If you want to travel down Taiwan quickly, take the high speed rail down the west of the island. But if you want to witness Taiwan’s real beauty, take the slow but scenic route along the eastern coast. While most of the cities and towns are clustered along the western part of Taiwan, the true treasure is the eastern coast of the island. Lush mountains and deep blue sea are only a part of the natural beauty that draws people to venture down this coast. There’s the awe-inspiring geology of the Taroko gorge, the monkey-inhabited forests of Zhiben, not to mention the fact that it is all as bike-able as it is photogenic.
Things move a little slower here, both the pace of life and the trains. But traffic signs seem to be mere suggestions, so your chatty taxi driver will probably still get you where you need to be in record time. The towns are small. People converse in friendly Taiwanese, and everyone seems to know each other. Though much more spread out than the congested cities of Taiwan, the communities here are close and intimate. Travelers are welcomed into homes for family-style meals. Pretty soon, you become a part of the community.
The two main counties that dominate the eastern coast are Hualien and Taitung. Despite the fact that they are the largest and third largest counties (out of 13), they are the smallest in population on the main island. Hualien county is dominated by the Central and Haian mountain ranges. Only 7% of the land is actually populated. Taitung is also largely isolated by mountains. For many years, it was untouched by the urban development (and pollution) that came with the Chinese colonizers and today, it still has the highest population of aboriginal people in Taiwan.
In the mountains and forests of Hualien and Taitung counties, aboriginal villages dot the green landscape. There, visitors can find pockets of culture unique to the region. Much like the bloody history of America, the indigenous people were ostracized from dominant society for a long time. In recent years, there has been a cultural resurgence and (likely due to many A-list pop stars being of aboriginal descent) an embracing of their colorful cultures and heritages. The Amis people are the biggest indigenous group in Taiwan and have traditionally lived in the area. Today, cultural centers give visitors the chance to join the various tribes in traditional song and dance while encouraging the preservation of their identities.
The eastern counties are the perfect escape into the great outdoors. There is rich and diverse flora and fauna. There’s everything from water sports to biking to hiking to paragliding to (for those of us that aren’t so sporty) natural hot springs. It’s insanely humid. But that means orchids grow wild on the trees of the forest. And the rice grown in Taitung is famously good. There’s jackfruit the size of a third-grader. Even the major cultural events celebrate the outdoors. There’s music festivals in Hualien, and a famous hot air balloon festival in Taitung. Everything still feels pure and pristine, untouched by mainstream tourism.
I had the opportunity to live in Taitung for a few weeks back in high school. I taught English at Ren Ai Elementary School in Taitung along with a few other volunteers from the US. We stayed with local hosts, and toured the county with their families on the weekend. I was seventeen, a city girl only beginning to discover that nature could be fun with a camera. I hadn’t really traveled yet. And sadly, I didn’t truly appreciate the invaluable experience of living and learning with welcoming locals.
They took us everywhere from an hour north to an hour south, from the top of a mountain to the oceanfront. They introduced us to dozens of unique plants (that all looked about the same to me…), and took us to a farm to have fresh jackfruit (and when we didn’t care for it so much, took us to a family-owned grocery store to have jackfruit ice cream and homemade grass jelly instead). We visited a European baker who opened up shop in Taitung, of all places. And had an interesting experience meeting the (rather aggressive) monkeys that lived in the forests. We even went (to my horror) to a fish market and saw bloodied up fish fresh off the boats measured and arranged on the slimy floor for auction. Our guides told us that the interesting geology in Xiaoyeliu were called “tofu stone” because of the resemblance to squares of tofu. They explained the (spoiler alert!) optical illusion of the “water running up” phenomenon. They even took us to a fertility shrine (read: large stone penis sculpture).
All of these memories have nearly faded away. I haven’t been to that part of Taiwan since, and I don’t think about it often. But when I dug up photos (sadly, only a portion could be found – I was not a very organized 11th grader…), everything came flooding back. It was like I was looking through photographs of a forgotten dream. And when I started remembering more and more, I realized how much our hosts poured their hearts into developing the itineraries, making reservations, renting a bus to charter us around. I want more than anything to go back and say thank you. We were ungrateful teenagers, undeserving of such a genuine and pure experience. But I think deep down they know that despite all of our grumbles and scowls, they touched each of our hearts. And I can only hope we touched theirs.
The next year, in the summer of 2012, I visited Taiwan with my family. We decided to take a trip within a trip and headed to Hualien through a Taiwanese tour company. We boarded a themed train and chugged our way through the scenic coast. This was my first time seeing the coast from a train (I had flown from Taipei to Taitung last year - ain’t nobody got time for a 6hr train ride when it’s a 40 min plane ride!), and I finally understood why the trains were in no rush. The journey was a destination in itself!
