Yes, the Alangyi Historic Trail 阿朗壹古道 is THE trail to hike! And especially when the sea and the sky are blue, blue, blue ~ like they were on Saturday ~ YES YES YES!
The Alangyi Trail runs maybe 8-10 km along the S.E. coast of Taiwan, and walking it takes about 4-5 hours ~ from the very southern tip of Taitung County across into Mudan Township 牡丹鄉, Pingtung County, finishing at Xuhai 旭海 Village, famous for its hot springs and grassland. The trail is significant in that it is the only section of the whole Taiwan coastline where there is no road. No road means no cars, no lorries, no coaches, no random tourists, no 7-elevens (always a sign of economic development!) ~ and to preserve the natural environment, the area is established as a nature reserve, and strictly managed. But this only happened after years of protests and disputes about whether to build a road or not. Fortunately wisdom prevailed, and the Alangyi Trail is just fantastic!
Nowadays, only 300 people are allowed on the trail per day, permits are required, a guide is needed per 20 people and there are police on duty at either end of the trail. During the summer, the temperatures are boiling hot, and there are few people hiking on the trail. In fact, we only met one other group, 30+ youngsters from Changhua – going in the other direction. Fortunately we had a nice breeze to blow us along! A typhoon was slowly heading towards Taiwan, but still far off, and as often happens a day or two before a typhoon, the weather was really great (as I write this on Wednesday morning, 3 days later, the typhoon is roaring around outside as it passes northern Taiwan)!
It is truly an amazing walk, with incredible views! Is it easy? Yes. Is it difficult? Yes. Both / and! Much of the walk is right down near sea-level, along the upper part of the stony beach, but at the rocky promontory that is called Guanyin’s Nose 觀音鼻, everyone has to ascend 150m to go up and over the top and down the other side. It is very steep, so ropes are supplied to grab onto, and there’s steps in some places. But hey, the views are spectacular – and see the turtle-shaped rock down below!
For centuries, the Alangyi Trail was used by the local indigenous peoples to get from place to place along the coast. The local indigenous people in that area are mostly the Paiwan People 排灣族 (pause here while you open that link to the Wikipedia site to read about the Paiwan People – it’s fascinating)…. Wonder if in years gone by, they enjoyed this stream as much as we did at the end of the trail? Yes, we got soaked, but it was oh so refreshing!
My good friends from Advent Church, 選櫻 (Hsuen-Ying, Grace) and her husband 生豐 (Sheng-Feng, Simon), invited me to join a group of their friends (mostly Grace’s former high school / college classmates and their families – all very lovely!) who they had invited to spend the weekend visiting Grace’s home village of Nantian, in Daren Township, Taitung (台東縣達仁鄉南田村). This is Grace and Simon… as romantic as always!
Grace is Paiwan, Taiwan’s second largest indigenous group, and Simon is Amis, Taiwan’s largest indigenous group – who mostly live further north in the Hualien area. These days there is a certain friendly rivalry between the different tribes / groups ~ although in the past, things were not always so friendly! Both Grace and Simon work at TamKang High School, Tamsui (as did 2 others in our group), and the school has a teddy bear mascot that travels around with them all over, including on the Alangyi Trail!
Nantian Village is the southernmost village in Taitung County, and runs along a single road between the mountains and the sea. Most people coming to Taitung from the west coast do so over the mountain road from Pingtung, this is the first area they reach on the east coast. For cyclists on the round-Taiwan circuit, it’s a welcome relief to get over the mountains and down to the coast. But the only people passing through Nantian itself are on their way to the northern entrance of the Alangyi Historic Trail. Within a few minutes of starting the trail, there’s a river, and that is the border between Taitung and Pingtung – and it is just over that river that the police have a checkpoint to check permits.
And what else is going on in Nantian? Well, there’s fish farming, mainly for shrimp, there’s a camp site, small guest houses, a cement factory out on the main road, 2 Presbyterian churches, and a beautiful stony beach. In the past, the stones were big and well-rounded, so people collected them up and carved them for sale. These days, apparently the coast has changed, the sea level is rising, the stones are much smaller, and well, it’s not easy to make a good living. Many of the local people have moved away to the cities looking for work – and return for festivals, and some in their retirement.
Some scenes of Nantian and the local area, starting with the chief’s stone…
There’s an interesting bamboo art work installed there too, ‘The Vector of the South‘ 南方以南 ~ the bamboo looks like waves coming up from the shore, over the seawall and across the fields….
