Operation Escape to Nantou

As great as Taipei is (kinda-sorta-sometimes-maybe) Pat and I needed to escape, and what better way to do that than a motorcycle ride over the river and through the mountains in search of tea fields, fresh air, and a sense of adventure?

We set off with nothing but the clothes on our back, my travel ChaXi + JetBoil , and a google map in Chinese; our plan was to head down to Sansia, cut into highway 7 – the Northern Cross Taiwan Highway which turns into the Central Taiwan Highway and take it all the way down to LiShan, then cut back across the island nation on Highway 8 through Taroko Gorge and head back up on the Coastal Highway over 3 and a half days. Now don’t let the word Highway fool you; Motorcycles aren’t allowed on raised highways or “freeways”, so the roads we were taking are fairly backwater… the locals thought we were a bit crazy, and if we were, I blame it on the Taipei air.

We made it to BanCiao quite easily before getting completely lost, and saved by an unknown local and his son riding a sweet 250cc. That’s another story (post coming soon). once back on track, it was smooth riding, with us hugging the road up the mountains, making it to 1140m (our highest altitude this trip was around 1400m)! We road past flowing streams and waterfalls with huge vistas spread out before us. It was a breathtaking ride, and finally in a place where I could actually breath.

It rained intermittently as we road, the sky changing with every ridge we crossed, and though the clouds followed us, they only served to increase the beauty of the mountains they shrouded. Nothing could stop the soaring wings of our 125cc, gliding gently over the wet mountain passes. Except for gasoline; gasoline would be a problem.

After a quick ChaXi stop (another post!), I realized we were precariously low on gas. In the middle of no where. We coasted as often as we could, the silence a strange break from the roaring (closer to whining really) engine; we found that the clouds, no longer raining made great idle conversation partners when you could hear them.

With almost nothing in the tank I pulled into the near deserted resort of MingChih. It took us a bit to find anyone there! When we did, I told them of our situation (asking directions for the nearest gas station)  and that was the first time I had heard of the approaching typhoon. The closest station was over 40k away, but they sold us 5L of gasoline from the resorts; that’s good because the tank is only about 5L total and it swallowed it all!

We were told, as always when we stop for food, directions, gas, etc, that we should go back to Taipei; the reasons varied, but the approaching typhoon kept coming up… that was strange because I was quite sure the typhoon had already passed….  We kept riding, coming out of the mountains and to a huge valley that cut across from coast to coast. It divides the Nantou range into north and south and I believe it use to be an inland sea. We had a brief 1 and a half hour detour due to some bad directions, and then had to ride back the right way, this time up the southern side of the range. By that time we had been riding from 9am to 7pm and were getting low on gas again. We road through what seemed like deserted farm towns, finally coming to NanShan, about an hour north of LiShan. We stopped for dinner, and (thankfully) they had rooms for rent. It was raining, and dark, and surprisingly cold.

It turned out that there were actually 2 typhoons; the first one (the one I knew of) had just missed Taiwan and was in the process of attacking Japan; while the 2nd one, the one everyone was warning us about, was approaching and set to make land fall on the south west side of the Island at 8pm, day 2 of our trip. We had little choice but to turn around. At least now everyone would stop telling us to go back to Taipei.

We road along the valley, and finally out onto the coast; an entirely different world than the mountains, but beautiful in its own way. A seaside ChaXi (another post!) and a quick seafood lunch in FuLong; it was raining much harder now, throughout most of the ride. We were soaked by the time we got back to Taipei, and once we were in the 50k radius we could feel the rain “acid washing” our skin. There is nothing more miserable than riding through Taipei in the rain, and only our elation at having completed the ride, even cut short, stopped us from selling the bike to the first chop-shop we saw and taking the dry-and-easy metro.

Nothing but a quick soak in the Beitou Hotsprings could sooth our sore and tired muscles; we made it back to our apartment, dropped the bike, and jumped into those springs in record time. And with that, operation Escape to Nantou was over.

Though we didn’t meet all of our goals (any of them really), the ride was beautiful, the wind in our faces and the fresh air made us feel alive, and we had some wicked ChaXi’s, but this ranks relatively low on the ‘extreme scale’; that’s right, riding a motorcycle through backwater mountain roads with an approaching typhoon is not that extreme. This would not be good training for when I airdrop into the D.R. Congo bush looking for kosher okapi meat. Yet, I wouldn’t have traded this time out of Taipei for anything. Particularly not for more time in Taipei.

– Jason

*quick note of thanks to Pat for being an awesome travel partner and taking all of these photos while on the back of a moving motorcycle.

Miss-identification of Tea

So, as I alluded to a few posts ago, I feel that after ~5 years of studying tea I can trust my taste buds; but as I mentioned in that very same post, I still make mistakes.

Part of our education while studying with Teaparker in Taiwan is identifying samples;
It’s one of the same methods I employ with with my students at the Institute.

Recently we were asked to identify (what was obviously) a Taiwanese Oolong.

