You’re walking on a glittering beach, looking for seashells, while a lone surfer rides the waves in the distance. You see the tracks of giant sea turtles on the sand. Glancing towards the East, you are charmed by the deep hues of blue sea topped by clear, azure skies. The sound of tribal drum beats beckons you to gaze towards the west, where you see a group of indigenous people celebrating life on the beach, where they have been doing so for hundreds of years. Behind them is a backdrop of awe-inspiring mountains and cliff sides that provides a stark contrast to the sea.
No, you’re not on Fiji, Tahiti, or Hawaii. You are in East Asia’s last remaining paradise… Taitung.
Taitung County is located in the Southeast corner of the island. Because it is the least-populated county on the island, it is also the least-developed. This means that this area is the last place people can visit in Taiwan to experience nature flourishing in an unspoiled semi-tropical environment.
No one understands and appreciates the value that the natural environment brings to the area than the indigenous local population. Taitung is a melting pot of peoples from most of the 14 official indigenous tribes of Taiwan, and the indigenous peoples make up the majority of the area’s population. Leaders and activist in the area are currently leading efforts to block developments that are destroying the natural environment. The building projects, which are occurring without environmental impact studies, and in some cases, without proper building permits, have the real potential of destroying the rare coral reefs, local wildlife, and sea life, some species of which are found nowhere else in the world.
With the increase of tourists to the area from mainland China, the interest in development on the beaches has increased. The local people are not against development, because jobs are welcome. But what they want is for development to be done with their consultation, to ensure responsible planning and reduced environmental impact. They also don’t want people to be shut out of the beaches, which have been the community gathering places for the local tribes for hundreds of years.
Ideally, the local people would like their native homelands to be a haven for eco-tourism and cultural tourism, which the area is well-suited for. People throughout Taiwan, including all ethnic groups and foreigners have joined in peaceful rallies and demonstrations on the beach to attract attention to the cause. They want to save Taiwan’s last paradise, which is likely the last unspoiled paradise in all of Eastern Asia. Even more troubling, a planned dump site for nuclear waste in the southern part of the county near Daren is threatening the grandeur and future potential for Taitung.
Aside from its natural assets, Taitung County has much cultural value to offer visitors. Taitung City is the capital city and the administrative center for the County. It is like other small cities in Taiwan, with schools, department stores, Starbucks, and night markets. There is a different local atmosphere that is colored by the many indigenous peoples in the area. You can find many restaurants selling indigenous cuisine and shops selling indigenous clothing and crafts. Located in Taitung City is Taiwan’s National Museum of Prehistory. In the museum, people can view ancient artifacts from tribal people who inhabited the island thousands of years ago. More importantly, visitors can discover and understand Taiwan’s cultural importance in the world and their link to the Austronesian cultures worldwide. Many people have moved to Taitung City to enjoy a healthier slow-paced lifestyle in a cleaner environment.
Highway 11 is the main highway connecting Taitung City with the rest of the county north and south. Going south, the highway winds around curves on top of the mountainous cliffs along the sea. The views are gorgeous, and there are many kilometers of uninhabited beaches all the way to Daren in the south. The only civilization you will find along the 50 kilometers between Taitung City and Daren are a few lonely fishing villages.
Driving north on Highway 11 from Taitung City, you will pass many natural and cultural attractions along the coast. One of the first attractions you will see is Shiauyeliou. It has some of the most interesting geological formations you will find in the world, coming from a combination of wind and water erosion.
About 10 km north of Taitung City is the sleepy town of Dulan, in the Donghe Township. Dulan has a strong arts community, attracting artists and musicians to reside in an affordable and beautiful setting. Dulan is where tourists go to see Water Running Up, a walking path alongside a small stream that appears to be running uphill. You can also visit Dulan Site, an archaeological site with stone tombs dating to 3,000 years ago.
Driving north on Highway 11 from Dulan, you will find Duli in the Chenggong Township. Visiting the East Coast National Scenic Area Administration there is worth your time. The office, and cultural center are nestled in beautiful parkland between the ocean and mountains. On the grounds of this park is the Amis Indigenous Cultural Arts Center, where visitors can visit traditional houses, and watch traditional performances of music and dance from the Amis tribe.
Further up the coast is Chenggong, a large town that is a notable fishing port. While in town, check out the fishing docks, especially after the boats return from sea with its harvest, and try the fresh, inexpensive seafood. Also, check out the National Aquarium, where you can see many varieties of clown fish, and the only giant white dragon moray eel in captivity.
Just north of Chenggong is another remarkable, must-see site, the bridge to Sanshiantai Island. The famous bridge, with 8 arches, is surrounded by a lush nature preserve. The walk through the preserve, alone, is worth the visit, but one can also enjoy the pebble beach, and after a long walk over the bridge, you can explore the uninhabited Sanshiantai Island.
In the north end of Taitung County is the pleasant little town of Changbin. We found a surprisingly affordable air-conditioned hotel room with 4 beds, bathroom with a bath tub, a television and refrigerator for only NT1,200 (US$40) per night. After a good night’s sleep, we had the energy to explore new sites. We began by exploring the Basian Caves, just outside of Changbin. These natural caves are home to the Eight Immortals. In each of eight caves, visitors can see temples, with monks residing within. It is quite the hike up the cliffside to see all eight of the dieties in their caves.
It took four days to visit many of the interesting sites along the coast of Taitung County, and to fall in love with the area. There was so much that we didn’t see, but what we did gain was greater appreciation for Taiwan and we understood what the locals have been trying hard to protect.
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