Looking south from Taimali along the coastal highway in Taitung

Southern Taiwan Ride 2015: Dawu to Taitung City

My last big day of riding around southern Taiwan in June 2015 began in Dawu, Taitung, with only about 55 kilometers to go before arriving in Taitung City. I had been out in the sun far too much the previous day and was feeling rather sluggish and a bit sick so I didn’t end up taking any side trips into the mountains as I made my way north. Even so, the scenery was fantastic, and while I won’t have as much to write about this particular day of my trip, I have plenty of beautiful photographs to share.

Waking up above a 7-Eleven in Dawu
Waking up above a 7-Eleven in Dawu on the east coast of Taiwan.

I began my day in a rundown hotel above a 7-Eleven by the side of the only major road running through this part of Taiwan. It wasn’t a very pleasant place to stay so I was quick to pack up and head out in search of a bite to eat. After breakfast I went for a quick spin around Dawu, a mostly Páiwān 排灣 village originally named Parongoe1. At first I followed my instincts and scoped out the area near the train station, not knowing it had only opened in 1992. On my way back to the main road I noticed the skeletal outlines of what looked to be an abandoned warehouse. I cycled over to take a closer look.

A ruined building in Dawu
Oh, what’s this? An abandoned building in Dawu!
Inside an abandoned movie theater in Dawu
Looks like an abandoned warehouse but it’s not.
The entrance to the former Dawu Theater 大武戲院
I didn’t know it at the time but this was once the local movie theater!

Turns out I had stumbled upon the remains of Dawu Theater 大武戲院, in operation from 1969 to 1983. Taitung was home to 36 theaters in the cinematic heyday of the 1960s and 70s, all of which are now abandoned or destroyed. Hardly anything remains after three decades of exposure that would identify Dawu Theater apart from a small sign in the antechamber. In a curious twist of fate I did not know the Chinese characters for movie theater at the time—but I would learn them the very next day after chancing upon the very last of Taitung’s old theaters. As such, I had no idea this was a theater until I went through my photos while drafting up this post a year later. At any rate, shortly after taking a peek inside this abandoned building I headed out of town to begin the first climb of the day.

Construction droids on highway 9
Immediately outside of Dawu I encountered the first of many construction zones and road safety dummies along this remote stretch of highway.

Eastern Taiwan is extremely isolated from the densely-populated west coast. Previously I described how there are three road connections2 between east and west: the Central Cross-Island Highway 中部橫貫公路 and the Suhua Highway 蘇花公路—both in Hualien, more than 200 kilometers to the north of where I was—and the South-Link Highway 南迴公路, a section of Provincial Highway 9 running over the mountains from Fangshan in Pingtung to the coast of Taitung and then on to Taitung City. This post is focused entirely on this last stretch of the South-Link Highway.

Concrete pylons stretching to the horizon
Most of coastal Taiwan is lined with concrete tetrapods to prevent erosion.
Building an expanding highway on the remote coast of Taitung
Hard at work on road expansion.
Expanding the highway in southern Taitung
Construction on the South-Link Highway.
Pacific vista
The vast Pacific Ocean from the east coast of Taiwan. Due east of here is Mexico.
An abandoned bus stop on Highway 9
An abandoned bus stop on Highway 9.

Taitung south of the entrance to the Huādōng Valley 花東縱谷 (more generally known as the East Rift Valley) is an almost unbroken chain of mountains rising sharply from the sea. This coastline is punctuated at regular intervals by narrow rivers valleys filled with sediment carried down from the high mountains to the west. These alluvial plains are just about the only flat land in this part of the country and, as such, are also home to most of its human population. The highway follows the contours of this rugged coastline, dropping down to the plains, traversing rivers, passing through whatever small settlement can be found there, and then snaking along the occasionally precipitous coastal mountains again. There are several climbs on this highway but the grades are seldom challenging. And besides, the scenery is so rewarding that it hardly feels like work were it not for the blazing tropical sun.

Expanding the Daximing Tunnel 大溪明隧道
A wider road requires a wider Dàxīmíng Tunnel 大溪明隧道.
Inside Daximing Tunnel 大溪明隧道
This tunnel is at the very northern edge of Dawu right before crossing a river into Taimali.
Another construction droid on highway 9
Another road safety dummy, this time on the way into Taimali.

