Tag Archives: Taiwan Culture

Adventures with Advent Church Choir 台灣聖公會降臨堂詩班 @ Jiji 集集, Checheng 車埕 and Wang Hsiang 望鄉部落 Kalibuan Village, Nantou County!

IMG_4484

A choir that has fun together, laughs together and goes on trips together is sure, yes, sure to sing and harmonize better at church on Sunday mornings.  And y’know, our Advent Church Choir is not just any old choir singing any old hymns. This choir is really quite special.  They are dedicated, not just to singing in the morning worship, but also to their rehearsal time on Sunday afternoons.  They spend hours and hours practicing.  And when they sing in the morning service, they sing with great joy.  They look happy.  Smiles all around.  This is a gift from God.  Not every choir sings quite so joyfully, believe me. What’s more, they are all friends.  And friendship means having fun together.  And having fun involves an annual trip somewhere interesting, usually involving an overnight stay, and singing at that church on the Sunday morning.  Visiting other churches and other denominations is a great blessing, and in doing so, we bring greetings from the Taiwan Episcopal Church, and our own church, Advent Church @ St. John’s University, Tamsui, Taipei.  The annual choir trip is officially called their choir retreat.  And so it was that this past weekend, I was invited to tag along too.  Thanks to the choir, especially their leader, Meng-Zhen, who invited me to join them.  So, early on Saturday morning, off we went in cars driving to Nantou County, in central Taiwan, about 3-4 hours south of Taipei…

107728南投之行_180730_0129

First we went to Jiji Town 集集 , famous for its train station, originally constructed by the Japanese colonial government in 1933, but very badly damaged in the Sept. 21, 1999 earthquake. Since rebuilt, incorporating the original design, and now a major tourist destination for Taiwan people.  And that means us – that’s us at the train station above.  The station is beautiful, and the surrounding station area is full of things to take photos of.  And with.  And next to.  And behind, in front of, above, below and around.  You can jump up.  Or sit down.  Or buy a balloon.  Or whatever.  By the time you have taken 100 photos, the train might have arrived.  For that is our main purpose.  To get the train along the Jiji Line to Checheng 車埕 Train Station.

The Jiji Train Line was built in 1922 as a single track to help move construction materials used in the Sun Moon Lake Hydroelectric Project.  Get to the very front of the train and the view is especially wonderful!

Checheng 車埕 Town lies just below the Mingtan Reservoir and Power Plant, with water coming into the reservoir from Sun Moon Lake further upstream.  Checheng itself is an old logging town, with a log pool and old buildings where the Japanese workers lived and laboured in the wood-processing plant and in preparing the logs for transportation downhill on the railway.  Now the buildings are a huge museum with all sorts of interesting things to do and look at….

About an hour or so from Checheng, further up in the central mountains, is Wang Hsiang Village.  Our main destination ~ and the real reason why I came along on this trip.  Any chance to visit an indigenous village with friends who know people there – and I’m in!

Wang Hsiang 望鄉部落 is known as Kalibuan in the Bunun language. This is a Bunun Village.  The Bunun people 布農 are a Taiwanese indigenous people, traditionally living in the very high mountains of central Taiwan.  Famous for their singing and their physical strength – turned out I recognized several of the men in the village who have come with us on our mountain expeditions in the past, helping us to carry everything and cook the food.  One of the aims of our visit this time was for us to learn something about the village – and the challenges, customs, faith and way of life of the people there.  The current population of Wang Hsiang is over 900, all members of the Presbyterian Church (built in 1951), where we worshiped on Sunday and our choir sang, accompanied by Yu-Jie on the piano – all so beautifully!

The Bunun choir sang too, their songs are incredible.  The church has 2 services, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with 200 at the morning service – often extending to 300 if all the children come too.  The church was so full that many were sitting outside.  Services are held in the Bunun language, but with a power point so everyone can follow the words in pinyin.  Actually, for our benefit, the sermon and some of the announcements were in Chinese, with translation into Bunun.  The preacher was Rev. Wu, who was visiting from a neighbouring village.  Most of the people now are second or third generation Christians – a challenge in itself, and in his sermon, Rev. Wu talked about how for Kalibuan Church to be a strong church, it needs victorious Christians, who are well-equipped through prayer, Bible reading, teaching and fellowship, united in love, and with a vision to go out and share the Gospel with others.