This is what I wrote:

Unidentified tea “Sample 1” has the characteristic taste, aroma, and sensations of a Taiwanese Oolong.I have identified it as a Winter Harvest High Mountain Southern Nantou Oolong of the Luanze Cultivar for the following reasons;
The leaves were tightly rolled, relativity small, but were not de-stemmed; and had minimal reddening as seen after the 2nd Pingbebei brew.
The strong floral aroma of the tea, with a Jasmine component, and the lack of bitter herbaceous notes is a sign of high mountain growth.
The wetness (salivary response) and viscous Kou gan paired with the strong LengXiang and sweet HuiGan all point to a Winter growth of a High Mountain Tea. Knowing the growth range rules out the majority of other cultivars; and it lacks the nutty-herbaceousness of JinXuan oolong. The provenience of this tea can be determined from the its terroir; I suspect a high mountain of the southern Nantou range do to its processing and flavor. The pale yellow soup, suspended colloid of tip down, and low oxidation with a low temperature toasting are qualities common to southern Nantou. This tea had a very rich-creamy component and a woody-bitterness that attests to its superior quality, and is reminiscent of other quality teas I have had in the Alishan, Lishan, Qilishan range.

While this is what my research partner, Pat Penny, wrote:

The tea was presented in the pingbibei, already pre-heated, The first smells that I picked up on were a lot of sugary honey notes as well as some floral notes such as lemongrass and lilac, some hints of gingerbread/ cinnamon were also present. The leaves appeared to be a decent medium size and the color was green, but the tea appeared to have been lightly toasted as it was not too green. The tea was brewed in the pingbibei for approximately a minute and a half, during this time we smelled the spoon multiple times. The spoon smelled richly sweet and was bursting with floral notes, honey, and a slight nuttiness. The smell was extremely clear, present, and had a light coolness to it. After smelling the spoon I believe that this is a high mountain tea from spring of this year.

Once the tea was poured into my cup I looked at its color in the cup. It was a vibrant yellow however it wasn’t very clear, there was a slight cloudiness in the cup. The fragrance off of the tea liquor was as vibrant as the smell off the leaves itself. The fragrance carried over into the taste, The tea tasted of orange blossom honey, gingerbread, and lemongrass with a light hint of orange zest. The tea was mouth watering and thick on the palate and throat. The hui gan and leng xiang came slowly, but built steadily until they became very present and lingered nicely. There was a slight drying characteristic in the throat but it was very short lived. The aftertaste remain floral, sweet, and lightly spicy. The cha qi came on quickly, it was very clear and strong, as I drank the tea I was able to feel it slide down my throat all the way to my stomach. lively and present.

The second brew of the tea was slightly more herbaceous and even more forthright than the last brew. The florality really shined through on this brew with an increasing honey characteristic. The hui gan and leng xiang came on even faster and lasted just as long. The mouth feel was much more lively in this brew, the tea practically danced upon the tongue. The liquor was a bit more clear, but the slight drying sensation in the throat still persisted.

After the second brew we pulled some leaves out, They were a nice mid size, and a decent amount of buds were interspersed within the leaves. There was a light reddening around some of the leaves which did not come out strongly in the brew, there was also a small amount of large stems which I believe contributed to a lot of the tea’s sweet/ sugary nature. The leaves were very whole showing this was indeed a hand rolled and skillfully picked tea. From all of the above characteristics I have come to the conclusion that this tea is a gao shan from this years spring harvest, It received a very light roasting and was lightly oxidized, the cultivar is luanze and I believe that this tea is from Alishan due to its very present and forceful nature.


Same tea, very close blind assessment by the two of us, and no conversation until after we had written these reports.

How’ed we do?

We both got the provenance wrong, and I got the season wrong.

The tea was a Spring 2012 DaYuLing.

So, what can I learn from this?

The tea was higher mountain than I had assessed, and that should have been obvious from the mouth feel and LengXiang;
I had originally assessed a winter harvest of ALiShan, almost changed my mind to spring, then stuck to my guns – if I had properly identified this tea as DaYuLing, a much higher mountain, than I would have known the leaf size, thickness, and floral notes were indicating spring despite the thicker mouth feel.
Mouth feel is a blanket term for a lot of sensations, and it is quite tricky to get right.

Always learning!

– Jason

Rolling with Aaron Fisher

Aaron is a force of nature. Somewhere between setting up Global Tea Hut (very worth joining), his artistic endeavors (very worth having), and publishing The Leaf (about to restart!), he has found time to write and edit for Art of Tea Magazine, give presentations in Russia and the good ol’ USA, and teach a constant stream of live-in students at his tea center in MiaoLi, Taiwan.

Pat and I joined that stream of intersecting paths, living 3 days of tea, meditation, and Dao; it was a wonderful time! Though Aaron’s path, that of an Ascetic, and my own path, that of a Scholar, differ in focus, method, and practice, I have the utmost respect for Aaron and his way. You have to live it to understand it.

The center is free to stay at and totally supported by donations; Aaron makes it very clear that anyone can stay a day or a year and they will be fed and taught. Every day starts and ends with meditation; any practice is fine, there is no dogma. The rest of the day is usually taken up drinking tea; they don’t rush – 10+ brews is the norm, and we usually drank just 3 teas in a day. These sessions are punctuated by Aarons lessons, which pivot around the responses of the group; nothing is planed in advance.

What the Institute teaches and researches is very different from the path of ChaDao that Aaron lives, and anyone interested in experiencing that living tradition of tea should seek him out.