Sunday, February 5, 2012

Land of rain and gold: Taiwan's north coast (Unity)

Taiwan has been blessed with 1,600km of tremendously varied and breathtakingly scenic coastline, and some of the finest littoral landscapes can be found within 35km of Taipei.

As green as maritime Ireland (and, at times, just as wind- and rain-swept), Taiwan's north coast has few beaches, but more than its fair share of quaint bays and stunning promontories. The region's two most intriguing towns are set high above the waves, on the hills full of valuable minerals.

Reached via twisting mountain roads, Jiufen and Jinguashi are close neighbors. They flourished in the first half of the 20th century thanks to an abundance of gold and copper. But when mining ceased in the 1980s, most of the inhabitants moved away, leaving behind decrepit tarpaper-roofed bungalows and a fascinating collection of industrial relics.

The Chinese characters jiu fen mean “nine parts,” and it is said the hillside was settled in the late 18th century by nine families. Accordingly, the era's merchants prepared nine portions of salt and other commodities before portering goods up to the settlement from what is now Keelung.

Jiufen's economy rebounded after Taiwanese movie director Hou Hsiao-hsien shot his 1989 film City of Sadness in the town. Many of those who saw this movie were enamored by the traditional dwellings and the steep, narrow lanes; they came to see the sights and spend money on souvenirs and local delicacies.

Crowded yet charming, the town's stores – which once sold essentials to miners and their families – have been converted into tea houses and restaurants.

For culinary tourists, there are at least two “must eats.” One is Jiufen taro rice balls. Like many other famous snacks around Taiwan, it is said that the inventor of these tasty morsels started off cooking them for friends and family only. However, as word got around, he turned it into a business which thrived. Imitators – some of whom are every bit as good as the original – can be found in Jiufen and other Taiwanse towns.

Another savory delicacy are hongzao meatballs. These stuffed pinky-purple glutinous dumplings are quite filling – just the thing if you expect to spend the whole afternoon walking

Before the opening in 2004 of the Gold Ecological Park (GEP), few tourists ventured beyond Jiufen to Jinguashi...

The complete article appeared in the January-February issue of Unity. The gorgeous panorama above, was taken from the tourist town of Jiufen by Taipei-based Craig Ferguson, whose photos accompanied the print edition of the article.

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