Much like Iceland, Taiwan is a volcanic island. However while Iceland has carefully preserved and nurtured its unique and valuable natural environment, the same cannot be said for Taiwan where overpopulation and overdevelopment has left the island once dubbed ‘Ihla Formosa’ or ‘Beautiful Island’ by Portuguese sailors, a shadow of what it once was.
Take the High Speed Rail train from Kaohsiung in the south of the country right the way up to Taipei in the very north, and it is no exaggeration to say that you will not see a single unspoiled vista on your entire journey. The flat plains to the west of the country these days have barely a single acre of land unutilised.
And whilst much of this is for agricultural purposes, primarily growing rice and pisciculture, the country’s criminally lax planning laws also sees ugly metal and concrete barns, factories, and houses dotting every inch of the landscape.
The coastline on the west is commercialised in the same way, being made up almost exclusively of ports, factories, fish and oyster farms, and of course the odd nuclear power station.
However Taiwan has an east coast too, and it is here, where only a handful of the country’s 23 million inhabitants live, that the beauty of the island can really be seen in all its former glory.
Much of Taiwan’s landmass is given over to the large mountain range which runs from its very top to its southern-most point. Whilst the west coast comprises large flat plains, the east coasts sees these mountains drop sharply into the Pacific Ocean. With nothing lying to the east of the country until you reach Hawaii, this coastline is regularly battered by the sea and the frequent Typhoons which lash this region, which makes for a rugged and spectacularly picturesque area.
Whilst there are a few mountain villages, and even the odd town, much of the central part of the country remains inaccessible to all but the hardiest of climbers and mountaineers. Just a few roads pick their way from west to east and these are frequently closed owing to the effects of the weather and the regular landslides which take roads, and indeed everything else, down the hillside with them all too frequently.
On the east coast, there are just three areas where the land levels out sufficiently for sizable settlements to have developed. It is here that the three east coast cities of Yilan, Hualien, and Taitung are located.
From my base in Kaohsiung, the easiest of these to reach without either going via Taipei or getting on a plane, is the most southerly, Taitung (pronounced 'Tai Dong'). So it was here that we set off to last Wednesday, traversing the mountains on the winding Freeway Number 9, which is in effect a single lane, and at times extremely narrow, mountain road.
As one of the most reliable of routes across the mountains, it is heavily overused by coaches and trucks, and on the day we travelled, several tanks were also being transported on lorries to the east of the country. The sight of military convoys on Taiwan’s roads is a fairly common one owing to the ominous threat still posed to the country by Communist China, just a short hop across the South China Sea, but it still draws the eye nonetheless, not least when you find yourself driving along staring down the barrel of a tank gun.
Emerging on the east coast, you are immediately faced with a good hour long drive north along one of the most stunning coastal roads in the region. Hugging the base of the mountains and with regular perilous drops into the raging ocean below, the road picks its way through the daunting environment allowing travellers to marvel at the breathtaking and unspoilt scenery before them.
There are sadly few resting and viewing points to be found owing to the nature of the environment, but at the time of writing the government is engaged in a programme of what seem to be extensive road improvement works, which whilst blighting the journey a little with roadworks at the moment, should make for a much more relaxed and pleasant journey once completed.
Arriving in Taitung, you are struck by just how underdeveloped the city is compared to those on the west. There are just a handful of tall buildings, many of these being relatively new hotels, and the roads are for the most part wide, and largely empty of both cars and scooters. The handful of streets that make up the city centre are a little more bustling, but nevertheless Taitung would barely qualify as a town in some countries.
We were staying at the Taitung Cultural Excursion Resort, a hotel formerly owned by the government adjacent to the city’s National Pre-History Museum. Despite being just 4km from the city centre, the hotel and museum are located amidst fields, and although just next to the main east coast railway (a similarly spectacular journey, although much of it is in tunnels to protect the trains from both the sea winds and landslides) is still a quiet and tranquil setting.
Whilst most Government-owned hotels here, and there are still many, are shabby, dated, and unwelcoming affairs, this one has moved into private hands and seen a marked improvement in décor while the price has remained very affordable.
