If I ever want to transport myself back to Taiwan there's just one thing I have to do.
Unfurl a tightly wrapped pack of oolong tea and breathe in. The delicate peachy scent transports me instantly to rainy evenings spent walking through Taipei's night markets, lunches of dim sum and roasted duck and driving through the dark streets snaking their way over the hills surrounding the capital city.
My introduction to oolong tea is a vivid one, if a little odd. It was in the back halls of a stationery exhibition held in Taiwan, where a tea boutique (not quite sure what a tea boutique was doing exhibiting at a stationery show?) was handing out taster cups of different varieties of tea.
The first version I remember trying was "Oriental Beauty" that is believed to have been named by Queen Elizabeth II who was presented a cup of this delicate fruity liquor by a tea merchant from the Orient.
The second - which has ever since been my favourite - is Alishan tea. A rich, almost milky tasting oolong, prized for its creamy, soft finish. It's the oolong I drank over and over in Taiwan and it reminds me of the country to this day.
The pack of Alishan oolong I have at the moment was bought in Singapore and I ration it out for special tea-drinking occasions. Rain in Dubai is a special tea-drinking occasion in my world and a rare, cloudy day last weekend seemed an ideal time to enjoy a pot of oolong tea - and with its fragrance so entwined with memories of the green little island I first encountered it on - reminiscence about Taiwan.
There's not far you can go in Taiwan without coming across some reference to tea. The museums are full of teapots and tea drinking paraphernalia, the shops are piled high with more teapots - glazed, unglazed, clay, porcelain, painted, unpainted... the varieties are endless. Visits to teapot factories come highly recommended as are visits to restaurants performing tea ceremonies.
Taiwan was the first country I got to understand (or I should say started to understand, I'm not sure if I still fully do) how all the pots and jugs and basins and cups one comes across in Oriental tea sets are actually used. The place I got a live demonstration of the use of the various cups and saucers was "Maokong" or "cat's holes" -- the hillside tea-drinking haunts perched on various spots along the lush hills surrounding Taipei.
As always, with my over-enthusiastic itinerary planning I was keen on visiting the tea drinking area on an evening following work commitments at the afore-mentioned stationery exhibition. No knowledge of where I was going - or the fact that there was a fairly gusty tropical storm brewing - would have kept me away.
Little did I know that the hills were a fair drive out of Taipei proper (this was in the days before Google Maps provided handy estimations of distances and travel times by various modes of transport).
Thankfully, a few other journalists seemed keen to join up on this tea-drinking mission or it would have been a long, lonely and very damp trip into the hills. The result was an extremely enjoyable evening spent with a collection of people from all over the world who had nothing better to do that night than drink tea and stare out through the rain towards the twinkling lights of Taipei way down in the distance.
Another very vivid tea-related memory in Taiwan was a visit to a tea shop in the little mountain village of Juifen in the north of the country. The name of the village translates to "nine portions" because it was once so isolated that it was home to only nine families who would request nine portions of stocks every time someone could bring them through.
For a long time the village was known mainly for its large gold and copper mines, a POW camp from the days of Japanese colonization and a largely treeless landscape due to the strong winds that blow over it from the north, flattening the trees that stand in its way.
Today Juifen is a popular weekend spot, strung with Chinese lanterns and popular on account of a large market lined with stalls selling delicious street food - obviously the reason why I reached there :)
So after eating loads of crispy local sausages and stuffed sweet and savoury buns (and failing to eat Taiwan's famous stinky tofu - something I still regret today) I came across the aptly named Jioufen Tea House a very pleasant spot to find yourself on a cloudy afternoon - an afternoon very much like the one I spent drinking some oolong tea last weekend in Dubai.
Six years later, that oolong tea can still conjure up very vivid images of Taiwan.
If you ever find yourself in the country, do spend some time discovering its tea culture - it definitely makes for some memorable experiences.
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