It was a bright, sunny morning as we took the MRT to Taipei Zoo Station along the Wenhou (Brown) line for most of the journey. The trains on this line run overground and are driverless, similar to London’s Docklands Light Railway and it was fun sitting at the front having uninterrupted views on our journey.
Entrance to Taipei Zoo costs only NT$60 (£1.50) paying by EasyCard, and visiting the zoo before taking the Maokong Gondola results in further discounts for EasyCard holders. The zoo appeared crowded with school and kindergarten classes but after walking for a few minutes we had the park mostly to ourselves.
The zoo is attractively landscaped on a gentle slope and we were delighted to find a Giant Panda wide awake and looking our way. We didn’t spend too much time in the zoo but were also pleased with our koala and tiger sightings.
Gradually making our way up the hillside we caught the land train to the upper Maokong Gondola station (NT$5). This gondola travels up to the tea plantations in the hilltop village of Maokong. Some crystal (glass floor) cabins are available at no extra cost and boarding was quick with little or no queue.
Rather than travel to the end station straightaway, we alighted at the Zhinan Temple station to take a look around there. Strangely, the temple wasn’t signposted from the gondola station and our phone map only provided a vague idea of its location. We set off in what we thought was the right direction but after walking a considerable distance uphill we discovered we were actually hiking up Monkey Mountain and the temple wasn’t that way!
Retracing our steps we found the temple about 40 minutes later, not far from the gondola station but in the opposite direction. It wasn’t to be our day because the temple, which looked magnificent in our guidebook, was covered in scaffolding and not at all photogenic. The interior was still accessible and other buildings on the site were unaffected.
Re-joining the gondola to take us to the top station was easy with no waiting time and we were fortunate on this occasion to have a cabin to ourselves. As we approached the summit it became gusty with the cabins swaying in the wind.
Along the narrow road near the Maokong station are a collection of cafes and street food vendors but rather than eat there, we followed the road to the left past numerous attractive tea houses with outdoor terraces overlooking the tea growing areas. After 25 minutes we arrived at the Tea Promotion Centre which offers free tastings of three varieties of Taiwanese tea including High Mountain Oolong.
In addition to tea tasting, an exhibition hall demonstrates the process from tea picking to brewing and on the ground floor visitors can pour themselves mugs of locally picked tea and take them out into the garden to drink.
Rather than return down the mountain by gondola, we took the regular minibus service. There was actually a bus stop outside the Tea Promotion Centre but as we had just missed one, we walked back to the village centre for the next service 30 minutes later. This was just as well as we still had to stand and when the bus passed the Tea Promotion Centre passengers were left at the stop because it was already full.
This bus took us back to the Taipei Zoo MRT station and from there we travelled all the way to Tamsui in the north east, the journey providing us with a welcome rest. Tamsui is the same riverside resort we first visited on Sunday evening and was again buzzing with activity when we arrived at 5.00 pm,
This evening our plan was to take the small ferry boat across the wide estuary of the Tamsui river to Bali. Ferries ply back and forth every few minutes and EasyCards are accepted, costing NT$23 each way. Bali is a smaller resort than its neighbour across the water and has more of a refined air. An attractive wooden walkway runs along the waterfront from where we could see small boats sheltering in the little harbour.
The tree lined promenade has a good selection of restaurants, cafes and street food vendors and we settled on bowls of squid and octopus in a light tempura batter which we ate on a bench along the waterfront.
As darkness fell it began raining so we took the next ferry back to Tamsui, stopping off for more vanilla buns to take back to our hotel.
One nice little thing we noticed in metro station ticket halls were these courtesy umbrella stands enabling commuters to borrow an umbrella if caught in a rain shower and then return it later either to the same place or to a stand in another metro station. I wonder if this system would work elsewhere or if people might not bother to return them.