Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Another weekend, another city! This time we went down to Miaoli County, the strawberry capital of Taiwan. But before we headed to Dahu to pick strawberries and visit the "Strawberry Museum" (which is more like a fairground), we stayed overnight at a beautiful villa in Sanyi.

My Mandarin teacher recommended the Jones Home Villas in Sanyi to us ... Sanyi is kind of a remote town, not easily accessible. Luckily the innkeeper (or whatever his title is) was very, very kind and basically served as our chauffeur our first night there. He picked us up at the Sanyi train station, then gave us a room upgrade (not a big travel weekend, as it was presidential election weekend in Taiwan) for free, drove us back to town for dinner, and then picked us up a couple hours later. The room (in a modern-day cabin) for 4 (two beds), overlooking the mountain, cost each of us only $16.66. Unbelievable, especially with the amazing service we were later provided.

That night, we went to town to have dinner. The innkeeper was very honest with us and told us there wasn't much to do in Sanyi. He recommended a couple restaurants to us and suggested we walk from the restaurant to the night market (only weekly in Sanyi, rather than daily).

We went to a mom and pop kind of restaurant for dinner, which was filled with locals. We each ordered a different dish, and my friend (who can read more Chinese characters than I can) mistakenly told me that I was ordering hand-cut noodles instead of ... I don't even know what they're called. Floppy chewy flat noodles? Two of my friends ordered rice vermicelli and the other friend ordered standard egg noodles. My dish, which didn't taste too bad in the end, set me back $2.15.

After dinner, we walked to the night market. Sanyi is considered the country side in Taiwan, and the streets were quite dim and kind of run-down looking. A lot of stores remained open alongside the road, however, and you could tell that they were all very much family-run, because the store served oftentimes as a family room (with a large window so we could see their every move), where the kids watched television and the family dog hung around.

We arrived at the night market, which was so much more than the typical night market in Taipei, probably because it only happens once a week. There were carnival games, bumper cars, cotton candy, fried foods that were closer to what would be served at an American fairground ... cakes, cookies, breads, used CD and cassettes (!!), clothes, toys, etc. Someone even set off fireworks while we were browsing. It was very small, though, probably the size of a school parking lot in the U.S.

After buying a couple of things to eat, we headed to the local 7-11 to wait for the innkeeper to pick us up. We went over our plans for the next morning with him ... he originally planned to take us strawberry picking, but once he heard that our itinerary was all over the county, he told us he would plan it for us and let us know the details later.

It turned out that he got us a cab driver for the day, who would be at our disposal, for a grand total of about $16.66 per person. He asked us when we would like our breakfast served, and we asked for it to be ready at about 9am, with the cab coming at 10am.

Our first stop was Sheng-Hsing Train Station, which ... to be quite honest, I don't understand is a tourist attraction. Our cab driver told us it was the highest train station in Taiwan built along the Old Mountain Railway. It was built in 1905 and is no longer in service. To me, the Taiwanese make mountains out of molehills (see my Alishan experience!), but meh.

The highlights of our stop here were the "lei cha" making and riding the mini train. "Lei cha" is a type of tea, made by grinding different nuts and tea leaves together. Basically, we paid to make our own tea. We were given a huge mortar and pestle, and several dishes of ingredients:

Step One: the tea leaves

Step Two: add sesame seeds

Step Three: add sunflower seeds

At this point, the mixture began to get more and more paste-like, as the oil from the seeds began to combine with the tea powder.

Step Four: the peanuts

Coming together as a paste

The tea place also gave us some strands of plain mochi and sweet peanut powder and showed us how to cut the mochi into little nuggets using the metal chopsticks. For some reason, out of my friends, I was the only one who was able to do it, so I ended up cutting it all and tossing the little bits in the powder.

Once the paste was formed, the guy gave us more ingredients to add ... 
I think this is matcha powder

Popped rice kernels

Finally, hot water

Not so much a tea as a soup, really!

It was very time consuming, but the end result was pretty nice. It was nutty and had a light green tea flavor, and a lot more opaque in both texture and flavor than any tea I'd ever had. This entire process (complete with the mochi) cost us $2.15 per person. We joked that we were paying to perform manual labor, but it was an interesting experience. There's a certain technique to the grinding, too, which only one of us really got down pat (and it wasn't me).

Then we walked down to the old train station ...

Still in use after all! ;)

We asked if adults could ride, and they said yes so for $1 per person, we hopped on this incredibly narrow (think just a little wider than a gymnastics balance beam) train car for a very short ride.

The head (and tail, upon return) of the train

Completely non-descript train station/tracks/tunnel

Mini tracks between the real ones

We ran into our cab driver, who told us he needed to pick up some OTHER passengers and bring them somewhere, but he'd be back in about 10-15 minutes. I knew this was a bad idea, but he definitely was not giving us a choice. 10-15 minutes turned into an hour, at which point we were all fuming, especially when he chose to ignore our calls. It was silent in the car as he drove us to our next stop, the Longteng Broken Bridge.

Again, not sure what the big deal with this is ... it was struck by two different earthquakes. There's also some sort of legend that says the Longteng area is haunted by an evil carp spirit or something. I don't know what that has to do with the bridge, but it might explain why it was struck twice by an earthquake and damaged to the point of ineffectiveness. It is pretty, though.

The site was right across from a "Bee-cology" center, which might explain
why we saw so very many bees pollinating wildflowers.

These trees look like they were plucked straight out of a Van Gogh painting

The driver next brought us to an unplanned stop, in what I can only imagine was an attempt to mollify our anger towards him, and that was to the Mingde Reservoir, which serves Taichung, a large city in Taiwan about 3 hours away from the reservoir.

This was only half the trip ... next we went strawberry picking, but I'm going to save that for tomorrow but this is already too long!

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