【Treasure hunters】Hidden Treasures and Meaningful Experiences/by Ami Barnes

Hidden Treasure of Asia tour

Some people love group travel, but I have never been one of them; so when I found myself taking part in the “Hidden Treasure of Asia” tour, collaboratively arranged by the Taiwan Forestry Bureau and Tripbaa, I had a sense of slight trepidation. Would I like the people? Could I handle having my days choreographed for me? I’ve lived in Taiwan for four years already, would I find the itinerary dull and repetitive? Thankfully all my worries proved to be unfounded. By the end of the all-too-short four days I had a deeper knowledge of this land that I call home and a lump in my throat at the thought of having to say goodbye to the traveling companions that I’d so quickly grown comfortable with.
Chiayi Railway Station

Day 1

The tour kicked off from Chiayi High Speed Rail Station where we were greeted by the lovely Tripbaa staff who were professional and cheerful despite the early hour. From there we swiftly made our way to Chiayi Railway Station to board the 9 o’clock train of the Alishan Forest Railway. Despite having lived here for so long, this was the very first time that I’d be riding this iconic little red train and my first time to visit the Alishan National Forest Recreation Area. The trip organizers had invited local volunteer guide Teacher Liu to accompany us on our 3-hour rail journey, and as the train rocked its way from station to station she explained the historical significance of the line, drew our attention to specific engineering features and identified some of the different plant species we could see outside the windows – more than that, she also pointed out her childhood house, reminiscing about how she used to commute from Zhuqi to Chiayi on the very same line that we were traveling on. Throughout the whole journey I couldn’t help but think how much my train-enthusiast father would enjoy it – next time he visits Taiwan this is going to have to be part of our plans.

After a relaxed lunch at a restaurant adjacent to Shizilu Station (vegetarians in our group got a filling bowl of sesame oil mushroom vermicelli), we traveled by bus to the Alishan National Forest Recreation Area and our hotel – the historic Alishan House. After dropping off our bags we were introduced to our second local guide of the day. The softly spoken and knowledgeable Mr. Huang, or Leo as he prefers to be called, led us on a short loop of the forest trails around the park, pausing to tell us a sad love story of the Tsou indigenous tribe, the origin of the name of two ponds in the area, the Sisters Ponds. He also pointed out the differences between Japanese and Taiwanese cedar trees (look at whether the tips of the branches droop down or are turned up), and to recount the details of Japanese lumber operations in the area. Being amongst the remnants of once towering Taiwanese cypress trees and hearing about the logging industry that felled them brought the history to vivid life in a way that just reading about it at home never could. I ended the first day of this trip with some quiet alone time on the hotel’s rooftop viewing deck watching the clouds skim across the valley below me and the stars light up the sky above.
Mt. Ogasawara Lookout to wait for the sun to arrive

Day 2

The second day got off to a rough start with the rude, clamorous racket made by a 3:50am wake-up call. As we all congregated in the hotel lobby it was clear that most of us were not morning people – at least not 4am morning people. A shuttle bus came to take us from the hotel to Alishan Station where we waited in a queue, bundled up against the morning chill in coats and hats. The 30-minute railway journey was far more subdued than the previous day’s train ride had been, few words were spoken and most people just let the rhythm of the train lull them into a half-sleeping, half-waking daze.

Then, when we arrived at Degaoyue Station, the packed carriages spilled out onto the station plaza and the atmosphere suddenly changed, the last vestiges of sleepiness had been swept away by the bite of the early morning air, and in their place was now the buzz of anticipation. Quietly but purposefully we made our way up the road towards the Mt. Ogasawara Lookout to wait for the sun to arrive. By the time we reached the lookout platform the sky had already lightened in the east and everyone was eagerly looking to see where the sun would make its appearance. The morning light painted the distant rock face of Mount Data a warm golden hue, and soon after that the first rays broke out over the distant Central Mountain Range eliciting a collective gasp of joy from all of us gathered there to usher in the day. No matter how many sunrises you have seen, it is impossible not to experience a sense of awe upon seeing the sun erupt from the peak of Taiwan’s highest mountain. With the crystal-sharp dawn light bathing the valley below in its warmth we made our way down to have breakfast and then to our hotel to check out and make our way back down to Chiayi City. If I’m honest, I was sad to say goodbye to the Alishan National Forest Recreation Area so quickly, knowing that there are so many other places to explore up there. I guess I will just have to come back some other time.

The afternoon saw us visiting three historic and cultural spots within walking distance of each other in the center of Chiayi City. First was Chiayi Lumber Factory where we were lucky enough to be shown an as-yet unfinished section of a museum. Our guide for the afternoon, Jay, told us that the buildings had narrowly avoided demolition after traces of historically significant architecture below ground level had been discovered. The site is currently closed to the public whilst it undergoes conservation efforts, but we were shown pits that were created to accommodate the giant 8ft saw blades used to carve up tree trunks into usable planks of wood. Perhaps it was tiredness, or perhaps I’m prone to sentimentality, but for me it was an emotional experience to connect the dots together. The day before we had seen the hulking stumps of mountain gods that were cut down during the Japanese colonial era’s rush to harvest all the valuable timber contained in Taiwan’s forests; then here we were looking at the very place where those giants would have been turned into beams, cladding panels, and sawdust.

