WOW! Lanyu 蘭嶼 Orchid Island, Taiwan

Taiwan’s outlying islands are all special, but the crown jewel of them all must surely be Lanyu!  A tiny green dot in the middle of a vast blue ocean, and on a sunny day (or 3) wow, the island glimmers and shines like a little jewel.  Blue sky, blue sea, green mountains, sandy beaches and rugged black volcanic rocks ~ and traditional boats painted in the white, red and black designs of the local Yami / Tao people who use them for catching flying fish, which they then hang up to dry all over everywhere.   A really amazing place!

Lanyu is one of those places that when you first see it, the only word to say is, ‘WOW!‘ Big green mountains completely dominate the view ~ there are 8 mountains over 400 m (1,300 ft) and the highest is 552 m (1,800 ft).  This is the first close-up view we had of the island as we approached it last Wednesday on the boat from Houbihu 後壁湖, near Kenting, on Taiwan’s southern tip.

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The boat trip itself makes you feel you’re setting off on an adventure.   Two boats make the trip together, taking 2½ hours for the approx 60 km / 40 miles trip going directly eastward from Kenting, through waters that are often rough and choppy.  Last Wednesday at 7:30 am, the sun was shining, the sea looked calm, and everyone munched away on their breakfasts as we were leaving port.  An hour later – and most were regretting it!  We stayed outside the whole journey and watched the flying fish ~ and survived in one piece to tell the tale….

When the boats arrive at the Lanyu Port at 10:00 am, it’s like Piccadilly Circus out there. Our boat had 300 people, I guess the other one had about the same, and we all arrived at the same time, with the boats leaving back for Taiwan only minutes later with another huge group of passengers.  Minibuses from all the different guest houses are there to pick up their visitors, boxes of deliveries are also being unloaded and loaded, and, well, it’s all a scene of huge chaotic fun!

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With a total area of only 45 km² (28 sq miles), a round-the-island highway that spans a distance of 37 km (23 miles), and so many steep high mountains, it’s not surprising that everyone in Lanyu lives somewhere along the coast. There are 6 villages, and they share the amenities between them, meaning no one village can claim to be the most important.  The 4 elementary schools are evenly distributed, but the high school, hospital, port, two 7-Eleven convenience stores, airport, post office, the single solitary ATM machine and government offices are not grouped in one village, rather spread out all over.

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Officially Lanyu has a population of about 5,000 people, including about 1,500 from Taiwan, the rest are local Yami / Tao people.  (The old name is Yami, the more recent name is Tao, and different people in Lanyu had different opinions about which name they preferred).  What is interesting is that they are not related to Taiwan’s other indigenous people, but instead to the peoples of the Batan Archipelago in the far north of the Philippines – their 2 languages and cultures have much in common.

The people of Lanyu have very strong cultural traditions and customs.  Visitors and tourists are welcomed, but local people make it clear that Lanyu is different from Taiwan, and they do not welcome people taking photos of them, or visitors going too near their homes or adversely affecting their way of life in any way.  Their many churches and prayer stations around the island are mostly locked.  The barbed wire and fences are to keep the goats out, but the people say they have had many experiences of visitors taking their drinks and snacks into the churches and leaving all their rubbish there.  So they keep the visitors out too.  Apart from the caves, we only found one prayer station that was open, in the far south of the island.

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In Taiwan you can buy meals on the street all day long until late into the night, but in Lanyu, it seems the whole island closes down early afternoon while everyone has a nap.  Every home seems to have a kind of wooden covered platform outside where the people rest during the heat of the day.  And then at about 7:00 pm, many of the stalls and restaurants also close down for the night.  Taiwan people will say that the most important thing about daily life is always ‘Convenience’ with a capital ‘C’, but not so in Lanyu.  Life moves along slowly at its own pace, and not even the attractions of making money out of all these visitors is going to persuade the local people to change their way of life.

And that is of course exactly what we loved about it!  Knowing all this, we found the people were very friendly and happy to talk – but then we also adhered to their customs.

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One such custom is that the traditional fishing boats are regarded as almost sacred – and not to be touched, and permission should be sought even to take photos.  And no swimming in the areas where the boats go fishing during the flying fish season.

So what were we doing in Lanyu?  Well, last week was Taiwan’s spring break of 3 days – a day for Children’s Day, a day for Tomb-Sweeping Festival and an extra day on Friday to make it a long weekend, and which everyone else had worked the previous Saturday to make up for.  Our university also had the Tuesday off to give the students a chance to get home before the rush of people on the Tuesday night.