Once we were there, a small van took us and a few other tourists around to key attractions. The most important of which, of course, was Taroko Park. A humbling feat of nature that draws way too many tour groups for it’s own good.
The experience was charming as a whole. Our guide provided (on top of history and fun facts) friendly political commentary as he chartered us from one stop to another. We had a personal tour on the last day, where the guy basically took us wherever he felt like. He even stopped at the side of a road to show us a leaf with a huge green grasshopper-like thing on it. We met a couple on a farm who were absolutely tickled to meet people who lived in America (and baffled as to why we didn’t look “American” aka “golden haired"). I will admit that the short trip left me wanting more, but all the more reason to go back! Next time there's no need for tours - just a great Airbnb and a reliably knowledgable taxi driver.
There’s no easy way to discovering the oasis of Taiwan’s eastern coast. Public transportation is spotty, few people know English, and nothing is really close to each other. But if you keep an open mind and heart, it’ll prove its worth a hundred times over!
Given that my own itineraries are rather dated, here are some resources to get started on planning your adventure.
Resources for exploring Taiwan's Eastern Coast
- Taroko Park A national park containing the marble gorge of the same name carved over millions of years by the Liwu River. Great for hiking and rafting during the summers.
- Chilaibi Lighthouse Located north of the Hualien Environmental Park, this lighthouse is a photogenic addition to the Hualien coast.
- Cisingtan Beach and Katsuo Museum Also known as "Seven Star Bay," this scenic area offers sweeping views of the coast and mountains. The museum used to be a bonito (katsuobushi) factory, and celebrates the history of that industry.
- Nanbin Park Another waterfront park, great for recreational biking.
- Lintienshan Forestry Culture Park What is now a cultural park and museum used to be a timber processing area during the Japanese era.
- Liyu Lake A large lake with surrounding park, good for family-friendly recreational activities, like the swan pedal boats.
- Yoshiko 793 A Japanese style Buddhist shrine from the early 20th century.
- Pine Garden A former Japanese military office located in a pine forest that has now been converted to a cultural center.
- Hualien County Stone Sculpture Museum A museum that exhibits stone sculptures and celebrates the local tradition of stone art. Nearby, there is a stone art market full of boutiques selling locally crafted stoneware and sculptures.
- Walami Trail A long (but easy) trail that leads through lush forest and the Shanfeng Waterfall.
- Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation The headquarters of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation that leads humanitarian efforts around the world.
- Baiqi Lookout It's like the Big Sur of Taiwan, and this is the place to take that postcard-worthy photo.
- Xiaoyeliu A scenic coastal park with unique geological formations.
- Water running upwards A fun attraction with water that seemingly flows against gravity.
- Xingang Fish Port - A local fish market, right on the dock. Not good for vegetarians...or anyone who can't stand the stench of fish.
- Guanshan Riverside Park - A large park with rental bikes and a scenic biking route.
- Chenggong fish port and the Anemone Museum A sea-side village with a fishing port and quaint aquarium/museum nearby.
- Taitung Forest Park Another beautiful scenic park for easy hiking and exploring the flora.
- Shiyushan and the fertility shrine - You've been given fair warning: it's phallic, and probably not the best to bring the whole family.
- Jialulan - A waterfront park with a bunch of large sculptures made from recycled wood and other materials. A fun place for group photos.
- Sanxiantai An iconic eight-arch footbridge leading to a small island.
- Amis Folk Center and the Doulihu Tourist Center - A cultural center for the Amis tribe surrounded by a scenic area. A great place to experience the Amis culture with performances and traditional activities.
- Taimali mountain This mountain is known for the goldenrod lilies that bloom there. These flowers are edible and often included in the local cuisine.
- Zhiben hot springs Natural hot springs, great for relaxing after a day of hiking.
- Zhiben forest Another forest park, with great wildlife in addition to not-so-great monkeys.
- Luye highlands (hot air balloons) Home to the famous hot air balloon festival in the summers, in addition to other recreational activities throughout the year.
- Bunong Village Center A cultural center for learning about the Bunun heritage.
- Yuansen Botanical Gardens A garden that specializes in medicinal herbs and offers educational tours, as well as a restaurant and center that sells herbal products.
- Sengmu health farm A small local organic farm and restaurant.
6 things to do in Jiufen
Located northeast of Taipei, Jiufen (九份) is a favorite weekend trip for locals and tourists alike. The historic mountain village grew into a busy town during Japanese colonization, largely due to gold mining. Today, it is a th ...
Split from above and below: the tower and cellars of Diocletian’s Palace
All too soon, I was back in sleepy Split. I spent a full day in bed after getting back from Italy, catching up on work and sleep. The gloomy weather was conducive to laziness. Plus, there was a lot of planning to do for the next w ...