Taiwan's Southern Cape (恆春半島)

Shipwrecks and Headhunters

Taiwan's extreme southeastern coast, still one of the most remote and lightly populated corners of this island, served as backdrop for a series of shipwreck dramas during the mid-1800s that made far off Formosa the talk of the Great Powers and got pundits in the United States, Japan and elsewhere talking about either buying Taiwan from China's Manchu rulers or simply taking it by force.

Truculent weather, hidden coral reefs and hostile inhabitants irritated shippers and made Taiwan's dangerous shores an occasional cause célèbre for those out to make the world safe for civilization and Free Trade. In the two decades between 1850 and 1870 alone, some 150 Western vessels met their end in Taiwan waters.

In 1867, after crashing onto coral, crew and passengers of the U.S. ship Rover straggled onto a rocky stretch of southeastern shoreline only to lose their lives to indigenous Malayo-Polynesians (still headhunters at the time). A similar fate met the survivors of other shipwrecks, including 54 hands aboard a Ryukyuan fishing / trading boat that foundered along the same stretch of coast in 1871. Their capture and death at the hands of Paiwan (Botan, 排灣) warriors near the current town of Hsuhai (旭海村) gave Meiji Japan an excuse to dispatch an expeditionary force to the island in 1874, which lingered more than six months, killed several dozen of the elusive Paiwan and lost over 500 of their own number - mostly to tropical disease. This half year sojourn, known today as the "Mudan Incident" (牡丹社事件), is often cited (in hindsight) as the first move in a Japanese plot to wrest Taiwan from China - an effort that culminated two decades later in the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki (馬關條約).

I'd read about the wrecks and heard about the rough landscape that greeted survivors ... now I had a chance to see it firsthand. ... read on.

The Challenge

Cycling around Taiwan, either in sections or the entire 1,000+km circuit, has come into vogue over the past several years. The initiative has complex roots, but seems driven at its core by a growing desire among the population here to ponder their identity as Taiwan islanders (rather than immigrant or transplanted Mainland Chinese) and subsequent curiosity on the part of those with time (i.e., students) or money (mostly white collar professionals) to finally explore their homeland in a challenging but (now) socially acceptable way - straddling a top-of-the-line touring bike and wearing the latest in sweat-free fashion. The screening in 2006 of the semi-documentary film Island Etude (練習曲:單車環島日記) [link to YouTube trailer here, and great song from the film here] and promotional support from the island's globally competitive bicycle manufacturers gave the movement its 'wings' ... and it is now difficult to travel anywhere off the highways and not see long-distance cyclers on their way somewhere. This is a fad that will hopefully strike deep roots and continue growing. Taiwan has much to offer in the way of scenic beauty and friendly faces - enjoyed all the more from the seat of a bicycle.

A good friend and professor of law at one of Taiwan's leading universities is already well into a plan, put together with half a dozen former classmates (now all middle-aged professionals, of course), to circle Taiwan together by bike. They are doing the circuit in sections so as to minimize disruption to work schedules, with each section a 3~4 day chunk of time - usually astride a weekend.

The next section awaiting them was the southern cape, a "U" route beginning just north of Kaohsiung (高雄市) and ending in Taitung City (Taidong, 台東市), some 250 kilometers away [see route map here]. I asked to join when discussions turned to biking all the way down to Hengchun (恆春) before crossing over to the Pacific Coast rather than via the easier (but highly trafficked) Southern Loop (南回公路, Route 9). Added enticement was the prospect of a challenging but pleasant few hours of shouldering bikes across a several kilometer section of remote and roadless southeastern shoreline - the selfsame coast described above. Little in the way of information on this area is available (not even in Chinese ... it is quite remote). Blogs by several Taiwanese cycling teams gave an idea of what we might expect in pictures and limited descriptions (follow links here 1 & 2).

Taiwan's far south is an amazing place to cycle due to its remoteness, tropical beauty and relaxed airs. We rented bikes from Giant at an outlet several blocks away from the southern terminus of the High Speed Rail (HSR, 高鐵) in Tsoying (Zuoying左營), a northern suburb of Kaohsiung City. The stretch of Provincial Route 17 south through Kaohsiung City and into northern Pingdong County traverses the badlands of Taiwan industrialization. Petrochemical factories in particular dominate the skyline and keep the area cloaked in a fine grey acidic haze. We mercifully left industry behind about 4 hours into our trip and began to enjoy the windy and exceptionally scenic Pingdong coast along Provincial Route 1 ... and then 26. Having pedaled out from Zuoying at around 10:30am (after arriving on the first HSR service of the day), we reached our Hengchun B&B after dark, about 8:00pm - inclusive of stops for lunch and a bit of sightseeing.

