Pure Taiwan A Trip to the Eastern Part of the Island

Text / Carlos E. Hernandez
Photos / East Coast National Scenic Area Administration, Tourism Bureau, Kenny Wu
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On assignment by the Youth Commission, young traveler Carlos E. Hernandez recently went on a three-day camping trip to the scenic eastern part of Taiwan.

During my trip to eastern Taiwan, I was constantly reminded of Middle Earth, the land described in J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy stories. Like Middle Earth, Taiwan has, throughout its history, been subject to invasion and hegemonic control by outside powers. These outside influences and several waves of immigration from mainland China over the last centuries have created a remarkably diverse culture.

In the same context, the East Coast of Taiwan might be compared to two other Tolkien-concocted lands, Shire and Rivendell. Like Shire, eastern Taiwan is inhabited by people living a somewhat simpler life, with less worries and stress than those in other parts of Taiwan. And like Rivendell, eastern Taiwan is in a manner "protected" from an invasive threat - rapid industrial expansion in western Taiwan - by a natural barrier, the Central Mountain Range.

No, this is not an analysis of literature, just an allegorical introduction to the rugged eastern part of Taiwan that faces the vast Pacific Ocean and is rather unblemished by the modern developments seen elsewhere on this island. Exactly the wonderful land where my trip took place.

Land of Marble: Hualien and Taroko Gorge

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The city of Hualien, the starting point of my three-day camping trip, besides being a fine tourist destination itself, is one of the most convenient bases for explorations in eastern Taiwan. The problem is just deciding where to go, because there are so many options available. While it proved difficult for me to find enough information before arriving in Hualien, once at the Tourist Information Center (Tel. (03) 836-0634), located right in front of the main railway station, I was surprised by the number of attractions I could choose from that were not part of my initial journey plan.

The city's greatest claim to fame is marble. Huge amounts of pure marble are contained in the land around Hualien, and while visiting the city it is hard to not come across the stone. Look around at the airport terminal if you arrive by plane, check out the sidewalks of the city, examine temples and hotel lobbies - the brilliant stone, used freely both for building and decoration, makes Hualien a truly special city.

To get to Taroko Gorge - one of the top tourist spots in Taiwan - I rented a motor scooter. Renting motor scooters is very common in the tourist areas of Taiwan and often the best option for getting around - provided you have an international driver's license and feel up to the task of taking to Taiwan's oft-challenging roads. Rental shops can usually be found close to railway stations and rental fees are about NT$500/day.

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For the first 20 minutes or so outside the city, headed north, it was flat, open, green land. But once I got to the high-rising mountains the road started twisting and curving, and the scenery became increasingly gorgeous. It's rather hard to describe Taroko's grandness. The spectacular, dramatic cliffs of marble, deep-green forests, deep canyons, and wild waterfalls and rapids are simply awe-inspiring. The road, tunnels, bridges, and other landmarks themselves are interesting. But what really astonished me was the magical feeling of being surrounded by the ethereal and boundless night scenery. The mysterious mountain hulks illuminated by the moonlight and enchanted river running between them invited me to stay overnight, to absorb a deeply quiet and peaceful setting. I pitched my tent at Heliou Campground (Add: No. 2 Tiansiang Rd., Fushih Village, Sioulin Township, Hualien County; tel: (03) 869-1190), which is about 3km east of Tiansiang, the only town in the gorge.

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Well, my feeling of spirituality lasted until I began mentally salivating over a hot chocolate, so I rode from my campsite to a nearby hotel. While seeking to satisfy my chocolate fixation I was kindly invited to an aboriginal show. Indeed, I was there just at the right time, able to witness a series of activities that were part of the annual Amis Harvest Festival. To my surprise it was all free! The cost of just a single cup of chocolate, one might say, covered the whole show. It was an unforgettable experience, dancing with the local native peoples under the light of the moon - and being close to the beauty of the Amis ladies. Similar tribal-dance performances are regularly staged for visitors in other places where Taiwan's native peoples live, but nothing compares to getting so close and interacting with these great, friendly people and learning about their fascinating culture.

