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Escape to Yilan


2005-12-09 / Taiwan News, Contributing Writer / By Mark Caltonhill

Although Yilan is little more than a stone's throw southeastward across the hills from Taipei, it could almost be a separate country. This "country" of 2,143 square kilometers and 460,000 inhabitants is one with which people in the capital are largely unfamiliar. Most know it as "the onion county," as the home of smoked duck meat and steaming hot springs, or for the annual children's festival and the people's peculiar pronunciations.

Lanyang River
Cilan, about a 50km-drive up the
Lanyang River, is famous for its
multitude of flowers.
/Taiwan News

All this is about to change, however. Sometime soon-current estimates range from spring through December-the newly built Taipei-Yilan Freeway will open and cut travel times from around two hours to perhaps as little as 40 minutes. This has required the drilling of a series of tunnels through the very hills that created Yilan's isolation in the first place. These include the Syueshan Tunnel which, at 12.5km, is Asia's longest road tunnel.

Once business commuters, second-homers, weekend vacationers and foreign tourists start streaming into this largely untouched county, its unique culture will be threatened with dilution or, more likely, will be reprocessed and reinvented for consumption like those of so many other places.

Ten things you might not know about Yilan

What ,then, are the features of this "unique culture" and which places around the county are worthy of tourists' attention?

An inquiry sent to Yilan County's Information Office was met with silence followed by the suggestion to "look on the Internet." Better than that, however, was to take a last journey down the winding coastal road.

1. Surfers' paradise

The first surprise came just minutes after crossing the county line just south of Taipei County's Fulong Township. Little more than a smudge on the map, Dasi turns out to be a hive of surfing activity. Temporary huts on the beach offer equipment rental and class registration, there is a surf shop further down the road and, even on a cool autumn day, dozens of surfers line up to catch the next decent wave.

2. "First Town" ...

Eventually the hills that have been hugging the coast pull back and the Yilan Plain begins. The first town encountered is Toucheng, which means appropriately "first town," not because of its geographic location but, rather, its chronological importance as the first township established in the area by immigrant Han Chinese.

It is most famous today for the "qiang gu" (grappling with ghosts) ceremony held during the seventh lunar month in which teams of young local men compete to climb greased tree trunks and then bamboo trellises to reach flags erected a hundred-plus feet in the air. Winners take home prizes of cash and goods provided by sponsors, and sell the flags to fishermen for spiritual protection over the coming twelve months.

3. ... and the roundest city

Yilan City might not be the county's oldest town but it is claimed to have been the most circular in the whole of Taiwan. Originally called Gamalan after the local Aboriginal people (now recognized as the Kavalan), from which the "lan" part of Yilan was derived in 1875, its construction was begun in 1810. This was two years before Yang Ting-li was sent to administer the area, thus making Yilan an official part of Taiwan, that is, a part of the Qing empire.

It was Yang's attention to detail that resulted in the precision with which the city walls were erected, a fact recorded to the present day in tar and brick in the circular layout of Yilan City's downtown streets.

4. Famous sons

Another, unrelated, Yang became Yilan's first "jin-shi" (successful national examination candidate) and was posted to Zhejiang Province.

Yang Shi-fang quickly returned following the death of his father, however, and became a teacher in the city. His two-story home just outside the old city wall is preserved as a museum, and the Bixia Gong temple he founded next door in 1897 is one of the city's finest. Dedicated to the Song dynasty general Yue Fei who resisted the "barbarian" Jin who were invading from the north, it was Yang's way of encouraging his compatriots to resist the Japanese who had recently annexed Taiwan. A huge statue in the temple's courtyard depicts Yue's mother tattooing the expression "jing zhong bao guo" (serve one's country with unreserved loyalty) onto his back.

More recent Yilan sons include Yu Shyi-kun who was born to a farming family near Dongshan Township from which he rose to occupy one of the nation's most powerful positions, that of Premier, the head of Taiwan's Executive Yuan.

Yilan's county magistrate between 1981 and 1989, (at least at time of writing), Chen Ding-nan, similarly made it as high as Minister of Justice.

5. Cultural county

The Yang Shi-fang Memorial Museum established in Yang's house is just one of more than thirty museums spread throughout the county. This is perhaps an important consideration for tourists visiting a region that boasts more than 200 days of rain annually. One indication of this rainfall is the large proportion of motor scooters equipped with windshields.

Others museums cover all manner of subjects from crabs, shells and coral, to history, literature and the arts. Among the newest and grandest is the National Center for Traditional Arts, located about 20 kilometers southeast Yilan City. Combining a museum, performance spaces, shops and workshops, its main themes include puppet theater, opera, ceramic work and woodcarving.