A week before Chinese New Year, knowing we had a 5-day spring break in April, I had asked Miao-Shia, my good friend at St. James’ Church, Taichung if she’d be interested in a trip to Lanyu, seeing as I’ve been in Taiwan all these long years and never been there. She’d never been either, and before we knew it we had a group of 6 of us (Miao-Shia, Shu-Miao, Chung-Pung, Ah-Guan, I-Chen and me), all first-timers, all friends, and what’s more, our wonderful Miao-Shia agreed to organize everything!

And so it was that we set off on Tuesday, arriving at the Houbihu Port late that night, where we stayed in a nearby guest house ~ all ready for the boat to Lanyu next morning.

We had booked a small guest house in Lanyu, with mixed dormitory-style rooms (each bed curtained off for privacy) in the village of Yayo / Jiayo / Yeyou 椰油 which is nearest to the port.  We had also booked 3 motorcycles for the first 24 hours – turned out that there were so many people on Lanyu at the same time as us that all motorcycles and bicycles were fully booked after that.  But it didn’t matter.  We saw everything we needed to see, and more.  I spent the time taking photos from the back seat with I-Chen driving – the roads are not easy to drive, some parts are unpaved, some covered in sand and some of the hills are very steep, especially coming down!   This was Miao-Shia and Ah-Guan behind me…

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Our 3 motorcycle drivers did a great job, and we spent a happy day riding around, trying not to get sunburnt, avoiding the goats and pigs, and always stopping for every photo op – ha ha!  Everyone else was doing the same.  There’s plenty of room on those Lanyu roads!  Lanyu is full of visitors on motorcycles and most of them are from Taiwan.  Some western foreigners also visit, but most are Taiwan-based.  Ah, it’s a great place!

Lanyu has an interesting history.  During Taiwan’s Japanese era, 1895-1945, Lanyu was completely closed to all visitors, and designated as an ethnological research area, so even now, the tribal customs and culture are considered to be the best preserved of all Taiwan’s indigenous people.  Old photos from that time can be seen here.  Then in 1947, the Chinese started to arrive and the KMT government used Lanyu as a garrison and military prison, also a collective farm for old soldiers.   They deforested many areas, cleared others, built Taoist shrines, and from the start were in conflict with the local people.  In the late 1970’s the soldiers left, and their shrines were destroyed by the Lanyu people.  We passed the ruins of the garrison on the northern coast of Lanyu.

What did we notice in Lanyu?  Well, for a start, despite it’s English name of Orchid Island, there aren’t any actual orchids to be seen.  Long ago picked almost to extinction. And what else?  Well, a massive absence of temples of any kind.  Taiwan is full of temples, Buddhist and Taoist, but we did not see any in Lanyu.  We saw a few shrines in shops of business people who have come over from Taiwan ~ but actual temples?  No.  And we didn’t see any graveyards either.  Local people said the graveyards are in the forest, and secret.  There is a special owl endemic to Lanyu, the ‘Do Do Wu’ Horned Owl which we went to see.  Traditionally seen as the embodiment of evil spirits by local people, and associated with graveyards and death.  Not easy to take a photo, but their eyes glitter in the dark!

What did we see lots of? Well, stars at night, for one.  From the east coast, the night sky view is spectacular.  And what else?  Well, crosses – in every home we passed.  And churches in every village.  In fact, churches everywhere of every denomination.  We saw RC, Presbyterian, Assemblies of God, Baptist, True Jesus Church, and more – and often all next to each other.  Lanyu declares itself to be a Christian island.  On arrival at the port, the welcome notice is a mosaic, saying in Chinese 歡迎蒞臨蘭嶼 基督之島 “Welcome to Lanyu, Christ’s Island.”

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We were staying right next to the Yayo Presbyterian Church – isn’t it beautiful?!

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One morning we also climbed up to the Prayer Station on the hill above Yayo ~ and came down in high spirits, hence the smiles!

This was the view of Yayo Village from up above…

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Other village scenes of Yayo…

We visited the Lanyu High School in Yayo to watch a bit of the island’s softball (similar to rounders) championship, a 2-day event with teams from all the villages.

And we went to the local elementary school, beautifully decorated in Yami / Tao symbols and designs….

