Any traveler with the good fortune of a window seat when flying through clear skies into Taiwan will catch alluring glimpses of the island’s dramatic topography.
Rugged mountain landscapes more than 1,000 meters above sea level account for 32% of Taiwan’s land area. A similar proportion is taken up by hills and other uplands at elevations of between 100 and 1,000 meters. Depending on the definition of elevation, between 258 and 286 peaks are higher than 3,000 meters – and a handful come very close to 4,000 meters.
Only a tiny part of the population lives more than 1,000 meters above sea level, and there are very few human residents above 2,500 meters. Taiwan is therefore a land of both crowded lowlands and pristine uninhabited wilderness.
Hiking enthusiasts are right when they say that only those willing to carry several days’ supplies and undertake arduous treks can fully experience the splendor of alpine Taiwan. Nevertheless, exploring the island’s mountainous interior is still worthwhile for those who prefer to get around by car or bus, and who have just two or three days to spare.
To promote international interest in Taiwan’s incredible sierra scenery, the forest ecosystems that make the island a biodiversity hotspot of global importance, and the indigenous people who have dwelt in the highlands for centuries, Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau has declared 2020 the “Year of Mountain Tourism.”
As part of its efforts to help potential visitors grasp the scale of high-altitude Taiwan and get the most out of their vacations, the Tourism Bureau has devised seven recommended routes, each focusing on a particular national park or mountain range. Of Taiwan’s nine national parks, five protect upland areas. In total, a fifth of the country falls within some type of conservation zone.
The Xueshan Mountain Range, which stretches across a good part of north Taiwan, is one of the seven themes. The range takes its name from Xueshan (“Snow Mountain”), also known as Mount Xue or Mount Shei. At 3,886 meters (12,749 feet) above sea level, it is the second-highest mountain in Taiwan and in East Asia, surpassed only by Mount Jade (3,952 meters/12,966 feet), some 109 kilometers to the south. As a hiking challenge, it is first rate.
Conquering Xueshan involves several hours’ walking on steep but alluring trails, and at least one night in a basic but adequate mountain lodge. Permits must be obtained in advance; the process is explained in Chinese and English on the website of Shei-Pa National Park.
Shei-Pa National Park derives its name from that of Xueshan and another iconic peak, the 3,490 meter (11,450 feet) Mount Dabajian (sometimes spelled Mount Dapachien). The latter, which has a distinctive barrel shape, appears on Taiwan’s NT$500 bill.
Hikers heading for Xueshan usually approach it from Yilan County in the northeast. Those planning to tackle Mount Dabajian, or other parts of the national park, can enter the mountains from the northwest – in which case it makes sense to begin or end your expedition with a night in Sanyi.
This bucolic township is one of just four places in Taiwan that have been accepted as members of Cittaslow International, an Italy-based alliance that embraces the global “slow movement” of communities that are “respectful of citizens’ health, the authenticity of products and good food, [and] fascinating craft traditions.”
Renowned for its artisan woodcarvers, Sanyi benefits from good road and rail connections to Taiwan’s major cities. Taichung is just 40 minutes away by train. Driving to Taipei takes two hours.
Guanwu National Forest Recreation Area is both the starting point for those hiking to Mount Dabajian and an ecotourism destination in its own right. About two hours by car from Hsinchu – the nearest major city and High-speed Railway station – Guanwu is 907 hectares of temperate forest through which nature lovers can hike on well-maintained, clearly signposted trails.
The place name gives Chinese-speaking tourists a strong clue as to what to expect. Guanwu can be translated as “watching the fog,” and visitors often find themselves enveloped in mists that part to reveal superb views of peaks near and far. With an annual average temperature of 13 degrees Celsius, it provides a reliable escape during periods of sweltering heat in the plains.
This part of Taiwan is home to one of the island’s smaller indigenous Austronesian ethnic groups. The Saisiyat tribe has fewer than 6,800 members, yet they have succeeded in preserving and bringing to national attention their unique paSta’ay festival. The event has a grim backstory. At its core are rituals held to appease the spirits of a rival tribe that the Saisiyat exterminated in the distant past. It is not intended as a show or performance for tourists, but respectful guests are allowed to observe and are often invited to join the dance circle.
The ceremony is held every two years in the tenth month on Taiwan’s traditional lunisolar calendar. The exact date of the 2020 edition will not be announced until the summer, but it is expected to be a weekend in the middle of November. If you do attend, expect to have strands of silvergrass tied around your head or arm (and also around your camera) to protect you from mischievous spirits.
The community around Xiangtian Lake – 738 meters above sea level and 90 scenic minutes by car from Sanyi – is an important center of Saisiyat culture and the location of a bilingual museum devoted to the paSta’ay festival and other tribal lore.
Greatly outnumbering the Saisiyat are the 92,000-strong Atayal people. The latter tribe has outposts throughout the northern half of Taiwan, including Wulai District in New Taipei City.
Because of modern communications and the tribe’s proximity to lowland lifestyles, certain Atayal customs have disappeared. For example, when eating outdoors, Atayal people no longer sprinkle a few morsels of food on the ground to appease forces of the supernatural. However, a band of artists and cultural activists have injected vigor and innovation into the tribe’s age-old weaving traditions.
An excellent place to read up on Taiwan’s Austronesian cultures in English and Chinese is the Digital Museum of Taiwan Indigenous Peoples. For all kinds of travel information about the country, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline, 0800-011-765 (toll free within Taiwan).