Sunday, July 16, 2017

Biking through bucolic Ruisui

Ruisui Township in Hualien County (花蓮縣瑞穗鄉) encompasses much more than the little town served by Ruisui Railway Station (the fastest expresses take around 45 minutes to get here from Hualien City). Driving from the northwest corner of the township, near Fuyuan Railway Station, to Qimei (奇美), an Amis tribal village in the east, takes more than half an hour. 
The toponym Ruisui is the Mandarin pronunciation of the name given to this place by the Japanese during the 1895-1945 colonial period, Mizuho, which itself was derived from the way Japanese speakers pronounce the two characters which formed the original Chinese name, 水尾 (shuiwei).  The hot springs in Ruisui and nearby Hongye (紅葉) began pulling in visitors during Japanese rule. Tea growing is also important hereabouts.
We stayed in Yuan Hsiang Hot Spring Resort (原鄉溫泉度假村, pictured below), a friendly mid-range option. You don't have to be a guest to enjoy the public pools costs (admission NT$150 per person; no time limit; swimsuits required). Each room has its own tub, naturally. 
Despite a successful tourist industry – two major hotels were under construction at the time of our visit – Ruisui, like many of Taiwan's more remote places, has experienced a population decline in recent years. As of spring 2017, around 11,600 people were registered as living here, down from a little over 13,000 back in 2008.
The township is divided into 11 villages, of which Qimei (Kiwit in the Amis Austronesian language) has the smallest population, but is the largest in terms of land area. The only way to reach this remote outpost of indigenous lifestyles is via County Road 64, a twisting strip of asphalt that cuts through the Coastal Mountain Range and provides excellent views of the Xiuguluan River, a spectacular waterway which also happens to be Taiwan's whitewater-rafting mecca.  
Before 1987 there was no road to the village, so any produce farmers hoped to sell had to be punted upriver to Ruisui. These days, the road (pictured below) is by no means Taiwan's steepest, nor is it as prone to landslides as some other routes. Nonetheless, cyclists and even ordinary motorists should think twice about using it during or just after heavy rain. 
We were in Ruisui to ride bicycles, a form of exercise I adore. I had another reason to feel excited: For the first time, I'd be riding an electric scooter. These eco-friendly devices are becoming more and more common around Taiwan - and this one rode as smoothly as the petrol-powered version I use on an almost-daily basis. The country roads around Ruisui aren't ideal if you want to discover your machine's top speed, but the scooter lent to me (pictured below) seemed to accelerate to 55km/h without any problems.
We rented ours from Huamulan Rental (花牧瀾機車出租) which is as close as could be to the railway station at 8 Zhongshan Road Section 1. A day's use costs NT$500; helmets are provided, but you should bring a long-sleeved shirt as the sun can be fierce. 
Electric scooters are perfect if you want to stop and photograph each curiosity you come across, like this trickle of mineral-enriched hot-springs water near our hotel (above). Unlike the Yufu Bikeway, Ruisui's cycle paths aren't a straightforward A-to-B route exclusively for two-wheelers, but rather a set of recommendations as to which of the many back roads cyclists might enjoy. Whether you set out with a specific destination in mind, or wander at random, do head back to the station area at mealtimes; you won't find many eating options elsewhere.
If you opt to stay two nights in Ruisui, set aside half a day or more for Fuyuan National Forest Recreation Area (富源森林國家森林遊樂區圖), to explore its various trails, and appreciate its exceptional bird and butterfly populations.
If ecotourism isn't your cup of tea (or milk), head to JJ Farm down by the Xiuguluan River to see one of Taiwan's larger dairy farms.

My visit and this blog post were sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Chinese scallions with cilantro

A crummy cellphone-photo of a delicious indigenous dish I enjoyed in a thinly-populated part of Hualien County. On the left, cilantro (aka coriander leaves); on the right, raw Chinese scallions (Allium chinense, known as rakkyo to Japanese speakers).  The former is wrapped around the latter, then dipped into soy sauce to which a sliced chili pepper has been added. The scallion bulbs had an excellent crisp texture combined with a strong onion-like flavor, while the cilantro added a texture somewhere between lettuce and cooked greens. The largest scallion bulbs were about 4cm long. 

