By Deepika Gumaste
Beyond Taipei, the country’s iconic capital, lies a discerning countryside, where locals keep ancient traditions alive
Driving through Taiwan’s countryside, I recall my earliest impressions of the country, as a tiny sweet-potato shaped island, situated, far east. Raking up images of a quirky city – a toilet themed restaurant, Chinese artefacts and Taipei 101, which until very recently held the ‘world’s tallest building’ title, Taipei, the country’s capital has built a solid electronic manufacturing market that exports ‘Made in Taiwan’ products all over the world. Yet Danny Lin, my guide for the week spent in Taiwan, insists that the country’s “hinterlands are its biggest surprise!”
As our tourist van rolls over, I watch the exuberant skyline of Taipei disappear. An hour into the journey, all my formidable perceptions of ‘urban Taiwan’ come crashing down. The landscapes play on a loop, like a romantic song from a Yash Raj classic. Rolling green hills, towering peaks in distance, swaying palm trees, melodious birdsong, sleepy village houses, beetle nut plantations and lush rice paddies, scattered on either side of the road. “Our first stop…” Danny declares, “will be the Taroko National Park!” Taroko, one of Taiwan’s 9 national parks, derives its name from the Taroko Gorge, the mysterious gorge of the park carved by the winding Liwu river. It is also home to an Eternal Spring Shrine, built to revere the 250 lives lost while constructing the highway through the park.
That afternoon, we check-in at the Leader Village Taroko, a sublime mountain tribute to Taiwan’s recognized aboriginals- the Truku Tribe. After refilling myself with a cup of warm oolong tea, I quickly take a tour of the Japanese style furbished wooden lodge, embellished with tribal artefacts, a pink railing that leads to a Formosa monkey trail. Instead, I opt for an authentic aboriginal barbeque. This is followed by my awkward dance moves with the handsome Truku men.
A young handsome lad around me plays on a Bamboo Harmonica, while somewhere else an older gentleman plays a Xylophone, well up to post midnight. The next morning, as I gulp down my hot bowl of sweet potato porridge, Danny teasingly remarks, “Young Taroko men often play Bamboo Harmonica combining with dance to express their love to the girl they like.” Hiding my red blushing face, I signal Danny to quickly make a move to our next destination- Mingli No.13 Soybean B&B.
Located in Fuli Township of Hualien County, this B&B, gives me a crash course in preparing Taiwan’s stench food- the Stinky Tofu! Fortunately, it is not the sensory assaulting I expect, but a much bearable alternative for my prudent appetite- a fermented Soybean hotpot. After a scrumptious meal, we move to a 300-hectare daylily field, situated at an elevation of 800 MSL. As we arrive, we are greeted by Jeff Miller, an American expat whose wife presides over the local agricultural council. Jeff explains, “To arrest rural migration to urban areas and benefit the resident farmers, local farming communities have started leveraging the mass tourism boom. While the tourists get an opportunity to closely interact and understand local customs and traditions, the visitors double up as an additional source of income for the farmers in the area.”
We spend some time, devouring the mountain views, as the sun casts a tangerine glow on the daylilies. Impressed by Taiwan’s remarkable and creative commitment to fostering ‘sustainable tourism,’ it is then a silent drive to Xiang Yuan Tea Farm, an organically certified garden. The tiredness of a bloating meal followed by hogging of daylily fritters at the fields, is then compensated by a cool breeze and a green tea ice cream making workshop. As I take mental notes of traditional tea-culture of Taiwan, showcased at the farm, I adjust the pace of my tea sipping. I began absorbing the story of Captain Suay, who I had met two days back. A local fisherman at Nanfang’ ao Port, Captain Suay narrates stories of his early childhood and life as a fisherman. He informed me about the imminent ecological destruction owing to mass tourism.
I could not help but imagine how this little explored destination could become a coveted hotspot for sustainable tourism in the coming future. Taiwan’s ‘Agro-tourism’ policy which encourages tourists to explore the country, by imbibing the nuances of the local life, while encouraging the locals to keep their ancient culture alive, is truly a case study for the world to follow.