WITH only 15 minutes to go before our departure from the Taipei Main Station to Taichung City, the three of us decide to try the bubble tea in Taiwan, the birthplace of the global craze.
“What do I order? There are so many choices, even the level of sweetness,” I ask, dumbfounded at the extensive menu at a rail station kiosk.
My colleagues from Japan, Toshiko Kobayashi and Matsumoto Sumiko, smile and order their drinks with ease. They suggested that I try the original milk tea.
“Hey, I will post your picture on social media and make you famous,” I tease them, drawing laughter from the duo.
Truth be told, I am not a fan of bubble tea. Being a coffee lover, I have never understood the hype. Why is it so popular around the globe that there are even songs about it?
The lure of the unknown is too much to resist and I decide to give it a try.
It turns out that whole experience is more exciting than having the drink itself. For me, sharing lighthearted moments and banter, while making connections, make the trip memorable.
The three of us, together with several others from different countries, are on a six-day trip to Taiwan to cover several popular tourist attractions. And bubble tea is one of them.
BIRTHPLACE OF BUBBLE TEA
Taichung City is known for its tea house culture. One of the most popular hangout places is Chun Shui Tang Cultural Tea House, the original store of the nationwide chain known for its bubble tea invention.
Located along Siwei Street, the small shop exudes traditional charm and comfort, offering an extensive choice of Taiwanese dishes.
Founder Liu Han-Chieh got the idea of serving Chinese tea cold in the early 1980s after a visit to Japan where he saw coffee served cold. Hot tea apparently did not sell as well during summer.
The bubble tea, however, was only invented in 1988 when a manager at Chun Shui Tang was said to have added tapioca toppings (later called pearls) in a tea drink on a whim. It became a hit and the rest, as they say, is history.
Chun Shui Tang Cultural Tea House boasts private rooms. Friends and families can be seen chatting away as they sip their tea, away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
I am delighted to learn that the outlet has hot bubble tea. Served in a mug, the tea comes with a small pot for refill.
There is something familiar about the whole experience as I am reminded of our beloved teh tarik but with the soft chewy pearls.
Taiwan Foreign Affairs Ministry employees Rachel and Vincent, who accompany us during the trip, make sure that we are well taken care off. They help order our lunch while the rest of us take the opportunity to get to know each other better.
MORE TEA TO COME
Our next stop is a visit to Pinglin Tea Museum, located in Pinglin district, 27km away from Taipei city centre.
Our guide, Lai Li-Chuan, tells us that drinking tea is about enjoying it through the senses, especially sight, smell and taste.
“We observe tea from its colour, fragrance and taste. A good tea doesn’t have much leaf residue and will have a smooth taste in your throat as you drink it,” she says, briefing us on the process of tea production and preparation of the drink.
Pinglin Tea Museum has an abundant collection of materials on tea culture, with exhibitions on everything concerning tea drinking in Taiwan.
There are three exhibition areas, namely, tea history, tea making and tea leaves.
There are also interactive games for visitors for a hands-on experience on tea-plucking, tossing and cloth kneading to produce Taiwan oolongs.
Surrounded by lush greenery, visitors take a stroll along the trail while appreciating the beautiful landscape from the hilly area.
THE MODERN CAVE
The work of Japanese architect Toyo Ito, the unconventional design National Taichung Theatre (NTT) is inspired by light, air and water, enhancing functionality in every corner.
Inspired by the shape of the cave, not a single wall in the building has a geometric shape.
One of its distinctive features is the Black Box which allows a more intimate audience-performer experience, while allowing the venue to connect with the Outdoor Theatre when the soundproof door is opened.
The Grand Theatre is designed with the audience in mind, allowing every seat to have an optimal viewing experience. Under every seat is a vent to ensure a comfortable temperature for all.
By the way, the air vents on the ground floor are installed on the floor instead of in the walls because they are apparently more efficient that way.
For those who wish to explore the many facets of arts, The Art Corner, which is a cooperation between NTT and Live Forever Foundation, offers such a space to the public. Combining the three areas of humanities, arts and ecosystem, the foundation provides a space for people to appreciate, read, contemplate and think.
The space gathers various arts and cultural books, as well as series of exhibitions in addition to arts and cultural activities.
Programme marketing associate manager YingLv Wang says the building “exudes a welcoming vibe”, unlike the old school opera houses which most people feel are rigid.
“When there are no shows, visitors still can come here to check out the modern design, taking pictures or just hang out,” she says.
CATCHING THE SEA BREEZE
Our next stop is Gaomei Wetland. Gaomei was originally called Gaomi, which means bamboo pole inserted into the beach area, in the Qing Dynasty.
It was renamed during the Japanese occupation.
Opened in 1932, Gaomei Wetland was originally Gaomei Beach. Covering 701.3ha, the coastal wetland was listed as a national wetland in 2007. Despite the small area, Gaomei Wetlands have special soils mixed with mud and sand.
Due to the construction of the Taichung Port plus the geographical location — it’s located to the south of the Dajiaxi estuary — it’s affected by the northeast monsoon, which gradually blocked the beach.
The wetland is a sanctuary to wildlife species like fiddler crab, sentinel crab, Great Egret and Little Egret as well as plants including Yulin sedge and Chinese lady’s tresses.
A wooden path was built in 2014 to allow tourists and residents to go 500 metres offshore during the low tide.
STINKY TOFU AND SCOOTERS
Apart from bubble tea, Taiwan is also famous for its stinky tofu, which are fried and sold in street markets such as the one in Shilin. If you can get past the smell, you will find that the fermented tofu actually tastes like, well, tofu. It is accompanied by chilli paste and cabbage,
Scooters are popular in Taiwan. Apart from being an affordable mode of transportation, this is also because imports of motorcycles over 150cc are banned in Taiwan. Most scooters range between 90cc and 125cc.