Come to Alishan to take a 'trip of tea'!
Being internationally known as one of the best places in Taiwan to greet sunrise, Alishan is also attractive to domestic and foreign visitors for its forest train, sea of clouds and primitive forests.
Tea, however, remains to the visitors a local specialty and upmarket souvenir from a journey to Alishan, despite the vast green landscape of tea gardens seen in many parts of the region and the fact that tea farming is a major way of making a living for many residents of the mountain.
Chiayi County government, therefore, launches a theme festival this year based on the Alishan High Mountains tea industry, in the hope of introducing the public to a trip that creates an unprecedented experience of tea drinking: tasting delicacies made from tea while spending a night in a homestay hosted by a tea farmer and waking up early the next morning to greet sunrise in a tea garden.
The county government sponsors six activities during the festival from September 27 to November 16 to lure visitors. The activities include a lucky draw that presents winners top prizes like hi-tech home appliances or the popular home video game console, Wii.
Tea planting in Alishan bourgeoned at the beginning of the 1980s after No.18 Provincial Highway, also known as the Alishan Highway, was opened to transport services. The opening of the highway allowed residents to bring excavators to their uphill residences, allowing them to reclaim more tea gardens, said Huang Chang-hao, a second-generation Alishan tea farmer.
The tea of Alishan is planted in an environment shrouded in mists and raindrops at an average altitude of 1,000-meter and over an area spanning 50 kilometers south and north of the Tropic of Cancer. The tea yields a mixed flavor of natural, powerful but refreshing tastes, commented Chiayi County Commissioner Chen Ming-wen.
The so-called Alishan High Mountains tea comprises two types of tea: Oolong (烏龍) and Jinshuan (金萱). The oolong tea crop, planted in the mountain's upper region of Shihjhuo (石棹) and Top Shihjhuo (頂石棹), was additionally given the name "Ju-lu" (珠露)by former Vice President Hsieh Tung-ming in praise of its unique aroma which results from the higher altitude planting environment and the beauty of tea leaves teeming with morning dew.
The quality of the tea has been endorsed in many international competitions, making it highly valuable in the market. The tea farmers of Alishan produce a volume of approximately 1,700 tons of tea every year from some 2,300 hectares of tea gardens scattered over the mid-slope areas of Alishan, said Chang Yuan-po, a division chief from Chiayi County government's tourism promotion department.
"The output value of Alishan High Mountains tea is estimated to be around NT$2 billion to NT$2.5 billion," Chang told reporters, who took part in a press mission at the beginning of October, adding that the tea is hardly available in overseas markets given its high popularity among local consumers and limited production.
for exploring Alishan tea
A 'trip of tea' at Alishan can start off along the No. 18 Provincial Highway through the southern part of Alishan, including Siding, where swirling clouds and mists always impress visitors, Shihjhuo and Top Shihjhuo -- a region which is famous for having plenty of homestays scattered about the high-altitude tea gardens.
The landscape of the southern region features a large tract of tea gardens, spreading over hills between the villages. The majority of the region's residents are tea farmers. Having concentrated on planting and producing the best tea over the past two decades, more and more tea farmers have joined the business of running B&Bs as a sideline and providing visitors homemade tea delicacies and tea drinks.
The 30-year old Huang is one of the many second-generation Alishan tea farmers who stay home to help maintain the family business. Unlike other remote villages of Taiwan, where young people usually leave home to work in the metropolis, the brain-drain problem does not occur in Alishan because of the booming tea farming industry, Huang disclosed.
Huang said he stays with his family rather than working in the city because tea planting is labor-consuming. Moreover, the output value of tea farming is fair enough for livelihood, he noted.
Huang and his wife have furthermore integrated tea and other agricultural produce of the family -- also bettering their financial circumstances -- by presenting gourmet homemade delicacies at their cafe, Sheng Li Tea Factory.
One of the must-try delicacies at the cafe is Honeyed Ice Coffee, a combination of a coffee bean Huang inherited from his grandfather and honey gathered from bees cultivated by the family. "The honey produced by Huang's family has the best fragrance of its kind that I've ever smelled," said a reporter from the press mission.
Chicken Soup with Oolong Tea is another recommended dish for its refreshing fragrance resulting from a fusion of rich chicken soup and fresh tea leaves. "Oolong is not the only kind of tea that can be used in soup," revealed Huang, adding that either Jinshuan or fresh green tea can also perfect the taste of chicken soup.
Those who start the journey from the northern part of Alishan can follow the No.162 Highway through Meishan (梅山), Taiping (太平), Ruifeng (瑞峰) and Ruili (瑞里). Differing from the gradual landscape of the south, tea gardens in northern Alishan are located on steep hills, toughening the tea farmers' mission of weeding and harvesting the crop.
Among the numerous household tea factories at Alishan, the Ruili-based Yu Chia Li Farm is one of Taiwan's only two tea factories whose operation has been recognized by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for meeting its International Standards.
Farm owner Liu Hsien-tan disclosed that he started his tea farming business from scratch and spent more than NT$20 million setting up the tea-manufacturing facilities to fit in with the ISO requirements. But it was worthwhile, Liu told reporters, based upon his foresight that the ISO recognition would help him expand into the international market.
Bourgeoning B&B homestay business
Running homestays is not merely aimed at earning extra income, but also at providing outsiders a chance to experience the joy of the lives led by the inhabitants of Alishan, the tea farmers said.
Visitors can choose to spend a night at Alishan in a traditional Taiwanese or a western romantic-style compound before getting up early the next morning to greet a gorgeous sunrise.
Most of the homestay families in Top Shihjhuo offer guest accommodation in their traditional three-section compounds, which are situated at the center of compound owners' tea gardens, said Liu Ning-yuan, a B&B owner, creating a distinguishing feature of the region.
At least two homestay families provide western style accommodation. Gordon Chu and his wife have run the three-story Alishan Season Star in Siding(隙頂), southern Alishan, for three years in the style of an English B&B, which can be easily told from its appearance.
In the north, Yeh Sheng-han and his wife run a western style homestay in Ruili. The Rui Sheng Holiday Resort is well known by the local community not only because of the owner's charming wit and humor but also for the excellent cooking skills of his wife, said Chang.
An English-speaking homestay, the Small Swiss Homestay, is managed by Charlies Liu and his family, receiving foreign visitors with attentive care and without a language barrier.
Come to Alishan to take a 'trip of tea'!