Nowhere in Taiwan shatters the myth of the island as an industrial wasteland more resolutely than its pristine east coast, cut off from the country’s crowded west and north by the cloud-piercing central ranges. While the region is best known for the awe-inspiring Taroko Gorge – the centrepiece of Taroko National Park – it encompasses a broad array of geological wonders. The plunging Qingshui Cliffs in the north of Taroko National Park are among Asia’s most magnificent, while the East Coast National Scenic Area and East Rift Valley National Scenic Area are defined by picturesque landscapes and outdoor activities: hiking, surfing, snorkelling, diving, and whitewater rafting on rivers such as the Xiuguluan. The main cities of Hualien and Taitung are fairly slow-paced and well equipped for tourism, with numerous companies offering tours of nearby attractions. And just off the coast of Taitung are two exotic Pacific islands, both easily accessed by air and sea and fringed with coral suitable for snorkelling and diving. The closer, Ludao (Green Island), was a centre of exile for political prisoners during the White Terror of the 1950s, while the less touristy Lanyu (Orchid Island) is home to the Tao people – by far the most isolated of Taiwan’s aboriginal tribes.
The region is visibly marked by ethnic diversity, with Taiwan’s densest concentration of indigenous peoples: seven officially recognized tribes are represented here, and their relative isolation has enabled them to preserve many of their traditional beliefs, languages and practices. The stretch between the cities of Hualien and Taitung is the heartland of the Ami, and scattered throughout are villages of the Atayal, Bunun, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Sakizaya and Tao people. Visiting the area during a festival period – the busiest of which is in July and August – gives a fascinating glimpse into a seldom seen side of Taiwan.
Just to the south of Hualien is a crossroads, giving a choice of two routes south to Taitung running either side of the Coastal Mountain Range. Provincial Highway 11 hugs the Pacific through the heart of the East Coast National Scenic Area (東部海岸國家風景區; dōngbù hǎiàn guójiā fēngjǐngqū), prime aboriginal territory, scattered with idyllic fishing villages, rice paddies, herds of water buffalo and some of the best surf breaks in Taiwan. Buses ply the highway, and with careful planning (and pick-ups from your accommodation) you can visit the main spots on public transport, but to make the most of the area you need your own transport. If you’re visiting in late summer and hope to witness some of the many aboriginal festivals held each July and August, private transport is essential – indeed, one of the joys of coming at this time is whipping from one festival to another on a scooter, soaking up the boundless seascapes along the way.
Heading southwest from Hualien, Provincial Highway 9 cuts through the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area (花東縱谷國家風景區; huādōng zònggŭ guójiā fēngjǐngqū), a haven of hot springs sandwiched between the Coastal Mountain Range and the eastern fringe of the central ranges. The valley’s other claim to fame is whitewater rafting on the Xiuguluan River, but the valley also provides access to Yushan National Park and the Southern Cross-Island Highway.
The Xiuguluan River (秀姑巒溪; xiùgūluán xī) is Taiwan’s premier whitewater rafting spot and, for many, a wet and wild trip down it is the highlight of their visit to the East Rift Valley. Running 104km from its source near Xiuguluan Mountain to the Pacific estuary at Dagangkou, it’s eastern Taiwan’s longest river, and the main 24km rafting route can be an exciting run for amateurs after prolonged rains or a typhoon. But the best bit is definitely the scenery – the river cuts through a deep gorge in the coastal mountains and is surrounded by steep vertical cliffs in many places, with your raft providing an unparalleled perspective on the immensity of it all.
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.
Jutting sharply out of the sea some 91km southeast of Taitung, LANYU (蘭嶼; lányŭ) is one of Taiwan’s most precious places. This volcanic island consists of a green-velvet mountain surrounded by a flat, narrow strip of alluvial plain, which stretches into some of the most unspoilt coral reef in all of Asia. In addition to its astounding natural allure, Lanyu is the sole domain of Taiwan’s purest aboriginal tribe: the seafaring Tao or “Dawu”, whose isolation has allowed them to preserve much of their traditional heritage. Despite all this – and the fact that it’s fairly easy to reach for most of the year – remarkably few travellers make it to Lanyu, but those who do find themselves enchanted by its many charms, and some consider it the most memorable part of their travels in Taiwan. Much of the appeal is its sheer simplicity: apart from a budding seasonal tourism business, there is no industry on the island and it remains blessedly free of development. There are few tourist sites per se, with the main attractions being the rich tropical scenery, the Tao villages with their signature semi-subterranean houses and some of the world’s most underrated snorkelling. Even in the height of summer, when nearby Ludao is choked with tourists, Lanyu is quiet and peaceful, a place to relax and absorb its timeless rhythms.
