The Hill Country of Taichung

The central Taiwan city of Taichung covers just over 6% of the island’s land area and has a little under 12% of the population of 23.6 million, yet it includes a stunning range of landscapes. Near the coast, where visitors flock to the old temple town of Dajia and the wetlands at Gaomei, the terrain is generally flat. But within a few kilometers of the sea, small hills begin to appear, hinting at the majestic mountains that dominate the inland part of the municipality.

Because of unstable geological conditions, Highway 8, a road that cuts through the Central Mountain Range from Taichung to Hualien on the east coast, is not currently open to visitors doing their own driving. However, a thrice-daily bus service between the hot springs resort of Guguan in Taichung and the high-altitude town of Lishan offers outsiders a chance to see the breathtaking scenery along this road, which is also called the Central Cross-Island Highway.

Travelers driving from west to east are able to take a longer – and also very scenic – route via Puli and Wushe in Nantou, and over Mount Hehuan. One point on this journey is 3,275 meters above sea level, making it the highest public road in Taiwan. Rather than attempt the drive in a single day, stopping over in the foothills of Taichung is invariably a good idea.

Both of the districts that separate the densely populated part of Taichung from the vertiginous uplands have plentiful accommodation and dining options. One of the districts is Dongshi, which gains much of its character from the Hakka pioneers who began settling here in the 18th century and who played a key role in developing the area’s forestry and fruit-farming industries. The other is Xinshe, which has prospered as Taiwan’s appetite for mushrooms – a key ingredient in hot pots and vegetarian dishes – has surged.

For many years, it was possible to take a train to Dongshi. A 14.1-kilometer-long branch railroad connected the town to Taiwan’s main north-south railway at Fengyuan in Greater Taichung. This branch line was shuttered in 1991, but rail fans can still find intriguing remnants in the form of preserved station buildings,  and even tracks that were twisted by a strong earthquake 20 years ago.

A long stretch of the railway has become the Dongfeng Bike Trail, so named because it connects Dongshi with Fengyuan. Several bike-rental businesses operate at the western end of the trail.

Dongshi’s old railway station was repurposed to become Dongshi Hakka Cultural Park. Here visitors can learn about the garment patterns and dyeing techniques that make traditional Hakka clothing so distinctive, and see molds that were used to produce pastries and other treats unique to Hakka cuisine.

The 225-hectare Dongshi Forest Garden is too big to explore in a single afternoon, so many tourists take advantage of the on-site accommodations. There are also private hot-springs rooms and a restaurant that serves Hakka delicacies.

Between March and May, the garden is awash with fireflies. At other times, it is an excellent place to spot various frog and beetle species. International travelers planning to visit the garden are advised to get in touch a week or more in advance to request an English-language tour.

Fireflies

Dongshi Forest Garden is less than seven kilometers northeast of Dongshi. Even closer to the center of the town is Dongshi Forest Culture Park, which preserves much of what was once the largest timber production facility in East Asia. Because of the semi-tropical environment, an essential feature was the large pond in which trunks of mountain trees were stored. Water stops the wood from cracking or warping during summertime, and also draws resins out from the wood, enhancing its lifespan.

Even now, decades after the logging plant was closed, massive semi-submerged trunks still dot the pond. Much of the machinery that was used to move or cut up trees has also been preserved in the original location.

By taking Local Road 47 east into the village of Zhongke, tourists can explore an area dotted with Asian-pear orchards, many of them open to the public. Asian pears are quite round, unlike the lightbulb-shaped fruit familiar to most Westerners. For decades, the pears grown in Dongshi were unpopular with consumers, despite excellent soil and climate conditions. However, the industry enjoyed a turnaround in the 1970s, when local farmers mastered grafting techniques that made it possible to cultivate a variety of pear from Japan. Since then, they have been a consistent top-seller.

Getting to Xinshe from Dongshi involves crossing the Dajia River. Once you are on the western side of the river, you will find plenty to do – even if you have no interest in buying a sack of dried mushrooms.

During cherry-blossom season, visitors descend on the area to take photos of the scenery along Road 129. Near the intersection of Road 129 and Highway 3, the Dianhuozhen Ecological Trail is a family-friendly, 2.5-kilometer-long path that follows a manmade water channel. The combination of shade, running water, and diverse foliage makes it a pleasant environment not only for humans, but also for various butterfly species.

Perhaps the single most popular attraction in Xinshe is the annual “Sea of Flowers,” usually held between early November and early December. Landowners work together to convert the landscape into a dazzling patchwork of reds, oranges, purples, and yellows. Walking paths between the fields are marked, making it easier for visitors to snap photos ideal for Instagram. 

Sea of Flowers in Xinshe

To save yourself the hassle of driving and finding a parking space during the “Sea of Flowers,” take advantage of the available shuttle buses. At other times of year, the No. 270 bus, which runs every 40 minutes, is a reliable way of getting to Dongshi from the Taichung TRA Station via Xinshe. 

From overseas, the most convenient way to get to Taichung is by flying into Taichung International Airport, which now handles direct flights to and from Hong Kong, Seoul, Bangkok, and other Asian cities.

For all kinds of information useful when planning a trip to Taiwan, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website. The 24-hour tourist information hotline (0800-011-765) is toll-free within Taiwan.

Taichung City Government’s Taichung Travel Net has dozens of pages of information in English, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean about fun places to go in the city, upcoming events, must-eat delicacies, and public transportation. The visitor service centers at the Taichung High-Speed Railway Station and other locations will be happy to provide maps and leaflets and to answer your questions.

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