The school is open to the public outside of school hours, and is a famous place to see the sunset over Mantou Rock – yes, it really does look like a Taiwan mantou (traditional steamed bun)..

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And we also went to the old lighthouse at the small port, with stunning views all round, and watched the swimmers and divers in the waters below.

The small harbour is full of colourful boats….

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And we ate in most of the local restaurants.  One was called ‘En-Bao’, which happens to be the name of the cell-group that Miao-Shia and my friends belong to at St. James – hence this photo!  The restaurant produced some really delicious ‘flying fish baked rice’.

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And on other days and nights we ate elsewhere, trying out the local flying fish delicacies.

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There’s pork available too.  Pigs roam around everywhere, they are so full of character….

And though there’s lots of goats all over Lanyu, we never saw any restaurant offer goat as a dish ~ apparently they are kept for extra-special festival days.

And fruit?  Apart from a few banana trees, the only other fruit we saw being grown was a local fruit that doesn’t have an English name, in Chinese it is lintou 林投果 (Pandanus tectorius), a member of the pineapple family – native to Lanyu and not found in Taiwan.  Members of the same species are found in the Philippines.  We drank it as juice and as a smoothie. I liked it.

The basic root crop is taro, grown in shallow water in fields along the roadsides, also sweet potato and green vegetables.

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And betel nut trees…

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And so to our round-the-island tour, which we did over the Wednesday late morning and afternoon, and then Thursday morning.  We basically drove round the island clockwise, starting with the hilly road up to the Lanyu Lighthouse high up on the northern tip of the island…

This is the view from the northern end of Lanyu looking back down the west coast….  Scenic is the word!

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Then round the NW coast, through the rocks.

And onwards to Five-Hole Cave… we also went to these caves one night to see the rock formations and patterns on the rocks.

Our first village to stop at was  Iraraley / Jiraralay / Langdao (朗島), famous for its semi-underground houses.  The northern and eastern coasts of Lanyu are very susceptible to terrible typhoons in summer, and building these low houses means they can escape the worst.  But it was 1:00 pm – and everyone was resting!

Then on round down to the east coast and to the village of Iranmeylek / Jiranmilek / Dongqing (東清) which is at the middle of a huge and beautiful bay.  Definitely a sunrise spot.  We determined to return early the next morning.  Dongqing has a 7-Eleven – and coffee is what we needed after a short night’s sleep, a morning on the boat, and then straight onto the roads on the back of a motorbike in the hot sun.  Ah yes, coffee and air-conditioning. And lots of flying fish being dried in the sun.

We carried on to the other east coast village of  Ivalino / Jivalino / Yeyin (野銀) but once there we took the mountain road to ride up to the weather station.  This is a very steep road and we walked the last part. The views from the weather station are glorious, seems the whole of southern Lanyu lay below us.  There’s also the original weather station building, built by the Japanese in 1940 but bombed during World War II.

What a spectacular view from the top, looking south…

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We just had time to get down back to the west coast for the sunset with the goats – and over the sea…

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Next day, Thursday, we left from our guest house on our motorbikes at 4:30 am.  Yes, 4:30 am!  How did we do it?!  But we were heading for 7-Eleven coffee and the sunrise viewing spot at Dongqing.  We saw the dawn, had our coffee and waited for sunrise…

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And then we continued on our tour of the island, heading south on the east coast.

And first to that far distant village of  Ivalino / Jivalino / Yeyin (野銀) to see their old subterranean houses, similar to the ones at Langdao.  We were not allowed too near them as the people live there, but we saw enough from the road…. really amazing.

We went on southwards, past zillions of goats….

And eventually, on Lanyu’s southernmost point, the most remote part of Lanyu, far from any habitation, and right opposite Xiao Lanyu 小蘭嶼 Lesser Orchid Island (a smaller, uninhabited volcanic islet, which is also the southernmost point of Taitung County so primarily used for military purposes, and is the place to find the famous endangered orchids) we came to the place that is sadly what Lanyu is most well-known for:

“The Lanyu nuclear waste storage facility 蘭嶼貯存場 was built in 1982 without prior consultation with the island’s Tao natives.  The plant receives nuclear waste from Taiwan’s three nuclear power plants operated by state utility Taiwan Power Company (Taipower). About 100,000 barrels of nuclear waste from the nation’s three operational nuclear power plants have been stored at the Lanyu complex”.  Apparently the nuclear waste stopped arriving in 1996, though that is not clear from this Wikipedia quote.  Anyway, the site is open to the public and we watched a video and looked at the nuclear waste storage site.  All those green concrete bunkers are where it’s at.

