Travel in Taiwan Culture

Lost in the Fog:Touring Tungting Oolong Country

By Christopher Logan and Teresa Hsu Photos By Sung Chih-hsiung

Nantou county, in the heart of Taiwan, still enjoys a rural lifestyle once common across the island. You'll find rice paddies and banana groves liming the country roads that lead to luku's famous tea gardens. These hillside gardens produce some of the finest oolong (Qs) tea, and one hill is known by tea drinkers around the world: Tungting (᳻).


For premium Tungting oolong tea, only the top two leaves are harvested.

Tungting oolong tea has become so well known that farms in other areas sometimes cheat and use the appellation. Yet Tungting ("Frozen Peak") possesses conditions, not falsely found elsewhere, which combine to produce really choice tea. Visitors can observe every phase of production and enjoy country hospitality on a tour of this historic region.

Ideal Location
When the scholar Lin Feng-chih (L) crossed the Taiwan Straits in 1865, his hope was to pass the imperial examination in Fujian province and become a government official. On his return to Luku, however, he brought more than the good news of his success. He also brought home 36 plants from the famous tea gardens of Wuyi (Zi) Mountain.

In the next few decades, trade with the West ensured a steady demand for oolong tea, and the plants from Wuyi Mountain proved ideal for oolong production. For over a century now, the gardens of "Frozen Peak" have brought forth quality leaf that has earned a wide reputation. Asked why their tea is so special, modest locals refer to the romantic veil of fog which covers Tungting, night and day, through most of the year.


"Sometimes the kids are playing ball and they have to stop and find each other," comments tea producer Lin Mei-yen (LP). "It gets that thick." Even on a "clear day," the view from Tungting barely reaches the town below.

"Leaves grow juicy because of the fog," explains Lin's husband, Lin Shen-tang (Lm). "They never get dried out in the sun. Fog also filters the sunlight, so that the tea grows more slowly. There's more juice and less fiber, so you can brew Tungting tea many times without losing the flavor." Mr. Lin, who likes to be called Tony, is active in 4H, an international network of progressive farmers, and also works as an agent for the Luku Farmers' Association (A|).

Tea Farm Tours
The Farmers' Association headquarters is a good place to start your visit to the Tungting region. You may, at first, mistake the stylish office building for a temple. It's right on the main road. Tony Lin speaks English well and has plenty of experience with foreigners, having visited 4H groups across America. If you call or fax ahead of your visit, he can arrange tours and accommodations.

The Tea Culture Museum (]) occupies much of this large building. Exhibits highlight traditional country life in Luku. A series of photos, explained in English as well as Chinese, introduce the complex process of making oolong tea. On the first floor, specialty foods from around Taiwan are displayed and sold, and of course Tungting oolong tea takes an honored place. A number of English brochures are available.

Just across the main road is a large restaurant, Tien Yuan (ж), featuring local specialties like bamboo rice. Mixed with bits of meat, the rice is cooked in bamboo tubes which give it a special flavor. The tubes are broken open to make long, thin dishes full of savory rice. The menu also includes "oolong chicken" and "mountain celery." Needless to say the local tea is featured, and you can even try Oolong XO.

View From the Top
Luku, which means Deer Valley, nestles at the base of Tungting and is bounded by small hills. You can see many tea fields along the main road, and spend as many hours or days as you like sampling tea in dozens of roadside tasting rooms. There are also plenty of restful country inns and restaurants along the bus routes. You'll need a car or motorbike to reach the summit of Tungting, however, unless you're a particularly athletic walker.

The legendary peak is well worth visiting, for many reasons. One is the special view, of tea fields spread below, through the perpetual mist. Ladies in broad hats can be seen picking the tender shoots along endless rows of short bushes.

If you look closely, you'll notice that only the top two leaves and the growing shoot are picked for premium Tungting oolong. Although lowland teas are usually harvested by machine, quality Tungting oolong merits the extra effort of hand picking. The finest tea is picked from the first spring flush, just as growing tips open into new leaves.


Competition Teas
After the spring harvest, all the best farms submit a sample of their tea to be judged in competition. Each sample weighs 20 chin, a chin (600 grams) being the basic measure for tea. About 3,500 samples were judged this spring. Of those, Taiwan's most savvy tea tasters judged one sample to be the year's champion. Twenty one-chin lots were available afterwards for around US$2,000 each--but not for very long, as the world's most expensive tea has plenty of eager buyers.

After the champion came 70 samples--about two percent of the total--which received first prize. These immediately sold for about US$400-800 dollars a chin. Good-quality competition teas are still available, however, and they are marked by one, two, or three gold plum blossoms. "Three gold blossoms" fetches around US$80-100 a chin, and is one of the best oolong teas on the market.

A strict grading system helps to preserve Tungting's reputation for quality. Over a third of the competition samples were rejected, receiving no mark at all. You can buy competition teas at the Luku Farmers' Association.


From the moment tea leaves are picked, they are immediately processed to capture the best opssible aroma.

Heavenly Aroma
Friendly workers welcome visitors to browse the small factories in Tungting. Inside, large baskets of fermenting leaves exude a heavenly aroma that might be classed with scents like amber, sandalwood, and roses. Cleanliness and good ventilation are vital to preserve the delicate flavor of Tungting oolong, so a visit is quite pleasant.

These factories use specialized machinery such as huge drying machines and the odd-looking "jo nien," which kneads 10-kilo balls of wet leaves. Kneading distributes tea juice throughout the leaf and produces a tight globe shape characteristic of this variety. The many steps in oolong production must be managed with great skill.

"It's much more difficult than the manufacture of common tea varieties," says Tony Lin. "Timing is vital at each phase of production. A good tea maker knows by experience when each batch is ready for the next step." Because tea fermentation begins as soon as the leaves are picked, processing often goes on past midnight to catch the perfect taste of semi-fermented oolong.

Bed and Breakfast
For those desiring an even closer look at the creation of connoisseur tea, there is a local version of "bed and breakfast." By prior arrangement, visitors can stay overnight with a farm family. Besides learning to make great tea, homestay guests experience the best of country life. There are also a couple of small inns at the top of the peak, where you'll find quite a few tasting rooms.

Down from the summit, a winding road snakes down Tungting's wooded north face, passing a lovely small lake. Back in Luku, there's a bamboo market offering furniture that is graceful and sturdy, made without screws or nails, and also bamboo carvings. Just outside town is a large bird sanctuary, and the famous bamboo and pine forests of Hsitou are just half an hour away.

lthough three or four hours would suffice for a cursory tour, a day or two in oolong country opens one's senses to the quiet magic of rural Taiwan, offering a deep rest as delicious as Tungting's tea.

To reach Tony Lin at the Luku Farmers' Association, call (049)751-962 or fax (049)754-148. The simplest public transportation to Luku is a direct bus from Taichung, operated from the Taiwan Bus Company terminal near the Taichung train station. There are also local busses from Chushan and Nantou.

Travel in Taiwan Culture
Copyright 1995 Vision International Publishing Co.