New Taipei City

Sanjiaopu Mountain (三角埔頂山)

A few years ago I posted a blog about the beautiful Silver Grass (芒花) that appears during the Autumn and Winter months in Taiwan turning the country’s lush green mountains white.

I might have been a bit ahead of the curve as the blog post was the only English-language resource available at the time that introduced the beautiful weeds.

Since then ‘Silver Grass tourism’ has sort of become ‘thing’ around here and people are flocking to mountains all over the country taking photos of the tall grass.

I’d like to think my humble blog post played a small role in that.

Actually no, I jest.

The sudden popularity of Silver Grass-related tourism as of late is probably thanks to what I’ve started to refer to as ‘Insta-tourism.’

To put it simply, trends in domestic tourism in Taiwan these days is almost completely driven by trends on Instagram and Social Media - Think Pokemon Go, but instead of catching a monster, you get to take photos.

In the the west we’ve taken to referring to those people who earn a living from their Instagram following as ‘influencers’ while here in Taiwan they are known as “Internet Beauties” (網美) or “Internet Celebrities” (網紅).

In Taiwan these so-called influencers play a lot of the same advertising roles that they do in other countries but are also very much engaged in driving new trends and introducing new photo locations to their followers.

A single photo from one of these people has the ability to turn what was once a quiet destination (enjoyed mostly by locals) into a social-media sensation.

As an avid hiker, I’ve found that I’ve always been able to climb mountains on weekends and never really had to deal with traffic jams on the trails. Now though, you have to be very selective of what mountains you are climbing as some of them have become popular spots for Instagrammers to roam around.

As I’ve mentioned before, Jinmian Mountain (金面山), Kite Mountain (鷹山), the Sacred Mother Peak (聖母山步道), Yuanzui Mountain (鳶嘴山) and the Pingxi Crags were all hiking trails that were pretty much only frequented by hiking groups. Today they are all filled with people looking not for a good day of exercise but to increase their follower counts.

Whether or not this kind of tourism is a good thing remains to be seen.

As Silver Grass tourism became a popular trends over the past few years, the mountains where it grows in abundance have been filling up with visitors.

Traditionally, the most popular locations to go and check it out has always been on Taipei’s Yangming Mountain (陽明山), Cixing Mountain (七星山), Datun Mountain (大屯山) or on the historic Caoling Trail (草嶺古道).

This year however there was a new contender for the most popular spot thanks to Instagram.

Like many other mountains in Taiwan as of late, what was once a quiet hiking trail frequented only by locals, Sanjiaopu Mountain (三角埔頂山) has became yet another internet sensation thanks to the power of social media.

The mountain which sits on the border of Taoyuan and New Taipei City was once most well-known for its panoramic cityscape views of the Taipei basin. These days however not many people really care about those beautiful views as Silver Grass tourism has completely taken over.

Interestingly enough, despite the local government having constructed a well-maintained hiking path on the mountain, it was never really that popular as most people stayed away due to the fact that the mountain is also home to a cemetery - which in Taiwan automatically means there are ghosts!

Rising only 285 meters above sea-level, Sanjiaopu Mountain isn’t a very big one and doesn’t actually require much hiking. You can drive your car or scooter almost all the way to the top where there is a parking area at the trailhead.

From the trailhead you only really need to walk about five minutes to reach the peak.

Not really a day trip if that’s what you’re looking for. 

There are however several trails on the mountain that allow visitors to walk around the perimeter where you’ll get different panoramic views of the cityscape.

On a clear day you’ll be able to see as far as Guanyin Mountain (觀音山) to the north and Datun Mountain (大屯山) and pretty much all of Taipei City to the east.

The views on top of this mountain are ideal for landscape or cityscape photographers.

While most people enjoy the views of Taipei City from Elephant Mountain (象山), this mountain provides a completely different perspective than what most are used to seeing and is justifiably very popular after dark for unparalleled night views of the city.

These days however its all about the Silver Grass.

Silver Grass (芒花)

Silver grass or ‘Miscanthus Sinensis’ is a species of flowering plant that is endemic to East Asia growing in Taiwan, Korea, Japan and China. In both Taiwan and Japan, the plant is widely respected and when it is in bloom people will flock to the mountains and hillsides to see it.

Coincidentally in North America attitudes toward the plant are the polar opposite as it is considered an invasive species and is usually destroyed to control its growth.

It's interesting that the so-called “weed” is reviled in one area and highly respected in another.

Between the months of October and December you can pretty much see wild silver grass growing all over Taiwan - Its literally everywhere you find a patch of grass.

If you want to see it growing in abundance, or you want to get some photos of yourself in a field full of it - you're going to have to head to the mountains where it grows without impediment.

