Kevin Ko-wen Chen
On the ride up the mountain, I was woken by the alpine mists, which billowed in through the windows and chilled me through my sweater. They made clouds, for the most part dense and opaque, but along the bottom edge, they thinned into embryonic feet that grew and shrank as they moved the clouds along.
I always fall asleep on long car rides. We were taking this trip to Lishan Mountain to meet a tea-maker named Yuan-cheng, whose high-mountain oolong had been some of the best we’d tasted. From Taipei we first drove an hour southeast to Yilan, then three hours down Highway No. 7 to Nantou County, and I drifted in and out of consciousness along the way.
Sharon came along on that ride, too. On the last few trips it had been just the three of us, Tay and Peggy and I, but this time, our schedules happened to align. Sharon was a filmmaker who had shown her dark, brooding films at Cannes and Berlin, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at her, the way she bounced around in the backseat.
The unfortunate thing about Sharon was that she got carsick. Easily. If one minute she was chattering away, the next she was resting her head against the car window, threatening to vomit on the floor. As we wound our way up the mountain, every hour or so we pulled up to the side of the road so she could step out to breathe. Peggy gave her a little piece of Chinese juniper on which had been rubbed essential oils, a kind of makeshift smelling salts.
I hadn’t known what Chinese juniper was until one afternoon in a coffee shop, when I was getting lunch with a friend. We had made the pretense of doing work that day, and before we put away our laptops for good, he showed me the business cards he was designing for the onsen his family operated. They were stylized to resemble the grain of Chinese juniper, a wood his grandfather liked.
After lunch, we stopped by a perfume counter, going through the names of the botanicals: magnolia, sandalwood, frangipani, known in Chinese as “chicken-egg flower.” Why chicken egg? And he told me how the petals were white at the edges but yellow at the core, where the trees grew, what habitat they preferred. He explained as one might explain a concept from a textbook, in all its clinical precision, but in that moment, I saw him as a creature soft and androgynous. How rare is a boy who knows his flowers.
I don’t recall much of the car ride besides the chilly mist or Sharon’s chronic motion sickness. There was that time after we had started the three-hour trip back to Yilan and were listening to Diana Damrau sing the famous aria from Die Zauberflöte when we passed a group of cabbage fields. On the journey up, someone had admired those cabbages, but I had been asleep.
And then there was that time, halfway up the mountain, when Sharon had us stop the car. A chain link fence separated the road from the valley, but there was a little opening that revealed a trampled path running down to a shed. We got out to stretch—someone tried to find a bathroom—and when we were all back by the car again, Sharon had in her hand a fistful of branches fuzzy with small yellow flowers. She held them against our foreheads as if they were crowns.
Sharon might have taken a couple branches with her, but somewhere along the way, we lost them. I can’t remember if they were fragrant or full of pollen, only that they seemed on the verge of scattering, like tears. I wonder if my flower-boy would have known their name.
The region around Lishan Mountain, located in the Heping District of Taichung County, has an elevation averaging 1,900 meters above sea level. This high up, the climate is different from that of the cities. Where in Taipei, temperatures in October hover around a muggy 25 degrees Celsius, in Lishan, the air outside is drier and cooler, sometimes dropping into the single digits at night. Tea is normally picked in bunches that consist of the topmost two leaves and the bud in between, but here, because of the elevation, the leaves grow in tight enough that a single bunch can consist of a bud and three leaves, sometimes four.
On our first day in Lishan, Yuan-cheng took us to see the mountains. We piled into two cars and wound our way up the narrow roads, stopping first at a pavilion that overlooked a valley. At the heart of the valley was a village, small and picturesque, and the light of the golden hour saturated it with a tranquil glow.
Farther up the mountain we went, under looming trees, past fields of silver grass, their stalks ethereal against the sun. At last we reached the man-made “heavenly pond”—which, in size and in grandeur, didn’t quite match its name.
But the view. Turn left, and you saw a chain of mountains beyond the trees, salmon-pink tipping the peaks, a stroke of cloud suspended below. The air so absent of pollution that even far away, the silhouettes of the mountains appeared in stark clarity. I’ve seen mountains before, but never with contours sharp enough to cut the sky. Try as I might with my camera, I couldn’t capture the precision of those edges.
I remember looking at an eye chart in second grade, unable to ascertain the orientation of the E’s, until some configuration of lenses was put on my face and everything became clear.
How I saw the mountains in that hour before dusk was, I imagine, not unlike that day in second grade: the world the same size yet suddenly more infinite, a panoply of details emerging from hiding, and all the light and all the color so engrossing.
1. View of the mountains
2. On the road to Yilan
4. Mountain road
6. Cabbage field
The afternoon sun is still holding steady when we pick up Yuan-cheng’s children from school.
As Yuan-cheng cradles his younger son, still a toddler, in his arms, down the hill come running his daughter and his older son, dressed in their green and yellow uniforms.
It’s a Tuesday, but the school week operates differently in Lishan. To accommodate the teachers, most of whom live down the mountain, classes run ten days straight, followed by four days of break. It is as if time has doubled, the number of workdays twice as many, the respite twice as sweet.
It goes without saying that the country differs from the city, but what struck me most was the lack of convenience stores. In the large cities of Taiwan, they’re ubiquitous: a single block may have two or three. Convenience stores are purveyors of soft drinks and boxed lunches, alcohol and cigarettes, condoms and disposable underwear— but also where you go to pay your bills, print your documents, pick up a package, buy tickets for a movie or train or concert. They become, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, a staple of life.
We wouldn’t see a convenience store in Lishan until we were on our way home. Down the mountain, we stopped at the single 7-Eleven.