A popular summer pastime is taking a boat between the center and Cingshuei Park, site of the annual Children's Festival.

6. Nature's bounty

A short distance south from here is the deepwater harbor of Su-ao and, of more touristic interest, just south from there is the picturesque fishing port of Nanfang-ao.

Locals and outsiders throng the wharves on weekends buying seafood straight from the boats or, for those who prefer a little processing, from stalls set up indoors. As much of this trade is in sashimi, processing often means little more than killing and filleting the fish. There are also restaurants that will cook and garnish fish bought or even caught.

The small town is also notable for its numerous temples. At least six good-sized ones are built right beside the quay. The main deities worshiped include Chenghuang the city deity, Santaizi the child-like deity but, most of all of course, Mazu the seafarers' deity.

7. Sweet flavors

Most visitors not used to local cuisine will find that while they recognize most foods on an Yilan menu, the taste is sweeter than they are used to elsewhere in Taiwan.

Yilan's own specialties include "a-hsiew" (smoked duck), "yu-wan mi-fen" (fish balls with rice noodles), and "mi-jian" (preserved and candied fruit). As everyone seems to know, Yilan is the nation's onion growing capital. Unfortunately, as the county suffers badly from the typhoons that hit Taiwan directly from the Pacific Ocean, people also know that prices can vary greatly as they have this year.

"Hong jiu," which elsewhere in Taiwan means "red wine, in Yilan means "hong-lu-jiu," a fortified rice wine flavored with "hong ju" a fungal byproduct. Sweet-toothed locals typically drink it mixed with apple-flavor soda.

It is manufactured at the Yilan branch of the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corp., which is housed in Taiwan's oldest alcohol factory. Established as a private brewery in 1909, the Japanese converted it for sake and beer production, and the post-1949 Chinese for making shaoxing wine, kaoliang liquor and birthday gifts for Chiang Kai-shek. The present buildings date from the 1920s and house an interesting visitor center; another must for rainy days.

8. Hot springs, hills and mountains

When the weather is at its worst, even those who are not crazy about hot springs will enjoy a trip to Jiaosi, 10km north of Yilan City. The town is full of hot spring hotels catering to all budgets; there are also a few free locations if locals can be persuaded to part with their locations (there is one on the main road), though caution is needed as these tend to be full of naked males.

In the foothills above Jiaosi is a series of beautiful waterfalls. The first is just a few minutes from the car park, the higher ones more distant but well worth the climb.

Yilan has also developed some high altitude farms and forestry plantations into tourist destinations. Two of the most popular are Cilan and Mingchih, both about a 50km-drive up the Lanyang River. Both are well equipped with modern simple rooms, and the surrounding area provides gentle encounters with nature. They are especially popular in winter: Cilan for its multitude of flowers and Mingchih, at an altitude of 1240 meters, for offering a rare experience of snow.

9. Historic farms and European mansions

Driving back down or, indeed, driving anywhere in rural Yilan, two special types of houses can be seen. One is a traditional farmhouse, surrounded on three and sometimes even four sides by towering stands of bamboos. Whatever their real function (perhaps as wind breaks or to provide a ready source of raw material for making tools), they bring to mind images of Han frontiers people defending themselves from besieging Aborigines whom they were in the process of displacing.

Despite the central government's recent recognition of the Kavalan Aborigines as Taiwan's 11th indigenous group, their presence in the county that still partially bears their name is negligible after two centuries of assimilation.

The second type of house is as modern as the first is traditional. Executed in one of a myriad of foreign styles, they leap off the landscape like foreign words from a page of text. Apparently this is not just a spontaneous insanity brought about by poisoned drinking water but official government policy to subsidize designers' work and beautify the countryside.

10. Weird words

Although not as unique as that spoken in some parts of the country, the Taiwanese dialect spoken in Yilan is highly distinctive, including lots of "mwee" and "swee" sounds. "Eat rice," for example, which elsewhere is pronounced "jia beng," in Yilan is "jia bwee."

This is said to reflect that around 90 percent of immigrants came from the Zhangzhou area of Fujian province, but probably has as much to do with Yilan's long isolation due to high mountains and inhospitable coastline.

The Japanese-built roads and railway were engineering feats of their time that started to end that isolation; a century later the NT$60 billion highway will take that to new lengths.

For some people, however, driving through 20 kilometers of panorama-less tunnel will never compete with the spectacular scenery of the mountain and coastal routes, even if it does take that little bit longer.