The Dutch explorers called it “Formosa” meaning “beautiful island”. Those Dutch guys were experienced world-traveling explorers who knew what they were talking about. The beauty of Taiwan is kind of a well-kept secret, but I’m spilling it here … high mountains, hot springs, amazing hiking, and beautiful beaches. The winding mountain roads are perfect for weekend scooter trips, exploring the roads less traveled and stumbling upon small aboriginal villages.
That’s kind of become my new weekend hobby – “aboriginal village explorer”, kind of like the Dutch explorers only on a scooter. There’s nothing better on a beautiful sunny day than hitting the road with no real destination in mind, going whichever way the wind blows, with 70’s classic rock playing as my soundtrack.
These mountain roads are my new neighborhood, my “new normal”, and I’ve gotten to know these roads like the back of my weathered old hand, but every trip still reveals something new.
The first stop on any exploratory mission is Baoshan Reservoir – beautiful and peaceful and located only about 12 minutes from my front door if I drive kind of fast. The reservoir is made up of a few smaller lakes and the larger main reservoir – the site of my first near-death experience when I was learning to drive my scooter! (No one was hurt in the incident.) The road around the main reservoir is exactly 10 kilometers, making it a great spot for the occasional weekend race or for locals who just want some exercise. It’s a tough loop with plenty of rolling hills and incredible views.
Just beyond Baoshan Reservior lies the small town of Beipu, settled by the Hakka people descended from China and now the center of Hakka culture. The weekend market offers lots of samples of traditional Hakka foods and locally grown tea.
Beipu’s main tourist attraction is a small Chinese Buddhist temple located near the market area. The temple is dedicated to the Bodhisattva Guanyin and was built in 1835. The town’s streets are lined with traditional tea houses serving a special Hakkanese blend of tea and nuts called lēichá .The tea is kind of thick, like a watery “Cream-of-Wheat” consistency which sounds disgusting but it’s actually really good!
Another popular attraction in the area is Beipu cold springs, located along the river just outside of town. The springs are often packed with locals looking for a way to beat the heat on hot, humid Taiwanese summer days.
Beyond Beipu Cold Springs, the road becomes steep and twisty, winding to the top of Wuzhi Mountain in the area known as “Five Finger Mountain”. On top of the mountain is a Taoist-Buddhist temple, small market area, and an amazing view – on a clear day you can see China from here (well…almost).
One favorite stop is a visit with The-Guy-Who-Sells-Wooden-Stuff and offers free tea and appetizers. He doesn’t speak English but keeps the tea flowing and loves having people hang out at his shop, drinking tea and eating whatever snacks he can find.
There are also some great hiking trails at the top that need to be explored much more in the future. I’ve only done one impromptu hike wearing flip-flops – a bad idea but it was such a beautiful day I had to follow the trail.
Exploring the Ridge…
Near the top of Wuzhi Mountain is a 5-road intersection, a mini-spaghetti junction, with one sign pointing to the back road to the village of Nanzhuang. Along that narrow road to Nanzhuang, at about the 5km mark, is a sharp left turn heading higher into the mountains. This road was just begging to be explored…so of course I did.
The road winds along the top of a mountain ridge to a small Atayal aboriginal village called Lian San. The village coffee shop serves up delicious drinks along with stunning views. On my first visit, the owner was so excited to see a foreigner in this remote village he started taking selfies of us together! Very friendly guy! The view is amazing and is a great place to sip a latte and people-watch – two of my favorite hobbies.
These mountainous areas are dotted with small aboriginal villages, most being settled by the Atayal or Say Siyat tribes. These tribal people live very simple lives with few job opportunities and a lot of poverty. The aboriginal children often live with grandparents while their parents find work in the larger cities like Judong or Hsinchu.
One of my students, Jerry, has done some volunteer work in this area and shared their story with me:
Many of these mountain children live with their grandparents and often lead very sheltered lives with little contact with other kids. In order to help these isolated children, a middle school principal in the larger city of Neiwan started a non-profit organization dedicated to helping these kids through a weekend music program.
The organization busses the kids from their homes scattered through the mountains and brings them to Judong, a larger Hakka town very near Beipu. The kids get together on weekends and focus on music and performance, which is a huge part of the aboriginal culture. This program also provides the children with a chance to form friendships and have a little bit of a social life.
A few years ago the organization won a music competition in Taiwan and went to Europe to compete at the next level. For these children, this was the experience of a lifetime and the friendships they made through the music program were life-changing. (I’m hoping to meet that principal to do an interview and story on his organization.)
The Road Beyond…
The twisty road winds down the other side of the mountains and finally reaches the main highway 122 (aka Guangfu Road) in Chingcyuan, a larger Atayal village with an interesting history museum. The museum opened recently and is the site of the long-term house arrest of Zhang Xuelian, the man who kidnapped Chiang Kai-shek and tried to convince him to join the Communist fight against the Japanese. Zhang was later arrested and spent 50 years under house arrest, much of that time served in this village.
Chingcyuan village also hosts a popular weekend market along the banks of the river, serving a delicious selection of traditional foods. The local Catholic Church offers very basic overnight accommodation and will be a good jumping off point for my next exploratory mission – scootering deeper into the mountains to the Shei Pei National Park area…even more remote and incredibly beautiful!
It’s unlikely the Dutch had the chance to explore these remote mountain villages before naming the island Formosa, but they definitely knew what they were talking about! It’s my new neighborhood…my new normal…and always interesting!
Is Taiwan on your Bucket List yet? It probably should be!