Within a few hours of touching down in Taipei, my train pulls into a place where palm trees sway between rice paddies, and sloping mountain ranges trace the vibrant green coast. Minutes after stepping off the train platform, I’m pedalling a bicycle through the tranquil farmland.
My weekend on Taiwan’s beautiful east coast was the easiest to plan, least costly and most reinvigorating getaway I’ve ever taken from Hong Kong – and I try to escape the hectic city as often as I can.
I start out in Chihshang in Taitung county. The tiny township is little known to international tourists, but is famous in Taiwan for being the “hometown of rice”, with its fragrant, slightly sticky grains filling the country’s ubiquitous wooden meal boxes.
“A lot of foreign visitors love to go to Taipei to shop, eat and visit the night markets, but there is so much more to Taiwan than one city,” says I-Hsin Lee, CEO of the newly launched Taiwan travel information and blogging platform eatgo.com. “We created the website where local Taiwanese can share tips and itineraries so anyone can travel, even in the most obscure areas, like a local.”
Anyone can post photos and maps on the website, the best of which are featured on the main page. It was an entry posted by a blogger from Taipei, which recommended starting with a scenic bike tour in Chihshang that caught my eye.
My tour guide, Mr Qiu, meets me at the train station and walks my group to the nearby bike stands. During the one-day tour he imbues easily overlooked sites with local meaning, such as signposts on rice fields showing that the farmer has won an award for being an expert grower, and the active fault zone in an elementary school playground that releases plate tectonic pressure to prevent destructive earthquakes.
The day’s highlight, however, is our picnic lunch. A group of local, older women calling themselves the Chihshang Mamas lay out a mouth-watering spread that we savour while sitting on picnic blankets on the grassy banks of a pond. The spread includes rice noodles, steamed rice cakes, pumpkin rice dumplings and desserts of cakes and ice cream made of – you guessed it – rice.
“We grow everything in our own backyards,” says Mrs Chen, organiser of the Chihshang Mamas as well a local nurse and instructor at a store in town that offers soap-making workshops.
That evening I take the train north to Hualien City where I go for a long walk on the beach at Qixing Lake before sunset. A group of tourists are having a party at one end of the beach, and there’s an aboriginal dance performance at the other end. Dancers in multicoloured skirts and vests join hands and encourage the audience to join in a circle dance. A woman tells me that this is just a small-scale party, and that tourists usually come to Hualien during the Harvest Festival, the most important festival for many aboriginal tribes in Taiwan. For the Amis tribe, the largest of Taiwan’s 12 recognised tribes, the festival runs for seven days. Throughout the week there is dancing, feasting and rituals that ask ancestral gods for a successful harvest. Different tribes hold their celebrations at different times, typically in July, August or September.
Notions of racial difference in the country still reflect the way it was when Taiwan was a colony of Japan. Besides the Japanese, ethnicities were divided into Han Chinese, Hakka Chinese and multiple aboriginal groups. The east coast features more cultural diversity than the rest of Taiwan, with aborigines making up 25 per cent of the population of Hualien county and the Hakka people about 30 per cent.
Best known for the Taroko Gorge in Taroko National Park, Hualien county also has plenty of hiking and “river tracing” (also known as river trekking and mountain stream climbing) trails nearby where deep valleys with crystal clear rivers give way to marble peaks.
I save the nature hikes for another weekend, instead deciding to spend my Sunday morning at the spa in my charming bed and breakfast. In the middle of Hualien city, Cypress House makes me feel as if I’m home in the backwoods of British Columbia, Canada, with its spacious rooms, beautifully appointed garden and the scent of cypress everywhere. From there I take the midday train back to Taipei, where I even have enough time left to take in the museums, monuments and night markets before hopping on my return flight home.
• Several carriers, including Hong Kong Airlines, Dragonair and China Airlines, offer flights from Hong Kong to Taipei, which take one hour and 45 minutes. Depending on the season, you can find return tickets from about HK$1,200.
• Chihshang Cultural Guided Tour Association offers full-day bike tours for HK$260 per person (e-mail: email@example.com).
• You can customise your own tour and post your itinerary at eatgo.com
• Cypress House bed and breakfast is conveniently located and serves a simple, healthy breakfast. Spa double rooms start at HK$620. No 58, Cihui 1st St, Jian township, Hualien county 973 (en.cypresshouse.com.tw)
• For more B&Bs go to cs.gov.tw
Published in South China Morning Post’s 48 Hours magazine on Sept. 19, 2013