For those who want to get out of the city and closer to the source of Taiwan's legendary tea, look to the mountains. About 30 kilometers southeast of Taipei and just off the Taipei-Yilan highway is the sleepy town of Pinglin, which is home to Taiwan's Tea Museum, the largest tea museum in the world.
The museum opened in January 1997 after eight years of construction and a reported expenditure of US$10 million. It offers dioramas and information on the history of the tea industry in Taiwan, as well as a smattering of tools and machines used to harvest and process tea and some of the paraphernalia needed to enjoy freshly brewed tea.
The museum also offers a privately-run shop that sells everything from loose tea leaves to tea oil (which is used to add zest to Chinese dishes), candy made from tea, and savory snacks designed to be eaten with tea.
Just above the museum and tea shop is a quiet restaurant where visitors can try dishes that include tea leaves in their recipes. This is also a great place to sample the latest teas from the surrounding area — try a few cups of Paochung tea (包種茶), which is only partly fermented and thus retains a lot of the natural sweetness of the leaf, or whatever is in season and then head out the back door of the shop to stroll among the rows of tea plants that cover the mountainside here.
Past the restaurant is a collection of stone sculptures mostly of Lu Yu (陸羽), an ancient Chinese scholar who wrote the Bible of tea, "Cha Jing” (茶經), during the 8th century. He is depicted in various poses either contemplating or savoring the taste of tea, and his statues are usually covered with tea flowers and petals from nearby tea plants.
The path continues up the hillside and winds upward to a wooden platform that offers a panorama view stretching from the entire town of Pinglin to the valley of the Beishi River, which flows west into the Feitsui Reservoir. The trail that leads up to the platform continues on into the mountains, offering more natural beauty and opportunities for exploration, either as a day hike or as point-to-point treks.
For those who have their own transportation — be it car, motorcycle, or bicycle — the mountains east of Pinglin are dotted with pockets of tea plants as well as restaurants and tea houses serving up tea dishes and of course an ever-changing supply of fresh tea. Look for temples and suspension bridges; there are photos waiting to be taken at every turn.
There's always time for tea
One of the exhibits in the Tea Museum features a chart showing Taiwan's exports and imports of tea over the past 20 years or so. There is a marked trend toward increased imports and lower exports, a reflection of the rise of tea production in areas like China, Vietnam, and Indonesia, where labor costs are relatively low.
Taiwan's tea industry has responded by working to produce high-quality teas of the utmost echelon, some of which earn as much as nearly US$3,000 per kilogram. Places like Pinglin, however, remain an inexpensive spot to enjoy smooth, relaxing tea in an atmosphere of quiet and peacefulness.
So take time for tea. Taiwan produces some ofthe best tea in the world, and the best way to enjoy it is to go to the source. And in Taiwan, the source is never very far away.