A Trip to the Deep Mountains of Alishan

By Sean O'Bryan
Photos by Sunny Su

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It's just before midnight, and the hunter stops suddenly on his cold climb high into the mountains. His headlamp gives just enough light to see the slight bulge in the mountainside, the swell that tells him where the animal lies sleeping. His heart quick-steps, even as he steadies and quiets his breath. Through the black bamboo tangle he picks his way until he is crouched at the foot of the mound, and he waits, listening. All is silent, and that sounds good to him.

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With both hands he raises the spear, as tall as a human, with the two extra daggers behind the main spike, and thrusts it into the dead center of loose dirt. In the instant after it has glided through, the top half of the spear is ripped loose, buried in the fleeing animal's hindside as it tears from its den. Six inches higher would have done the trick, but now, in the span of a second, the odds, the roles, the power have been gravely reversed. The boar, as tough as ten men, crashing through the undergrowth with three feet of spear in its back dragging, catching, and uprooting the bamboo, now faces the hunter, who is crouched again, a rifle now in his hands, steadying himself for the one shot he will get.

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The above story is not a factual account of any one particular hunting story. Yet the details — in method and technique, and more importantly, in the risk taken — are accurate. This is how the people of the Tsou tribe traditionally hunt. I should say, this is how the few willing to imperil their lives, to venture up into the mountains to capture the prize of a wild boar, go about this business. Speaking with Yepción, a Tsou hunter, on a trip taken recently to the Aboriginal village of Dabang in south-central Taiwan, I learned about these hazards. Sunny (my photographer) and I were drinking tea with his wife Baizi when he returned home from a friend's birthday party. Lucky for us, because the night's festivities had put him in a mood to talk.

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Unlike their ancestors, who used bows and arrows and "saw" with their ears because there was no electricity, he uses a rifle and a headlight. Still, the dangers cannot be overstated. It was visible in the expression of admiration and anxiety in his wife's face as he explained how he left at 5 in the afternoon and didn't return until morning, and that he no longer took his cellphone with him because her frequent calls might spoil a critical opportunity — and possibly put his life in danger.

Hunters with rifles snipe deer from 300 meters away; for too many, their weapons put themselves more at risk than their targets. But for Yepción it has not been uncommon for a kill of his to have taken the life of the man who last hunted it. It is not as if food is hard to come by nowadays. Nonetheless, the question "why" he still goes hunting never came up. It was revitalizing to witness the culture of a people that holds so much respect for what it consumes, and depressing to learn that interest was fading in the younger generations.

Dabang is located in the Alishan region's southern area, not far from some of the highest mountains in Taiwan. From the small city of Chiayi near Taiwan's western coast, a three-hour train ride from Taipei City (and much faster by the new high-speed rail service), the Alishan Forest Railway climbs to more than 2,400 meters above sea level. Although we exited at the town of Fencihu, a stop roughly halfway up, the ride was an experience in itself.

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Originally constructed to haul lucrative cypress timber down from the mountains, the line ascends more than 2,000 meters in 3 hours, in one section winding like a spiral staircase so that over a span of minutes the Jhangnaoliao Station far below is seen from the right, then from the left, then again from the right side of the train. The tracks pass through torrid, warm, and temperate climate zones, each marked distinctly by changes in vegetation.

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I took the 8 am train from Taipei, met Sunny in Chiayi, and by the afternoon we were in Fencihu. The town will seem familiar to those who have visited Jioufen, northeast of Taipei; it is veined by one long, narrow, choked street of shops and vendors only too willing to have tourists to sample their wares or practice English with. The sweets were memorable: a half-congealed sweet tea flavored with seaweed, and a kind of ice-cream tortilla — two scoops wrapped in a thin pancake and laced with peanut-butter shavings. There was also a woodworker's shop where, on a one-of-a-kind wooden postcard, you could have a message sent anywhere in the world then and there.

After a couple of hours grazing in Fencihu, we were met by Ya Nuyi (I could practice for weeks and still butcher the pronunciation of her name), who along with her husband Avayi runs the guesthouse where we stayed our two nights. Ya Nuyi is originally from Taipei, and was once a teacher. Her English was quite good as, in addition to math and science and history and Taiwanese and whatever else was needed, she taught it in the local Aboriginal elementary school. Because her three-year-old son Voyu spoke Chinese only slightly more advanced than mine, and instead of correcting my tones he just said "weishenme" (Why?) to everything I said, I felt comfortable with him as a conversation partner.

