The next morning I’m back at Taipei Main Station with a small overnight bag. I grab a milk tea from the 7-Eleven and head across the check-board patterned discourse to the ticket counters. I buy a ticket for a local train to Riufang. From this town I can catch a bus or take a taxi to Jiufen. I head underground and try to figure out the way to my platform. I pass a stand selling Taiwanese lunch boxes which I’m keen to try – I made a mental note to remember this place after my return trip. I find my platform and the train arrives a few minutes later. It’s a local, therefore a little older and grubbier than the MRT, but perfectly comfortable.
“This is the one.” An American voice stands out amongst the Taiwanese chatter as I board, whether it be Mandarin or other dialects. I look left to see an auburn haired woman slightly out of breath, followed by a man carrying a travellers rucksack.
“If we had to wait for the next one, it would be okay,” he says.
The woman sweeps her long hair back, bites her lip a little and sighs. She looks agitated.
“Yes, Kevin, I just -”
“I know. It’s okay. Relax.”
They look around for free seats and spot some at the opposite end of the carriage, their voices fading as they walk away.
I should be working on my latest article for EAT (detailing the historical significance of kimchi) but instead I put my headphones on and listen to some David Bowie while looking out at the scenery. We leave a series of grey high rise buildings behind and enter green mountainous countryside. The train passes a few derelict looking train stations. We arrive at the fairly small and slightly shabby looking Riufang station forty minutes later. I spot the American sounding couple leaving the train quickly and walking with purpose. They look like they knew what they’re doing so I follow them until I get caught up in a line. An efficient looking woman in a black uniform cap is taking tickets. The couple have already handed in their tickets and I soon loose sight of them.
There’s a taxi rank to my left when I leave the station, but I’m sure I can find the bus stop easily so walk directly ahead. I’m starting to get quite hungry and the small barbecue stalls selling mystery meat along the road aren’t helping, but I should probably wait until I meet Naomi and her friend. There’s no sign of the bus station, so I promptly turn and see an English looking middle aged couple walking towards me – a balding man dressed in a white polo top and shorts and a woman with a short mousy hair. Both are carrying overnight backpacks.
“Excuse me! Is this way to the bus stop, do you know?” The woman asks in a southern English accent.
“Doesn’t look like it,” I reply. “Think we’ve both made the same mistake.”
“Oh dear! It’s getting too hot for this! Michael, taxi?”
It doesn’t feel that hot to me, but their backpacks do look quite heavy.
“Yeah, go on then,” says Michael, wiping his brow. “Where are you off too, Jiufen? Come, jump in the taxi with us!
I agree and we return to the taxi rank together. “You’re English? Where are you from?” The woman asks.
“Winchester originally, and you?”
“Oh, lovely! We’re from Weybridge. Not too far really. What brings you here?”
“The food, mostly.”
The man chuckles but the woman interjects. “Oh you like it? It doesn’t all agree with me I’m afraid. I hope there are some foreign restaurants in Jiufen. A nice pasta place maybe.”
Given the tiny size of Jiufen and much of it’s popularity stemming from it’s traditional delicacies, I fear she will be disappointed.
“I’m sure it will lovely to look around either way,” she continues. “One of the crew called it the Pearl of Taiwan. The Positano of the East! And Positano is absolutely beautiful.”
“Yes, but you won’t be getting your spaghetti marinara so easily here, Pauline. We’re mostly excited about the gold museum, anyway,” Michael says. “Jiufen, please!” He speaks a little too slowly and clearly to a driver waiting outside his car. We all step in.
“Yes!” says Pauline excitedly. “Now THAT should be fascinating. Will be hard to beat the one in Cape Town, though. Gold of Africa.” She gasps. “Wow, that was dazzling. And that jewellery museum in Hong Kong…” Her eyes light up at the thought.