Lanyu’s history has long been defined by its remoteness, with its native Tao inhabitants left mostly to themselves for the better part of eight hundred years. Traditionally a peaceful seagoing people with strong cultural and linguistic links to the Philippines’ Bantan Islands, the Tao’s relations with outsiders were mainly limited to small-scale trade with Taiwan’s Ami tribe until their initial contact with Dutch colonists in the early seventeenth century. The tribe has for centuries made its livelihood from fishing and taro farming, gradually adding millet and sweet potatoes to the crops they have cultivated along the thin belts of fertile land between the mountains and the sea. Though there were infrequent conflicts between villages, the tribe as a whole maintained its cohesion through social conventions, particularly its strict code of taboos: many of these related to respect for life and protection of nature, which helped ensure a sustainable supply of the resources necessary for their survival.
During the Japanese colonial period, the occupiers were intrigued with Tao culture and did little to influence it, although an error by a Japanese anthropologist led to the misnaming of the tribe as the “Yami” (which merely means “people”) – a name that stuck until recent years. Things began to change for the Tao after the Kuomintang (KMT) seized power, when boatloads of Han Chinese were sent to the island in an attempt to Sinicize the tribe. Although the Tao fiercely resisted the campaign, intermarriages did take place, blurring once-clear lines of ancestry. In 1966, the KMT banned the Tao’s traditional homes and had them demolished and replaced with concrete buildings. However, the shoddy construction and above-ground design of these structures made them vulnerable to the formidable typhoons that hit the island each year, and many were destroyed, forcing the government to lift the ban in 1980.
Despite the government’s assimilation efforts, the Tao have been more successful than any other Taiwanese aboriginal group in preserving their old ways of life, and time-honoured customs are still routinely observed. A few villages consist almost exclusively of the stone semi-underground dwellings (地下屋; dìxiàwū), and some elderly men still wear traditional loincloths, although the number is rapidly diminishing. The rite of handing down massive silver helmets from father to son is still observed, although the younger generation is losing interest in this custom and the art of silversmithing is in danger of dying out. One conventional practice that looks set to stay is the building of handmade wooden canoes, intricately carved and colourfully painted vessels. Still, modernization is taking its toll, with Lanyu’s estimated three-thousand-strong Tao population dwindling fast, as young men forsake silver helmets and loincloths in favour of baseball caps and blue jeans and leave the island in search of greater economic prospects. Another threat, and one that has catapulted Lanyu into the international news headlines over the years, is the presence of 98,000 barrels of low-level nuclear waste that the Taiwan Power Company has stored on the island’s southern tip since 1982.
Every year, Lanyu’s villages are swept up in traditional festivals, considered by many to be the most colourful and exotic in Taiwan, and certainly the most profound and vivid expressions of the enduring Tao identity. The three major events are listed below.
The Flying-Fish Festival (蘭嶼飛魚季; lányŭ fēiyújì) which takes place every spring – usually in March – just before the flying-fish (fēiyú) season begins, is essentially a coming-of-age ceremony for young Tao males that also is viewed as the harbinger of a plentiful summer flying-fish catch. During the festival, young men dressed in loincloths, steel helmets and breastplates chant for the return of the flying fish before they paddle out to sea in their canoes. The flying fish is an important figure in Tao mythology, and historically it was felt that the more flying fish a young man could catch, the greater his merit to a would-be bride.
The Millet Harvest Festival, usually held in mid-June, is a vibrant extravaganza highlighted by an ancient dance performed by the men and the surreal hair dance of long-haired Tao women. The latter, which entails the synchronized, dervish-like whirling of long locks of hair by women in a circle, is an unforgettable sight.
Boat-launching festivals are much harder to track down, as they are only held when a village has finished building a handmade canoe, and the completion dates for these are always very rough estimates (but are usually in the warmer months). However, if your visit coincides with the launch of a new canoe, you’re in for a real treat. The ornate vessels are built through a painstaking process of binding 27 separate pieces of wood together without a single nail, which typically takes two to three years to complete. Once a canoe has been built, intricately carved and painted in red, white and black, villagers hold a monumental feast in preparation for the ceremonial launch. Once everyone has finished eating, the canoes are carried down to the sea, where the men perform an elaborate dance in the water before paddling out into the open ocean.
