In terms of economics and population, Taoyuan has become one of Taiwan’s key municipalities. Improved transportation infrastructure has reduced commuting time to central Taipei, about 27 kilometers away, attracting an influx of families. Major projects like the Taoyuan Aerotropolis are helping this bastion of manufacturing reinvent itself.
Taoyuan is the location of Taiwan’s principal international airport. The municipality is now connected to Taipei by mass rapid transit trains, as well as by the high-speed railway and the conventional Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) rail network. Getting from the airport to Taipei, or to the island’s sunny south, has never been easier. At the same time, spending a day or two in Taoyuan before exploring further afield is an increasingly attractive option.
Just one in ten of the 2.24-million people living in Taoyuan reside in the three districts furthest from the ocean. Fuxing, home to the indigenous Atayal tribe, is the most mountainous of the three. Longtan and Daxi, both dominated by the descendants of Hakka settlers, are in the foothills.
Like most Taiwanese, Hakka people are of Han Chinese ancestry. Because they speak their own dialect and follow a unique set of customs, they are regarded as a distinct subethnic group. Extremely hardworking and exceptionally skilled at working marginal land, the Hakkas were able to transform parts of Longtan and Daxi into tea plantations.
Aficionados of tea and industrial heritage may want to head straight to the Daxi Tea Factory, about 12 kilometers southeast of the historic heart of Daxi. The factory, built halfway through the 1895-1945 period of Japanese colonial rule, was given an award-winning makeover less than a decade ago.
The design of the factory’s exterior was inspired by that of a landmark tea-processing factory in Darjeeling, India, while the atmospheric interior combines both Taiwanese and Japanese motifs. Naturally, the on-site restaurant serves a range of top-notch Taiwanese teas.
The tea factory has become one of Daxi’s most popular attractions, but in visitor numbers it is still some way behind Daxi Old Street and Cihu (“Lake Mercy”). The Old Street, officially called Heping Road, was known as “Lower Street” before World War II. Together with nearby Zhongyang Road (formerly “Upper Street”), it formed a business hub of regional importance.
Daxi (which means “big stream”) gets its name from the Dahan River. For much of the 19th and part of the 20th centuries, camphor, coal, tea, and other commodities came and went by boat. But even before the construction of Shihmen Dam in the late 1950s drastically reduced the river’s depth, truck drivers were beginning to outnumber stevedores.
The highlights of Heping Road are the merchants’ Baroque-style shop-houses. These ornate buildings, most of which are around a century old, incorporate Greek, Roman, and Taiwanese elements. No two are exactly the same.
Several shops in Daxi’s old quarter specialize in dougan (dried tofu), and at least two of them employ methods devised almost a century ago by Madame Huang Chiu-Lu. She was the first in the town to add star anise and cumin to tofu before pressing and drying it, and she came up with a variant which gains its firmness from simmering in a brown-sugar syrup. Yet this food artisan would have been the first to admit that one key factor was beyond her control. The unequalled “egg-white” tint of Daxi tofu can be attributed to the softness of water drawn from local wells.
Just outside the town, the Lee Teng-fang Historic Residence is a superb example of mid-19th century architecture. The scion of a Hakka merchant family, Lee Teng-fang attained great prestige by passing the examinations through which men qualified for civil-service appointments in the Qing Empire then ruling Taiwan. Photography buffs adore the mansion where he once lived.
Cihu is where the remains of Chiang Kai-shek, Chinese Nationalist leader and Taiwan’s president until his death in 1975, lie in state. The nearby Sculpture Memorial Park is an intriguing repository of more than 200 statues of Chiang retired by schools and local governments throughout the country.
Travelers setting out from Daxi may wish to head for Sankeng Old Street in Longtan district. Like Daxi, the area’s prosperity at one time was tied to the Dahan River. The neighborhood retains both the ambiance and cuisine of a traditional Hakka settlement. Shops here sell such delicacies as Hakka-style mochi and buns. Home-cooking enthusiasts should buy a bottle or two of homemade kumquat sauce.
Longtan Red Bridge, around two kilometers south of Sankeng Old Street, has spanned Tiekeng (“Iron Pit”) Creek for nearly a century. It is now a popular photo-stop for those exploring the area by bicycle, as well as for tourists heading for Shihmen Reservoir.
Longtan is also where you will find one of Taiwan’s oldest and most unusual theme parks. Window on China opened its doors to the public in the early 1980s, when the government of Taiwan still prohibited Taiwanese citizens from visiting China. Despite – or because of – the travel ban, many people were intensely curious about China, and this park’s 1:25-scale replicas of Beijing’s Forbidden City, the fortified circular Hakka clan-houses of Fujian, and other landmarks on the mainland pulled in hordes of day-trippers.
After the travel ban was lifted a few years later, the park diversified. It now includes a Mini Taiwan featuring exquisite models of the island’s most famous buildings; replicas of famous sights in Asia, Europe, and the U.S.; an amusement park; and even a protected habitat devoted to the rhinoceros beetle.
If you speak Chinese, you will know that Longtan means “Dragon Lake.” The island in the middle of this 14-hectare body of water is dominated by Nantian Temple, an impressive hall of worship devoted to Guan Gong, Guanyin Bodhisattva, the Jade Emperor, and other deities.
Longtan’s lake, Sankeng Old Street, and Shihmen Dam are served by buses from Taoyuan’s Zhongli district, while Daxi is easy to reach by bus from central Taoyuan. TRA express trains are often the quickest way of getting to Zhongli or central Taoyuan. The #710 electric bus connects Daxi with Yongning Metro Station in the Taipei suburb of Tucheng.
For all kinds of information useful when planning a trip to Taiwan, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website. The 24-hour tourist information hotline (0800-011-765) is toll-free within Taiwan.
Also worth referring to is the Taoyuan City Government website. The visitor service centers at airports, high-speed railway stations, and other locations are happy to provide maps and leaflets and answer your questions.