Exploring the Third Taitung

Photo: Steven Crook

Most visitors to the popular southeastern county focus on either the coast or the East Rift Valley, but the area’s string of scenic mountain towns also deserves attention. 

One moment I was reveling in the scenery, happier than I’d been for weeks. The next, I was pushing branches aside and wondering if it was wise to proceed on foot, let alone continue riding the scooter I’d hired earlier that morning.

A few hundred meters beyond the indigenous hamlet Mandarin-speakers called Xinxing (新興), one of the nicest roads I’ve yet to find in Taiwan came to an abrupt halt. Google Maps had led me to believe that County Road 68 (東68), also known as Shaoya Industry Road (紹雅產業道路), linked up with County Road 70, and that the latter would bring me back to the east coast.

Even though I failed in this particular mission, the several hours that preceded having to turn around and the 30-odd hours that followed it included some of my most enjoyable motorcycle-exploring experiences in Taiwan.

When big-city residents head off to Taitung County, their friends often ask: “The coast or the East Rift Valley?” The stretch of coastline that includes Dulan (都蘭) and Sanxiantai (三仙台) pulls in tourists by the busload. On the inland side of the Coastal Mountain Range, the charm of Luye Township (鹿野鄉) is matched by the sublime rice-field scenery around Chishang (池上).

But there’s a “third Taitung,” a region I and many others have been guilty of ignoring. Apart from those on round-the-island expeditions, visitors coming from northern Taiwan seldom venture beyond the hot springs resort of Zhiben (知本) and into the townships of Taimali (太麻里), Jinfeng (金峰), Dawu (大武), and Daren (達仁).

Because I live in Tainan, I usually approach Taitung by car via Highway 9, the cross-mountain route Mandarin-speakers call the “Nanhui” (南迴公路). This road comes down from the mountains near Daren. For the next 40-odd kilometers, it stays very close to the Pacific Ocean – and we always cover that distance as quickly as possible. 

Highway 9 sticks very close to the Pacific Ocean, but frequently dips and climbs because of the rugged local topography.  Photo: Steven Crook

A short train-and-bus trip last year opened my eyes to the appeal of Taitung’s southernmost townships. This time around, I wanted the freedom and flexibility of my own vehicle. 

Better on two wheels

Two hours and 46 minutes after my train had left Xinzuoying (the Kaohsiung terminus of the high-speed railway), I stepped onto the platform at Jinlun (金崙) in Taimali Township. Near the station, there are a few shops, a church – more about that later – and a junior high school famed for its award-winning Paiwan indigenous dance troupe.

It was the middle of the week, yet at least 50 Taiwanese tourists also disembarked at Jinlun. As they piled their luggage into minibuses bearing the names of nearby hot-springs hotels, I walked up the road to Ji Fa Motorcycles [吉發機車行; Tel: (08) 977-1066]. After presenting my Taiwan driver’s license, I set off on an almost-new 125cc scooter (NT$900 for a day and a half, including a full tank of gas).

My first objective, the Duoliang Train Station (多良車站), is just over three kilometers down the coast from Jinlun. The station is more popular now than it ever was when trains actually stopped here. The Instagram generation has discovered that, without much effort, you can stand inland of the tracks and capture images of your friends with a train and the Pacific Ocean in the background.

The village of Duoliang sprawls across a hillside that plunges down toward the sea (a less scrupulous Tourism Bureau would promote this region as “Taiwan’s Cinque Terre,” likening it to the seaside villages along the Italian Riviera). Most residents are from the indigenous Paiwan tribe, but none of the architecture hints at Austronesia. However, in front of a few homes, you can find freshly harvested djulis (the word for native red quinoa in the Paiwan language) drying under a strong sun.

Trains still stop at Longxi (瀧溪), about six kilometers to the south, and it was here that I left Highway 9 and began my adventure on County Road 68. The road follows the north bank of the Dazhu River (大竹溪) to a fork in the road. There I veered north to the village of Taiban (台坂).

Murals in the indigenous village of Taiban depict a traditional method for hunting wild boar. Photo: Steven Crook

The eastern half of Taiban is notable for its many colorful murals. One depicts a Caucasian Jesus. Another, a kind of triptych, shows two indigenous men using a hunting dog to force a wild boar beneath a platform covered with heavy stones; the platform is then collapsed to incapacitate the animal. The western part of Taiban is at a higher elevation on the other side of a creek. In visual (and perhaps social) terms, the focal point of that community is a Presbyterian Church.

Taiban Presbyterian Church, the tallest building in Taiban. Photo: Steven Crook

The next village along is known to its Paiwan inhabitants as Tjuabal, and to Mandarin speakers as Tuban (土坂). Just beyond it, at the 7.5-kilometer point on Road 68, the Tuban Suspension Bridge (土坂吊橋) is surely one of the Taiwan’s most attractive footbridges.

Tuban Suspension Bridge in Daren Township is surrounded by attractive landscapes. Photo: Steven Crook

After a few switchbacks, I was among pine trees. Neither traffic nor trash spoiled the views. In hindsight, this should have tipped me off that the road might be a dead end.

Entering the forest, it was obvious where County Road 68 had been and what had happened to it. Landslides had covered much of what had been the surface of the road, and foliage had taken root in the displaced soil. I found evidence that hunters pass this way, but having no desire to get lost in the woods, I retraced my steps and rode the 13.7 kilometers back to the coastal highway.

I zoomed southward to Dawu, a town divided into northern and southern halves by a broad creek of the same name. The railway station is north of the river, as are several eateries. After grabbing lunch, I set out for the intersection of Highway 9 and County Road 69, near Dawu Fishing Harbor.

