Not Just the Queen's Head

Geology and History in Yeliu

2018 / October

Lee Shan Wei /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Bruce Humes

A host of oddly shaped, jagged

 hoo­doo outcrops are strikingly arrayed on Ye­­liu Cape, which extends 1.7 kilometers into the ocean. With a landscape virtually unmatched elsewhere, in 2003 it became the site of Taiwan’s first-ever “geopark.” Endowed with rich wildlife, sea life and bird life, its reputation has spread far and wide. 

Thanks to the barrier formed by the cape, more than 300 years ago Ye­liu was already the largest natural fishing port on the North Coast. But in the wake of a sharp decline in fish catches, and with Ye­liu Village’s limited land area, business, academia and government have joined hands in a forceful effort to overcome adversity. Together they are harnessing the local culture and the affection for the land prevalent in this fishing community in order to conserve Yeliu’s unique topography.



Ancient sediments

Six million years ago, two tectonic giants—the Philippine Sea Plate and the Eurasian Plate—collided, kickstarting the Peng­lai Orogeny, a mountain­-building process that caused the island of Taiwan to slowly emerge from the ocean. Today, on Taiwan’s North Coast, projecting into the East China Sea, there lies like a sleeping beauty a slender-bodied, slim-waisted swathe of land 1.7 kilo­meters long and 250 meters wide: Yeliu Cape, which is home to Yeh­liu Geopark. Covering a mere 24 hectares, this “living geology classroom” has won high praise from geologists worldwide. 

Like the annual growth rings of trees, the strata (layers) of rock that are formed by the accumulation of sediment on the seabed over millions of years bear witness to the earth’s evolution. When powerful movements of the earth’s crust thrust these rock strata above the surface of the sea, they may be sculpted by the wind and the waves into new forms—such as those that are exposed to human view at Ye­liu, in New Tai­pei City’s ­Wanli District.

As you stroll in Yeh­liu Geopark, clearly visible underfoot are the “body fossils” of creatures unique to Taiwan, such as Astriclypeus yeliuensis and Echinodiscus yeliuensis, two species of “sand dollar” sea urchins from the early Miocene era. Other signs of life, like cavities where shallow-­water sea creatures foraged or sheltered, have formed precious “trace fossils.” These fossils are found in Ye­liu’s principal rock strata, those of the Da­liao Miocene Formation, which dates from 20‡24 million years ago.

Yeliu’s rock strata are comprised mainly of limestone, shale and calcareous sandstone stacked one upon another. These layers of rock are of varying degrees of hardness, and when undergoing erosion by wind, rain and seawater, some are transformed into granules of fine sand that are carried away by wind or waves, while the nodules of more resistant material within them are left behind, standing their ground tenaciously. The composition of each rock therefore differs depending on which ingredients have been retained or lost, and it is these materials—subsequently carved by the deft hands of Mother Nature—that give Ye­liu’s outcrops their varied and fantastical looks.

Living geology

Established in 1964 as the Yeh­liu Scenic Area, Yeh­liu Geopark offers beautiful sights wherever you look. “The array of candle-shaped rocks here is the most complete anywhere in the world,” proudly remarks Marti C.C. Yang, the geopark’s general manager. Some 180 mushroom-shaped boulders are clustered in the park, and their dynamism is striking. Helena Tang, assistant general manager, who has worked at the park for over two decades, observes that “the colors of the rocks change with the seasons.” One pair that look just like a man and a woman formerly directed their gazes frontward; but now, it seems that his face has turned to look at hers. “Ye­liu’s rocks are alive,” exclaims Tang.

The rocks in the geopark contain many discrete “joints,” or crevices. These are points where a weakened rock layer is silently releasing pressure, the layer has split into two, or has been flattened into a channel. The downward force continually proceeds from shallow to deep, and will eventually result in a “sea-eroded trench.”

The park’s most renowned attraction, the Queen’s Head, named for its resemblance to the famous bust of Queen Ne­fer­titi in the collection of the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, has stood at Ye­liu for more than 4,000 years. Notes Yang: “The thinnest part of the queen’s neck now measures just 124.6 centimeters around.” Alarmingly, Ye­liu’s principal landmark is on the verge of collapse.

