I asked a work colleague, who has spent a lot of time traveling in Taiwan, for suggestions of things to do, and one of the items he mentioned was a visit to Sanyi. Sanyi is a village about 30 minutes to the north of Taichung that's famous for their wood carving. There's a wood carving museum there, along with lots of shops.
I've occasionally dabbled in wood carving. What that really means is that I've got a few books and supplies, I've dreamed of owning a lathe if I ever had a garage to put it in (imagining the pens and chair legs I could make), and one time I carved a (still not finished, but functional) captured ball in a cage. So when I heard about Sanyi, it went on the list.
While having dumplings with my colleague and her family the other night, her husband mentioned that he had started planning a trip to Sanyi. I excitedly exclaimed that I wanted to come too, and he graciously agreed to move the trip to the weekend so that we could all go.
I wanted to try out the local train system, so we ended up with the plan to take the train to Sanyi, and then consider our option to take a train or a cab back to Taichung at the end of the day. On Saturday morning, we met up to grab a quick cab to the train station.
The closest train station to us in Taichung is Taichung Station, about 3km away from the apartment. There's apparently an old Taichung Station and a new Taichung station, and initially Ian and I were a bit confused because we couldn't find anywhere selling tickets after the cab driver dropped us off. But after a quick back and forth with a clerk, I learned that we were in the old station, which you have to walk through to get to the new station, where you can actually do train-station-like activities. We wound our way through some halls and stairways to arrive at the new station and picked up our tickets (250元, or US$8 for all five travelers).
Without specifying anything other than "Sanyi" to the ticket clerk, we ended up on a local train, which was pretty much like riding the subway. There were some seats available, but mostly it was standing room with handles to grip to keep balanced. The train was busy, but only as packed as I've experienced in Boston, and not the crazy mass of people we dealt with in the subways of Seoul. Mountains and fields whizzed by, and eventually we disembarked at Sanyi station.
Sanyi station was small, and we found ourselves standing outside on the steps near several taxi cabs, trying to decide how we could get lunch. I pulled out my guidebook because I remembered it had said something about where the center of town was, and a local woman came over and asked if she could help. (They do brand themselves "The tourist-friendly town"--Ed.) I told her that we knew we had to take a taxi to the museum, but we didn't know if we should have lunch in town or eat at shops near the museum. She didn't seem to think much of our plans, and seemed concerned that we wouldn't find food at either place. So, I asked if she could recommend something. After confirming that Hakka food was OK (stuff with noodles, she said) she decided we should go a few miles, eat at a restaurant, and then go the rest of the way to the museum on foot. She spoke with the cab drivers for us, explained the plan and arranged for one of them to take us to a restaurant There was a lot of back and forth (maybe they were deciding where to take us?), and then we were off!
The cab driver took us a few kilometers into town and then stopped and let us know through gestures that we could eat at the place across the street, and then we would have to walk up a road to the right to get to the museum. We got out of the cab and one of our friends wanted to get a few pictures of interesting signage before we moved on. The cabbie, having originally started down the road, stopped and got out of his cab to tell us again to go across the street to get lunch. He also yelled something in Chinese to the shop, which was half in the open air. I can only assume it was something like "Hey! These people want to eat food, they don't speak any Chinese. Help them!" People are so friendly here!
At the restaurant, they gave us a plastic laminated menu and grease pencil to indicate our choices (a very common ordering technique here), and I had just whipped out my Google Translate app to help make decisions when a middle-aged local woman came forward and asked in English if she could help. We said sure, agreed that noodles sounded fine, and went to sit down at a table. I think we got the shop specialty. We each got a bowl that we discovered contained thick, chewy noodles in a chicken broth, with green onions, mung bean sprouts, slices of pork, triangles of beef liver, a tea egg, and something pink, crispy and well seasoned sprinkled on top. I admit that I mostly stuck to my noodles, green onions, sprouts, egg and broth, (sinking less desirable food items in the remaining broth before pushing the bowl away as done) but Ian and our friends all gamely finished off their bowls, upholding the honor of all Americans abroad. Fed and paid up (150元 or US$5 for four full meals), we hit the road.
My maps app said we were only a half-mile away from the museum. We walked up the main road a bit, observing a rusted three-wheeled vehicle as large as a truck and some interesting signs, before turning off onto a side road, and starting up an incline. We passed a resort that appeared to be somewhat abandoned. There were large rocks (maybe 10-15 feet tall?) carved in traditional Chinese cloud motifs, and a wooden amphitheater. The sign at the main building called it Sanyi Sakura Resort, but there was no activity and little evidence of upkeep. To our left, a walkway opened up with some storefronts and what looked like nice motel rooms, so we decided to see what was there.
There did appear to be shops, but a vast majority of them were closed, despite it being just after noon on a Saturday. As best we could figure, this used to be a resort that had now turned into primarily residential housing with a few shops. Bronze statues graced every corner, and the pillars between garages were printed with helpful sayings for a better life. "Don't worry about everything. Be firm and resolute." "Nothing for nothing, and very little for half a penny." "Give compassion a form with concrete actions." "Love your competition." The walkway stones were heavily flecked with mica and sparkled in the mid-day sun. At this point, we were high up enough in the mountain to see other mountains in the distance. The mist partially obscured mountains further away, so that we saw vague impressions of dark hills behind dark hills, fading to white in the haze of the day. The depictions of layered, fading mountains in the distance common in Chinese calligraphy scrolls finally made sense as not impressionism, but truly representational.
