Truly Taiwan's Treasure: Taitung, pure and natural

By Trista di Genova
The China Post

Now is the only time you will actually see a traffic jam in beautiful Taitung County, and for the Western one, Jan. 1-4. The rest of the year, Taitung’s attractions can be tasted at leisure, and from pristine mountains and streams, aboriginal gatherings, sacred spots and hot springs, there are many things to guarantee return trips to this paradisaical place. Like “Taiwan Fun” show host Janet Hsieh said: Taitung is “truly Taiwan’s treasure” — and one of my favorite places, too, so here are some pointers about spending quality time in Taiwan’s jewel by the sea.

A 45-minute one-way flight costs NT$1500. For budget travelers, take the last, overnight train from Taipei or Banqiao stations at NT$600-800 each way (10% discount on return tickets). Sleep on the train, and you’ll be well-rested when the train arrives at Taitung station at 6:05 a.m. — there’s a full day ahead to explore Taitung’s charms!

Scooters or a car can be rented right at the station; it requires a Taiwan or international driver’s license. Scooters are only NT$300 a day (US$10), and cars NT$2,000 (US$70). Then, make your way leisurely north, up Taitung’s lovely coast. Surfers are fond of these beaches for their tasty waves, especially May-October. Bicycle rentals along Haibing Oceanside Park are NT$100 per person a day and are a great idea for seeing places like Luye Sightseeing Tea Farm, or Chihshang Silk Recreation Farm.

If you have a few days, stay in Jhrben, famous for its spa hotels and hotsprings developed 60 years ago by the Japanese. Go off-season (November-March) and it’s only NT$2,200/night for two at Hoya Resort or Feng Tai Hot Springs Hotel — and practically empty. During Chinese New Year, hotels are packed with literally a million tourists – both Taiwanese and Chinese since it’s part of a fixed itinerary for Mainland visitors. High season, it’s NT$6,490 a night (see For modest budgets, stay at the photographer Eco Lin’s Curry & Cafe in Taitung City (Reservations: 089 334 942).

To me, Taitung has a special, sacred importance. It has the highest concentration of “original people,” as aborigines are appropriately called in Chinese. Six tribes (out of 12 or 13 official ones) inhabit this area — primarily the Amis, Bunun, Paiwan and Puyuma people — the most of any region in Taiwan.

If you visit in December, indigenous peoples from around the world come for the Austronesian festival. This year, it was a bit subdued due to budget cuts, and the men were away hunting flying squirrel. But still there’s always drumming in Nanjing Road in downtown Taichung, and films, music and aboriginal crafts folk along the coast. Almost every tribe in Taitung celebrates their New Year on July 15th, so that’s a good time to go, too.

A must-see is Taitung’s impressive National Museum of Prehistory, covering Taiwan’s volcanic inception, land connection with Southeast China during the last Ice Age, to its earliest human visitors an estimated 30,000 years ago. Nearby at Beinan Cultural Park, archaeologists are slowly excavating a village dating back 3,500 to 2,500 years ago. Today, the Beinan site is recognized as the largest and most intact Neolithic village of its kind in the Pacific Basin; in fact, archaeologists believe it may hold the key to understanding human development and migration in the Asia-Pacific.

Economically, in villages such as Kadibu, a main source of income comes from growing and selling betelnuts and “Buddhahead” fruit, “fo tou.” Buddhahead cakes make great gifts. Also, if you get a chance, buy a bottle of xiao mi jiu, or millet wine (NT$100) — it tastes like a fine liqueur, and has been around since prehistory.

Keep heading north, past betelnut and coconut palms, and the landscape turns decidedly more mountainous, with steep, forested hills sloping into the sea. There’s a novelty tourist spot — “Water Running Up.” On the coastline, you pass an empty resort hotel project recently nipped in the bud after it failed an EPA impact assessment for burying concrete waste on the beach. Tourism in Taiting is curiously backwards, perhaps also part of its charm. High on the hill to your left is a house once made famous in a Taiwanese film; now it is a hilltop performance venue, book and gift store, and charming coffee shop.

Keep heading north, and you will come to The Sugar Factory. It is a renovated Taiwan Sugar factory that now features music acts, and accommodation for travelers. At the moment, there’s an exhibition of wood sculptures there, a Taitung tourism official said. During these Chinese New Year holidays, hotels are filled to capacity but people are welcome to bring a tent and camp there for free. Coming up on Jan. 26, a Taiwan Rainbow Gathering of peacelovers will take place near Dulan Village.

The Sugar Factory is both a haven and a mecca for the local artistic community; travelers and locals alike enjoy the cafe and gift shop, a rare example of true cafe culture in Taiwan. Scratch the surface, and you’ll meet some of Taiwan’s most accomplished and talented (and aboriginal) artists here, such as Flying Fish, Sakuliu pavavalung and many others.

Nearby Mt. Dulan (Dulan shan) has been a sacred site since time immemorial; Beinan people’s feet point toward it in their grave, in what archaeologists believe was a form of homage to their ancestors. To actually scale Mt. Dulan, however, is something for far more experienced hikers and climbers, reportedly takes at least three hours each way, and is treacherous in places — yet another Taitung experience worthy of a separate article. Enjoy!

Photo: Trista di Genova, The China Post
Japanese scholars discovered hundreds of slate stone pillars such as this in 1945, and 1,500 slate coffins dating back some 3,000 years ago were found during construction for the ne Taidong Train Station at Beinan in 1980. Today, the Beinan site is recognized as the largest and most intact Neolithic village of its kind in the Pacific Basin.