Alishan 003 – The Northern Tsou Villages
July 5, 2010
The aboriginal people of the Alishan area are known as the Tsou. I know next to nothing about them except that they are the original inhabitants of this area and that the villages and towns around here are Tsou. I assume they speak their own language as well as Mandarin. I also know that tea is, along with tourism, an economic mainstay of the area. Tea plantations are everywhere in the mountains of the Alishan area. I don’t know, however, who runs the tea plantations. Do the Tsou own them? Or are they run by the Chinese?
My trip to see the northern Tsou villages began fairly early in the morning after a biendang breakfast in Fenqihu. I still had a full tank of gas, so that wasn’t a problem. In fact, this Sym 125 scooter that I rented seems to get much better mileage than my Attila does. It also (I hate to say it) drives and corners much better. I always felt that the Attila for all its power didn’t corner very well. It doesn’t want to bite into the curve. It always wants to drift wide. I noticed that particularly when there were two people on it. At that time, I had to be very careful. It felt like the scooter was close to going into the ditch on corners all the time. This scooter that I rented in Chiayi takes the corners effortlessly. I don’t know what kind of design features would affect that, but it’s clear that some scooters corner better than others. The rented scooter was much easier to drive and could go around corners much faster and with much greater control.
I knew about the Northern Tsou Villages from a very informative and helpful brochure that I picked up at the Chiayi train station. In a land jammed with funny English, however, this brochure probably wins the prize for the most unfortunate turn of English phrase. The brochure, a glossy tourism brochure, is called “Alishan: New Illusory Paradise.”
Despite the unfortunate name, it is a very good brochure. It has a clear and detailed map of this area, and it has excellent summaries in English of the different regions. Alishan Area Travel Route 1 describes Provincial Highway 18 from Chiayi to the Alishan Forest Recreation Area. Alishan Area Travel Route 2 takes in the Southern Tsou Villages of Shanmei, Sinmei, and Chashan. Alishan Area Travel Route 3 includes the Northern Tsou Villages I’ve already mentioned, Leye, Lijia, Dabang, and Tefuye. Route 4 is called Mountain Highs and takes in my home for the trip, Fencihu, plus Fongshan and Laiji. Route 5 is the Rueitai Area of Rueili, Rueifong and Taihe. The last route, Route 6, is The Land of Tea.
The brochure is well put-together and represents a region that is perfect for tourism. From what I’ve seen of Taiwan, it will certainly become a popular tourist destination for westerners in the future. At the moment, it is still somewhat inaccessible. I don’t know exactly why that is. It’s just a feeling that it’s hard to know what to do or where to go. Yet, the infrastructure, scenery, and attractions are all there in spades. The more I travel in Taiwan, the more I feel that it is a real privilege to be able to do so. Someday, hordes of tourists will come here, but for now it is completely off the radar and foreigners like myself have almost the entire country to ourselves.
My goal for the day was simply to drive along Travel Route 3 and see the northern Tsou villages. According to the brochure, the first village on that route is Leye, but I didn’t even make it that far without finding another fascinating area to explore.
Just a few kilometers past Fenqihu, long before I regained the main road, the road forked and one of the branches went higher into the mountains. There were some English signs indicating homestays up there, and I decided to check them out. Up there I found a large area of tea plantations, and some of them had homestays attached. I have no idea how much it would cost to stay in one of them, but it would certainly be an attractive option. Once more, I was surprised at the depth of tourism possibilities in Taiwan. For people who simply like to drive, Taiwan is an incredible place. Everywhere I’ve been, I never seem to come to the end of the small back roads that you can follow. In this case, I found a road going to a place called Denhu. I had no idea what Denhu was, but the road was too attractive to resist. It was a narrow mountain road, barely one lane wide. The trees and bamboo had grown so close to it and over it that I felt like I was driving through a long green tunnel. I even shot a short video, holding the camera in one hand and driving with the other. I quickly abandoned that idea when my front wheel hit a slippery patch of green moss and wet leaves on the road and I nearly crashed.
By this point, you’d think I’d stop being surprised at what turns up in Taiwan, but I was surprised when once again I discovered something of interest. I thought I was on a mountain track that would lead me to empty wilderness, but suddenly I hit an area that was abuzz with tourism. It was Denhu, and it had made a name for itself with its tea plantations and hiking trails. There were a couple of tour buses, a couple dozen private cars, tea fields filled with workers picking leaves, and lots of hikers setting off on different trails. I drove around this area for a while and people called out greetings to me. At the end of the road, I found a small field filled with tents and campers. This town was so small that it isn’t even on any of my maps. Yet, there it was.
