Taiwan’s Hidden Gem: Jiufen
I was ready for a break from the chaos of Taipei. As much as I loved the city, with its cosmopolitan vibe and high quality of living, the urban jungle was beginning to suffocate me. I needed a hiatus someplace quieter, perhaps more traditional or historic. A Taiwanese colleague recommended Jiufen. As I would come to find out, it was exactly the hidden gem I was seeking.
Jiufen is an old gold mining town built into the hills of Taiwan’s northeast coast. The town flourished during the Japanese colonial period, when the gold was plentiful, but then underwent a sharp decline when the mining industry closed down. Today it has been revived as a weekend escape for locals who are seeking a Taiwan from the past, before high-rise apartments and a Starbucks on every corner.
The first thing I notice upon my arrival in Jiufen is the traditional red paper lanterns that line the streets and shops. There must be hundreds of them. The second thing is the winding cobblestone alleys—they beg for exploration, but I encourage myself to wait until I have first seen the town’s biggest attraction: Jiufen Old Street.
Thankfully, I arrive there hungry. Vendors and makeshift restaurants compete for space along the tiny lane, handing out samples of their unique fare to entice visitors inside. The Taiwanese people love food, and they take great pride in their street eats. Each city or town boasts its own specialty, and Jiufen is no different. Snacks such as fish meatballs, dumplings and gelatinous mochi are a few common choices, but the doughy, purple taro balls are easily the most famous, said to be a symbol of the town.
In between food vendors and tea stalls is the occasional handicraft shop. I can’t resist the urge to step inside one store selling hand-painted scrolls. The artist is an older man, and he takes time to explain the blessings each scroll offers, like good luck and prosperity. We don’t communicate easily, but I don’t need words to understand his passion for his craft. He shuffles about, digging through a seemingly endless amount of scrolls until he finally finds the one he deems right for me. He smiles and rolls my purchase as I chide myself for not knowing more of the local language. I would have loved to learn about Jiufen through the eyes of this artist.
Jiufen Old Street is crowded with Taiwanese and the occasional savvy tourist, but a step off the main road introduces a hushed calm. There are no people, no vendors and no shops. Near constant mist and fog drape over the town, and add to its mystical ambiance. On these quiet back alleys I feel like I have travelled back in time. I let the red lanterns guide my path and enjoy the surrounding solitude.
When I tire from wandering up and down the hills, I make my way into a traditional teahouse. Though coffee is becoming increasingly popular in Taiwan, the slow and thoughtful tea ceremony holds strong. There are a variety of teahouses to choose from, but I opt for the Jiufen Teahouse, decorated exquisitely with traditional Chinese décor, oil paintings and fantastic ceramic teapots. The tea ceremony has many steps; I’m taught how to correctly rinse my equipment, to brew the Oolong leaves, and to sip from the miniature sized cup. I enjoy the process while reveling in the fact that I have nowhere else to be and nothing else to do. The stunning views of the jagged coastline aid my reverie.
Most people only spend a day in Jiufen, but I decide to stay for the night. I’m enchanted by the town’s charm, its vestiges of a Taiwan now past. There isn’t much left for me to “do” in Jiufen, but that’s exactly why I want to stay. Additionally, it means that tomorrow I’ll be in a prime spot to explore more of the northeast coastline. I can choose between hiking Teapot Mountain, a half-day trek that affords spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding hills, or perhaps go rock climbing at the world-renowned cliffs of Long Dong.
But those decisions can wait. For now I’m going to enjoy the peace I’ve found in Jiufen before my frenzied city life calls me back Monday morning.