Check out my blog post from a few years ago where I posted photos of the beautiful Silver Grass from the top of Datun Mountain in Taipei.

Getting There

 

As I mentioned above, Datun Mountain and Yangming Mountain in Taipei have always been most popular thanks to their accessibility when it comes to public transportation.

Unfortunately for the ‘influencers’ of the world, if you want to visit this one, you’re not going to be able to rely on public transportation to get there.

I mean, you could take a bus from Shulin (樹林) to Taoyuan (桃園) and get off somewhere in the middle and then walk a few kilometres up the paved mountain road.

But thats not really the best idea if you want to enjoy your time on the mountain.

If you do insist on using public transportation it’d be best to first take a train to Shulin Train Station (樹林車站) and from there take bus 701, 843, 985 or Orange 26. While on the bus watch for the “New Village” bus stop (新村站) where you’ll get off and begin your 2km walk up the mountain.

On the other hand, if you have your own means of transportation you’ll want to take Provincial Highway #1 (省道台一線) from either Taoyuan (桃園) or Xinzhuang (新莊) and turn off at the Dadong Bridge (大棟橋) where you’ll be transported behind some factories and up the mountain.

The mountain has quite a few side roads though and its easy to get lost, so its probably a better idea to input the words “三角埔頂山“ into Google Maps, which will guide you up the mountain where you’ll be able to park.

I realize that by (purposely) posting this blog well-after the Silver Grass season has ended won’t really help you out very much - especially if you’re an Instagrammer looking for a cool new spot to take photos - You’ll have to wait until next year for that.

This mountain however is a great spot all year long, so if you’re looking for somewhere to take cityscape photos that are going to turn out different than everyone else’s - you’ll definitely want to consider visiting this mountain!

Likewise, if you’re reading this blog just in time for Silver Grass season make sure to visit for the Silver Grass but remember to stay for the cityscape photos - especially at night!


Wanli UFO Village (萬里飛碟屋)

I know that I’ve probably said this a bunch of times on my blog but I’m glad to say it again: Taiwan’s North Coast is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the country.

The fusion of the beautiful ocean on one side with tall green mountains on the other makes the drive along the coast a highly recommended day-trip for anyone visiting Taiwan. The coastal highway which wraps around the perimeter of Taiwan’s northern coast is not only a breathtaking drive but also features a number of tourist attractions along the way ensuring that you’ll never run out of things to see and do.

While the area is known for its breathtaking natural beauty, it is also known as the home of what is considered some of the strangest architecture that you’re going to find anywhere in the country. A short drive from the popular Yehliu Geological Park is Emerald Bay, home to the world-famous “UFO houses.”

The houses, which are part of a beachside community of vacation homes have garnered quite a bit of international attention over the past few years and have been attracting curious onlookers here in Taiwan for almost four decades.

For most people the so-called “UFO houses” are a peculiar sight and if you visit you’ll likely notice that there are more people walking around taking selfies than there are surfers on the beach.

The sad thing about this is that even though people are interested in taking photos for the Instagram collection, they are far less concerned with the story as to why the houses are even there in the first place or that they could disappear without any notice.

In fact, the “UFO Houses” which are officially known as “Futuros” have an interesting history and the small community of houses on Taiwan’s North Coast consists of the highest concentration of this architectural design in the world. 

To highlight the dire situation the Futuros face, and to clear up a bit of confusion, I think its important to first point out that the coastal area was also once home to the a similar vacation community known as the “Sanzhi Pod Houses” (三芝飛碟屋). People often confuse the ‘Pod Houses’ with the ‘UFO Houses’ as they were somewhat similar in design.

If you are here looking for the Pod Houses, I’m sorry to report that you’re in the wrong place and that they have unfortunately already been demolished. The Wanli UFO Houses are unfortunately all that remains of Taiwan’s ‘alien’ spacecraft-style of vacation homes. 

Even though the Pod Houses attracted quite a bit of attention, in typical Taiwan fashion, they were there one day and gone the next without any prior notice.  

The Wanli UFO Houses may ultimately one day face a similar fate. 

 LinkThe Haunted Sanzhi UFO Houses (Photos from my friend Carrie Kellenberger)

Futuro Architecture

What exactly is Futuro Architecture and why are there UFO-looking houses on Taiwan’s North Coast?

The alien spacecraft-looking structures were the brainchild of Finnish Architect Matti Suuronen in the late 1960s. The Futuristic design was an expression of creativity that was thought would attract buyers but the concept was a bit more altruistic as it was thought to be a viable answer to help solve housing issues all over the world.

A Futuro was essentially a round pill-like structure that was constructed using lightweight fibreglass-reinforced plastic. The construction material not only made the houses considerably light but eliminated the need for insulation as the martial helped to keep the house warm.

