A Voyage to Turtle Island

When Taiwan was in its geological youth, volcanic activity was a major force shaping the landscape. Fugui Cape, Taiwan’s northernmost point, was created millions of years ago when a volcano in what is now Yangmingshan National Park hurled lava and rocks as far as the coast. Green Island, Lanyu (Orchid Island), and nearly all of Penghu County’s 90 islands emerged from the sea as a result of volcanic eruptions.

Fumaroles and hot springs dot Yangmingshan, but Taiwan’s only active volcano lies 10 kilometers off the east coast, beneath Guishan (Turtle) Island. This uninhabited islet is, as the crow flies, about 70 kilometers from Taipei.

Guishan Island has been open to the public only since 2000. For an entire generation, it was off-limits – not for fear of an eruption, but because in 1977 Taiwan’s defense ministry turned it into a military base.

The handful of families living there, some of whom had owned land on the one-square-mile island since the 1850s, were relocated within Yilan County, from many parts of which Guishan Island is clearly visible. When the island is seen from a certain angle, the reason for its name is obvious. Guishan (龜山) means “turtle mountain,” and the island does resemble a giant shelled reptile moving through the sea.

A scenic spot unique in the world

Underwater hot spring in Turtle Island

Guishan Island’s volcano is thought to have erupted four times in the past 7,000 years, most recently in the late 18th century. Drilling indicates the existence of a magma dome beneath the island, and more than 50 hot-spring and sulfur vents have been counted on the surrounding seabed. As they approach by boat, visitors often see milky patterns in the water, the result of gas emissions from these vents.

The seabed may be seething, but the island itself is a place of absolute tranquility, in part because visitor numbers are strictly limited. What’s more, Guishan Island is open only between March 1 and November 30, and overnight stays are prohibited.

Applying a couple of weeks in advance is a good idea if you hope to set foot on the island on a weekend or during the peak summer season. Have a Chinese-speaker contact the Yilan Guishan Island Whale-watching Shipping Center at (03) 950-8199 or 0963-499-016 to get the ball rolling. Alternatively, call the Northeast and Yilan Coast National Scenic Area Administration, a unit of Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau, at (02) 2499-1115, or send them a fax at (02) 2499-1170. The Northeast and Yilan Coast NSA’s multilingual website has a lot of useful information for those planning to explore this corner of the country.

A special experience

Bird’s-eye view of Turtle Island

The island may be small, but it has no shortage of physical variety. There are sea caves, steep cliffs, and slopes covered with dense foliage. Locals joke that the long pebbly spit that encloses a brackish lake is the turtle’s tail. The highest point is 398 meters above sea level, but only those who receive permission to ascend – in addition to the regular landing permit – are allowed to hike up.

Each boatload of tourists is accompanied by a guide who points out rare plants, geological oddities, and traces left by the fishermen and soldiers who once stayed here. The island contains small shrines, a former school, and camouflaged strong-points.

Anyone who adores wildflowers should try to visit in the second half of April, when various lily species – among them the Easter lily and the Taiwanese lily – are in full bloom. For the sake of subsequent visitors, as well as the local ecosystem, the picking of lilies is strictly prohibited.

There is very little shade on Guishan Island, and unlike almost every other place in Taiwan, there is nowhere to buy snacks or drinks. Visitors are accordingly advised to bring a hat or an umbrella, along with enough water and nibbles to last them three or four hours.

Boat expeditions that circle but do not dock at Guishan Island are an option for tourists who cannot obtain landing permits. If you arrive before mid-morning at Wushi Harbor, which itself is a short taxi ride from Toucheng Railway Station, arrangements can be made that same day. Otherwise, get your hotel or homestay to call ahead. Voyages last around two hours, and operators claim that on more than 99% of their outings, dolphins can be seen close up. With a bit of luck, whales and flying fish may also be visible.

As you leave Guishan, you may want to keep in mind a play on words in Chinese. The character for “turtle” (龜) has the same sound (gui) as an ideograph representing “return” (歸). The pun ping an gui thus has the double meaning of “peaceful turtle” or “return home peacefully.”

Much more to see in Yilan

Yilan County has so much to enjoy that staying at least one night before returning to Taipei (or proceeding on to Hualien and Taroko Gorge) makes a great deal of sense. Tourists who book accommodations in Luodong can fill their stomachs at the city’s famous night market.

Luodong’s most compelling daytime attraction is the Forestry Culture Park, a 16-hectare site that is now both a nature preserve and a place where visitors can learn about the history of logging in Taiwan. The Japanese-style buildings here are attractive, but it is the log pond that visitors are sure to remember. During the industry’s heyday more than half a century ago, trees felled high in the mountains were stored in water to prevent the wood from cracking or warping during the summer. Even now, huge semi-submerged tree trunks dot the pond.

Log storage pond at Luodong

Not far from Luodong, the National Center for Traditional Arts is devoted to the study, preservation, and transmission to future generations of the crafts and arts that entertained Taiwan’s people a century or more ago. It is easy to spend the better part of a day here, taking in short performances of opera, puppetry, and other art forms.

Those who prefer to be close to the ocean can look for a homestay near Toucheng, where the Lanyang Museum is an unmissable landmark. The striking exterior is worth some of your time, even if you have no intention of entering and enjoying the museum’s comprehensive displays about the region’s nature, history, and culture. Architect Kris Yao (who also designed the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum) was inspired by the tilt of nearby rock strata.

Lanyang Museum at dawn

Another point of interest in Toucheng is Cangjiu Winery, where various wines are made from grapes, kumquats, or grains.

Planning a tour of Yilan, or any other part of Taiwan, is a cinch thanks to the abundance of online resources. The county government maintains an informative website for visitors. For all kinds of travel information about Taiwan, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website, or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll free within Taiwan).