Cliantro is used as a garnish in several Taiwanese dishes, including various soups and guabao.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Fresh Facts IX: Taiwanese Living Longer

Life expectancy in Taiwan climbed to 80.2 years in 2015, up from 79.84 years in 2014, according to government statistics. The life expectancy of Taiwanese males averaged 77.01, while that of females reached 83.62. While life expectancy for Taiwanese men is slightly lower than that in Europe's most advanced nations, the average lifespan of Taiwanese women is three years higher than that of women in the US, and very similar to that of Canadian, British, German and French women. Longevity in Taiwan is lower than in Japan, South Korea and Singapore, but higher than in China or Malaysia. Probably because the inhabitants are better educated, have access to better medical facilities, and are more likely to do moderate exercise (walking to/from MRT and bus stops rather than riding motorcycles everywhere), Taipei records the highest life expectancy of any city or county in Taiwan. 

According to the CIA's World Factbook, the infant mortality rate in Taiwan is lower than in the US and New Zealand, and almost identical to the rate in Australia and the UK. While very few people travel to Taiwan specifically to give birth, these figures should give confidence to potential medical tourists.    

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Mataian Wetland and Shin-Liu Farm

Almost all of Taiwan’s wetlands are located on the coast, and their ecosystems are influenced by flows of brackish water. A freshwater exception is Mataian Wetland (馬太鞍溼地), sometimes spelled FaTai’An or Fataan, at the base of the Central Mountain Range in Hualien County’s Guangfu Township. About 13km of land - not to mention some significant mountains - separate what is officially known as Mataian Wetland Ecological Park Area from the Pacific Ocean.
The place name derives from the Amis word for pigeon pea, of which a lot used to grow hereabouts. This food is credited with sustaining the local indigenous community during years of feuding with another Amis clan. Descendants of the latter now live in the village of Dabalong (太巴塱), where Highway 11甲 crosses Road 193.
Several businesses catering to tourists have sprung up, with Shin-Liu Farm (top eight photos with this post) being one of the most prominent. The farm's website is Chinese only, but has photos of the rooms which visitors can stay in and some of the dishes they can order. One of the farm’s signature delicacies is waffles flavoured with wetland watercress and smeared with roselle jam (shown above). This combination works surprisingly well. The watercress comes from the farm’s own ponds and is therefore super-fresh, while the roselle is slightly crunchy and chewy without being cloyingly sweet.
As you can see, our lunch consisted of several delicious dishes. One of the most interesting was fish cooked in a large section of bamboo by heating stones in a fire, then dropping them into the water already in the bamboo. 
Shin-Liu's food here is highly (and rightfully, in my opinion) regarded, as has been enjoyed by at least two of Taiwan’s presidents as well as visiting dignitaries from the country’s diplomatic allies.
The wetland and its hinterland attract a lot of cyclists. Conventional bicycles and oBikes can be hired near Guangfu TRA Station, which is less than 3km away. The latter are easy to recognize thanks to their yellow wheel rims; renting one means first downloading an app from the company's website (the initial page is in Chinese, but the app itself comes in English), then paying a deposit. Finding the wetland park isn’t difficult. There’s no admission charge for the wetland park nor set opening hours, so you can explore this area at dawn or dusk if you wish. The wetland is inland of both Highway 9 and the railway tracks; there are bilingual signs but these are rather small.
We were also fortunate to meet and listen to the accumulated wisdom of local Amis elder Lalan Unak (pictured below), who runs a homestay (Chinese-only website here) and restaurant. He also gives short tours during which he demonstrates the palakaw fishing method; a specimen palakaw fish trap is displayed at Shin-Liu Farm (immediately above).
The palakaw doesn't merely trap fish and eels, however. It also nurtures freshwater shrimp, a delicacy which appears on many menus in the region.
More than 100 bird species have been spotted around the wetland, which also has diverse turtle, snake and dragonfly populations. Well over 100 plant species are found in and around the water, but some of these are invasive. According to this official website about Taiwan’s wetlands, two creatures found here deserve particular attention and protection. One is Dolicheulota formosensis, an endemic land snail species, and the vividly green Sauter's Grass Lizard.

This visit and blog post were sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Hualien's Baibao River

Many of my favourite places in Taiwan are famous within the country. One that isn't so well known is Baibao Brook (白鮑溪), also known as Baibau Creek, not far from Liyu Lake (鯉魚潭) in Hualien County's Shoufeng Township (花蓮縣壽豐鄉). English-language information is thin on the ground, but Chinese-language websites and bloggers provide good coverage of the area's attractions. The creek is one of very few places in Taiwan where jade can be found. Tour operators occasionally bring visitors here to try their hand at picking jade, but I wonder if removing stones from the stream bed is legal...