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Local opposition is strong and ongoing, and Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-Wen has promised to remove the nuclear waste, but it’s not obvious how this situation is going to be resolved.  Nobody wants nuclear waste stored in their back yard anyway anyhow anytime anywhere.  Of course, the way it was built under the guise of being a fish cannery was clearly deceitful, and the original plan to eventually put it all in a nearby deep sea trench was also illegal under international law.  But what to do with it all now is a major headache for the current government, and will continue to be so for a long time to come.

The site employs about 50 people, 12 of whom are from Taipower in Taiwan, the rest are local people, some whose job is purely public relations.  Thus it was that we each got a free set of postcards, including scenes of, well, the nuclear waste site.   Not surprisingly, I can’t possibly think who to send them to.

Anyway outside there are some steps made of plastic bottles and cans and other recycled materials.  As the notice there says, Lanyu is drowning in waste – from tourists, from locals and from nuclear waste.

The Dragon’s Head Rock is right there too…

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We continued on towards the west coast and the famous grasslands ~ completely different in vegetation from the rest of the island….

And so through the remaining villages of  Imourod / Jimowrod / Hongtou (紅頭), seat of the local government HQ, and Iratay / Jiratay / Yuren (漁人).  In Imourod there is also the only hospital, ATM and post office.  Near Iratay is the Lanyu Airport.  Flights are supposed to go every day to and from Taiwan but the planes are small, only for 19 passengers, and notoriously unreliable due to the changeable weather conditions – in windy weather, delays and cancellations really put people off going in the first place.  Impossible to book tickets too – well, for 6 of us anyway, and we did not succeed.  So the only alternative is the boat, from Houbihu or Taitung, more reliably on time – but oh so choppy, oh so potentially awful!

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Never a truer word spoken in jest ~ as we were to find out on our return trip home.  A cold front had arrived in Taiwan on Thursday and Friday, and although Lanyu was fine for those 2 days, the front was pushing south and arrived in Lanyu on Friday night.  So this was the scene as the dark clouds came rolling in on Friday evening….

For Saturday, the wind was forecast to be ‘strong’ at 53 km/ hr.  Many local people thought the boats might be cancelled.  The good thing was that everyone was so worried about the wind and waves that as we lined up waiting for the boats to arrive, nobody dared eat anything.  I didn’t either.  And it paid off.  The trip was very rough.  Choppy is not the word.  Everywhere I looked was water.  We were going up and down so much it was impossible to stand up, let alone walk anywhere in the cabin.  So we all sat, eyes closed for the whole time, gripping the arms of our seats.  The wind and waves were so big and so strong that every time we lurched in one direction, we had to grip harder to stay put.  Luggage slid backwards and forwards.  The baseball game and then TV News played on and on.  We were all silent.  Worried.  But y’know, mostly not sick.  Even the guy next to me who I had seen very ill on the way over, was so happy to be smiling as we arrived back at Houbihu all in one piece.  Surprisingly, far fewer were sick on this trip than on the outward journey a few days before, when the sun was shining!

And what did we buy in Lanyu to bring home?  Well, this was the local delicacy to take home – flying fish as cookies and flying fish as egg rolls. Also traditional handicrafts and carved boats.  I liked the flying fish cookies myself – actually quite delicious!

So to the big question.  Would I go to Lanyu again?  YES!  And a very big YES at that!  People say you should never see all of a place on your first visit so that you’ve got somewhere to visit the next time.  And I can safely say that next time we have plenty of places still to visit.  I can’t wait.  Lanyu was so beautiful, so stunning, so special, we’re already dreaming of our next trip!

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Thanks to Miao-Shia and all the gang for making it such a fun trip, to all my friends near and far for their support and encouragement, and of course thanks be to God that everything went so smoothly.  Truly an adventure to remember, to treasure forevermore!

7 thoughts on “WOW! Lanyu 蘭嶼 Orchid Island, Taiwan”

  1. Hi Catherine,

    How pretty…. I wouldn’t put that boat in the water but just sit in it. It’s too pretty!!

    Blessings

    Anne

  2. Hi Catherine, awesome post about Lanyu! I’ve been wanting to visit the magnificent island in Taitung since I got to know about it, envy you for making the trip. & your post is wonderfully written with beautiful photos too, make me long for the trip even more hehe

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