Wulai: Waterfalls, Hot Springs, and Deep Fried Bees

February 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of the side ventures I was most excited about involved soaking in a hot spring as it was something I had never experienced before.  Not to mention after being held in cramped quarters on the flight over, walking around most of the time, and then having my muscles relentlessly worked through during one of the most intense 2 hour Thai massages that I’ll probably ever have, a desirable steaming soak to relax and ease tension was indeed in order.

There are a large variety of places to soak in hot springs in Taiwan and they even vary greatly in type from sulfuric volcanic springs to mud springs to sodium bicarbonate springs.  The type in Wulai (烏來區) that we visited are sodium bicarbonate which makes them one of the more odorless varieties.  The town of Wulai is also a great place to experience a bit of the local Taiwanese aboriginal or Atayal (泰雅) culture which is why we chose it as our destination.  While we went at the end of November, it is to be noted that in the spring, the area is alight with bright pink sakura blossoms as well which I’m sure adds to the beauty tenfold.

Traveling to Wulai from Taipei was fairly easy but it did take a bit of time to get into the town.  You can take the MRT green line all the way south to Xindian Station, and from there you can take a bus to Wulai.

This is the last you’ll see of the big city before departing the bus to Wulai.

Finding the stop for the bus you need was a slight bit of a hassle since it’s not extremely apparent or particularly well marked, and the buses seem to only run about once every 20 minutes.  You will also be bombarded with taxis sensing your tourism offering to take you there, but they charge significantly more money than the bus and I’ve been told it’s not worth it.  The bus ride itself is  at least thirty minutes and even though we went on a Tuesday, we were just at capacity and ended up standing the entire way.  By stand, I mean aggressively hold onto the sirups dangling from the ceiling while swinging around curvy mountain roads.  I was pretty entertained by the ride, however, as the city very quickly slipped away and I delighted in catching a glimpse of the green, rocky Wulai river carved into more rural landscapes.  Plus, shifting your body in the opposite direction of the curve every time to keep your balance was quite a unique little bit of a workout.

There was a very large red walking bridge right near where the buses parked, and of course I had to scramble across it to capture an overview and a bit more temple on skyline action.

A walk down the road will eventually lead you into old Wulai Street.

There was quite a bit of activity especially since it was around lunchtime.  Vendors at carts were busy searing sausages, and there were stacks of local millet wine bottles ready to be sampled by many of the stores lining the street.  At this point we were using a guide book that had me hooked on the idea of roasted local wild mountain boar.  It was fairly unhelpful in guiding us to a location for said boar, and simply informed us that the best local cuisine could be found at Taiya Po Po (泰雅婆婆美食店) where this should be one of their specialties.

Once we finally found the place which is swaddled inside and outside in bamboo tribal veneer, we were excited to sit down and eat something new.  Unequally excited were the people who worked there who were fairly grumpy and unpleasant.  This was pretty much a first and only experience in Taiwan that involved anything short of amazing service.  As we started to check out a menu with English translation that was haphazardly slapped on our table, we noticed a woman from our bus who had earlier offered her help with any navigation or suggestions.  She was in the process of leaving, but stopped to tell us how her meal was and made suggestions on what not to order and what they ordered that was better.  The underlying theme of things not to order was simply that they didn’t taste good to a local Taipei city girl.  Keeping her suggestions in mind and thanking her, we checked out the menu:

This was the more exciting portion of the menu mostly because I had half a mind to see what the heck the fried bees dish was all about.  I hate to disappoint, but we didn’t order them.  We weren’t sure if that was even a correct translation, and while I would have tried them in theory, sometimes when you’re out and about on your own it’s hard to discern what best to avoid for safety issues.  If I had been with someone I trusted that suggested we tried them, I would have complied.

I did manage to stumble across a video of Zimmern in Wulai once we returned eating at the very same restaurant and ordering the fried bees.  He also tries dama mein (的麼面), a concoction of raw pork, salt, and rice stuffed into what seemed to be reused oversized plastic condiment jars.  I saw this lining many a ledge there in Wulai and didn’t figure out what was going on until watching this episode.   Needless to say his version of visiting this restaurant was significantly more hardcore than mine, but I’m willing to tell you about what you’re more likely to order there and what I really thought of this place.

First up was bamboo tube rice (竹筒飯) with mushrooms.  One origin story of this preparation suggests that tribal Atayal used to carry the rice with them in bamboo tubes for long hunting excursions and also used those tubes as their cooking vessel.  The version we ordered promised some lovely local mushrooms.  The reality of this was an interesting glutenous texture of rice, but not much was going on in the flavor department.  Each element was quite bland and the little bits of mushrooms were extremely chewy and undesirable.  I could imagine this being much better, but this version wasn’t worth having again.

Next was the “double boiled chicken soup with spicebush and papaya.”  The first thing I noticed was that there was no papaya in here.  I presume this was a simple error in translation as there was some nondescript local yam instead of papaya.  The soup was incredibly bland and tasted little of chicken.  The only possible flavor was the strangest essence of lemongrass soap.  Now I realize some people like to think of lemongrass on its own as soapy much like rose or orange blossom flavorings, but I don’t.  This had a similar essence of lemongrass, but there was an additional soapiness to it which was just overly unpleasant.  I don’t know if this was the spicebush influence, but the bit of flavor the soup had wasn’t worth finishing.  I don’t know where the flavor of the chicken went because it was neither in the broth nor the chicken itself.  I’m all for a bowl of simple soup, but this didn’t have anything going on worth eating.  It was then that I remembered the woman we spoke with in this restaurant said her friend ordered some mushroom soup that was just terrible, tasted of soap, and should be avoided.  Well, this wasn’t the same soup, but maybe they were more similar than they seemed.