Wang Hsiang was not always a Bunun Village.  The history of Taiwan’s indigenous people and their relationship with the Japanese authorities during the colonial period of 1895-1945 is complex.  The Japanese authorities wanted Taiwan to modernize and develop, and all in Taiwan to be law-abiding model citizens under their control and management.  The indigenous peoples, especially those in the high mountains (like the Bunun people) – who were known as fierce warriors, resented such interference and responded with hostility. This led to conflict, violence, uprisings, killings and brutal crackdowns.  The Japanese authorities forced the high mountain peoples to relocate to lower altitudes where they could be more easily controlled, and killed many of their fiercest warriors who opposed their authority – including those in this photo, displayed on the village wall. This is the last known photo of the men before they were put to death.

IMG_4187

Wang Hsiang was originally inhabited by the Tsou 鄒 people, and when the Bunun people first moved here, there was much conflict.  But as the Bunun people grew in numbers, so eventually the Tsou moved away to the Alishan area, where they still are today.  The story goes that when the Bunun people were forced to move down from the high mountains, they were offered 3 choices of location, and they chose Wang Hsiang because of its distant view of Yushan 玉山, Taiwan’s highest mountain (3,952 m).  From their original high mountain village they could also see Yushan in the distance, so they felt more at home.  Their original home village was located up over 3,000 m in altitude, with snow every winter.  Down in Wang Hsiang, they’ve had snow once in the last 20 years.  The name, ‘Wang Hsiang’ means ‘looking towards home’ and that described their own longing to be back in their high mountain village, which was over the mountain of the same name – and / or maybe it described the feeling of the young homesick Japanese police officers stationed in Wang Hsiang.  Many theories of where the name came from… but the view is there all the same.  Except in the afternoons, the clouds roll in and it often rains in the high mountains ~ like on Saturday afternoon, when we arrived.  Yushan is in the clouds on the left of that big mountain in the centre…..

IMG_4046

Towards the end of the Japanese Era, the first missionaries appeared in the Wang Hsiang area and eventually the village elders made the decision to convert to Christianity.  In doing so, they also realized that their days of headhunting and violent conflict with the authorities were over, and so started a complete transformation of their way of life and thinking.

IMG_4184

These days, the pastors and church leaders are Bunun people from the village, and together with the tribal and village leaders, several income-generating projects have started locally.  These are community enterprises, designed to benefit the whole village.  Originally considered one of the most underdeveloped and backward of the local villages (they were the last to be connected to mains electricity, for example), in recent years there has been much hard work, and success is coming slowly but surely.  The government provides a lot of support, like free wifi throughout the village.  These days also, when the Bunun people remember the Japanese era, not all is completely negative, they say they are grateful for the infrastructure, education facilities and benefits provided by the government.  But still, it must have been terrible at the time.  Recent development projects are in 3 main areas: leading and supporting mountain-climbing expeditions – training and licensing as mountain guides and high-altitude porters, providing guest house accommodation for mountain expeditions and for weekend visitors / ecotourism (like us!) and thirdly the development of high-altitude agricultural projects, particularly fruit and vegetables.  Ah yes, and coffee too…

IMG_4047

This was not the first time I had stayed in Wang Hsiang. Last year at this time, on the night before our ascent of Yushan, we also stayed in Wang Hsiang.  This time, we stayed in a different guest house and had a tour of the village with one of the local guides.  This time also, the personal connection was that Sheng-Feng (Simon) and Hsuan-Ying (Grace), one of our choir couples (who had also invited me to join their trip to visit Grace’s home village at Nantian, Taitung earlier this month – see that post here) are old friends of the pastor and his family – actually they had been student members of a fellowship group that he led in Taichung many years ago.  That personal connection made all the difference, and we enjoyed hearing their stories and sharing time together in the guest house…

S__46497844

The food was amazing.  Loved it all!  Delicious, completely so!  The bamboo tubes are a traditional dish – filled with sticky rice. The lemon slices are flavored with – guess what?  That dark stuff is coffee granules.  Really special!  And then we sang…

On our tour of the village, we learned that it consists of 4 streets, all leading off to the left of the main road.  The walls of all the houses and gardens have mosaic / stone patterns showing aspects of Bunun daily life.  Each house – and corner – has a notice explaining about each place.  Really amazing.  In some places, millet, the staple food was lying out in the sun drying….

