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July 24, 2017

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Explorer: Four tucked-away spots for a Hsinchu escape

If you have a scooter, car or bike and live in Northern Taiwan, you're missing out if you never head into the mountains of Hsinchu. Whether you're in the Miaoli foothills or chugging up the eastern side of the Northern Cross-Island Highway, you'll find mountain roads nestled between forest, ideal for clearing your mind. Look harder and you'll find a concentration of attractions that's surprisingly dense. Here's a look at just a few of those in Hsinchu County.

DIRTY BOOTS, FRESH AIR: A forest road

Taiwan has 87 forest roads (林道). These trails, previously used by loggers, hunters and the like, are government-protected. Getting to them can be a hard slog, but the scenery, solitude and crisp air are very much worth it.

Many forest roads are in such dangerous condition that access is restricted by a locked gate. This isn't the case for Luoshan Forest Road (羅山林道), which is nearish Beipu in the southeast of the county.

At the start of it is an old, cobweb-filled cabin still used by hunters. Unless you're coming to do some off-roading, park here and go by foot (with a picnic lunch in your backpack). Stroll with your eyes open and you'll spot wildlife like birds, butterflies, frogs and snakes as you pass picturesque fallen logs, cascading water and mountain trails.

You technically need a permit to enter most forest roads, including the Luoshan one. There is nobody there to check, but you should get one nonetheless. Just find the nearest police station to the road (the Wufeng Township one in this case) and fill out a form. It takes five minutes and is free. The cops will also be happy to give you directions to the road.

REMEMBER THIS FOR SUMMER: A private chillout spot

Beipu Township (北埔), about an hour's drive from Hsinchu City, is worth stopping by. It's a Hakka town and is a good place to pound seeds, nuts, tea leaves and other ingredients into a cup of sweet lei cha.

Even on holidays at its most touristy, it's still more interesting than any old street, with dried persimmons and garlic paste the best choices for something to take home and enjoy during the week.

Follow the signs to the Beipu Cold Spring (they're in English). You'll be following a road that runs beside a river. After about 15 minutes, you'll come to the spring area on the right. This is really just part of the river, with kids running, barbecue and an artificial waterfall. It's nice, but here's what to do if you want a quieter time. Drive a few minutes more and find a shoulder to park on. Jump out and walk next to the roadside barrier, keeping an eye out for a spot with less vegetation.

Once you've found one, hop the fence and carefully slide down the bank to your little piece of heaven, complete with tropical surrounding,

cooling water and the sound of a running brook. Add a cooler of beer and sandwiches and it's perfect.

NO HIKE REQUIRED: A nice waterfall

This one's a bit easier to get to. Step one is just to get onto road 122, which can be done many ways, including from Neiwan. The road narrows and starts getting hilly as you approach Wufeng, a mostly aboriginal township.

It's a nice place to have a gander around, especially for city slickers like me who don't get to rural townships much. It ticks every box in terms of stereotypical, small-town life.

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