Taiwan: Isle of the unexpected

The Portuguese quite rightly called lush, mountainous and culturally diverse Taiwan the ‘Beautiful Isle’ – so where are all the tourists?

7 mins

I was on a tiny motor scooter wearing shorts, a T-shirt and a cycling cape as flimsy as a plastic bag when Typhoon Nalgae swept into eastern Taiwan. I thought it was just a tropical shower at first but, after half an hour, rain was still whipping my face and stinging my skin; I was soaked to the bone. I could barely even make out the tail-lights of Simon’s scooter a few dozen metres ahead as he pulled over.

“Do you want to stop? Looks like the rain could get heavy,” he warned. I glanced around me. The huddle of houses nearby looked grim and unprepossessing.

“How far’s Rueisuei?” I asked, thinking of hot tea and hot springs. It was just 30 minutes further he replied – we pressed on. However, with fewer than 10km to go, the rain became torrential. Our tiny scooters were buffeted around like yachts on a storm-swollen ocean as we tried desperately not to aquaplane through the vast puddles. Progress was as slow as a hearse. It was no good. We made out the grey silhouette of a huge roadside teahouse and pulled in, seeking shelter from the storm.

“The English ruin tea,” said tiny, smiling 77-year-old Mrs Xin Yeh as she handed me a steaming bonsai brew (and a slice of exquisite bin gau cake) and I instinctively looked for milk. “Tea is a delicious, delicate Chinese drink. It should not be spoilt with cow milk and sticky sugar.”

The hot liquid slipped down like ambrosia and, as Mrs Yeh gently instructed me in the art of making the perfect cup, I gradually forgot the raging storm outside and began to reflect on my journey so far...

You beauty

Getting caught out in a typhoon had been the culmination of an intense few days in a country proving full of surprises.

I’d come to Taiwan on a whim – to visit somewhere quite unknown to me, and a place somewhat overlooked on the busy South-East Asian traveller trail. Imagining smoke stacks and factories, I’d been intrigued to discover that Taiwan is in fact the world’s most heavily forested large island. The Portuguese, the first Europeans to visit, called it Ilha Formosa (the ‘Beautiful Island’), and a quick pre-trip Google search revealed a place fringed with gorgeous white-sand beaches and dotted with thousands of volcano-warmed thermal springs.

So I’d contacted intrepid adventurer, fluent mandarin-speaker and Taiwan specialist Simon Foster of Bamboo Trails. Sensing my desire to get off the beaten track, he suggested we travel together through the heart of the island on that most Asian of vehicles: the motor scooter.


More Chinese than China

Our journey had begun in a scooter hire-shop in torrid Taichung, a ‘Made in Taiwan’ industrial city on the built-up west coast, bristling with factories and rushing highways. A large man with a friendly grin, a cigarette suspended from the corner of his mouth and wearing Chelsea football shorts rented us two nippy little Japanese scooters. Within 30 minutes we were winding east on the sinuous Cross-Island Highway into hills swathed with betel-nut plantations. Urban Taiwan felt far behind.

The sunlight was glorious. We zipped past a travelling puppet theatre and stands of swaying coconut palms; dozens of brightly coloured little shrines dotted the roadside. Ahead in the distance, the island’s central highlands lay outlined in silhouette like a Chinese silk painting. Whenever we stopped for a drink or snack, the locals were disarmingly friendly. “Where you from?” they asked. “Welcome to our country.”

In a golden late afternoon we reached Sun Moon Lake. Emerald green, nestled in steep, forest-swathed mountain ridges and watched over by the vivid, dragon-decorated Wenwu Temple, it looked like a film set from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Inside the temple, in a swirling mist of burning incense, were triple shrines to Confucius and to the Taoist gods Guan Gong and Kaiji.

From 2,500-year-old Taoism to artistic techniques, traditional Chinese culture – long lost or suppressed on the mainland – thrives in Taiwan. The Taiwanese government has even applied for World Heritage status for certain complex Chinese characters that China stopped using in 1949 but Taiwan continues to use today.

