In a country that prides itself on producing some of the world’s best tea, Taiwan’s coffee industry is grinding out an ever greater niche. Still regarded by many as a foreigner’s drink, the people of Yunlin and Chiayi are proud that in the hills of Gukeng Township古坑, the people of Taiwan are able to grow their own, high quality coffee beans. The area, which lies on boundary of the two counties, is called Huashan華山, and has been rightly nicknamed, “The home of Taiwanese coffee”.
The African Arabica beans grown here have a taste that is at first bitter, but which then quickly melts in the mouth into a rich, sweet flavor that has people coming from as far away as Taipei and Kaoshiung just to enjoy. It’s not just the coffee that they come for of course, the area has a nice market and amusements area, some fantastic scenery, and a host of paths and trails on which to take a stroll or hike. To get there, take the Meishan exit off the number 3 highway. Drive into Meishan town梅山 and follow the road signs for the 149 road into Huashan.
It’s impossible to write about the area as a single place, because there really are three Huashans. There is the daytime place where families, friends, and couples come to have fun and relax, there’s the hiker’s Huashan, and then there’s the nighttime place when the town really comes alive. The one thing that links the scenes together is coffee, the town, and especially its tourist activity, revolves around the stuff. Not only can you buy it, drink it, and eat it in coffee flavored foods, but when the beans are in season the air itself carries a trace of its unmistakable scent.
During the daytime, hoards of people make the trip up the mountain to eat lunch, or just enjoy the atmosphere. The town, with its narrow inclined roads, and surrounding hills and mountains is charming, and the views, picturesque. The market stalls are full of locally made products and foodstuffs, and it’s a lot of fun just to walk around and take in the sights and sounds of small-town Taiwan. There are also several roadside shops where you can try your hand at pottery. For a few hundred dollars you’ll receive clay and time at a potter’s wheel. You may not make the most attractive mug in the world, but you’ll definitely have fun nonetheless. Finally, and as you might expect, coffee is for sale about everywhere you care to look.
One of the coffee shops where you can spin the potter's wheel
There are a dozen walking paths around town where you can take a quiet stroll, many of them lead, or at least claim to lead, to something called Turtle Head Mountain. I’d love to tell you what it’s like up there, but even though I’ve walked the paths a number of times I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I’ve never actually found it. The paths are an absolute riddle, and the signposts don’t seem to help too much. It would be nice to get up there one day, but until I do, the paths still make for an enjoyable walk.
For something a little more strenuous, follow the road past the market and on out of town. When you reach a sign marked with the Chinese, 華山五號步道 (Huashan, number 5 walking path) park your bike or car and head off up the side road. The start of your route is inauspicious enough, but don’t let that deter you, it soon turns into something really special. After walking for about 30 minutes you start to see some of the most incredible views of the plains beneath you. The scene is fantastic, but the path is quite steep, so unless you’re the kind of person who enjoys hiking just for exercise, you should probably save it for a sunny day when the clear view of the lowlands will more than make up for your exertion. Even on a cloudy day however, there are things out there to entertain you. The wildlife is lovely, especially the brightly colored butterflies.
Finally, there’s the nighttime Huashan. After the sun goes down, the scores of coffee shops and restaurants turn on their lights and the mountain is lit up in a bright incandescent and neon glow. It’s strangely beautiful, and on a clear night when you can see the lights of nearby towns and cities, the view is stunning. The shops remain busy well into the night, and it’s no wonder because evenings, when you’re able to sit in the cool mountain air and gaze down on the lights below you, are the perfect times to enjoy the town’s most famous product.
In almost every way, Huashan is lovely little town, the perfect place for a full day, and night, of food, drink, and fun.