We tell the taxi driver the names of our respective hotels which turn out to be quite close to each other. I find out a little about the couple during the ten minute journey through bumpy roads and past ramshackle isolated buildings. They’re on a cruise through northern Asia and their previous stop was Hong Kong. They have only a few days in Taiwan before moving on. The road begins to wind around coastal cliff edges and a stunning blue sea is visible as we ascend steeply.
“Oh, wow,” says Pauline softly, looking out the taxi window. “Isn’t that pretty!”
It certainly is. We pass an ornate orange tiled temple set into the cliff side and the narrow road curves to the left. Michael seems a little more concerned with how fast our taxi is going. My hotel is first as we pass by a police station. I give Pauline my share of the taxi fare and and thank them.
“Hope to see you around the town!” Michael calls out from the taxi as I leave.
My hotel is set against another cliff. I wander into the main entrance of the hotel and enter a lobby with a small office area and a few dining tables to the left. Two old men chatter away while eating at a corner table.
“Greg?” A voice asks tentatively.
I turn around to see a tall blonde woman. Naomi is naturally stunning, with the same piercing blue eyes her brother has.
“I’m Naomi,” She says, shaking my hand warmly. “Josh said if you spot an English silver fox, you’ve got your man. Well, I haven’t heard you speak, but it’s pretty obvious!”
A thin, unassuming girl stands shyly just behind Naomi.
“This is Cindy. I bet she’ll have a lot to say to you about your food blog!”
Cindy doesn’t look like she has anything to say at all. She shakes my hand delicately and gives me the faintest hint of a smile.
“Are you hungry, Greg?” Naomi asks.
“It’s all I’ve been thinking about out for the last hour. Come to think of it, It’s generally all I think about.”
“Well, of course, with your website!” She laughs. “So this place does breakfast, I know it’s nearly lunchtime but they can still make you up something, I asked. But let’s get you checked in first, I’m getting ahead of myself here, sorry.”
“Okay,” I agree, amused at her enthusiastic manner. “I’ll just check in quickly. What are you up to now? Please don’t wait on my behalf if you have somewhere to be.”
“Oh, no, don’t worry about that. We’re heading to Jinguashi later so you should definitely join! It’s the next town over. Cindy says it’s really worth the visit.”
Cindy just nods.
“Sounds good to me,” I reply.
“Great!” She claps a little.
I walk over to the counter where an older woman is looking through paperwork. She looks up and I say hello. Instead of replying to me she yells loudly in Mandarin towards the kitchen. A young woman pops her head around the kitchen door and replies. Cindy then steps forward and speaks to the two of them, the old woman nodding and the girl disappearing into the kitchen again.
“She was asking her daughter to help check you in,” Cindy explains, speaking to me for the first time. “Because the daughter can speak English. But I said it’s okay because I can help. You should show the old lady your passport.”
I retrieve my passport from a secure back compartment in my bag and a few minutes later I’m checked in, walking up a large wooden staircase to my room.
“You’re 205?” Naomi asks. “We’re 201, just down the hall. The rooms are very cute.”
As we climb the staircase I notice a display cabinet full of various knick-knacks – ornaments from around the world and an assortment of movie posters. The landing is home to a shelf with about 15 teddy bears of different sizes and shapes.
“Interesting style,” I comment.
“Bit of a mish-mash, right? I like it though,” replies Naomi.
As we reach the door of 205 Cindy and Naomi stop.
“We’ll leave you to it! Why don’t we meet in the lobby in a hour and we’ll walk together the bus stop? Jinguashi is just a ten minute ride away. Then later on we can explore Old Street, right Cindy?”
“Yes,” Cindy agrees. “There are many things to look at in Old Street. But now it’s very busy. So we can go to Jinguashi and maybe the street will be less crowded when we come back.” She speaks very matter-of-factly. The manner of the two girls is quite a contrast.
I thank them and enter my room. It’s large and airy with a view of the ocean across the road. I take a quick shower before heading down to the dining area. The owner’s daughter is cleaning away the old men’s dishes who have now left.