After my near-crash, I got back on the road from Fenqihu and drove the rest of the way to Shihjhuo on the main road. It was there that highway 169 begins and takes you to the first of the northern Tsou villages, Leye.
Near Leye is the Old Fushan Trail, and on impulse I pulled over to the side of the road to check it out. Without really intending to, I found myself parking the scooter and shouldering my knapsack with a fresh bottle of water and setting off on the 1.8 kilometer trail. I was fully hooked when the trail started off with a beautiful suspension bridge over a rocky stream with waterfalls. These short trails are real gems. I’ve never been much of a hiker. Even the word hiking makes me think of pain, sweat, mosquitoes, and nothing but trees and more trees. And in a place like Canada, a hike goes on for hours and hours. It’s like all the hard work of camping with none of the fun. But in Taiwan, there are no end of hikes that are just one or two kilometers long – the perfect length. And they go through beautiful areas. The Old Fushan Trail used to connect the villages of Leye and Fushan before the highway was built. It goes down to the river and the suspension bridge I mentioned. Then it goes up the other side of the river valley passing through beautiful forests with bamboo as thick as your legs and rising fifty feet in the air. On my hike, a friendly white dog adopted me and guided me the whole way. There were a couple of points where I didn’t know which way to go, and the dog stopped and then looked back to make sure I was following before it set off on the right way. I thought it belonged to some other hiking parties that were on the trail, but it appeared to be on its own. When I got to the end of the trail at the village of Fushan, the dog wriggled around in some tea fields and then dashed off down the road. I hadn’t gotten lost, and it had done its job.
Once at Fushan, I had no choice but to turn around and go back along the trail to the beginning near Leye where I’d left my scooter. That was not a hardship, however. It had been uphill almost the entire way to Fushan, and now I could go downhill back to the beginning. I repassed two large groups of Taiwanese hikers. When I first saw them they were astonished that I was on my own. Both groups quizzed me carefully on that fact, scanning the trail worriedly for my companions. When I returned from the end of the trail and passed them again (now going in the opposite direction) they were even more puzzled and I think a little impressed at the turn of speed I was showing. I was surprising myself. During my 4-hour hike through Alishan, I found myself running out of steam. Not surprising since I had begun that day with an hour and a half of hiking in Fenqihu after breakfast. But I guess it doesn’t take long to get your hiking legs and on this second day of hiking, I was already handling the long climbs much better.
The road from Leye was narrow and loads of fun to drive. The scenery also couldn’t be beat. The villages of Dabang, Tefuye, and Lijia were all on a mountain range across from the main mountain range that leads to Alishan Forest Recreation Area. Between these two ranges was a deep valley, and the road climbed and climbed and climbed until every turn and every twist presented another gorgeous view of the “Are you kidding me?” variety. I particularly enjoyed the view because high up on the other mountain range, I could see Highway 18 carving its way. I had driven along that road the previous day, and it was great fun to see it from a distance and get the full scope and scale of it. Not for the first time in my life, I marveled at the audacity of road builders. When I look at that mountain range, I don’t see a place to build a highway. Yet engineers somehow do, and they go ahead and build it. Of course, in Taiwan, Mother Nature often has something to say about that and massive mud and rock slides wipe away big chunks of these roads with regularity. The Taiwanese just get to work with their graders and loaders and trucks and start rebuilding them. The road to Dabang and Lijia was a good example of this with large sections of it being rebuilt. As a scooter driver, I had to be on my toes. I didn’t want to get carried away with the great handling of this scooter. The road threw up huge potholes with regularity. So much of the road had been destroyed in recent typhoons and earthquakes that they were having to deal with the worst of it first and leave the rest for later. Myself, I would have just given it up as a bad job, so I have to tip my hat to these guys constantly rebuilding these roads. I don’t even know how you begin. When the entire side of the mountain just gives way and takes the highway with it, how do you rebuild? I don’t have a clue, but they do it.
In Dabang, there was another trail that went to the village of Tefuy up in the mountains. The trail, not surprisingly, was called the Tefuye Trail. It was 1.6 kilometers long, and I was looking forward to hiking it. How could I not? The brochure said I should take this trail if I wanted “to reach an even higher level of relaxation and tranquility.” However, it was not to be. I found the start of the trail – a big suspension bridge. The bridge was deemed unsafe and had been blocked off. I don’t know if it was a typhoon, an earthquake, or just old age, but the suspension bridge and perhaps the entire trail was a no-go. The main vehicle bridge across the river had also been completely destroyed (this was bringing back memories of my aborted cycling trip from Tainan across the southern cross-island highway), but they had constructed an alternate path and I was able to drive across on my scooter and get up to Tefuye. It was a pleasant little village, though once more I had that feeling that I didn’t quite “get it.” I’m not sure how else to put it. These little towns and villages in Taiwan seem to have a life and a rhythm that I just don’t understand. I don’t see a “way in.” I end up driving around and looking at all the buildings. But I rarely see people and I rarely see a place to pop in for that cold drink or bit of hot tea or whatever. The towns always seem almost abandoned, though I know they aren’t. In any event, the views were breathtaking, and I drove around and snapped some pictures of the surrounding mountains before heading back down to Dabang.