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After dinner we headed to Baizi's home for tea. An attentive host, she kept our cups ever-full of her Oolong tea, the leaves of which she grew herself. I noticed that the poster behind her, a hunter wearing a feathered headdress and aiming a long rifle, was the same image as that on the packages of tea. It was her husband, and 20 minutes or so later he came home. Yepción was short but compact; his forearms were as thick as my calves, and his grip was vise-like. Years of hard outdoor work had built into him a natural hardiness and it wasn't hard to imagine him on the mountainside hunting boar. It was hard to believe he was over 50 years old.

He was willing to talk, but not always about hunting. He was too modest to boast about his achievements, and there must have been some reluctance to discuss these openly with a stranger unfamiliar with the tribal customs, practices severe and sacred to him. So he showed me instead. Spoken communication was difficult (if not for Sunny's skillful translating, I would have been endlessly lost), so he grabbed my arm and guided me to the kitchen. Resting on the counter was a recent night's spoils: a skinned boar head, its tusks and nose glistening-red still, black eyes stretched wide open.

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After tea we "ganbei-ed" ("ganbei" or "dry glass" is the traditional toast in Mandarin) some milky-white alcohol, and then headed back. Our guesthouse had a modest, understated luxury to it. The rooms were spotless and simple, but the beauty was in the subtleties: the quality of the comforters, the capacious stone bathtub, the personal patio offering an immaculate view down the mountains. Just past the rooms was a pavilion furnished with chairs and tables Avayi had carved himself, and the elevated wooden floor housed a fire pit around which Sunny and I could discuss and jot down the day's events.

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After breakfast the next morning we met Mo'o, our guide for the next two days. We jumped into the back of his truck and headed to a nearby reserve. There he performed a ceremonial prayer, a whispered chant that seemed a blend of Spanish song and African pidgin. The prayer offered thanks to the gods and asked them to protect us upon entering. It was essential to be precise with the words, he explained, and any student wishing to serve as a guide had to first demonstrate perfect fluency.

His knowledge of the forest was incredible: every plant and animal could be identified, even specific birds by their cries. At one point a bird uttered a sound that he said signified coming rain, and a few minutes later we were seeking cover. He gave us a tutorial on setting a bird trap, an elaborate wooden contraption that required a certain berry to lure its prey. Later he explained, lest a Tom Hanks "Cast Away" fate someday befall me, how the pulpy "heart" of a banana tree is ideal for kindling a fire.

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His knowledge extended to tribal folklore. Our next stop was a stretch of some 30 wall-paintings, each a good 15 feet high and 20 or 30 across, depicting the myths and legends of the Tsou. I was reminded of Native American folklore, the depictions providing a narrative for the creation of the sun and moon, the passing of the seasons, legends of hunters and warriors combating ancient Greek-like amalgamations of boar and man. His great uncle was also there, said Mo'o, a huntsman whose calves were so wide across that when he squatted he could fit his two dogs underneath them, to keep them dry in rain.

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I found myself pondering these stories more thoughtfully than I had as an elementary-school student learning those of Native Americans. Then, the content had seemed too exotic to be taken seriously, but now I had a better glimpse of its value. In narrative form, it illustrated the Tsou way of being: their striking consonance with nature, the things they love, and fear, and hold sacred. They pray for the harvest and the hunt because their lives depend on it, and are grateful when they came in. Mo'o took us on a hike down to the river. He found a narrow space in the rocks and propped there a curved mat that funneled to a tube. During the day a fish's vision was strong enough to bypass the trap, but at night they'd float right in. Afterwards, we stopped at his place to examine the tools he used to cut figs, some of the most profitable produce in the area, down from the tops of trees. He also showed me a pair of spears, the first for battle, the other for hunting boar, with a detachable handle that would stay with the animal and slow it down as it charged through the forest.

The following day we woke up to a breakfast of rice, hot bean stew, and fruit with yogurt. Perhaps the best part of the trip was the hands-on approach. Mo'o did not point the traps out to us. He let us set them up and, when possible, spring them. He brought out his bow and some arrows, and after some demonstration I was ready to let fly. My first shot cleared the head of the cat that was sunbathing a few feet away, by 3 inches or so, but my form improved enough to consistently hit the target board set up, if not the bullseye.

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Lunch was a feast. The Tsou people eat well, and they eat a lot. Sticky rice wrapped in corn husks, fried pumpkin with a sweet glaze, "silver-flower" fish (Chinese is such a poetic language), shrimp, and strips of boar meat. Afterwards Mo'o showed us the kuba, the symbolic center of the community, a meeting hall of sorts where tribal decisions are made.