The store had just begun operating, its grand opening banner still displayed on the window, and inside, it bore the markers of newness: fresh paint, spotless floors.
Yuan-cheng made the choice to start a family here, a place where convenience still lags. He was, in fact, coming back to his roots: before going to university and working in the city, he had grown up on his family’s farm, the plot of land he had now converted into tea fields.
Sometimes he and his wife fought over the move—she was from Kaohsiung, the secondlargest city in the country, and now she was living on a mountain where once, when the roads had been closed after a flood, the farmers needed to be helicoptered in. But Yuan-cheng wanted his kids to learn about nature, which an urban environment could not replicate.
It will be a while before I consider having kids, although not as far off as I used to imagine. Some time in your twenties the trickle becomes a stream, and every week it seems there is another engagement, another wedding. I missed my first wedding invite last year because I had already committed to being in Taiwan. A year later, our friends still reference it, and the regret that I missed a defining moment of their lives still lingers.
At night, we meet up with Yuan-cheng’s children again. The older son keeps running in the street, teasing us to follow, while his sister, a little more reserved, chides him for misbehaving. We pull him to the side of the road to evade the occasional passing car and promise him a Kinder egg if he behaves. He agrees, though he keeps flashing a naughty grin.
These kids, for whom the concept of weekdays and weekends has blurred, who still have the freedom to put down the iPad and frolic in the fields—what happens when one day they leave the country for the city? When they come to a point when they, too, must decide if they want their own children?
Do they stay in a world where every day, in every corner 7-Eleven, a thousand transactions unfold?
Or do they come back to the village of their childhood, like their father before them, and decide the world was better when time passed twice as slow?
Even if through and through you are a city dweller, even if the night has become unrecognizable to you unless it is illuminated by neon signs and taxi headlights, go somewhere far enough that you can forget what a city is. If the clouds are forgiving, you can count the stars of the Milky Way, name constellations no one thought to name. Point at them: there is Orion, there is Cassiopeia, there is a pattern that reminds me of your palms, and I will look for it every time I can see the stars.
Sometimes, when the high-rises start to press too close, it is good to look at the sky and remember the presence of darker darks and lighter lights. To remember that we built our glowing skyscrapers with streets between them because, in this way, we could pretend to walk the paths of space.
We woke up at 4 a.m., leaving the keys to the hotel rooms at the front desk, where the concierge had yet to appear. The sky was still dyed the deep sapphire of early mornings, when the sun is rising but has yet to crack the horizon.
Up the road we drove, too tired to make much conversation. At the pavilion where the night before Yuan-cheng’s children had stood, jumping on the benches, we set our cameras against the railing.
Peggy had come prepared for an early morning. On the ground beside the pavilion, she lit a candle and set her coffeepot atop it, waiting for the water to boil. I took a sip from her mug and winced—too bitter. I returned to the car and curled up on the backseat, trying to squeeze in a nap.
They call this view the “little Switzerland” of Taiwan. You can see it: the village with its red-roofed houses, ensconced at the base of mountains as transcendent as the Alps. The tea fields were the last place we visited. It had been raining before, but, in the hours before we left, the clouds dispersed, leaving a window of cerulean sky. At some point you almost expect Julie Andrews to come spinning, spinning across the field, singing about how the hills are alive with music.
We had seen the village as the sun was disappearing and now we were seeing it as the sun
was being reborn. It reminded me of mornings when I was younger, when the jetlag that follows a trans-acific flight had spurred me awake. As day broke, I would peer out the window and watch a world creak into motion.
In the backseat, I dozed on and off. Every time I opened my eyes, the sky was a little brighter, the profiles of the houses a little clearer.
The tea fields were the last place we visited. It had been raining before, but, in the hours before we left, the clouds dispersed, leaving a window of cerulean sky.
Getting to the top required a ride in a chairlift. Stretching 250 meters from base to peak, and suspended almost that distance above the ground, it was the shuttle the farmers took every harvest season to ascend the mountain. The chair itself was nothing more than the bottom half of a metal crate—one side was left open, so you had to sit very still as you ascended, the motor whirring softly as it pulled you up—and through the slats in the walls and floor of the chair, you could see the terraced rows of tea shrubs below.
The paths throughout the field were lined with aluminum siding painted green, red, and white.
Trees grew around the periphery, and we often stooped under branches as we walked. Sometimes the slopes were steep, and we had to lower ourselves into the field by gripping the metal frames that crisscrossed the fields like an oversized jungle gym.
In Yuan-cheng’s childhood, the land had once been used to grow produce: apples and peaches and persimmons. In designated parts, it still did. After our tour of the fields, as we awaited the descent in the chairlift, Yuan-cheng’s wife brought out a plastic container of sliced pears, crisp and sweet. We dropped the cores into the valley below, allowing them to decompose and return to the soil.
I recorded a video of the ride down the chairlift, wondering aloud if an ill-timed fall would be covered by health insurance. Wind buffeted my face as I focused on my iPhone’s screen, trying not to look at the view below, yet inevitably drawn to it. The crate in which I sat was dark brown where the paint had worn off; the iron bars that constituted its base were spaced several inches apart, leaving gaps as wide as my feet.
When all that separates you from the plummet is a metal frame, you notice its every detail.
We left the farm and drove down the mountain. We passed the 7-Eleven, the cabbage fields, the village we had seen from the mountains. At a rest stop, I woke up to a text from my friend, the flower-boy: “The thing you sat in was crazy! I want to ride in that, too.” In a hazy stream of consciousness, there appear pinpoints of clarity, like a constellation of stars, like mountains etched against the sky.