A verdant Pacific gem about 33km east of Taitung, LUDAO (綠島; lǜdǎo) flourishes with tropical vegetation inland and a jaw-dropping abundance of colourful marine life amid the nourishing coral that skirts most of its shoreline. Its beauty and relative accessibility – a twelve-minute flight or fifty-minute ferry ride from Taitung – have made it an immensely popular tourist destination, with a holiday atmosphere starkly at odds with its recent history as Taiwan’s principal place of exile for political prisoners. Site of the notorious Ludao Lodge, where tens of thousands were held without proper trials and routinely tortured during the White Terror period, the island is now equally well known for some of Taiwan’s finest snorkelling and diving. It also boasts the atmospheric Zhaori Hot Springs, one of only two known natural saltwater hot springs in the world (the other is near Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy).
Given its small size – an eighteen-kilometre surfaced road loops round it – Ludao can easily be explored by scooter or taxi, and many Taiwanese opt to fly in for a day-trip before returning to Taitung for the night. It gets very crowded during the summer holidays, and especially at weekends, when tourist numbers easily dwarf the island’s summer population of just over two thousand. In contrast, during the winter months, there is a sharp decline in the number of visitors, and ferries and flights are prone to last-minute cancellations due to inclement weather. If you come during this time, you’re likely to have the island mostly to yourself, but many tourist facilities are closed and it’s hard to arrange snorkelling trips unless you’ve brought your own kit.
Archeological evidence suggests that humans inhabited Ludao as long ago as 1000 BC. According to aboriginal myth, it was known as Sanasai, and the Ami, Kavalan and Ketagalan tribes believe their ancestors used it as a land bridge for migration. The first Han Chinese immigrants arrived in the early 1800s and named it Huoshaodao (火燒島; huǒshāodǎo) or “Fire-burned Island”, in reference to the fires that locals would light to help guide fishing boats to shore (the island’s highest point, at 281m, is still named Huoshaoshan). In the early 1930s, the occupying Japanese built processing plants for dried fish, which was shipped to Japan. By the 1970s, the raising of Sika deer, prized commercially for their antlers, had become a boom industry, and at one point there were more of these diminutive creatures than people. Though this industry has been in decline on Ludao since 1986, there are still plenty to be seen, and today they are something of a tourist attraction. In the main village of Nanliao, some hotel and restaurant owners keep them as pets, sadly tied up for photo opportunities.
In the minds of many Taiwanese, especially the elderly, Ludao’s natural beauty is overshadowed by its brutal past as the primary place of imprisonment, torture and execution during the country’s White Terror (白色恐怖; báisè kǒngbù). Although in the late 1940s and early 1950s it was mostly targeted at those suspected of being Communist spies for the mainland, eventually students, intellectuals and professionals accused of criticizing the government were rounded up, tortured and interrogated before being imprisoned or executed. During this time, more than ninety thousand people were arrested in Taiwan and at least half were put to death. From 1951 until the end of martial law in 1987, more than twenty thousand political prisoners were shipped to Ludao, where they were held in the notorious Green Island Reform and Re-education Prison or Ludao Lodge (綠島山莊; lǜdǎo shānzhuāng), just east of Gongguan Village (the current buildings date from 1972). Here, inmates were routinely tortured and often confined to damp underground bunkers where they were eaten alive by mosquitoes. Some were held for more than thirty years before being freed, and an estimated one thousand were executed here. The prison, dubbed “Oasis Villa” in Chinese in the 1970s (in extreme irony) is now part of the Green Island Human Rights Culture Park (綠島人權文化園區; lǜdǎo rénquán wénhuà yuánqū), with a small visitor centre recounting the history of the site through films and displays, and the Human Rights Monument (人權紀念碑; rénquán jìniàn bēi). The words on the graceful stele, by writer Bo Yang, who spent twelve years in prison here, read: “During that era, how many mothers have cried through the night for their children imprisoned here?” To the west of Ludao Lodge, between Gongguan and Zhongliao villages, is the Ludao Prison (綠島監獄; lǜdǎo jiānyù), a maximum-security complex built in 1971 to hold Taiwan’s most dangerous convicts, including some of the island’s infamous organized-crime bosses (it’s off limits to the public).