Not long after climbing out of Dawu I encountered the first of many construction zones, part of an ongoing road widening and improvement project along this segment of the South-Link Highway. I also saw many of the distinctly Taiwanese road safety dummies that are required by law. Workers waved to me as I pressed on, smiling and shouting words of encouragement: jiāyóu 加油, literally “add oil”. They probably see dozens of cyclists a day; anyone undertaking the round-the-island bicycle tour, a Taiwanese rite of passage known as the huándǎo 環島, must pass through here.

This could be your beach
The beaches of this remote coastline are almost completely empty of people. This was a rare exception.

Taiwanese Indigenous people only account for around 2.5% of the population of Taiwan but more than 33% of the population of Taitung—and the Indigenous share of the population is probably even greater along this stretch of coast, which was only nominally integrated into Qing Taiwan with the establishment of Pi-lam Subprefecture 卑南廳 in 1875. Even then, I somewhat doubt many Han Chinese immigrated to this coast; most settlers opted for the fertile farmland of the valley to the north. If I’m not mistaken it wasn’t even until the mid-1930s, late into the Japanese colonial era, that this part of Taiwan was even connected by road, though there was no doubt a trail running along here long before that.

Building a new highway in southern Taitung
Building a new bridge across the mouth of Jinlun Creek 金崙溪.

Not long after crossing into Taimali I veered off the main road to take a closer look at Jīnlún 金崙 (traditionally Kanalung or Kanadun), a small Paiwan village famous for its hot springs. I was alert for anything interesting or unusual and open to stopping for a cold drink or quick snack but few shops seemed open. Just about the only thing that snared my attention was the distinctly localized Catholic Church. Many Taiwanese Indigenous people converted to localized forms of Christianity in the mid-20th century and churches now act as community hubs for many villages like Jinlun.

On the way into Jinlun
Crossing the old bridge over Jinlun Creek.
Jinlun St. Joseph’s Catholic Church 金崙聖若瑟天主堂
St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Jinlun 金崙聖若瑟天主堂.
Wooden cafe in Jinlun
A wooden cafe in Jinlun. Too bad it wasn’t open!
Men at work outside of Jinlun
Men at work on the northern outskirts of Jinlun. This section will soon connect with the bridge being built across the river.

The coastline really opens up just before Taimali Creek. Here the alluvial plain is broad enough to support agriculture and a larger settlement now known as Dàwáng Village 大王村. Although this was historically Paiwan territory the population is much more mixed, a legacy of Japanese colonial resettlement programs3 that brought Indigenous people from all over Taiwan to the area, particularly members of the Amis People 阿美, nowadays the most populous Indigenous group in the nation. I went to take a closer look at the center of town and captured several vintage murals that must have been painted decades ago.

Looking south from Taimali along the coastal highway in Taitung
The beautiful east coast of Taiwan looking south from the entrance to the alluvial plains of Taimali Creek.
An abandoned home on the outskirts of Taimali
An abandoned home on the outskirts of Taimali.
Indigenous Figures in Taimali
Indigenous figures on the way into Taimali. I wonder how authentic these representations are.
On the flatlands of southern Taitung
The alluvial plain on the north side of Taimali Creek. This is one of the few flat pieces of land in this part of Taiwan.
Old murals in Taimali for Xingnong 興農
An old mural on a building in central Taimali. This is for Sinon Corporation 興農集團, a Taiwanese agricultural company founded in 1955.
Kangyouli 康有力 mural in Taimali
Another old painted mural, this time for Kangyouli 康有力, an old school Taiwanese energy drink.
Riding next to giants
All day long I had been riding next to giants like this truck transporting huge hunks of concrete. This one pulled up dangerously close to me while waiting for a light to change in Taimali.
Palm trees in Taimali
The beautiful coastline north of Taimali is home to a scenic spot known in English as the Aurora Garden. Nobody has seen any aurora around here though; it’s actually a place to watch the sunrise.

Taimali is home to a place known in English as the Aurora Garden, though the official name is more properly translated as the Millennium Dawn Memorial Park 千禧曙光紀念園區. I was close enough to the coast to get the general idea but I was, by then, so tired that I didn’t stop to check it out. Now I am curious to find out if this park has anything to do with the Indigenous roots of the presumably Paiwan name of the district, Tjavualji (Tavalee in 19th century accounts), which, according to Wikipedia, means “sunrise village”.

Ghost money and incense on a bridge in Taitung
An interesting custom I first noticed on this trip: joss paper and incense can be found on both sides of all bridges along this stretch of coastline, presumably to secure safe passage.

