Jiyeoun and I took a day trip to Wulai (pronounced Ewh-lie) last weekend. We've been there twice before to visit a hot spring resort. The town is famous for them. But, this time we also spent some time looking around Wulai's main street.
The hot spring spa that brought us back to Wulai for the third time is high up on the side of a mountain overlooking the river. It's totally swank and unlike any place I have ever seen. The main, entry building is spectacular. It has a pink stucco facade, huge bay windows overlooking the valley below, high vaulted ceilings, and a wide winding oak staircase. But, what is most impressive about the place is the bathing area. The baths -- there are seven -- are scattered around an immaculate outdoor tropical garden populated with palm trees, flowering bushes, and plush lawns. The pools are covered by stained, wood gazebos capped with straw roofs and connected by inlaid brick and stone pathways. The only thing I've seen comparable is in travel brochures for five-star resorts in the Bahamas.
But, the best part is you can enjoy the whole calming, tropical atmosphere and the steaming, hot-spring pools in your birthday suit. The spa is separated by the sexes and hidden behind a high wood fence and dense vegetation. Visitors enter the bathing area through the locker rooms. They change out of their clothes, stow their valuables, and lockup. They are all assigned a bag containing two towels and a pair of bath slippers. When customers exit the locker room, they are confronted by a bay of showers. They are expected to wash up and then are free to wonder the outdoor bathing area naked as a jay bird.
Now, I am no exhibitionist, hedonistnist, or nudist. But, there is nothing as freeing as wondering around a jungle garden bare-assed and dangling. Very primal. My favorite thing to do is stew in the hottest pool until I'm cooked and jump into the ice-cold pool. Goose bumps run along my flesh and my skin turns as tough as leather. My heart speeds up and a cool breeze runs through my brain. I sit in the cold water as long as I can stand it, return to the hottest pool, and repeat the process. I can sit in the ice-cold water much longer than the hot. There's something deeply invigorating about the cold -- becoming one with a still block of ice. Nice. (Sorry, there are no pictures of the inside of the spa for obvious reasons.)
After the hot spring, we went to downtown Wulai -- the whole 300 yards of it (pictured above). Wulai was originally an small aboriginal village. The original name for the town, Kirofu-Ulai, comes from Atayal. Hence, Wulai is famous for is native food or, as Taiwanese call it, mountain food. Surprisingly, sitting in a steaming hot tub of water works up an appetite in a man. So we took full advantage of the opportunity the combination of our empty stomachs and Wulai's wonderful food provided.
We started our aboriginal, gastronomic tour at the wine and sweets shop. Apparently, the native Taiwanese people make damn good fruit wines. But, no one except me wanted to down a bottle of wine in the middle of main street before dinner. Instead, we sampled some fresh made rice cake balls. They didn't seem particularly "native" but I wasn't complaining. They tasted excellent. The sweets come in trays of 15-20. Customers could mix and match flavors including green tea, cinnamon, brown sugar, and sweet potato. The ladies in the picture below made the rice cakes to order and the four of us -- mostly Jerry -- polished off a full tray.
From the wine and sweet shop, we moved on to the grill stand (picture below). For 100 Taiwan Dollars ($3 US) customers could pick from a menu that included chicken, shrimp, sausage, breaded anchovys, fish balls, beef, tuna, pork, and mushroom skewers. The lady threw our selections on the grill and 4-5 minutes later we had steaming kebobs.
There was a table next to the stand with a wide assortment of sauces: green salsa, barbecue, spicy mustard, wasabi, garlic etc. (picture below). Customers were invited to slather their order in the sauce of their choice and chow down on the street. My favorite kebobs were the shrimp and mushroom. The shrimp were whole and unshelled with antennae and all. The lady dowsed them in black pepper before handing them over, steaming hot. They had the consistency I imagine roasted locus have coming off the grill: crunchy with a soft, juicy meat filling. The spice bit the sides of my mouth. The mushrooms were fresh, fat, and wet. Juices ran off the skewers when she handed them over. We slathered them in garlic sauce so strong we could taste it in our mouths when we woke up the next morning and gulped them down one fat mushroom head at a time.
Lastly, we went to a native restaurant. (The picture below is a picturesque version of the one we patronized.) The fair was very simple: steamed and flavored with garlic and salt. The vegetables sat outside the restaurant and dinners selected the greens they wanted steamed like people pick fish at a market. The cook threw it into a pot and slid it onto your table minutes later. The steamed vegetables did little for me. The all tasted similar after the heavy seasoning.
But, what was awesome was the steamed, rice-stuffed bamboo (foreground ground of picture below). The dish is made by chopping bamboo into cylinders. The bottom is closed and the top is open. The bamboo is filled with flavored (nuts and brown grain, maybe) rice and steamed. Dinners crack open the bamboo along the scored side and eat out the sticky rice. The bamboo membrane comes with it. Yummy!
From there, we dragged our blotted bellies and blissful smiles back to the car. Kings don't live this well.