Looking Beyond the Obvious Miaoli

SHITAN ZHONGLOU OLD PATH. Photo: Steven Crook

The north-central county may not be on most tourist itineraries, but it contains a number of worthwhile attractions.

For Taiwanese eager to explore their country, Miaoli is synonymous with Hakka culture and charming towns in the foothills. But for international tourists, the county is largely unknown territory. Even those foreign travelers who devote a day to Hsinchu and think Taichung warrants a closer look are likely to remain on the bullet train as it zips through Miaoli.

Taipei 101, a two-volume guidebook by Richard Saunders – and as good a list as exists of attractions in Taiwan that should appeal to Westerners – spotlights four places in Miaoli. One is the pretty inland town of Nanzhuang (南庄). Another is Lion’s Head Mountain (獅頭山), part of which lies within Hsinchu County. Although the mountain is better known among Taiwanese for its temples and monasteries, Saunders praises its natural beauty.

He bundles together the indigenous villages of Luchang (鹿場) and Xiangtianhu (向天湖), as both are accessed via Nanzhuang. Last, yet perhaps most impressive, is Dabajianshan (大霸尖山), the 3,492-meter-high, barrel-shaped mountain that is a cornerstone of Shei-Pa National Park (雪霸國家公園).

Not on his list is a trio of popular spots around Sanyi (三義). One of them is the town’s long-established Wood Sculpture Museum (三義木雕博物館; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday; admission NT$80), a worthy showcase of abstract, decorative, practical, and religious carvings.

The other two lie on what is called the Old Mountain Railway Line (舊山線), a 15.9-kilometer-long stretch of railroad that for much of the 20th century linked Sanyi with Greater Taichung. Regular trains now ply a straighter route a short distance to the west, but the Old Line still handles the occasional tourist train pulled by a steam locomotive.

Tourists adore the Japanese-era wooden main building at Shengxing Station (勝興火車站). At 402.36 meters above sea level, the station was the highest point on Taiwan’s conventional railway network. A short drive to the south, Longteng Broken Bridge (龍騰斷橋, also known as Yutengping Broken Bridge: 魚藤坪斷橋) was damaged beyond repair by the deadliest earthquake in Taiwan’s history, the April 21, 1935 tremor that killed 3,422 people. It is a beguiling ruin, far more charming than the replacement bridge across the road. There are no admission charges for either Sheng-xing Station or Longteng Broken Bridge, but you will need to pay for parking.

Given that many of those exploring Miaoli approach from the north, it makes sense to begin this survey of lesser attractions with those close to the border with Hsinchu.

The littoral by locomotive

Coming from Taipei by conventional (TRA) train, Qiding (崎頂) is the first station in Miaoli County. Only local trains stop here, but there are good reasons to spend up to an hour in the area. Those traveling by car can approach via Expressway 61.

From the station, follow the signs to the Landscape Platform (崎頂觀景臺), five minutes’ walk away, for some engaging views up and down the coast. Then walk down the steps and turn right when you reach the path that runs parallel to the railway line. After around 600 meters, you will come to a pair of tunnels, disused since the railway was double-tracked and moved closer to the sea in the early 1970s. The first tunnel is 67 meters long. Just before you enter the 131-meter-long second tunnel, look closely at the brickwork. Bullet holes can still be seen from where U.S. warplanes strafed the railway in the closing months of World War II.

Fans of magnificent if dilapidated traditional courtyard houses should wander through the largely abandoned village directly inland from the Landscape Platform. Though the Hsinchu Science Park is a mere 24 minutes’ drive away, it seems few people wish to live in such a quiet and windswept location.

Train-riding tourists need to know that the railroad splits south of Qiding. One line takes an inland route to Miaoli City, Sanyi, and Taichung. The other hugs the coastline, and provides access to a couple of attractions that leave some people cold, while others find them engaging.

One is Baishatun (白沙屯) and its spiritual center of gravity, Gongtian Temple (拱天宮). Like the far better-known festival that kicks off at Dajia Jenn Lann Temple (大甲鎮瀾宮) in Greater Taichung, the annual pilgrimage that begins and ends at Gongtian Temple expresses adoration for the sea goddess Mazu – but some people who have attended both say the Baishatun event is more heartfelt and less commercialized.

Religion aside, Baishatun has definite rustic appeal. Wander about and you will see families sorting fish and tending vegetable patches in their front yards. The vernacular here is Taiwanese. Miaoli may be majority Hakka, but many coastal communities are Hoklo-dominated.

Baishatun, the coastal town where the Gongtian Temple is located. Photo: Steven Crook

One stop south is Xinpu (新埔). From the station, it is a mere 450 meters to the seaside theme park called Qiu-mao Yuan (秋茂園, open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; admission free). Established in the mid-1970s and named for founder Huang Qiu-mao (黃秋茂), a Taiwanese businessman who made a fortune in Japan, the park contains a motley selection of statues and tableaux intended to illustrate China’s greatest legends and stories, among them Journey to the West and the lives of Confucius and Zheng Cheng-gong (Koxinga). The place has certainly seen better days, yet draws plenty of curious sightseers.

