The Winding Road to Smangus

Tribal elder Masay chats with the author, right, and friends over coffee. Photo: Tobie Openshaw

This remote indigenous village lives on tourism but is determined to preserve its traditional way of life.

The road to Smangus (司馬庫斯) is difficult, especially for a travel writer prone to motion sickness. If the idea of a motion-sick travel writer strikes you as odd, so be it. Smangus is a study in balanced contradictions.

It’s a popular tourist attraction that’s difficult to get to. It’s a commune, but there’s a political command structure. It’s tribal, yet also deeply Christian. And it offers a genuine aboriginal experience peppered with distinctively modern conveniences like Swiss-style chalets with heated toilet seats and flat-screen television sets.

Smangus is a tribal village sitting at an altitude of 1,500 meters in Hsinchu County’s Jianshi Township. The people living there are members of the tribe known in Mandarin as the Atayal (though in their own language it’s pronounced Tayan). It’s a small town, the most remote in Taiwan (it did not have electricity until 1979), with a population under 200. Yet, despite its size and remoteness, it is viewed by many as the most economically successful tribal village in Taiwan, thanks to tourism.

Driving the winding, rough road to Smangus (so narrow that the last 16 kilo- meters of the trip needs to be coordinated at both ends as the road can’t take two- way traffic) with my partner Stephanie and a few friends for a weekend trip, I contemplated what I already knew about the place and what I hoped to find out. I’d encountered various aboriginal experiences in Taiwan, and while all had authentic elements, some resembled Disneyfied song and dance routines. How would Smangus be different? How did the people of Smangus simultaneously preserve their heritage and embrace tourism? And finally, could Smangus exist without tourists?

Tglia Slibu, also known as Smangus Waterfall. Photo: Tobie Openshaw

Beyond question is the sheer beauty of Smangus, which sits atop a mountain surrounded by valleys and forests, and to the south overlooks a wall of mountains as far as the eye can see. Wood is the dominant element. Wooden statues welcome guests outside the cafe, kitchen, and dining hall, which are all built from and filled with furniture made of local wood and bamboo. The large wooden bear sculpture in front of the general store is a favorite selfie target for tourists, and Stephanie and I took a few of our own before heading up a winding dirt road lined with lampposts (carved from wood, naturally) to our lodging.

Expecting a rustic experience, we were surprised to find, standing above a gravel parking lot, a row of A-frame chalets that would seem more at home in Aspen than rural Taiwan. The interiors were plush, with king-sized beds, couches, and such amenities as a mini fridge, hot-pot, and flat-screen TV with a DVD player.

“This gorgeous,” Stephanie said. “Rustic yet modern. I didn’t expect a bidet.”

I hadn’t expected flush toilets.

After resting briefly to chase off the last vestiges of motion sickness, we headed back down to the square and checked out the general store, which sells a dozen different varieties of instant noodles and other trucked-in snack items alongside some locally harvested fruits and vegetables. Then we joined the already in progress daily tour.

Our guide was a young Atayal man, and as he led the group past cherry blossom trees that had just begun flowering, I made small talk with our fellow guests. While most were urban Taiwanese, others had come from other indigenous areas of Taiwan to learn what they could from the success of Smangus.

At the bottom of a steep hill was a wooden schoolhouse that Abe Lincoln would have found familiar. This, the guide explained, was where the village children (currently numbering 21) studied until high school.

“Once they’re past middle school they have to go to the nearest high school, which is 11 miles away,” said the guide, adding that the drive took four hours, and thus most high school students spent the week living with another tribe.

There were padlocks on the school door, the first I’d seen in Smangus, which I assumed were to keep tourists from relieving the school of difficult-to-replace souvenirs, a phenomenon I’d heard villagers in other communities complain about.

Lightheaded from the altitude, we went in search of water. We popped into the front office, where two young members of the tribe were sitting behind a long desk working on computers. One of them was Qesu, a preternaturally buoyant young man who sported a full arm-sleeve tattoo. As we spoke, I got the feeling he wasn’t as young as he appeared, and inquiring his age I learned that he was 30.

“Lived here almost my whole life,” he said. “My mom is 70. She works pretty much the same schedule as any other villager.”

