Day four of riding through the Huadong Valley of eastern Taiwan in 2018 began in Yuli 玉里, the midpoint of this bicycle trip from Hualien City 花蓮市 to Taitung City 台東市. From the weather report I knew I’d have another challenging ride ahead—yet again the mercury was due to exceed 35 degrees. Luckily I was in no great rush, as I had allocated an entire week for a trip that experienced riders could easily manage in two days. I made good use of that extra time, making numerous stops and detours to document some of the many historic and cultural sites along the way, many of them quite obscure. I ended the day in Guanshan 關山, slightly more than 40 kilometers down the valley.
Yuli Shinto Shrine 玉里神社 is a Japanese colonial era historic site in Yuli 玉里, the largest town in the middle of the Huadong Valley 花東縱谷 of eastern Taiwan. Formally known as Yuli Shrine 玉里社 (Tamasato-sha in the original Japanese), it was constructed in 1928, the third year of the Showa era. The vast majority of Taiwan’s several hundred Shinto shrines were destroyed in the decades following the Japanese withdrawal—but enough of this shrine remained to justify its official designation as a cultural asset in 2008. Since then some effort has been undertaken to restore the site, which occupies a hilltop at the western edge of town, and it now ranks among the most well-preserved in the remote eastern part of the country.
Yuanlin 員林 is a modest settlement of approximately 125,000 residents located on the Changhua Plain 彰化平原 in eastern Changhua 彰化, Taiwan. It was formerly the most populous urban township in the nation, but Yuanlin was upgraded to a county-controlled city in 2015, second only to the administrative capital, Changhua City 彰化市. Considerable work has been done in recent years to improve the urban environment of Yuanlin, and it feels like one of the few places between Taichung 台中 and Tainan 台南 that isn’t falling into disrepair and emptying out. That being said, urban decay remains widespread in Yuanlin, and there are many interesting ruins worth exploring before they disappear. For students of city planning and development this compact city also has quite a lot to offer—and in this post I aim to introduce some of its more intriguing features, mainly drawing upon photographs from 2013 to 2015, when I was spending significant amounts of time in the area.
Day three of cycling down the Huadong Valley 花東縱谷 began with a hearty Taiwanese breakfast not far from the train station in Fenglin 鳳林, Hualien 花蓮. I was still recovering from a brush with heatstroke (a story documented in the previous entry in this series) so a traditional breakfast of danbing 蛋餅 (pan-fried egg rolls) and sweet black tea really hit the spot. A glance at the weather forecast indicated another full day of sunny skies and 35°C temperatures on the road—and even fewer opportunities for air-conditioned rest stops. I wasn’t too worried though; my loosely-planned itinerary of former Shinto shrines, industrial ruins, and other historic sites didn’t look all that challenging. Ultimately I ended up putting 60 kilometers of valley behind me, ending the day in Yuli 玉里.
My second day of riding Huadong Valley 花東縱谷 was not everything I hoped it would be. I didn’t manage a proper night’s rest due to a malfunctioning air condition and woke up feeling weak and dehydrated. With temperatures hitting 35°C on the road, and with fewer convenience store stops along the way, it turned out to be the most difficult day of riding on this particular trip back in May 2018. I originally planned to detour into the mountains to visit the village of Tongmen 銅門 and cruise around Carp Lake 鯉魚潭 on my way south. Instead I elected to head straight down Provincial Highway 9 through Ji’an 吉安 and Shoufeng 壽豐 into Fenglin 鳳林 to make up for lost time. Although I didn’t see nearly as much as planned I am glad to have an excuse to return to this part of Taiwan.
Xiluo Theater 西螺大戲院 is perhaps the most widely-known of the many abandoned theaters of Taiwan. It is located just off the main commercial street running through Xiluo 西螺, a small city of approximately 46,000 residents on the south bank of the Zhuoshui River 濁水溪, the traditional boundary dividing northern and southern Taiwan. Completed sometime between 1937 and 1940, this reinforced concrete and brick building replaced a wooden theater originally built in the 1920s. The new theater survived the war unscathed and flourished during the golden age of Taiwanese cinema in the 1950s and 60s. In those days the area surrounding the theater became known as Xiluo’s Ximenting 西門町, a name derived from Taipei’s popular entertainment district. Business declined sharply in the early 1980s and the theater was abandoned to the elements by 1988, a consequence of changing consumer habits, the rise of television and home video, and population outflow to larger cities. More recently it has become a popular site for photography, video production, urban exploration, and historical tourism.
Zhushan 竹山 (literally “Bamboo Mountain”) is a historic yet obscure township in southwestern Nantou 南投 mainly known for cultivating tea and bamboo. The town itself is one of the oldest in central Taiwan but it hardly feels that way. Many of Zhushan’s most historic structures were destroyed or damaged beyond repair in the devastating 921 Earthquake that struck in 1999, which is why its “old street” is lined with modern buildings. Most travellers pass through Zhushan on the way to attractions deeper into the rugged interior of Taiwan without sparing it a second glance—but I stopped for a closer look in the summer of 2017 while on an impromptu road trip. After staying the night in a sleazy love motel never meant for sleep (there was no way to switch off the lights) I wandered around in the morning haze, capturing traces of Zhushan’s history as it disappears into memory.
In May 2018 I seized an opportunity to ride the beautiful and dangerous Suhua Highway 蘇花公路 (中文) from Hualien City 花蓮市 to Su’ao 蘇澳 in Yilan 宜蘭. I had previously taken this same route on bicycle back in 2013—a harrowing trip I’ll never forget—so I was eager to drive a scooter and experience it at a different pace. I also visited a number of historic sites along the way, including several former Shinto shrines, as part of an ongoing project documenting various elements of the Japanese colonial legacy in Taiwan. Much of the highway itself also owes something to Japanese engineering, having opened to vehicular traffic in 1931, but it has been continuously repaired and expanded since then.
Agenna Shipyard 阿根納造船廠 is among the most popular abandoned places in northern Taiwan. It is located in the historic port city of Keelung 基隆 across the narrow Bachimen Channel 八尺門海峽 from Heping Island 和平島, site of the first Spanish settlement in Taiwan, and just around the corner from the equally photogenic Zhengbin Harbour 正濱漁港. The shipyard opened in 1967 but was only in business until the 1980s. After many years of neglect the skeletal ruins of the shipyard aroused renewed interest in 2016 when the current leaseholder attempted to demolish the structure. An immediate public outcry prompted the government to designate the shipyard a heritage property, and the cultural bureau is now formulating plans to develop the area into a tourist attraction of some kind. In the meantime, the crumbling ruins of the former shipyard attract hundreds or even thousands of daily visitors.
My second day on the road in Nantou County in October 2015 was completely unplanned. I left Puli 埔里 and headed deeper into the mountains simply to see what was there, not having done any advance research. From a glance at the map I had a rough idea where I’d be going—deeper into traditional Indigenous lands to the east of Puli Basin 埔里盆地. Ultimately I ended up visiting several settlements and two reservoirs in a few hours of riding around what is now known as the township of Ren’ai 仁愛.