Qiu-mao Yuan, the seaside theme park named for Taiwanese businessman Huang Qiu-mao. Photo: Steven Crook

Peace and quiet in Shitan

The rural township of Shitan (獅潭) has many of the same charms as Nanzhuang – a thoroughly bucolic atmosphere and a population that is almost 94% Hakka –but gets fewer tourists. If you are coming from Qiding, it makes sense to take Road 126 and skirt Mingde Reservoir (明德水庫). Like almost every other sizable body of water in Taiwan, the lake here is manmade, created in the late 1960s to meet the needs of industry. The general prohibition on swimming in the reservoir is occasionally lifted for charity events during which participants must follow a set route.

Shitan’s “downtown” can be found at the southern end of Road 124 where it joins Highway 3. What is promoted as Shitan Old Street (獅潭老街) is more authentic than many of Taiwan’s “old streets.” Few of the buildings have been gentrified, and most of the businesses meet the needs of local people rather than catering to tourists. If you need your walking tractor repaired, you can get it done here.

The Hakka Roundhouse, built by the Miaoli County Government in 2014, is representative of Miaoli’s unique Hakka culture. Photo: Steven Crook

That said, Xianshan Xiancao (仙山仙草, open 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily) at number 62 is capable of handling an entire tour bus at once. Almost everything on the menu there features xiancao, a jelly made from Chinese mesona (Platostoma palustre, a distant relative of mint, sometimes translated as “grass jelly”). In both Taiwan and Fujian, xiancao has long been a folk remedy for heat stroke. There are xiancao-flavored hot pots and noodles, but a bowl of iced jelly – with milk, mung beans, adzuki beans, sweet potato, taro, and/or powdered peanuts – is just the ticket if the weather is warm.

Above, xiancao, a jelly made from Chinese mesona. Photo: Steven Crook

To walk off your xiancao, look for the short but very pleasant hiking trail that begins on the right-hand side of Road 124, just east of the township office. The trailhead for Zhonglou Old Path (鐘樓古道) is obvious, even though there is no English sign. Five minutes of uphill exercise brings you to a lookout point from where can survey the little town. If it is April or May, appreciate the white tung blossoms (油桐花) on nearby hillsides.

Heading back into the heart of Shitan, look for the steeple of the Presbyterian Church. The building is unremarkable in terms of age or architecture, but – and this fact is celebrated on an information panel out front – it was right here that George L. Mackay, the most famous missionary in Taiwan’s history, pulled rotten teeth from the mouths of converts and potential converts during an 1873 church-planting expedition.

Miaoli’s financial woes have attracted a lot of attention in recent years, with many criticizing the amount spent by the county government on underutilized public buildings (see sidebar). Nonetheless, one central government-backed project from the same period has enjoyed a mostly positive reception.

Taiwan Hakka Museum (臺灣客家文化館, open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Monday; admission free)–overseen by the Hakka Affairs Council and located in Tongluo Science Park – has its flaws, yet visitors are bound to learn quite a bit about the country’s largest ethnic minority. The displays include a good overview of the trades Hakka people traditionally engaged in (including camphor extraction and other forestry work, as well as tea and tobacco farming), and there some surprising facts are revealed. In the 1950s, for instance, Taiwan was the source of 70% of the world’s citronella oil, much of it made from lemongrass grown in Miaoli.

A display in the Taiwan Hakka Museum depicts traditional Hakka trades such as tea and tobacco farming. Photo: Steven Crook

Another intriguing detail is that, at one point, 70% of Taiwan Railways Administration employees were Hakka. Unfortunately, neither the English nor the Chinese text specifies when that point in time occurred.

In many parts of the museum, it feels as if the lighting was designed to frustrate photographers. On the other hand, the section of the museum devoted to democratization and street protests has definite visual impact.

A few hundred meters south of the museum, the Tongluo Tea Factory (台灣農林銅鑼茶廠) welcomes visitors between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. every day of the week. There are guided tours at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. every day, with an additional tour at 3:30 p.m. on weekends and holidays.

The admission charge of NT$100 per person is redeemable against purchases made in the shop (which sells Taiwan-grown teas and coffees, and some other nicely packaged items) or drinks enjoyed on site. There are better places to go in Taiwan if you simply want to walk through a tea plantation, but the view inland is quite good.

Descriptions of Miaoli County aimed at tourists seldom mention Miaoli City, home to one in six of the county’s 552,000 residents. Is the county seat really an attraction-free zone?

Not entirely. The Miaoli Railway Museum (苗栗鐵道文物展示館, open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; admission free), 200 meters south of the Miaoli TRA Station, displays nearly 20 pieces of rolling stock, including steam and diesel locomotives and passenger cars between 47 and 105 years of old. Another “sight” can be found on the western edge of the city, at the intersection of Highway 6 and Zhigong Road (至公路). Constructed out of several repurposed shipping containers, into which large windows have been cut, this 7-Eleven branch has been praised by one blogger for its “dreamy, macaron-like colors.” Ideal for the Instagram generation, maybe, but hardly the most meaningful travel experience.

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