Mountains & mock-Tudor

In the morning I woke to a procession of school children performing exercises on the lakeshore with military precision. After a breakfast of steaming coffee, sliced mango and shao bing (long-baked buns stuffed with sizzling eggs), we climbed on the scooters and headed for the misty mountains.

Just beyond Sun Moon Lake, the Cross-Island Highway narrowed and climbed sharply, twisting up the sides of green valleys filled with sparkling flood-water lakes. By late morning the air was chilly and rarefied. Bizarre mock-Tudor buildings lined the road; ‘The Olde England…’, advertised one, ‘…since 2009’.

“The Taiwanese have a thing for England,” Simon explained. “Some of these hotels even have faux-Elizabethan four-poster beds and serve afternoon tea with scones.”

We climbed higher still, on tiny roads swathed in drifting high-altitude cloud and fringed with an elfin forest dripping with bromeliads and wispy lichen. At midday we reached 3,422m Mount Hehuan, the highest point on the road. The mist burned away to brilliant-blue sky, revealing another magnificent view of jagged peaks falling towards a distant tropical coast.


From Hehuan we headed further east towards the Pacific, quickly dropping into cloud again. Soon all beyond the front wheel was thick and white. The road plunged through dark, dripping tunnels where the noise of the motor scooter echoed eerily off the walls. There was no traffic. When we stopped for water all I could hear was the tinkle of a stream and the twitter of birds.

Suddenly the clouds thinned, and we descended into sunshine and a knee-weakening view. The highway clung to a vast, almost sheer-sided valley. To our right was a startling drop-off into a misty green-blue river hundreds of metres down.

As we plunged into tropical warmth, the valley narrowed further into the dramatic Taroko Gorge. Its precipitous polished walls were divided by the Liwu River, which swirled over giant marble boulders in fierce rapids. In an astonishing feat of engineering, the road cut into the gorge’s sides, which towered above and below us. Green mountains loomed behind, disappearing into deep-green spurs covered in virgin forest and hulking ridges of sun-kissed rock.

We stopped at Changchun (Eternal Spring) Shrine, dedicated to the memory of the 225 or so workers who lost their lives building the Taroko Gorge Road. Set against mile-high marble, it looked like an exquisite Chinese miniature, terracotta-tiled pavilions straddling a mountain steam.

Later we alighted to walk up a tributary of the Liwu, through forest that’s home to clouded leopard and Formosan black bear. As the late-afternoon sun turned deep gold, we jumped on our scooters to rush through tunnels and emerged into an inky dusk at Hualien, on the Taiwanese Pacific. That night I sat under a canopy of stars in the tiny Crossing the Rainbow Bridge hotel. Chatting to the hotel’s owner, Teyram Yudaw, I learned that Taroko takes its name from one of the island’s myriad indigenous people, the Truku, and that Taiwan had not always been Chinese.

“Taiwan has half a million native peoples who were here 8,000 years before the Chinese came from the mainland,” he told me. “Most of us live in the east. But we were not originally from this side of the island. My people, the Truku, lived on the flat plains on the west coast, hunting deer and wild boar, but we were pushed across into the mountains some 300 years ago.”


Riders of the storm

It was a Truku guide who took us for a brisk walk in the gorge the next morning. Taroko, he told me as we looked over a river rushing round a polished slot canyon, means ‘the magnificent, the wonderful’ in the Truku language. It was hard to disagree.

By mid-morning, when we set out on the first leg of our journey towards the southern cape at Kenting, clouds were building over the Pacific – but the weather didn’t look threatening. When we took a diversion for more magnificent scenery at the Qingshui Cliffs, they were bathed in sunlight. But as we ate a lunch of red rice and chicken next to the paddy fields in a tiny Ami indigenous village it began to rain.

Shortly afterwards we were hit by the deluge and forced to find refuge in Mrs Xin Yeh’s Tea House.

It was only when we reached our hotel in Rueisuei, less than a kilometre further on, that we learned we’d been caught by a typhoon. Or at least the far edge of one. The receptionist at the Hoya Spa Hotel blanched when she heard we’d been out on motor scooters; she bustled us off to the hotel’s thermal springs with fresh towels and motherly tut-tuts.