Men of the tribe grill pork for the communal supper. Photo: Tobie Openshaw

Work is another unusual facet of Smangus’s communal lifestyle. Job responsibilities rotate every two months, meaning that all residents will, theoretically at least, have experienced each of the many tasks needed to keep the village functioning. These vary from housekeeping, working the information desk, and cooking, to trail maintenance, farming, and acting as guides. Though responsibilities wax and wane with the seasons, there are always guests coming to Smangus, even during the winter low season.

“We only close to tourists two days a year,” he tells us, “when we all head to Yilan for an annual basketball game against another village.”

As we were leaving, Qesu, noting the biblical origins of my name, asked if I were Christian. “If you want, come to our church meeting tomorrow night. Everyone in town will be there.”

“There’ll be a band,” he added hopefully, perhaps sensing my lack of enthusiasm for church-oriented activities.

We headed towards the dining hall, where a small group of men were cooking large slabs of pork over a fire pit. Inside a nearby kitchen, other members of the tribe were preparing other dishes that would comprise the evening’s meal.

Dinner was excellent, served buffet-style inside the communal dining hall, one of two dining options. Each table accommodated a dozen or so diners, and the communal meal featured several vegetable dishes, a fish dish, a chicken dish, steaming bowls of rice, and of course a plate filled high with the slabs of pork we’d seen on the grill.

Halfway through the meal, a man introducing himself as Yuraw came to our table to dine with us. He explained that as the tribe’s deputy chief he was responsible for many of the day-to-day aspects of running Smangus. Yuraw invited us to join him after dinner by the fire pit, whose dying coals still gave off enough heat to keep us warm, where he offered us each a small glass of millet wine. Though well-known as a social lubricant, alcohol is also often a matter of contention, both for indigenous people (for whom it’s simultaneously a sacrament and scourge) and in communes in general.

Stephanie mentioned to Yuraw that at the commune where she had lived in the United States, alcohol was the subject of much debate as members became increasingly prone to lengthy spells of drunkenness, and asked if this had also been an issue at Smangus. Yuraw nodded sagaciously before answering.

“Many in our community have experienced the damaging effects of alcoholism firsthand. There are very few people over 70 in Smangus, and that can be largely attributed to alcoholism. At the same time, millet wine is part of our traditional heritage, and we can’t expect guests to abstain on vacation.”

The subject of alcohol had been debated and put to a vote early on. Some felt that selling liquor in the general store would bring money into a community with a tourism-based economy. Others, recalling the negative impact of alcohol on the village, wanted it banned. A compromise was reached: only locally produced millet wine would be sold, and drinking on duty by villagers strictly forbidden.

Rule by consensus

Consensus, Yuraw told us, is everything in Smangus, with matters big and small being voted on by the community.

The big matters are big indeed, and deeply connected to the autonomy and sovereignty that the tribe holds sacrosanct. Yuraw told us of one such issue, in which a well-known tourism consortium wanted to purchase a piece of land in Smangus to build a hotel. The money they offered was a staggering NT$5 billion (about US$167 million), of which every member of the community would have received a share.

“Not one member of the tribe voted to sell,” said Yuraw. “What are we without our land? On our land, we can grow our food – rice and yams. It doesn’t matter how much money we have if we can’t grow our own food.”

Another issue that had required deep debate concerned the internet. While most of the area isn’t wired (making it close to a perfect place for a digital detox), there are a few wi-fi spots at the bottom of the village, where at any given hour a dedicated group of visitors huddle with their mobile phones.

“We had many conversations about allowing the internet into Smangus before reaching consensus,” said Yuraw. “Every- one knew it would bring both positive and negative changes.” ‘

Tribal elder Masay chats with the author, right, and friends over coffee. Photo: Tobie Openshaw

The positive aspects are straightforward. Despite its remoteness, booking a trip to Smangus is no more difficult than for anywhere else in Taiwan. Guests can see rooms in advance, book online, and receive answers relatively quickly to any questions they might have.

The negatives also come as no surprise. “Some of the older boys have been caught looking at inappropriate material, which has led to fathers hitting sons,” said Yuraw. “A few of the villagers got caught up in an email scam, and lost some money. On the whole, we try very hard to instill in the younger people that they must not forget that they are Tayan, even on the internet, and that they must not engage in conduct on the internet that would be inappropriate in the village.”