After exploring the area for a little bit, I pulled up my maps again and my colleague and I started to figure out the directions we needed to walk in. Then, from around the corner, her husband called out that he was just going to head into the air conditioned art gallery he found. There was a small gallery featuring some nice modern art--primarily large paintings and some ceramic and jade works. One unusual feature of the gallery is that the seating in the individual rooms was more than perfunctory. There was a nicely carved wooden bench in one room, in another there were thick leather couches and chairs, and in another, a dining room table. In a different gallery I would have expected the furniture to be part of the exhibit, and not for sitting on, but the attendants here didn't seem to mind. I guess they were really encouraging visitors to use the space to consider the works in comfort. We got directions to get to the main street to the museum, which was only a few blocks away and once again set out.
Shops containing wood sculptures, large and small, trinkets, baubles, and clothing lined the road to the museum, but our friend at the train station was right, there was very little in the way of restaurants visible. A handful of Asian tourists milled about on the street, and on the steps to the museum, a group of several dozen people who looked like they were students on a class trip took a photo holding a banner. As our friends dealt with an interruption to some of their utility services back at their house in the states, I had a chance to check out the scenery. Behind the museum was a Chinese gate opening to a somewhat damaged walkway into the forest that quickly turned up the hill and out of sight. Perhaps it's a path for another time. The parking lot looked out on more misty mountains. Right across from the museum, they were filming a cooking show, which the sign declared was part of "iWalker Moving Kitchen". They were putting a breaded fish into a smoker while I watched.
The museum didn't allow photography. There was a clearly defined "visitor path" that wound us up and down five floors filled with a little historic art and furniture, and much modern art, both in traditional and non-traditional Chinese/Taiwanese styles. I was most impressed by the carvings of leaves and bugs that were delicate and translucent. I also liked the use of roughened wood grains to produce lifelike fur on apes and pigs. Lots of figures were carved from wood, and I recognized some mythical characters from a television show I had seen. We saw lots of pigs with ingots for prosperity, temple dogs, bixie, mythical characters, Buddhas, cabbages, orchids, toads, fishes, and figural art.
After the museum, we wandered through the shops. At one shop, Ian was standing around, and suddenly ones of the shop ladies started massaging him with a wooden massager. We decided to move on quickly after that. Eventually, Ian and I picked up a few wooden trinkets (a small ruyi scepter, tea tongs, scoop and stirring pick), and four-inch geode with stand. The geode had been cut open and polished, and was displayed with the top piece held vertical, like a box with a lid. Our friends were also successful in purchasing some goods from the various shops, and we shifted focus to try to find some dinner.
(It should be mentioned that the wood carvings are made from aromatic woods, making browsing the shops a very pleasant olfactory event.--Ed.)
The one restaurant we could find wasn't open, and as best we could tell, they said we were supposed to come back in a half hour. We went back to a coffee counter that we passed on the way to the museum to caffinate and wait our time. The lady running the coffee counter saw me hesitate at choosing an espresso drink, and said, "No, you drink my latte, it's the best." So I did. I can say with confidence it's the best latte I've had in Taiwan (though, having stuck to tea primarily). The coffee lady was a little bit crazy, from insisting that I come over to smell the latte before she poured the milk ("It's good, otherwise what's the point?") to making me keep the spoon in all the cups instead of returning them to her ("No, it's got milk, you can stir it as you drink"), to making recommendations about where to eat ("I'm kind of the boss here, you tell them coffee boss sent you and it will be OK!"). Ian suggests that perhaps she had a bit too much coffee herself, but who could blame her?
When Ian was walking around investigating a bamboo grove, he peeked in some windows to see what looked like a lovely dining room, set with candlelit tables and wine glasses. So we thought we'd try our luck to get dinner there. After much walking trying to find our way in, we finally found what looked like a reception area. When we walked in, my friend asked if this was a restaurant They smiled, and seemed to confirm, but then told us we needed reservations. Also, we could not make reservations now, because they would need time to make the food. I'm still not sure what was going on, because they were fully staffed up, apparently open, but didn't want customers. Anyway, it was 4:30, so we went back to the first restaurant
We were welcomed in to a table. The woman who let us in told us she would give us a set menu and we said OK. This was clearly a family-style place, and a glass lazy susan took up a vast majority of the table space. Within a few minutes, they started bringing out dishes. We had a large bowl of rice, most of a chicken, deboned and sliced, something like bok choi, various marinated meat slices (pork, beef, tentacles with suckers, tentacles without suckers) and green onions, a glass dish of somethings that were white and cup shaped (tripe?), a pile of tiny head-on whole fried shrimps on green onions, and a large cauldron of broth with different larger white cup shaped things. I stuck to the bok choi, chicken, rice, and broth. Ian worked on most of the non-tentacled marinated meat, with a few shrimps, and our friends had a lion's share of the tentacles, white cup shaped things and whole shrimp in addition to other food. We all ate our fill and still couldn't finish off the food. We paid for our meal and the clerk called us a taxi. Gratefully, the cab driver didn't blink twice when Ian handed him the card to take us back to Taichung, and about 25 minutes later, we were back home, safe and sound.