Located off to the South-East of downtown Taipei, Taiwan (China), Maokong is a mountainous oasis that provides a respite from the crowded and hot city. Nestled within the Erge Mountain range it’s most famous for its tea production (so as a Brit I was obviously naturally drawn to it) and with over 60 tea houses located in the vicinity it’s the perfect place to spend a day sampling the varieties on offer whilst also visiting the myriad temples and engaging in a spot of hiking (if it isn’t too hot that is). Tea cultivation started in the area in the 18th Century and with pretty much the entire local populace dedicated to the industry the Taipei City Government classified Maokong as a tourist tea plantation zone back in 1980. Today tourism is booming and the tea houses are often ram-packed with both tourists and locals; making it a great place to sit back, relax, and engage in some people watching for the afternoon!
Maokong Top Tips
If you’re visiting Maokong then there’s a strong likelihood that you’re staying in Taipei. If you’re arriving at the international airport then check out my Taipei Destination Guide which provides handy dandy details on how to get from the airport to downtown. Once you’re in Taipei then the key is to first make your merry way over to the Taipei Zoo MRT station which is the end of Brown Line – which is more accurately known as the Wenhu Line (If you want to check out a full MRT map to get your bearings before you arrive then visit the Metro Taipei website). Taipei Metro has a dizzying array of ticket options and what you opt for is probably going to be determined by broader travel plans and length of stay. It will also depend on whether you’re planning to get from the MRT to Maokong by bus or by the Gondola (see below). I personally chose to get the gondola up the mountain and the bus back down and so bought myself a ‘1-day Taipei Pass – Gondola Version’ which allows for unlimited travel on the Maokong Gondola, MRT and Taipei City buses. If you want to go for the ultimate in flexibility then grab yourself an ‘EasyCard’. The Easy Card can be topped up and its use extends well beyond public transport to designated taxis, bike rentals, inter-city buses, parking garages, shops, restaurants and cafes. So if you’re touring around Taiwan then it might be worth purchasing one.
In my humble opinion the Maokong Gondola is the most enjoyable mode of transportation when it comes to reaching Maokong and the station is a mere 5 minute walk from the Taipei Zoo MRT station (don’t worry, you’ll see it and it’s signposted in English – in fact I’d say it’s impossible to get lost between the MRT and Gondola). Other than the Taipei Zoo station the gondola serves three other stations; Taipei Zoo South (it’s a really big zoo), Zhinan Temple (see below) and Maokong. You’ll need to make sure that whatever gondola ticket you opt for allows you to board and re-board at more than one station if you plan to visit Zhinan Temple before heading further up to Maokong. In addition, and if possible, see if you can grab a crystal ‘Eyes of Maokong Gondola’. The crystal gondola has a glass bottom that gives you great views over the hillsides and the zoo as you pass over them.
If you don’t have a head for heights or only want to take the gondola one-way (because it takes about 45 minutes and the cars don’t have any air conditioning) then you might wish to consider the bus. If so then the S10 (at the time of writing) ploughs the route between the Taipei Zoo MRT station and the Maokong peak.
When you arrive at the Maokong gondola station you might notice a number of little tour buses. They have two primary lines; the right line and left line – such ingenuity shown by the naming committee. The left line actually has two services; one just runs to Zhinan Temple gondola station and the other runs all the back to Taipei Zoo, so if you don’t plan on taking the gondola back then this is a great (and potentially free) option. They run roughly every 10-15 minutes and take in pretty much all of the sights I mention below plus more. If you’re using an EasyCard for your gondola ride then the tour buses are also free which is an nice little addition.