“Hello, can I still get something to eat or is it too late?” I usually become very self aware at these moments about my lack of foreign language skills and the Westerner’s expectation that everyone understands English. In this case however, I know that the daughter can understand me.
“It’s fine, please, sit,” she gestures. “I’ll prepare you a plate. Taiwanese breakfast.”
I thank her with a big smile – I’ve been wanting to try a traditional breakfast. She returns shortly with a tray full of various items, explaining to me what they are. There’s a deep fried stick of dough called youtiao, an egg crepe roll called dan bing, a turnip cake – buo gao and a bowl of warm soybean milk.
“What’s your name?” I ask as I begin eating.
“Winnie, would you mind if I mention you on my website? I have a food website where I write about different meals when I travel. It would be nice to mention your name and the breakfast here briefly, seeing as it’s homemade by yourself. And it’s really delicious.”
Winnie blushes a little. “Oh, okay, it’s fine. I’m glad you like it. I really enjoy cooking and sharing traditional Taiwanese foods with visitors. I also like to make a lot of cakes and candies. It’s fun to experiment! I would love to leave Jiufen and go to a good cookery school. But it’s hard. I have to support my family here.” She sighs. “Is this your first time in Jiufen?”
“Yes. I haven’t seen anything yet apart from the beautiful ocean views and this hotel.”
“Oh, you have many foods to try here then for your website.”
“The taro balls of course, it’s very famous here in Jiufen. You can find so many other snacks and things to try, though. You must go to the tea houses, too.”
“Any in particular?”
“There are big ones like A Mei but also some very good ones closer to this hotel. There is one I really like. It is called Daydreams and Tea. Your Taiwanese friend mentioned it already, actually. She must know about it.” She looks very pensive as she says this.
“Oh, okay, I’ll remember it. How long have you and your parents had this hotel, Winnie?”
“About ten years now. My parents had a small shop near Old Street before that. But this is a bit better, I think. We really struggled with that shop.”
“It’s certainly a great location here.”
Winnie agrees before going back to the kitchen. I finish my meal and Naomi and Cindy appear shortly after. I notice Winnie staring at Cindy curiously from the kitchen doorway.
As we walk out a couple walk in, and I clock the auburn hair immediately. It’s the couple from the train. Like before, the woman appears very determined and walks up to the counter with purpose. The three of us take a left until we came to a steep stone stairway cut into the cliff.
“We can go this way,” says Cindy.
“You’re the boss,” replies Naomi. “You know this place.”
“So you used to live here, Cindy?” I ask.
“No. But I spent a lot of time here when I was at University in Taipei.”
She says nothing more so I turn to Naomi as we climb the staircase and ask how they know each other.
“Cindy is working as a nanny in Rochester. The kids she looks after were getting some professional photos taken one day at a studio I was working at. We started chatting and when I realised she was Taiwanese I told her all about my upcoming trip here! We hung out a few times before I flew over. She’s just back now for a couple of weeks visiting friends and family.”
We reach a street with a large viewing platform to our left jutting out towards the ocean. Several tourists are taking pictures with selfie sticks.
We cross the road and there’s another stairway up.
“Sorry, one more,” says Cindy. “But this street has some nice shops and cafes. My favourite cafe is along here.” We climb once more and this stairway takes us to a far busier street next to a large 7-Eleven (naturally) with people pouring into what looks like a narrow alleyway on our right.
‘That’s the start of Old Street,” Cindy points out. “See? So busy.”
“Wow. That is paaaacked tight,” says Naomi. “Good idea to hold back on that one, Cindy.”
We turn left and wait at a bus stop below another observation deck, many tourists moving around above us. Once we’re on the next bus I ask about Jinguashi.