Our Superior Double Room came with a King Size Bed, and they were happy to provide a cot at no extra charge. It was a large and bright room, with the furnishings sourced almost entirely from Ikea. The bathrooms had not been completely revamped, but whilst some of the fittings were dated, it was still a clean and comfortable environment in which to base yourself. Certainly for the price (we paid NT$2,500 a night, about £50) it offers great value for money, although having access to a car, scooter, or bicycle (the later can be hired from the hotel) is essential.
Arriving late we strolled in the Museum’s large and beautifully landscaped gardens, with Molly enjoying the well-equipped playground, before having dinner in the hotel restaurant, called Graves Kitchen.
Dinner was not included in our room charge, but once again offered great value for money. The menu is made up of mostly Italian dishes, pasta and risotto, with a few steak dishes and other options also available. Most dishes were priced around NT$500, but for this price you enjoyed no fewer than seven courses, which including a beautiful Cream of Mushroom and Bacon soup, a sizable salad, and a perfectly made Panna Cotta.
Both my beef and mushroom risotto and Sally’s seafood linguini were delicious, and we were more than full by the end. The children’s menu also included the soup, bread, a spaghetti bolognaise, and the panna cotta, all of which Molly happily tucked into.
We also indulged in a bottle of wine, and unusually for Taiwan we were presented with a very well-balanced bottle of Chilean Chardonnay for just NT$790 (£16), which although perhaps pricy by UK standards, is an absolute bargain for a drinkable bottle of wine here.
After a long day we all slept well and rose quite early to enjoy what can best be described as an adequate breakfast, with cereal, rice porridge, and cooked items all available, but none being particularly impressive.
We then set off to our first visit, the Chu Lu Ranch. Chu Lu Milk can be seen in shops and bakeries right across Taiwan, and has become much more popular following recent food-scandals which have engulfed the Uni-President Corporation which mass-produces what was the most popular milk-brand here. At the ranch, you can see some of the milk-production taking place (I understand this is not their main production site as it has very much a cottage industry feel to it) and there is also a lovely area where you take children to see and feed some cows, goats, and (for some bizarre reason) Wallabies.
Despite the goats being rather aggressive, especially when the carrots were brought out, Molly was very much in her element here and nothing phased here, despite her parents being rather more cautious.
The rest of the ranch is rather less impressive and typical of many Taiwanese visitor attractions. There is a shop where you can by a large selection of tacky and/or irrelevant souvenirs. Another shop where you can buy one of just a handful of products the company produces (the milk biscuits are very good), and a third shop where you can buy ice cream (also very good).
Besides that, unless you want to take a picture in front of the unimpressive water feature or besides one of the rather tacky cow statues, there is little else to do apart from enjoy the view. The ranch is nestled up in the mountains with beautiful vistas to all sides, including back down the valley towards the sea. However there are plenty of good viewing places up in the mountains around Taitung, and Chu Lu Ranch is really only worth a visit if you have small children, or are a big fan of their products.
For us it provided a pleasant and relaxing morning however, and after feeding Molly, we drove back into town. Used to an afternoon nap, she dozed off quickly in the car, and we began a search for a nice coffee shop to while away an hour or so until she awoke. This search was cut short as we drove past just such a place and decided to stop.
The café was called Community and wouldn’t have looked out of place in deepest Shoreditch. A converted industrial building, it was all polished concrete, carefully inserted glass and steel structures, and meticulously planned lighting. They served Fortnum and Mason Tea and a good range of coffee, including one brewed from beans grown locally, which was a strong and impressive drop, although priced quite high for what was a very small cup.
With Molly still sleeping we decided to make our way down to the seaside park. A lapse in navigation saw us make an unplanned trip across the bridge which leads out of Taitung to the north, but this error treated us to some spectacular views inland towards the mountain. When we headed out this way the following day, the view was obscured by the haze, so it was a diversion well worth making.
We parked right down by the seashore in a meticulously designed park which included a giant-sized photo frame looking out to sea towards Green Island (visible this day despite being some 20km away), with a queue of people waiting to the take the obligatory selfie.
We resisted the temptation and instead took a stroll into the large forest park which sits alongside the seaside park. This is just a few blocks away from the city centre and yet was a haven for birds, butterflies, cyclists, and joggers. It made for a pleasant half hour walk into the woods and around part of Pipa Lake, one of several manmade lakes in the park.
