Red lanterns beckoned us down the hill, away from Old Street and into neighborhood lanes. A few twists and turns and stops at large decks built off the hill for better viewing of the ocean, now misty and spotted with boat's bright lights and we arrived at the odd, haphazard wooden building. Warm red against the cool purple sky, we didn't know what to expect but it seemed like good a spot as any to reheat our aching hands before catching a bus back to Taipei.
We enter into a small reception area, where an ottoman shaped mutt in a quilted jacket is quietly limping around. I wonder if we've accidentally ended up in some sort of guesthouse.
"It's ok, my dog he is old," a woman appears from an adjoining room behind the counter, "upstairs" she points.
The wooden staircase is narrow and turning, with even less space allowed for movement by a cluster of potted plants along the wall but opens into a wide hallway. To the left is a low opening into a room made of weathered, mismatched wood, roof slanting so at the far end the tables look made for a giant. Continuing down the upward slanted hallway, there's a large window looking into the room and table covered in Taiwanese LPs. There's a room in the back with a large group dining and laughing loudly. We decide to go up one more set of stairs.
These stairs open into one large room, home to more mismatched furniture covered in plants and vintage fans. Here two people are working in a small kitchen area and they gesture for us to find somewhere to sit. A sort of balcony runs around the high ceilinged room. We go up the stairs and find they lead to an outside balcony. Even though we had traveled downhill to the tea house, our view was now over the town and the ocean.
We order in a confusion. I choose one tea but then the server points out three teas (including my choice) and I'm not sure if he's suggesting I ordered wrong or explaining my options. I end up changing to the one he specifically mentioned was Taiwanese. Dan and I are both tired and sore from walking. The night has a damp chill that seeps into my bones. But even at that I find myself settling into the biting wind and thinking "home".
Out comes a wooden box with slots in the top, topped with a small red tea pot, a white and blue pitcher and two delicate cups. After this another wooden box with a burner. Followed by a large teapot of boiling water. We're not sure what we've gotten ourselves into.
"I will show you"
The young woman hands us a placard, partially in English explaining the process but also narrates what she's doing.
First she carefully measures tea into the clay pot. Next she picks up the large tea pot, wrapping its handle in cloth.
"The first time we are just warming the pot"
She pours the water into the pot, places the lid back on and then pours water all over the outside as well. She quickly drains the water out of the tea pot through the slots.
"Now we pour again"
She fills the pot until it is overflowing and once again replaces the lid.
"Now we wait until the water starts to go back" she gestures towards the nozzle and we all stare at the small opening intently. Eventually the water recedes a little. With quick practiced movements, she lifts the pot and hangs it almost vertically draining it into the small sieve on top of the blue and white pitcher.
"You can use these tea leaves 4 or 5 times, ok. And the rest in the container is for you."
"Ok, thank you"
She leaves and we quietly sip our tiny cups of tea.
Dan makes the next two pots of tea.
The young man comes out to check on us. If we're cold we can move inside he says as he lifts the pot to see how much water we have left.
I am cold but I don't want to go inside.
"Does the tea taste a little like fish to you?"
"I think some green teas, like this one, can have a bit of a seaweed-y taste"
"So, it's ok?"
My husband is not a tea drinker.
"Yeah, I think it's fine"
"Ok, it's your turn to make a pot"
I look at the giant pot warily. I take the lid off the small pot and carefully go through the steps. Pour to overflowing. Replace the lid. Wait for the water to retreat. Strain. Pour into cups.
We discuss our dinner options. Between buns in the morning and market food we're lunch, we feel street fooded-out for the day, plus between the wind and the walking, we're craving something more substantial.
Two more rounds of tea.
We settle on the Ippudo we had spotted two blocks from our hotel, not adventurous but we had had plenty of adventure that day.
We go inside to settle up the bill and then make our way back to the bus stop.
"This looks pretty straightforward, we mostly follow the main highway North towards the ocean"
I'm not sure what possessed me to say that after our walk from Jiufen to Jinguashi. We started off on the highway but soon found the directions putting us pack on a narrow path, making our way through overgrown residential walkways.
There aren't even construction workers or barking dogs in this neighborhood, though the houses that are still standing are much larger and more Western, decidedly not abandoned. We're nearing late afternoon and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it doesn't get dark as early in Taiwan as it does in Korea and also that we don't get turned around.
"As long as we keep walking towards the ocean, we're going the right way" I tell myself. But we're back in the trees now and I have no idea where the ocean went.
The narrow path turns into a clearer brick pathway and that joins back up with the highway. There is definitely nobody else making this walk and very few people driving. At one point a cab even slows and tried to convince us to get in but we're captivated by the river, the strange retaining walls and the view of the ocean. Besides, the winding, pompous grass lined highway reminds me of home and I'm unwilling to give up my momentary peace for a potentially harrowing cab ride.
"Oh, here's a sign"
This walk has been far more straightforward and before we know it we've almost reached our destination. We turn right, thinking we have a bit of a hike to go but then suddenly, there we are at the waterfall, by a turn out in the road.
"Well this is... less golden than I expected"
The mineral deposits supposedly discolor the water so it looks gold but the water is looking pretty water colored to me. I'd read that it also discolors the river and then mixes into the ocean, but I don't think we have time to quite walk all the way to the coast before we'd be walking in the dark.