We finished our tour with a group photo at the village sign at the entrance to the village…

107728南投之行_180730_0009

Early on Sunday morning, some of us climbed up the hill behind the village.  Bit foggy, but by the time we got back the mist had cleared and the view toward Yushan was beautiful. Yushan is the pointed peak in the far distance.

IMG_4354

One of our group had a drone – this is us!

20180729_045757778_iOS

And so to church.  First to the rehearsal – our choir are dedicated!  Our music conductor on the retreat was Shiao Chien, she has a real gift of enthusing everyone with a love of singing and music, and always chooses really suitable songs to sing.  She had also asked everyone to wear one (any one!) of the Advent Church T-shirts, of which we have many,  going back years, hence all the bright colours.

Also at the church were a group of young ABC (American-born Chinese) whose families are originally from Taiwan, they are here for a few weeks in the summer as part of a project to help Wang Hsiang children learn English.  They also sang a song, and the church provided lunch for us visitors after the service.  Ah, it was so delicious!

A big ‘Thank You’ to Advent Church Choir for their kind invitation and welcome to me to join their trip.  Thanks to Paul and Christina for driving me there and back – and all the way home.  It was all a wonderful adventure.  The choir all love singing and having fun ~ a great combination!

P_20180728_155016_vHDR_Auto

Thanks too to the pastor and people of Wang Hsiang Village, for their hard work and time to make us so welcome.  And thanks be to God for safe travels, beautiful views, delicious food, new experiences, fresh mountain air, and of course, friends, fellowship and fun!

Alangyi Historic Trail 阿朗壹古道 and Paiwan 排灣族 Harvest Festival 豐年祭 @ Nantian Village, Daren Township, Taitung 台東縣達仁鄉南田村, Taiwan

IMG_2339

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!

IMG_2428

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!

IMG_2485

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)!

IMG_2522

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!

36824579_919478968262040_7114084989012017152_o

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!

IMG_1522

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.

IMG_2518

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!

IMG_2773

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….

IMG_1586

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!

IMG_1543

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…

IMG_1740

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…

IMG_1647

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!

IMG_2115

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!

IMG_2119

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!

IMG_1771

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!

36900021_920239974852606_2301030154761142272_n

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!

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.

IMG_9556

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!

IMG_0649

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.

IMG_0927

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.

IMG_0294

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.

IMG_0603

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…

IMG_9656

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.”

IMG_0889

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

IMG_0478

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…

IMG_0733

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)..

IMG_0558

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….

IMG_9564

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’.

IMG_0571

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

IMG_0047

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.

IMG_0490

And betel nut trees…

IMG_0494

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!

IMG_9681

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…

IMG_9965

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

IMG_0037

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…

IMG_0051

IMG_0130

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.

IMG_0353

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…

IMG_0418

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!

IMG_0465

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!

IMG_0564

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!

Alishan 阿里山 Sunrise and Cherry Blossom ~ Happy Easter 2018!

P_20180331_061312_vHDR_Auto.jpg

Alishan, ah Alishan!  Famous for its sunrises, tea, cherry blossom, ‘sacred’ trees, sea of clouds and its mountain railway.   The place everyone goes once in their lifetime.  Visitors from all over the world, and especially from the Chinese-speaking world are there in their thousands.  Me too ~ and I was there on Saturday, Easter Eve ~ as dawn was breaking….

IMG_8752

Taiwan’s most famous sunrise location is there at Alishan ~ just look at all these people waiting to see the sun come up!

IMG_8760

That ridge over there in the distance is Yushan, Jade Mountain, 玉山 at 3,952 m, 12,966 ft ~ Taiwan’s No. 1 highest mountain. To the left of the Main Peak is the North Peak, with Taiwan’s highest permanently-manned weather station. We were up on the top of Yushan Main Peak and North Peak last July, and it was one amazing experience!

IMG_8758

When the sun does come up, there’s a big cheer – at this exact moment!

