On weekends, many people take the two-hour train ride or tour bus to Ilan County (宜蘭縣) from Taipei to soak in hot springs, eat fresh seafood and hole up in hotels. Come Sunday, the visitors head home refreshed, perhaps, for the start of a new work week.?
This is one part of Ilan. But beyond the neon lights of hotels and the din of city life is yet another Ilan, one that is tucked away in the recesses of mountains and valleys along a winding road called Route 7 (台七線). It is this picturesque land that gives visitors a glimpse into Ilan's long history of agriculture, a history that dates back more than two centuries, when farmers from China's Fujian and Guangdong provinces first began settling there.
One of the biggest activities promoted by Ilan's county government is called "recreational agriculture" (休閒農業). Introduced more than a decade ago, it has become popular, gaining even more momentum following Taiwan's entry into the WTO in 2002.
An almost immediate effect of entering the WTO was a drop in prices on many imported goods, including vegetables, fruits and fish. As a result, farms across Ilan County found it increasingly difficult to do business. They had neither the manpower nor the resources to tackle foreign competition. Some were forced to fold.
Those that didn't had to change course and begin promoting their fisheries and farms, in part, as centers for agricultural exploration. One such place, at the beginning of Route 7, is the Bajia Recreational Fishery (八甲休閒漁場).
Opened in 1990, Bajia emerged as a recreational fishery in 2002, with the support of the Ilan County government. Bajia owner Huang Yu Ming (黃玉明) beams when he talks about the fish he raises, especially his xiangyu (香漁), a popular species in Asia. Almost 80 percent of Taiwan's xiangu comes from Ilan, he said. Xiangyu, naturally enough, is a favorite at his restaurant, just across from his fishery.
Fish aside, arguably the most popular attraction among his visitors is a beast called the "garbage turtle" (垃圾龜). It's name says it all: it eats up the garbage along the ocean floor, keeping the environment clean for the fish. How does it do it?
"Does anyone have a pen?" Huang asked a group of people during a tour of the grounds one recent Sunday afternoon. A pink, plastic one emerged. He lowered it slowly into the turtle's mouth, which ordinarily remains open as if the turtle suffers from lock-jaw. As soon as the turtle sensed the pen, its mouth clamped shut, reducing the pen to pieces.
A five-minute drive from Bajia's fish farm is the Shengyang Aquarium Center (勝洋水族中心). Shengyang opened in 1967, raising eel that was processed and sold to Japan. Over the next few decades, though, Taiwan's changing environment, as well as competition from other Asian countries, made it increasingly difficult for Shengyang to stay afloat.
So in 1992, Shengyang shifted its focus away from fish and directed it toward water plants (水草). The center boasts more than 400 varieties of vegetation, many of which can be eaten. Shengyang's guides know what is what, so it's best to let them do the plucking and you do the tasting.
About 15km from the Shengyang Aquarium, just outside Datong (大同), is the Happy Cherry Tea and Coffee Garden (櫻悅山泉咖啡休閒茶園). Perched atop one of the many tall mountains in the Yulan Tea District (玉蘭查區), Happy Cherry not only gives visitors a peek at how tea leaves are grown and processed but also provides one of the best views of Ilan county.