The island of Taiwan is perhaps best known to Europeans, if they know about it at all, for its great capital Taipei with its towering Taipei 101, spotless metro system, and bustling night markets. But travel away from the highly populated west coast of the island and you enter a different world of towering forest covered mountains and deep river cut valleys inhabited by the original aboriginal tribal people of Taiwan. These aboriginal peoples were the indigenous inhabitants of the island before immigration of Chinese people from the mainland began in the 17th century. On a recent visit to Taiwan I was fortunate enough to spend two days visiting this mountainous area around Lishan visiting members of local Atayal tribe.
After being picked up by minibus in the city of Taichung on the east coast of Taiwan we headed inland where the jagged forested mountains rise up sharply from the agricultural coastal plain. As the mountains grew we passed the point on the road where a bridge once stood marking the start of the tribal territories of the mountains, beyond which the Chinese lowland peoples of the plains were not permitted to pass, but where trade could take place. The road climbed further into the clouds and wound along high mountain sides and ridges the views became shrouded in mist. This sadly obscured any views at the highest part on the route as the road wound above 10,000 feet.
Stopping briefly in the town of Lishan, which stretches along the mountain side at over 6,000 feed, with just time to admire the stunning mountains shrouded in clouds, we pressed on to our destination in the village of Huanshan for a much needed lunch.
On arrival in Huanshan we were met with a spread of delicious traditional dishes making up an aboriginal mountain feast. As food is one of my main interests in life this was of particular interest to me. This included mountain grown cabbage, which is famed in Taiwan, small shrimp from the local reservoir, a local river fish, and wild mountain pig, all cooked by some excellent local cooks of the village. The plate of round balls was a local traditional feast food of pounded beans.
The local fish were particularly good and this feast was followed by bowl of light broth filled with fish paste dumplings, carrot, bamboo shoot, and radish. To finish the meal we were served a plate of the local snow pears, for which the Lishan area is famous, Lishan literally translating as Pear Mountain. Needless to say these snow pears were delicious, light, crunchy, and mildly sweet, and of which I ate some quantity.
After our our long morning bus ride and large lunch we headed out for some much needed exercise for a walk with a local guide from the village for some education into the forest and hunting knowledge of the local people.
As we walked down among the village pear and persimmon orchards into the deep river valley our guide explained the various plants and trees that have traditional uses among the Atayal people of the local area. This included the Litsea cubeba tree, known as maqaw or “mountain pepper” by the Atayal, and used as a flavouring for food.
Reaching the river at the foot of the valley we came to the bridge joining the settled side of the river, with its villages and orchard covered slopes, to the forested mountains across the river. By the bridge we met with an affable local who kindly offered us some Taiwanese liqueur flavoured with herbs reminiscent of cough medicine, and who offered me an areca nut wrapped in a betel leaf to try. I did not want to miss the opportunity to try this mildly toxic local stimulant. The experience of chewing it was quite bitter and left me with a feeling of being mildly caffeinated and spaced out for the next few hours. Interesting to try, but not one to make a habit out of.
We paused on bridge while our guide gave an offering to the local spirit of the river for safe passage into the forest. The spirit in question being offered to the spirits here was a Kaoliang, local Taiwanese speciality distilled from fermented sorghum. The addition of an Asian giant hornet to the liquor by our guide reputedly added a little extra sweetness to the drink. I was just glad it was pickled and that I was not meeting it live.
In the forest we met with one of the local hunters from the village who demonstrated some of the local traps used for catching game on the forested mountainsides. This included a spring loaded snare trap for mountain pigs and deadfall traps for smaller animals and birds. The snare trap was particularly impressing to triggered by a branch in place of a pigs foot.
Our exploration of the forest continued with a walk further up the hillside before a rest stop at the top to enjoy some more of the local snow pear, expertly peeled by our local guide. On the way back another local plant, this time a fern, caught our guide’s eye for us to try. This is plant traditionally made use of by hunters in the forest for the fleshy round roots growing at the base of its leaves, which were juicy and crunchy when eaten raw.
Our evening meal that night was a traditional aboriginal feast cooked by one of our local hosts in the village of Huanshan and featured a range of traditional dishes. This included the green vegetable at the top of the photo, the leaves of a local plant water plant collected from the mountain river sauteed and sprinkled with the maqaw. A plate of dark wood ear mushrooms collected from the mountain forest added an interesting chewy texture to the meal. A dish of raw pork fermented with millet which was apparently a traditional favourite of the mountains, although unfortunately out of misplaced worry over foreign tastes they briefly cooked the pork before serving it to us. I would have liked to try it raw, but I contented myself with eating quite a lot of it cooked. A bowl of beans and millet represented a traditional staple of mountain people before rice became commonly available. Poached snow pears were our dessert.
This was a long tiring day but well worth it for the new experiences, interesting foods, and beautiful mountain scenery. The second day of this trip will following shortly.