Facing the Pacific Ocean, this Taiwanese county embraces its natural beauty, from beaches and lakes to mountains and parks
AS cars whiz by before us and with the roar of the Pacific Ocean at our backs, one of the most powerful men in Taiwan’s aboriginal Puyuma tribe is being scolded.
I do not understand the language but the gist is clear. He, the stupid man, clucks a remonstrating woman as she gesticulates at his head, has left back home the most critical item for the ceremony.
I look around. Everyone – young, old, men, women – is wearing a beautiful crown of colourful flowers on his or her head.
The man, a former headsman of the Kasavakan village – childhood home of Taiwan pop star A-mei – shrugs sheepishly as he shepherds me across the road to where a raucous outdoor feast of chicken, beer and local rice liqueur is starting.
It is tomb-sweeping day to remember the ancestors who first landed on Taiwan “a few thousand years ago”, way before the Han Chinese did, says headman Haku Dumaradas, 73.
And the idea behind the flower crown is a simple one: In paying respects to one’s forefathers, one must look one’s best. And what better way than to display nature’s gifts on one’s head?
Indeed, the entire county of Taitung is not shy about flaunting its string of natural gems – ocean, mountains, beaches, lakes and parks.
Located on Taiwan’s south-eastern coast and a five-hour train ride from Taipei, Taitung is known as Taiwan’s “back garden”.
The county is among the farthest from the busy cities in the north and is on the side of the island that faces the blank blue expense of the Pacific Ocean, as opposed to the bustling west coast near mainland China where immigrants land.
Left relatively alone, the 3,515 sq km county is less developed than other parts of Taiwan and is sparsely populated.
Buildings are rickety but charmingly painted the cobalt blue of chemistry experiments, while a public bus lackadaisically trundles along every hour or so. Visitors drive or cycle along the coast on bicycles with the Taiwanese flag fluttering behind.
There is no factory, industrial park or skyscraper in this part of Taiwan. Instead, pebbled beaches stretch on endlessly, set against mountains. The aboriginal people, who comprise one-third of the local 230,000-strong population, carry on with their traditions, from old trades such as fishing and farming to a matrilineal lineage system where husbands take their wives’ names and daughters inherit the family property.
At the Pisilian village of the Amis tribe where we stayed one night, Fosay Sapiat, 57, is washing corals – “doing as told” by his wife Amoy Sapiat, 57, the village’s administrator.
He laughs as he says: “We, men, don’t have any property. The women take care of things while the men run about.”
Asked for his original last name, he turns to his wife. Amoy furrows her brows. She does not remember either.
Still, change is on the way. Some younger women take their husbands’ names now due to the influence of the Han Chinese, says Amoy.
Following some lawsuits, property by and large is fairly divided among all offspring. The villages have been shrinking as young people seek job opportunities outside the county, in cities such as Kaohsiung or Taipei.
Tribe leader Lai Yai, 67, frets about how the number of households under his charge has dwindled from its peak of 1,000 plus to 400 today. Half the population is either old people or children. This is why he favours building more factories or hotels to “bring back our young”.
A high-speed rail train from the capital Taipei to Taitung will be ready this month, cutting the journey to three and a half hours, swooshing visitors more speedily here.
But for now, the county remains uncrowded.
Visit its most famous spot, a little islet called the Sanxiantai (Three Immortals Platforms, so called for its three giant boulders), and it is almost empty.
Joined to the main island by a bridge in the undulating shape of a sea dragon, it protrudes from the eastern coast, marking Taiwan’s farthest point out into the Pacific Ocean and a spot to view beautiful sunrises. The summer months of June to August are the best times to see the orange fireball rise in a cloudless sky over the ocean.
My travel companion Pearl and I walk around it – it takes an hour or so along a proper trail – and bump into a fisherman. It turns out that there is an unmarked route that the local anglers use, which will take us to the easternmost point of the islet.
He leads us, a styrofoam ice box slung across his back and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, past warning signs of “Do Not Enter”, clambering over rocks and wading into seawater.
And it is beautiful when we get to the end. There is something to be said for perching on a headland, looking out at the Pacific Ocean and knowing that nothing blocks one’s view – all the way to the American continent about 10,000km away. On the rocks, a clutch of fishermen dip their lines into the sea.
We have bigger “fish” to fry. We set off for the nearby Chenggong port, where a boat takes us out for a spot of whale-watching.
Favoured by the gods of ocean life, Taiwan’s waters off its east coast teem with fish, sharks, dolphins and whales. This is because its seabed bottoms out abruptly, plunging 4km just 50km offshore, while the Kuroshio or Black Tide, a warm north-flowing current, transports migratory fish that the mammals feed on.
Nine species of whales, including the killer whale and the sperm whale, have been spotted, says Jin Ling Hao, a company that offers the two-hour trip. Our captain, Chen Kun-lung, 60, weathered brown from sun and sea salt, offers this philosophical reply when asked how often the whales can be sighted: “You can wish all you want, but it depends on luck.”
The Lady is not with us then; we do not spot any whales. The best time to go is June to August when waves are smaller.
Instead, during our trip in March, we are treated to a school of Risso’s dolphin, known by the mottled patterns on their backs.
The rich sea life also means that Taiwan has one of the largest fishing industries in the world, employing about 300,000 people and accounting for 10% of the tuna caught worldwide.
Here, in Taitung, the local social life revolves not around pubs or clubs, but the daily fish auction. Bundles of fish are placed on the ground with scraps of paper scrawled with the starting price. An auctioneer, trailed by interested buyers, mutters and negotiates the prices, as he moves along the line.
A housewife gleefully snares an iridescent parrot fish, dumping it casually into her scooter basket. The 4.7kg fish will be for her family’s dinner that night, she says.
From the ocean, we head inland towards the mountains. We do not have enough time to hike. There are trails for those inclined but, instead, we decide to check out a famous local tourist spot: a tree by a rice field where Taiwanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro sat, sipped tea and contemplated the beauty of life in an Eva Air commercial.
“I see paradise,” he says, as he looks out at the jade-green fields.
The formerly obscure rural township has since exploded on the radar of Takeshi fan-girls and the lane – hitherto prosaically named Brown Boulevard – has since been nicknamed Takeshi Avenue.
The swoonworthy celebrity, alas, was not there when we visited.
But paradise? Yes. – The Straits Times/Asia News Network