An afternoon tea along the tortuous ridge of the Dakeng trail

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In Taiwan, typical work weeks hover between 6 and 7 days of work. At least, this is the case in our small tea growing community of Mingjian Township in the middle of the island. Here, life evolves around work. Employees at our facilities are scheduled to call-in from Monday to Saturday inclusively leaving them with a day of reprieve on Sunday. However, customers, tea producers and suppliers can, and do, drop-in any day of the week at anytime they wish during the day… or night making our work week seem just like it is: a week of work! It is not uncommon during the critical growing seasons, like it is the case now with the high mountain winter tea picking season in full swing, to receive the visit of growers coming down from their respective mountains with a trunk load of their just finished, freshly produced tea to arrive at our doorstep in the late evening hours to propose their treasure after we’ve retired to our sleeping quarters. This has been an occurrence for generations now in this house. They know that in all instances, we will never push them away or ignore their knocking on our door. We simply flick the lights back on again and fire up the kettle to taste their just rolled-up pearls of fresh tea and delight in hearing the news and gossip from the mountains. Sleep will always wait because you never know what jewels they might have to offer. And, if you don’t exercise your priority option on what they offer they will simply go and knock on somebody else’s door. This is not a good thing especially when we seem to facing yet again a shortage in yield this season.

Undeniably, as we implied in an earlier entry on this blog, sleep is somewhat of luxury in the tea trade, especially when you are a craftsperson or working closely with people whose schedule is definitely dictated by the leaf’s seasonal cycles. This, needless to say, does take its toll on you after a while. For that reason, my wife and I have decided that we would allow ourselves to escape our premises on Sundays for a quick break and go to the mountains instead of waiting for them to come to us (while someone else from the family would cover for us). Yes, we do allow ourselves to visit tea gardens when required to blend business with pleasure, but mostly, our attraction is towards exploring the vast network of hiking and mountaineering trails that cover this island’s mountainous terrain. We are eager and filled with an exuberant excitement since we are also driven by a secret objective of getting fit and ready to climb Mount Yushan (3952 m), the tallest peak of Taiwan, sometime in 2014.

Last weekend, I was still trying to shake-off some remnants of a mild case of jet-lag so we decided on a leisurely outing and headed for Taichung, our favorite city not very far from us, to combine the pleasure of an afternoon trek in the Dakeng trail system and a good hot pot dinner in the city afterwards. The Dakeng Scenic Area is the playground of many Taichung city dwellers looking to escape the city while still remaining inside the city limits. It comprises of a network of trails, a campground, hot springs facilities all within the range of the public transport system. It is situated in Beitun district in the North-East part of the city where the first mounds of the central island mountains reach the city.

It isn’t the height (850 m) or the length that provides a unique challenge to the Dakeng trails but rather their configuration. The trail system consists of connecting trails that climb on the crest line of mountainous ridges of friable rock. This means that 95% of the time your feet are never in contact with the ground to avoid erosion. Instead, you balance yourself on a rough “boardwalk” of uneven, small round logs that weaves above the terrain in a fairly organic way for kilometres. It is kind of a funky hybrid between a roller-coaster and a primitive rope bridge. Manoeuvring on this contraption requires that you constantly keep your eyes on where you lay your feet while you attempt at balancing yourself with the roped hand rails. This is not the most efficient way to ascend since the logs are so close together that you end up making twice the steps as you would do when walking normally. Skipping some logs is difficult because it is very hard to rest your foot on a single one. One must always try to place his foot at an angle to get the necessary surface to balance your weight and not have only your toes in contact with the log. While descending, you can only offer your heel area to balance yourself so your calves end-up doing a lot of the work and aching at the end of the day.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not critical of the contraption nor am I complaining about its shaky state in some sections. For me, this is a gas! There is something quite child like in the fun one gets in trumping about on logs like this. It makes you forget about the perilous sections and diversions that are imposed because some sections ended-up at the bottom of the ravine not so long ago. These are reminders that this island is alive. Its relief is constantly shifting and changing due to many natural phenomenons like earthquakes and typhoons to name the most dramatic ones. This is what Taiwan is all about! And I couldn’t help but think that only in Taiwan can we find ourselves playing on logs like this in such magical scenery.

When we reached the highest ridge around 4 pm, several decks and lookouts would greet the climbers for a well deserved break on flatter surfaces. This was also the signal to partake in the worldwide tradition of the afternoon tea, Taiwan-style, that is. Our small waist pack allowed us to bring a simple kit consisting of a Classic Gaiwan, two Tulip Cups and a small thermos bottle of boiled water. Nudged inside the Gaiwan was a sample pack of our Spring Fushoushan High Mountain Tea, Lot 221. Others around us were also enjoying tea, some were even as thorough to bring a burner and kettle to heat their water. We were not as fancy on the equipment, but maybe on the tea… As soon as the  hot water was poured on the precious green nuggets, vapours of alpine meadow flowers were perceptible to all around us. We couldn’t be in a more open space than this with views up to coast, and yet, the high mountain aroma of this oolong was as perceptible as in an enclosed room and charmed the senses of everyone around us. The liqueur was as golden as the warm hues of the dimming sunlight that gently bathed us. It was greeted by the palate just like a ray of sun that liquified itself in our throat. Drinking tea in the great outdoors like this always bring me to feel the connections that grounds my sensorial experience of it with the natural environment that brought it about to my lips. These connections are further enhanced by the human factor and being able to share a feeling with a special person with whom it is not always necessary to use words to be in the moment.

Somehow, we didn’t feel the descent and seemed to glide on the logs. Our legs were surprisingly light and agile. The warm nectar had rejuvenated our mind and body and prepared our appetite for a feast of a hot pot after enjoying the sunset over the city.

Bring on Mount Yushan! With a secret weapon like this tea, we’ll be ready!


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