A little over two kilometers after the turnoff, I parked at Jinlong Lake (金龍湖), a spring-fed body of water that irrigates nearby farms. Walking all the way around the lake (the path is also ideal for bicycles and motorcycles) takes less than 30 minutes.

The lake supports a large population of ducks and egrets. Each time there was any disturbance, the latter took off en masse, flew a circuit or two, and then returned to their starting positions. It was a beguiling sight. I would have stayed longer, but I had my eyes on another backcountry route.

Slowly freewheeling back down to the Pacific Coast on Shanzhuku Industrial Road is a excellent way to enjoy the stunning scenery in the area. Photo: Steven Crook

Taihu Road (太湖路), which becomes Shanzhuku Industrial Road (山豬窟產業道路), winds in a southeasterly direction before returning to Highway 9. Few people seem to live along this road, although there are signs for tourist farms and campgrounds. As I’d hoped, the views – both inland and out to sea – turned out to be excellent.

If your car has a reasonable amount of clearance, and you’re somewhat familiar with Taiwan’s mountain roads, driving is an option. A motorcycle is better, however, as you can stop anywhere you want, and can coast downhill for minutes at a time. In addition to saving gas and reducing pollution, the quieter coasting greatly increases your chances of seeing wildlife. Near the highest stretch of Shanzhuku Industrial Road, just after I’d stopped to look at a roadside workshop where logs were being prepped for mushroom farming, I flushed a Swinhoe’s Pheasant.

Every corner of this 12.5-kilometer-long digression had brought fresh scenic delights, but it was time to head north to Zhiben and my bed for the night.

Fickle weather

I awoke to a cloudy sky which never cleared. It was as if the sun had overexerted itself the previous day and called in sick. At least I wouldn’t have to sun-proof myself with long sleeves, gloves, and a mask.

My first goal was to check on the status of Baiyu Waterfall (白玉瀑布, also known as Jade Waterfall) near Zhiben’s main cluster of big hotels. As I’d heard, the stairway that once provided access to the upper falls was still closed, and nothing indicated that repairs were underway.

Returning to Road 194, which connects Highway 9 with the hot springs zone, I rode west toward the Zhiben National Forest Recreation Area (知本森林遊樂區). At the kilometer-1 marker – where a tiny bilingual sign reads “Yaoshan Trails (樂山步道)” – I turned left and began a careful ascent into the hills. Very soon, I had an eagle’s view over the river and the forest recreation area. 

Like some of the roads I’d explored the previous day, this wasn’t one I’d recommend to lowland motorists. Several corners were so tight I had to slow to a crawl. One section was carved from a fragile-looking cliff face. Hardly anywhere was there space for two cars to pass.

After around five kilometers I was within a few hundred meters of the spot where the Yaoshan Elementary School (樂山國小) once stood. I parked and walked up to a small plateau. For a period after World War II, the school had more than 100 students. Nowadays few people live nearby, and many of the fields are fallow.  

After the school’s closure in 1993, the campus became a minor tourist attraction. Kuomintang-era political slogans on the walls resonated with Taiwanese visitors who had grown up under martial law. After the community development association restored the electricity, plenty of tourists were willing to pay to camp here.

Concluding that the school buildings were cracked beyond repair, the authorities demolished everything in early 2018. Since then, Mother Nature has reclaimed the entire site. I couldn’t find a single brick amid the underbrush.

Freewheeling back to Road 194, I had two memorable encounters with nature. A Reeve’s muntjac that was about to cross the road looked in my direction, then turned around and disappeared before I could get my camera out. A little further on, I surprised a family of turkeys that, I’d guess, were free range rather than feral.

Working my way back toward Jinlun so I could return the scooter, I had time to explore a little more. Just south of the Taimali Train Station (太麻里站), I took County Road 64 into Jinfeng Township.

It started to rain, but I pressed on. When I reached Jialan (嘉蘭), a mixed Rukai/Paiwan community, I spotted something intriguing across the river. A newish bridge leads straight from the village to a sheltered walkway that’s called The Skywalk (天空步道), but which isn’t significantly higher than the river.

The Skywalk doubles as part of a bike trail. At the time of my visit, there were bikes for rental, but nobody to rent them from. It was siesta time on a wet day in the middle of the week, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that no one was on duty.

The bicycle path goes upriver as far as another bridge. Crossing that, I found a type of automated gate I’ve never before seen in Taiwan. It opened when I approached, but after about 1.5 kilometers the road became utterly impassable because of a deep hole followed by a substantial landslide.

The hills inland of this point are part of the Dawushan Nature Reserve (大武山自然保留區), off-limits to casual visitors, and I wasn’t sure whether proceeding a few hundred meters upriver to Jinfeng Hot Springs (金峰溫泉) is allowed. The springs are said to be very hot indeed. Despite the drizzle, I could see steam rising from a clearing up ahead.

After handing in my motorcycle, I delayed changing into dry clothes at the Jinlun Train Station so I could revisit Kiokai Ni Santo Josef (金崙聖若瑟教堂, Church of St. Joseph). Founded in the mid-1950s, this Roman Catholic house of worship was given a Paiwan name and a wonderfully detailed Austronesian makeover in 2007. Most of those depicted within, including the Virgin Mary, wear tribal garb. Snake totems appear in the Stations of the Cross.

Paiwan snake motifs appear in the Stations of the Cross in Kiokai Ni Santo Josef Catholic Church. Photo: Steven Crook

If I were religious, I would have come here at the beginning of my trip and prayed for safety. I’m not, but my two-wheeled tour of the region had been such great fun that making a donation to the maintenance fund seemed entirely apt.

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