We sit to eat the rest of our cakes but seemed to have timed our arrival perfectly with that of many cabs and a bus. Soon there are people crowded around our bench taking pictures as we stuff the last of our not quite what we were expecting pastries into our mouth.
"What's that up on the hill?"
"I think it's an abandoned copper smelt. Should we go see if we can walk around?"
"Do you know when the last bus is?"
I look up bus directions and we try to find a sign on the stop telling us when the last bus leaves. Dan thinks it's in the next half hour but we decide to risk it anyways.
We walk under an arch that has seen better days towards the dilapidated buildings but our plans for exploration are stopped short by a sign and a fence. We briefly debate walking up the road next to the fenced off driveway towards the building further up the hill, but we're both anxious about the bus so we settling for trying to get some good pictures before heading back to the waterfall.
"Look! The water in the river is way more golden!"
Now I really want to see how it mixes with the blue of the ocean but we'll have to save that for another trip. A trip where I agree to take the bus or hop in a taxi. I find another larger sign for the bus and it looks like the last one isn't for another two hours but the smaller sign says it only stops once an hour and we don't want to risk missing it, so we sit down and have a wait, hands beginning to stiffen as the sun goes down and the wind picks up. We probably only wait about twenty minutes but our anxiety increases as it gets darker and all the groups of people hop back in their cabs, leaving just us and a roadside vendor in the process of packing up.
We hop on the bus with one other couple and I realize it's just a tourist bus that goes in a loop around all the area attractions. You could probably get to to far more sites in a day than we did but hurrying from site to site isn't really our style and even much later when we get back to our hotel room and I realize my face is hot and windburned, I wouldn't trade our day slipping down hills and stumbling over broken paths for one spent in the relative comfort of a bus.
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.
We walk back and forth through the market trying to find the road my phone claims is there.
"Maybe it's this one? Lets try it?"
We make our way up the steep stairs. A the top there's an intersection, the way straight ahead is up more stairs and then gated off, to the right is back down towards the ocean and to the left the road winds through houses built into the hillside.
"Well, none of these are the right thing, but if we go left, I think we can get back on track"
The road winds straight up and tightly around and suddenly we find ourselves at the same height as another brightly colored and adorned temple roof, fog swallowed mountains rising in the background.
"I think we turn here, I thought it would be a bigger road?"
We turn off the car friendly road we were on to the more pedestrian friendly foot path that seems to be winding through people's back yards. Except for the occasional construction worker, nobody else seems to be over here. I check my phone about five times, since in Korea it's walking directions to the subway station nearest my house seem to involve flying down the hill over houses, but the blue line is, in fact, traveling along paths on the map, not through buildings, so we continue. After a few more narrow staircases and winding paths, we find ourselves back on a proper road, walking past a group of dogs playing by themselves in a basketball court and pink ancestral shrines popping out of the hillside.
The road meets up with the larger highway we came in on.
"Great, now I think we just follow this around the park" I say and head off in completely the wrong direction.
"Oh no, maybe it was that tiny turn off back there?"
We turn around and head down a cement path surrounded by lush, overgrown trees. Quickly the cement changes to dirt and soon the scene opens wide on the green hills surrounding us.
"Did anyone actually say this was a good walking trip or did you just decided to do it?"
"The book didn't give directions and my phone said walking and the bus would take the same time so..." I shrug, "Adventure?".
Now instead of walking through people's backyards, we're going down through more shrines, surrounded again by the twisted, sub-tropical trees. Everything is misty and slick and I'm happy with my decision to wear a hoodie and trail running shoes for our beach day. Our dirt path continues down and after a few convergences and turns, widens into a dirt road, turning left but directly in front of us is a mud pit and a steep overgrown scraggly path heading down to a real road. Dan continues to the left.
"Uh oh, wait"
"It's across the mud pit?
"It's across the mud pit"
I pick my way carefully across on a few broken bits and pieces of wood, somehow managing to keep myself mud free and proceed with caution down our new slippery path. We cut across the main road, back into narrow sidewalks that once again seem to just be the paths to people's homes, and then a switchback and across the main road again back onto a narrow dirt path.
"How long is this supposed to take?"
"About 45 minutes"
"That's how long we've been walking!"
"Well, we go lost a few times?"
We're once again going through residences but here the path is overgrown and many of the houses looking broken down and abandoned except for one large one from which a dog is barking at us. We scurry through this part of the path, meeting up with the road again. A path across from us leads straight up the hill into the forest. It looks like we'd have to scramble up it and there's no way we're doing that without ending up covered in mud. Thankfully, we don't have to, we get to follow the road for a while. There's not much room to walk on the side, but there's not much traffic either. A black dog goes running past us, on a mission through a seemingly unnecessary tunnel over the road. We follow but quickly lose sight of him and soon turn off the road ourselves.
Ahead and above us I can see some sort of windmills and I'm fairly certain that means we have our destinations in sight. Back onto cement paths through houses demolished by typhoons, some under construction and some overtaken by nature.
Around and through and finally! Stairs straight up to the road and those promising windmills. We get up to the road and try to cross to the signpost right as a huge group of school children is being rushed across. We make it through and around the corner, at last at our destination.
"Hello, Ni Hao, Konichiwa" a woman repeats matter of factly as she hands each group of visitors a map with the language of their choice.
We take ours and proceed in...