Under a Pineapple Sun: Vacationing in Pingtung County
A few weeks ago I got an email from someone representing the government of Pingtung County in southern Taiwan. Would I like to participate in a blogger activity ? Would I like to travel in Pingtung, stay there as a guest of the local government for 15 days, and blog on my experiences. For bucks? I couldn't say yes fast enough. It sounded like heaven.
Truth to tell, I had never really been to Pingtung, except for several trips to Kenting, like everyone else in Taiwan. I was completely unfamiliar with what Pingtung might have to offer. What would I see? Where would I stay?
The only thing I knew for sure was that I would do the vacation on the bike. Cycling is the best way to see a place, to meets its people, take its pulse, and enjoy immersion in its landscapes and scenery. In the mountains bikes are quiet and do not scare the animals like cars or motorcycles do. On a bike you are inviting. Consequently, people were always stopping me to ask where I was going and what I was doing.
Pingtung turned out to have some really excellent cycling. The northern part of the county is flat and easy, but is rich in history and culture. The eastern mountains are stunning and beautiful beyond belief. In the south is Kenting, with some of the loveliest stretches of road on the island.…
For the first three days of this trip I chose the area around Sandimen in north-central Pingtung county. The townships in this area, Sandimen and Majia, are famed for stunning mountain scenery, hiking and camping, and a variety of aboriginal cultures. The government is developing biking paths and trails along the plain at the foot of the peaks and among the small towns that dot central Pingtung, so I thought it might be a good place to start.
Driving into Shuimen town on a Friday night I realized I had crossed into another world. I checked in at a small hotel in town and then strolled around the town as evening fell. Everyone was out chatting, eating dinner, barbecuing, and sharing drinks with good friends. The warm, small-town atmosphere felt great, full of relaxed, hometown energy.
In the morning I moved over to the hostel at the Taiwan Indigenous Peoples Culture Park just above Shuimen on County Road 55 (Mazalu 渡假休閒旅店 http://www.mazalu.com.tw/ 08-7991678). The park is actually located in Majia Township. The views from the hostel north toward the agricultural plain and east to the mountains are excellent, and there are shops, restaurants, and a garden area. The place is clean and well run and the staff are extremely friendly. It makes a great base for exploring the surrounding area.
For my first Saturday in Pingtung County I decided to take Rte 24 up into the mountains through Sandimen township and into the mountains beyond. My introduction to Pingtung was thus a gorgeous sunny day in the mountains. What could be better? I rolled down into town, grabbed some breakfast, then rode across the big bridge on Rte 24 towards Sandimen, stopping several times to snap pictures of the pretty Ailiao River Gorge.
Rte 24 winds a few hundred meters up a steep slope in a series of switchbacks. Sandimen town lines the switchbacks, an array of shops, restaurants, tea houses, and bed and breakfast places. The slope, popular with local cyclists, is not difficult but it is work. On a sunny morning everyone was out having breakfast or setting up for the expected rush of customers later in the day, and I had several opportunities to stop and talk to local people on the way up. I stopped several times as I climbed to take photographs of the amazing vistas over Shuimen town and the plains to the west. As I rested and took photos, other cyclists clad in brilliant multicolored cycling clothing rocketed up the slope on expensive road bikes, waving as they passed me. It was vintage Pingtung: everyone was incredibly warm and friendly.
Once you are past the town the road levels off and becomes an enjoyable climb through forested mountains. The road was empty of traffic, the day was sunny, and birds were everywhere. Soon I found myself at the police checkpoint. I rolled down into a stunning river gorge with staggering views of peaks and scarps. As I stopped to photograph the sight, a local came by on a mountain bike, and I spent a pleasant half-hour with him chatting about the problems of maintaining the roadways in Pingtung’s steep mountains.
I then turned around at the long construction zone on 24 and headed back. Along the way my front rim overheated on a long downhill and I blew a tube. I decided to head over to Neipu, where there were a couple of bike shops, to get some new tubes. Along the way I stopped at the interesting Aboriginal Cultural Center on Rte 24 near the Sandimen township office. It is filled with Paiwan aborigine artifacts and photographs, and offers performances, art, and other cultural activities. It also has good views down the nearby river gorge. The flat road between Shuimen and Neipu proved to be a good introduction to Pingtung County life, with plenty of interesting things to photograph.
