The Matai'an (Mǎtài'ān) or Matthew Saddle Wetlands （马太鞍湿地）is about 12 hectares of natural marshland located at the foot of Xishan in Guangfu, Hualien.
Shin Liu Green Farm 欣绿农园 is a guesthouse located at these wetlands. It has been operational since 1999, and is a place that lets you get close to nature. You'll see plants and insects in different seasons: Lotus in summer, firefly season in spring, canola flower and cosmos plants in autumn and winter. There are glow in the dark mushrooms in the hills.
The wetlands are a haven for aquatic plant life and is home to over 100 plant species.
A lotus plantation takes up about five hectares, with the plants in full bloom during summer. The lotus is the county flower of Hualien which means flowering lotus.
It's a beautiful place.
Owner Mr Chu Chin-lang saw the ecological potential of this place when he was looking to establish a leisure farm. He decided to incorporate recreational experiences that would bring closer understanding of the indigenous fishing and farming practices.
Mr Chu buys local produce to feature in meals, and engages the aboriginal tribes as guides in the recreational program. His aim is also to create an environment that will encourage youth to come back and revitalise their hometowns. His efforts in developing the area won him the Shennong Award, which is the highest honour in Taiwan's agricultural industry.
He is an amazingly easy-going, warm-hearted and positive in spirit, always ready with a smile and interesting tidbit to share. Somehow in my travels to Taiwan, it is always the people who impress me the most.
The Mataian Wetland Ecological Park is the traditional homeland of the Mataian Ami (A-mei) people.
In past times, due to the abundance of pigeon peas, the Ami people named this area "Vataan", which means "pigeon peas" in the Ami language. The name "Mataian" evolved from the name "Vataan".
A wooden tower lookout.
A bridge over a stream will lead you to the bigger expanses of marshland. There are walking paths and wooden walkways criss-crossing each other.
The waters here are from mountain springs that just keep flowing.
Don't these look absolutely prehistoric? Well technically they are. Ferns have been around since the Carboniferous Period (350 million years ago). They predate dinosaurs as well as plants with flowers and seeds.
Fern shoots can be delicious though; we got to try some at lunchtime.
Ginger flowers - they have this mesmerising scent you just can't get enough of.
We went on a night tour (around 8pm) with Mr Chu's brother who is quite the expert in natural life; he explained so much to us, it was fascinating. Do it if you can, as the experience will be quite different from the day tour.
You'll get to see lots of demonstrations of aboriginal practices and ingenuity. The aboriginals had interesting ways of cooking in the wild. They made their own organic cooking containers from bamboo, sturdy bark and leaves.
But as these natural containers would burn over a fire, they devised a clever way to cook using heated stones instead. When these superheated stones are dropped into troughs of water with vegetables and fish, you'd get a steaming container of soup!
They also had clever ways of fishing.
The Palakaw is a unique three-tier contraption using large hollow bamboo, crape myrtle branches and other natural materials to lure fish for shelter and then easily trap them. This is a cross-section of a small model.
The palakaw used in the streams.
Roll up your pants and experience fishing the traditional way. The stream is penned up and the fish and shrimp are shaken out to be caught in nets.
The cosy Mapulong Cafe is where we had our meals. They have a bigger restaurant upfront nearer the entrance, but this cafe seems to cater more for private dining as it has only one large table.
Inside you can do some shopping. Indigenous arts and crafts, food items and toys abound.
We had two sumptuous meals here, featuring local produce and some dishes that are aboriginal specialties. All of it is so healthy, you don't feel queasy even when you eat a lot.
Strangely, in my one week touring rural Taiwan and eating fresh local produce, I gained 3kg but dropped 6 percentage points body fat. I have never lost this much fat exercising, so the food has done a miracle for me.
Come and sample a variety of unique, tasty edible wild herbs, including pigeon peas, the fruit of bread fruit trees, yellow rattan palm, tender bamboo shoots, betel nut flower ears and nut palm, water celery, wild bitter melon and so forth.
The Ami women skilfully transform wild herbs and aquatic plants into delicious table delicacies.
Hey we have these too - kacang botol or four-angled beans. I love how colourful the dishes are.
Salt crust roasted fresh tilapia, one of the fish caught in the Fudeng River, is a specialty here. They call this dish the "fish that takes its coat off" because the entire scaly skin is peeled off to reveal the succulent flesh beneath.
The 石頭火鍋 or "hot stone steamboat" is certainly a novelty.
Of notable mention is the wild boar skin, stirfried with chilies, scallions and garlic. It's chewy and crunchy - all the textures I love.
This dish of roasted quail comes with golden battered 菱角 or water caltrops (in the centre), which are so yummy! It's hard to describe the taste - like a cross between macadamia and water chestnuts?
They make their own fermented beancurd here, and it's goes so well with Taiwanese rice. If you love 豆腐乳, make sure you take home some!
Mr Chu is very creative and keeps coming up with innovative products, such as popsicles made with fermented beancurd. Say what? Yeah, savoury ice lollies and they work!
Fermented beancurd also goes into ice cream. He's also made ice cream with purple rice. I think these are even better than the ice lollies.
We had some brothers over from the Shin Kong Chao Feng (SKCF) Ranch & Resort. Every time I come to Taiwan, I expand my Chinese vocabulary; this trip I was learning from my fellow travelers all sorts of new words like 小鲜肉 (little fresh meat aka hot young man), it being used specifically to describe the youngest member of the SKCF team here. They are all part of the dance entertainment troupe at SKCF, and have aboriginal ancestry (probably contributing to that talent).
Upstairs of the cafe is another area that's great for breakfast overlooking the pond and hills. It's quiet and cosy.
They made us quite an unusual fusion breakfast. Waffles with green veggies and herbs? Totally rad. Homemade bread with cheese embedded, some scrambled eggs, and fruit. My ginger flowers made it back with me.
The Shin Liu Farm accommodation itself is very old school, like a minshu from the 1970s. There aren't many rooms; it's much like a large villa. Staying here is really optional, as you can have a full day's program at the wetlands and head off to the hotel of your choice.
The rooms are air-conditioned and have screens to keep insects out. But they are pretty no-frills otherwise. Beds are comfy enough though.
This is what hotels used to be like in the old days, I reckon.
With their eco-minded focus, they do not provide toiletries or towels. Please bring your own!
I haven't seen this much picturesque greenery in a long while. I imagine it would be wonderful to spend long restorative periods here.
One thing to note: you can expect a fair bit of mosquitoes in the wetlands, and some of them are really gigantic. The bites didn't bother me much until one week later when the remnants flared up into itchy, angry red dots. They do go away though. So do bring insect repellant and re-apply generously.
SHIN LIU FARM 欣绿农园
No.60 Daquan St, Guangfu Township, Hualien County 976, Taiwan
Tel: +(886) 3-870-1861
Many thanks to CTC Travel and Taiwan Leisure Farm Development Association for the media trip