Nantou is Taiwan's only province isolated from the Pacific Ocean. Those who discover the mountainous heart of this region today tend to agree with the Portuguese navigators who named Taiwan Formosa.
One of so many tropical depressions gradually unravels over Taiwan and the weather shows itself, over the island, with gestures and whims that come back to surprise us with every ten kilometers that pass, with a crazy intermittence between thinly cloudy skies. and scorching sun and cumulus nimbus frightening ones that pour out floodwaters.
We have Jack at the wheel. This is the English-speaking version of the name chubby driver who knows little else in English and calls the boss to talk to us whenever he encounters a lack of information or difficulties of other kinds.
"It's boss!” communicates us for the umpteenth time since we had left the capital Taipei. "Speak, speak!.” And hand us the cell phone.
In conference with the boss, we decided it was time to leave the lush depths of Taroko Gorge and head southwest towards the province's main city, the namesake Nantou and Hsitou. The route takes us around, on its north face, Mount Chilaichushanpei, one of the most imposing in old Formosa.
We are in one of the most seismic domains on Earth. Jack is very present. In his swashbuckling MMA style, he patiently researches a translator of his diminutive smart phone and communicates to us almost in ecstasy: “This road before cabuuum! fall down. "
"before” It was a while ago but no Taiwanese will ever forget the famous 921 earthquake, so named for having happened on September 21, 1999, with an approximate maximum intensity of 8.0 and epicenter in Jiji, a mere dozen kilometers from where we walked. The earthquake killed nearly 2.500 people and left more than 100.000 homeless.
It was labeled by the local press as the Earthquake of the Century, also due to the dissatisfaction and the economic and political devastation it generated, with the defeat of the Kuomintang party in the 2000 elections.
We pass Wushe and then Puli, along the Central Cross Island Highway and between steep slopes, many of them brimming with one of the good teas of the East.
Even though practically all the villages in the province were seriously affected, when we arrived in Hsitou we didn't detect any sign of this event. There reigns a verdant peace of mind such as we haven't felt for a long time, preserved in a dense fog that stubbornly refused to rise. We settled in an elegant inn built largely out of bamboo and, as soon as we left to explore the surrounding rainforest, we noticed the almost excessive abundance of that leafy and exotic reedbed.
Like New status quo of pseudo-nation of the Republic of China, the reforestation of the area has been one of the main projects and with great success. Also during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, a forest reserve was established. The National Taiwan University that now runs it grows more than a million trees – cypresses, cedars and pine trees – and bamboo shoots every year in its terraced nurseries. Later, they are distributed around the island, where they can be most needed.
Compared to the pressure cooker atmosphere in which certain areas are surrounded, the climate of Hsitou is refreshing and the place has become very popular as a weekend getaway, also among couples on honeymoon. When Friday arrives, it is invaded by a population of Taipei eager to relax from the hustle and bustle of everyday life in communion with Nature. As we had been worn out from the many hundreds of kilometers already covered by car and on foot, we too indulged in an uncommitted escape, entertained by circling the University Lake and exploring the paths that follow the streams that feed it. At the end of one of them, we came across a cypress tree almost 50 m high, believed to be 2800 years old.
The origin of the lake to which we moved next is much earlier. And, were it not for a hydroelectric project still being developed by the Japanese, instead of just one, there would still be two, side by side. Instead, the dam that the Japanese erected merged into one, the largest in Taiwan, more than 9 km in area. Most of the inhabitants did not resent the move beyond that. In addition to being superlative, the new reservoir of bluish and limpid waters had enormous charm. Accordingly, much more than Hsitou, Sun Moon Lake is the island's main natural attraction. Many Taipei workers are eager to buy houses in the vicinity so that they can retire in harmony in the second half of their lives.
By the time we got there, Jack couldn't find the opposite opportunity. As soon as he hung up the always hyperactive phone, he made a point of expressing displeasure at the time we had already forced him to spend away from his home in the capital. "Wife very angry! Have to go back!"
We are well aware of the duration of the task he had been given and we chose to ignore his outbursts once again. Instead, we asked him to take us to the Wenwu temple, which replaced two much older ones that were submerged by the hydroelectric dam. There, we defeated the guard of two intimidating red stone guard lions and climbed the stairs to explore two distinct wings: one dedicated to the war gods Guan Gong and Yue Fei, and a later one erected in honor of Confucius.
Very distinct deities were worshiped in Taiwan before the massive occupation of the Han ethnic group who migrated to the island from the XNUMXth century, mainly from the Fujian region, on the coast of mainland China.
Several Aboriginal tribes inhabited Taiwan for at least 10.000 years, coming from other islands in the Pacific, in such a way that the original Taiwanese are much more similar to the Filipino people who, for the most part, belong to the Malay ethnic group). Once, the only occupants of Formosa, the aborigines make up, today, only 2% (almost 400.000) of the more than 20 million inhabitants. Even so, they are divided into eleven tribes, each with its own language.
Similar to what happened in several other parts of the world, Taiwanese aborigines also suffered severe discrimination. This situation only improved substantially in the 90s when the government launched a six-year Aboriginal culture promotion program that included medical care, legal support and subsidized loans. Also the improvement of roads linking cities with aboriginal settlements and the marking of reserve territories that could no longer be sold to non-indigenous people.
From then on, Taiwan's indigenous culture has not ceased to gain adherents. All crafts and arts in general became fashionable and entered the homes of Taiwanese, Aboriginal music entered the tops of Formosa and its cuisine in the menus of restaurants in large cities. Many aborigines insisted on getting rid of their Chinese names and recovering the tribals. At the same time, newly married Han couples wear Aboriginal costumes during their wedding photo shoots.
However, the new attitude of the Chinese authorities and population towards the oldest inhabitants of the island does not always have the deserved subtlety and genuineness.
Moved by Jack's proximity and frantic advice, we decided to take a peek at a Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village.
Erected in an incoherent way, the theme park was designed to bring together a cultural microcosm of ethnic groups recognized by the government, side by side with an inappropriate European castle, a garden and a vast amusement park. It didn't take long to see with the architectural ensemble and that, even though they were colorful and very shaken, the shows staged on a rounded stage in the center of an artificial lake gave the indigenous Formosa an obvious commercial exhibitionism. The locution, only in Mandarin, did little to overcome the problem.
Jack watched the shows for the first time with undisguised delight. We put up with a stoic forty minutes, after which we left the amphitheater to examine the areas that grouped dwellings, traditional ones, totems and other key elements of its culture, with the pity that we are not admiring one of its manifestations in earnest, such as the Festival das Crops or other.