HIDDEN HOT SPRINGS & LANDFORMS
|HIDDEN HOT SPRINGS & LANDFORMS
Exploring Some of the Lesser Known Attractions of Eastern Taiwan
If you want to get a deeper feel for Taiwan, it really pays to dig a bit deeper into the almost inexhaustible range of sights, activities, and experiences the island has to offer. And where better to explore Taiwan a little more in-depth than its least visited, least well-known part: the east.
Historically, the east coast of Taiwan has always been the remotest part of the main island, cut off from the far more densely populated western plains by the great wall of the Central Mountain and Snow Mountain range. Until not so long ago, the main mode of access to the east coast of the island was by sea. The building of the three cross-island highways during the 1960s and '70s, the Su-Hua Highway, and the east-coast railway line have done much to speed the development of the area, but even today Taiwan's east coast has a laid-back vibe and prominent aboriginal culture that sets it quite apart from the rest of the island, making a visit here a "must" on any trip to Taiwan.
Getting to the east coast is, thankfully, much easier these days than a few decades ago. Take one of the early express trains heading down from Taipei to the city of Hualien and it's possible to see the great Taroko Gorge on a day trip from the capital, although it would be a great shame to rush such a memorable trip. Trains whiz on further south to the city of Taitung, and while those with limited time might consider flying down, if you have a few extra days, driving to Taitung over the Southern Cross-Island Highway from either Kaohsiung or Tainan, or up the coast from Kenting National Park, are wonderful ways to see two enchantingly scenic corners of Taiwan that most visitors (and even many locals) never get to visit.
Yilan County, on Taiwan's northeast coast, has always been the most accessible part of the east, although not so long ago a trip there would still probably have included a journey by boat from Keelung (i.e., right up to the Japanese colonial period, 1895-1945). Nowadays, thanks to the Xueshan Tunnel (the fifth-longest road tunnel in the world at 12.9 kilometers), many sights in Yilan lie within easy day-trip reach of Taipei. Draws such as the luxurious hot-spring resort complexes at Jiaoxi are favorite destinations among city dwellers for weekend jaunts, yet much of the county remains a peaceful backwater with a way of life that's noticeably slower and more traditional than on the west side of the island.
Jiaoxi may have Yilan's best-known hot springs, but several other locations offer an altogether more back-to-nature hot-spring experience. The Fan-Fan Hot Springs bubble to the surface in a scenic and completely undeveloped gorge near the eastern terminus of the Northern Cross-Island Highway, and can be enjoyed as a day trip from Taipei, while the much more remote Nanao Hot Springs, which lies hidden in a gorge cutting deep into the Central Mountain Range, rewards visitors who take the trouble to get there with especially magnificent scenery.
Lisong Hot Springs are considered by many to be the most beautiful in Taiwan
Taiwan's hot springs were first developed by the Japanese during their occupation of the island, but long before their arrival, these natural sources of boundless hot water were enjoyed by the island's aboriginal peoples. Members of nine of Taiwan's fourteen indigenous tribes live in the east of the island, and learning about their fascinating cultures is a popular part of any trip to the east coast. The Truku village at Buluowan in Taroko Gorge and the Amis Cultural Village near Hualien are especially popular, although visitors with a little more time (and energy) can enjoy a quieter, less touristy experience by hiking out to aboriginal settlements such as Datong, above Taroko Gorge, and Meiyuan, a little further inland, several hours' walk off the Central Cross-Island Highway. A hike to either village is a great way to combine a visit to a real, untouristy aboriginal settlement with a hike into the exceptionally scenic hinterland of Taroko, an area missed by most visitors to the gorge.
Taiwan's indigenous peoples have lived on the main and offshore islands for thousands of years, testified to by the extraordinary stone pillars of Wuhe near the hot-spring resort of Ruisui in Hualien County. The megaliths stand almost right on the Tropic of Cancer; a large monument nearby, beside Provincial Highway No. 9, the main inland route between the cities of Hualien and Taitung, marks the exact spot at which it passes through. Taiwan is better known for its food, intact traditional culture and, increasingly, its magnificent countryside than for historic monuments, yet in recent times surprisingly rich evidence of the island's occupation during prehistoric times has been uncovered in numerous places on the island, from Taipei to Taitung.
The greatest discovery of all (made in 1980) are the remains of a settlement on the outskirts of Taitung thought to be up to 5,000 years old. The find is regarded as the largest and most intact Neolithic village of its kind in the Pacific Basin. The National Museum of Prehistory, which stands nearby, is the place to catch an introduction to what is known about the people who lived on the island several thousand years ago (along with the peoples of more recent times). While in town be sure to take a look at the beautiful, mysterious Beinan Moon Stones, which stand in a quiet spot not far from the old Taitung (city-center) train station.
The twin megaliths of Wuhe, however, are perhaps the most atmospheric prehistoric relic on the island. Standing in a grassy field, commanding a fine view of the gentle, undulating countryside of this part of Hualien County, this is a thought-provoking and mysterious place well worth a stopover while passing through.
A few kilometers south of Xiuguluan River, a popular place for white-water rafting, the Caves of the Eight Immortals, caverns naturally carved by the elements out of the coastal cliff, are bizarre natural landforms. Several of the cave mouths are visually striking for their strange, pointed shapes; evidence that they were inhabited during prehistoric times has been unearthed, and is presented at the on-site visitor center.
Continue on the coastal highway south of the Caves of the Eight Immortals and follow the many kilometers of scenic and occasionally dramatically rugged coast towards Taitung. Passing close to an extraordinary optical illusion en route, Water Running Up. Lying just a few meters off the main coastal highway and marked by a large engraved rock, the fast flowing water in a ditch beside the road at one point looks for all the world as if it is defying gravity and running swiftly uphill!
The Liji Badlands guarantee some unique photo opportunities
While Liji Badlands is guaranteed to provide some unique photo opportunities, continue inland a few more kilometers and the road up the valley of the Beinan River connects with Provincial Highway No. 9, the main inland highway between Hualien and Taitung, which runs through one of eastern Taiwan's most pastoral and photogenic landscapes. For all the attractions of the coastal route between eastern Taiwan's two main cities, this enchanting journey is not to be missed, passing through the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area, which for Taiwan features a remarkably bucolic landscape for Taiwan. The wide valley bottom is flat but little-populated, and laid out with rice paddies of deep emerald-green that are the home of Taitung County's famous (and delicious!) Chishang rice.
The distant, purplish wall of the Central Mountain Range rises to the west, a reminder of the magnificence of Taiwan's mountainous interior, yet this is an area apart. It's quite unlike anywhere else on the island, but then the same could also be said about the rest of eastern Taiwan. With its bewitching combination of traditional cultures, awesome countryside scenery, relics from a distant past and several bizarre natural oddities, a visit to Taiwan's eastern seaboard is bound to be a richly memorable one.