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 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).
Taiwan, Japan, China
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THE town of Kalam in Pakistan’s Swat district is a true gem of nature.
Words cannot truly describe the breathtaking beauty of this area, its gushing streams and splendid mountains. With the Afghanistan Taleban movement long gone from the area, Kalam is now resurging as one of Pakistan’s tourist spots.
In terms of altitude, Kalam is close to Murree, but it seems far higher than the other popular hill station because you’re surrounded by tall peaks as far as the eye can see. The most prominent peak is Falak Sar (5,918m), capped by pristine white snow. The valley is flooded with greenery, so lush that all I felt like doing there was lie down in the grass and gaze around.
One distinct feature of Kalam is the abundance of streams and waterfalls. The hotel where my family and I stayed, Walnut Heights, is situated on a hill beyond the main bazaar, right next to a stream that flows down into the lower part of town.
Every night, I lay on a sofa with my eyes closed, just giving in to the sense of tranquillity from the sound of water gushing down the hill.
But it would be a waste to make a 13-hour drive from Islamabad only to stay indoors. The air is so clean that it would be criminal not to step out and fill my lungs with its crispness.
With my family and a hotel employee named Waris Khan, I hiked up the hill for about half a day. It was lovely, with so much grass and colourful flowers. It was also an excellent vantage point from which to view the valley.
We had the most fun visiting Lake Mahodand, which is roughly 40km from Kalam in the Ushu area of Swat. We went in an open-top jeep that the hotel had arranged.
While bumpy and often uncomfortable, I wouldn’t have gone any other way; the lack of windows and a roof meant I could see all the glaciers and waterfalls which came into view. Falak Sar was also nearby, humbling us with its brilliance as we got nearer.
Mahodand itself was a real treat. Blue waters, graceful mountains and gorgeous meadows gave it the allure of a place one finds by accident. In reality, it is not so secret. Plenty of other tourists were there that day. Many just stood around and enjoyed the sight, while others rode horses and boats.
The presence of other tourists was slightly irksome because Mahodand is one of those places that you want to claim as your own; a private sanctuary where you can lie down and relax without a single care in the world.
Yet, the rush was also pleasing; it was an indication that Swat was back to its former glory as a tourist destination following the disastrous Taleban period.
The army’s operation in Swat, Operation Rah-e-Rast, ended successfully six years ago. Army checkpoints can be found frequently throughout the Swat Valley, and soldiers patrol on jeeps every so often. The region is now safe and stable, though the effects of the Taleban era are still felt by its people.
When I talked to a 10-grader from Mingora named Manzoor, I developed a better understanding of the terrorist organisation’s rule, and the horror and hopelessness it had brought upon the people of Swat.
Life was at a standstill. People were forbidden from venturing too far from their homes.
Violating any of the draconian laws in place led to public beatings. Girls were not allowed to go to school and violence was the norm. My heart sank when Manzoor told me that he saw bombs go off on a regular basis, a sight that to this day traumatises him.
The scars of yesterday must not be forgotten. That said, memories of a bygone era takeaway from the pleasure Kalam brings.
While I am now back in Karachi and to the banality of a regular schedule, I am clinging to my fond memories of the serene Swat Valley. The heart keeps asking the mind: Will we go back soon?
DAWN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
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