We took our map and immediately found a short queue of people being ushered into a room, so we joined, finding space in the back of one room of the "Japanese Four Family House" and a woman came in and began speaking in rapid fire Mandarin. We gave each other a look, had we accidentally just joined a lecture? I began looking for subtle escape routes but being the only westerners and furthest seats from the door, things weren't looking good. Just as I had resigned myself to sitting through a lecture in a language I don't even understand a little bit, she put on a video with English subtitles explaining the process of restoration for the house and bit of the history behind the Gold Ecological Park.
The video ended and we were shuffled through the house, descriptions of the rooms were once again given entirely in Mandarin but there was some English signage, if I could get myself in a position in the crowd to read it. The hallways were narrow and the older man behind us kept pushing even though there was nowhere to go. It would be nice to explore the house on your own, but as it was, we were relieved when we finally found ourselves back in the bracing sea air.
After a quick bathroom and snack break, and some encounters with very friendly attendants that made us afraid we were going to be stuck in another claustrophobic tour experience, we started our exploration of the grounds in earnest, struck by the juxtaposition of the well maintained and restored buildings surrounded by barely contained, or sometimes not contained at all forest.
There are occasionally groups of people but it's one of the few places we've traveled in Asia with nary a tour guide flag in site. This combined with the muffling fog and our recent walk through shrines and abandoned homes, gave everything a bit of surreal dreamlike tone.
"This place is pretty weird"
"That's why I chose it, are you happy with our tour of Taiwan's quirkiest museums so far?"
The day before I had taken him to the Landbank Museum of Evolution featuring both animal evolution and the evolution of Taiwan's banking system. "Dinosaurs and business business business, husband will love this," he quipped but while the banking related placards were a bit boring and repetitive, exploring the old bank vault they were hung in wasn't.
"YES! What are those? Why are we allowed to walk on this track? Look, here's a warning sign for snakes and wasps on this end? I don't want to go to the wasps."
We'd been vaguely following the signs for the "Benshan Fifth Tunnel" which thankfully pointed us along the cart tracks and away from the snakes and wasps. We slowly walked along, capturing occasional glimpses of the ocean and the huge bronze statue of Guan Gong in the town below until we find ourselves it what seems to be the museum proper. There are more people but it's still not really a crowd. We walk by a few huts selling more fish ball soup towards a huge air compressor that I can only describe as being what steampunk dreams are made of. Nobody else seems to be as fascinated by the air compressors as we are, perhaps distracted by the proximity of the world's largest gold bar.
"Here's the tunnel! Let's get our tickets!"
We get our tickets and a disposable cap. Next a man gives us a hard hat and rapidly ushers us to join the group ahead. Once again the tour is in Mandarin but there's plenty of English writing around me if I could just see it clearly. We exit the hall into a courtyard and cross to the tunnel. While I'm reading the "Past Taboos in the Tunnel," our group quickly continues ahead. We enter the cave and while I'm attempting to adjust the settings on the camera, we soon lose sight of the bulk of our group. Unlike the "four family house," there don't seem to be any rules or effort to keep the group together despite the dark cavern and slippery footing.
There are few cheesy tableaux but otherwise we're really just walking unsupervised through a mine shaft. There seems to be water everywhere, dripping from above, in rivulets next to the path and down the wall, beading up on the metal foot path.
"This is so cool! It's like the hospital under the rock in Budapest but better because we get to just go at our own pace. This doesn't seem entirely safe but whatever"
We have no idea where the rest of our group has gone, we don't even hear voices. Luckily there are no turns and eventually we see a light in the distance. A bit reluctantly we throw our hard hats in the bucket and rejoin the outside world.
Still excited from exploring the tunnel, we forget about the world's largest gold bar and move on to try to find somewhere to snack on our pastries. All the benches in the area are crowded so we move onto the Crown Prince Chalet hoping to find somewhere to sit in between.
There's a small loop to walk around in front the the building built to house the former Crown Prince of Japan had he ever visited, but the house is closed up and even the garden I thought we could walk through was closed for the winter. We find a bench with a view and unearth our cakes, each of us taking one of the sesame covered ones that had been labeled "pork and mushroom".
"This is really not pork and mushrooms"
"Why is it sweet? Is this figs?"
"It kind of tastes like walnut and raisin rugelach. This isn't what I was expecting but I guess it's ok?"
After one pastry each we look at our map to decide if we need to see anything else. Outside the museum ground proper is the Gold Ecological Park but it's mid afternoon now and we want to get to our next stop, the Golden Waterfall before dark.
"How long will it take to get there?"
"Well... it's forty minutes by bus OR 42 minutes walking"
My husband gives me a look before adjusting his backpack straps, full well knowing which one I'll think is better.
"We can take the bus back to Juifen from there, I promise"
"Ok, let's go"
And we begin to make our way out of the park...
The Gold Museum and Ecological Park is open 7 days a week (closed the first Monday of the month) and is located at No. 8號, Jinguang Rd, Ruifang District, New Taipei City, Taiwan 224. You can get there via the 788 "gold route" bus from Jiufen if you're not feeling as trusting in GoogleMaps as I am.