花蓮 Hua Lien: Taiwan's East Coast Envy
I've started thinking that 'key attractions' are a tourist concept and locals are less likely to have visited them. This can be said about Taiwan, my second home, until I went on a road trip to explore beyond what's routine. During this, I discovered Hua Lien (花蓮) in the East Coast.
Hua Lien has a small population with only 7% of the vast, mountainous region inhabited, and of this, many are aboriginals. The area is known in Taiwan for its breathtaking nature and for years, my relatives have recounted the same from their family trips. Yet, Hua Lien has humble origins as one of Taiwan's poorer cities. With little access to trade and faced with transportation challenges in the past, it was largely cut off. Talking to my hairdresser there, I learned the population has declined over the years with locals moving to larger cities.
As one of Taiwan's most beautiful places, tourism is a vital industry. Still, talking to the street food vendors, I sensed some anxiety. A recent drop in tourism can be attributed to stricter entry requirements for Chinese tourists under the DDP, despite them making up a large percentage of visitors.
Yet, there's something to be missed in not visiting:
Qi Xing Tan (七星潭)
We got up early to visit Qi Xing Tan beach (meaning ‘Seven Star Lake’). Shaped like a crescent, the shoreline of the pebbled beach curved gently to meet a backdrop of mountains. Thick clouds billowed over the them, sheltering clear blue seas. Quite a view for November time. Pebbles of various sizes lay touching one another, some a smooth grey, others are a medium shade with white striped patterns. There seemed to be a popular game of stone piling which left a few small towers around the beach. By the entrance, there was a sign warning visitors of a penalty for taking away stones from the beach.
Whilst we didn't get the chance, Qi Xing Tan is a good place for star gazing. The air is cleaner and skies, clearer in this area. There wasn't huge amounts to do but it was refreshing to be on an undistracted beach. No tourist merchanise huts, postcard stalls, nor swarms of people around the beach. The place was known but low key. Of course, a few street food stalls were necessary; pervasive as it is around the country. Stay around long enough and you may hear airplanes fly by with Qi Xing Tan being by Hua Lien airport.
Qingshui Cliffs (清水斷崖)
Now, I didn't expect to find something like Qingshui in Taiwan. The cliffs can be seen from the Su-Hua highway (蘇花公路) which connects Yilan (宜蘭) and Hualien. They are formed by the collision of the Phillipine and Eurasian tectonic plates and overlook the Pacific Ocean. This felt incredibly remote from the city life i’ve experienced from Taipei, Kaoshiung and Hsin Chu. The natural framing of this landscape is stunning. Head down and there is also a small beach. If you’re even more adventurous, there are kayaking tours which take place.
Taroko National Park (太魯閣國家公園)
Next, we drove to the Taroko National Park, the place Hua Lien is most famous for. The gorge valleys, up to 3500 meters high were the result of a collision of tectonic plates estimated around a few hundred million years ago which along with pressure brought marble up from sea. Over time, the marble became limestone, hence its stunning chalky grey appearance.
A family member told me many of the routes were inaccessible about 30 years ago, with stones and mountains drilled for roadways and the reconstruction into a national park as part of Taiwan's efforts in environmental protection (Taroko is one of the nine national parks in Taiwan). By the gift shop, there was a statue commemorating a construction worker who passed away from doing dangerous works on the site. Today, Hua Lien has opened up a lot more and with plans to link the high speed rail; this was perceived by locals as a huge infrastructure progress.
We saw groups of individuals wearing helmets and signs asking people to 'be careful of falling rocks'. Of course, Hua Lien is highly susceptible to earthquakes. Scour the news and you will hear of the repeated injury, including the deadly earthquake last year (not in Taroko).
We went on the Swallow Gorge trail by Taroko's entrance. The trail is named after the common Pacific swallow sightings as they fly by to catch insects around the current, and with families to feed, swallows build their nests on the rock wall.
A gorgeous, pale, turquoise stream glided over the rocky basin. We passed the tunnel and further on, spotted a rock shaped like a Red Indian Chief.
Licenses are needed to access some hiking trails and can be obtained via an online application(https://npm.cpami.gov.tw/en/apply_1_2.aspx?unit=105e956f-d8da-49f7-a9b7-3aefdda88a12). We hadn't done so and couldn't cross the suspension bridge, which would have taken us to Zhuilu Old Road mountain hike (錐麓古道). A trekker returning from his route showed us pictures, recommending the trip to seeing Taroko Gorge from above. Yet, the mountain and cliff footpaths looked very narrow so you have been warned, for those fearful of heights. Armed with hiking poles, I had the impression is was no smooth route.
Further on, we saw the Cimu (mother loving) bridge (慈母橋). Lion statues guarded each side of the bridge which stretched towards a pavilion. By evening, a mysterious, revering view was created by the dramatic landscape of mountain peaks meshed into a tired sky. I later found out the pavilion was built under early Taiwanese presidents to commemorate mothers who waited daily for their sons to return after being swept away by the river.
Taiwan’s East Coast is often overlooked in favour of its neibouring countries as first choice for naturally beautiful sites for who have never been to Asia. There's got to be a task for spreading the word. Did I ever speak of Taiwan's East Coast envy?