The next day I got up early and rode Pingtung 55 up to Majia town. This road is especially beautiful, with an easy grade and great views out over the river gorge and the mountains beyond. I had a wonderful time on a sunny morning, imaging everything from mountain peaks to insects. Riding it is the kind of great experience that really makes Pingtung County shine. I hope the government considers extending and connecting these roads via bike trails, and promotes this area as a tourist alternative. The road not only contains some interesting aboriginal villages and other cultural sites, but a new recreational farm as well.
After lunch I headed north along Rte 185, the Along-the-Mountains Road. This is a very pretty road that is much like riding on the east coast, with a flat shelf backed by imposing mountains right over your shoulder. Rte 185 runs past a number of scenic areas in northeastern Pingtung County, and is lined with pineapple and banana farms, small temples, and gravel operations. Unfortunately the road surface is only in fair condition, due to the constant truck traffic. The government has put in bike paths along part of the route but they are not very useful. I advise cyclists to stick to the road. Despite the problems I highly recommend 185, a good alternative to taking Rte 1 south through Pingtung if you are cycling to Kenting.
The next week I returned, determined to further explore the area. I stayed at a delightful little bed and breakfast place called Chinglu Bed and Breakfast near Jiayi village in Majjia Township, right off 185 (清廬民宿, 屏東縣瑪家鄉佳義村1鄰泰平巷5-28號, 08-799-0311). It exemplified the cultural mingling of the area – the owners were a Paiwan aborigine woman and her Hakka husband. The building itself was done in the style of an aboriginal stone house, and the interior was filled with aboriginal furniture, art, and curios. The owners were truly friendly and treated me to some really interesting experiences.
Since the previous visit had involved exploring the mountains, this trip I decided to head out on a history tour of Pingtung County. Han settlement in Pingtung is quite old – some Hakka historians claim there were Hakkas settled there as early as the 14th century or even earlier. While recent artifacts from the long history of aboriginal dominance of the plains have sadly disappeared, there are plenty of sites of interest from the 19th and 20th century.
The first leg of my ride took me south along 185 (map at http://tinyurl.com/3v7l6gu). It was a gorgeous morning and the mountains off my left shoulder were lovely. Rte 185 continues all the way to Fangliao along the coast, but my first stop was the Catholic Basilica in Wanjin in Wanluan Township. The little Church with its Latin style makes visitors feel as though they are in some mission in New Mexico. There is an excellent coffee shop right next door, and people in the local community are super friendly. If you are traveling in the area a bed and breakfast should be opening in the town soon, and in an emergency you can probably get the Catholic Hostel in the Church compound to take you in for the night. Ask at the coffee shop.
Because of the intermixing of Han folk religion, Aboriginal religious practice, and Christian belief, the area around Wanjin is a fascinating mélange of religious art and iconography. Do not miss the beautiful mural, not far from the Church, that is a mix of Aboriginal, Han, and Christian artistic forms. In many places statues of Mary are side by side with shrines to the Earth God, Fu De. Moreover, unlike most other townships in Taiwan, Wanluan Township does a great job putting up useful signs telling you where the interesting things are.
Just south and west of Wanjin is the wonderful little village of Wugou. I went here twice because I liked it so much. Wugou is a Hakka settlement that dates from the 18th century. It retains its original town plan and many old houses. The brick and stone work is interesting, and many of the buildings still host beautiful old painted porcelain tiles, original religious art by the altars, and old wooden doors and windows. Some of the buildings are undergoing restoration. If you visit try and find Mr. Chou, who volunteers at the small tourist office there. He speaks excellent English, having spent many years working in Nigeria, and knows the town and its history well. Be sure to visit the Half Moon Pond and the old school building.
From Wugou I returned to 185 and cycled south to Fangliao. The southern part of 185 has fewer trucks and is an enjoyable ride. Soon I was in Fangliao, an old fishing port on the coast. I turned north and took 17 up to Jiadong, an old Hakka settlement near the coast.