IMG_8797

2 minutes later, and it looks like this…

IMG_8816

After the sun comes up, there’s the sea of clouds below….

IMG_8858

And then, everyone spends the rest of the day enjoying the cherry blossom…

IMG_8842

But say the name ‘Alishan’ to older people in Taiwan and they burst into song.  This is the famous song, ‘Alishan Girl 阿里山的姑娘‘ sung by Teresa Teng 鄧麗君 in 1971.  Check it out, it’s very famous!

Alishan is high up in the mountains of Chiayi County, in Taiwan’s central mountain range.  The Chushan Train Station, near the sunrise viewing platform, is 2,451 m above sea level, the highest point of the Taiwan Railway System.  The hotels and cherry blossom area are all above 2,000 m, so it’s a especially pleasant place to visit in summer – when temperatures down in Chiayi are 30-35°C.  On Saturday very early morning it was 5°C, while lowland Taiwan was 20°….

So what of the history of Alishan?  Briefly it runs as follows:

“The Alishan area was originally settled by the Tsou tribe of the Taiwanese aborigines; the name derives from the aboriginal word Jarissang…. Following the cession of Taiwan to Japan at the end of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, Japanese expeditions to the area found large quantities of cypress (檜木, or hinoki in Japanese). This led to the development of the logging industry in the area and the export of local cypress and Taiwania wood. A series of narrow-gauge railways were built in the area during this time to facilitate the transportation of lumber from the mountains to the plains below, part of which continues to operate as the Alishan Forest Railway.”

IMG_9232

So how to go?  This was my third trip from Taipei to Alishan by direct bus, and after my last 2 reports, in 2016 and 2017, I’ve had lots of interest from visitors who want to know all the details. Of course, from Chiayi there’s plenty of buses to Alishan, but this bus is special.  For those of us in Taipei with not much time, and not wanting to spend much money, this is the way to do it.  So this is an update on those details – all you need to know!

THE bus, ‘King Bus’ 國光客運 (known as ‘Guo-Guang-Hao’) goes only twice a week, and leaves from Taipei Bus Station, next to the Taipei Main Train Station in central Taipei.  Departure time from Taipei is 20:45 pm on Friday and Saturday nights, the return trip leaves Alishan on Saturday and Sunday mornings at 11:30 am, and gets back to Taipei about 5:00 pm.  Cost for the return tickets is now NT$ 645 each way, and tickets can be booked 2 weeks in advance in person at the ticket office. No online bookings.  Yes, you can book one way only, but it may be a bit more expensive for a single ticket.  You write down your name and tel. no. when you book, just in case they need to cancel the bus (like in snow, landslides or typhoons).  Ideally of course, I would love to go to Alishan on a Friday night, spend Saturday night there, and come back to Taipei on the Sunday afternoon. But so far that hasn’t happened. I have never yet spent a night in Alishan.  Nor seen the Alishan sunsets.  But hey, I’ve seen so much else!

P_20180318_195627_vHDR_Auto

In the cherry blossom season in spring, tickets get sold out very quickly.  In fact, the only reason why I could go this Easter weekend was because Saturday was actually a work and school day in Taiwan, except at St. John’s University, which took the day off to make up for graduation day in June. For everyone else, Saturday’s work and school day was making up for a day off later this week as part of the annual Tomb-Sweeping Festival.  So there were far far fewer people than would normally be expected on a spring Saturday.

The 2018 Cherry Blossom Festival runs from March 15 to April 10, and after that, most of the cherry blossom will be over.  But, y’know, it would be great to go there in other seasons too, and much quieter!

The bus journey takes about 5 hours from Taipei to Alishan, but on the outward trip, it’s extended to 6 hours, with a 45-minute rest at the small town of Chukou, the gateway to Alishan – and famous for its 2 suspension bridges.  We got to Chukou at 12:15 am, then rested until 1:00 am.  There’s a 24-hour convenience store, Family Mart, that’s open, and the bridge to walk across, but, well, it’s the middle of the night – and very quiet!