The interior of each unit consisted of a living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom and private bedroom all squeezed into a floor space of 50 square meters.

Adding to their convenience, the pill-like part of the house was supported off of the ground by a four-legged metal base which eliminated the necessity for expensive grading or excavation. This meant that the Futuros could be placed on virtually any topography and also that they could be easily transported if owners suddenly wanted a change in scenery! 

Once the design was perfected and ready for mass production the designers also made available specialized furniture and allowed for customizable fully-furnished packages.

Unfortunately due to the volatility of the global economy, less than a hundred of the pre-fabricated homes were constructed before production was shut down in 1973.

Factors which included the skyrocketing price of plastic and oil (caused by the 1973 oil crisis) made construction of the houses extremely expensive to manufacture and transport.

Even though the houses were considered a commercial failure, the conceptual design of a Futuro home (even fifty years later) continues to give off the impression of modernity and their memory continues to command quite a bit of fascination today, especially among designers and architects. 

One could only imagine that if it weren’t or the oil crisis that there would be thousands if not millions of people living in homes like this today.  

There are an estimated sixty Futuro home’s in existence today and can be found (mostly) throughout America and Europe but as I mentioned above the highest concentration can be found here in Taiwan.

More in-depth information about Futuro Homes can be found here:

The Futuro House (The internet’s best resource about these homes)

Taiwan’s Futuro Village

New Taipei City’s Wanli District (萬里區) is a rural area most well-known for its fishing harbours and the Yehliu Geopark (野柳地質公園) which (for some strange reason) is one of Taiwan’s most popular tourist attractions.  

A short distance from the popular geopark is the surfing community known as either “Feicui Bay” or “Emerald Bay” (翡翠灣). The beautiful white sand beach also happens to be a tourist attraction but for a completely different kind of tourism.

Emerald Bay was once a popular resort area that provided the people of Taiwan with the rare opportunity to enjoy a beach vacation during a time when most of Taiwan’s coastline was off-limits. Back in the days when Taiwan’s economy was unstoppable, the area, like many other around Taiwan was developed for mass tourism with not only these vacation homes but large resorts.

Unortunately Taiwan’s economy eventually slowed down and the tourists that once packed the beach and the hotels all but disappeared leaving Emerald Bay to become somwhat of an abandoned ghost town.

In a recent blog post I wrote about the abandoned Sesame Hotel which was part of a resort area that was highly developed for tourism during the years known as Taiwan’s Economic Miracle (台灣奇蹟). The story of what happened to the Sesame Hotel is almost a mirror-image of what happened at Emerald Bay and many other areas that were set up for tourism during that period. 

To sum things up briefly, in the 1970’s and 80’s Taiwan was able to achieve unbelievable economic growth becoming a global powerhouse and one of the “Four Asian Tiger” economies. The ‘miracle’ referred to Taiwan’s rapid industrialization and economic growth and the nation’s ability to manufacture and produce electronics for global markets. 

The miracle made a lot of people extremely rich and in turn ‘trickled down’ to almost everyone in Taiwanese society who could now enjoy the newfound ability to spend money on leisure activities. 

Emerald Bay’s fate as a failed as a tourist resort area was not an isolated incident in Taiwan as many of the areas that were developed around the country for mass-tourism quickly became unsustainable business ventures when the economy started to slow down.

The story of Emerald Bay starts with Mr. Su Ming (蘇銘), a government official who fled to Taiwan with the Nationalist government after the Chinese Civil War.

After spending several decades serving his country as a civil servant he decided to retire and start a new life as an entrepreneur. Su’s first venture was to produce sarsaparilla soda drinks for American servicemen who were stationed in Taiwan. 

The drink quickly became a hit with locals who saw the Americans drinking it which allowed Su to amass a large fortune in a short period of time. Being a savvy businessman he he later diversified his fortune into different companies producing household items like toothpaste and laundry detergent.  

While Su was making his fortune, hotels, resorts and amusement parks were popping up all over the country. One area that that was severely lacking however were beach resorts. This is because at the time martial-law was still in effect and beaches were military-controlled areas and thus off-limits.

Luckily Su Ming still had contacts within the government and was able to use those relationships to help bypass certain regulations which allowed for the purchase beach front property. Similar to Su’s idea to produce drinks for Americans, the government was able to get on board with his plan for a beach resort solely because it was in their best interests to cater to the needs of American servicemen who were stationed in the area as America was providing aid and military assistance.  

In the 1980’s construction started on the “UFO Houses” (太空玲瓏屋) which were imitations of Matti Suuronen’s Futuro-style homes. The homes were billed as ‘perfect’ vacation homes for American soldiers stationed in Asia as well as wealthy residents of Taiwan.