Grace’s elder brother, who we call ‘Da-Ge’ 大哥 (literally ‘big brother’) returned to the family home 10+ years ago, after quite some time in northern Taiwan, to take up his responsibilities as one of the chiefs of the Paiwan Tribe. He is just so lovely! He kept us entertained with stories, songs and jokes, and he and his wife are such committed Christians, sharing their faith, testimonies, choruses and music with everyone! They, together with relatives and members of the village, welcomed us into their lives for the weekend ~ they were just so hospitable and generous. By inviting us to join their village for the weekend, we could learn so much about their culture and traditions, and they were able to get some income from taking care of us ~ such visits are officially known as (starting with their Paiwan name), ‘Jakisuvung Cultural and Educational Eco-Tourism’ 家給蘇豐文教生態旅遊. We stayed in a local guest house (B&B), which was run by the lady who was our guide for the Alangyi Trail, and whose younger sister was Grace’s former classmate!
The Paiwan Harvest Festival 豐年祭 is an annual event in many Paiwan communities, celebrating a successful millet / rice harvest, and copious amounts of millet / rice wine are on offer! It involved a whole weekend of activities in Nantian Village, starting on Saturday morning with the official opening ceremony when VIPs from the local government, the elected official representative from Taitung County Council, tribal chiefs and many others came along. There was dancing and singing too….
The main event of the day was the archery competition ~ wow, they are so skilled! Every village has a team and they were all there, competing all morning. Women, men, old, young, everyone took part; apparently they practice for hours – and it shows!
We even had a go ourselves, though we only shot from half the distance – and still managed to miss, ha ha! But Grace, who said this was her first time to try, got a bull’s eye, first time. Actually it’s not a bull, it’s a mountain pig!
And then we all went off up the river, through the river in fact, wading upstream until we came to a clearing where we had a really fun Paiwan-style barbecue. In fact, 3 days later and I can still smell that smoke all over!
The following day, the community spent the morning killing and preparing the pig, and certain other ceremonies. The main event of the festival for us was on Sunday evening. Just beforehand, the heavens opened, the rain came down, and they decided to relocate to the village community centre. Da-Ge’s wife and the ladies of the village had been cooking all afternoon, and there were huge amounts of delicious Paiwan-style food. “Must try everything”, they said. Just don’t ask in too much detail what everything is – and remember that nothing in that mountain pig goes to waste! Ah, I had a great time!
Most of the people were there in traditional Paiwan costumes, and we had flower head rings….
And there was dancing. There’s always dancing at festivals, and we joined in too. I filmed the following video for 5 minutes before I got down and joined the end of the line! Do watch – and keep an eye on the blue bucket of millet / rice wine 小米酒 in the middle of the table, and the ‘waiters’ who go around serving everyone!
And this was the final dance – just for the community themselves… watch to the end, but I had to stop filming at the final minute, I was laughing so much!
On Monday morning, our group had a chance to visit Da-Ge’s home and try on some of their traditional Paiwan costumes. There is apparently no special significance to the colours, blue, red, black – it’s personal choice. We also had a chance to wear the chief’s headdress, which is, oh, so heavy! The rules are that at ceremonies and festivals, only the chief and his family can wear the headdresses, but in their home and for photos at other times, anyone can try them on. So we did!
We also visited a massive huge tree, Bischofia javanica (considered sacred, hence the red ribbon). That’s where we learned all about the local ecology and more. Teddy came too!
What else? Well, actually I had arrived a day earlier than most of our group, and together with Grace and Simon, the 3 of us went to visit the newly-opened social welfare center run by the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross 聖十字架慈愛修女會 (known as the Maria Theresia Social Welfare Foundation 財團法人台東縣私立天主教聖十字架瑪利德蘭社會福利基金會) in Shangwu Village 尚武村, Dawu Township 大武鄉, which is very near Nantian ~ in fact it was in Dawu that Grace went to junior high school. And the first person we met when we arrived at the center there was one of her old classmates. Ah it’s a small world! This is their church and fruit growing in the garden. The fruit is Morinda citrifolia, known as cheese fruit / vomit fruit / starvation fruit, and I can tell you it is totally 100% disgusting!