“Do you know about the gold mining history?” Cindy asks me. I shake my head and she begins to tell me how the small town is known for it’s gold and copper mines. I remember Michael and Pauline mentioning a gold museum earlier. “When the Japanese ruled here it was one of the biggest copper mines in the world,” she explains. “You can still see all the old mining tunnels there. We will go to a waterfall called the golden waterfall. All the metals from the river make it this interesting colour. I think you will enjoy taking a photo there.”
“Thank you, Cindy. It must be so nice for you to visit this area again. Do you like America?”
“It’s okay. I’ve been there just one year. Before that, I was a nanny in Sweden. Three years. It was wonderful there.” As she talks her hand fiddles with a necklace underneath her white blouse.
“I’d love to go to Sweden,” I remark.
“It’s so beautiful. I had a really good relationship with my employer in Sweden. He died just two months ago. It’s so sad… ” She continues to play with her necklace. I can’t quite make it out with the blouse covering, but it looks like a pearl necklace. “USA employer is just okay. Maybe it’s time to come back to Taiwan forever soon…”
Our winding journey ends and we exit the bus. The golden waterfall in front of us is not huge, but definitely eye catching with it’s unusual colour. There are a few tourists taking pictures and among them I notice Michael and Pauline. They spot me too, and look a little surprised, turning to each other and murmuring.
“Didn’t take long to bump into you two again!” I say as I walk towards them.
“Hi Greg! So pretty, isn’t it?” We’re stopping here and then off to the gold museum. Are you here with friends?” Pauline says, looking over at Naomi and Cindy.
“New friends,” I reply. “Friends of a friend, you could say.”
“Ahh… very interesting.” She certainly seems interested, her eyes still on Naomi and Cindy.
“I better go join them actually, rude of me to wonder off when Cindy is showing me around!”
Michael and Pauline look at each other as if something has been confirmed. They’re acting a little strangely so I say goodbye and leave them to it, although they look like they want to talk more. Naomi, Cindy and I take a few pictures before moving on to explore some of the old mining tunnels. We spend an hour walking around, at which point I realise I should really get back to the hotel and work on my kimchi article. We agree to meet up in the hotel lobby later in the afternoon.
“Bring your stomach,” Cindy recommends. “Many things for you to try.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I always do.”
A few hours later I wait for Naomi in the hotel lobby. Cindy left earlier to spend time at her favourite cafe, so we’ll meet her at the entrance to Old Street. I make a little small talk with Winnie who is tidying up the dining area.
“Some people were asking about your friend. Cindy,” Winnie tells me. “They asked me if she is staying here. They were very eager to know. Maybe you tell Cindy?”
“Oh, sure. What were their names?”
“They didn’t want to tell me. It was a couple. An American woman and American-Taiwanese man. The girl had kind of red hair. So if you tell that to your friend maybe she will know who they are. She’s probably in that cafe again.” Winnie sounds distinctly unimpressed by Cindy’s frequent trips to Daydreams and Tea, which seeing as they don’t know each other is a little odd.
The couple from the train… They walked right past us earlier. Why didn’t they stop Cindy then? Do they not know what she looks like? Why do they want to know about her whereabouts then? The woman was on some kind of mission, and appeared quite stressed about it. The man seemed to be there more for support. What has Cindy got to do with this?
“Thank you, Winnie. I’ll pass it on.”
Naomi arrives and we climb the stairways up to the entrance of Old Street. We talk a little about Naomi and Josh’s modelling experiences in Taiwan as we climb. Naomi reiterates how well they are looked after at Bangka Models compared to other foreign models and their agencies.
“They found Josh an excellent billboard booking for this week. Too bad he couldn’t come join us. But he doesn’t like the Taiwanese food too much and we’re about to go eat everything Jiufen has to offer… so maybe for the best!”
We look for Cindy once we reach the top of the stairs. I see a glimpse of auburn in front of me and spot the mystery couple outside the 7-Eleven. What’s going on with these two?