On sunny weekends you can expect to see dozens of people cooling off in the stream, so last weekend my wife and I thought ourselves lucky because conditions varied between murky and serious drizzle. Fewer people means birds and dragonflies are easier to spot.
The typhoons which batter Taiwan each summer sometimes cause rivers to dramatically change course. Baibao Brook used to flow northwards to the Mugua River and not southwards into the Hualien River. Shifting waterways cause great inconvenience for humans, and since the Japanese colonial era great efforts have been made to keep rivers where they are. The huge amounts of concrete poured onto the landscape have hurt numerous species. Weirs built to hold back sediment make it difficult for fish to move up or down river, and are likely one reason for the decline of the Formosan landlocked salmon.
Baibao Brook demonstrates river-management techniques which aren’t so disruptive, such as low wooden weirs and fish ladders (above and below). From what I’ve seen during a couple of visits, a wide range of small creatures thrives in the valley. According to various websites, amphibian residents include Moltrecht’s tree frog, the Japanese Buerger's frog and the endemic Buergeri robustus. Among river dwellers are Geothelphusa bicolor (the Chinese name means ‘two-coloured pond crab’), goby and Taiwan shoveljaw carp (Onychostoma barbatulum). 
My wife, whose birding skills far outstrip mine, identified some species above and beyond the usual egrets. The highlight came when we were walking back to our car: a single Grey-throated minivet. A beautiful creature in a beautiful place!

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Japanese imprint in East Taiwan

Few countries have changed as much in half a century as Taiwan did during the 50 years it was a Japanese colony. Also, it can be argued that no part of Taiwan was more influenced by Japan than the east, which until the 20th century saw very little development. 
Taiwan was not among the issues when war broke out between China and Japan in the summer of 1894, yet following the Qing Empire’s quick defeat at the hands of Japan’s modern armed forces, the court in Beijing handed control of Taiwan and the Penghu archipelago to Tokyo. Taiwan was already exporting significant quantities of sugar, tea and camphor, and Japan was eager to exploit these and other resources. Between 1909 and 1922, east Taiwan’s first railroad was laid, and trains were soon passing within earshot of one of the region’s most important industrial sites, what’s now called Hualien Sugar Factory. At the same time as the lowlands were being used to produce sugar and rice - and to settle Japanese immigrants - control over the highlands was sought so high-altitude forests could be plundered for valuable timber. Lintianshan (first photo) is a former logging settlement in the East Rift Valley where Japanese influence is still evident.
The Japanese were able to indulge their love of hot springs at several locations in the east, including Antong (安通, second picture shows the springs during the colonial era). The old Japanese-era structure there is currently under renovation, a process which involves replacing a great deal of woodwork.
Not all every remnant of the Japanese period relates to economic development, however. In Hualien County’s Jian Township (花蓮縣吉安鄉), the Buddhist Qingxiu Temple (慶修院, second and third photos) survived post-war anti-Japanese settlement to emerge in recent years as a favorite tourist attraction. However, Shintoism rather than Buddhism was the official religion of Japan until its defeat at the end of World War II, and the colonial authorities made some efforts to promote it in Taiwan, especially after 1937. Shinto jinja were constructed throughout Taiwan, including around 40 in Greater Taipei alone.
The jinja built in 1928 on a hillside overlooking the town now known as Yuli (玉里鎮) suffered grievously after World War II. The main structures (formally called haiden and honden) were demolished. Chunks of stone and concrete remain, more or less where they fell, and among them it's possible to make out a few engravings which suggest that what once stood here wasn't merely utilitarian. For decades, locals used the vacant plot to grow sweet potatoes. Because people live so close to the shrine, it's hard to appreciate any sense of religious awe when approaching. A stainless steel water-tank gets in the way when one tries to photograph the lower torii, and one of the legs has been incorporated into a house!
Since 2008, the remains of the jinja has been a county-level heritage site. Hualien County Government has done a good job tidying the site and providing bilingual signboards, like the one shown in the sixth image, featuring newlyweds and their immediate relatives at the shrine in 1942.
The shrine's stone lions disappeared sometime after 1945, and the Japanese words engraved on the stone lantern columns have been scratched off. But several of the latter are quite intact, like this one our guide introduced:
The surrounding shrubs and flowerbeds attract a lot of butterflies. The first set of stairs from the road has 37 steps. The second has 36, the third 16 and the fourth just 9. These numbers have a religious significance that was too esoteric for me to grasp
Reaching the top, you'll likely to spend more time admiring the views than pondering the ruins. If you've walked or biked from the railway station - a distance of 1.1km - consider bringing a picnic.
Even those who dislike breaking a sweat will agree the view from the site over Yuli's train station and downtown, as far as the Coastal Mountain Range makes any exertion worthwhile. While there, do look south for the double red arches of the new railway bridge, built to avoid an inconvenient tectonic fault beneath the Xiuguluan River. 
This visit and blog post were sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Pingtung's Shengli New Village

