Taking Life Slowly in the Hills of Miaoli

Taiwan’s major cities are remarkable centers of industriousness. People work long hours, yet many also fit in early morning sessions of tai chi in a park near their home, not to mention evening visits to the local night market for snacks. For many visitors, the 24/7 urban energy is part of Taiwan’s appeal.

Other Taiwan residents feel that their life is frenetic enough. If they can take a vacation, they want it to be as restful as possible. To put it another way: What speeds up must slow down.

The global Slow Movement is a response to modern lifestyles that often leave people feeling stressed and breathless. Its proponents argue that while technology makes it possible to do things much more quickly than before, people have not become happier. They point out that cooking and enjoying a meal the old-fashioned way can be more satisfying, healthier, and bring about far more meaningful human interaction than grabbing a bite and eating it on the go.

Since World War II, Taiwan has evolved from a farming-based economy that exported mainly sugar, bananas, and other agricultural produce, to a key partner in numerous high-tech global supply chains.

In 1958, only a third of Taiwan’s population lived in settlements with more than 2,500 people. But many country folks were keen to leave their villages. Farm work was arduous, and life in the countryside was dull. Towns and cities, by contrast, were awash with opportunities and excitement.

Until very recently, Taiwanese urbanites saw nothing to envy when they looked upon life in rural areas. Economic factors aside, the big cities have always had the best schools and hospitals. Many remote districts have seen consistent population declines since 1985, even though Taiwan’s total population has grown 23% since then to its current 23.6 million.

In recent years, for a variety of reasons, some Taiwanese have been leaving the cities and relocating to small towns or villages. The rapid growth of the tourism industry has created opportunities to run B&Bs, restaurants, and other businesses in places like Dulan on the east coast.

More and more citizens now appreciate that material success is not the same as happiness, and there is often an environmentalist aspect to this new thoughtfulness. Some return to their ancestral home in order to take care of land they inherited. Others wish to modernize and expand artisanal food businesses established by their grandparents. Some simply have become smitten by places with which they have no family connection.

A number of local governments around Taiwan have realized that if they wish to prosper in the long term, they need to build on their strengths and play up their distinctiveness. Someone who likes taking the metro to a conventional office job and shopping in fashionable stores is never going to leave Taipei for Sanyi (population 16,300) or Nanzhuang (population 10,500). Yet an artist might, or a location-independent freelancer – or parents who want their children to grow up close to nature and without the heavy academic pressure that is common in urban schools.

Sanyi and Nanzhuang in Miaoli County in Taiwan’s northwest are among places in Taiwan that have begun to position themselves in this way. Both townships have been accepted as members of Cittaslow International, an Italy-based alliance that promotes lifestyles that are (in the words of its website), “respectful of citizens’ health, the authenticity of products and good food, [and] fascinating craft traditions.”

The majority of people in Miaoli County are Hakka. When Hakka families began migrating to Taiwan from the Chinese mainland in the early 18th century, pioneers were drawn to Miaoli’s hilly interior because it resembled the terrain they were used to farming in China’s Guangdong and Fujian provinces.

Much of Sanyi is covered by woodland, and the town has been Taiwan’s foremost woodcarving center since the early part of the 1895-1945 Japanese colonial period. When stands of camphor were cut down, local craftsmen turned the roots and stumps into decorative, practical, and religious items. Japanese buyers commissioned statuettes of Buddha and Guanyin. After World War II, Catholics serving in the U.S. military bases in Taiwan bought icons of the Virgin Mary.

The American soldiers are long gone, but the woodcarvers continue to thrive. Each summer there are competitions, and Sanyi’s Wood Sculpture Museum showcases dozens of superb works.

For those who like to blend culture with exercise, Sanyi is an ideal destination. Among the many hiking trails is one that begins right beside the Wood Sculpture Museum. It climbs through a forest to a tea plantation from which there are excellent views. Cycling enthusiasts adore the Sanyi region, Road 130 being one of many scenic challenges.

Another attraction near Sanyi is the Shengxing Railway Station and what is called the Old Mountain Railway Line. At 402 meters above sea level, this station used to be the highest point on the north-south railroad. Trains now take a straighter route nearer the sea, but the delightful Japanese-era wooden depot remains in place. The line itself is still in good condition, and from time to time a special train pulled by an old steam locomotive pulls into the station.

Nanzhuang has a substantial indigenous population. The township’s Xiangtian Lake is one of the venues of the biennial Pas-ta’ai ritual, an important event for the Saisiyat tribe. In villages of the Atayal tribe elsewhere in the township, age-old weaving traditions are being preserved.

Thanks to good transportation networks, very few places in Taiwan are truly remote. Both Nanzhuang and Sanyi are accessible to day-trippers. The bus journey from Hsinchu to Nanzhuang takes a bit over an hour. Trains from the metropolis of Taichung to Sanyi take a mere 35 minutes. Of course, staying a few nights in a B&B run by local people is a much better way of slowing down and enjoying the unique ambiance.

To find out more about Nanzhuang, Sanyi, and other parts of Miaoli County, visit the website of the county’s Culture and Tourism Bureau. For all kinds of information about Taiwan, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website, or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll free within Taiwan).