No part of Taiwan is better suited to a slow-travel getaway than the East Rift Valley. This lush region stretches from just outside Hualien City to near Taitung City, 167 kilometers to the south by road. None of the townships in the valley has more than 25,000 inhabitants, and most have fewer than half that.
In earth science terms, this area is better described as a “longitudinal valley” because it exists between two parallel chains of geologically young mountains that are not diverging (as is the case with true rift valleys) but rather colliding. The eastern side of the valley and the Coastal Mountain Range are part of the Philippine Sea Plate, while the western side – including the Central Mountain Range and the greater part of the island of Taiwan – belongs to the Eurasian Plate.
Each year, tectonic forces push a bit more of the Eurasian Plate under the Philippine Sea Plate, raising the coastal mountains ever higher. The highest point on the coastal range is currently 1,682 meters above sea level, but if you look inland you are likely to glimpse peaks twice that height.
Driving from Hualien to Taitung takes around four hours. Following recent improvements to rail services, express trains complete the trip in less than two hours. However, you should spend at least three days in the valley if you want to fully unwind and immerse yourself in some of Taiwan’s most beautiful and bucolic communities.
Recognized by Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau as “Classic Small Towns,” Chi-shang in Taitung County and Ruisui in Hualien County are two of the most popular stops in the East Rift Valley. Both emerged from obscurity during the 1895-1945 period of Japanese colonial rule, but for very different reasons.
Chishang became famous throughout Taiwan for the quality of its rice. Traditionally Taiwanese farmers grew a variety of rice called indica, but Japanese consumers preferred japonica rice with its shorter and stickier grains. In the 1930s, soon after colonial researchers succeeded in developing strains of the japonica variety that thrived in Taiwan’s climate, it was discovered that Chishang’s weather and water were ideal for their cultivation. Within a few years, local grain was being supplied to the Japanese royal household in Tokyo.
Photographers adore the town’s farmlands because nothing gets between the lens and the landscape. Farmers believe shadows cast by power lines and utility poles interfere with the natural growing cycle of japonica rice, and they have been successful in keeping cables and pylons away from their paddy fields.
The finest rice-field scenery is southwest of the town center, about 4 kilometers from the railway station. Renting a conventional or electric bicycle from one of the stores near the station is an inexpensive and eco-friendly option if you want to explore the town’s surroundings at your own speed.
While wheeling around, do take a look at the body of water that gives Chishang (Chinese for “on the pond”) its name. The 20-hectare Dapo Pond is a good bit smaller than it was in the 19th century, when farmers began reclaiming parts of it for conversion into agricultural land. Now designated a wetland of national importance, it attracts birds and therefore birdwatchers (106 avian species have been recorded here), and is home to at least 27 species of fish.
The East Rift Valley is drained by three waterways. The pristine mountain water that flows through Chishang’s rice fields ends up in the southward-flowing Beinan River. In the northern third of the valley, the Hualien River flows into the Pacific Ocean near the city of Hualien. The central part of the valley is dominated by the impressive Xiuguluan River, Taiwan’s leading whitewater-rafting venue.
Ruisui is where the Xiuguluan River turns towards the sea, but the township is better known for the hot-spring inns where visitors have been relaxing since 1917.
In fact, the town is within easy access to two distinct hot-spring clusters: Ruisui Hot Springs, nearer the railway station, and Hongye Hot Springs, a little further west. The water temperature averages 47-48°C in both, but the Ruisui is a chloride-carbonate spring, while the sodium-bicarbonate Hongye spring is odorless.
Fans of hot springs have made various claims about the health and healing properties of the water here. Perhaps the most outlandish is that couples who repeatedly bathe here are more likely to have male children – hence one of its unofficial names, “Beget a Son Springs.”
If you plan to rent a car and base yourself in Ruisui, spend half a day or more driving to the coast via Local Road 64. This stunningly scenic but little-used backcountry route twists through the Coastal Mountain Range, high above the Xiuguluan River. It passes through a tiny village called Qimei in Mandarin Chinese, but Kiwit in the language of the indigenous Amis people who live there.
The East Rift Valley is populated by a mixture of ethnicities, among them people of Fujianese and Hakka descent, as well as those who arrived after World War II from the Chinese mainland or more recently from Southeast Asia. Many of the smaller villages are dominated by Amis clans, and their ancient Austronesian heritage bubbles to the surface in July and August when they celebrate the Ilisin harvest festival.
The precise date of the event, which lasts up to seven days, varies from place to place. Tribespeople sing, dance, and lay on feasts to express gratitude for the blessings bestowed by gods and ancestors. At Chishang, men spend the first three days fishing while the women prepare copious amounts of glutinous rice, salted pork, and millet liquor. On the fourth day the tribe gathers to build bamboo watchtowers and pavilions. The fifth and sixth days are dominated by singing and dancing. On the final day, the men return to the area’s creeks, hoping the festival will climax with a big catch.
When planning your visit to the East Rift Valley, the following online resources are especially useful. The East Rift Valley National Scenic Area’s website has an abundance of information in English, Chinese, and Japanese, not to mention dozens of gorgeous photos. Also worth looking at are the tourism web-pages maintained by the Hualien County Government and Taitung County Government.
The Tourism Bureau’s website has all kinds of useful information, while the 24-hour tourist information hotline (0800-011-765) is toll-free within Taiwan. Throughout the island, you can obtain free maps, leaflets, and travel advice from visitor information centers at airports, railway stations, and other locations.