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Published: February 24th 2013
I love salt. I eat so much of it that my partner Emily says my hair will fall out. But I don't generally plan holidays around it. Until recently, that is.
Staying in a countryside township in Chiayi County for Chinese New Year (read about it in my blog A Traditional Chinese New Year with my Taiwanese Family
), we were able to escape all the drinking and Mahjong games one afternoon to do a little sightseeing. I'd heard about Taiwan's salt mountains from Taiwanese people before, but I never realized that Emily's family lived so close to the most famous one.
The Cigu Salt Mountain and Salt Museum are quiry sights that draw (excuse the pun) a sprinkling of mostly domestic tourists to Cigu, the center of a 7200-hectare area of salt production just north of the An Nan district of Tainan City in southwestern Taiwan. While Taiwan's aboriginals produced salt by boiling seawater or trading fish for it from Chinese fishermen, it has been mass produced on the island since 1665. It's history of taxation, privatization, and monopolization is about as complicated as the political hisotry of Taiwan itself, but suffice to say in 2002, the salt industry officially came to an
end in Taiwan, unable to compete with the low costs of imported salt.
The Cigu saltern was the youngest but largest of its kind, having been commissioned by the government to a private salt company. With the end of salt production, the land was trasferred to the government. The remaining salt mountain was once the final drying place of most of the salt at the Cigu saltern. We had no trouble spotting the mountain and the adjacent pyramid-shaped white buildings of the Salt Museum from afar on the highway, jutting up awkwardly from the otherwise flat landscape of canals, tidal flats, and fish farms.
Like many designated tourist sights in Taiwan, the Cigu Salt Mountain is complete with a parking lot so vast that it could easily accommodate 500 cars and tour buses. Visitors have no other choice upon arrival but to walk through a crowded market area, full of tacky souvenirs, food and beverage stalls, and disoriented tour groups being herded unsuccesfully by megaphone-wielding guides. I maneuver my way through quickly, avoiding tourists left and right like obstacles in a video game, eager to get to and photograph the main attraction.
Roped off trails lead up to the peaks of Cigu's two connected salt mountains, the higher of which stands at 20 meters. Combined, they are composed of 60 thousand tons of salt. With disuse, portions of the surface have crystallized to form a rigid crust, while in other area the salt is loose. Children frolic in it cheerfully, sliding down and throwing handfulls of the chickpea-sized crystals at their family members and random, preoccupied photographers (such as yours truly).
The overcast skies that normally disappoint picture-taking aficionados like myself prove to form a sutable backdrop to the saline massif. After snapping to my satisfaction, and then actually climbing the two peaks, my tummy begins to growl and now my attention turns to the market that I so intentionally shunned only 30 minutes prior.
Taiwan is a snacker's paradise, and grabbing bites to eat from various food stalls is a must when going about anywhere on the island. But options can become redundant, so I get particularily excited when unique or out of the ordinary culinary delights are on offer. My attention is drawn immediately to a stall where a man is tossing live
Salt Dou Hua
Dou hua is a traditional Taiwanese dessert made of soft tofu, brown sugar, and beans. This delicious version came with a hint of salt.
shrimp into an enormous wok filled with chunks of salt. He gives it a good stir, covers the pan for a few moments, and when he lifts the lid again, the shrimp have been roasted pink. At a neighboring stall, I indulge in a few battered and deep fried sticks of white fish that taste so fresh, I am hushed into silence by Emily for my innapropriate choice of words to descibe precisely how I feel about them.
To wash it down, I try a salty version of dou hua, a traditional Taiwanese snack consisting of soft tofu, brown sugar syrup and red beans. Unsure of what to expect, I am pleasantly surprised with the extra kick that the hint of salt gives to the otherwise sweet and delicious as usual desert. I can't leave without also trying one of the salt popsicles, opting for the blue algae and grape flavor. Full, but unable to resist, I go for another round of fried fish, this one not unlike England's method of preparation. Again I am blown away by the succulent taste and moist texture. Seafood is fresh everywhere you go on the small island nation of Taiwan,
but here on the coast of Tainan, I can attest that the region's reputation for remarkable seafood is deserved.
We gave the salt spa, Taiwan's indoor version of the dead sea, a miss, as with the children's rides, go-karts, and Santa Claus/reindeer fronted 'Salt House', not to mention trying other snacks such as enormous goose eggs, salt roasted cuttlefish, and whole dried fish. More reasons to return again some day, I suppose.
Touristy sights like the Cigu Salt Mountain aren't for everybody, I realize. Cigu is a little out of the way, and you won't be kept occupied for more than an hour or so. However, the food-lover and photographer in me was immensely satisfied as I strolled back to our vehicle, with the warm southern Taiwanese winter sun on my neck. I noticed a Tainan City bus in the lot, so I would highly recommend the Cigu Salt Mountain to anybody with an afternoon to kill in Tainan, or to anybody looking to try something completely new and unusual in Taiwan. For more of my photos and travel stories, or to buy my book "Taiwan in
the Eyes of a Foreigner", visit www.nickkembel.com
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