The biggest city on the east coast, HUALIEN (花蓮; huālián) sits on a mountain-fringed plain 26km south of Taroko Gorge, making an ideal base for expeditions to Taroko National Park. It is also one of the world’s major producers of marble, and elegant stonework is used liberally all over the city to adorn temples, pavements, the airport and even the train station. The relatively large number of tourists passing through give Hualien a laid-back, holiday-town atmosphere, with a growing number of pleasant teahouses and attractive restaurants where you can try delicious local specialities, as well as a handful of absorbing temples and an inexpensive stone market.
Hualien has a relatively short history, making it something of a frontier town: Chinese settlers from Danshui established the first village in 1851, but conflicts with various aboriginal tribes, including a fierce battle with the Sakizaya, resulted in the colony being abandoned twice and only in the 1890s did a permanent settlement take hold. The Japanese had a strong impact here, the region becoming an immigration zone for poor Japanese families during the occupation era, but Hualien remained a remote place for much of the twentieth century: it wasn’t until the 1920s that the Japanese hacked out a road to replace the old track up the coast to Suao; the Central Cross-Island Highway was completed in 1960; and the rail line from Taipei opened in 1980. Today Hualien is a city of 110,000, unique in having almost equal numbers of Hakka, Hoklo, mainlander and aboriginal citizens: the last group are primarily Atayal and Ami.