Viewing Taipei from High Above
Taiwan is known as a mysterious island of towering mountains in some historical documents, but when it comes to traveling in Taiwan, we don’t seem to have too many choices riding a cable car to higher grounds of hilly regions. In Greater Taipei, however, the Maokong Gondola is the only option where tourists can get to an elevation of around 300 meters above sea level from the plains in just around twenty minutes.
What’s more, while you’re traveling in the air, you’ll be able to overlook the well-lined tea bushes on the slopes of the mountains to the south of Taipei City. This is probably the nearest place to Central Taipei where you can get a glimpse of how the tea is grown and the culture accompanied by the ordinary Taiwanese lifestyle.
The operation of the Maokong Gondola system began in 2007 and the length of the line is approximately four kilometers. Most visitors travel to the Taipei Zoo by Taipei Metro (or the MRT system) and change to the Taipei Maokong Gondola by just around a five-minute walk.
The highest point of the gondola lift is around 300 meters above sea level at the terminus station Maokong Station, and I believe, most people will certainly ride to the end of the line because most of the footpaths, teahouses, and restaurants are near that station. Luckily, most of them are within a mile walk from the end of the cable car system. Parking is a big problem here, and you wouldn’t also want to take the public buses up here unless you ambitiously want to explore this tea-growing region on foot.
Maokong – A Valley with Cats or Civets?
In Chinese, the place name here in the Wenshan District of Taipei City reads literally “cat empty”. Interestingly, there’s nothing to do with cats according to historians. Taipei, however, does have a cat village along TRA’s Pingxi Railway Branch named Houdong.
So, it’s really empty of cats! This area’s creeks have a stunning geological feature on the riverbed, i.e., thousands of potholes formed on the rocky streams. Some locals said the landscape looks as if the rocks were “scratched” by the “cats”. If you pronounce it in Taiwanese Hokkien, the majority Chinese dialect of most Taiwanese, it sounds more like how it looks in Chinese.
Nowadays most people believe that the word “cat” comes from the common Masked Palm Civet in the“valleys” of this hilly region if you pronounce it in Taiwanese Hokkien in a different way like “Bâ-khang”. So, you’ll get the right answer – “civet valley”.
Tea Culture in Taipei
Nobody will doubt that Taiwan is also the land of tea other than the “land of typhoons” or the “land of high mountains”. You don’t have to travel far to visit tea plantations if you only focus on the tour of Taipei metropolis.
Since the mid-eighteenth century, Taipei has become a tea trade center thanks to the promotion of European tea merchants and large-scale tea growing by local farmers near and around Taipei basin. There are a plethora of tea varieties grown in Taiwan. In the Maokong region, it’s especially noted for a heavily fermented type of oolong tea called Tieguanyin, or “iron goddess tea”. Nearly all the teahouses here serve and sell this type of tea.
What’s worth mentioning is that nearly all the restaurants in the region specialize in the tea cuisine, which is a way of cooking with tea leaves blended in the common dishes of Taiwan, such as deep-fried tea leaves, tea oily chicken, tea soy-stewed pork belly, etc. It’s always recommended to combine a meal, lunch or dinner, with some easy hikes in the hilly area to have a thorough understanding of the tea culture while visiting Taipei.
Taipei Tea Promotion Center
From the Taipei Maokong Gondola’s terminus station Maokong Station, which is 299 meters above sea level, you can turn to the east on the road right out of the station, walk for 1.2km, and you’ll get to the Taipei Tea Promotion Center for Tieguanyin and Paochong Tea. It’s a red color structure set in lush green hillside and surrounded by a small lovely garden.
In one of the galleries, you can browse through some of the tea making machines and get to know how tea is made from being picked, withered, rolled, and dried in a lengthy process. In the tasting room, it’s always stationed with one or two knowledgeable locals brewing tea for the visitors. The friendly tea masters will show you the popular way most Taiwanese brew and drink tea. You’ll be able to sample for a wide range of teas grown nearby before you want to buy some as souvenirs. The spacious tasting rooms and exhibition areas will certainly make you recuperate quickly from summer heat or strenuous walk.
Tea Fragrance Loop Trails
Right across the road in front of the entrance of the Tea Promotion Center, you’ll find the trailhead of the Health Trail, which links the Pothole Trail, Tea Promotion Center Trail, and Licle Skywalk Trail to constitute the so-called “tea fragrance loop trail” system.
