Bussing Through Taiwan’s Bucolic East

After World War II, Taiwan’s western lowlands saw rapid economic and social development, boosted by Taiwan’s strategically central location within East Asia – with Japan to the northeast and the Philippines to the south. Cities like Taipei and Kaohsiung multiplied in size, and factories producing “Made in Taiwan” goods proliferated. Families that had farmed for generations exchanged village existence for the convenience and economic opportunities of urban life. On the roads, cars and motorcycles replaced ox carts and bicycles.

On the eastern side of the island, it was a very different story. Isolated from the majority of their fellow citizens by the rugged Central Mountain Range, Hualien and Taitung lagged far behind in economic development. Not until completion of the north, central, and southern cross-island highways and construction of rail links could residents of either county reach a major city in less than a day.

Getting to the east still takes time, but it is worth every minute spent on a train or an airplane. The scenery is fantastically varied and largely unspoiled. Hualien and Taitung account for more than a fifth of Taiwan’s land area, yet have just 2.4% of its total population of 23.3 million. Unlike the western portion of the island, citizens of Hoklo (Fujianese) descent are not the majority. There are a great many Hakka families, and in the late 1940s thousands of other Han Chinese arrived from mainland China. But what gives the east its special atmosphere, fascinating festivals, and unique cuisines are the nine Austronesian tribes that have called this region home since time immemorial.

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Thanks to road improvements, driving a rental car from the west to the east is no longer a daunting prospect. Whether one takes Highway 9 from the southwest to Taitung, or the Su’ao Highway from Yilan towards Taroko Gorge and Hualien, the mountain, forest, and ocean views along the way are extremely rewarding. That said, many tourists are happy to outsource the stress of driving and navigating, especially now that express trains from Taipei can reach Hualien in just two hours, and Taitung in three and a half.

So long as you book your train or plane tickets well in advance, getting to the east is straightforward. But once there, exploring is a bit trickier. As in other parts of Taiwan, local public transportation is set up for the benefit of commuters, not excursionists.

Ever sensitive to the needs of visitors, Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau has over the past decade refined a network of specialized bus services called the Taiwan Tour Bus (www.taiwantourbus.com.tw). Working with several tour companies, the Tour Bus system provides access to many places which would be difficult or impossible to reach for tourists who do not speak Chinese or do not wish to drive themselves. Each bus is accompanied by a guide who introduces attractions along the way (in English, Japanese, or Chinese – the website has full details), answers questions, and ensures that no one gets left behind.

The geological-hydrological marvel known to English speakers as Taroko Gorge is the east’s no. 1 attraction. An astonishing combination of solid rock and rushing water, the 19-kilometer-long gorge and the surrounding national park draw hikers and eco-tourists as well as mainstream sightseers.

An easy way to see the best of the gorge is to join the one-day Taroko Gorge tour (NT$1,600 per person if an English-speaking guide is needed). Pick-up is from Hualien City, and among the dramatic spots introduced are the stunning oceanside Qingshui Cliffs, Changchun Shrine, and the short but intensely beautiful Yanzikou (Swallow Grotto) Trail.

Those unable to devote more than a day to the east may want to sign up for a daylong Taroko tour departing from Taipei. These are more expensive (NT$5,200 for adults, NT$4,200 for children up to the age of 12) but save time with a morning flight from the capital’s Songshan Airport. The return journey is via the scenic railroad through Yilan and along the northeast coast.

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Also departing from Hualien is the East Rift Valley one-day tour. Sandwiched between the Central Mountain Range and the Coastal Mountain Range, the valley is said to grow Taiwan’s best rice.

Over the past century, this lovely area has seen the emergence, then decline, of two industries based on its natural advantages. At the first stop, Lintian Mountain Forestry Center, tourists will learn how millions of trees were removed from Taiwan’s mountains until logging was completely halted in the early 1990s.

After a look inside Fuyuan National Forest Recreation Area, renowned for its fabulous butterfly population, the tour calls at the Hualien Sugar Factory. The landmark refinery buildings still dominate the small town of Guangfu, but most of the surrounding sugarcane plantations have been afforested.

No English-speaking guide is available on this tour, but an English audio guide is provided at no extra charge. The price (NT$988 per adult, NT$900 per child) is the same on weekdays and weekends.

Visitors interested in farming and food production, and those basing themselves in Taitung City rather than Hualien, should consider the Taitung Yuli-Changbin Highway one-day tour (adults NT$1,400, children NT$1,200; no English-language guide available). In addition to stops at a tea farm and an area now synonymous with organic rice, this adventure roams from the hilly interior to the rugged coast. One halt is at a place known as Water Running Uphill – actually a beguiling optical illusion that draws tourists by the busload.

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There is also a one-day Taitung City tour (NT$1,300 per adult, NT$1,100 per child; no foreign-language guide available) focusing on cultural and ecological attractions within and around this city of 106,000 people. For part of the tour, visitors swap their bus seats for bicycles, exploring Taitung Seaside Park and its public art installations on two wheels.

The tour also includes a look at one of Taiwan’s most important archaeological sites, Beinan Cultural Park. Named for the Beinan people who inhabited this part of Taiwan from approximately 5,300 years ago until perhaps 2,300 ago, the park is where archaeologists unearthed 1,523 slate coffins, plus skeletons and priceless jade items such as knives and arrowheads. One of the original excavations has been preserved and is open to the public.

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For additional travel information about Taiwan, visit the website of Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau (www.taiwan.net.tw) or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll free within Taiwan). Anyone planning to visit the eastern part of the country should also peruse the websites of the East Coast National Scenic Area (www.eastcoast-nsa.gov.tw) and the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area (www.erv-nsa.gov.tw); these are especially useful for details of upcoming events such as festivals in indigenous communities.

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