In Jiadong I stopped for lunch and visited the Hsiao Family House in the center of town. This relic, restored and filled with historical exhibits and antique furniture, is well worth a visit. The dwelling of a prosperous local family, it is large and extends back from the entrance for some way. The area around the Hsiao house is a small plaza with a market and a large old temple, a pleasant place to hang out, and Jiadong town itself is filled with old style san he yuan houses.
I left Jiadong after lunch and rode up to Yuguang, a small town a few kilometers away. I am a World War II history buff and I had heard that the elementary school there hosted some old air Japanese air raid shelters. Two of them are still extant on the grounds of Yuguang elementary school. They are surprisingly small and thinly built. I could not imagine how they would survive a direct hit.
From Yuguang I followed Rte 115-1 straight west past the airfield. This area has a rich connection to the Second World War: during the 1930s and 1940s it contained several Japanese air fields. Unfortunately, almost all the infrastructure is gone, but perhaps enough remains that the government might be able to stitch together a history/biking tour of central Pingtung county for the many people who are interested in that history. I biked across a long stretch of totally flat pineapple fields and fruit orchards, desolate and apparently empty of people. Suddenly I came to a four way intersection and there, down the road, was an old observation tower. But was it postwar or prewar? And if prewar, which airfield was it? I talked with a friend who is an expert on WWII history in Taiwan, and he told me that the tower was once part of Kato Airfield. It had been bombed by the Americans during the Pacific War, and after the war had served as a bombing range. Sadly, only the rusting tower is still extant.
Another historical site I constantly ran across is one that extends across Pingtung County and would make a great cycle path: the old sugar railway. Still extant in many places, it is criss-crossed by roads all over central Pingtung County. In a few places local governments have ripped out the rails and put in bicycle paths. It would make an enjoyable history tour with restored infrastructure and the rails cemented in place rather than removed.
After that I returned up 185 back to the bed and breakfast place. Along the way I ran across a Paiwan wedding, with everyone dressed up in Paiwan clothing and looking stunning. Later, back at the bed and breakfast, as the owner fed and watered me with tasty aboriginal foods, she got out some ceramic plates and bowls that were superbly done. I love good pottery and was quite excited, and she at once offered to take me to visit the artist. We piled into a car and drove over to Jiayi village where the artist, Legeay Maviliv (0927073630; vuvu5316 @ yahoo.com.tw) has his workshop. What a wonderful place! I took many photos and also spoke to the children taking art lessons there. When we finished there we went to a local coffee shop that specializes in Pingtung-grown coffee (http://www.wretch.cc/blog/gscf7832558). I had no idea they grew coffee in Pingtung, but the owner of the little coffee shop assured me they had been growing it there for years.
The next day I went up to Taiwu township into the mountains again, to stay at Dawushan Bred and Breakfast, a lovely little place perched on a ridge about 500 meters up (大武山民宿, 屏東縣泰武鄉武潭村老潭巷40號, 08- 7920332). The owners are a married couple, one Rukai and the other Paiwan. I spent the morning wandering around Wanjin taking pictures and then headed up into the hills. The views were great and the food was excellent. The owner will take you around the hiking trails in the area, including into the mountains. Unfortunately it was cold and rainy so we did not have the chance to do that.
Using that place as a base, the next morning I headed for the coast. It was raining but at least it was warm! My first destination was Tapengwan, the large lagoon east of Donggang. I had hoped to find some remains of the old Japanese base that was located in the northeastern side of the lagoon, but it is gone. Instead, the area is now undergoing upgrading with new roads, bridges, and buildings going in. The government has plans to make it a water activity center. There are more than 16 kilometers of bike trails through the area’s numerous wetlands. Aquaculture farms dot the circuit of the lagoon, and on a misty morning the fishing boats make evocative pictures. Visitors can get information about where to go and what to do at the administrative center there. Boat rides through the swamps and wetlands and other activities are already offered, with more to come.
After visiting Tapengwan I went over to Donggang. Donggang is a sturdy port town with a long history. The district around the fishing port is studded with old temples of every size and description. There is a small museum, but the real highlight of Donggang is the fishing port. A working port, in the morning you can buy wholesale fish in bulk or watch the numerous workers swarm over newly-delivered fish to clean and process them. Finally, every three years Donggang hosts a famous religious festival when they burn a boat. If you have the chance, do not miss it.