Rafting on the Siouguluan River

The birds and the sunshine woke me up the next morning at my marvelous Taroko outdoor hotel. I got ready for the second day of my journey. Being an adventure-seeking backpacker, this promised to be the best day of my trip.

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I had made prior arrangements at the Tourist Information Center, and a small bus was waiting for me at Hualien Railway Station to take me to the starting point of the white-water rafting trip on Siouguluan River. After arriving at Rueisuei, about 2 hours by car south of Hualien city, things were a bit confusing at first. Instructions regarding safety, what to do, and what not to do were only given in Chinese. The good thing in Taiwan is, however, that almost certainly there is someone close by who will help you with translation. It didn't take long before I was invited by a group of cute English-speaking junior high-school girls to join their team.

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Rafting on the Siouguluan River is a 22-km trip with both class 2 (fairly frequent but unobstructed) and class 3 (numerous high, irregular waves covering raft) rapids. To me, however, all the rapids seemed to be of the highest class. It was a few days after a typhoon, when the waters were at their angriest, and considering how light my companions were, I worried all the way from start to end and was indeed quite scared. As expected, we fell out of the raft several times; one time I thought it was going to be my end. The 5-hour thrill-ride through breathtaking mountain scenery was absolutely marvelous. Despite one accidental adventure underwater where I lost my new shoes, I arrived intact and happy at the end-point, which is located just before the river meets the ocean, not far from the coastal highway.

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After I walked barefoot towards the visitor center and picked up my stuff, a car from the rafting company took me to a place further along the coast, called Shihtiping. There I ventured out onto a magnificent rocky foreshore. The mountains behind the coastline, the rock formations resembling giant steps of stone, and the small fishing harbor nearby created an impressive panorama. While descending to the camping area (Shihtiping Campsite; Add: Shihtiping, Fongdu Township, Hualien County; tel: (03) 878-1452), I was enchanted by the spectacular beauty of the seashore right in front of me. The scenic background and the perfect conditions of this campsite make Shihtiping a top spot for camping in Taiwan.

After pitching my tent for my second lonely night, I walked to Shihti to have dinner. This is a small village of fisherfolk, which I didn't expect to find so interesting. However, walking along the harbor I was told about whale-watching tours and night-fishing trips launched from here, which unfortunately I didn't have time to go on. But I surely will come back one day.

Naruwan to Taitung!

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After spending a night accompanied by the sound of waves of the Pacific Ocean spread before me, I continued my trip southwards by bus. I soon crossed the Tropic of Cancer and entered Taitung County. On my way along the coast I saw many villages inhabited mainly by members of the aboriginal tribes living in this part of Taiwan - Amis, Atayal, and Puyuma. I was amazed by their friendliness and I was tempted to greet everyone with "Naruwan," the traditional way of saying "Hello" among the Amis.

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Shortly after reaching the outskirts of Taitung City, I came to Siao Yeliou ("Little Wild Willows"). This was to be my last camping stop (Siao Yeliou Campground; Add: No. 500 Songjiang Rd., Sec. 1, Taitung City; tel: (089) 281-136). The geological features of Siao Yeliou are its main attraction. Wind and water have been sculpturing, over many thousands of years, a collection of rock and coral formations of surrealistic beauty.

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But again, it was the beauty of the local people that I liked the most. At a small coffee shop, a modest but substantial lunch was served to me by a sweet-smiling lady. While she told me about the local organic rice used in preparing the meal I contemplated how important rice is to the people of Taiwan. This is especially true in eastern Taiwan, where farms produce some of the island's best rice varieties. Rice paddies are also a main component of the panoramic views to be found in Taitung County.

Before concluding my East Coast camping tour I decided to visit two more interesting sites in Taitung, the National Museum of Prehistory and Beinan Culture Park. Here you can find fascinating exhibitions on Taiwan's natural history and the history of her indigenous peoples, and you can even check out sites where archeologists continue to excavate treasures from the past.

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Three days will allow you only a glimpse of the fascinating beauty of Eastern Taiwan, for there is so much to explore in this pristine part of the island. I will definitely be coming back soon, and hope to meet up with you!