|From Fir Formosa|
Exploring Yilan's Forestry Resorts
Two-thirds of Taiwan consists of sparsely inhabited, forest-covered mountains cut through with fast-flowing streams and rivers. What most foreign visitors to the country experience, however, are the densely populated high-tech cities and manufacturing zones of the other one-third. Although these are not without their own attractions, of course, this is nevertheless a great shame as many sightseers leave without ever learning of Taiwan's wilder side. Fortunately, following improvements in transportation infrastructure and growing investments in tourism-related facilities, "getting away from the hustle and bustle" is becoming ever more feasible. By Mark Caltonhill
Especially significant for residents of and visitors to the capital was the opening of the 13-kilometer Syueshan Tunnel, which cut more than one hour off vehicle travel times from Taipei to the east coast. Now comfortably within tourists' reach is Yilan County with its California-like lifestyle of beach in the morning, mountain in the afternoon, hot-spring at night.
Cut off from the rest of Taiwan by high mountains and steep coastal cliffs, the fertile Lanyang Plain at the heart of Yilan was developed by Han-Chinese relatively late in the island's history. Its remoteness also meant the local Han people developed a unique culture, cuisine, and even dialect. Yilan was part of the ancient home of the indigenous Atayal aborigines, however, and the higher inland areas, their traditional hunting grounds, continued to be their preserve even after Chinese immigration.
These mountains, particularly the 1,500-2,000-meter-high peaks in the south of the county, also became of interest to the island's Japanese colonial government (1895-1945). Their attention was drawn not so much by trade in meat and fur but, rather, by the timber resources. The Japanese built access roads, introduced industrial-scale logging and steam-powered winches to lower cut trees gently down the mountainside, and even constructed a railway line that ran all the way down to Luodong near the coast.
Forestry operations continued under the postwar ROC administration, with personnel of the forestry and transportation bureaus and veterans extending areas of logging and building roads that traversed the island. Today, following the decline in the timber industry, three forestry-bureau facilities in Yilan County have been converted into high-altitude tourist resorts that offer visitors spectacular views, encounters with nature, and perhaps most precious of all, tranquility.
First on the road from Taipei is Cilan Forest Recreation Area, located at a modest 400-meter altitude where three main rivers of the county converge. Facilities are simple but sufficient: lines of en-suite chalets around which a large variety of flowering plants are sown, a restaurant and a visitor center.
The center includes the small Veterans and Forestry Conservation Museum, which presents an intriguing picture of life in this area when it represented a "wild east" frontier. It turns out that many of the "veterans," crucial to development of these mountains, were not former members of the ROC military but, rather, PRC soldiers captured by US forces in the Korean War and who chose to come to Taiwan instead of being repatriated.
Only a year or two behind Chiang
Kai-shek's retreating KMT forces, these young men became a unique social group whose story is seldom told.
Three forestry-bureau facilities have been converted into tourist resorts that offer visitors spectacular views, encounters with nature, and tranquility Chiang visited the former nursery twice in the 1960s. The single-story house converted for his use remains as it was then, right down to interesting details such as the menu for one of his evening meals. The view from his door is magnificent: In front is the confluence of the three rivers, to the west is Lishan, to the east is the Yilan coast, and in the south is the majestic Mt. Taiping.
If time allows, visitors are recommended to take either the one- or two-hour trail through the woods behind Chiang's chalet. If time does not, they should at least visit the exhibit of Taiwan's five most economically important tree species to familiarize themselves with the Formosan red cypress, Taiwan hinoki false cypress, Taiwania, luanta fir, and Taiwan incense cedar. Their tall, high-quality timbers are rich in aromatic oils that make them resistant to disease and attack by termites. This makes them ideal for use in building and boat construction, the manufacture of furniture, doors, coffins, statues and religious sculptures, and for use as incense.
More popular, at least in winter when there is a chance of snow, is the second forestry bureau nursery-turned-resort, Mingchih Forest Recreation Area. Located northwest of Cilan at around 1,200 meters above sea level, reservations for its rooms and chalets need to be made several months in advance of weekends with the best chance of snow.
As at Cilan, trails have been laid out through the forest. Perhaps the nicest are around the lake, from which Mingchih ("Bright Lake") gets its name. The lake, its waterfowl and the surrounding mountains are almost the definition of "tranquility." This is not my opinion, but that of Chiang's son and the Republic of China's third president, Chiang Ching-kuo. He came here with high-level officials during his earlier stint as premier. In particular, the Taolan Pavilion records the occasion when he sat down with the magistrates of Taoyuan and Yilan counties to draw up the counties' boundary, which passes nearby.