Most sections of the well-paved footpath are boardwalks meandering through the tea bushes and bamboo or natural forests. Some creeks are bordered by the trail and there’s even a waterfall near the bottom of the Pothole Trail. You might find dozens of stairs challenging, but luckily the short length of the trails with proper shade and cooler temperature even on a hot summer day will definitely give you peace of mind.
For an avid hiker, the whole loop is just around 3.5km and moderately takes you about 1.5 hours. You can also cut through some of the different trails to form a smaller circle with less than one hour. No matter what, don’t miss the Pothole Suspension Bridge, which is a short and stout rope bridge crossing the ubiquitous potholes on the riverbed. All small attractions on the way and directions are well-signed. Some lookouts along the trails offer great view of the valleys or even of Taipei City. Birds and butterflies lovers can also find lots of surprises while walking down and up the slopes in front of the Tea Promotion Center.
Thousand Island Lake and Pinglin Tea Museum
If you are really into tea and related business and culture, you can go further out of central Taipei to the neighboring districts of New Taipei City. The tea plantations spread extensively from the edge of Taipei basin to the hilly region as far as Pinglin District, which is especially famous for the type of lightly fermented oolong tea – Paochong tea.
To the southeast of Taipei City proper lies the beautiful reservoir called Feicui Reservoir, which is the main supply of clean water for most of Taipei City residents. Near the middle section of the large body of waters, the Thousand Island Lake and Bagua Tea Plantations are definitely worth a visit, rain or shine. You’ll be amazed by the beautiful endless mountain ridges and dense forests which greatly help keeping a vast quantity of water for the capital of Taiwan. The well-trimmed tea bushes nearby instantly give you an impression of ancient Chinese “eight trigrams” symbols called “bagua” in Mandarin Chinese.
Transportation might be a big problem if you want to come here. We recommend you to sign up for the Private Pinglin and Maokong Tea Culture Day Tour from Taipei offered by the prestigious travel agent Edison Tours based in Taipei to better save your precious time and explore more in just one day. This tour product includes the visit of the Pinglin Tea Museum and the tea tasting session in a cosy teahouse in Pinglin.
The Taipei Maokong Gondola operates between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. during weekdays and it won’t close until 10 p.m. on weekends. The “crystal cabins” with see-through floor are available with a limited amount of only 31. The Pinglin Tea Museum opens between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
The ticket price from end to end of the Taipei Maokong Gondola is NT$120. The admission of the Pinglin Tea Museum is NT$80 for an adult. The Tea Promotion Center at Maokong is free of charge and the opening hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with Mondays closed.
How to get there?
When it comes to the Maokong Gondola, it’s accessible by Taipei Metro’s Brown Line if you travel southbound. The terminus station is Taipei City Zoo, which is only 350- meter walk to the gondola system. If you want to visit Thousand Island Lake, which is in a bit remote Shiding District, you’d better sign up for the half-day or full-day tour packages because public transport doesn’t take you there.
Useful Tips While Visiting
Too hot in Summer?
The above-mentioned attractions are all in the hilly region outside Taipei, and, as you can imagine, the mountains cool you off quickly. It won’t be a disaster to visit these places of interest in summer of Taiwan.
The lunch options near the Maokong Gondola Station are plenty. The roadside restaurant Master A-Yi’s “Big Teapot Restaurant” is frequented by gourmets domestically and internationally. Only a 600-meter walk from the Maokong Station, it’s noted for the creative culinary recipes with tea leaves and was once reported by the Discovery Channel.
Another one I often visit is also 600 meters away from the station – Mei Jia Tea Garden. It’s a beautifully decorated teahouse overlooking Taipei City. It’s super clean and you’ll have to walk through some tea bushes before you can get to the restaurant. It’s not that easily recognizable when you pass so visitors can enjoy more tranquility with a distinctive tea flavor.
Besides the Private Pinglin and Maokong Tea Culture Day Tour from Taipei product, you can also find regular sightseeing tours including tea culture, such as Pinglin Tea Culture & Elephant Mountain Day Tour from Taipei, and Thousand Island Lake & Pinglin Tea Plantation from Taipei. Don’t hesitate. Book now!