By the standards of Taiwan’s vertiginous interior, neither Greater Taipei nor neighboring Yilan County are especially mountainous. Even so, visitors who confine themselves to the north never lack opportunities to hike, mountain bike, or simply enjoy scenery through the window of a car or a bus.
At 1,120 meters (3,675 feet), Mount Qixing, the no. 1 peak in Yangmingshan National Park, is less than a third the height of the island’s tallest mountain. The rugged uplands that separate Taipei from Yilan were enough of a barrier to impede the latter’s development – but they cannot be compared to the breathtaking sierra that is the Central Mountain Range.
Mount Qixing is part of the Datun Volcano Group. Taiwan itself has not seen a volcanic eruption for perhaps 200,000 years, although offshore volcanic activity has occurred more recently. However, the country is located on the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” and below the surface it seethes with geothermal heat. Scorching mineral-enriched spa waters bubble to the surface at scores of locations, including Taipei’s Beitou District, a few kilometers from Mount Qixing as the crow flies and dotted with hot-springs establishments.
Hiking to the top of Mount Qixing takes most people at least three hours. Visitors who feel like a soak after this exertion can do so for free at Lengshuikeng Public Hot Springs, where the water is milky on account of its high sulfur content. There is a separate pool for each gender, so swimsuits are not required.
Another highlight of the area is Xiaoyoukeng, where fumaroles constantly spew steam. The yellow-green stains on the rocks are traces of sulfur, a natural resource that indigenous people collected hundreds of years ago for sale to visiting Chinese merchants.
The steam is visible from Highway 2A, a delightful road that climbs out of crowded Taipei before winding its way through the hills and down to Jinshan on the north coast. There is a trail between the summit of Mount Qixing and the Xiaoyoukeng Visitor Center, which itself can be reached by buses 108 and 1717.
Datun Nature Park is a barrier-free attraction managed by Yangmingshan National Park. The park’s plants, insects, and birds attract ecotourists. A highlight for birdwatchers visiting from afar is the Taiwan blue magpie, an omnivorous species endemic to the island.
One of the most striking sights visible from the peak of Mount Qixing is Mount Guanyin, on the other side of the broad Tamsui River. Located in New Taipei City’s Bali District, this 616-meter-high hump-shaped landmark is yet another extinct volcano. Guanyin is the Chinese name of the Buddhist bodhisattva known elsewhere by the Sanskrit name Avalokitesvara.
Mount Guanyin’s trail network is well maintained and clearly signposted in English as well as Chinese. The mountain is a key attraction within the North Coast and Guanyinshan National Scenic Area, whose website is also useful for visitors who find themselves in Jinshan.
Large sections of Taiwan’s highlands are controlled by the central government’s Forestry Bureau. For much of the postwar period, the bureau’s principal mission was to exploit the commercial potential of the woodlands that cover about 58% of the country. Since the 1990s, however, conservation has been the overriding priority.
Several former logging centers have been repurposed as tourist attractions, the largest being Taipingshan National Forest Recreation Area in Yilan County.
Much of Taipingshan, which covers almost 13,000 hectares, is around 2,000 meters above sea level or higher. Driving there from central Taipei takes the better part of three hours, but on weekends there is a public-transportation alternative. Travelers who catch the first express train of the day from Taipei to Yilan City can transfer to bus 1750 for the final – and intensely scenic – 64 kilometers of the journey.
October and November are especially popular months to visit Tai-pingshan, as that is when the leaves of the recreation area’s Taiwan Beech trees turn glorious shades of yellowish gold. At any time of year, however, the 3.8-kilometer-long Taiwan Beech Trail is a must-do.
Many visitors feel that Cuifeng Lake is the single most beautiful sight within the recreation area. Following the rains of summer, this sublime body of water expands to a size of 25 hectares and an average depth of 8 meters. Another highlight is Jianqing Huaigu Trail, which follows part of one of the old narrow-gauge railways that were built so the highlands could be logged.
No region of Taiwan displays as much ethnic diversity as the East. Unlike Yilan, where Han Taiwanese of Fujianese ancestry are very much in the majority, the counties of Hualien and Taitung have substantial indigenous and Hakka minorities. In addition, many residents are the children or grandchildren of mainland Chinese who arrived after World War II.
The Amis people (total population throughout the country: 213,000) are by far the region’s largest Austronesian population group. Living side-by-side with them are two much smaller indigenous tribes, the Kavalan and the Sakizaya.
In the first half of the 17th century, the Kavalan and Sakizaya came into contact with the Dutch and the Spanish then occupying parts of Taiwan. In 1878, when Taiwan was part of the Qing Empire ruled from Beijing, the two peoples joined forces to fight Qing forces as the empire tried to expand its territory in what is now Hualien County.
The Kavalan-Sakizaya side suffered a catastrophic defeat. The Kavalans, who now number approximately 1,500, dispersed across Yilan County and the coasts of Hualien and Taitung counties. Their distinct identity was ignored by the various regimes that ruled Taiwan during the 20th century. Not until 2002 did their campaign for indigenous status succeed.
The Sakizaya paid an even high price. Fearing retribution, the survivors fled to Amis communities where for generations they maintained a low-profile ethnic identity.
In the 1970s, Sakizaya activists began collecting cultural materials. Only in the 21st century – by which time Taiwan was enjoying full political liberalization and pluralism – did they seek official recognition, which was granted in 2007. The tribe’s official membership is currently just under 1,000, but it is thought that thousands more people in the east have Sakizaya ancestry.
To learn more about Taiwan’s Austronesian peoples, visit the Digital Museum of Taiwan Indigenous People. For additional information about visiting Taiwan, please contact the tourism hotline at 0800- 011-765, or go to the Tourism Bureau’s website.