Highway 169 goes through Dabang and continues for another twenty kilometers or so and ends at the village of Lijia “deep in the mountains” as Lonely Planet says. The main route out of Dabang had been completely washed away by a landslide, and at first I thought that Lijia had been cut off. But when I got back on the main road, I spotted a fork in the road. Sure enough, the magical road engineers had somehow managed to carve a brand new piece of road to join up with 169. It was steep and rocky and rough, but it got the job done and I was zooming along 169 to Lijia.
I stopped often on the road to take pictures of the parallel mountain range with highway 18 on it. Quite often the mountainside below me would be filled with brilliantly green tea plantations to complete an already perfect view. “Are you kidding me?” I said more than once.
My favorite stop was at a hundred-foot high waterfall that came out of nowhere. The base of the waterfall was a big jumble of rocks and boulders that had been falling off the cliff for centuries. I knew it was a really stupid thing to do and probably very dangerous, but I couldn’t resist climbing up the rock field to see if there was a perfect swimming pool at the bottom of the waterfall. I suppose, now that I think back, it wouldn’t matter if there was a pool of water. There is no way you could enjoy swimming in it with the threat of ten-pound and ten-ton pieces of rock landing on your head. As I was climbing up, an SUV stopped on the road and the people inside waved at me frantically and shouted what I assume were warnings. I pretended to misunderstand them and just waved back as if they were saying hello. I knew it was not a great idea to be walking around in that rock field. Even some of the largest boulders up there were still not settled into place. When I climbed over them, they rocked unsteadily. I got the feeling that not only could a stone come off the cliff and kill me, I could easily set off a rock slide in the field itself. They hadn’t been there long enough to really settle into place. Anyway, I made it to the base of the cliff and hung out for a very short time before making my way back down.
I kept expecting to find Lijia up at the top of the mountain, but it turned out to be on the other side of the mountain and all the way down at the bottom of the valley beside the river. I truly felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. I wanted to celebrate my arrival in Lijia with a cold drink, but, again, I saw nowhere to go. I can understand that a town like Llijia can’t build quaint cafes and restaurants for the one tourist a day who shows up there, but I wonder where the locals go. In every country I’ve ever visited one comes across villages and towns of all types. Some have the occasional café or store or restaurant that caters to foreigners. If they don’t have those, they have local stores and restaurants. But there is always something. Here in Taiwan there is often nothing. It’s a bit of a puzzle. I drove all through Lijia from one end to the other, but I didn’t see a single store or restaurant of any kind. There must have been something hiding in there somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. All I could do was park by the river, have a drink from my bottle of water, and then turn around and begin the long drive out of the valley and back up the mountain.
Two things of note occurred on my return journey. The first took place right after a big construction site. I had carefully driven my scooter along the torn-up road and past dump trunks, cement trucks, and loaders. Then as I was pulling away on good road again, a man in his twenties pulled up beside me on his scooter. He had been driving behind me honking his horn. I thought he was just signaling me that he was going to pass me. It turned out that he wanted me to stop. I did, and after a lot of sign language, I realized that he was asking me for gas money. He was pointing to the gas gauge on his scooter (the arrow of which was pointing at E), and saying the word money in English. I was a bit taken aback. He was well-dressed. He was a young, intelligent-looking fellow. He was driving a relatively new scooter. Why would he have to wave down a passing foreigner to ask for money? I didn’t worry about it too much though. Once I figured out what he was after, I happily handed over NT$200. He thanked me several times and then drove off, presumably to get gas. I was puzzling over this encounter for a while, but I figured that giving this fellow the money could only be good karma for me.
Almost as soon as I had that thought, my scooter started to wiggle underneath me. I nearly lost control of the thing, and I pulled to a stop. I looked the scooter over, but I didn’t see anything amiss. I thought maybe I had hit a wet patch or a wavy patch of pavement. I got back on and started moving. Then when I picked up speed, the scooter did the same thing and I nearly crashed again. Then my brain kicked in and I realized I had a flat rear tire.