Sadly manmade is a word that dominates your impression of this park, and indeed many supposedly natural tourist attractions in Taiwan. There is a perception here that natures work is not quite good enough and everything needs to be accompanied with carefully landscaped grounds, numerous signs telling you what you should be feeling rather than what you are looking at, and a baffling number of ‘facilities’ (in other words shops).
We made our way back to the seaside park, pausing to explore the striking Paposogan, a wicker-style sculpture/viewing platform, which gave some good views back towards the mountains and the setting sun.
We drove back to the hotel where Sally’s parents were awaiting us having arrived fresh from a hot-spring at their favourite spot, Jinlun, a small village half an hour to the south of the city, then made out way to a traditional hot-pot restaurant, which they knew of. Here we enjoyed a beautiful Chinese hot-pot full of pickled cabbage, mushrooms, and pork. This type of hotpot is traditional to the north of China but Taiwan is full of people who originate from all over China so it is possible to taste authentic cuisine from every part of the mainland. If you haven’t sampled a Chinese Hotpot before, it is a must with any visit to Taiwan, and this restaurant, called Beihai Cheng Beifang was one of the best I had tasted.
From here we headed towards the old Railway Station in the middle of town for an evening stroll. Since being closed in 2001, it has been turned into an Art Centre, Park, and Performance Space attracting installations and shows from local and national artists.
Out visit however was dominated by a spectacular installation from local schools, where each pupil had been invited to design and decorate a model hot air balloon which had then been lit up right across the park. There were literally hundreds of them, all different and it made for a jaw dropping spectacle and a highly enjoyable walk.
We had been planning to return home the following day, but with no pressing business over the weekend we all decided to stay one more night and sat up late planning the following day.
After breakfast and some hasty packing, as whilst there was room at the inn, it was to be a different room (albeit identical as it turned out), we set off through town, over the bridge and headed northwards where, much quicker than I had expected we arrived at Fugan. This is a small fishing village which is also the departure point for ferries heading off to nearby Green Island and Orchid Island.
Nestled behind a humongous sea wall garishly painted blue with large fish in a manner more suited to a kindergarten than a tourist location, the harbour itself is packed with fishing boats and home to a small fish market where you can sit in less than salubrious conditions and eat what will probably be the best and freshest fish you will ever enjoy. There is also a shabby ticket-hall and in a nod to the large crowds that often swarm the harbour, a sunshade where you can wait for your boat.
On this day, the sunshade was packed full of taxi drivers, smoking and waiting for the arrival of the next ferry. Gentrification is apparently imminent, but for now there was little to keep us, so we drove on a short distance to the Xiaoyeliu.
Xiaoyeliu is home to some of the most unique rock formations that can be seen anywhere on the island. Carved from the volcanic rocks by the pounding Pacific Ocean, they make for mesmerising viewing, and I am sure are even more fascinating up close, although the heat of the midday Taiwanese sun even at this time of year, meant we didn’t have time to explore in too great a detail.
As is the Taiwanese way, a series of paths have been cut through some of the volcanic rock to facilitate your route down to the seashore from the large Visitor Centre and Food Court by the car park. Once you have made your way through the landscaping, past the café’s and toilets, you do actually reach a seafront which is relatively untouched and you are free to climb and scamper to your hearts content, being sure to take care of the tide which comes in fast, and the large waves which were a sight to behold on the day we were there.
An hour is plenty of time to see what there is to offer, and if you can resist the opportunity to buy a cheap pair of sunglasses or an overpriced snack, I suggest you head straight on your way. Be prepaid as the carpark will surprise you with a NT$50 (£1) charge as you leave.
We headed back to Fugan where Sally’s dad led us to a slightly more comfortable local restaurant where we enjoyed fresh fish, grilled locally caught squid, and various other dishes, all reasonably priced and delicious.
When visiting Taiwan it really is worth taking a chance in local restaurants such as these. From appearance alone they often look run down and unhygienic, but there are plenty of gems to be found, as we discovered no fewer than three times on this trip. If you can find a local to point you in the right direction, so much the better.
After lunch we drove northwards again to allow Molly to sleep before stopping at one of the various viewing points on this part of the road. The wind was strong by now, with news reaching us that Typhoon Koppu was likely to be heading our way soon. But the sun still shone and we still spent a pleasant hour or so soaking in the views, relaxing, chatting, and trying unsuccessfully to bring down a coconut from one of the nearby palm trees.
