Sunday, 27 September 2020

The enduring beauty of Taiwan’s majestic mountains

Watch: A Seediq weaver sings; the dramatic beauty of Taiwan.

The rhythmic thudding of Kong-Ba’s walking stick on the earthen trail stops abruptly. I freeze in place. Without the swishing of Gore-Tex trekking clothes, the fresh mountain air fills with the symphony of nature. With birdsong, wild and alive, emerging from deep within the thick pine forest. With a faraway stream cascading down the 3,000-metre mass we are scaling. With the wind tickling leaves on squat bamboo shoots that line the path. Kong-Ba points his hand-carved pole down the trail and a broad grin spreads towards his ears. Ravine-deep smile lines run from the corners of his eyes. The wrinkles are a record of the many joys the 68-year-old has experienced here on Nenggao Mountain.

To the right of the trail, the land falls steeply downward. Two gargantuan, gnarled hemlock trees sprout up from the slope. Their metres-wide trunks frame a stunning vista of Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range. To the left of the trail, not more than 10 paces ahead of Kong-Ba’s staff, a large midnight-blue shape emerges from the bamboo thicket. The majestic Mikado pheasant – named for an emperor of Japan – is Taiwan’s most revered bird. Depicted on every NT$1,000 bill, the creature is rarely spotted in the wilderness. As I admire the terrestrial bird’s long, striped tail feathers and bright red head, I see it’s not alone. His mate, a dusty brown but no less elegant female, steps into the early morning sunlight.

Nenggao Mountain’s stunning and jagged peak

With 268 peaks over 3,000 metres tall, Taiwan is a Shangri-La for mountain-lovers. The island’s five major ranges were formed by a tectonic collision between the Philippine Sea Plate and the Eurasian Plate, then carved into dramatic spires and cavernous gorges by fierce typhoons, frequent earthquakes and fast-moving rivers.

Every few hundred metres of elevation, there’s a new ecosystem. Subtropical woodlands turn into conifer forests and then into fields of alpine wildflowers on rolling ridgelines. Left untouched since a 1991 ban on logging, the timberlands are home to petite deer, giant flying squirrels and the beloved but elusive Formosan black bear. In less than an hour, climbers can drive from Taiwan’s coastal cities of Kaohsiung, Taitung and Taichung to these grand highlands.

The government has designated 2020 the “Year of Mountain Tourism”. In the past, restrictive zoning and a byzantine system of permits once made many of the peaks difficult to access for casual trekkers, but “now, we’ve opened all the mountains to the public,” says Trust HJ Lin, director at the Taiwan Tourism Bureau. “We have a website that you can check for permits and mountain lodge availability. And we are investing NT$700 million to renovate facilities and provide cell phone service in high-mountain areas.”

The government has also composed a four-year budget of NT$700 million (US$24 million) to refurbish or rebuild existing cabins and enhance cellular service in alpine areas. What’s more, foreigners have the benefit of applying in advance, allowing them a higher chance of securing lodge accommodation. Permits and planning can still be complicated, but overall, things are looking up for mountaineering on the isle.

A bridge over the forest at the Nenggao Cross-Ridge Historical Trail

James Huang has elfin features and a boyish zeal for Taiwan’s mountain cultures. The 41-year-old manager of Ecotour Taiwan, formerly an ecology researcher, is my translator and hiking buddy for the next three days. “If we eat locally, and we sleep in the local area, and we enjoy the atmosphere like the local people, we can create special memories,” he enthuses as a van whisks us up winding rural roads from the metropolis of Taichung into the rural foothills of the Central Mountain Range.

If we eat locally, and we sleep in the local area, and we enjoy the atmosphere like the local people, we can create special memories

Ecotour Taiwan’s holistic approach makes it an appealing agency to go through during the Year of Mountain Tourism, and their Nenggao Cross-Ridge Historical Trail Tour promises to be the ultimate example of their sustainable sightseeing ethos. The tour is led by Kong-Ba – or “Father Kong” – a local Seediq elder who has spent more than 50 years hunting, singing and dancing in these mountains. He’s joined by HC Chien, an internationally trained outdoorsman who is here to oversee health and safety.

Traversing the mountain while taking in the gorgeous scenery

My first day is spent visiting Seediq villages in the Ren’ai Township, located just over an hour by van east of Taichung. One of Taiwan’s 16 recognised Austronesian tribes, the Seediq were known at one point for exquisite facial tattoos and feared for their tendency to behead enemies. Today, they only number about 10,000 tribespeople.

As with many indigenous cultures, their way of life is disappearing. The oldest members speak only Seediq, an unwritten language that carries their stories and traditions; the youngest only speak Mandarin, the language of coastal colleges and city jobs. The tourism stops on this tour are seen as possible saviours of their culture.

One such enterprise is the workshop of Mama Chang, an 87-year-old weaver and the self-described “number-one preserver of Seediq culture”. She greets my group at the door with a boisterous “Maloosoo!” (“How are you?”). Coins sewn onto her dress jingle as she swaggers inside to demonstrate traditional weaving techniques.

