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Asia travel

Get away from it all on Taiwan’s east coast – hot springs, fried flowers, indigenous villages, and mountains

We visit Taimali Township, travel the Flower Route and eat fried daylilies, ascend Kinchen Mountain and watch the fishing boats come in at Sanhe in the last of our three-part series on the east coast of Taiwan

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 January, 2018, 6:15pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 January, 2018, 7:11pm

It’s a midweek afternoon, and a few local men are having a barbecue on the long Taimali Beach in Taiwan’s Taitung County. My friend and I have stumbled across them on our third and final stretch of our trip exploring the country’s less trodden east coast – following a stop in Doulan and Green Island.

Taimali Township, a collection of rural villages, sits along an expanse of high-cliff coastline, by the winding Number 9 highway, with a huge expanse of soft black sand below. Word has it swimming is banned here due to a voracious undertow.

The men are sheltered from an early winter wind in a thicket of palms. A good amount of a bottle of kaoliang winer has already been drunk, and they are red-faced and in good humour.

“People aren’t supposed to swim here,” says the one manning the grill, handing us a piece of freshly cooked pork, “but sometimes they still do.” We stay for a while, making small talk, listening to the waves crash on the shore, then – deciding not to chance the water – continue on our way.

We head on a scooter for Taihe Village, a few kilometres south. From in front of Taimali train station, visitors can watch the sun rise over the eastern horizon.

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A twenty-something solo traveller from Hong Kong, Samuel, is there already, taking in the surroundings.

From the station we head for mountain road 6, punishing our 50cc scooter on the incline towards the aboriginal village of Xin Xing. No more than a few kilometres out of Taihe, with its chain dumpling restaurants and convenience stores, these indigenous mountain settlements offer a taste of what was one of the first cultures to call this island home. After nearly being wiped out by colonialism, it is slowly being revived.

Xin Xing has aboriginal art, souvenir stores, and cafes featuring tribal cuisine, along with cultural markers and performance centres. But signs of activity are few, the only people we come across were an elderly wheelchair-bound couple who smile at our basic small talk in Mandarin.

My scooter would never make it up Kinchen Mountain, where we want to tour the Flower Route, lined with daylily farms to the north west of Xin Xing.With the help of a local driver we head higher into the hills the following day. As the road winds its way slowly up, passing 1,000 metres, we stop occasionally for the views over the whole of Taimali Township. Taitung City is visible to the north, and we can see Green Island far offshore.

The mountains, once a harsh place to eke out a living for farmers, are now a tourist destination, especially during daylily season, from July to September.

A cafe owner tells us he sees just a handful of faces a day, stopping in for some deep fried flower petals or a latte while enjoying the view of the riverbed far below. The Kinchen oolong tea is crisp and cool, the petals are packed in bags at small roadside stands manned by friendly locals. The weather is fine, the skies are clear and temperatures are in the high 20s.

We go as high as Shuang Ru Peak at 1,340 metres, where tea trees thrive in the cooler air. There are majestic views of the sun-kissed coast and the steep green valleys to the west.

It’s a slow drive back down the hairpin mountain road, and another 10 kilometres from Taihe Village to the neighbouring community of Jinlun, a small coastal town at the wide, dry mouth of a river of the same name. In town, we turn inland toward the green foothills, heading for the red steel bridge and the hot springs.

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Beside the river, in exposed areas of soft clay amid the smooth rocks, locals and tourists have dug pits to hold the natural spring waters. The clear, mineral rich liquid is comfortably warm, the sediment soft underfoot. Upriver, beyond the broken footbridge, there are deeper natural pools. Downriver, in town, the waters feed the many hot spring hotels and B&Bs, but this is an experience best enjoyed in the open air.

We spend Friday morning back on the beach in Sanhe. Fishing nets are being gathered and emptied. There is no port here, the drop-off is too steep and the waves too big, says a restaurateur from up Kinchen Mountain who, along with various other chefs, housewives, and locals, have come to watch the catch come in, eager to get the best buys at the morning fish market. The market here happens sporadically, at the whim of the weather and sea conditions.

“If the waves are too big, the boats can’t come in,” says the restaurateur, smiling at the prospect of what he has been told is a great haul of fish.

The small plastic raft, little more than curved pieces of heavy PVC mounted with an outboard motor, races ashore, the crew jumping off the craft and sprinting onto the beach to attach a rope to a waiting tow truck that drags the raft the rest of the way up the beach. The locals gather for a glimpse of the blue and orange plastic tubs filled to the brim with fish, but those are quickly loaded onto the truck and sped off to the nearby market in Sanhe.

The market is a noisy place, men and women shouting over one another, searching among the tubs of fish, looking for the best price. Barracuda, small hammerhead sharks, even a giant, flopping stingray, thousands of kilos of are bought in minutes, bound for restaurant, B&B, and home kitchens around Taimali. Meanwhile, leathery fishermen sit and enjoy morning beers and pass around small bottles of kaoliang.

It’s a reminder of humankind’s clumsy lordship over the sea in a place where the economy is adapting to a time when perhaps the land and the ocean might not be so giving, or forgiving. But if the tourists come, the locals will have a way to get on in Taimali.

For now, there are still those lean months of autumn and winter when visitors are few and far between. It may not be so good for the people of this township, but for the traveller looking to avoid the masses, though, it is a welcome chance to walk the beaten path as though it were still far from the madding crowd.

Getting there

From Taitung railway station, trains run hourly between the city and Taimali Township, the 23 kilometre trip taking around 20 minutes. The 1778 bus also goes from Taitung to Taimali station, taking around half an hour.

Staying there

Taimali Hotel in Taihe Village is located between attractions in Jinlun and Sanhe village, a short drive down the hill from Taimali Station.