Stretched across an open plain between lush mountains and the Pacific, TAITUNG (台東; táidōng) is an essential base for exploring Taiwan’s rugged east coast and the dreamy Pacific islands of Ludao and Lanyu. With a population of 110,000 – including significant numbers of the Ami, Bunun, Rukai, Paiwan, Puyuma and Tao tribes – it has the laid-back feel of a place half its size, though there’s nothing much to see in the city itself other than the excellent National Museum of Prehistory. Just to the south are the immensely popular Zhiben Hot Springs, with a range of resorts to suit most budgets, and the adjacent Zhiben Forest Recreation Area, which offers some leisurely hiking options.
Framed by sheer seaside cliffs and majestic inland mountain peaks, TAROKO NATIONAL PARK (太魯閣國家公園; tàilŭgé guójiā gōngyuán) is Taiwan’s most diverse national park and one of the island’s top tourist destinations. The amazingly narrow Taroko Gorge (太魯閣峽谷; tàilŭgé xiágŭ) is the park’s namesake and main attraction for good reason: stretching some 20km, with marble walls that soar several hundred metres above the Liwu River (立霧溪; lìwù qī), the canyon offers some of Taiwan’s most awe-inspiring scenery, from crystal-clear waterfalls plunging down the rock faces to ethereal canvasses of ferns swaying gracefully in the wind as they hang from hairline cracks in the stone. Walking through some sections of the gorge is akin to stepping into an ancient Chinese scroll painting, with water cutting fantastic formations across the marble-cake cliffs and lushly vegetated outcrops draped in heavy bouquets of mist. Alongside the winding road through the canyon are several easy hiking trails, providing superb vantage points for some of the most spectacular features and giving a greater sense of scale. Though the gorge is Taroko’s claim to fame – and the main tourist magnet – it comprises only a small part of the park, which also has some of Taiwan’s most challenging mountain climbs, including rugged Qilai Ridge and the revered Nanhushan. Another of the park’s finest attractions are the Qingshui Cliffs, which plummet dramatically into the Pacific Ocean along the park’s northeastern boundary and are accessible only by the Suao-Hualien Highway (Highway 9).
The park is named after the Truku (Taroko) aboriginal tribe. Though the Truku, traditionally known for their hunting prowess and weaving skills, once populated many river valleys within the park’s current boundaries, few remain today. Most of those still living inside the park are located in Buluowan and the Bamboo Village. As with all parks in Taiwan, extreme weather has an inordinate impact – Typhoon Morakot hammered Taroko in 2009, and much of it was closed for a time. You can get the latest updates from the Taroko National Park Headquarters and Visitor Center (太魯閣國家公園遊客中心; tàilŭgé guójiā gōngyuán yóukè zhōngxīn; t03/862-1100, wwww.taroko.gov.tw), located just inside the main entrance.
Most tour buses whip through Taroko Gorge to Tianxiang (the best place to stay and eat), briefly stopping at the main sights along Provincial Highway 8 before speeding back to Hualien, but to appreciate the national park you need to get hiking. There are at least half a dozen good trails in the gorge; several of these are short and relatively flat, while a few of them are more challenging, with steep hill sections and trailside drop-offs. These are often closed owing to landslip damage, so ask for updated conditions at the visitor centre near the main entrance before you get started. With more time (and hiking experience), you could explore some of Taiwan’s most enticing peaks, further to the west, while the awe-inspiring Qingshui Cliffs mark where the mountains fall dramatically into the Pacific.
The staggering Qingshui Cliffs (清水斷崖; qīngshuǐ duànyái), located along a precarious stretch of the Suao-Hualien Highway (Highway 9) just inside the park’s northeastern boundary, are among the east coast’s most awe-inspiring attractions. Spanning a 21km section of the coastline between the hamlets of Chongde (崇德; chóngdé) and Heren (和仁; hérén), these sheer cliffs plunge straight into the turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean – in places from heights of almost a thousand metres. Today, the coastal highway is heavily trafficked, with endless convoys of trucks spewing exhaust into the air and making it a perilous journey for cyclists, motorcyclists and motorists alike. The series of long tunnels carved straight through the cliffs is an engineering marvel, with each tunnel opening up to another invigorating view of more bluffs and sea.