One of Taipei's greatest advantages is that when the need to get away from it all becomes overwhelming, then hopping on the right city bus will usually do the trick to leave the hustle and bustle behind and soak in a bit of nature. That was my objective on a recent weekend: to escape the city using only city buses, and Muzha, I discovered, is the ideal place to do just that.
At the southern edge of Taipei City, Muzha can feel at times light years away from the cosmopolitan glass-and-steel vertical jungle of downtown, though they are, in fact, only a few kilometers apart. The district, with its narrow roads, elderly population and the predominance of Taiwanese over Mandarin being spoken, feels almost like a southern rural village roped into the city. New modern high-rise apartments springing up suggest Muzha may yet be fully co-opted into the city, but for now, its mostly squat, humble apartment blocks provide some human scale to neighborhoods and views of the nearby hills that form the southern rim of Taipei's basin. And from almost every point in Muzha one can see the imposing Chi-nan Temple (指南宮) perched atop the mountain for which the temple is named.
Aside from being a major worship location for Daoism in Taiwan, Chi-nan Temple is also the nexus of a network of hiking and biking trails that spreads out over the hills from Nangang on the eastern edge of Taipei all the way southwest to Sindian. Starting in Gongguan, the 530 bus runs directly to the temple, from where a coin toss can decide whether to head in the direction of Shenkeng to the northwest, or through the tea farms of Maokong and eventually over the hills and into Sindian. My coin told me Sindian.
From Chi-nan Temple, a quick stroll along the road out the back of the complex leads to Maokong, formerly one of the main tea-producing centers of northern Taiwan that was allegedly named for the holes worn into the valley's streambed that locals said looked as though they had been dug by a cat. Things have changed considerably since the area's tea-producing heyday in the late 19th century, as most of the farmers on the mountain have long since given themselves over to the lucrative restaurant and teahouse businesses that attract car-driving throngs on weekends.
For this reason, hiking through Maokong is best enjoyed well before noon on weekends to avoid fleets of aggressive drivers on the winding, narrow mountain roads. Most of the hiking, however, can be done off paved roads and on established trails trod down by intrepid contingents of mountain bikers and teams of senior citizens who can be seen hiking in orderly rows zigzagging up and down the hills in the morning hours.
From Chi-nan Temple, following the Dacheng Dian trail and then linking up with the Taipei Tea Promotion Center Trail, the leisurely hiker can reach this small but interesting exhibition center in about an hour. The center features displays of Taiwan's various strains of teas, tools and machinery used in tea production and an informative multi-lingual audio-visual introduction to the history of tea production in the area. Guides from the Liu-kung Agricultural Foundation are on hand, as well, to offer introductions in Chinese and English to the center's displays and to the history of tea production in Wenshan. Open on weekends, comfortably air-conditioned and always ready to offer free cups of locally produced Tieh Kuan-yin Tea, this is understandably a popular resting spot for hikers passing through Maokong. Other options for a respite or food, or both in my case, include any of the scores of teahouses that line the road that snakes its way up the mountainside.