After leaving Chukou, the road starts to climb steeply upwards, round and round, up and up, on and on for the next 90 minutes or more.  If you get travel sick, don’t eat anything at Chukou Family Mart!  We arrived at the Alishan Main Entrance / Bus Station at about 2:45 am.  Last year, the bus would drive into the Alishan area and drop everyone off.  But now buses stay outside, and the new bus station area is there with its own 7-Eleven convenience store, which was open.  YES!  We all love a good 7-Eleven, especially one like this which has a large waiting area with benches to sit on.  It’s cold out there, so bring warm clothes.  Gloves, hat, scarf and coat.  And make the most of the hot chocolate at the 7-Eleven.  It’s hot and sweet and I love it.  And the coffee too – cos there’s not much sleep to be had on that bus once it leaves Chukou and starts heading up the mountain!  And there’s not much to do at Alishan at that time in the morning, until the ticket office opens to buy the train ticket to see the sunrise.  So make the most of the 7-Eleven!

If you don’t want to go on the train and prefer to go by minibus to see the sunrise from a different viewpoint, then there’s minibuses at the bus station offering this service, recommended by (but independently of) the bus company. I did it once and it was good, costs about the same, but hey, I like the train.  It kinda adds to the whole Alishan experience!

First you have to get your Alishan Entrance Ticket at the Alishan Main Gate.  With a bus ticket stub, it’s NT$ 150 (otherwise it’s NT$ 300).

We headed to the train station to wait there.  It’s warm (er) and hey, get in line, cos once all the people turn up, there’ll be hundreds lining up to get a ticket.  As the time of the sunrise varies through the year, so the time of the sunrise trains also vary, and the ticket office opens 30 minutes before the first train leaves.  The number of trains running depends on the season and the number of visitors too.  On Saturday, the sunrise was at 6:06 am, the first train left at 4:50 am and so the ticket office opened at 4:20 am.  At that point, the notice went up to say that there were 509 tickets available that morning….

Train tickets are NT$ 150 each way.  The train takes about 30 minutes and it is packed out with people.  So is Chushan, where the viewing of the sunrise happens.

Fortunately, there’s plenty to see and do, including a line of stalls selling bowls of hot soup, breakfast, coffee and tea – and well worth it.  After all, it’s not the warmest place in the world at 5:30 am!  It’s a very sociable place, and we’re all trying to get a good place to see the sunrise…

IMG_8765

Stand to the right of the viewing area near the solitary tree – yep, that tree may be the most photographed tree in the world!

IMG_8786

By 6:00 am, everyone was in place with cameras raised.  At 6:06 – exactly on time, the first glimpse of the sun appeared and a loud cheer went up from all the hundreds of people gathered there.  Kinda moving to hear!

For the next 10 minutes we all clicked and clicked away.  And within 10 minutes, the sun was up and it was too bright to stand there any longer, so we turned our attention to the cherry tree – which was very old and very big and completely covered in blossom.  The beauty of Alishan Cherry Trees, unlike those down here at lower elevations, is that the cherry trees there are so old.  And so big.  All so twisted and gnarled and full of character.  And covered in lichens – it’s all that fresh clean air.  And they were all looking splendid in the early morning sun.  Most of the Alishan cherry blossom in flower at the moment seems to be white.  Most of the pink ones, but not all, have finished flowering.  The white ones are beautiful ~ and of course, most appropriate for Easter weekend!

On previous visits, I have taken the train back to the main Alishan station, but this time I walked back.  If you have enough energy, then make the most of it and walk back.  It’s well worth it.  And it’ll save you NT$ 150.  But first I visited Mt Ogasawara / Xiaoliyuan 小笠原山(2488m above sea level), 500m away up a very steep hill – the views are incredible, really amazing.  If you go back by train, you will not really be able to get up there and back in time.

IMG_8906

There’s also a small exhibition area half way there with an interesting display of art taking the outline of Taiwan….

The path from the sunrise area back to Alishan is downhill all the way, and there’s a footpath down through the trees.  Usually takes 40 minutes, but I wandered off on some other paths, and took much longer.  It’s such a great area for wandering!

And once you’re down there back at the main Alishan area, well there’s loads of places to visit.  I wandered all over the place.  Trails lead everywhere.  So much to see.  The sacred trees area is the furthest away, and with lots of steep steps up and down.  But you don’t need to go far to see all the colours of Alishan.