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From Hengchun, we cut eastward the next morning on County Route 200 into rolling hills (that bear, I thought, some resemblance to south Texas) before veering southeastward on Route 200 "jia" (甲) toward the small village of Gangkou (港口村) on the Pacific. The road ended at Provincial Route 26, which we followed north and past a toll booth happy to collect NT$60 a head (the student rate) for permission to continue on to the absolute end of this section of Route 26 at Jialeshui (佳樂水 or 佳洛水) - some 2 kilometers further on.

A late start in the morning meant it was two o'clock by the time we had polished off lunch and commenced carrying our bikes. We weren't initially aware that the entire coastline ahead (some 12 kilometers) was devoid of all but perhaps 200 meters' worth of bike-friendly footpaths and that we would be pushing and carrying our bikes for a full 7-1/2 hours to come. The day was one of those "once in a lifetime" adventures. As we prodded our cycles across the rocky shore covered in sandstone boulders of assorted sizes, I could easily picture how disappointing this stretch of Taiwan must have appeared to soggy shipwreck survivors a century ago. The ribbon of rocky coast, averaging some 30 meters wide, ends abruptly against steep slopes covered in impassable tropical grasses and screw pine (林投, Pandanus odoratissimus ... see pictures here).

With the exception of a few fishermen encountered not far from the trail entrance, we had the entire coast to ourselves that afternoon. At each promontory we expected / hoped to hook up with a dirt path that would take us off the beach and eventually to the road we needed to take to our Hsuhai B&B reserved for the evening ... It was not to be. Night closed in soon after seeing the first twinkling lights of civilization - still a hard 3~4 kilometer walk away. We pressed on with flashlights after nightfall and emerged at around 9:30 in the tiny fishing village of Nanren (南仁村). Exhausted, we were kindly taken in by an 80 year-old fisherman and his wife, plied with sports drink and pot noodle, and offered a room in which to bunk for the night. We accepted graciously, and slept exceptionally soundly on beds of plywood paneling covered with bamboo mats.

Our third day out took us north along the perimeter of the island's largest sand dune (at Jiupeng Bay, 九鵬灣) toward the town of Hsuhai (旭海村, where those Ryukyuan fisherman were waylaid in 1871). Until recently, the entire area between Nanren and Hsuhai was an ROC military preserve. Much of the interior, home to Taiwan's main missile testing facility, remains so. From Hsuhai, we cycled inland along very scenic Route 199 - from sea level to about 400m (around the town of Shouka [壽卡]). Once we connected with the Southern Loop (Route 9), it was an exhilarating coast all the way back to the Pacific. We still had a ways to go before finally making Taitung County's Jinlun Village (太麻里金崙村) and the Eastsun Resort & Spa (東太陽溫泉會館) - our inn for the night.

The fourth day was comparatively anticlimactic, although still liberally sprinkled with gorgeous Pacific Coast scenery and still a challenge with plenty of inclines to huff up along Provincial Route 9. In Taitung City, we returned our rented bikes to the city's main Giant outlet, ate lunch and headed by car back down Provincial Route 9 toward Kaohsiung and an HSR ride homeward. We just made the last High Speed Rail out of Zuoying (about 10:40pm) and got into Taipei in time to ride the last intercity bus back to Keelung. The adventure had remained so down to the last minute ...

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4-Day Cycling Itinerary (see map here for details)

Day 1: Zuoying (高雄市左營區 a northern suburb of Kaohsiung City) - Hengchun (屏東縣恆春鎮, close to Kenting 墾丁)

Day 2: Hengchun - Gangkou (港口村) - Jialeshui (佳樂水) - Chufengbi (出風鼻) - Nanren (南仁村)

Day 3: Nanren - Jiupeng Bay (Jiupengwan, 九鵬灣) - Hsuhai (Xuhai,旭海村) - Shouka (壽卡) - Daren (達仁) - Jinlun (太麻里金崙村)

Day 4: Jinlun - Taitung City (台東市)

- JM


Michael Turton said...

fantastic post. Wish I'd been there.

Jeff Miller 米傑富 said...

You'dve been a very welcome addition, Mike. Next leg, July / August ... Taitung back to Keelung via Route 2 through the central mountains (Taroko to Yilan via Wuling). We'll take the hills slow.

Stephen said...

What a great adventure. Taiwan offers so much for the cyclist. Even such remote adventures. I've missed the "student with free time on his hands" and don't quite fit the "white collar professional" Just hope I don't have to wait for the "early retiree" before I get a chance to cycle some of these wonderful places.