“Kevin, I want to get some use. Let’s go in here,” the woman says. They enter the convenience store and I wonder what she means by ‘get some use’, but Naomi distracts my train of thought by excitedly pointing out some Spirited Away soft toys on sale in nearby shop.
“Ooh, so cute!” Naomi cries. “I must buy a No-Face before we leave!”
We meet Cindy and enter the narrow Old Street, food stalls and shops packed tight all the way down. Cindy begins to point out various snacks that are either her personal favourites, or popular choices with locals and tourists alike. The street is still quite busy. There are tour groups all over the place. I feel sorry for the poor guides trying to hustle their groups through. Sleeping dogs lie near the entrance ways to shops or in the shops themselves. The shops are full of souvenirs, packaged sweets, handbags and small ocarinas which seem to be everywhere. Cindy informs me that Jiufen is well known for the wind-instruments and they make great souvenirs. We lose Naomi for a minute who gets caught up in an expensive leather goods shop, eyeing up various items. When she catches up we stop outside a stall selling gelatinous translucent dumplings with a red centre – Cindy refers to them as red meat dumplings. Now that we’ve spent a little time together, she’s definitely becoming friendlier. She seemed somewhat wary of me earlier in the day.
“You must try these and then soon we’ll have some fish balls in soup… Then definitely we’ll buy some taro and sweet potato balls and also a kind of peanut and ice cream roll…”
One hour and plenty of food pictures later, we’re all fit to burst.
“Well you’re certainly living up to your website name… I’m feeling pretty wonderstuffed myself right now,” says Naomi.
“Let’s stop at a cafe,” Cindy suggests. Naomi and I agree (walking is hard after all those snacks) and we stop at the first bubble tea cafe we come across and take a seat.
“We will go to a proper tea house too, of course,” Cindy says after we order three taro bubble teas.
“Ooh, yes!” Naomi exclaims. “I want to go to the Spirited Away one! And Greg, are you just going to stay tonight or should we book you in another night at the hotel? I’m going back to Taipei on Thursday. Cindy will probably stay a while longer.”
“Oh, that’s right,” I reply. “Cindy, you have some friends here you’re catching up with, right?” Cindy just nods. “I think I will stay another night. I’ll talk to Winnie when we get back to the hotel.” Our bubble teas arrive, vibrant purple with plenty of black tapioca balls visible at the bottom. Cindy reaches into her handbag and pulls out a container full of small yellow spheres. She puts a spoonful of them into her drink and stirs.
“What are those, Cindy?” I ask.
“They’re popping pearls. Little balls with juice inside. You can add them to bubble tea. These ones are mango and they’re my favourite.”
“I’ve seen you carrying those around since we arrived, you must really love them!” Naomi chimes in.
“I take them everywhere. Here, try some.” She offers me and Naomi a spoonful. I start drinking, sucking up tapioca pearls and popping pearls with my straw. The tapioca balls are chewy and the popping pearls burst in my mouth, the mango flavour strong and sweet. By the time we finish our teas it’s dark outside and Old Street has taken on a new appearance with all the red lanterns lit up, strung along both sides of the street. It really does feel whimsical, and we walk at a leisurely pace until we reach the famous A Mei Tea House. It’s completely packed so we go for a beer at a nearby bar instead.
“We can try again tomorrow, hopefully it’ll be a bit quieter,” suggests Cindy.
After a couple of beers I leave Cindy and Naomi to it and make my way back to the hotel. I arrange an extra night’s stay with Winnie before going to my room. I manage to finish off my EAT article and email it in. My phone beeps with a new message as I click send. It’s Josh.
Tired of my sister yet? Hope you’re having fun!
We message back and forth for a while before I decide to call it a night. I realise I completely forgot to mention the mystery couple to Cindy so I’ll pass it on in the morning. I’m curious to find out what they want, and if Cindy doesn’t know who they are then I’m sure she will be too.
© Intrigue Inn