I wasn’t too pleased about that. It felt like my day was pretty much over. I had been exploring for hours, and I was mentally already back in my room at the hostel sipping on a hot cup of coffee after a refreshing shower. Being stuck out in the mountains with a flat tire was not an appealing prospect. I wondered where all my good karma had gone.
Luckily – very, very luckily – I was out of the worst of the empty wilderness around Lijia, and my scooter had gone all wonky right on a corner with some buildings on it. And in the driveway of the buildings were two of the blue trucks of death – both of them easily big enough to transport me and my scooter to the nearest town if need be.
I rolled my scooter across the highway and then down the short distance to this cluster of buildings. Two black watchdogs started barking at me. One of them was chained, but the other one was free to come out and get close to me. I have this thing where I mostly ignore barking dogs. I assume they don’t mean me any harm, and I have the idea that by confronting them, I just make them more likely to attack. So I usually just ignore them and go about my business. In turns out that isn’t always the right strategy. I turned my back on this dog and kept pushing the scooter, which gave him the chance to sneak up on me and bite me in the thigh. I wondered, again, where my karma had gone. Is this what I get for my NT$200? A flat tire and a dog bite?
Still, there are always different ways of looking at things. Sure, it was bad luck that I got a flat tire. But, to be honest, considering the roads I had been driving on for three days, it was good luck that I’d had only one flat tire. And it was even better luck that when I got the flat tire, I just happened to be right in front of a house. I had been miles from anywhere, and a flat tire at any other time could have been a real problem.
As for the dog bite, well, sure it was bad luck that a big, black dog ran up behind me and bit me on the thigh. But it could have been a lot worse. He could have bitten me on the calf where there was no clothing. By biting me on the thigh, he got a mouthful of shorts and not much else. To be honest, I think he did that on purpose. He was biting my pants more than biting me. In any event, though I felt his teeth on my flesh, he didn’t really bite me. He was just tugging on my shorts more than anything. Good luck? Bad luck? I’ll go with good, especially when you consider how the story ends.
Right after the dog tugged on my pants, a man came out of the buildings and yelled at the dogs. I went up to him and with sign language tried to get him to understand my problem. He didn’t get it, and he waved at me to follow him back to the house where his wife was. She didn’t speak English either, but somehow she got the message. There was a truck right there, and I pointed to the tire and made a sound like a tire losing air and then indicated driving a motorcycle. She understood instantly and spoke to her husband. This angel of mercy took about five seconds to climb into his blue truck and start it up. I wasn’t sure exactly what the plan was, but I liked where it was heading. He backed his blue truck of death right up to my scooter and then lowered the tailgate. Together, we picked up the scooter and hoisted it into the back one end at a time. Then he tied it down expertly with some rope, and within perhaps fifteen minutes of getting a flat tire, I was in the cab of a blue truck with my scooter in the back heading toward a repair shop. If THAT isn’t good karma, I don’t know what is.
It turned out that I was much closer to Shihjhuo than I realized. I thought it was another 20 kilometers away, but I’d misread the road signs, and we were there very quickly. My truck guy had to ask at one place about a repair shop that was open on Sunday, and in a minute or two we were there and unloading the scooter. I tried to pay him for his trouble, but he waved off my money firmly, smiled, hopped back into his truck, and drove away.
The repair of the flat tire was equally painless. I thought the tire would have to come off and there would be complications, but the guy, after locating the hole in the tire, simply made the hole bigger and more regular with a screw-like tool. Then with another tool, he inserted a long plug that, for all the world, looked like a piece of beef jerky. He stuck it in there, cut off a bit that was sticking out, and that was it. I didn’t trust the repair job, but he said it was fine and good to go. So I drove off. I guess this beef jerky is magical beef jerky and will somehow plug the hole, and with the wheel going around and around kind of get stuck in there and make a permanent seal.
My trip to the northern Tsou villages was at an end. It had been a fascinating and enjoyable day. I didn’t crash when my wheel hit the slippery moss on the road. A white guide dog saw me safely along a trail. I wasn’t clunked on the head by a rock from the waterfall. I saw some fantastic mountain scenery including gorgeous tea plantations. And, finally, a Good Samaritan got my flat tire fixed in minutes. I’ve been talking a lot lately about travel magic. Every trip I’ve gone on from my bike ride out of Tainan, to my Palawan trip, to my most recent trip to Bitou Cape and Londongwan has been touched my magic. And this trip was no exception.
[slickr-flickr tag=”Alishan Trip Blog 3″ sort=”date” items=”50″ type=”galleria” orientation=”portrait” align=”center”]
Tags: Alishan Trip