But interconnectivity has had a far more meaningful impact on Smangus than merely the positives of commerce and negatives of porn and clickbait scams. Through the internet, Smangus has become part of a much larger world.

“The internet has allowed us to connect with other high mountain tribes around the world, to discuss the changes that we are all seeing and experiencing with climate change,” Yuraw told us. “In the last few years, we have communicated with tribal groups in South and Central America, comparing observations through both conversation and live camera feed. Traditional seasonal patterns are changing for all of us high mountain tribes. We have become part of this larger community.”

Last year, representatives from indigenous tribes in 20 countries met in Smangus to exchange agricultural information and develop strategies to cope with the changes in their environment. Without the internet, it is unlikely that these connections could have been made.

It was getting late, but Stephanie had a final request for Deputy Chief Yuraw. “Is there anything that you want to tell us about Smangus? Maybe the answer to a question you wished we’d have asked but didn’t?” Yuraw thought for a moment before speaking.

“I’d like to sing an ancient song for you, if I may.”

Then he began singing to us in the Tayan language, moving his hands to draw pictures in the air of the mountains, rivers,

and trees. His voice was strong and deep, and the fire pit glowed a dull red as the darkening sky wrapped around us.

The love he felt for his community was palpable. After each verse, he spoke the words in Chinese, which translates into

English as:
All beloved Tayan children, all beloved Tayan mothers
Never forget that our space is so very precious
Our earth is so very precious
We want to love it with our lives
We are surrounded forever by waters and mountains
All such beautiful places
We use our lives to protect and love it, for it is all most precious.
He ended the song by exclaiming “Booch!”

“This means the song is ended,” he said quietly.

The music still in our ears, we walked back up the hill. The temperature having dropped precipitously, we were glad for the heated chalet with its heated toilet seat, however incongruous it had seemed earlier.

Despite our best intentions, we slept late the next day. While we’d intended to do the five-hour round trip hike to the Sacred Tree, a 35-meter-high cypress that’s said to be 2,500 years old, by the time we motivated ourselves to leave the cabin it was already noon. We instead confined our wandering to the trails closer to the village. We wandered through impossibly high thickets of bamboo, content to enjoy the splendor of the mountains and forests extending in all directions, and into early rising hikers returning from their visits to the tree.

We had dinner that night at the café, which unlike the communal hall was more of a traditional restaurant with menus and individual meals. Remembering Qesu’s request, we headed over to the church after supper. Every pew was packed with people, singing and swaying to music. The band wasn’t half bad.

We dallied on Sunday, not just because we were in no hurry to head back down the rough road, but also because we’d been invited to the home of the village chief, Masay, after the morning service.

A man in his sixties, Masay’s role in the tribe is largely as spiritual counselor. I wanted to ask him a question that I’d felt uncomfortable asking Yuraw on the first night, given the younger man’s role in the tribe’s present existence as a tourist destination.

After small talk over tea and cookies, I popped the question: “Could Smangus exist without tourism?”

The tribal elder didn’t hesitate in his answer. “Without tourism, there would be no Smangus,” he said. “Young people would leave, unable to make a living in their ancestral home.”

He continued, expressing how very grateful the tribe is for the travelers who continue to come, including politicians who have visited and then acted to assist the community. The road I’d disparaged (and vomited on) just days before, for example, had been unpaved and far more treacherous prior to a 1995 visit by a Hsinchu legislator. Unlike us, the politician had made the hike to the Sacred Tree, and had been so deeply moved that he lobbied to have the road leading to Smangus paved so that others could share the experience. Without such patronage, it is unlikely that Smangus would enjoy its current prosperity.

Endless views of the valley from the village

But at the same time Masay made clear that the determination of the Da’yan people to keep their autonomy would never waver. “The future will be counseled by ourselves,” he said.

I asked him where he saw Smangus in 20 years. “It will continue to get better, in so far as community, culture, and quality of life.”

As he spoke, a group of village children ran by. “Those children will still be here, and they will be the ones in charge. This thing or that may be different, but we will still be Tayan, and this will still be Smangus.”

On this, we thanked the elder and headed down to the coffee shop for a final cup of coffee and postcard view before starting down the long and winding road for home.