There is also a series of gardens and pools. Although they may look like Japanese Zen gardens, this is simply because they are modeled on Tang-dynasty Chinese designs, as are those of Japan. Back at the resort's center, a short distance from the restaurant is Mingchih's "divine tree," a 32-meter-tall red cypress dating from around 1,500 years ago. To put this in perspective, not only was the island of Formosa unknown to Europeans at that time, it was probably unknown to the Chinese too.
Divine trees are nicknamed after famous figures in Chinese history and literature according to their age This tree, worshiped by parents of girls who desperately want a boy to continue the family name, is just a "teenager" itself when compared to many other trees in the area's mountains. The oils that protect furniture made from their wood against termite attack also protect the trees during their lifetimes, allowing them to grow to great age, and with it, great height and girth.
A short drive to Mingchih's west side brings visitors to a whole "Divine Tree Forest" at an altitude of around 1,600 meters. To control the ecology of this important area, visitors must use vehicles of limited capacity and applications must be made in advance, although both, as well as qualified guides, can be arranged by the resort. While you will not get lost without a guide, you will not learn nearly as much about the ecology and life of the mountains. For example, you probably would not recognize a "seven-leaved flower" that only grows here and at a few other high-altitude locations, but appears on the back of every NT$1,000 note in your wallet.
The 2.3-kilometer trail through the forest takes up to two hours and leads visitors past dozens of the oldest trees. Some 50 have been measured and, using small bores, dated. The trees are nicknamed after famous figures in Chinese history and literature according to their age. These include a 29-meter-high Taiwan Cypress dating from around 1624 named for Ming-loyalist Koxinga, who drove the Dutch out of Taiwan, and red cypresses named for general Jhu Ge-liang, from 181 AD at 33 meters, "first historian" Sih Ma-cian, from 145 BC at 40 meters, and, daddy of them all, moralist and political scientist Confucius, from 551 BC at 41 meters.
And even that is not Taiwan's oldest tree. This bunch is not even growing at an ideal altitude, but have been "tricked" into growing lower than normal by the cold sea-air currents funneled up the Lanyang River valley. Further south in Taiwan's higher mountains, trees dating back more than 3,000 years have been found, and the oldest may perhaps never be known.
The third forestry-bureau facility converted for tourist-resort use is Taipingshan National Forest Recreation Area. Located south of Cilan at an altitude of almost 2,000 meters, it is famous throughout Taiwan for its sunrise over the "sea of clouds" that fill the valley below. Indeed, a new, enlarged platform has been built to accommodate the many photographers and observers who gather on ideal mornings.
Bookings can only be made one month in advance. Visitors are recommended to telephone at eight in the morning exactly one month ahead of schedule to have a chance of securing one of the 75 rooms, especially in winter when there is a chance of snow-capped mountains poking through the clouds. Prices here are very reasonable, with the most expensive two-person room costing just NT$3,000, dinner and breakfast included.
Taipingshan was a flourishing village at its height, but the school at the lower end of the community is long gone, and the Shinto temple at the top has been converted for worship of a popular Han-Chinese deity. For a true sense of its history, indeed for an understanding of Taiwan as a whole under Japanese rule, a visit to the prince consort's chalet is essential. A single-story structure also at the top of the village, the building smells strongly
of the cypress timber of which it is made. Because of the outbreak of WW II, however, the prince never came and the chalet was never occupied, and rather than being left decorated as it was, as with the Cilan residence of Chiang Kai-shek, it is now a small museum housing photographs from the Japanese colonial period. Exhibiting the lives of Japanese immigrant loggers -- who were brought to Taiwan until locals could be trained - and the Atayal aborigines among whom they lived, the collection is fascinating.
Taipingshan's history can also be seen in the machinery left in place. These include engines, winches, and a three-kilometer-long narrow-gauge railway, one of three that helped move the timber out of the mountains as far as the upper terminal of the full-size railway that took it to the coast. Called the Beng-Beng Railway after the sound the trucks made going over the tracks, it is now converted for visitors' use, transporting up to 180 passengers per trip, ten trips per day. The 15-minute ride is interesting enough - offering views back at the whole village stretching down the hillside - but
the destination is even better than the journey.
Choosing "the path less traveled" will take you quickly to a tranquil place in the woods where birds and butterflies appear.
After alighting, visitors can spend between an hour and half a day wandering a choice of woodland trails, to a waterfall, for example, or down to a fern forest. Choosing "the path less traveled" by your fellow passengers will take you quickly to a tranquil place in the woods where birds, butterflies and other wildlife will soon appear.
The Japanese also brought their passion for hot-spring bathing, setting up facilities at Jiaojhihze at the foot of Taipingshan. Still going strong today, there are private rooms, family rooms, and male, female and mixed public pools, costing between NT$200 and NT$800 per individual each 40-minute session. Whatever choice is made, this makes for a great end to a day in the mountains - or a day on the beach, in the mountains and in the hot-spring, if one gets up early enough.