A Ride to the Clouds

Cycling Through Wutai Township

2019 / April

Esther Tseng /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Phil Newell

The American writer Ernest Hemingway once said, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and can coast down them.”

For this latest in our series of articles about cycling in Taiwan, in early spring we set our sights on the stretch of Provincial Highway 24 that runs from Sandimen Township to Wutai Township in Pingtung County. As we pedal up through the fresh greenery of the mountains, we experience the flourishing business environment of the Paiwan and Rukai indigenous communities, as well as their rich culture and handicrafts.

After Typhoon Morakot ravaged three townships in northern Ping­tung ten years ago, the three Aboriginal communities of Kucapungane (Chinese name Hao­cha), Paridrayan (Da­she) and Makazayazaya (Ma­jia) were relocated to live together in the newly built community of Ri­nari in San­di­men. We decide to warm up for our cycling trip by first visiting the community’s “­Kubav” restaurant to enjoy an authentic indigenous meal.

Just by looking at the menu you get a sense of being in an indigen­ous community. In particular, the offering at ­Kubav includes ­cinavu, a food that the Pai­wan people have traditionally eaten only at the New Year or when greeting honored guests. It is made by wrapping a mixture of millet and pork in the leaves of Trichodesma calycosum and boiling it for 40 minutes. This simple and unadorned dish has a special sweet flavor of meat juices combined with the fragrance of the leaf wrapping.

Other dishes that use special local ingredients are kinepel, a cake made from millet and pumpkin; a sticky-rice dumpling that is wrapped in shell ginger leaf and has a unique fragrance; and wild boar meat marinated using alianthus prickly ash (Zanthoxylum ailanthoides) and aromatic litsea (Litsea cubeba). These are cooked over locally sourced acacia wood. Every dish at ­Kubav is a delicious surprise, and besides satisfying our taste buds, they give us the energy and desire to further explore Aboriginal culture.

Three treasures of the Paiwan

Riding up the twisting mountain road, from which the clear weather gives us views of Kao­hsiung’s 85 Sky Tower in the distance, we arrive at the San­di­men Culture Center, located at the 22 kilometer mark of Highway 24. The main theme of the exhibition is “The Three Treasures of the Pai­wan,” which are pottery, colored glass beads, and bronze machetes. The center also relates the Pai­wan creation myth and the origins of belief in super­natural entities.

The three treasures come in different forms that illustrate the stratification of Pai­wan society and its rituals. By way of example, exhibi­tion curator and guide Remaljiz, a member of a Pai­wan chief’s clan, explains that pots with handles and nipple-shaped protrusions are called “mother pots” and those with hundred-­pace snake decorations are “father pots,” while the most respected are “birth pots,” which are light, thin, and glossy.

In the case of glass beads, which are often kept as family heirlooms or serve as import­ant keepsakes such as betrothal gifts, to the Pai­wan people the motifs on each bead repres­ent beliefs about heaven, earth, and rela­tions between people. For example, a “noble bead” is a wedding gift for the marriage of a chief, while wearing a “warrior bead” indicates that the person has performed courage­ous or ­heroic exploits.

But tourist visitors can make their own glass beads DIY-style at the Dragonfly Beads Art Studio. On the second floor is a gallery which displays collected items and works of the studio’s founder, Remereman. These include the wedding attire hand-sewn for her by her mother, who died of cancer, as well as gorgeous and complex mixed-media works.

I bought a bracelet of “warrior beads” to get a morale boost for the upcoming continually uphill ride. If not for seeing the winding mountain road before my eyes, the unexpectedly warm weather at this elevation might have fooled me into thinking I was riding in the plains.

Stone houses, Rukai knowledge

Approaching the open-sided tunnel at the 29 km mark of Highway 24, the scenery is as spectacular as on the Central Cross-Island Highway. At the 31 km mark, we stand on the observation platform and look down over the entire North Ai­liao River Valley, while also admiring in the distance the remarkable sight of the Gu­chuan Bridge, which boasts the tallest bridge piers in Taiwan.

The warm breezes, the beautiful interplay of light and shadow, and the lofty mountains along the route all compensate for the difficulty of climbing up the steep winding road. Saidai Latarovecae, director of the Ping­tung County Indigenous Peoples Department, recommends the Wu­tai indigenous community as the place where the social patterns of the Ru­kai people are most intact. When you see eye-catching sculptures of a chief and a warrior at the 40 km mark of the highway, you know you have arrived at the Ru­kai Culture Museum.

You can learn about the culture of ordinary Ru­kai people at the museum. Whether it be the flagstone path laid with irregularly shaped slabs of slate, or the brightly colored relief sculptures at Wu­tai Elementary School, both were made by the brothers Besakalane and Kalava.

Carrying our bikes up some stairs, we see the main landmark on the flagstone path: the Wu­tai Presbyterian Church. This church was designed by Kalava, who also oversaw construction, which took six years to complete. It demonstrates the Ru­kai people’s spirit of working together for a common goal.

The church has the steepest roof of any stone structure in Wu­tai Village. The methods for building in stone and for calculating the weight to be supported came from the knowledge and experience of the older genera­tion in constructing stone buildings.

