Saturday January 5, 2013
Natural attractions of Taiwan
Story and photos by AZMAH ABIDIN
Whether it’s the highlands and tribal people, river adventures or dolphins that you like, Hualien in Taiwan is the place to go.
HAVE you ever seen dolphins? No, not the ones in theme parks, but wild ones in the open sea.
I had only seen them on TV until I was lucky enough to come across a school of spinner dolphins in the Pacific Ocean, off Taiwan.
We were on a whirlwind tour of Hualien, on the east coast of Taiwan, on the invitation of the Hualien state Tourism Board and AirAsia.
Hualien, prior to Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945, was known as kilai, an aboriginal name. But to the Japanese, the name sounded like kirai, which in their language means “dislike”. So they changed it to a name that’s pronounced “Hualien” in Mandarin.
Hualien is the largest county in Taiwan and has 13 townships and a population of 350,000. Last year alone, it received six million tourists, local and foreign. Hualien may not be as popular a tourist destination as Taipei or Kaohsiung, but it is not hard to fall in love with the place.
It does not have skyscrapers, but who needs them when you have majestic mountains and cool air, indigenous people and the allure of the Pacific Ocean. Simply put, this is where nature lovers and adventure seekers will feel right at home.
Our train took three hours to reach Hualien fom Taipei. From there, we took another train to Xincheng township where we were greeted by Grace Wang, our tour guide.
Our first stop – Taroko National Park.
Taroko, which means “magnificent” and “beautiful”, is located where the Central Cross-Island Highway and the Suhua highway meet. It’s well-known for majestic mountains, marble canyons and deep gorges. The gorge was formed by the Liwu River, which cuts across the marble mountains. Due to constant tectonic movement, cliffs, faults and creases are very common here.
The Taroko National Park was established in 1986 and covers more than 92,000ha in the northern section of the Central Mountain Range. Many of its peaks tower above 3,000m. I asked about the entrance fee and was told that it was free!
You can rent a bicycle, scooter or hire a taxi to take you there. Once inside the park, you can choose to hike up the numerous trails.
As our van took us on the meandering route towards Swallow Grotto, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe. How on earth did the workers build the road that cut across the mountain range? Mind you, these are rocky, marble cliffs.
According to Wang, the road was built by approximately 5,000 to 6,000 workers daily, mostly retired army personnel, from 1956 to 1960. As heavy machinery was unavailable then, the workers used simple tools, explosives and their sheer might to carve the highway through the rugged terrain, all 12km of it. Along the way, 226 people died.
To commemorate those who perished, the Eternal Spring Shrine was constructed.
At Swallow Grotto, we saw the holes on the surfaces of the cliffs that gave rise to the name, a result of long-term erosion by river and groundwater. Here, house swifts and Pacific swallows nest in the summer (June to August).
As we alighted the van, we were given a raincoat each as it was drizzling, and had to wear hard hats as rockfalls are common in the area. A little walk, and I was greeted by the breathtaking sight of the gorge.
About 500m below was the clear, turquoise river, untouched and pure. It was unlike anything that I had seen in my life. All of us were just dumbfounded by the sheer beauty. Before long, Wang announced that we would be hiking up the Baiyang Trail.
The trail began in a tunnel spanning 380m. It was pitch dark and we relied on the flashlight. Forty minutes on, past six tunnels and lush foliage, we reached our destination — the Baiyang Waterfalls.
The water from the two-tier waterfalls came gushing down into the deep valley as I stood on the suspension bridge above the stunning river. After a short rest, we dragged our soaking wet shoes back to the van. It was only 5pm but it was getting dark.
We reached Leader Village Taroko, a hotel within the national park. All I could think of then was to get my dirty shoes off and head for the hot shower. But Joseph Cheng, our host, had other plans.
The original inhabitants
After dinner, the hotel staff, all of whom were from the Taroko tribe, performed dances for us. The men performed the warrior dance, the girls sang sweetly in their mother tongue and another performer played the bamboo harmonica with his nose.
The Taroko are one of the 14 tribes found in Taiwan.
In the olden days, they hunted for food besides practising slash-and-burn agriculture. When at war with other tribes, they used to cut off their enemies’ heads. This custom was abolished many years ago, as have the initiation rituals of facial tattooing.
