Sunday, July 16, 2017

Biking through bucolic Ruisui

Ruisui Township in Hualien County (花蓮縣瑞穗鄉) encompasses much more than the little town served by Ruisui Railway Station (the fastest expresses take around 45 minutes to get here from Hualien City). Driving from the northwest corner of the township, near Fuyuan Railway Station, to Qimei (奇美), an Amis tribal village in the east, takes more than half an hour. 
The toponym Ruisui is the Mandarin pronunciation of the name given to this place by the Japanese during the 1895-1945 colonial period, Mizuho, which itself was derived from the way Japanese speakers pronounce the two characters which formed the original Chinese name, 水尾 (shuiwei).  The hot springs in Ruisui and nearby Hongye (紅葉) began pulling in visitors during Japanese rule. Tea growing is also important hereabouts.
We stayed in Yuan Hsiang Hot Spring Resort (原鄉溫泉度假村, pictured below), a friendly mid-range option. You don't have to be a guest to enjoy the public pools costs (admission NT$150 per person; no time limit; swimsuits required). Each room has its own tub, naturally. 
Despite a successful tourist industry – two major hotels were under construction at the time of our visit – Ruisui, like many of Taiwan's more remote places, has experienced a population decline in recent years. As of spring 2017, around 11,600 people were registered as living here, down from a little over 13,000 back in 2008.
The township is divided into 11 villages, of which Qimei (Kiwit in the Amis Austronesian language) has the smallest population, but is the largest in terms of land area. The only way to reach this remote outpost of indigenous lifestyles is via County Road 64, a twisting strip of asphalt that cuts through the Coastal Mountain Range and provides excellent views of the Xiuguluan River, a spectacular waterway which also happens to be Taiwan's whitewater-rafting mecca.  
Before 1987 there was no road to the village, so any produce farmers hoped to sell had to be punted upriver to Ruisui. These days, the road (pictured below) is by no means Taiwan's steepest, nor is it as prone to landslides as some other routes. Nonetheless, cyclists and even ordinary motorists should think twice about using it during or just after heavy rain. 
We were in Ruisui to ride bicycles, a form of exercise I adore. I had another reason to feel excited: For the first time, I'd be riding an electric scooter. These eco-friendly devices are becoming more and more common around Taiwan - and this one rode as smoothly as the petrol-powered version I use on an almost-daily basis. The country roads around Ruisui aren't ideal if you want to discover your machine's top speed, but the scooter lent to me (pictured below) seemed to accelerate to 55km/h without any problems.
We rented ours from Huamulan Rental (花牧瀾機車出租) which is as close as could be to the railway station at 8 Zhongshan Road Section 1. A day's use costs NT$500; helmets are provided, but you should bring a long-sleeved shirt as the sun can be fierce. 
Electric scooters are perfect if you want to stop and photograph each curiosity you come across, like this trickle of mineral-enriched hot-springs water near our hotel (above). Unlike the Yufu Bikeway, Ruisui's cycle paths aren't a straightforward A-to-B route exclusively for two-wheelers, but rather a set of recommendations as to which of the many back roads cyclists might enjoy. Whether you set out with a specific destination in mind, or wander at random, do head back to the station area at mealtimes; you won't find many eating options elsewhere.
If you opt to stay two nights in Ruisui, set aside half a day or more for Fuyuan National Forest Recreation Area (富源森林國家森林遊樂區圖), to explore its various trails, and appreciate its exceptional bird and butterfly populations.
If ecotourism isn't your cup of tea (or milk), head to JJ Farm down by the Xiuguluan River to see one of Taiwan's larger dairy farms.

My visit and this blog post were sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.