Visitors to Taiwan looking for a place to properly unwind often prefer the less developed, less crowded eastern half of the island. But even along the generally highly populated western plain, it is possible to find spots that are relatively unspoiled and can make for a tranquil, relaxing getaway.
A prime example is Miaoli County, which is almost as large in area as New Taipei City, but whereas New Taipei City has a population of slightly over four million, Miaoli has fewer than 550,000 residents.
The biggest settlement in Miaoli has a mere 103,000 people, and much of the county is hilly. This terrain made life difficult for the farmers of yesteryear, and more recently it hindered the development of certain industries. Yet the county’s landscape is now seen as one of its greatest strengths, and not just because Miaoli is a place of considerable and diverse natural beauty.
Cyclists adore the lack of traffic, the turns and gradients, and the views they find on the backroads. Different crops thrive in different places. Mountain ranges and rivers limited people’s movements until a couple of generations ago, and the resulting isolation helped preserve the customs of remote Hakka communities.
It is no surprise that certain parts of Miaoli are already established tourist destinations. Sanyi is well known as a woodcarving center. Dahu is famous for its delicious strawberries. Taian has hot springs. Nanzhuang is populated by a fascinating mix of people, among them Hakka, Hoklo (Taiwanese whose ancestors migrated from China’s Fujian province), and the indigenous Saisiyat and Atayal tribes.
Sanyi and Nanzhuang recently became members of Cittaslow International, an Italy-based alliance that promotes small towns where lifestyles are grounded in authenticity, health, and traditional craftsmanship.
Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau is now encouraging travelers to turn their attention to other townships in Miaoli County, such as Yuanli and Gongguan. The former abuts the Taiwan Strait and the prosperous municipality of Tai-chung. The latter is located in the very heart of the county.
Much of Yuanli is devoted to the cultivation of rice, but for most of its history, the area was best known for mats, hats, and other items woven by hand using locally grown triangle rushes.
After inexpensive plastic goods became commonplace in the 1970s, this industry nearly died out. Fortunately, artists and community activists stepped in at the beginning of the 21st century to preserve and enhance traditional rush-weaving skills. The Yuanli Triangle Rush Exhibition Hall is not just an excellent place to learn about the craft, but also a source of quality souvenirs.
Visitors with a special interest in industrial processes are likely to enjoy a visit to the Jin Liang Shing Brickworks, less than 1 kilometer from the Yuanli Triangle Rush Exhibition Hall. This factory is geared up for tourists, who learn about every aspect of brickmaking and get to see inside the actual kilns.
In the same neighborhood is a school that looks much as it did during the 1895-1945 period of Japanese colonial rule. After the authorities restored the wooden dormitory buildings at the Shanjiao Elementary School, the campus became one of the county’s most Instagrammed sights.
Miaoli County’s seaboard gets less attention from tourists than it deserves. Yuanli’s Yuangang Coast Park is a good spot to wind up a day’s sightseeing, as the sunset view is often captivating, and the nearby Rainbow Bridge offers additional photo opportunities.
Some place names in Gongguan date back to the frontier era when Hakka pioneers had to defend themselves against indigenous clans with whom they competed for land and other resources. One neighborhood just outside the town center is known as Zhuweizi (“surrounded by a bamboo palisade”), while a village in the southern part of the township is called Shiqiang (“stone wall”).
Back in the 19th century, Shiqiang’s inhabitants gathered stones from the nearby river and constructed a barrier that was up to seven meters high and six meters thick. Jujube trees were grown on and around the wall because their thorns made infiltration even more difficult.
The wall has been redundant for over a century, and as a result of earthquakes and deliberate clearances, now only a few two-meter-high segments of the wall remain. No longer suspicious of outsiders, Shiqiang is now a place where visitors interested in enjoying its bucolic beauty are given a warm welcome.
Another intriguing place name is on the south bank of the river near Shi-qiang. At Chuhuangkeng, which means “pit from which sulfa emerges,” visitors can cross the Houlong River on a footbridge and then climb into the hills on a 1.8-kilometer-long hiking trail. If you come early in the morning, you have a good chance of seeing Formosan macaques, Taiwan’s only monkey species.
Sulfa is not this area’s only natural resource. Drilling for oil and gas has been going on in this area since 1861, when American technicians were engaged by the Qing Empire then ruling Taiwan to assist in the search for petroleum. The Taiwan Oil Field Exhibition Hall, located between the footbridge and the start of the trail, provides background information on that history and preserves some of the old infrastructure.
Gongguan is also where you will find the Miaoli Ceramics Museum. The museum has a collection of more than 1,000 pieces of ceramic art, many of which were produced by local artists. Admission is free; like many of Taiwan’s museums, it is closed every Monday.
The Taiwan Hakka Museum (free admission, closed on Tuesdays) is located about 13 kilometers from central Gongguan in neighboring Tongluo Township. Devoted to Taiwan’s largest ethnic minority (about one in seven Taiwanese is Hakka), this sizable exhibition hall goes beyond introducing Hakka customs and culture.
Occupations that Hakka people dominated – such as camphor extraction, tobacco farming, and even employment on Taiwan’s railway network – are covered in some detail, as are the agricultural products used by Hakkas to give their cuisine its distinctive flavors and textures.
To find out more about Yuanli, Gongguan, 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).