While crossing the bridge that spans Wénlǐ Creek 文里溪 I stopped to take a closer look at a bundle of joss paper and incense by the roadside. Every bridge I crossed that day had a similar offering, presumably to ensure safe passage, though I could be wrong about that. I haven’t been able to ascertain whether this is a common custom, something specific to the region, or what. Suffice to say I haven’t seen this anywhere else. Just another small detail from the roads of Taiwan.

The final descent out of Taimali
On the final descent from Taimali into Taitung City.

Hours after my ride began I crossed Zhīběn Creek 知本溪 and finally entered the outskirts of Taitung City, my ultimate destination for this trip, though I still had another 10 kilometers to go to reach downtown. First I made a pitstop in Zhīběn 知本 (Katipul or Katratripul and sometimes simply Tipul in 19th century western accounts), another Indigenous village, this time at the southern extent of traditional Puyuma 卑南 lands. I was somewhat amused to notice the 7-Eleven mascot dressed up in Indigenous clothing. I imagined how a similar gesture might be interpreted in my homeland of Canada. Are local people offended by such pandering or is it seen as kind of cool? I have no idea and won’t presume to answer for anyone.

Indigenous Open Fairy in Zhiben
7-Eleven mascot in Indigenous dress in Zhiben.
In a hotel room in Dawu
Yours truly wearing a weird night market shirt in a hotel in Dawu.
A quirky bar on the way out of Zhiben
A quirky bar on the way out of Zhiben.
Falun Dafa is absolutely everywhere
These guys are absolutely everywhere.
Riding through Taitung at sunset
Riding through the rural parts of Taitung City at sunset, six days into my trip. I was feeling rather satisfied at this point.
Open fields on the outskirts of Taitung City
Open fields on the outskirts of the city.
The desolate highway south of Taitung City
The desolate highway south of the downtown core of Taitung City.
Now entering Taitung City
Now entering Taitung City! Technically I had entered the district much earlier but road signs in Taiwan aren’t always consistent, to put it lightly.
Crossing the distinctive Fengli Bridge into Taitung City proper
Crossing the distinctive Fengli Bridge into Taitung City.

The rest of the ride was smooth and uneventful. The setting sun cast long shadows across the landscape as I crossed Lìjiā Creek 利嘉溪 (Rikabung in the Puyuma language and Nickabong in 19th century accounts) and finally Tàipíng Creek 太平溪 by way of the distinctive Fēnglǐ Bridge 豐里橋. This is the very same bridge that I first crossed into Taitung City back in 2013 in a story as yet untold on this blog. This time around I hadn’t come nearly as far—only about 320 kilometers or so from my starting point in Tainan—but it was still hugely satisfying.

Famous food at Laodongtai in Taitung City
Famous food in Taitung City. It doesn’t look like much more than noodles but it was hugely satisfying after a long day on the road.

I found my hotel for the night, an Airbnb booking I had made earlier in the day, took a shower, and went out in search of food and drink. First I stopped at a tea shop to order something refreshing and was delighted when one of the staff struck up a friendly conversation in English, this being somewhat uncommon in my experience. I broadly described my journey thus far and was directed to a famous local eatery, Lǎodōngtái Mǐtáimù 老東台米台目, which was exactly what the doctor ordered. And with that I soon retired to my hotel for a good night’s rest. Although my trip was complete I planned to hang out and see more of Taitung City the next day—which brings us, finally, to the epilogue for this series of posts!

  1. Dawu also appears to be home to many Southern Ami 恆春阿美 but I haven’t had much luck looking up the details. My understanding is that the Southern Ami settled on the plains of Hengchun but later emigrated to the other side of the peninsula due to ongoing conflict with Chinese settlers. Anthropologists and linguists alike place the Southern Ami in a subgroup and it sounds like they’ve adopted some of the customs and culture of their Paiwan hosts. 
  2. Technically there is another road connection, the Southern Cross-Island Highway 南橫公路, which crosses the Central Mountain Range 中央山脈 from the northern part of Taitung into backcountry Kaohsiung, but this road was severely damaged by Typhoon Morakot in 2009 and much of it remains closed, a fact that isn’t even mentioned on English Wikipedia
  3. This is another piece of Taiwanese history that deserves more than a passing mention but if I follow every thread I’ll never publish anything. 


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