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June 25, 2012, Taiwan

Part 11 - The real Alishan experience

In this 11th instalment of a 26-part series, GWENDOLYN NG mingles with Alishan’s indigenous tribe


MENTION the mountainous region of Alishan, and I’m reminded of a folk song that contains this phrase: “The girls of Alishan are as pretty as water.”

After years of humming the folk song without an inkling of just who these pretty lasses were, I discovered, on a trip to Alishan in March, that the girls are from the Tsou Tribe.

That’s according to my guide, Mr Shi Guang Jiang, 55, who hails from the same tribe.

The Tsous were the first people to settle in Mount Ali in central Taiwan – but their numbers are dwindling, with only about 3,800 members of the tribal community still living there.

“We’re an endangered species,” said Mr Shi, better known as Ah Jiang.

Bent on raising awareness of their unique culture and on earning a living in their hometown, the Tsou people are increasingly turning to tourism.

With deft hands and well-honed skills, Ah Jiang, for instance, recreated a small Tsou tribal village – Ah Jiang’s Home 23 Cafe (No. 129-6, Neighbourhood 4, Leye Village) – made up of quaint wooden and stone huts, complete with the culture’s fireplace, called a pupuzu in the Tsou language.

Walking under the entrance’s stone archway, a rich aroma hit me.

Hunched over a coffee-roasting machine, Ah Jiang’s wife, 45, was grinding and roasting fresh coffee beans harvested from a relative’s plantation in Alishan.

After the coffee break, I headed over to the nearby Yuyupas Tsou Cultural Tribe Village (No. 127-2, Neighbourhood 4, Leye Village) for traditional song-and-dance performances.

After a typhoon wrecked Alishan in 2009, the safe haven was set up to provide the Tsou people with employment and also a platform for their artistic talents.

I was drawn by the handmade leather wallets with intricate carvings that were available for sale. And the music CDs featuring the strong vocals of the boyband of the Tsou Tribe, Lei Hu Zuo, were striking, too. You can even buy the colourful traditional Tsou costumes worn by the staff there.

Yuyupas’ chief executive, Mr Yapsuyongu Tiakiana, 56, said: “Alishan is known for its six wonders – its sunrise, sea of clouds, sunset, cherry blossoms, forest, railway and night scene. But, to me, if you haven’t experienced the Tsou culture, you’ve not been to the real Alishan.”

There was certainly much more of the Tsou Tribe that I had yet to explore in Alishan.

One of them is Alishan’s largest Tsou Tribe village – Dabang Village, which was established over 300 years ago.

The village grounds are home to authentic kuba, thatched-roof gazebos where the tribe’s men gather and important traditional ceremonies take place.

Drop by the Dabang Visitors’ Centre (No. 6, Neighbourhood 1, Dabang Village), a well-preserved oriental-style wooden building belonging to police from the Japanese colonial era.

The enthusiasm and warmth of the Tsou people left me wistfully wanting to stay on to indulge in more – prompting Ah Jiang to jokingly ask me to marry one of the young men from the tribe.

I replied in jest, saying: “I don’t mind, but I can’t do housework.”

To which, he said, “well that might be a problem”, as I broke out in laughter.


VISITING the Tsou indigenous tribe in Alishan is easy with Taiwan Tourist Shuttle Bus Alishan Routes. Board the shuttle bus from Chiayi Railway Station or Chiayi High Speed Rail Station. More details can be found at the website 

To get to Leye Village, alight at the Shi Zhuo stop and make your own transport arrangements to the respective stops.

Exact locations can be found at these links: Ah Jiang’s Home 23 Cafe ( and Yuyupas Tsou Cultural Tribe Village (

For more information on other indigenous tribe spots, check out the Alishan National Scenic Area’s website at

Free-and-easy travellers can take their air tickets and hotelconfirmation details to the Taiwan Visitors Association Singapore (30 Raffles Place, #10-01 Chevron House) before departing for Taiwan to redeem freebies (while stocks last, on a first come, first served basis).