Within walking distance of Pingtung Train Station there's a cluster of single-storey houses built before and after World War II to house air force personnel. Known to locals as Shengli New Village (勝利新村), the 50-odd buildings here are in varying states of (dis)repair. None are utter wrecks; several need a lot of work, but others have been fully renovated and turned into bistros, coffee shops or art galleries. Some of the businesses, like the one pictured top, play up the air force connection. A few houses are still lived in, presumably by retired military personnel and their spouses. Banyan trees have spread their roots far and wide, and a good number of cats make their home in the neighbourhood. Every house has its own yard – an unimaginable luxury for many Taiwanese.
The building at 61 Zhongshan Road (not the one pictured above) was built in 1937 and housed a Japanese air force captain until the end of World War II. Later, it served as a residence for General Sun Li-jen (孫立人). Sun, famous for his exploits fighting the Japanese in Burma, fell out of grace with Chiang Kai-shek in mid-1955 and then spent decades under virtual house arrest, rather like the better known 'Young Marshal' Zhang Xueliang (張學良). 
The road on the western side of the neighbourhood is Chongqing Road (重慶路), named for the city which served as the temporary capital of Nationalist China during World War II. Qingdao Street (青島街), also named after a major city on the mainland, runs east-west.
As is typical of abandoned buildings in Taiwan, neither proper fences nor security guards prevent you from getting close and sometimes inside. In one room I peered into there was a poster of Tom Cruise starring in Top Gun, indicating it was inhabited in the late 1980s, perhaps more recently. 

Ruined buildings always appeal to me much more than smartly done-up ones; for good images of the latter, see this Chinese-language blog post. The city's bus stations are nearby, so heading back to Taichung or Taipei is straightforward, but if you're in Pingtung with your own car or motorcycle, try to visit Wugou Hakka Community and/or Wanjin Basilica.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Yuli-Fuli Bikeway

Yuli (花蓮縣玉里鎮) in the southern part of Hualien County has long been a crossroads. It's here that 19th-century migrants from west Taiwan via the Batongguan Ancient Trail emerged from the Central Mountain Range. Some of these pioneers proceeded north or south within the East Rift Valley. Others continued eastward across the Xiuguluan River and Coastal Mountain Range to the Pacific coast, taking a route similar to what's now the Yuchang Highway (Highway 30).
Like much of the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area, Yuli is thinly populated and there’s never a lot of traffic. Cycling is therefore a fun (as well as eco-friendly) way of exploring the township, which sprawls over 252 square kilometers. The authorities have done their bit to make the area attractive to pedal-powered tourists by creating the Yufu Bikeway (玉富自行車道), a 9.8km-long bike path that starts in central Yuli. 
The history of the bikeway is, in fact, tied to the the history of the railway. In recent years, Taiwan’s government has upgraded and electrified the railroad in the east. In the process, the stretch immediately south of central Yuli was straightened. Instead of crossing the Xiuguluan River, it now takes a more direct route toward Taitung. One reason for this is that the rock-strewn bed of the Xiuguluan River - which empties into the Pacific 25km away as the crow flies - conceals an important geological boundary. 
The land east of the waterway, including the Coastal Mountain Range, is part of the Philippine Sea Plate. Everything to the west is part of the Eurasian Plate. East Taiwan’s hot springs and frequent tremors - not to mention much of its rugged beauty - can be attributed to the ongoing collision between these plates. 
Each year, tectonic forces drive a bit more of the Eurasian Plate under the Philippine Sea Plate. As a consequence, the Coastal Mountain Range grows a little higher. But this tectonic mismatch causes problems for humanity. The road bridge that crosses the river has to be fixed every three to five years. A tremendous inconvenience, of course, yet an interesting spot to stop, learn a bit about natural processes, and take a team photo!
As even minor distortion of the tracks could cause the derailment of a speeding locomotive, what used to be the railway bridge (and now serves as part of the bike path) had to be repaired and realigned approximately every two years. Enjoying the bikeway recently as guests of the scenic area, we barely noticed the gradient while pedaling across. But a little later, pausing for breath at the 3.2km marker and looking back at the bridge, the disparity was obvious. 
Antong (安通) Cycling Station is a former railway station supposedly repurposed for the benefit of bikers, but at the time of our visit there were no food, drink or repair services - not even a vending machine. Local folk make good use of the bikeway, and not just to reach their fields. One lady we came across was laying out Hakka-style dried pickled mustard greens (meigan cai, written 梅干菜 or 霉乾菜, shown above).
The bike path ends at Dongli (東里) Old Station, where you can get a cup of coffee, snacks and postcards. For cyclists eager to explore further, it's easy enough to continue southward on Highway 9 (the main north-south road in the East Rift Valley), although the traffic is sometimes quite heavy. We turned around so we could take in a few sights in the town center before boarding our trains home. One of these we would never have found but for the help of the local hotelier accompanying us: A section of creek at the corner of Heping Road and Minguo Road Section 1 where local housewives and grandmothers still hand-wash clothes in the traditional manner. 
In the parkland on the corner of Minquan Street and Zhonghua Road, there's a green-and-white bus bearing the logo of Taiwan’s postal service. This vehicle formerly provided Taiwan's only mobile postal (and post-office banking) services, regularly touring the township's remoter villages. A stone's throw away, local artists create and sell works at Pu-Shi Printing & Dyeing Art Workshop (璞石藝術館).
Upstairs, the emphasis is on stone art, created using tiny fragments of various stones, some of which are imported. Many of the works reflect indigenous themes:
This visit and blog post were sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The hub of the sugar industry in east Taiwan