I don’t remember the exact name of this dish, but it had some enticing wild boar title that drew me to it.  The pork had good flavor with loads of garlic and basil-type herb, but was extremely chewy despite its thin pieces.  It was my favorite dish of that meal, but that doesn’t say very much.  We also tried a little bit of millet wine which was served in a small Dixie cup probably for the same price as an entire bottle on the street.  It was quite sweet and reminded me a bit of mead.

Overall, I just felt like we were the victims of tourist trap.  Maybe they were having an off day, but the food was not good.  Maybe we were just ridiculously spoiled by all the other amazing food we’d been experiencing, but regardless, you’d be hard pressed to convince me to eat there again.  I’d work my way sampling street food of wild boar sausages and green onion shaobings over a restaurant there next time.

We departed on a long hike down into the valley and around the area, pausing to snap pictures of the grand waterfall we saw along the way.

…especially when the waterfall gave a nice rainbow effect!

Those gondolas take you on a scenic ride up the mountain to what the guidebook said was sort of a run-down theme park.  We might have tried this, but we had plans to ride the gondolas to Maokong and decided we would spend more time hiking instead.

I appreciated the little gardens tucked away on the side of the highway and walking path.  It was an incredible use of the tiny space of the highway shoulder.  I also thought the Atayal drawings as decoration on the fence along the way were a nice touch.

Speaking of which, despite the wonderful scenery, I was a little disappointed that nearly all of the walking path we traveled consisted of a paved trail butted up against the highway.  The following picture illustrates the view I had looking forward and to my right.  I’m guessing this changes at some point since we did eventually reach a bridge that led off into more of a wilderness trail, but I just wasn’t necessarily expecting this.

At least the fences keeping you from falling over the edge were interesting especially when covered with orange lichen.

This was the bridge that we reached that led to a more natural hiking path.  Of course soon after this point, we were realizing that we should probably turn around and go find a hot spring bath since we were well into the afternoon already and were only planning to spend the day in Wulai.

To facilitate our transportation back, we took the tourist train that was once a means to transport materials out of the valley in the 1920s.  It amusingly enough felt a bit like a kid’s ride, but it was a nice alternative to marching back in the heat.  The fact that it was pretty cute helped its cause quite a bit.

Once back, we were quite thirsty, and I guzzled what became one of my favorite sports-type drinks that I discovered in Taiwan.  It’s a very popular Japanese beverage called Pocari Sweat, and it has a very pleasant nondescript citrus sweetness to it.   I drank these in between sampling other random drinks from Seven Elevens and always came back between bottles of water when I wanted something other than water.

We got this from one of the smaller locally owned convenience stores on the outskirts of the main town, and the cutest little girl retrieved and delivered our order to us.  It was additionally adorable since the other beverage was a beer.  I can’t think of the last time a 4 year old served me a beer, but it just adds to the fun, I believe.

Drinking the Pocari Sweat in front of the waterfall felt like a commercial in the making.

Hungry for a bit of a snack, we grabbed a green onion shaobing from a vendor on the street.

The dough had a great crispness on the outside and a chewy doughiness on the immediate interior.  The filling was oily and full of green onions, but it was delicious especially after they brushed it with chili sauce.  This simple snack was way more satisfying and craveable that what we had eaten earlier, so again, I advise sticking to the street food here.

After that, we did our best to find a good spa where they pump in the hot spring water into your private room.  There were so many places that it was difficult to begin to choose, and we picked one with a simple, but well-renovated modern Japanese chic exterior and reception desk that had nice pictures of stone baths with flowers floating in the water.  We paid NT$600 for two hours.  Once we walked past the reception desk, the rest of the small hotel suddenly felt much more run down.  Indeed it was, but it was still respectfully clean even though the bath itself was only a whisper of the picture on display.  I sort of felt like I was in a love hotel as the basket of complementary toiletries included a condom.  Interesting touch.  There was a shower in the corner of the bathroom to rinse off before you got in the large tub.  The water itself was mercilessly hot, but you could temper it with some cold tap water if you wish.  The water truly had no odor, but you could feel the texture was different than ordinary tap water.

After an intense soak that may or may hot have had me occasionally hopping out all lobster-skinned for “breaks” despite my typical notorious desire for very hot bath and shower water, we left to return to Taipei.  On the bus ride back where we thankfully got the chance to sit down this time, we noticed a lot more higher-end looking hotel and resorts further away from the old town.  I would imagine more luxurious spa locations are here, and if that’s what you’re looking for, that’s probably a safer bet to search there.

I was still super delighted to experience my first hot springs, and I certainly would like to return to Taiwan and try some more especially some of the ones where you actually sit in the water outside.

Of course, the day wasn’t over yet.  There was a big, delicious sushi meal waiting for us back in Taipei.

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