Eco-friendly education

“We should not seek to work against the power of nature, but we can avoid inflicting manmade damage,” says Yang. In 2006, the government commissioned Neo-Space International Co., Ltd. to manage Yeh­liu Geopark. The firm vigorously urges visitors to follow the instructions of the park guides, keep to the boardwalks, and refrain from striking or touching the rocks, or trampling the landscape.

“We designed our plans according to UNESCO’s concept of the ‘Global Geopark,’” says Yang. The number of visitors to the park peaked in 2014, setting a new annual high of 3.3 million and a new daily high of 19,500. “From the standpoint of environmental protection, I must consider the park’s capacity.” Neo-Space focuses on environmental education. In 2012, the geopark was certified by the Environmental Protection Agency as an “eco-education” site. “We have arranged 13 curriculums, and seven of them have been certified.”

In the words of their elders

In 2004, Helena Tang established the Va­sai Fishing Village Culture Association, which takes its name from the Va­sai people, a branch of the Ke­ta­ga­lan Aborigines. Tang was elected chairwoman, and she put her heart into working with the association to preserve precious historical materials. Based on in-depth interviews, the association has published three books chronicling the lifestyle and history of the “Va­sai Fishing Village”of Ye­liu. Since 2012, more than 170 tours and activities have been organized, bringing renown to the village.

With the Guide to Va­sai Fishing Village Culture and Relics in hand, strolling through the rising and falling terrain and along the snaking lanes, you might be surprised to learn that—like Lu­kang—Ye­liu has a narrow “Breast Brushing Alley.” The Va­sai Cultural Center, named “Va­sai Residence,” has in recent years become a must-see site for exploring fishing-village culture. Thanks to Tang’s boundless creativity, the “Cultural Carnival”—featuring such activities as the Palanquin Parade, the Harbor Cleansing Ritual, Mazu’s Homecoming, Getting to Know Local Seafood, DIY Seaweed Noodles, and Savoring Wanli Crabs—closely links Yeliu’s geological landscape with fishing-village culture by involving traditional religion, local foodstuffs and community participation.

The association has published Yeh­liu Geopark on Foot: Fishing Gear and Techniques, which details the evolution of fishing knowhow since antiquity. Borrowing a classroom from Yeh­liu Elementary School, it has also set up a small museum to preserve and display fishing gear from earlier times, ensuring that visitors and the next generation can more deeply experience fishing-village culture.

Testament to local spirit

“Stone clock, stone breasts, a carp jumps out of the water, a mouse sucks on a cat’s nipple.” To vividly evoke the hardship of life in years gone by, Tang recites an earthy Taiwanese­-language saying that alludes to several famous formations, including a pair of conical candle-shaped rocks and the Carp Rock behind them. Of course, a mouse is playing with its life if it tries to suckle at a cat’s teats. “Below Carp Rock was a trench,” explains Tang. “Since seaweed was abundant in that spot and promised a good harvest, all the local women wanted to collect seaweed there.” But the terrain was treacherous, the wind strong, the waves wily, and the rock surfaces slippery. If one fell in, one would be lucky to survive.

“Life in the fishing village was very arduous, for the ocean is a coffin without a lid,” says Tang with emotion. 

As marine resources have been exhausted, it is the people who earned their livelihood from the sea who feel it the hardest. “Local women have always played a role in supporting their families,” says Tang. Two octogenarian grandmothers, fishermen’s wives Lin-Liu Bi­lan and Lin-Fang Cai­yun, have lived through Ye­liu’s good times and bad. 

“There’s no time to lose. If we don’t hurry, it will soon be too late.” Through the words of the elderly, the book Golden Times of Yesteryear documents a culture that is disappearing, preserving memories that would otherwise be lost. The association leads the way for residents to fully participate in preserving historical materials and cultural relics.   

“The Queen’s Head is not our only attraction,” asserts Tang. “All of Ye­liu is a treasure house.” The tower­ing cuesta in the park is lush and hosts more than 200 plant species. Its broad­leaved woodland is a paradise where migratory birds can pause on their journey. To date, nearly 300 species have been recorded. Two ocean currents, rich in nutrients, bring diverse marine life and offer great research value.

Down the ages, Ye­liu Cape has watched over its people living between mountain and sea. Says Tang: “If you have love in your heart, you are bound to radiate light and warmth; if you have a vision in your heart, you are sure to build a robust dream.” Located amongst treasures bequeathed from on high, the residents of Ye­liu have not disappointed their benefactor, and they intend to guard them lovingly and pass them on from generation to generation.

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