Between the 1930s and the 1950s, sugar was Taiwan's most valuable commodity. Sugarcane has been grown on the island for about 400 years, but it under Japanese colonial rule between 1895 and 1945 that the local sugar industry really began to thrive. In the 1915-1939 period, the amount of sugar produced per hectare harvested rose from 2.76 tonnes to 9.91 tonnes. By the late 1930s, sugar plantations covered a fifth of Taiwan’s farmland. Many of them have been afforested (like the one shown below) or used for the development of science-based industrial parks.
In 1950, sugar’s contribution to Taiwan’s exports peaked at 73.6%. It remained an important source of foreign exchange until the 1970s, when competition from Brazil and other producers pushed Taiwan’s sugar industry into unstoppable decline. All but three of the island’s 49 sugar refineries were closed. Some were demolished; others were repurposed as cultural venues. The state-owned Taiwan Sugar Corp. (TSC) has diversified away from the production and sale of sugar and now also grows orchids, raises hogs, and runs a chain of gas stations.
Hualien Sugar Factory (花蓮糖廠, above), which ceased operations in 2002, is neither the oldest nor grandest of Taiwan’s surviving sugar-processing facilities. Nevertheless, it is without doubt a beguiling place to visit for anyone interested in industrial heritage and Taiwan’s economic development. Being 47km south of Hualien City, not far from Guangfu Train Station, it’s also a fine place to break the long drive from Hualien to Taitung - especially if you like ice cream.
Many of those who stop here make a beeline for the frozen-products shop. It sells around 30 flavours of ice cream and popsicles, some of them seasonal. Among are likely to be some you’ve never sampled, such as azuki bean, taro, soy sauce or yeast. The sugarcane juice lollies are especially refreshing. 
Two carp-filled pools (shown above) near the ice-cream store are in fact reminders of World War II. During the closing stages of the war in the Pacific, when the Americans were bombing industrial sites in Taiwan in a bid to weaken the Japanese war machine. Sugar refineries like Hualien’s were targeted because they supplied ethanol to the Japanese military. Elsewhere in the complex, girders still carry holes and other marks (obvious in the photo below) made by shrapnel.
Back in the factory's heyday, what's now the parking lot was usually piled high with harvested sugarcane. This was often delivered by narrow-gauge trains, like the one pictured below:
The very first stage of the industrial process was removing dust, grit and gravel from the cane. The cane then moved through a series of machines, several of which bear the insignia of the British, German, Dutch and Japanese companies which made them. Visitors can wander among these crushers, rollers, pulping vats and boilers. Few are labelled, and the information tends to be in Chinese only, but it’s easy to spend half an hour or more here, gazing at the rusting yet intensely photogenic infrastructure. 
For those living hereabouts, the factory wasn’t only a place of employment. The company provided health care, housing and entertainment. The old clinic still stands, as does the former movie theatre/meeting hall. 
Rather than demolish what used to be senior managers’ official housing, TSC renovated the refinery’s Japanese-era wooden bungalows and turned them into Hualien Tourism Sugar Factory Guesthouse. 
The Japanese personality of these buildings has been preserved, even after extensive rebuilding using hinoki wood sourced from the US and Vietnam. Within the 28 rooms, guests sleep on tatami mats, and don yukata (traditional dressing gowns) after soaking in ofuro (high-sided wooden bathtubs), prompting one local Chinese-language blogger to wax: ‘The style allows you to feel the beauty of the Japanese culture of silence, soft colors and soft lighting’.
This visit and blog post were sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.