A couple of weeks later I returned to Pingtung for the first of eight days in Kenting, at the government’s request.
The first night I stayed outside Checheng at the spa town of Sichongxi. Set in the hills, the area is filled with spa hotels. There’s a public spa as well and some low-price places to stay in town.
I had been hoping to ride one of my favorite routes in Taiwan, the loop east along 199 and over the hills down to 26 on the ocean, and then back up 200. However, when I got into hills above Shihmen town, it started to rain so I turned back.
The area around Shihmen has a rich history. In 1867 local aborigines slew a shipload of sailors from wrecked American ship Rover, in retaliation for the previous murder of aborigines by white foreigners. This provoked an American expedition to punish the aborigines, which landed near what is now the National Marine Museum and Aquarium. The aborigines promptly defeated the Americans and drove them back to their ships, and the US consul in Fukien, Charles LeGendre, borrowed some troops from the Qing and led an expedition from Fangliao over the hills to this area. He negotiated a treaty with the aborigines that required the Qing rulers of Taiwan to build a lighthouse in the area, which eventually became the Euluanbi lighthouse. Later LeGendre would be transferred to Japan, where he promoted Taiwan to influential Japanese. In 1871 Mudan aborigines killed 51 Okinawan sailors who had been wrecked in Kenting. The Qing rulers of western Taiwan denied that the Mudan area was theirs, so in 1874 the Japanese sent troops to the area on the pretext of punishing the aborigines. In reality, knowing that the Qing neither controlled nor claimed the mountainous aboriginal areas, the Japanese were exploring the possibility of colonizing the southern and eastern parts of Taiwan. The Japanese forces trounced the local aborigines and later, after the Qing ceded Taiwan to Japan in 1895, set up a marker on a hill above the battlefield.
That marker is still visible today, and I took a few pictures on my way by. The road to Shihmen town passes through the Shih Men (“stone gates”), the gorge where in 1874 the Mudan warriors had fought the Japanese. Just down the road, a few meters east of where Rte 151 meets Rte 199 lies the tomb of the Okinawan sailors. These are important historical sites – it was the Japanese interest in southern Taiwan that finally compelled the Manchus to firm up their claim to the entire island and beef up their defenses. Hopefully the government will consider greater development of trails, historical markers and history education in both English and Chinese so visitors can get a sense of the rich history of the area. An annual re-enactment might be a good tourist draw as well.
I rode down 151 through the onion fields. It was harvest time, and the fields were crowded with workers and rich with the pungent smell of onions. I stopped in Hengchun to photograph the east gate, then headed over to Manjhou to stay at the Kentingdon Resort (小墾丁渡假村, 屏東縣滿州鄉滿州村中山路205號, 08-880-2880). The Resort, set in a basin surrounded by beautiful hills, offers a large number of activities, well-equipped wood huts, swimming pools, a restaurant, and friendly and helpful staff. Highly recommended if you want a weekend getaway. On the way back I passed the famous Chuhuo Scenic Area, where natural gas seeps from the earth to occasional catch a spark and cause a fire.
Manjhou township is one of my favorite places in Taiwan. The area around it feels more like southeast Asia than Taiwan. It has a rich, wet greenness that is appealing to the senses, and the people are incredibly warm and friendly. I spent the afternoon exploring small roads around Manjhou, enjoying the farming scenery, chatting with the locals, and taking pictures. The town’s landmark, a roundabout with a tree in it, makes for nifty pictures, and on the road heading north out of town there are a couple of very old shops that are local historical sites. For lunch I went out to Jialeshui, widely considered the island’s best surfing beach, and had the burger and fries at Summer Point, a cozy little place with wooden tables outside and good views of the beach and coastline beyond it. You can easily rent surfboards and other equipment in the shops there.
In the morning I did one of the best little rides on the island, the stirring route along 26 around Euluanbi and into Kenting town. This section of road starts in Jialeshui and then climbs gently up onto the ridge above the sea. There are wonderful views back along the coast and into the hills, and good views of the sea on either side of the little peninsula. Not a difficult ride at all, but very rewarding. I went into Kenting Street for coffee, then rode up to Hengchun and back to Manjhou over Rte 200.