As development creeps in, the younger people are slowly losing grip of their traditions. This is where Cheng comes in. Although he is not one of the tribesmen, he feels it is his duty to keep the culture of the Taroko alive.
“My hotel is the only one in Taiwan that employs 100% aboriginal people,” he said proudly. “And my staff and their children are the ones who perform traditional dances for our guests.”
I later spoke to Wu Suchi, 29, a worker at the hotel, who said it was sad that the younger people were losing touch with their heritage.
“I hope something is done to help the tribe from being wiped out. Currently, there are two villages up in the mountains but only the elderly people are left. Their children have left in search of a better future in the city,” she said.
Today, most of the Taroko are spread out in towns like Chengdu, where Wu lives with her family of six.
For the adventurous
Our next activity was canyoning, or more commonly referred to as “river tracing”. The San Tzan River, also known as Pratan, is the perfect place for beginners.
River tracing is basically going from one end of the river to the source. It sounds simple but it involves numerous activities like rock climbing, swimming, rappelling, orienteering and camping. Our river tracing instructor Chang Kim gave out wet suits, life jackets and a safety helmet each.
“Let’s go,” he called out.
At times, we had to walk hand-in-hand to get across the river as the current was quite fast. Along the way, we were shown wild plants with medicinal value.
“There are many wild boars here. There are times when the boars will go near the water for a drink but (somehow) slip and drown. That is, however, good news for the hunters,” he quipped.
The highlight was when we did a 3m jump from a rock into the cold water. It looked dangerous but I tried it anyway, gulping litres of water as I made my jump.
“Hey, that wasn’t so bad,” I thought.
Then, Chang asked, “Who wants to try another challenge?” pointing to a cliff.
I wanted out, but a companion cajoled me into it. In just five minutes, I found myself up on the cliff, and 6m below me was the dreaded river. I said a little prayer before calling out to Ken, one of the instructors, to be there for me.
Then I closed my eyes and jumped off the cliff and swallowed more water.
Lure of the Pacific Ocean
Next, we headed for the sea. Hualien waters are rich with marine life. The North Equatorial Current, known as Kuroshio Current, brings the migratory fish close to the coast. These fish attract predators like whales and dolphins.
We were asked if we needed anti-seasick medication beforehand. I thought I could do without it. Boy, was I wrong. Fifteen minutes into the journey, the sea became choppy although the weather was clear.
“It’s nearing winter, that’s why,” said Wang, adding that whale-watching trips were mostly organised from April to November.
Thirty minutes in, and not a single dolphin or whale appeared. By this time, I was feeling sick. A fellow Malaysian threw up, another was lying on the bench on the deck below.
My roommate, Rara, from Indonesia, fell asleep despite the tumbling ride. She had taken the anti-seasick medication, apparently.
I was feeling nauseous and cold, and my tummy was acting up too. So imagine my relief when Wang said we would be turning back. As the captain was turning the ship round, he spotted something and quickly stopped.
“Dolphins!” he shouted.
Everyone, including the seasick (me too) sprang to our feet and rushed to the side of the ship. There they were, about 10 spinner dolphins, swimming around the ship.
“Aah, beautiful creatures.” It was like they were greeting us, making a few circles around us. I had forgotten about my pains and snapped away with my camera. It was a good five minutes before the dolphins slowly moved away from our sight.
When in Hualien, you should visit Li Chuan Golden Clam farm, where freshwater clams are cultivated. The clams are said to be rich in choline, widely used to treat diseases related to the liver.
Li Chuan, who inherited the business from his father, now owns ponds spread over an area as big as 1,500 football fields. It is at these ponds that he also rears tilapia and silver perch. Children can try their hand at picking clams at a shallow pond near the visitor centre.
At the Wuhe Tourist Tea Plantation in the Rueisuei township, visitors can try roasting, grinding and making their own coffee. But if this is not your cup of, urm, tea, then try the other huge attraction – a hot spring.
Dozens of hot spring resorts dot this township. They were made popular by the Japanese during their occupation of Taiwan (from 1895 to 1945). Summer is the best time, but any time is a good time, as the warmth of the Taiwanese people will make you feel welcome.
AirAsia X flies 11 times weekly to Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport, so you have no excuse for not planning a trip.
Now, excuse me while I sink into my premium flatbed seat and dream of my wild escapade in Hualien. I hope to be back some day.
Taiwan's Hualien specialties