From the lumber factory Jay walked us through the Alishan Forest Railway Garage Park (another great spot where train fans can get all close and personal with the machinery), and on towards Hinoki Village. Most of my fellow travelers seized this opportunity to wander around this village’s small stores and snack shops, but I took Jay up on his offer to take a peek inside the recreated house of a high-ranking Japanese official. I was glad I did, he showed me around pointing out little architectural flourishes and some of the measures taken as protection against termites. It was a great low-energy way to round off the day after such an early start.
a night time eco-tour in Kenting’s Sheding Nature Park   the first stop of the day was Houwan Community where we were to be instructed in the art of tofu making by Sister Heimao

Day 3
The third day found us waking up in the heart of one of Kaohsiung's art districts and piling back onto the bus for the journey south into Pingtung County. People were excited about this day’s afternoon activity, sea kayaking, but the first stop of the day was Houwan Community where we were to be instructed in the art of tofu making by Sister Heimao. For me this was the unexpected highlight of the tour, from the moment we stepped off the bus and were greeted by Camille, there to help with translations, and one of the center’s many friendly dogs I could feel my whole body relaxing. The center itself is charmingly, authentically Taiwanese – artfully decaying in that way that rural places do so photogenically and with a comfortable homely feeling that reminded me of trips to visit my grandma.

Once everyone had torn their attention away from the dogs, Sister Heimao proceeded to outline and demonstrate the processes involved in refining sea salt, and using it to make tofu. She spoke a mixture of Mandarin and Taiwanese and her words were expertly interpreted by Camille (who I later found out is the owner of a much-praised pizza shop in Hengchun Township). As the demonstration progressed I drifted in and out of the group, sometimes drawing close to watch the steam billowing over the giant cauldron of gradually forming salt crystals, other times breaking away to sit with one of the dogs or to wander around the garden area. One part of the explanation that hit deep was Sister Heimao’s sadness when talking about how she has seen first-hand the negative impacts of our plastic dependency.

Ten years ago the salt she harvested from the shore was almost pure, but since then she has noticed a thickening black residue on top of the salt – a whole ugly layer formed of micro plastics. It is perhaps no surprise then that environmentalism is a theme that runs deep for the folks at Houwan Community. Sister Heimao herself is an active beach cleaner, and their tofu making process is waste free, with everything from the bean husks to the waste water being put to use. Over the course of the time we spent there we were invited to watch and taste how soybeans are being turned into several different products and we were able to fill our bellies with warm soy milk, piping-hot fried bean-husk biscuits, tofu pudding, tofu curds with spicy preserved radish, and warm, firm, freshly pressed cubes of tofu. When I left, it was with a heavier (tofu-filled) body, but a lighter heart.

Everyone had been so relaxed in the morning that we ended up having to hurry over to the nearby kayak center and promptly switch clothes so that we could get out on the waves before the wind picked up too much. This wasn’t my first time kayaking, but it was my first time sea kayaking and I was a little anxious that I’d let my more experienced partner down. After a safety talk from one of the instructors we were led down to a small harbor, handed our paddles, and allocated our kayaks. There was a little bit of floundering around at first, but then we hit our stride and headed out towards the open sea. As soon as we rounded the curve of the harbor wall it became evident why there was a rush to get out before the afternoon grew too long: waves, bloody great big waves!

Our little vessel bobbed up and down in the choppy waters and I used every ounce of my (admittedly poor) upper body strength trying to keep us moving forward. We headed towards a nearby beach, my kayaking partner helpfully reminding me to speed up as we reached the water’s edge so that we could properly land the kayak. Once everyone had made it over we were encouraged to wade into the water (which this far south in Taiwan was pleasantly warm even in late October), and after a period of just enjoying the sensation of being in the ocean we all practiced capsizing, righting our overturned kayaks, and getting back on them. (I certainly didn’t do it gracefully, but I did manage to do it successfully.) Then we were allowed to paddle back towards the rough waters to have a shot at entry-level kayak surfing. Almost straight away and by perfect chance, our boat got caught up on the crest of a wave and for a few, short euphoric moments we were swept forward by the momentum of the sea. We tried to replicate the experience before being called in for a late lunch, but were thwarted at each turn by the strong headwind which prevented us from getting far enough away from the shore.