I biked out to Jialeshui and had lunch at Summer Point, and then went to the Jialeshui Scenic Area. This amazing section of wild carved rocks under coastal cliffs is well worth a visit. Near the visitors center are cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops. Be sure to tell the people at the gate you are eating inside the park area, you get a discount that way. Your ticket entitles you to a ride on the trucks that roll along the 2 kilometers of paved path there, with guides explaining the local geology and ecosystems.
In the late afternoon I moved over to the Kenting Training Hostel (墾丁渡假文教會館, 屏東縣恆春鎮恆南路38號, (08)888-3616). This clean, comfortable place is run by the local high school and the students do internships there. They are very inquisitive and easy to talk to. On the south side of Hengchun town, the hostel is centrally located and a great base for exploration of the Kenting peninsula.
The next morning I decided to go hiking in the Kenting Forest Park or Sheding Nature Park, both popular hiking spots. I biked up to Sheding Nature Park, about 5 kms from Kenting town. A 4 kilometer climb, it was a good warm-up ride on a cool Kenting morning. I left the bike at the Exhibition center at Sheding Park and headed out on the trails.
Sheding Nature Park and Kenting Forest Park offer a variety of climes and a large number of interesting plants and animals. The trails are clean and well-marked, and there are signs indicating flora and fauna of interest. Because they are on a hill overlooking the sea, the views are good as well. I highly recommend either of these parks for a morning excursion.
From there I stopped by the Kenting National Park Visitors Center to make a date for Nanren Shan Conservation Area for the following week. The number of visitors per day is restricted and you have to register in advance to go. Unfortunately the online system is available only in Chinese. The staff at the Visitors Center are enormously friendly and helpful, but the quality of English on the signs is embarrassingly awful. With so many professional editors and translators on Taiwan, there is no excuse for a central government operation to offer such embarrassing translation.
After that I decided to ride over to the Longluan Lake Nature Center. Along the way I stopped at the Sisal Monument. This is a small museum with some exhibits, but once again the quality of the English is poor.
Longluan Lake Nature Center turned out to be a well designed and constructed viewing site for the numerous birds that congregate on the lake. The inside offers guides and monoculars for viewing, while there is a bird blind to enable photography on the outside. The path up to the center is a pleasant experience, lined with explanatory signs and shadowed by trees. The government has built an artificial island near the nature center to attract birds for better viewing. Totally free and well worth a visit.
I also spent an afternoon walking around Hengchun town. It is not as touristy as Kenting Street and has an old town that makes a pleasant afternoon stroll. Hengchun still has a large stretch of restored old city wall that gives the town its historical atmosphere, and all four old gates are still standing.
When I returned to Kenting a week later with friends, we again stayed at the Kenting Training Hostel in Hengchun. Across from it is a famous steamed bun shop that is absolutely packed on the weekends. Their steamed buns are excellent, and they will also ship bulk orders to anywhere on the island. We also found the Thai Restaurant a few blocks up the road to be quite good as well.
On Saturday morning we got up early and headed out on our bikes to do the 199-200 loop back to Hengchun (a map is here: http://tinyurl.com/3ulkufr). This is one of my favorite routes on the island, offering 1000 meters of climbing with several low hills and easy grades, great views of the forested hills and the ocean, stunningly gorgeous coastline, and desolate, undeveloped seashore. Highly recommended for riding with a bike or scooter.
We rode up 151 to 199 through the onion harvest. Everywhere people called to us, asking us where we were going and what we were doing. The strong scent of onions filled the air under puffy white clouds and a bright sunny sky, promising an excellent day of riding.
Right after turning on to 199 we stopped by the grave of the Okinawan sailors. It is cared for today by a local family, and there are plaques in Chinese but sadly, not in English. Continuing on, we hit stopped at a curio shop in Shihmen town, the Mudan Shanchuang, and then began climbing over 199 to Syuhai.
The climb up 199 above Shihmen in Mudan Township is not difficult and the views over the town and reservoir are spectacular. From there the road levels out to a pleasant, easy ride through farms and forested hills until you reach the fork where you can take 199 to Taitung, or continue on 199A down to Syuhai. Shortly after that a wonderful alpine descent down to the ocean begins, a twisting, turning road with great views over the hills to the sea.
