The Astounding Highlands in the Heart of Taiwan

Qigjing Farm

Taichung is an excellent launchpad for anyone wishing to explore the stunning mountains that crowd Taiwan’s interior.

The city encompasses intensively farmed coastal lowlands, mid-elevation landscapes, and expanses of high-altitude wilderness within Shei-Pa National Park. At the same time, Taichung’s thoroughly modern core area, home to over half its 2.8 million residents, has more than its fair share of international dining choices, a wide range of accommodation options, and some fine museums.

When the current disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic ends, Taichung’s international airport will again handle flights from cities in Japan, South Korea, China, and Southeast Asia.

Getting around Taichung is becoming easier and easier. By the end of this year, the first segment of the Taichung Metro should be up and running. The 18-station Green Line will considerably shorten journey times between the Taichung High-Speed Railway Station and locations in the city center. The city bus network has also been improved, and most journeys under 10 kilometers are free.

Tourists bound for popular destinations in the mountains do not need to hire a car. Every day, a dozen buses connect Taichung with the hiking base and hot springs resort of Guguan. If they book their tickets in advance, they can proceed by bus from Guguan to Lishan via a scenic but restricted-access stretch of the Central Cross-Island Highway.

Buses to Puli are even more frequent. Often overlooked by visitors in their eagerness to reach Sun Moon Lake, Puli is a key transportation hub where it is possible to change buses and travel on to Wushe or Qingjing Farm.

BIKE PATH AROUND SUN MOON LAKE

Wushe is the busiest settlement in Nantou County’s Renai Township, whose multiethnic population is just under 16,000. In addition to villages where almost everyone is a member of the Atayal, Bunun, or Seediq indigenous tribes, plus a sprinkling of Taiwanese of Han Chinese descent, there is a community descended from Yunnanese anti-communist soldiers who fled Myanmar and Laos in the 1950s and 1960s.

MONA RUDO MEMORIAL PARK

After the government of Chiang Kai-shek relocated to Taiwan in late 1949, thousands of his Yunnanese supporters continued fighting Mao Zedong’s Chinese communists. When it became clear that their situation was hopeless, they were evacuated. Some of the men – many with wives and children in tow – were sent to Qingjing Farm.

When they arrived, it was a wilderness. Much of the farm is more than 1,500 meters (4,921 feet) above sea level. The ex-soldiers cultivated cabbages and tea and raised sheep. Some of their children now operate homestays or restaurants in the area.

The farm’s sheep are one of its most popular attractions. Lowland Taiwan is too crowded and too warm for grazing animals, so Qingjing Farm draws Taiwanese (and people from elsewhere in Asia) who are eager to see sheep in a truly pastoral setting.

North of Qingjing Farm, Highway 14A leads to the highest stretch of paved road in the country. This section of highway, which crests at an elevation of 3,275 meters (10,745 feet), rewards sightseers with superb vistas.

AOWANDA NATIONAL FOREST RECREATION AREA

Aowanda National Forest Recreation Area is accessible only to those with their own vehicle. This 2,787-hectare (6,887 acres) reserve encompasses several watersheds between 1,100 and 2,600 meters (3,609 to 8,530 feet) above sea level.

Thanks to its mild climate, the area has become a popular summer getaway. However, it is in the fall that its tranquil natural beauty becomes utterly sublime. Set against the browns and greens of a pristine woodland, Aowanda’s maple trees display a captivating range of reds and oranges. To find out more about Aowanda or any of Taiwan’s other forest recreation areas, go to the Forestry Bureau website.

The drive to Aowanda takes visitors through Seediq settlements. The Seediq, like Taiwan’s other indigenous peoples, are Austronesian and speak a language that is altogether different from Mandarin and Taiwanese.

The first time many people outside Taiwan heard about this tribe was when they saw a trailer for Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, a 2011 cinema epic. The movie depicts the Wushe Incident of 1930, a heroic but ultimately unsuccessful uprising by Seediq villagers angered by Japan’s oppressive colonial rule. 

Unlike some other indigenous groups in Taiwan, the Seediq people are patrilineal, tracing descent from the father. In traditional tribal communities, women focused on farming (mainly taro, millet, and sweet potatoes) and making cloth, while the men hunted and did heavy labor. Marriage within three degrees of consanguinity was prohibited, and young people had to receive their parents’ approval before getting wed.

Until well into the 20th century, the bodies of clan law and protocol, known as Gaya and Waya, also dictated patasan (the ritual tattooing of faces, hands, and feet). Men could receive a facial tattoo after they had decapitated an enemy or shown skill in hunting. For women, tattoos indicated their ability at cloth weaving and farming.

Males were typically given vertical stripes on their chins, while females were tattooed on both cheeks. Forehead tattoos appeared on both men and women. It was believed that such tattoos ensured that after Seediq tribe members passed away, they would be recognized in the hereafter by their ancestors.

The Japanese colonial authorities tried to stamp out the practice of tattooing. After 1945, when Japan’s defeat resulted in Taiwan coming under the control of Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China, Christian missionaries succeeded in converting most Seediq to Catholicism or Protestantism, undermining the spiritual-religious significance of tattoos. 

Nowadays, Seediq facial tattoos exist only in photographs, but artisans are keeping the tribe’s clothing heritage alive. The traditional material is ramie fiber, and the most common color is red.

Textiles were seen as women’s work, but the manufacture of containers and utensils was a task for men. Common items made using bamboo or Formosan supplejack included fishing nets and backpack-baskets.

Travelers in central Taiwan may also encounter the Thao people, who lived in the Sun Moon Lake area for centuries before the Japanese authorities decided to turn this body of water into a hydroelectric station.

THAO PEOPLE

Rising waters forced the Thao to leave the island where they believed their ancestral spirits reside. Only a tiny fragment of the island remains, and most Thao – the tribe totals fewer than 850 people – now live on the lake’s southeastern shore.  

The Thao language is on the verge of extinction, but certain tribal traditions live on. During Thao festivals, the unique way rhythms are pounded out using wooden pestles and stone slabs has earned this ethnic group a special place in the hearts of musicologists.

To find out if there is going to be a public performance of pestle music, contact the Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area. In addition, the website of the central government’s Council of Indigenous People profiles all 16 of the country’s aboriginal tribes.

For further information about visiting Taiwan, please contact the tourism hotline at 0800- 011-765 (toll free within Taiwan) or go to the Tourism Bureau’s website.

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