From there we made our way back to the tiny coastal village of Fushan, where I understood there was a good place to feed the fish. Rather underwhelmed at the prospect but sure that Molly would enjoy the opportunity, we made our way along the beach to where a small crowd of people were gathered and purchased some rather soggy bread rolls for NT$10 apiece.
It turns out this was fish feeding of the type you have never seen before. Fushan has a small harbour which in contrast to the rest of the coastline is fairly shallow. In this shallow water live a local variety of fish I struggle to translate into English (UPDATE: I am reliably informed they were mullet). They are about the size of average beer bottle though and swarm in their thousands just inches from the shore. As well as throwing bread for them to devour, you can hold a roll in the water and watch them fight with each other to take a nibble. Even more amusingly, you can also stand just a foot or so into the sea and have them swimming round your toes and nibbling away at your legs.
It is a bizarre and exhilarating feeling, made all the more exciting for the fact that Molly found the whole spectacle so exiting, and the thought that back in London, there are still people paying £10 for 10 minutes of just such an experience, and with much smaller fish.
What we expected to be a 15 minute stop turned into a good hour, and it is without doubt a must-see for anyone making their way up the coast from Taitung. I believe at weekends they receive several thousand visitors (as most tourist attractions here do) so if you can stick to weekdays you are likely to have a more pleasant experience.
Dragging ourselves reluctantly back to the car, our attempt to make one more stop to allow Molly to run around at Jialulan seaside park was curtailed when the wind nearly took the car door off as we opened it, and rather than risk her being blown away altogether, we instead returned to Taitung. Picking up some take-away dumplings and noodles in town, which were nothing to write home about, but sufficient, we played and talked in the room before retiring.
After breakfast and packing the following day we made our way into town to visit the Children’s Story House, which we imagined would be a fitting place for Molly to burn off some energy before the long drive home. It was definitely a facility more aimed at local kids than tourists, with a few pieces of play equipment, including a large slide, in the gardens, and two old, Japanese-era colonial buildings housing a library of sorts.
Molly was happy enough running around, but for us adults, it was the noise and sight of military jets roaring overhead which dominated our time there. We had seen and heard them on each of the previous days, and were aware of the presence of a military airbase nearby. All of Taiwan’s airbases are on the east coast as the mountain ranges from an ideal natural defensive shield from prying Chinese eyes, and indeed more potent threats.
Sadly this means that life in Taitung, and indeed Hualien and Yilan, is punctuated by the roar of fighter jets training and manoeuvring overhead, on an almost daily basis. They fly low and it is initially an impressive sight, but it does grow tiring quickly, and I imagine if you live there, the novelty quickly wears off. However the military threat that is posed to Taiwan by China means such happenings are an inevitability, and much like living by Heathrow, I guess the residents just have to get used to it.
We drove into town to find somewhere for lunch and after trying a few places we knew without success (Saturday lunchtime is a busy time in Taitung it turns out) we happened upon a noodle restaurant in a side street which again looked far from impressive from the outside but wowed us with sublime food.
It was called Ban Mu Yuan, and everything from the beef noodles, green bean couscous, to the deep fried pancakes was exemplary. I had a dish of cold, handmade noodles in satay (peanut) sauce. It is a local delicacy I had only tried once or twice before and it is definitely up there with the best dishes I have enjoyed in Taiwan. The added spectacle of seeing the noodles being made by hand at the front of the restaurant only added to the occasion. It was a fantastic find and a fitting end to a thoroughly enjoyable visit.
Having dropped the in-laws at the station, we commenced the long drive back with Molly sleeping soundly in the back. The wind made the views of the Pacific Ocean as we made our way south even more dramatic with huge waves crashing into rocks and cliff faces.
We spent the journey musing on reasons to come back to Taitung soon. We had arguably missed out on many of its most notable attractions. There are plenty of Aboriginal sites and attractions we were yet to visit, although quite a few look to be little more than jumped-up gift shops from the outside. There is the famous Hot-Air Balloon Festival which draws visitors from across the world. The cycle-friendly city offers great bicycle routes around the city and surrounding countryside. And then there is the Bombing of Master Han Dan, where volunteers are pelted with firecrackers to mark Chinese New Year.
But the principal reason to return to Taitung is the relaxed atmosphere and beautiful, unspoilt (mostly) scenery. A delightful and all-too-rare treat here in cosmopolitan Taiwan.