As if the day hadn’t already been packed full of fun, we had one final activity arranged for us: a night time eco-tour in Kenting’s Sheding Nature Park. We were met at the entrance by our guides, the bouncy and animated Mr. Wu and Yvonne who was tasked with the daunting job of translating his witty, fast-paced stories into English. Even though we visited during a quiet season (ecologically speaking) Sheding’s flora and fauna did not disappoint, and within the first ten minutes we had spotted a pair of rare Megacrania tsudai stick insects and an absolutely stunning coiled up Taiwan habu snake.

As the tour progressed we encountered a variety of critters both cute and fearsome, but the standout highlight of the evening was Mr. Wu and his comedic delivery. Even the members of our party who didn’t speak Mandarin were giggling as he used his whole body to explain how the Taiwan Wampee tree got its local name (guo shan xiang; lit. “over the mountain fragrance”) hopping from side to side and waving his arms in a caricature of someone eagerly crossing a mountain to meet a waiting lover. The tour concluded with a bowl of sweet soup in the visitor center before we headed back to our hotel. Some younger and more energetic members of the group took the opportunity for a little Kenting beach party, but being too old for such festivities I tucked myself up in bed and was out like a light.
Kenting National Forest Recreation Area

Day 4

Dawn broke on the final day of our tour and I woke up early to head for a quiet walk around Kenting’s Frog Stone Coastal Park before breakfast; others in the group headed to the beach or the pool, enjoying the freedom of a slightly later checkout. Then it was time to pack our bags again and board the bus bound for Kenting National Forest Recreation Area. Our morning activity involved tree climbing, but not your regular clambering up a trunk; no, instead we approached this like tree surgeons and scaled ropes strung up on the branches.

After a safety talk and demonstration from one of the instructors we were told to partner up and don safety gear. My partner was one of the younger members of the group who, with the boundless energy of youth, ran straight over to the tallest rope and set about putting the theory we’d just learnt into practice. She did an amazing job and was soon communing with the leaves, but then it was my turn. The movements required to climb didn’t feel all that natural at first. From a seated position you push up a loop of cord attached to the main rope with a Prusik knot, then you put one foot in the loop and push through your heel to move your body into a standing position. Once standing you have to slide the weight-bearing Blake’s hitch knot further up before you can relax back into sitting in your harness.

I didn’t feel at all coordinated at first, but I gradually moved away from the ground, climbing ever higher until all of a sudden I was sitting on a branch five meters above the ground, feeling the tree sway and bend with the wind. I rested for so long that the instructor below asked if I was scared, but the truth was that I just didn’t want to come down, I could have happily stayed up there for hours watching the others from my leafy perch. But I did eventually climb down to have lunch on the lawn under the shade of the tree’s wide-reaching branches, and then after lunch we were introduced to the six volunteer guides who would take us on a guided walk of the park: Mable, Alice, Jasmine, Jean, Yifan, and Julian.

Having so many passionate and knowledgeable people accompany us was a real treat, since it meant there was always someone on hand to answer questions and point out things worth noticing (or tasting) as we made our way through the park’s network of trails. Kenting National Forest Recreation Area is a forest park like none I’ve visited before, the most striking feature being the fact that all the rocks in the park are actually coral reef limestone that has slowly been rising from the ocean over the past millennia. This unique geography has led to some stunning natural phenomena, like the aerial roots of strangler figs that seem to cascade like waterfalls down the steep side of ravines and the stalactite filled Fairy Cave (also home to bats and hermit crabs). One particular high point of the afternoon was seeing a mother Sika deer and her fawn grazing on a banana plant. When we all arrived back at the visitor center there was a sense that people didn’t really want to leave, knowing that leaving meant we would soon be on our way back to the High Speed Rail station and speeding away from our newfound friends.
Taiwan is a land that rewards all visitors generously – come with open eyes, an open mind, and an open heart and you will surely find your time here overflowing with treasure.

As the trip drew to a close I found myself thinking back on all the places we had visited and activities we’d done, and it seemed utterly inconceivable that they’d all been packed into just four short days. I felt exceedingly lucky to have gone on this journey with such lovely people from around the world as well as locals who are passionate about supporting Taiwan through developing sustainable ecotourism.

Over dinner on the third evening some of the Forestry Bureau staff had explained the reasoning behind naming the tour “Hidden Treasure of Asia.” The concept stemmed from the idea that different people all fall in love with different aspects of Taiwan. Some are drawn to the natural beauty, the forests, wildlife, and spectacular scenery, others are charmed by the warmth and openness of the people, the intricacies of Taiwanese culture and history, or simply the stomach-busting variety of foods to try. And because of this they hoped to create an itinerary that would allow people the freedom to have meaningful experiences and find a slice of Taiwan that would be their very own treasure.

So on the last day we were asked what our favorite part of the tour had been, what treasure we had unearthed, but all of us without exception found this an impossible question to answer. How could you possibly choose just one? Taiwan is a land that rewards all visitors generously – come with open eyes, an open mind, and an open heart and you will surely find your time here overflowing with treasure.
Follow Ami’s blog at taiwantrailsandtales.wordpress.com.