Every winter, between about October and March, a rather bleak strip of land at the mouth of the Zengwen River in southern Tainan County temporarily becomes one of Taiwan’s most eagerly watched hot-spots, as countless birders descend on the area to view the critically endangered Black Faced Spoonbill. Around two-thirds of the world’s entire population chooses to overwinter each year on this spot, near the town of Qigu (七股, pronounced chee-goo), just north of Tainan City.
While it’s rare and exotic-looking birds that make Qigu (also spelt Cigu) famous these days, traditionally, the area has a much more prosaic claim to fame: salt. The small, nondescript village is surrounded by huge shallow pools, used either for rearing fish or for the evaporation of salt. Although most ofTaiwan’s salt industry is now automated, in a couple of spots around Qigu, salt extraction is still done the old way.
Qigu’s most famous salt-related ‘attraction’ is its twenty meter-high salt ‘mountain,’ which contains about 50,000 tons of unprocessed salt. Alas nowadays it’s an ugly tourist trap, looking for all the world like a vast, dirty mound of snow, and surrounded by tacky tourist divertissements such as a little train, a model Santa and even a ‘Float on Sea’ pool – a highly saline swimming pool in which, Dead Sea-like, it’s impossible to sink. Lord help anyone who goes in there with an open cut, though!
Much more worth your time is the adjacent Taiwan Salt Museum, which stands in a modernistic new building designed to represent a huge pile of salt. The admission fee (NT$150 for adults) may put some off, but it’s worth paying up as it’s an impressive achievement, somehow managing to make the subject of salt far more interesting than I ever knew. Near the entrance is a gift shop selling everything you can imagine related to salt (and a few things you never dreamed of!). Try the walnut and almond salty ice cream, which actually tastes very good!
Armed with this new knowledge, head out to Jingzijiao Salt Fields (井子腳瓦盤鹽田), signposted off route 17 a couple of kilometers north of Qigu, just south of the town of Beimen(北門). This place is – strangely – off the radar for most visitors to the area, but is a fascinating (and oddly scenic) place to learn a bit more about this once enormously important local industry. Here lies a compact series of irregularly shaped pools, their floors covered in a mosaic of little stones, laid (like crazy paving) to prevent the salt mixing with the mud underneath. Some are filled with seawater (brought in from the sea via a system of ditches and water gates) placidly mirroring the blue sky above, while the water in others has already evaporated completely under the powerful southern sun; the remaining layer of snow-white salt is swept up into small pyramids, one in the center of each pool, ready to be dug up and piled in huge mounds beside the pools by a lady and her wheelbarrow.
Signboards, happily in English as well as Chinese, explain the surprisingly complicated process of extracting salt from seawater by evaporation: from letting seawater into the first (and lowest) evaporation ponds until, ten ponds later, the crystallized salt is dug out, takes over two weeks during the main salt-extracting season (March to May), although the process is begun afresh every three days or so.
In case this sounds like a lot of work to produce a pack of salt that can costs so little at the local supermarket, each crystallization pond here (and there are 98 in all) can process 250 to 350 kilograms of salt every three days!