Into the badlands of southern Taiwan

Exploring the Badlands of Southern Taiwan

The badlands of Taiwan are one of the nation’s most captivating and unusual landscapes. There are several scattered around the island but the most extensive badlands can be found along the hilly borderlands of Tainan 台南 and Kaohsiung 高雄. Known locally to Taiwanese as Yuèshìjiè 月世界, literally “moon world”, these landscapes are composed of weathered mudstone outcrops that erode too quickly for plants to grow.

Sundown in the badlands
Sundown in the badlands of southern Taiwan.
An overgrown traditional home in rural Tianliao
This traditional home on the edge of the badlands is slowly become part of the landscape.
A traditional home on the border between Tainan and Kaohsiung
Another more recently abandoned traditional home in the outer badlands.

Unlike the fertile plains to the west these hills are sparsely populated. There are fewer ways to exploit the land and earn an income up here. Some residents grow fruit in small orchards, others keep chickens and pigs behind wire fences along the roadside, but most back country roads are almost completely empty. I saw many homes abandoned to the elements and few people in my travels through the backcountry of the badlands.

A broken road through the badlands of Taiwan
Many of the roads running along the ridges are in poor condition, likely due to land subsidence.
An alien country
The view from the 308 highlands.

Michael Turton and Richard Saunders have both published more in-depth summaries of the physical geography of these landscapes if you’re interested in learning more. The only detail I will emphasize is the fact that the underlying geological formation, known in Chinese as Gǔtíngkēng 古亭坑, is also associated with the mud springs of Guanziling (to the north) as well as many mud volcanoes across the region, the most impressive of which can be found further south at Wūshāndǐng 烏山頂.

The badlands of southern Taiwan
Exposed mudstone in Zuozhen Township.
An old mud brick home in backcountry Tainan
An old mud brick home in the badlands.
Deep in the bamboo forest
Deep in the bamboo forest in the midst of the badlands. The sound of bamboo creaking in the wind is unique.

From what I’ve read most badlands are found in arid or temperate regions, making the Taiwanese badlands quite unusual. Nowhere else in the tropics will you find the same combination of weathering and geology. Look closely and you’ll see that slope and aspect (which way the slope is facing) play a critical role in determining the distribution of vegetation in these badlands. Slopes that receive more sunlight on average are more likely to be bare. Extensive bamboo forests have colonized the sandy flatlands between mudstone outcrops. The eerie sound of bamboo creaking and rustling in the wind is not one I will soon forget.

The modest badlands of Taiwan
A farmer’s road running in front of the badlands in Tianliao, Kaohsiung.
Deeper into the badlands
The view from Kaohsiung highway 39-1.
Into the badlands of southern Taiwan
Another view of the badlands landscape in Tianliao.
Cycling through the badlands of Taiwan
A closer look at the badlands in rural Tianliao.
The surface of the moon
The badlands within the grounds of the actual Tianliao Moon World attraction.

These photographs were collected on two separate trips, one on scooter and another on bicycle, through the badlands of Cǎoshān 草山月世界 in Zuǒzhèn 左鎮 and those of Tiánliáo 田寮, formally known as Tianliao Moon World 田寮月世界. Neither are particularly accessible by public transportation; you’ll need your own wheels to get around and make the most of a day trip out to explore these alien lands.