The large crucifix inside the church is made from the wood of a Taiwan cypress tree cut down and left behind by the Japanese, that was found by an old hunter deep in the mountains on the border between Tai­tung and Ping­tung counties. Villagers walked for four days to drag it back to Wu­tai, where it was turned into the biggest cypress-­wood cross in all Taiwan. Looking up at the cross, you can appreciate the Ru­kai people’s spirit of helping each other and working for the common goal of creating a heaven on earth. The arduous process of constructing this cross is memorialized in carvings displayed on the stairs outside the church.

Cherry blossoms and butterflies at Adiri

To avoid cycling in the dark, we spend the night at a homestay in Wu­tai. After a good sleep, on day two we head toward the last Ru­kai community on Highway 24: Adiri (Chinese name Ali).

The entire road is uphill, and we often have to face a new climb even before the one we are on has leveled off. Ten years ago, Typhoon Morakot caused landslides that cut the highway off. Although simple guardrails have since been set up along the roadside, when we speeded up the pace of our journey, between the mountain forests on one side of the highway and a gorge on the other, we feel a sensation of giddiness and danger. Adiri, at an altitude of 1200 meters, is shrouded in mist and clouds year-round. When we gaze downhill at search of communities such as Wu­tai and Kabalel­radhane, they are enveloped in a sea of clouds.

We pass by two areas of steep rock faces exposed by landslides, which are unusual geological features created by Typhoon Morakot. Looking up to observe them, you notice that each stretch of cliff wall has a different shape. They are like works of art carved by heaven with careful precision. This most moving geography lesson leaves one with a sense of reverence.

The current end point of Highway 24 is at the 44.5 km mark, beyond which the remaining few kilometers of the original highway have been downgraded to the status of an emergency access road. When we arrive at Adiri, with its jumble of slate houses, we find a desol­ate, almost abandoned village, with Taiwan cherry trees waiting shyly to display their blossoms.

Passing by the stone slab home of the chief of Adiri, you see ancestral spirit pillars, woodcarvings of ceramic vats, and woodcarvings and paintings of the legend of Balenge ka abulru, in which Princess Baleng marries the Hundred-Pace Snake deity. The architectural vocabu­lary of the building indicates the status of the chief within the community.

Husband and wife Bao ­Taide and Gu Xin­hui, the only people to remain permanently in ­Adiri when its residents relocated after Typhoon Morakot, operate the Su­muku Homestay, where they host visitors who come to ­Adiri to watch birds or butterflies, and hikers who come to explore the Old Alu­wan Trail.

In the afternoon, we walk a trail lined with blooming Japanese cherry trees, and when night falls, the sky fills with countless stars. Revisiting old memories and enjoying this tranquil night is like being in a paradise, a place of joyful contentment and serenity.

Secret place revealed by a typhoon

When we set off back down the highway the next morning, the weather is clear as we happily ride downhill; this is the most enjoyable part of our journey. We stop by the side of the mountain road to take in the distant views of the Dawu Mountains, lush with verdant vegetation.

Passing through the Kabalelradhane indigenous community below Wu­tai, we stop to eat a bowl of aiyu fig jelly. A bowl of fresh fig jelly flavored with fragrant, sweet millet and sweet and sour kumquat and lemon is the best treat to reward our physical effort. A NT$35 bowl of jelly and the mountain vistas have a priceless therapeutic value.

At present the shop owner cultivates about two hectares of jelly figs (Ficus pumila var. awkeotsang), which are the community’s special local product.

During this day’s journey we decide on the spur of the moment to visit the Ha­you River. To get to this ­scenic spot, which is only accessible during the dry season before the end of April, we choose to take an all-­terrain vehicle from the La­buwan indigenous commun­ity rather than cycle into the mountains.

The Ha­you River is a tributary of the North Ai­liao River. After more than an hour’s drive along the ­riverbed, we begin trekking upstream to reach the majestic Qicai (“seven-color”) Rock Walls. Along the way are sulfur hot springs, and rock walls of basalt streaked with iron, and of quartz arenite. Reflected in the babbling stream they create an awe-inspiring scene of twinkling golden light.

Labuwan resident Ba Ying­xiong says that before Typhoon Morakot this was a deep ravine, and the Qi­cai Rock Walls could only be seen from above, looking down from a mountain ridge on an old hunting trail. It is considered a sacred place by the Ru­kai people. This “secret place” opened up to tourists by Typhoon Mora­kot could one day be buried under rock and soil as a result of another typhoon.

2019 marks the tenth anniversary of Typhoon Mora­kot. Chen Mei-hui, a professor in the Department of Forestry at National Ping­tung University of Science and Technology, has been working side by side with indigenous communities for their empowerment for the last ten years. She says: “The indigenous communit­ies that were damaged by Typhoon Morakot have not been abandoned. They are cohesive and culturally rich. If they can uphold a harmonious relationship with the land, develop their distinctive local characteristics, and practice indigenous farming culture to pursue self-­sufficiency, while also gearing themselves to the market and develop­ing ecotourism along Provincial Highway 24, they can remake the string of pearls that was broken by the typhoon.”

Like the warmth of the indigenous communities and the beauty of Wu­tai that we experienced on our ride, during our return journey this vision of the future portrayed by Chen Mei-hui makes us feel even more firm and steady on the pedals beneath our feet.

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