“You have to be very smart to come up with these patterns,” she brags. A radiant smile never leaves her proud face, except when she poses for photos or sings a song describing how to be a good Seediq woman. It’s her own composition, which she performs while playing a 100-year-old lubu (mouth harp) gifted from her mother.

Here, we serve real indigenous foods, make real indigenous crafts and tell real indigenous stories

We are the first foreign tourists to experience the Nenggao Historical Cross-Ridge Trail Tour, so small groups of Seediq villagers welcome us warmly at each stop. They dress me in a handwoven bada, their traditional costume, and serve me traditional dishes cooked over open fires: barking-deer soup, salt-cured boar, wild mountain vegetables and strong home-brewed millet wine. “Outside the village, in a modern supermarket, they’ll claim to serve indigenous food and drink,” Kong-Ba laments. “Here, we serve real indigenous foods, make real indigenous crafts and tell real indigenous stories.” His hands – thick with muscle and calluses from years of hunting – move dramatically as he speaks.

A Seediq weaver making traditional costumes at Ren’ai Township

At night, we stay at a small B&B owned by a Seediq couple. The wife, Lisa, prepares a huge assortment of snacks as her husband, Bilin, brews endless pots of local oolong tea. A retired cop, he claims his name translates as “hero”; Lisa lovingly jokes that it actually means “booze-hound”. She laughs when the group’s tea-drinking predictably becomes whisky sipping. Soon, the men are all playing with bows and arrows, carved by Bilin, who competes at traditional archery. Never mind that the mountain sky is full of stars and that tomorrow’s long hike demands an early start.

Not long past dawn, we find ourselves perched on an outcrop above a deep valley. The trailhead is a 25-minute drive from the tribal hot spring town of Lushan, up Provincial Highway 14. “The mountain spirits can see you in this open space,” Kong-Ba says as he hands me a glass of millet wine. Our fellowship faces east, and our guide begins to speak in Seediq, asking the ancestors for permission to enter their land. I stare out at a glorious panorama of natural mountains shaped like pyramids. The morning sky paints their silhouettes in shades of purple. A low mist flows between them. Kong-Ba’s incantation ends. And I drink.

Taiwan boast 268 peaks that stand at over 3,000 metres tall

From time immemorable, the Nenggao Cross-Ridge Historical Trail has been the main conduit for the Seediq people, who live on both sides of the Taiwan’s central spine of mountains. “The trail was used for trade, marriage alliances and access to our traditional hunting grounds,” Kong-Ba explains as we start climbing the gravel-and-dirt path. “If the trail stopped existing, I think the Seediq culture would, too.”

Kong-Ba keeps a steady pace at the head of the group. His backpack is huge, twice the size of anyone else’s. Its weight is balanced by a healthy paunch that hangs over the front of his belt but doesn’t wobble. He has a sturdy frame, made strong through decades of hauling timber and water deer carcasses over these mountains. Heavy silver necklaces swing in time with his feet as he nimbly dances along precarious ledges and across swaying rope bridges. On steep climbs, he holds his left hip and exhales heavily, the only signs of his advancing age.

We don’t go into the mountains enough anymore. We’re forgetting our culture

He knows every millimetre of the trail and stops often to point at vegetation: trees for building houses, for fertilising farmland or for making axe handles or bows. “This stinging plant is called Biting Cats,” Kong-Ba warns as he points to a shrub. “Sometimes we punish our children with that,” he says with a laugh. “But it doesn’t hurt them. Seediq people are strong.” Later, his face turns sad when he realises that he doesn’t remember the name for a squishy plant stem that quenches thirst when streams run dry. “Even I’m forgetting Seediq words,” he says. “We don’t go into the mountains enough anymore. We’re forgetting our culture.”

Kong-Ba, who knows the route like the back of his hand, at the Nenggao Cross-Ridge Historical Trail

The route continues for nearly 14 kilometres. Along the way, Kong-Ba shows me where to set traps to catch flying squirrels and wild boar. He points out fresh mountain goat tracks left in the debris of a landslide. He uses a curved, menacing knife to cut and carve a walking stick from a tree. And he recites hunting myths and real-life tales about daring rescues after deadly landslides. His guidance makes this unlike any trek I’ve taken before – the landscape’s magnificence is fully revealed through Kong-Ba’s words.

“You can see scenic views all over the world,” HC says. “But what makes Taiwan different is its indigenous people. Their culture and connection to this land is why our mountains are unique.”

