Lion’s Head Mountain and Beipu
Exploring Hsinchu County’s Enchanting Countryside
Text: Joe Henley
Photos: Maggie Song
Close to Hsinchu City, known for its high-tech industry, there is a remarkable scenic area that is known for its pristine nature, old temples, and a quiet old town where you can sample the best of Hakka cuisine.
About an hour's drive southwest of Taipei City, on a plain open to the Taiwan Strait, which slopes upward toward Eighteen Peaks Mountain on the southeast, is Hsinchu, Taiwan's “Windy City.” With a history going back to the early part of the 18th century, it's a mid-sized metropolis of less than half a million people, best known as a center of research and development thanks to its Hsinchu Science Park, home to well over 300 high-tech companies. But there is more to Hsinchu and its environs than its private-enterprise engineers toiling over the latest touch-screen gadgets and other world-leading electronics innovations – much more.
For example, head out of the city and you will almost immediately find yourself in enchanting countryside with lush mountains and abundant wildlife. And it's all within an hour's journey from Hsinchu’s high-speed rail station if you take a Taiwan Tourist Shuttle (www.taiwantrip.com.tw) bus and use connecting bus lines.
After hopping aboard one of the shuttle service’s regular Lion's Head Mountain Route buses at Platform 6, a short walk out of Exit 4 at the HSR Hsinchu Station, it took not long until I reached the Lion's Head Mountain Scenic Area. The visitor center there is a valuable source of information on the area, its townships, the various indigenous tribal peoples populating the region, and the dominant Hakka culture. The mountain is criss-crossed by a network of ten different hiking trails, some of which are interconnected, taking visitors through and past the area's rich natural beauty and man-made architectural wonders – including Buddhist/Taoist temples, eleven in all, built into the natural landscape.
To witness these beauties and wonders firsthand, I followed the Shuilian Cave Trail, which starts just a couple of minutes by foot from the visitor center. About 1.3 kilometers in length, it runs over Nuomi Bridge, a trestle bridge dating back to 1918, the stones of which are held together with a glutinous rice (“nuomi”)-based mortar. The bridge crosses the gurgling Shizi Stream, and in the clear water below members of various species of fish lolled about amongst the smooth stones and potholes. I saw the easy-to-spot Taiwan shoveljaw carp, known for its shovel-like chin and a silver line along its abdomen that flashes in the sunlight.
I saw the easy-to-spot Taiwan shoveljaw carp, known for its shovel-like chin and a silver line along its abdomen that flashes in the sunlight
The mossy, tree-shaded stone trail winds its way down into a gorge, at the bottom of which is the small Fanyin Temple, set into Shuilian Cave. The water dripping down from the top of the cave's high mouth is what gives it its name, “Water Curtain Cave,” and I stood beneath the falling drops for a moment to ward off the heat and high humidity. As for the temple, the sound of the stream passing by is said to resemble fanyin, i.e, the “pure sound” of Buddhist chanting, and Buddhist deities are enshrined within the cave itself. It's a serene setting, and it’s worth taking some time to sit beside the stream and let the sound of the flowing water mix with the recorded chants reverberating from within the shallow cave.
Next up was the Liuliao Trail, a longer route stretching over 5 kilometers through a canyon cut by the Liuliao Stream. This trail passes abandoned mines and the few remaining ancient camphor trees in the area; camphor trees once served as an important local commercial product. The oldest left standing is about 400 years old, and is venerated by the local Hakka people. If you happen to visit the trail in April or May, you'll also have the chance to see the white tung blossoms falling from the tung trees, blanketing the trail like a soft carpet of snow, and in the spring fireflies light up the trail at night. The Liuliao Trail connects to the Shishan (Lion Mountain) Historic Trail, which you can follow back to the visitor center or further uphill to the great cluster of temples the mountain is famous for. The visitor center has maps in English and Chinese that enable you to follow the trails easily.
The visitor center is also where the area's various local bus lines converge, taking tourists along different routes throughout the region’s mountains. There is a café at the center, which in addition to normal café fare serves up Hakka delicacies and beverages, with both indoor and outdoor seating available. After a break there I took a bus on the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle service’s Nanzhuang Route, bound for Quanhua Temple and other points. This temple is on the far side of Lion’s Head Mountain, reachable on foot for those with enough time – which I did not have.
