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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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HIKING is a common pastime for many South Koreans, with about 70 per cent of the country’s land covered by mountainous regions.

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‡‡ACHIMGARI

This valley at Mount Bangtaesan in Inje, Gangwon province, is famous for its trekking course.

It got its name because you can plough the fields only in the morning (“achim”). The sunshine lasts for a shorter duration, as the valley is located  deep in the mountains.

Achimgari is well known for its hiking course of about 12km. The course takes five hours to complete. Some of its main charms are the natural paths, rather than man-made roads.

There are also areas near the valley where people can go rafting.

EOREUMGOL

Those looking to escape the summer heat and humidity can find themselves a natural air-conditioner at Eoreumgol.

Located at Mount Cheonwangsan near Miryang, Gyeongsang province, Eoreumgol means “ice valley”, a reference to its freezing temperatures even during summer.

Visitors can feel a cool breeze and even see ice between the rocks.

There is a cable car that visitors can take to see the valley from above.
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There are also mountains and valleys that people can visit in Seoul.

Mount Gwanaksan, which stretches across Seoul and parts of Gyeonggi province, has numerous hiking trails.

One of its courses is the Mount Gwanaksan Nadeul road, which begins at the mountain entrance and follows various streams in the mountain valleys, passing by a lake garden and mountain spring in the process.

The trail is 5.58km long and easy for people of all ages to walk on as it has very little in the way of slopes, unlike other hiking courses in Gwanaksan.

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FORGET the ornithopter, and don’t even bother following Icarus’ failed flight plan.

The real way to fly, really fly, is to strap on a paraglider and shoot straight for the skies. Granted, it’s not for the faint-hearted, but sitting in a plane or even a helicopter doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

There are no engines and pollution. Paragliding is a non-motorised form of flight that uses a parachute and air flow to get around, so all that’s involved are man (or woman), fabric, the elements and sheer grit.

It’s a high-stakes form of fun, but so is any adventure sport. By taking the right precautions, flying through the air can be as safe as watering plants.

Husband-and-wife team Ikhwan Azillah and Orkid Jamilah know a thing or two about the thrills and spills of the sport, having indulged in it for the last 15 years.

The couple, who established the Malaysia Paragliding and Hang Gliding Association, got into the adventure sport when Ms Orkid got interested in it while she was in Britain, and introduced her husband to the sport later. When they realised the money-making potential of their hobby, the pair went to New Zealand to earn their international paragliding certification.

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“A lot of people have bucket lists and paragliding tends to be one of the things on the list. Other adventure sports are common, too, like whitewater rafting and bungee jumping,” explained Ms Orkid during a recent interview.

And where this sense of adventure is concerned, women rule. According to Ms Orkid, women make up most of their local clientele. “I don’t know where the men have gone,” admitted Mr Ikhwan sheepishly.

Thrill seekers also include expatriates and tourists from countries near and far, including France, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Vietnam.

Ms Orkid and Mr Ikhwan have based their service in the historic town of Jugra, off Banting in Selangor. The location, aptly named Paragliding Flightpark, is where paragliding enthusiasts take flight.

The most popular form of paragliding is tandem flight, where thrill seekers merely enjoy the ride while a “pilot” steers the glider. For this kind of ride, no prior knowledge of the sport is required, though a basic understanding of physics is beneficial for working with the pilot to steer the glider comfortably.

Weight is also a consideration – for safety reasons, a tandem flier cannot weigh more than 135kg.

The average flight lasts 10 minutes, costing RM200 (S$72). Students pay RM150.

Those with a greater sense of adventure may opt to fly solo. The fundamental introductory course is a two-day affair. Depending on the level of interest, the training spans four tiers, the lowest for those hoping to fly on their own while the highest for those intending to become licensed instructors.

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Packing the chute, made of tightly woven nylon fabric, also gives fliers a chance to inspect its condition – safety is imperative.

“The gear we use comes with a five-year guarantee. Small repairs are outsourced to former commandos who were (parachute) riggers,” Mr Ikhwan said.

No purchase of equipment is required for novice fliers, but serious paragliders can look into getting their own gear.

Sure, paragliding isn’t for everyone. And collecting stamps is way safer.

But think of all the times we’ve envied birds and longed to fly freely like them. Well, paragliding takes a similar trajectory – and wax-coated feathers no longer have to be an option.

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