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Published: August 21st 2013
This is no tale of adventurous backpacking, but rather a fun weekend outing with a group of elementary and junior high students that I teach once a month is a small cram school in Banqiao, New Taipei City. The owner of the school, Arica Wang, invited my wife Emily and I along for a weekend field trip to the fertile plains of Yilan County (宜蘭縣), a favorite weekend getaway for many Taipei City residents that is located only a few hours southeast of the city.
Road tripping in an SUV with four teenage Taiwanese girls, we got a full dose of pop music played from smart phones complemented with intermittent rounds of giggles, which ultimately gave away to the unavoidable head-back, jaw-open deep sleep that most Taiwanese succumb to almost immediately when traveling by car, bus, boat, plane, or train.
Arriving at Suao (蘇澳), Taiwan’s premier cold springs resort town, we continue on the winding coastal highway for another 30 minutes to a less developed spot called “Dongyue Cold Spring”, located on a grassy plain in the shadow of the highway and train overpass. With the cars
and trains whizzing by above your head, the springs are no serene getaway, but this appears to be of no importance to the families and teens that splash about playfully and shoot water guns at one another, not to mention the large areas of shade under the overpass that provide picnicking space and escape from the intense 37-degree sun.
Our self-conscious teenage students stepped into the chilly water cautiously, repeatedly noting the obvious, “It’s so cold!” but less than a minute passed before the first splash was made, igniting a fury of flying water, and causing several innocent bystanders resting at the sides of the springs to flee.
Pooped from all the fun, it was now time to check into our hotel. Located in the picturesque countryside near a medium-sized town called Luodong, our Bed & Breakfast was a cute, three-story American-style house pleasantly decorated and offering fine views over surrounding rice paddies and fruit and vegetable gardens. Our group occupied the entire house, and Emily and my bedroom was on the side that faced a neighboring petting zoo, so that we were serenaded by the
peculiar sound of goats bleating during our afternoon nap.
After checking in, I joined a few of the girls for a leisurely bike ride in the area. Bike riding, Taiwanese style (it must be noted), involves riding at a speed that just barely maintains the momentum that is required to keep the bike standing, with minimal energy being expended beyond that which is required to raise the foot again after gravity pulls it down. Furthermore, one of the 12-year-old girls was too scared to ride her own bike, instead opting to sit in the baby chair of her friend’s bike, allowing her to play on her smart phone as we cruised about. Straying no more than about 3 city blocks from the bed & breakfast, we soon called it quits and headed back. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the glimpse of local farm life and luxurious holiday homes that looked more like they belong in the suburbs of Vancouver than Taiwan. Upon our return, the students wiled away the afternoon by singing endless love songs in the house’s glass walled karaoke room.
Arica’s husband went out to get
dinner, and everybody was starving by the time he returned. Every inch of the table was soon filled with a curious combination of cuisines, including pizza, fried rice and noodles, chicken wings, and huge platters of Taiwanese lu wei
(滷味), meat and vegetables braised in aromatic soup stock, soy sauce and spices. I ate to my heart’s content, stopping at the point where I couldn’t fit another bite, and finishing off with a few beers shared with one of the student’s fathers.
Then came the surprise; the mountains of food we’d just plowed through were only the start of it. The students were now taking over the kitchen, preparing an enormous cauldron of hot pot, while yet others were outside firing up the barbecue and preparing sticks of meat, vegetables, and marshmallows. In between bouts of eating, an enormous cake make entirely of scoops of ice cream materialized, to celebrate Arica’s daughter Annie’s 3rd
birthday. The cake included the Taiwanese-friendly ice cream flavors of red bean, taro, peanut, plum, and pineapple; I made sure to try one scoop of each.
Non-stop eating eventually gave way to
more karaoke, this time sung by the adults. That was our my cue to call it a night, enjoying first a bubble bath in the midget-sized Jacuzzi tub in our bathroom followed by a cozy night of sleep.
In the morning we awoke to a Taiwanese-style breakfast of white toast with toxically yellow butter spread, congee, tofu, sweet pickles, and soy milk. The first stop of the day was Plum Blossom Lake (梅花湖) a pretty little lake surrounded by temple-topped hills. The entrance street to the lake, like most sights popular with domestic tourists, was overloaded with food stalls and bike shops hiring out 2, 4, and even 8-person circular bicycles for riding around the lake. Despite the crowds and touristy feel, I always enjoy the opportunity to eat my favorite of all Taiwanese sweet snacks, a sort of ice cream wrap garnished with peanut brittle shavings and cilantro (花生粉冰淇淋), which is in fact a local, Yilan innovation now found throughout the island. After only 20 minutes of observing the duck-filled lake under the oppressive sun, we retired to an artsy, air-conditioned café with a fine view over the lake.
The final stop of the weekend, and strangely enough my favorite, was a pumpkin farm-cum-theme park. A tour bus arrived moments before us, with its passengers filling the eating area and delaying our lunch reservation by an hour. We happily wandered outside through the tunnels of carefully-hung pumpkins, which came in all sizes, colors, and shapes, ranging from warty faced to overtly phallic.
Finally lunchtime arrived, and we feasted on all things pumpkin, from pumpkin salad and pumpkin noodle soup to pumpkin pizza and whole roasted pumpkin, all washed down with iced pumpkin smoothies, and my personal favorite, surprisingly delicious creamy pumpkin coffee. The photo opportunities and delicious food at the farm was the finishing touch on my weekend, giving me a boost of energy, which soon gave way to casual napping and contemplating the lush Yilan countryside whilst stuck in the inevitable Sunday late afternoon traffic jams as thousands of people make their way back to Taipei City from all over the island. All in all an, it was an excellent weekend, and many thanks to Arica Wang for organizing the whole trip and inviting us along, and
to the students for supplying their heart-warming laughter along the way! 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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