In December 2016, St. John’s University and Advent Church raised NT$ 325,000 (US$ 10,000) as part of our annual fund-raising project and donated it to the sisters (see that blog post here) for their ministry. They were planning to convert their kindergarten classrooms into a day care center for elderly local people. Thanks be to God that the work is completed, and the official opening ceremony and mass was held on June 16, 2018. We couldn’t go to the ceremony, but we were able to visit on Friday instead. They are still waiting for the final permission from the local authorities to be able to use the new buildings, and we had a tour – they are so light, bright, well-equipped and fully furnished. It was so good to meet Sr. Miljenka Schnetzer 宋玉潔修女 again, she arrived in Taiwan from Switzerland in 1979, and has been in Shangwu since 1992….
We also visited the famous train station at Duoliang 多良, famous because if you stand there long enough a train will come out of the tunnel and pass by – such a pretty photo-op ha ha!
And then there were the sunrises over the sea – 2 of them in fact. On Friday we got up and left at 4:30 am to see the sunrise from the high viewpoint…
And then again on Monday morning, when there was more cloud – the only sign that the typhoon was coming. Great that we could still see Lanyu and Lyudao Islands from up there (but too far away to appear in the photo)….
One of the main highlights of the whole weekend was meeting Grace’s family, especially her big brother and his wife and family. I had dinner at their home on Friday evening. They are so friendly and welcoming! This is Da-Ge and Simon…
And yes, we spent a lot of time laughing! Da-Ge’s wife told me that on the chief’s headdress there are some tufts of red hair, and yep, sure they’re there – and very red!
She said that those tufts of red hair represent the hair of the foreigners who had had their heads chopped off by the Paiwan people in years gone by, when they arrived on the Taiwan coast to invade and attack the people here. The Paiwan were a headhunting people, and always kept some of the hair as a mark of pride. It’s true. That was really what was happening along the Alangyi Historic Trail all those centuries ago. It might all look very scenic and beautiful now, but in those days it was not a place where visitors were assured of a warm welcome!
Wikipedia says, “In the past the Paiwan had a fearsome reputation as head-hunters. When Paiwan warriors returned home from a headhunting foray, the women would gather together in front of the courtyard to welcome their heroes and would sing songs of triumph. The heads of their enemies were then hung on stone pillars in front of which were displayed wine and offerings.” The Japanese, Americans, Dutch, Spanish all came to Taiwan – either to invade and attack, or they were trying to pass by the island on their way elsewhere but got shipwrecked in a typhoon, and many of them were attacked and killed. Check out the Rover Incident of 1867 and the Mudan Incident of 1871, the latter took place in Mudan, which is at the Pingtung end of the Alangyi Trail. It led to the Japanese invasion of Taiwan in 1874, and eventually Taiwan came under Japanese rule from 1895-1945, during which the Japanese tried to control and subdue the indigenous peoples, leading to endless conflicts, armed uprisings, massacres – and resulting in even more oppression. Many indigenous people, including Grace’s family (in the time of her great-grandparents and grandparents) were forced to relocate during the Japanese colonial era – they moved from Pingtung to Taitung, eventually settling in Nantian.
The Dutch are famously remembered in Taiwan as having red hair (here in Tamsui we have Fort San Domingo, known as 紅毛城, the ‘fort of the red-heads’, originally built by the Spanish and then seized by the Dutch, and rebuilt by them in 1644). Hence the tufts of red hair in the headdress! So we spent all weekend laughing together about whether I was gonna get my head chopped off before we left on Monday – and wondering whether I’d live to see another day!
But Da-Ge assured me that now that Paiwan people are Christians, love has conquered all. No longer do we need to kill each other, but we can live and work together in peace. We’re all one family, of whatever tribe – and even whatever colour hair! That’s the main theme of the song sung at the festival, where everyone joined hands to dance. These days even the shaman’s traditional rituals associated with the harvest festival are replaced by prayers to Almighty God, giving thanks and asking for God’s blessing, and all in Jesus’ name. And here we all are, one family!
So, Grace is from a Paiwan family and Simon is from an Amis family. Nowadays, such marriages are very common. In Advent Church, I like to tease Grace and Simon as being the most romantic couple in the church ~ they are members of the church choir, and they have quite some competition from other choir couples for that title! But these two still win the prize ~ every day they are like they just got married. And they just really like each other so much…. so adorable!
Thank God for a wonderful weekend of gracious people, deep culture, rich traditions, beautiful scenery, amazing weather, delicious foods, safe journeys and lots of laughter.
Thanks to Grace and Simon for all their leadership and organization, to all our group for their willingness to learn and to fit in with everyone and everything, and to Da-Ge and his wife and family for their warm welcome and kindness to us. It was truly inspiring to see how God is working in one family, in one community, in one people, in one small corner of Taiwan, to His honour and glory!