Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Weekend at Lalashan


A few weeks ago I was invited, on the spur of the moment, to Lalashan - a gorgeous mountain "recreation area" known for its snow peaches (large peaches with a honey-like taste) and persimmons. My student, Michael, was telling me about his planned trip and I mentioned I'd never been - I wasn't fishing for an invite - seriously! - and so he invited me along with his wife and their friends, many of whom I know from a few group outings I've gone on with them.

I had never had the chance to go to Lalashan because to get there, you really need to drive. There's a bus as far as Shangbaling, a tiny town perched on a ridge over Baling, several hundred meters below on the North Cross Island Highway, but you can't get very far out of Shangbaling unless you have a car. I don't, nor do I wish to drive (I would be willing to drive the North Cross Island Highway in a rental car, but I would not be willing to drive in Taipei city, and I'm not sure how I'd feel driving outside Taoyuan, so my options are quite limited). Lalashan for me until Michael invited me along.

I was supposed to study for Delta that weekend, but it was a rare chance to go somewhere it's hard to reach without your own transport, so I went. Brendan unfortunately could not join us as he had to work on Saturday (I didn't).


We stopped in Daxi for lunch - Daxi is famous for its well-preserved Japanese-era shophouses and dried tofu. One fun thing to do on the usually crowded old street is to try all the free samples.


Then we headed up into the mountains. Sitting in the back, I didn't have the guts to tell Michael that his fast, take-those-curves-by-the-horns driving was making me supremely nauseated.

We finally stopped in Baling for a cup of coffee and to meet Michael's friend, Wuya (Crow), and I stumbled out of the car. I am pretty sure I was puce-colored. At least I was chartreuse. This dog owns the road that passes through Baling.


It's HIS road!

Crow had cycled as far as Baling, and had pre-arranged with Michael to get a ride the rest of the way, to Shangbaling and then down the ridge to the homestay near the river at the base of the mountain. The homestay was owned by Michael and Fuzhen (his wife)'s friend's parents (the friend is named Teresa - I only know her parents as Chiu Ma and Chiu Ba).

The homestay has two lovely, friendly German shepherds and two cats who are so shy that I never did get to meet them. Our mutual friend Gary, who is shy around most people, had a special connection with the dogs.


We went because it was persimmon season, and the Chiu family was going to take us to their persimmon orchard across the river to pick as many as we'd like the next day. That's why I've had so many persimmons to experiment with in what I've now dubbed Jenna's Test Kitchen (other discoveries: cherry tomato salad with figs, capers, pomegranate seeds and roasted garlic with greens, dressed with fresh herbs, a touch of salt, olive oil and fig balsamic vinegar...and couscous cooked in chicken stock with butter and savory apple pie spice - apple pie spices with sweet paprika, black pepper and salt added).


Three great things about the trip:

1.) It was all Taiwanese and me, so I had a nice long weekend to speak nothing but Chinese in a fully authentic atmosphere. It was great practice!

2.) It was nice and cold, which meant fresh cool air more appropriate to the seasons where I'm from, and that I had a good excuse to make everyone my signature hot wine.

3.) Taiwanese-style socializing meant lots of free time to goof off - I could chat, or play with the dogs, or read for a bit, or futz on Facebook...there was no need to be "on" all the time.


Michael bought some chicken feet in Daxi. I said NO THANKS but the dogs were quite interested.


Teresa and her parents, the owners of the homestay, and Teresa's husband:


Gary and Michael play some online game - which meant lots of free time for me to just relax:


In the evening we played mahjongg (I'm a terrible player and they're serious, so I watched):


The most important ingredients in hot wine, and Fuzhen is quite enjoying herself after a glass:


Hot wine:

- 4:1 ratio of dark, spicy red and Fire Water cinnamon schnapps
- Shots of Goldschlager or an alternative to taste (I usually go with 3-4 shots per bottle of wine)
- For one bottle of wine: 4 cinnamon sticks, 6-8 cloves, 1-2 nutmegs well cracked, 1 star anise, 5-6 cardamoms cracked open. You can use powdered spices but I do not advise it

Heat together until wine is hot with tiny bubbles forming at the sides and steam but NOT boiling, strain out spices with a spoon strainer, serve with cinnamon sticks (your best bet for light drinkers is to put it, with the spices, into an insulated coffee/tea/hot water carafe, and let them drink it slowly out of small cups, don't bother serving with the cinnamon sticks).


The group included a pair of newlyweds, who got the best room at the homestay. For everyone who thinks Taiwanese people are prudish, I submit that that is simply not true. The next morning the newlyweds did not emerge - the husband came out to tell us that his wife "doesn't feel well" so they would skip the persimmon picking. Someone who was not there asked about them and the answer was "oh...they're busy...ha!". Crow was in the room below them and was asked, with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge, how he slept. When the husband finally emerged but his wife was still resting, Chiu Ba asked about her. "She's not feeling well." "Ah!" he replied. "You're too strong!"

Yeah, no, I don't think Taiwanese people are prudes at all, or at least you cannot generalize this. Despite what a lot of expats believe.

Persimmon picking was fun - not challenging, but fun.


We also stopped at a grove of trees whose leaves taste and smell of cinnamon (they may be cinnamon trees, but I'm not sure). You can use them as cinnamon substitutes in cooking, so we all picked a few to try. You can also chew them as a natural breath freshener.

Just below Shangbaling and visible from lower on the ridge is an aboriginal community with a very unique church:


Seen against the entire mountainside it looks like an ark on a cresting wave. Quite creative there.

Our persimmons:


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