At Syuhai there’s a police station where we always stop for water. At that point Rte 26 begins. This section of road is absolutely amazing. Closed for many years due to military activities, it is undeveloped and gorgeous beyond belief, with stunning views in either direction down the coast. One 19th century sailor wrote of Taiwan:
“the highest sea precipice in the known world lay unveiled before our eyes. It was superb...the studendous cliffs of the Yosemite Valley in California,...the grand sea-wall of Hoy, in the Orkneys,...the glories of the iron-bound coast of Norway, all fade into nothingness beside the giant precipices of Formosa. We kept close to the land, the appearance of which if anything, increased in grandeur. The gigantic wall of rock was cleft every few miles by huge gorges...”Standing on a curve looking northward along the coast where the sea cliffs tumble down to the water, you can truly understand what wild Taiwan must have looked like to mariners 200 years ago.
We stopped for lunch in Gangtzai, a tiny fishing port famous for its enormous stretch of sand dunes. There you can rent ATVs to ride on the sand yourself. Many places in Kenting also offer rentals for four wheeling in the area. On the weekends the sands are filled with vehicles, and many convoys of Jeeps passed us on 200 on their way out to the sands.
Leaving Gangtzai on 200, a gentle climb begins back up over the coastal ridges to Fenshuiling. There are shops there were you can grab a snack or drink. Rte 200 then begins a long downhill through some of the loveliest terrain on the island, the farmlands in Manjhou township. With great views over the fields to the wet green hills beyond, good pavement, and little traffic, this road is a cyclist’s dream. With great reluctance to leave lovely Manjhou we returned to Hengchun.
Sunday was again a lovely day, so we rode around Euluanbi and then in the little farm roads between Hengchun, Guan Shan, and the ocean.
On Monday we went out to Nanren Shan Conservation Area to hike the trail around Nanren Lake. I had registered for a visit the previous week. The trails are closed on Tuesday so Monday was our only chance. Nanren Shan is accessible off 200 north of Changle in Manjhou township and is only a short ride from Hengchun. At the Visitors Center we registered, showed IDs, and then viewed a briefing video. The video is required but sadly it is available only in Chinese.
The 10 kilometers of trails at Nanren Shan are pleasant and well laid out, with signs explaining the flora and fauna of the area. There is plenty to photograph, including many reptiles and amphibians as well as birds and monkeys. I also spotted a walking stick and some beautiful spiders. The trail rises only 100 meters and is an easy two or three hour stroll. I highly recommend visiting this beautiful lake and its trails. If the weather cooperates, you will take some truly memorable pictures.
My fifteen days in Pingtung County were a truly amazing experience of history, culture and scenery, but it is the wonderfully warm and friendly people of Pingtung who made the Pingtung experience so special. Even better, cycling makes it easy to stop and talk to them. Every place I went I had great experiences chatting with the local people, from students hanging out at 7-11 in Yujing to aborigines in Laiyi township in the mountains. Everywhere passers-by stopped to talk with me, asked me what I was doing and where I was going, and speculate on my origin (“He must be an Arab,” one group of locals decided). In little Shanhai, a seaport hamlet just south of the Aquarium, an old woman offered me some fruit, apparently just to have the chance to ask me why I had come to Shanhai. Waiting out the rain in a breakfast shop in Manjhou, it seemed like the whole town stopped in to say hello to me. Walking around in Shuimen at night I got invited to several barbecues. In Wanjin at the coffee shop several local people sat down to chat as I had my morning brew and to suggest things to do and see in the area. In the Training Hostel the students stopped by to discuss their future studies and ask my friends to help them improve their English. At the steamed bun shop in Hengchun the cashier, seeing how we had to wait for the endless lines of tourists, treated us like locals and slipped us some delicious buns out the back door. On every road local cyclists stopped to exchange greetings and discuss the road. People of Pingtung: you rock!
My conclusion: everyone knows the beaches of Kenting, but few people know Pingtung. These past few weeks immersing myself in the people, culture, history, and landscape of Pingtung County have been both great fun and a great learning experience for me. I’ll be cycling these roads again soon, and I hope to see you on the road in Pingtung when I do!
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