For many Taiwanese, as well as for thousands of international visitors and foreign residents, the east coast is their favorite region of Taiwan.
On the western half of the island, the bustle is nonstop. The east, by contrast, is the very definition of bucolic. With 652 people per square kilometer, Taiwan is one of the world’s most crowded countries. In the eastern counties of Hualien and Taitung, however, the population density is less than a tenth that of the western lowlands.
It is a realm where Mother Nature does as she pleases – as shown by the bridge that carries Highway 30 over the Xiuguluan River in the East Rift Valley. The river’s rock-strewn bed conceals the boundary between the Eurasian Plate, to the west, and the Philippine Sea Plate, to the east. Millimeter by millimeter, tectonic forces are driving the former under the latter. At intervals of three to five years, the bridge must be realigned as the Coastal Mountain Range grows ever higher.
Reaching heights of up to 1,680 meters above sea level, the Coastal Mountain Range is a formidable barrier for those wishing to travel between the East Rift Valley and the Pacific Coast. Yet its peaks are pygmies compared to those of the Central Mountain Range, the spectacular massif further inland.
The East Rift Valley is misnamed, in that it has been shaped by converging rather than diverging tectonic plates, but everything else you are likely to read about it is true. It is 150 kilometers in length, yet no more than 4 kilometers wide. While it contains no major cities, a railway line with frequent express service runs through it.
The valley is one of the best places in Taiwan to grow rice and sugar, and travelers can visit a shuttered sugar refinery in Guangfu Township. To get a better understanding of what makes East Taiwan such a unique destination, visitors should spend some time at the nearby Matai’an Wetland Ecological Park.
More than 100 aquatic plant species thrive in the wetland, and there are demonstrations of traditional labor-saving fishing methods. Restaurants in the area serve dishes associated with Taiwan’s Austronesian indigenous ethnic minority, such as pieces of fish cooked by first heating stones in a fire, then placing the stones and the fish, along with some greens, in a water-filled segment of bamboo.
The place name Matai’an derives from the word for pigeon pea in the language of the Amis indigenous people, the largest of Taiwan’s 16 Austronesian tribes. Pigeon peas used to grow in abundance here, and were once a local staple.
Several of the Amis villages in Hualien and Taitung have their own symbol. For the village of Dabalong – long ago, Matai’an’s traditional enemy – it is a white crab. In recent decades, Dabalong’s inhabitants have earned a reputation as exceptional woodcarvers.
In July and August, Amis communities celebrate the taking in of the harvest with singing, dancing, and feasting. As with harvest festivals worldwide, these events are both celebrations of abundance and expressions of gratitude for the blessings received from gods and ancestors.
The precise date of the Ilisin Harvest Festival varies from village to village, as does the pattern of rituals and taboos. Travelers interested in attending one of these events can obtain details from the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.
Unlike most of Taiwan’s Austronesian tribes, the Amis society is matrilineal. Another important facet of their culture is an age-set system through which males of a similar age maintain close ties and a common identity throughout their lives. Once its members have completed their rites of passage, each cohort receives a name, a little like the Western world’s Generation X, Generation Y, and so on.
Several Amis clans live on the Pacific Coast, in places such as Fengbin, Jingpu, and Dulan. Jingpu is where the Xiuguluan River emerges from the Coastal Mountain Range and flows into the Pacific.
The sugar industry brought Dulan in Taitung County its initial prosperity, but in recent years this little town has evolved into a very different kind of place. It attracts artists from all over, backpackers who stay for weeks on end, and couples who decide to swap their big-city lives for a more laid-back existence.
The former sugar factory in Dulan now houses galleries and shops, and is a venue for live music. Visitors with access to a motorcycle (or willing to pay for a taxi) can head into the hills behind the town, and hike 3.8 kilometers to the top of Dulan Mountain (elevation 1,190 meters). The views are spectacular, and the trail is well maintained.
Among Hualien County’s most striking sights are the daylily plantations on Sixty Stone Mountain and Chike Mountain. These protein-rich orange flowers are cultivated as a kind of vegetable and often added to pork-rib soup or fried-noodle dishes. For a few weeks in late summer, tourists flock to these uplands to appreciate both daylily cuisine and beautiful landscapes.
During daylily season, both mountains are closed to private vehicles. To get comprehensive information about parking arrangements and shuttle buses, contact the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration, or drop by the Luoshan Visitors Center just off Highway 9.
Daylily-dominated vistas can also be enjoyed at Kinchen Mountain (also often spelled Jinzhen Mountain), two hours’ drive to the south. In previous years, the authorities have arranged shuttle buses to the mountain from the railway station at Taimali, which is a good option for travelers depending on public transportation.
Heading south, the next station is Jinlun, a little town where Han people live side by side with Amis and Paiwan aborigines. Since World War II, Christianity has become a key facet of indigenous identity – Taiwan’s Han majority are mainly Buddhist and Taoist – and a church within walking distance of Jinlun railway station contains a fascinating blend of Austronesian and Roman Catholic motifs. Inside Kiokai Ni Santo Josef, images of the Crucifixion feature people wearing traditional Paiwan clothes, while snake emblems (the tribe’s animal totem) appear throughout the interior.
Those planning a trip to Taiwan will find an abundance of information online in a variety of languages. Useful local-government websites include the ones maintained by the Hualien County Government and Taitung County Government. To read up on Taiwan’s Austronesian cultures, visit the Digital Museum of Taiwan Indigenous People. 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).