In the Taiwan of yesteryear, there was minimal interaction between places that are now just one hour’s drive from each other. Before the 20th century, the island had few proper roads and just one short stretch of railway. Getting from the island’s north to the south, or from the west to the east, often involved boarding a boat.
Taipei and its suburbs are less than 35 kilometers northwest of the Lanyang Plain, which takes its name from the Lanyang River. This impressive body of water irrigates fields of rice, watermelons, and spring onions as it makes its way from the Central Mountain Range to the Pacific Ocean. It was the region’s agricultural potential that attracted the first wave of Han migrants in the late 18th century.
The distance between Taipei and the Lanyang Plain is not great, but the mountains presented a formidable barrier. Even on the cusp of the 20th century, the uplands’ Austronesian indigenous inhabitants did not take kindly to outsiders encroaching on their territory.
Efforts at settlement were complicated by the authorities’ ambiguous attitude. On the one hand, a growing Han population needed land on which to grow food. On the other, officials recognized that indigenous clans would not take the loss of their ancestral lands lying down.
By the first decade of the 19th century, the Qing Dynasty mandarins in charge of Taiwan realized that the pioneers were there to stay. Concerned lest the Lanyang Plain become a haven for criminals and fugitives, they established a sub-prefectural local government.
Until 1875, this corner of the island was known to speakers of Holo (the language spoken by migrants from the Chinese province of Fujian) as Kat-má-lán, a toponym derived from the name of one of the area’s Austronesian tribes, the Kavalan people. Ever since, it has been called Yilan. Ask a Taiwanese person for their impressions of Yilan, and they are very likely to use words like “unspoiled,” “green,” and “laid back.”
Official statistics suggest that such notions are not far from the truth. Greater Taipei covers 2,458 square kilometers and has a population of seven million. Yilan County’s 2,143 square kilometers are occupied by a mere 459,000 inhabitants. People move here to escape the rat race, retire, or give their children a happier childhood. Tourists come to enjoy slow yet civilized lifestyles, a network of leisure farms, and some of the island’s best farm-to-fork dining.
The county’s international profile has been boosted by the resounding success of a libation named for the area’s original inhabitants. Since it debuted just over a decade ago, Kavalan Whisky has won scores of awards and is now sold in at least 60 countries. The distillery is in Yilan’s Yuanshan Township and is open to the public; admission is free.
Yilan County is divided into one city (also called Yilan) and 11 townships, the northernmost of which is Toucheng. Those who approach by car or bus on Highway 2, the coastal route from Greater Taipei, will notice that the narrow strip of flatland that faces the Pacific Ocean broadens a little as they make their way south.
Hiking enthusiasts can enter the northern part of Toucheng Township via the Caoling Historic Trail. This 8.5-kilometer-long path was one of the routes by which the frontiersmen of yore made their way into what is now Yilan County. The trail meets the coastal highway very near Dali Railway Station, from where local trains can whisk travelers to Taipei, Yilan City, and points in between.
Visitors coming by car often stop at the Beiguan Tidal Park. There are few better places to appreciate the rugged contours of the northeastern coast or to gaze across the ocean to Guishan Island.
The island, a mere 12 kilometers offshore, gets its name (which means “turtle mountain”) from its terrapin-like shape. The fisherfolk who lived on the island until 1977 were evacuated so a military outpost could be established.
Since 2000, when the base was closed, small groups of ecotourists have been permitted to land on Gui-shan Island but not stay overnight. For more information about the island and other attractions, see the website of the Northeast and Yilan Coast National Scenic Area.
Excursions to Guishan Island, as well as dolphin- and whale-watching voyages, set out from Wushi Fishing Harbor, a short taxi ride from the busiest section of Toucheng and its railway station.
Between the harbor and Highway 2 stands a masterpiece by one of Taiwan’s leading architects. Lanyang Museum was designed by Kris Yao, who drew inspiration from the tilt of nearby rock strata to create a structure that looks as if it is emerging from the Earth itself. The museum’s permanent exhibitions cover every aspect of local human history, a good amount of natural history, and also how the fishing and logging industries drove regional economic development.
None of Taiwan’s most attractive beaches are in Yilan County, but Toucheng does boast one of the country’s surfing hotspots. At Wai’ao, visitors can rent boards and take lessons from English-speaking instructors. On weekdays, the expanse of black sand is almost deserted.
Yilan City, the seat of the Yilan County government (which maintains a useful multilingual tourist information website at https://travel.yilan.tw), is a city of manageable dimensions. The population is 96,000, meaning it has all the necessary amenities with few of the drawbacks that plague larger municipalities.
Because it was long isolated from the rest of Taiwan, Yilan developed a particular Holo accent and distinct local customs. One of the latter is Taiwanese opera, a performing art that evolved from traditional Chinese opera (the best-known variety of which, in the West, is Beijing opera).
The Taiwan Theater Museum in Yilan City is an excellent place to learn about traditional puppetry as well as Taiwanese opera. Visitors may be lucky enough to catch a rehearsal by a local amateur troupe, and the collection of glove and string puppets is sure to beguile.
Performances of Chinese opera, acrobatics, and martial arts are also put on at the National Center for Traditional Arts in the Dongshan River Scenic Area. The stores in the complex are also a good place to shop for handicrafts as gifts or souvenirs.
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).