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Unique landscapes, culture in China’s Yunnan

WHILE it may not be home to the Forbidden City or the Oriental Pearl Tower, China’s south-west province of Yunnan is where one can get a glimpse of one of the most unique and culturally rich sides of the country.

The location of Yunnan, which means “the place of the colourful clouds in the south” in Chinese, contributes to its rich culture and exquisite scenery. Bordering Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, the province has served as China’s main bridge to South-east Asia and home to a large number of ethnic minorities in China.

Among many counties in Yunnan, Yuanmou is best known for tulin, which literally means “earth forest” composed of earth columns or pillars that rise up like a giant forest. The unique and mysterious landscape, formed by soil erosion one to two million years ago, somewhat resembles that of Turkey’s Cappadocia.

From a distance, the “forest” looks like a giant, abandoned castle, covered with countless years of dust. As reflected in its natural landscape, the county indeed boasts a long history. It is where the fossilised remains of the “Yuanmou Man”, a member of the Homo genus which lived 1.7 million years ago, was found in 1965.

Yuanmou’s tulin certainly offers one of the most unforgettable experiences while staying in Yunnan, even if it means having to walk under the scorching summer sun. In June, the temperature in Yuanmou can be as high as over 40 deg C.

But even without tulin, Yuanmou boasts beautiful rural scenery with red soil, dramatic clouds and endless agricultural farms and fields. The county is particularly known for its sun-dried cherry tomatoes, which taste almost like sweeter versions of raisins.

On the cultural side of Yunnan, Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture is recommended. Located in  the north-central part of Yunnan province, the prefecture is the residential area of the Yi people – the largest ethnic minority group in the region.

They are known for their practice of a form of animism with elements of Buddhism and Taoism, as well as powerful traditional practices such as rituals for cursing enemies, exorcism and healing.

Visitors are welcomed by the Yis in their colourful, exquisite costumes, who often dance and sing their traditional tunes in public.

On top of cultural performances by the Yis, visitors should not miss out on dining out in Chuxiong. Most restaurants run by the Yi people treat their guests with wine according to their traditional eating customs.

The Yis usually pour the wine in a big bowl first, while everyone is seated in a circle. The oldest of the group will take the first sip, and pass the bowl to the next person after wiping its edge. They repeat the process until the bowl becomes empty.

While dining out, visitors can also experience the Yis’ tradition named “tiaocai”. After all the dishes are ready, performers visit each and every table in a restaurant and sing loudly for guests, using drums and other traditional instruments while jumping and dancing. In some restaurants, the Yis reportedly do the “tiaocai” while carrying food plates on the head.

“We encourage the Yi people to carry on and celebrate their traditions,” said an officer from the Information Office of Yunnan Authority. “We appreciate their existence in Yunnan.”


A sojourn in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia’s ‘Switzerland’

TO BE honest, when I was told I was going to Kyrgyzstan for a work trip in late July, I drew a blank – I had never heard of the country before.

But having spent a week there, I can say with some confidence that it is worth visiting for its people, mountainous scenery, diverse cultures and rich history. The landlocked country is situated in the middle of Central Asia, bordered by Kazakhstan (to the north), Uzbekistan (west), Tajikistan (south-west) and China (east).

Its stunning natural beauty – more than 80 per cent of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous, and the snow-covered Tian Shan mountains will brighten up even the greyest cityscapes – has earned it the nickname “the  Switzerland of Central Asia”.

Kyrgyzstan offers travellers some of the best trekking, biking, mountaineering and horse-riding experiences in the world.

Kyrgyzstan, also known as the Kyrgyz Republic, has a continental climate and covers an area of slightly under 200,000 sq km.

Its population of about six million people are mostly Kyrgyz and Muslim. And they converse mainly in Kyrgyz and Russian (due to its Soviet Union legacy).

The capital, Bishkek, has a population of about one million and the country is further divided into six administrative sections known as oblasties.


In Kyrgyzstan, a journey from one place to another takes longer due to its hilly terrain and lack of highways. However, Bishkek is a modern city with wide streets and all the usual urban amenities.

