Thu, Jun 19, 2008 - Page 13 News List

A cup of tea, a taste of freedom

The gondola to Maokong will whisk you away from Taipei, bringing you and throngs of others to a sanctuary of teahouses and natural beauty — and the views aren’t bad either

By Mac William Bishop  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

As you look down from the tea fields of Maokong, Taipei stretches away to the horizon

PHOTO: MAC WILLIAM BISHOP

Even on a rainy weekday, dozens of people queue in front of the Maokong Gondola (貓空纜車) before it opens at 9am, waiting to be carried from the bleakness of daily life into a haven of green hills and breezy teahouses.

Since it first opened on July 4, 2007, the Maokong Gondola has carved out a niche as one of Taipei’s “must-see” attractions.

Maokong (literally “no cat” in Mandarin), in the foothills of Taipei City’s Wenshan District, is said to derive its name from a Hoklo homophone that refers to the rugged, craggy topography of the hills, which resemble cat footprints.

The area is known for its tea plantations and accompanying teahouses, and has long been a popular getaway for local residents. However, the treacherous approach — narrow and winding beyond the norm for mountain roads in Taiwan — was a hindrance to exploitation of Maokong’s tourism potential.

For this reason, Taipei City Government began construction of the gondola system in partnership with the French firm POMA in 2005.

Despite some initial misgivings about its reliability and the usual complaints and opposition that accompany such large-scale infrastructure projects, the Maokong Gondola has been a success in terms of popularity and its impact on local businesses.

It’s no surprise, either. With stunning views of Taipei framed by verdant hills, Maokong offers a blend of natural and man-made diversions that few areas so easily accessible from Taipei City have to offer.

Part of the draw is the area’s rich history as one of the centers of Taiwan’s tea industry.

TEA IS KING

Maokong is surrounded by tea plantations and filled with teahouses.

The main reason local tourists are flocking to Maokong is to indulge in Chinese “tea culture” at its finest.

As you exit the terminal Maokong Station, one of the first things you will see is a veritable wall of signs indicating different places to visit in the area. The bulk of the signs are for teahouses.

You will also find a number of billboards posted around Maokong showing three walking tours — red, blue and yellow — which are a combination of streets and footpaths with teahouses, shops and other attractions liberally dispersed along the route.

The best teahouses in Maokong will give you a combination of good food, great tea and relaxing views with a nice breeze and clean environment. Given that there are more than 40 teahouses in Maokong, the location and the quality can vary widely.

As you look for a teahouse that suits you, you will have time to enjoy the views of Wenshan District’s tea plantations. Wenshan is renowned for two types of oolong tea: tieguanyin (鐵觀音) and baozhong (包種) teas.

Tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) and baozhong are examples of oolong tea, although baozhong is often described as one of the lightest of the types and very nearly a green tea.

As with most famous types of tea in Chinese culture, there are several myths and historical stories attached to these brands, some more picturesque than others.

Nowadays, the finer examples of these two types of tea can sell for upwards of US$500 per kilogram — more per gram than some types of illicit narcotics.

This, of course, points to one of the driving forces behind Maokong and its tourism — an effort to protect the economic interests of an agricultural sector.

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