The bus ride took about 15 minutes. From the Quanhua Temple bus stop it’s a short walk up a hill to the sprawling temple, which is the scenic area's most spectacular. It is built right onto the side of the mountain, incorporating the rocky cliffs into its structure. The ornate roof ridges of the temple buildings, covered in carvings of colorful dragons and other figures, overlook a picturesque valley below. A manmade terraced waterfall flows past a collection of crane sculptures; the majestic birds, symbols of peace and longevity, are depicted in pre-flight readiness and in stoic stillness. The temple also offers visitors overnight accommodation, as well as vegetarian meals.
Back aboard Taiwan Tourist Shuttle buses (first back to the visitor center on the Nanzhuang Route, then back down the mountain on the Lion's Head Mountain Route), my final stop for the day was the town of Beipu and its famed Old Street, where you’ll find a collection of restaurants and cafés specializing in Hakka delicacies courtesy of a population that is approximately 98 percent of Hakka descent.
At Peipu Lei Tea, the oldest and most famous tea shop in town, I ordered a cup of lei cha, or “ground tea.” Here, visitors can also make the tea themselves, if they like, with helpful staff on hand to show them how to grind the blend of dried oolong tea leaves, nuts, and grains with a small wooden pestle in a bowl. Other dishes worth trying are Hakka flat noodles, tangyuan (glutinous-rice balls with sweet filling) soup, and dried persimmons, another local specialty found at numerous stands lining Old Street.
A portion of Beipu has been preserved as a historic site, with its narrow stone-paved alleyways and exteriors of the modest brick homes left much as they were in decades past
A portion of the town has been preserved as a historic site, with its narrow stone-paved alleyways and exteriors of the modest brick homes left much as they were in decades past. Many of these homes have been converted into guesthouses, tea rooms, and restaurants, but some remain private family homes. There's no better place to end a day of exploration in Hsinchu County, a place where rich Hakka culture, awe-inspiring natural beauty, and tranquil Buddhist architecture are mingled together in a unique tapestry.
Still within the boundaries of the Lion's Head Mountain Scenic Area (in its northwestern corner) is Emei Lake, also known as Dapu Reservoir. Looking out over the lake is the Great Standing Maitreya Buddha. At 72 meters tall, the rotund, jolly-looking figure is what is known as a “returning Buddha” – one who will return to our realm at some point in the future to share his wisdom with the world. This particular Buddha, the largest in Taiwan, has the world in his right hand, along with the trademark ample belly, dangling earlobes, and wide grin. That smile is what earns the Maitreya Buddha its nickname, the Laughing Buddha.
The reservoir, completed in 1960, was actually the first Taiwan reservoir designed and built by local engineers. Those built prior to this time were the products of Japanese innovation during the Japanese colonial period (1895~1945). Around the lake stretches the Emei Lake Lakeshore Trail, with a length of about 3.5 kilometers. This is a good spot to catch fireflies at night, and to gaze at tung blossoms during the early summer. Flocks of white egrets frequent the lake, gliding over its mirrored surface with wide wings outstretched. Another attraction is Emei Bridge, a wooden cable suspension bridge of around 100 meters that spans the lake.
English and Chinese
|Beipu (Old Street)||北埔(老街)|
|Eighteen Peaks Mountain||十八尖山|
|Emei Lake (Lakeshore Trail)||峨眉湖環湖步道|
|Great Standing Maitreya Buddha||彌勒大佛|
|Hsinchu Science Park||新竹科學工業園區|
|Lion's Head Mountain Scenic Area||獅頭山風景區|
|Shishan (Lion Mountain) Historic Trail||獅山古道|
|Shuilian Cave (Trail)||水濂洞(步道)|
|Taiwan shoveljaw carp||台灣鏟頜魚|
Peipu Lei Tea (三十九號北埔擂茶)
Add:39, Miaoqian St., Beipu Township, Hsinchu County (新竹縣北埔鄉廟前街39號)
Tel: (03) 580-3157