My last big day of riding around south Taiwan in June 2015 began in Dàwǔ 大武, Taitung 台東, with only about 55 kilometers to go before arriving in Taitung City 台東市. I had been out in the sun far too much the previous day and was feeling rather sluggish and a bit sick so I didn’t end up taking any side trips into the mountains as I made my way north. Even so, the scenery was fantastic, and while I won’t have as much to write about this particular day of my trip, I have plenty of beautiful photographs to share.
I began my day in a rundown hotel above a 7-Eleven by the side of the only major road running through this part of Taiwan 台灣. It wasn’t a very pleasant place to stay so I was quick to pack up and head out in search of a bite to eat. After breakfast I went for a quick spin around Dàwǔ 大武, a mostly Páiwān 排灣 village originally named Parongoe1. At first I followed my instincts and scoped out the area near the train station, not knowing it had only opened in 1992. On my way back to the main road I noticed the skeletal outlines of what looked to be an abandoned warehouse. I cycled over to take a closer look.
Turns out I had stumbled upon the remains of Dawu Theater 大武戲院, in operation from 1969 to 1983. Taitung 台東 was home to 36 theaters in the cinematic heyday of the 1960s and 70s, all of which are now abandoned or destroyed. Hardly anything remains after three decades of exposure that would identify Dawu Theater apart from a small sign in the antechamber. In a curious twist of fate I did not know the Chinese characters for movie theater at the time—but I would learn them the very next day after chancing upon the very last of Taitung’s old theaters. As such, I had no idea this was a theater until I went through my photos while drafting up this post a year later. At any rate, shortly after taking a peek inside this abandoned building I headed out of town to begin the first climb of the day.
Eastern Taiwan is extremely isolated from the densely-populated west coast. Previously I described how there are three road connections2 between east and west: the Central Cross-Island Highway 中部橫貫公路 and the Suhua Highway 蘇花公路—both in Hualien 花蓮, more than 200 kilometers to the north of where I was—and the South-Link Highway 南迴公路, a section of Provincial Highway 9 running over the mountains from Fāngshān 枋山 in Pingtung 屏東 to the coast of Taitung 台東 and then on to Taitung City 台東市. This post is focused entirely on this last stretch of the South-Link Highway.
Taitung 台東 south of the entrance to the Huādōng Valley 花東縱谷 (more generally known as the East Rift Valley) is an almost unbroken chain of mountains rising sharply from the sea. This coastline is punctuated at regular intervals by narrow rivers valleys filled with sediment carried down from the high mountains to the west. These alluvial plains are just about the only flat land in this part of the country and, as such, are also home to most of its human population. The highway follows the contours of this rugged coastline, dropping down to the plains, traversing rivers, passing through whatever small settlement can be found there, and then snaking along the occasionally precipitous coastal mountains again. There are several climbs on this highway but the grades are seldom challenging. And besides, the scenery is so rewarding that it hardly feels like work were it not for the blazing tropical sun.
Not long after climbing out of Dàwǔ 大武 I encountered the first of many construction zones, part of an ongoing road widening and improvement project along this segment of the South-Link Highway. I also saw many of the distinctly Taiwanese road safety dummies that are required by law. Workers waved to me as I pressed on, smiling and shouting words of encouragement: jiāyóu 加油, literally “add oil”. They probably see dozens of cyclists a day; anyone undertaking the round-the-island bicycle tour, a Taiwanese rite of passage known as the huándǎo 環島, must pass through here.
Taiwanese aborigines only account for around 2% of the population of Taiwan 台灣 but more than 33% of the population of Taitung 台東—and the aboriginal share of the population is probably even greater along this stretch of coast, which was only nominally integrated into Qing Taiwan with the establishment of Pi-lam Subprefecture 卑南廳 in 1875. Even then, I somewhat doubt many Han Chinese immigrated to this coast; most settlers opted for the fertile farmland of the rift valley to the north. If I’m not mistaken it wasn’t even until the mid-1930s, late into the Japanese colonial era, that this part of Taiwan 台灣 was even connected by road, though there was no doubt a trail running along here long before that.
Not long after crossing into Tàimálǐ 太麻里 I veered off the main road to take a closer look at Jīnlún 金崙 (traditionally Kanalung or Kanadun), a small Paiwan village famous for its hot springs. I was alert for anything interesting or unusual and open to stopping for a cold drink or quick snack but few shops seemed open. Just about the only thing that snared my attention was the distinctly aboriginal-themed Catholic Church. Many Taiwanese aborigines converted to localized forms of Christianity in the mid-20th century and churches now act as community hubs for many villages like Jinlun.