Things appear quite slow-paced but Kyrgyzstan is by no means an underdeveloped country. On the roads, you can see European and Japanese cars – and, would you believe it, Proton Wiras. The police force uses Malaysia’s Proton, among other makes, as their patrol cars.

Zebra crossings abound not just in the city but throughout the country. The best thing is that drivers are courteous and will stop to allow pedestrians to cross.

Some popular landmarks in the city are the Victory Monument and Ala-Too Square. The Victory Monument was built to commemorate the victory during World War II as well as the country’s fallen soldiers. What is striking are the three curved arcs – representing a traditional round and portable Kyrgyz tent – with the figure of a woman awaiting the return of her husband and sons from the war, near an ever-burning flame; very poignant. Many a wedding party would make a stop there to pay their respects.

Ala-Too Square is where the locals hang out and conduct many activities and festivals. Different bicycles are available for rent too, from morning till late at night.

There are no seas to head towards to. The next best thing is Issyk-Kul Lake, which is the 10th largest lake and the second biggest saline lake in the world. The body of water, with a 182km span, is situated at the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains in eastern Kyrgyzstan. The name Issyk-Kul means “hot lake”, but do not be fooled because the water can be icy cold even in the summer.

The locals believe that the lake’s water has healing properties and, during summer, it is a major tourist spot. Ferry services are available to bring visitors to the middle of the lake for a swim. Indeed, the water isvery clear, clean and inviting.

Another popular destination the Kyrgyz and Russian tourists throng is the Keremet Suu hot spring in Chong-Oruktu village near Issyk-Kul.

Other locales to consider visiting include the Burana Tower in Tokmok. A historical tower, it was built in the 10th century on the site of the former Karakhanid city of Balasagyn.

During my stay, I also realised other reasons why Kyrgyzstan finds favour with some tourists.

I bumped into a couple of 23-year-old students from New Zealand who said they chose to holiday in Kyrgyzstan because it is not a usual vacation spot. Also, it is not very commercialised, and food and accommodation are cheap.

“I hardly see Western or European tourists here. The Kyrgyz are so friendly, warm and beautiful. It’s a very peaceful and stunning country,” said one of them.


Food in Kyrgyzstan is quite an incredible experience. Finding halal food is not a problem too.

The country’s staple is bread, which is usually eaten with vegetables, dairy products and red meats. And to the locals, drinking tea – green or black – is like drinking water.

Vegetables served seem to be a combination of onions, tomatoes and capsicums sprinkled with olive oil. Forget chicken; instead, think beef, mutton, buffalo or even horse meat.

The locals’ nomadic heritage appears to figure into the type of ingredients used for their cooking, as well as how food is prepared.

Do try the kimiz (horse milk), kuurdak (sauteed meat) and traditional noodles known as beshbarmak, which is similar to spaghetti and contains a mixture of meats. Beshbarmak means “five fingers”, because that is how the dish is eaten – with your fingers. Also, try the wheat drink called jarma.


The country’s nomadic tradition, which has been passed down from generation to generation, is still very evident.

While the majority of Kyrgyz live in houses and apartments, some natives live in portable round tents, called bozui, accompanied by herds of horses, goats and sheep.

Bozui are usually found in rural areas and used by the shepherds. Being portable, they are designed to be easily dismantled and carried about.

Assembling one takes around two hours, and is done by both men and women; usually the men are in charge of the wooden structures while the women handle decorations and roofing.

Many bozui are also set up along the highway or in the city as makeshift restaurants to offer visitors a unique dining experience in a traditional house.

Then there are bozui camps like those in Tash Rabat, the House of Stones at Bashy and in Jeti-Oguz (Seven Bulls) Valley near the city of Karakol on Issyk-Kul Lake.

Be prepared, however, for their toilets; in some places, they can be very simple.


Getting to Kyrgyzstan from Singapore takes about 12 1/2 hours or more by air and may include transit stops. Do make sure to change your currency to United States dollars.


This trip was sponsored by the government of the Kyrgyz Republic.

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