Su Ming, who is said to have been quite forward thinking considered the futuristic design of the houses to be a good fit for modern Taiwanese society which was interested in western styles of architecture and designs that would stand out from what was most common here. 

The reported price for one of the homes was about $3 million Taiwanese Dollars ($90K USD) with sales boosted locally thanks to the help of the popular television show “Happy Holidays” (歡樂假期) hosted by Taiwanese celebrity Bao Gaoliang (包國良).

The Futuro-style homes however were only part of the first phase of development in the area as Su also had plans for large hotels and hot spring resorts. Unfortunately nothing lasts forever - When the economy started to cool off and the number of tourists started dropping investors in the project started getting cold feet which left several development projects unfinished and the area in a bit of a mess.

In retrospect, Emerald Bay was a pretty poor choice as a location for a resort or a number of reasons:

  • The summers are long, hot and humid and most locals don’t like tanning. 
  • The winters are miserable, cold, windy and rainy. 
  • The bay was never really safe or suitable for swimming. 
  • Hanging out at the beach on the weekends is something that never really caught on here.  
  • Going anywhere near the ocean during Ghost Month is culturally taboo.  

So, like what happened at many of Taiwan’s other tourist attractions and resorts, the area was pretty much abandoned by both tourists and investors. The UFO homes remained the property of their owners though, so even though the resort area was abandoned, the homes continued to be occupied for quite a few years afterwards. In fact, a few of them are still inhabited today. The commercial abandonment of the area around it though likely factored into people’s decision to stop coming.

It is unclear how many Futuro homes were originally constructed on the property but today there are at least thirteen remaining on site. Most if not all of them have been abandoned.

In addition to the “Futuros” there are also a number of “Venturos” which are similarly designed homes that were also designed by architect Matti Suuronen. The Venturo houses that are on site tend to be in much better condition than the Futuros and quite a few of them are still occupied today.

There is debate as to whether the beach houses have anything to do with Suuronen or if they were merely just copies of his original design. From the available literature that I’ve found in Chinese it is clear that the Futuros here were all constructed well after Suuronen’s company ended production and it is also highly unlikely that they would have had the houses imported from Europe.

Adding to the argument that the Futuros in Wanli are “Made in Taiwan” versions are the differences in design from Suuronen’s original concept. The houses here are not propped up by a four-legged metal base (so that they could be easily transported) instead are placed on a concrete base elevated much higher off the ground. Additionally there is a solid set of concrete stairs that leads up to the entrance. 

There is quite a bit of information online about the Wanli UFO homes, especially in English, but I’d be a bit careful about what I’d take as fact. The best resource I’ve found in English is the Futuro House website which has compiled a lot of information from different content creators and chronicles the design of the houses as well as where you can find them. The site has also devoted quite a bit of information introducing the Wanli homes with help from my good friend Alexander Synaptic.

The homes continue to attract quite a bit of interest from both locals and foreigners and is a popular spot for people to stop by and take photos. If you plan on visiting you’ll want to be a bit careful about where you are exploring as some of the homes are still inhabited and there are guards patrolling the property. You are of course free to walk around the community as long as you stay respectful.

Getting There

 

Since the demolition of the famed Sanzhi Pod Houses, people often ask if the Wanli Futuro Homes still exist. The small beach-side community is of great interest to quite a few people but it seems most people are unaware of their exact location or if they’re still around.

The small community of homes is located at Feicui Bay (翡翠灣) in Taiwan’s northern village of Wanli (萬里). If you have a car or a motorcycle, the beach is a short drive from Taipei via the north coast highway or the route which takes you over Yangmingshan (陽明山).

If you are relying on public transportation you can either take the train to Keelung and transfer to bus 790 from there or take bus 1815 directly from Taipei City Hall bus station getting off at the Feicui Bay stop.

Bus links - Bus 1815 from Taipei | Bus 790 from Keelung 

The future of Wanli’s “UFO” village is currently undecided - Even though the village still has a few residents most of the Futuro’s have been abandoned and are currently in a state of disrepair. A look at any of the recent news stories about the area shows that there have been discussions about either demolishing them or preserving them.

A decision on the matter has yet to have been made, but as I mentioned earlier, when it comes to Taiwan, they could ultimately disappear without any prior notice. At this point only time can tell what will happen to these beautiful homes.

I will endeavour to keep track of any future developments and will keep this blog updated if something happens. If you are unsure as to whether the community is still around, the fastest way to get your answer is to search #wanliufovillage or #飛碟屋遺址 on Instagram which will give the most recent conditions. Likewise you can check the Futuro House website, which is the best resource on the internet with regards to this style of architecture as well as the Wanli community.