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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

GWENDOLYN NG

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.

GETTING THERE

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 www.alishan-bus.net 

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 (www.ajong.com.tw) and Yuyupas Tsou Cultural Tribe Village (www.yuyupas.com).

For more information on other indigenous tribe spots, check out the Alishan National Scenic Area’s website at www.ali-nsa.net

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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