By Steven Crook

      If you want to see Taiwan as nature intended, head east.

      Hualien and Taitung counties cover 8,143 square kilometers, around 20 percent of Taiwan¡¦s total land area. But with barely 600,000 inhabitants, they have just three percent of the island¡¦s population.

      There's more space, fewer people, and far fewer factories.

      In addition to 300 kilometers of coastline, and spectacular views of the Central Mountain Range, the two counties share a row of substantial peaks all their own--the 170-kilometer-long Coastal Mountain Range.

      The 104-kilometer-long Hsiukuluan River is a well-known venue for rafting.

      Aboriginal groups in East Taiwan have been able to preserve many of their traditions: The Paiwan tribe will hold their quinquennial Bamboo Festival on October 25, 2003.

     So whether you're a mountain biker, a hiker or a rafter, a culture vulture or a ¡§windshield tourist,¡¨ you are certain to find something to your liking in East Taiwan. Most probably, you'll find a great deal.

      Visitors, especially those with their own transportation, could happily spend a week or more in the East Rift Valley. But having a few days only, I decided to make my way by train through this lush vale in a single day.

      I got off the train at Wanrung, a small aboriginal town 40 kilometers southwest of Hualien. There are a few eateries near the train station, some mom-and-pop stores, but no hotels, and no obvious signs to Lintienshan.

      From photos I knew what to expect: a hillside village of quaint Japanese-style wooden bungalows which, during Lintienshan's heyday, was dubbed ¡§Hualien¡¦s Jiufen."

      Lintienshan owes its existence to the surrounding forests, rich in Chinese juniper and Japanese cypress trees. A logging railway, now disused and overgrown, penetrated deep into the mountains. Unfortunately, the area's woodlands were devastated by a forest fire in 1972.

     Compared to the Alishan area, where logging began soon after Japan took control of Taiwan in 1895, Lintienshan was developed quite recently. Only in World War II did large-scale exploitation begin.

      In addition to residential buildings and dormitories, some of which are still inhabited, there are disused sawmills full of rusty equipment.

      The central part of the settlement has been well cared for. The buildings have been repainted, and signs indicate their original function: Rice Store, Fish & Tea Store, Ice Store, and so on. One room has been turned into a small museum.

      Lintienshan is satisfying in that what you see at first is uninspiring, but more and more is revealed as you wander around the settlement. It's easy to spend half a day here, and not far up the Wanlichiao River are hot springs which can be reached by jeep or on foot.

     On weekends and holidays, Taroko National Park attracts hordes of visitors, but getting away from the crowds is not difficult.

      After consulting a national park worker, I headed to Huitouwan, several kilometers up the road from the tourist pit-stop of Tienhsiang.

      A signboard there points the way to three tiny aboriginal villages. The road is fine for walking or mountain biking, but is too narrow for cars and SUVs.

      On one of the busiest weekends of the year, I met just two other hikers. I soon reached Meiyuan, where half-a-dozen aboriginal families work large vegetable fields.

      This village has an enviable setting. It looks down over a spectacular rocky gorge; at the far end of the valley, the peaks of Nanhudashan loom.

     But there is no shop; no school; no police station; and no clinic. There is, however, a makeshift church.

      An even more remote settlement can be found beside Lotus Pond, a small pool surrounded by groves of bamboo and banks of fog.

      It took me more than an hour of determined uphill walking to reach this spot, where a sign warns of bears, boars, snakes, bees, and poisonous plantlife. On the way I had seen several monkeys and a few squirrels, but nothing bigger--and nothing that didn¡¦t seem terrified of humans.

      After several hours' hard hiking, my thoughts turned to soaking. There are dozens in East Taiwan; Wenshan Hot Springs, 45 minutes' walk from Tienhsiang, are pleasantly situated beside a clean, cold stream--and admission is free.

     Complaints are likely to focus not on the facilities--which are rudimentary but adequate--but on the number of steps (more than 300) down which visitors must go. The soak is certainly worth the descent and the climb back up.

      And even if you've experienced it before, the marvelous cliffs, tunnels and twists of Taroko Gorge are worth revisiting.

      But make time for East Taiwan's other attractions, where the crowds are smaller--or non-existent--and the views more than worth a long drive over the Southern Cross-Island Highway, a relaxing rail journey from Tainan, or a short flight from Kaohsiung.


      Thanks to the Central Mountain Range, traveling between Taichung and the East Coast is much more time-consuming than going even greater distances north or south. However, there are several options, ranging from longer, scenic overland routes to a fairly quick flight.

By Car

       Since the 9-21 quake in 1999, the most direct route between Taichung and Hualien, the Central Cross-Island Highway (Route 8), has been severed. However, there still are several other very scenic roads that don't take too much longer (about 7-8 hours). One favorite is to head south from Taichung (usually via the Taichung-Nantou Expressway) and take Route 14 to Nantou County's Puli. Continue through the tea plantations of Wushe and up to the Route 14 spur at Renai, which passes Hohuanshan and connects over to Route 8 at Tayuling (the highest point of the Central Cross Highway). This continues down to Hualien via the Taroko Gorge. Another beautiful drive across the mountains (and Yushan National Park) is the Southern Cross-Island Highway (Rt. 20), which goes to Taitung County via Tainan and Kaohsiung counties.

By Bus

       There are currently very few direct buses between Taichung and the East Coast. The Guo Guang Hao Bus Company has a single daily 10:40 p.m. bus that goes direct to Taitung from the company's main terminal next to the train station. Tickets are currently NT$450 and the overnight trip takes six hours. Call (04) 2222-2830 for information.

By Train

       By train, one can go to Hualien via the northern line, via Taipei. Non-stop Ju Guang Express trains to Hualien leave Taichung at 7 a.m. and 5:56 p.m. daily. Tickets cost NT$632 and the trip is six to seven hours. To get to Taitung, take the southern line (via Kaohsiung), with non-stop Ju Guang trains leaving at 6:15 a.m. and 6:57 a.m. Tickets cost NT$643. Alternately, for about NT$200 more, take even faster Dz Hsing Express trains to Taipei or Kaohsiung, where one makes a transfer. Check http://www.railway.gov.tw for more information.

By Air

       Mandarin Airlines (MDA) usually has seven flights per day (7:20 a.m. to 6:40 p.m.) between Taichung and Hualien, costing around NT$1,975 and taking about an hour. There are also a couple flights a day to Taitung (NT$2,161). Frequency, times and prices change all the time, so call for the latest information (04-2425-2319, 2425-4236).