I lay back in the vast and steaming bath-water-warm pools as the storm raged around me, ropes of rain pummelling the sweet-smelling frangipani trees and bending the bamboo fronds. I slept with its anger rattling the windows. By morning, however, Nalgae had subsided leaving only dripping forest and bursting rivers.

Driving under the influence

The next day we took the coastal road through Taiwan’s Eastern Rift Valley; paddy fields, palm groves and brilliant-green tea plantations clung to hills next to the ocean. We passed through villages where our Western faces brought surprise and waves.

Leaving Guanshan, I saw a string of little glass booths topped with lurid-pink lights. Intrigued, I pulled up in front of one.

A grinning girl, dressed in a skin-tight sequinned bodice and made-up like a Barbie doll, squeaked and rushed to us brandishing a tray of what looked like cigarette packets decorated with lurid photos.

“Betel nut,” Simon explained. “A pretty girl ensures the lorry drivers stop to buy them.”

He bought a couple of boxes and opened one to reveal what appeared to be green acorns, cut in two and filled with a red paste.


“You chew them,” Simon told me, popping one in his mouth and climbing back on the bike. I followed suit and in a few minutes had numbed cheeks drooling with aniseed-sweet saliva. I felt warmer all over, and Red Bull-revitalised. The tropical greens of the trees and the brilliant reds of the passing temples seemed more intense. And like a Taiwanese lorry driver, I spat yeuchy crimson goo behind me into the road.

In the afternoon we hiked through the lushness of Jhihben National Park, whose camphor tree and fern-filled rainforest covers the steep mountain slopes just south of Taitung. Jhihben is home to some of the island’s unique animals including Taiwan’s only native primate, the Formosan rock macaque, and spectacular birds such as the scarlet-headed mikado pheasant and the black-headed Formosan blue magpie. None came out to play, but it didn’t matter: Jhihben is also dotted with dozens of hot springs, where we soaked after our long ride.

Life’s a beach

More hot sun welcomed in our last day and the final leg of our journey. We clung to the Pacific coast, which by now was fringed with glorious white-sand beaches. Beike Shatan Beach was covered with millions of little shells; at Houbihu we snorkelled with groupers over coral; at Olaupi, on the southern cape, a lonely lighthouse looked out across the ocean to the Philippines. There was even a surf scene at Jialeshui, with toned and tanned Taiwanese in bikinis, board shorts and Havaiana flip-flops poised to tackle the impressive waves.

We wound into our final port of call – Kenting, in the far south – on a glorious, golden afternoon. After a short rest we went out to enjoy our final night on the town. The streets were lined with surf shops, seafood restaurants, pumping bars playing Taiwanese pop and chic beach shacks serving cocktails. It was the nearest thing I’d seen to a resort in Taiwan. But, it seemed, it was only for the Taiwanese.

Aside from Simon, the only foreigners I’d seen since arriving had been at the airport, far to the north in Taipei. Western tourists just don’t come to Taiwan. As I sat in the final beach bar, margarita in hand, listening to the Pacific waves hit the beach, I struggled to understand why.

Local view: Teyram Yudaw, hotel owner, Hualien

“Hire a local Truku guide for a hike to the high cliffs when you visit Taroko Gorge. Be sure to visit the Taiwan Indigenous Cultural Park.”

Local view: Chucky Thai, surfer, Kenting

“Nanwan Beach in Kenting is the best place to surf in Taiwan. Visit the bar at the Afei Surf Shop & Hostel to meet locals over a beer, especially on Saturday.”

Alex Robinson is a freelance photographer and travel writer who has written guidebooks for Footprint, DK and Bradt.

The author travelled with Bamboo Trails on a tailormade itinerary involving a motor scooter tour from Taichung to Kenting via the Central Cross-Island, Pacific East Coast and East Rift Valley highways. Bamboo Trails offers photography, culinary and general sightseeing tours throughout Taiwan and Asia. Its ten-day Taiwan Full Throttle motor scooter tours start at £1,600; 14-day General Taiwan tours start at around £1,600 including transfers, bilingual guides, tours, accommodation and some meals.

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