October 31, 2008
Nestled tranquil pocket of pastoral farms, clean beaches and rugged beauty, Ilan is the first major town one encounters heading south down Taiwan's east coast. Thanks to the Hsuehshan Tunnel (the second longest road tunnel in Asia at time of writing), it only takes 30 to 40 minutes to drive through this miracle of engineering to the seaside town.?
You can also take the train to Ilan, taking approximately two hours, or a bus that takes about three hours if not through the tunnel. Actually there are two bus routes, one through Keelung and then along the northeast coast, the other through Hsin Tien to Pinglin and then to Ilan. This route is mountainous compared to the relative flat of the northeast coast. Both are scenic, but if you are prone to carsickness, take the coastal route.
Local delicacies include fruit of all varieties, but especially the kumquat. This small oblong orange fruit is grown extensively in Ilan and is thought to be good for the throat, among other things. You can buy kumquat preserves, dried kumquat, kumquat juice, candy and "cow's tongue biscuits".
"Cow's tongue biscuits" are not actually made from cow's tongue, thankfully, but flour and water. Their name comes from their flat oblong shape, which looks like a cow's tongue. You can buy plain or flavored varieties and they are quite tasty.
You can also buy Ilan "moa ji," a sweet sticky rice type sweet. Locals boast theirs is better than the more famous Hualien version. Certainly, there are flavors more suited to Western palates such as mango and lychee instead of the red bean and taro traditional varieties which don't seem to go down to well with us foreigners (don't let me put you off trying them though).
The Ilan distillery is much like that in Puli-without the earthquake destruction of 9/21. There is a museum on the first floor, but no English information posted. A shop on the ground floor sells all the local favorite spirits from Kaoliang to rice wine. The specialty is the area's own kumquat liqueur, which is not bad over ice. Snacks a plenty are on offer, including dried fruit and the ubiquitous "cow's tongue biscuit". You can of course try everything before you buy (although go easy on the Kaoliang!)
Across from the distillery is the old Ilan gaol, used when the Japanese were in control of the island. It is no longer used as a prison, but rather, more of a tourist site.
Apart from these sites, Ilan City itself looks much like any other smallish Taiwan city, although it has developed substantially after the tunnel opened in 2006 and will continue to do so I am sure. However, Ilan is a good jumping off point to other places in Ilan County. Chiaoshi is famed for its hot springs, Luodong for its sports park, and Toucheng for its ghost month festival. Suao has a rare cold spring, Hualien and Taroko are only a few hours down the coast and the fruit growing town of Lishan a few hours into the mountains. There is also the annual "Green Expo," which is a popular event.
Another place of interest for seafood lovers is the port town of Nanfang Ao. Nanfang Ao is about an hour and a half by bus down the coast from Ilan City, just past Suao and next to Suao Port. If you are heading up to Taroko, Suao is the point where the road splits.
While Ilan City may not be a great tourist destination in itself, one can imagine it being a nice place to live. The whole area is very laid back, small, quieter and the air quality much better than the big cities. As I mentioned, where Ilan excels is as a jumping off point to visit other places around the county, of which there are many. I will be visiting as many as possible in the coming months, and not just for the seafood.
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