HC Chien hiking up the Nenggao Cross-Ridge Historical Trail

As day turns to dusk, the once-blue sky begins to groan with thunder. James smiles and shouts, “I’m so happy to hear spring’s first thunder in this place!” as he pulls a waterproof cover from his backpack. The start of the rainy season is a time for farmers to celebrate. But I am less than jubilant as drops start seeping into my trail wear. At almost 3,000 metres in elevation, the air is frigid, so I sprint the last stretch to Tianchi Lodge, our shelter for the night. I even rush past a soaring waterfall, where tomorrow we’ll linger for a long while, basking on a rock and enjoying that blissful state that can only be experienced next to a massive cascade. Looking back as I run, I see Kong-Ba bemused by my delicateness. He carries on at his steady pace, sometimes stopping to admire nature’s small gifts along the path.

The next day, at sunrise, we hike up to the ridgeline to see the Pacific Ocean to the east before turning back to descend the trail. The morning walk offers magical encounters with Mikado pheasants, golden weasels and swarms of butterflies. But the 30-kilometre, two-day trek also brings with it tight thighs, aching feet and shoulders sore from an over-packed rucksack. Thankfully, a cure awaits in the valley below.

Pink cherry blossoms in bloom at Ren’ai Township

Located in the tribal village of Lushan, Sakus (named after the area’s former camphor forest) is the exact opposite of a luxury spa. Here, the hot springs are carved directly into the mountain. The family business doesn’t appear on TripAdvisor and is free from all pretence. The accommodation comprises tiny bungalows or guests’ own tents pitched adjacent to private pools.

James, HC and I soak our weary bodies in the soothing water of one of Sakus’ concrete tubs. Refreshed, we’re then smothered in the family’s hospitality. The father gives us a hands-on lesson in building different types of animal traps. His son handily beats me in an impromptu archery competition. His sister introduces her pet dog. And their mother prepares an elaborate teatime with a vast array of sweet and savoury treats sourced from the village’s small farms and from the surrounding hills. The meal is twice as tasty and made with a million times more love than anything served at a high-end resort.

A delicious local Seediq meal

I sip black tea and snack on pineapple cakes, taro balls and thick slices of bread loaded with blueberries. The table fills with mirth as family members gently tease each other… and us – their newfound friends. “All the indigenous are optimistic,” Kong-Ba laughs. “The first-time people meet us, they might think we’re standoffish. But the second time, we become a friend. And the third time, we’ll be your best friend and share anything we have.”

The first-time people meet us, they might think we’re standoffish. But the second time, we become a friend. And the third time, we’ll be your best friend and share anything we have

The Year of Mountain Tourism gives Kong-Ba, Mama Chang, Bilin and Lisa, and the Sakus family hope that more visitors will come to discover Seediq culture. “Mountain trekkers don’t have to be just passengers who pass through our villages on the way to a hike,” Kong-Ba says. “They can become our friends. They can give us a chance to transform our lives, turning our villagers from farmers into hosts.”

Preparing to leave, I find myself laden with gifts: dried mushrooms, green tea and a Nenggao Cross-Ridge Trail Ecotourism Association hat, proof I’ve conquered the hike. I embrace Kong-Ba – my guide, my teacher, my new friend – before lifting my backpack one last time. Everyone gathers around my van to wave goodbye as I depart for the high-speed train to Taichung. As I leave the valley, I watch Kong-Ba’s wide grin disappear into the distance.

Luxury resorts to stay at in Taiwan

The tranquil HOSHINOYA Guguan offers stellar views of the mountain scenery


Probably Taiwan’s most opulent hotel – and its most expensive – the über-exclusive HOSHINOYA Guguan brings high-concept ryokan culture to a mountain hot-spring town located beyond Taichung’s urban sprawl. Opened in June 2019, the resort has maze-like landscaping that eschews straight lines and right angles to inspire a sense of zen. Water features flow throughout, fed by a nearby waterfall. The almost-obsessive attention to detail extends from the hotel’s design to its service. Look away for a moment, and you’ll turn back to notice your glass filled, your napkin folded, or your slippers realigned. Each room features its own private hot spring, but for the best experience, head to the onsen and luxuriate in mountain-fresh water as cherry blossoms fall gently from the trees above.

The Da An Suite at the Kimpton Da An Hotel features a chic minimalist design

Kimpton Da An Hotel

Located in Taipei’s trendiest neighbourhood, the year-old Kimpton Da An is the type of chic boutique the city has long been missing. Created by renowned designers Neri&Hu, the property combines a minimalist aesthetic with local motifs. Take note of the subtle tilework, the Chinese Garden (complete with a waterfall) and calming, jade-green paint in the guest rooms. Take one of the hotel’s cute custom bikes for a ride or ask the concierge for hiking tips. In the evening, grab a tipple at the make-your-own cocktail bar or ask the concierge where to find the city’s hottest nearby speakeasy. The hotel – Kimpton’s first in Asia – is even pet-friendly (a rarity in Taipei’s luxury segment), so your four-legged trekking buddy can enjoy the laidback luxury, too.

This trip (and all photography) was undertaken before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For more information and travel advisories, please visit Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website.

SEE ALSO: The stunning boutique hotels of Sri Lanka’s Ahangama

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