The coastline really opens up just before Taimali Creek. Here the alluvial plain is broad enough to support agriculture and a larger settlement now known as Dàwáng Village 大王村. Although this was historically Paiwan territory the population is much more mixed, a legacy of Japanese colonial resettlement programs3 that brought aboriginal people from all over Taiwan to the area, particularly members of the Ami 阿美, nowadays the most populous aboriginal group in the nation. I went to take a closer look at the center of town and captured several vintage murals that must have been painted decades ago.
Tàimálǐ 太麻里 is home to a place known in English as the Aurora Garden, though the official name is more properly translated as the Millennium Dawn Memorial Park 千禧曙光紀念園區. I was close enough to the coast to get the general idea but I was, by then, so tired that I didn’t stop to check it out. Now I am curious to find out if this park has anything to do with the aboriginal roots of the presumably Paiwan name of the district, Tjavualji (Tavalee in 19th century accounts), which, according to Wikipedia, means “sunrise village”.
While crossing the bridge that spans Wénlǐ Creek 文里溪 I stopped to take a closer look at a bundle of joss paper and incense by the roadside. Every bridge I crossed that day had a similar offering, presumably to ensure safe passage, though I could be wrong about that. I haven’t been able to ascertain whether this is a common custom, something specific to the region, or what. Suffice to say I haven’t seen this anywhere else. Just another small detail from the roads of Taiwan.
Hours after my ride began I crossed Zhīběn Creek 知本溪 and finally entered the outskirts of Taitung City 台東市, my ultimate destination for this trip, though I still had another 10 kilometers to go to reach downtown. First I made a pitstop in Zhīběn 知本 (Katipul or Katratripul and sometimes simply Tipul in 19th century western accounts), another aboriginal village, this time at the southern extent of traditional Puyuma 卑南 lands. I was somewhat amused to notice the 7-Eleven mascot dressed up in aboriginal clothing. I imagined how a similar gesture might be interpreted in my homeland of Canada. Are local people offended by such pandering or is it seen as kind of cool? I have no idea and won’t presume to answer for anyone.
The rest of the ride was smooth and uneventful. The setting sun cast long shadows across the landscape as I crossed Lìjiā Creek 利嘉溪 (Rikabung in the Puyuma language and Nickabong in 19th century accounts) and finally Tàipíng Creek 太平溪 by way of the distinctive Fēnglǐ Bridge 豐里橋. This is the very same bridge that I first crossed into Taitung City 台東市 back in 2013 in a story as yet untold on this blog. This time around I hadn’t come nearly as far—only about 320 kilometers or so from my starting point in Tainan 台南—but it was still hugely satisfying.
I found my hotel for the night, an Airbnb booking I had made earlier in the day, took a shower, and went out in search of food and drink. First I stopped at a tea shop to order something refreshing and was delighted when one of the staff struck up a friendly conversation in English, this being somewhat uncommon in my experience. I broadly described my journey thus far and was directed to a famous local eatery, Lǎodōngtái Mǐtáimù 老東台米台目, which was exactly what the doctor ordered. And with that I soon retired to my hotel for a good night’s rest. Although my trip was complete I planned to hang out and see more of Taitung City 台東市 the next day—which brings us, finally, to the epilogue for this series of posts!
- Dàwǔ 大武 also appears to be home to many Southern Ami 恆春阿美 but I haven’t had much luck looking up the details. My understanding is that the Southern Ami settled on the plains of Héngchūn 恆春 but later emigrated to the other side of the peninsula due to ongoing conflict with Chinese settlers. Anthropologists and linguists alike place the Southern Ami in a subgroup and it sounds like they’ve adopted some of the customs and culture of their Paiwan hosts. ↩
- Technically there is another road connection, the Southern Cross-Island Highway 南橫公路, which crosses the Central Mountain Range 中央山脈 from the northern part of Taitung 台東 into backcountry Kaohsiung 高雄, but this road was severely damaged by Typhoon Morakot in 2009 and much of it remains closed, a fact that isn’t even mentioned on English Wikipedia. ↩
- This is another piece of Taiwanese history that deserves more than a passing mention but if I follow every thread I’ll never publish anything. ↩