There is some speculation between certain members of my family that there must be a strong aboriginal line in my family because my dad is so dark-skinned. In part to this and other reasons, I’ve harbored a curiosity about the aboriginal communities in Taiwan but never acted on it. Because I don’t get to visit Taiwan, the “Motherland”, very often, I end up doing pretty much the same thing each time – visiting family, walking around Taipei, and eating an outrageous amount of food. This always leaves distressing little time to explore much beyond my immediate environment and my Mandarin skills, while capable, leave me slightly uncomfortable venturing too far away from cities.
In steps a fantastic opportunity with the Taichung city government to visit the Atayal tribes living in the Lishan (“Pear Mountain”) area of Taiwan. This was really exciting because Taiwan is basically 2/3 mountain range and the inner sanctum, as it were, is not easily reached without a car and a very good set of directions. It was a packed itinerary over the course of two days and even the thought of endless driving on serpentine mountain roads didn’t put me off.
We set off early, the nine of us comfortably packed into a small van, and headed out of Taichung towards Hehuanshan mountain in the central mountain range. First, though, we had to stop for a bathroom break and peruse the roadside stand selling fruit and freshly steamed peanuts-in-the-shell. We got two fruits to eat which are uncommon, if not unknown in the UK and US- fresh jujubes and green-skinned tangerines.
Our driver was a member of the Atayal tribe and he provided commentary as we drove along. It was interesting how quickly we went from the flat plains to suddenly being surrounded by craggy peaks. We passed the point where the tribes living in the mountains would come to trade with those living in the plains; plains-people crossing the invisible border met a ghastly end.
The roads became convoluted and stayed so. My stomach was exceedingly unhappy with this, but the views more than made up for it. It’s hard to describe just how incredible the mountains are, with their dense foliage and tip-top peaks (and very scary, stomach-dropping, wobbly-knees drops). Coming from busy cityscapes like Taipei and Taichung, the change is so sudden (most cities stop at the base of the mountains) that it feels like a different country. We stopped at a scenic stop for photos, but the clouds were dense and the temperature had more than halved from the balmy 25°C in the city, so we mostly huddled around a marker for the Western edge of Taroko National Park (a national treasure if there ever was one).
So, it was a huge surprise to see these guys on their motorcycles. It was bloody freezing compared to the lowlands. Not only that, we ended up passing a few people cycling on the roads, something I would not wish upon others. That is a punishing ride.
Arriving to the village Huanshan, we sat down to a feast. Some of the more notable dishes include tiny shrimps-in-the-shell from the nearby reservoir, sweet high-mountain cabbage, steamed-than-fried beef, local “pumpkin” with salty egg, mountain river fish, and a labor-intensive dish of pounded beans that are then formed into balls – so laborious that they tend to make it only once a year. Fresh “snow pears” were on hand for dessert. I’d never heard of these pears before, but Lishan is famous for its fruit and it is the only place in Taiwan where these pears are grown.
Because the drive took so long, by the time we finished lunch we had already missed the first batch of activities and instead wound our way down through snow pear orchards to the base of our local Huanshan mountain to where the suspension bridge was. There, we met an affable man living by the bridge who offered us the use of his bathroom as well as some alcohol which tasted like alcoholic children’s cough medicine. To some, that may sound appealing but cough syrup always made me vomit, so it was quite disagreeable.
Before crossing over to the other side of the suspension bridge, our guide performed an offering to ensure that our crossing into the wild forest would be safe. He hiked out a bottle of Kaoliang 38, a sorghum liquor which he had doctored-up by putting in an Asian giant hornet to pickle. Filling up a bamboo “shot” (“you need to fill it up to the top – very important!”), he intoned a blessing and, after flicking a few drops into the river below, he swallowed the liquid. Then he offered for us to all do the same. This was the first time I’d tried Kaoliang 38 (as in, 38% ABV) and, giant venomous insect or no, it was really delicious. On a side note, I brought a bottle of the Kaoliang 58 back to the UK and celebrated the New Year with it – that extra 20% is potent. I am sure it put a few hairs on my chest, which really does not go with my look.
In the forest, we met up with our Atayal hunter guide. We were introduced to the different traps that they use to catch animals. These included small dead-fall traps using sticks and heavy rocks (with a hollow dug underneath if they wanted the animals alive) for small things like birds or rodents, to spring-loaded snare traps for the wild mountain pigs. These snares were impressive, as they really blend into the forest and, with just a bit of pressure, would hoist you up by an ankle and leave you dangling. I’m sure the village would know as soon as a pig was caught in one of these things. It definitely made you walk a bit more carefully in the forest, in case you accidentally stepped in one.
A few of us then went off on a steep mountain hike, best done in dry weather as I imagine you’d slip right off the edge. At a level resting place some time later, our guide whipped out two massive snow pears and instructed us to eat them before we headed off again. These are the sort of commands I can deal with.
As someone who loves the idea of foraging, I am also deeply neurotic about potentially dying or becoming sick from mis-identifying something. So, it was nice to have our guide point out various edibles lurking among the less-tasty bits of foliage. We were introduced to “maqaw”, a mountain peppercorn which had almost a sichuan peppercorn citrusy bite, as well as the roots of certain ferns, which are a good way quench your thirst should you be without a stream nearby. It was strangely juicy for a root and had a slightly radish-like flavor. Not bad and not sure I could identify it again if I were lost in the woods.
Our evening ended with some handicrafts – braiding bracelets and making a keychain – and another incredible meal. We admired some intricately-woven headscarves made by the daughter of the house and, at another home, met one of the remaining members of the tribe who could still speak – fluently – the aboriginal language. This elder also showed us some of her on-going work on a traditional foot-braced loom and was rather embarrassed with all the attention. I do hope the government is helping with the preservation of traditional language and cultural traditions; it would be a shame to lose a part of Taiwan’s cultural identity and history.
At dinner, some of the more interesting dishes included a freshwater plant from the mountains sauteed and sprinkled with the maqaw, raw pork fermented with millet (they briefly cooked the pork before serving it to us because they thought we would be put off by it otherwise, but I would have loved to try it. Regardless, it had an interesting strong tangy flavor that felt wrong but tasted so right), slippery wood ear mushrooms, and a steaming basin full of beans and millet, which the aboriginals ate before there was rice.
We stayed the night at Happy Ginko B&B, which was run by our hiking guide and his wife. They were incredibly kind and provided us with some local Taiwanese oolong to make tea with some of our fellow travelers later. They also set out a bowlful of persimmons which I somehow managed to consume even though I had negative space in my stomach after those two meals.
It was an exhausting but enchanting day, full of new sights, tastes, and experiences. More pictures can be found on my Instagram! Day 2 + musings on the food to follow soon.