Tea Houses: Maokong is known for its tea production and houses; most of which have fantastic views over the mountainside or down into Taipei City. In all there are around 60 houses to visit in the hills surrounding the gondola station and most of them start opening at noon and stay open until at least 10pm. For ease of exploration the government has divided the area in to coloured zones (red, yellow and blue) and you can pick up maps at the gondola information center to help you explore each. In addition to tea houses the red zone focuses on cultural and historical sights, the yellow zone focuses on scenery and blue zone focuses on ecotourism. All of this sounds delightful unless, like me, you find yourself ‘zonally challenged’ within 2 minutes of leaving the gondola station and walk in completely the wrong direction (leading to 45 minute sweltering detour in the mid-day sun); so make sure you adequately orientate yourself before storming off. The tea houses serve a number of varities including Yun Hong Black Tea (which is traditional), Tieguanyin, Baozhong and Oolong; and part of the fun is trying out these different varieties ( you typically by the tea by the packet). If you’re hungry after all that tea drinking then you’ll be happy to know that most of the tea houses serve food as well. Finally, if you’re looking for a recommendation then I was a particular fan of Yuan Xu Yuan which is only a minutes’ walk from the gondola station and has cool glass floors so that you can watch fish and turtles swimming around underneath your feet as you drink your tea!
Zhinan Temple: Outside of the tea houses Zhinan Temple is one of the highlights of the Maokong area and has its own gondola station (the one before Maokong). The temple sits high in the hills above the Wenshan District and provides excellent views of the surounding area. Dedicated to one of the eight immortals of Chinese mythology, Lu Tung Pin, the main temple was first built in 1891 and now comprises three temples and a plethora of shrines. The first (and largest) multi-story temple you arrive at on the right isn’t actually the original; for that you’ll need to head further down the hill (the original temple has three archways in front of it). For those of you that are coupled but unmarried, beware! The temple’s claim to fame is that its resident immortal has a bit of a penchant for breaking up unmarried couples – to the extent that many locals won’t visit for that very reason!
Potholes: Accurately translated (i.e. not google translated) Maokong means “cat’s hollows”. Despite sounding quite mystical it actually means ‘potholes’ and is a reference to the holes that can be found in the riverbed of the local stream. In and of itself I doubt you’ll be in too much of rush to go and see some potholes (I see plenty of those every day in London’s streets), but the walk is a fairly pleasant one and the stream is great place to cool off after walking around all day. The trail leading to the stream only takes 10 minutes to reach from the Tea Promotion Center; just beware that both the path and the rocks were fairly slippery when I visited so walk with caution.
Tianen Temple and the Taipei Tea Promotion Center: Heading left along the road from the gondola station you’ll eventually each Tianen Temple (about a 10 minute walk and nothing too strenuous, I promise). Admittedly, the temple is pretty modern and is nowhere near as impressive as Zhinan, but it’s worth popping inside to see the ‘Laughing Buddha’ at the rear of the temple before heading 5 minutes further up the road to the Taipei Tea Promotion Center. The center displays the Muzha Tieguanyin and Nangang Baozhong tea production process; so at least you’ll have a better understanding of what you’ve been drinking all day.
Zhangshan Temple: Zhangshan is a little ‘off the beaten path’ but it’s definitely worth the hike for the views; they are simply unparalleled. The temple worships Guanyin, a Buddhist goddess. The balcony of the temple lies over a ravine with excellent views of Taipei 101; so even if you’re ‘templed-out’ then it’s worth taking a look for the views alone. It’s also the starting point for three different hiking routes so if you’re adventurous then this is the temple for you!
Hiking: After spending time in the city Maokong’s many hiking trails provide a nice (if sometimes sweaty and arduous) respite from the hustle and bustle. Trail maps can be found at the information center by the gondola. The trails are in good shape, heavily forested, and increasingly well signposted. However, if you plan to head off on longer walks then you might want to make sure you have a compass handy just in case. If you’re a bit of a birder then the area is home to over 50 bird species including the Crested Serpent Eagle. If you want the best views then head for Ergeshan, which at 678m is the summit of the Maokong area and has viewing platforms at the top.
Fireflies: A final thing I wanted to highlight was the fireflies that put on a bit of show every April to May. Unfortunately, the two times I have visited Taipei it was autumn so I haven’t had a chance to witness it myself, but I hear that it can be quite spectacular in the evenings. Make sure you pick up a Maokong Tourist Map form the information center as they indicate all of the areas where the fireflies are commonly seen.
Metro Taipei Website: http://english.metro.taipei/
Taipei EasyCard Website: https://www.easycard.com.tw/en/about
Maokong Gondola Website: http://english.gondola.taipei/