of course!
Monday we met at the hotel and traveled to a Tie Kuan Yin production plant in the Pinglin area. We spent most of the morning learning how the leaves are processed, asking questions, and exploring the small family-owned farm. We were also able to talk the farmer into selling us a few of their older tea plucking baskets to take home as souveniers.
After lunch in Pinglin, we toured the tea museum, then headed back through the countryside to Taipei. We stopped at a second tea factory to visit one of Aliang’s friends, and had an opportunity to sample some of their fresh Baojong tea, which had only been processed a few days before our arrival.
Tuesday was a big day for our group. We went to the Tea Research & Extension Station in Yangmei, where we were given a personal tour of the facility by Dr. Justin Lai, one of the research associates at the facility. Our tour included tastings of a variety of Taiwan teas, all of which were first-place winners in local production competitions. Although we were limited to a spoonful or 2 of each tea, we all appreciated having the opportunity to try some of Taiwan’s best.
For lunch we stopped in Ying Ge, which is famous for pottery and tea pot production, and spent time browsing some of the hundred or so shops that line the ‘old street’ there. It’s a great place to browse and wander around, but there is so much to see there that it’s easy to suffer from sensory overload. We only stayed a couple of hours, and then headed back to Taipei, where we geared up for the highlight of the tour – a trip to the highest tea growing region of Taiwan.
We took the highway out to the coastal city of I Lan, then turned back onto the No. 7 highway that winds up through the mountains to Li Shan. Our stop for the night was a wonderful mountain villa, which we reached eventually, although I did manage to get us ‘confused’ for a bit getting through the cities and onto the correct road. After dinner, I set up for the night’s entertainment, which featured a tea and calligraphy demonstration by me, followed by tea and conversation and tea until everyone dropped off to bed.
The Man in Action
In the morning we had a quick look at some local tea fields, then headed up the long and winding road to Pear Mountain. At one of the stops along the way, some of the group members (not Belgian) were marveling at the local flora, asking if the giant leaves of this mysterious plant are used to make tea. I had to carefully inform them that the fields we were looking at were actually a type of vegetable commonly used in Chinese cooking, known in English as ‘cabbage’. They were so amazed at the sight that they took numerous photos, one of which I present below:
“Sorry guys, I couldn’t resist. I know I’ll pay for it someday! ”
Arriving at the Li Shan area in late afternoon, we checked into our digs at the 2450 Tea Factory, just over the top of the mountain on the Nantou side. The name comes from the fact the factory is at 2450 meters above sea level. They have an amazing facility there, and all of us were very impressed with the efficiency and technology they had at their command. After our main tour of the production floor, we were able to witness and even assist in starting a new batch of tea that came in, and those of us who stayed up late (or woke up early) were able to hang out with the workers and observe all stages of the production.
“Hey, Bob, I think there’s sumn’ wrong with da ball roller”
Our last full tour day, Thursday, began with departure from the factory and a tour of the Fu Sho Mountain tea growing areas. Some of the fields we visited grow the most expensive teas in Taiwan, and it was a wonderful feeling to walk among the plants and touch the tender new buds glistening in the morning rain. After a brief lunch at Li Shan, we headed back to Taipei, where we had a late dinner at Wisteria Tea House, then returned to Aliang’s store for a serenade (Aliang plays several Chinese instruments) and final round of tea.
Our last day was a ‘free’ day, but most of us wanted to go back to Ying Ge and have another look, so we did. After loading up on tea cups & pots & etc., we went back to Wisteria for a rest, a chat, and of course, one (or 3) rounds of tea. When our back teeth were finally floating, we returned to the hotel and packed up for the last ride to the airport. Overall, I felt that most of the tour went very smoothly, and we all had a great time. With all of the positive feedback, I’m now looking at putting together another tour, perhaps in November, or for sure next June, so if any of you are interested in joining us next time, just let me know. I will set up an information page here when I get some of the details sorted out.