Thursday, April 20, 2017

Yuli-Fuli Bikeway

Yuli (花蓮縣玉里鎮) in the southern part of Hualien County has long been a crossroads. It's here that 19th-century migrants from west Taiwan via the Batongguan Ancient Trail emerged from the Central Mountain Range. Some of these pioneers proceeded north or south within the East Rift Valley. Others continued eastward across the Xiuguluan River and Coastal Mountain Range to the Pacific coast, taking a route similar to what's now the Yuchang Highway (Highway 30).
Like much of the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area, Yuli is thinly populated and there’s never a lot of traffic. Cycling is therefore a fun (as well as eco-friendly) way of exploring the township, which sprawls over 252 square kilometers. The authorities have done their bit to make the area attractive to pedal-powered tourists by creating the Yufu Bikeway (玉富自行車道), a 9.8km-long bike path that starts in central Yuli. 
The history of the bikeway is, in fact, tied to the the history of the railway. In recent years, Taiwan’s government has upgraded and electrified the railroad in the east. In the process, the stretch immediately south of central Yuli was straightened. Instead of crossing the Xiuguluan River, it now takes a more direct route toward Taitung. One reason for this is that the rock-strewn bed of the Xiuguluan River - which empties into the Pacific 25km away as the crow flies - conceals an important geological boundary. 
The land east of the waterway, including the Coastal Mountain Range, is part of the Philippine Sea Plate. Everything to the west is part of the Eurasian Plate. East Taiwan’s hot springs and frequent tremors - not to mention much of its rugged beauty - can be attributed to the ongoing collision between these plates. 
Each year, tectonic forces drive a bit more of the Eurasian Plate under the Philippine Sea Plate. As a consequence, the Coastal Mountain Range grows a little higher. But this tectonic mismatch causes problems for humanity. The road bridge that crosses the river has to be fixed every three to five years. A tremendous inconvenience, of course, yet an interesting spot to stop, learn a bit about natural processes, and take a team photo!
As even minor distortion of the tracks could cause the derailment of a speeding locomotive, what used to be the railway bridge (and now serves as part of the bike path) had to be repaired and realigned approximately every two years. Enjoying the bikeway recently as guests of the scenic area, we barely noticed the gradient while pedaling across. But a little later, pausing for breath at the 3.2km marker and looking back at the bridge, the disparity was obvious. 
Antong (安通) Cycling Station is a former railway station supposedly repurposed for the benefit of bikers, but at the time of our visit there were no food, drink or repair services - not even a vending machine. Local folk make good use of the bikeway, and not just to reach their fields. One lady we came across was laying out Hakka-style dried pickled mustard greens (meigan cai, written 梅干菜 or 霉乾菜, shown above).
The bike path ends at Dongli (東里) Old Station, where you can get a cup of coffee, snacks and postcards. For cyclists eager to explore further, it's easy enough to continue southward on Highway 9 (the main north-south road in the East Rift Valley), although the traffic is sometimes quite heavy. We turned around so we could take in a few sights in the town center before boarding our trains home. One of these we would never have found but for the help of the local hotelier accompanying us: A section of creek at the corner of Heping Road and Minguo Road Section 1 where local housewives and grandmothers still hand-wash clothes in the traditional manner. 
In the parkland on the corner of Minquan Street and Zhonghua Road, there's a green-and-white bus bearing the logo of Taiwan’s postal service. This vehicle formerly provided Taiwan's only mobile postal (and post-office banking) services, regularly touring the township's remoter villages. A stone's throw away, local artists create and sell works at Pu-Shi Printing & Dyeing Art Workshop (璞石藝術館).
Upstairs, the emphasis is on stone art, created using tiny fragments of various stones, some of which are imported. Many of the works reflect indigenous themes:
This visit and blog post were sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The hub of the sugar industry in east Taiwan

Between the 1930s and the 1950s, sugar was Taiwan's most valuable commodity. Sugarcane has been grown on the island for about 400 years, but it under Japanese colonial rule between 1895 and 1945 that the local sugar industry really began to thrive. In the 1915-1939 period, the amount of sugar produced per hectare harvested rose from 2.76 tonnes to 9.91 tonnes. By the late 1930s, sugar plantations covered a fifth of Taiwan’s farmland. Many of them have been afforested (like the one shown below) or used for the development of science-based industrial parks.
In 1950, sugar’s contribution to Taiwan’s exports peaked at 73.6%. It remained an important source of foreign exchange until the 1970s, when competition from Brazil and other producers pushed Taiwan’s sugar industry into unstoppable decline. All but three of the island’s 49 sugar refineries were closed. Some were demolished; others were repurposed as cultural venues. The state-owned Taiwan Sugar Corp. (TSC) has diversified away from the production and sale of sugar and now also grows orchids, raises hogs, and runs a chain of gas stations.
Hualien Sugar Factory (花蓮糖廠, above), which ceased operations in 2002, is neither the oldest nor grandest of Taiwan’s surviving sugar-processing facilities. Nevertheless, it is without doubt a beguiling place to visit for anyone interested in industrial heritage and Taiwan’s economic development. Being 47km south of Hualien City, not far from Guangfu Train Station, it’s also a fine place to break the long drive from Hualien to Taitung - especially if you like ice cream.
Many of those who stop here make a beeline for the frozen-products shop. It sells around 30 flavours of ice cream and popsicles, some of them seasonal. Among are likely to be some you’ve never sampled, such as azuki bean, taro, soy sauce or yeast. The sugarcane juice lollies are especially refreshing. 
Two carp-filled pools (shown above) near the ice-cream store are in fact reminders of World War II. During the closing stages of the war in the Pacific, when the Americans were bombing industrial sites in Taiwan in a bid to weaken the Japanese war machine. Sugar refineries like Hualien’s were targeted because they supplied ethanol to the Japanese military. Elsewhere in the complex, girders still carry holes and other marks (obvious in the photo below) made by shrapnel.
Back in the factory's heyday, what's now the parking lot was usually piled high with harvested sugarcane. This was often delivered by narrow-gauge trains, like the one pictured below:
The very first stage of the industrial process was removing dust, grit and gravel from the cane. The cane then moved through a series of machines, several of which bear the insignia of the British, German, Dutch and Japanese companies which made them. Visitors can wander among these crushers, rollers, pulping vats and boilers. Few are labelled, and the information tends to be in Chinese only, but it’s easy to spend half an hour or more here, gazing at the rusting yet intensely photogenic infrastructure. 
For those living hereabouts, the factory wasn’t only a place of employment. The company provided health care, housing and entertainment. The old clinic still stands, as does the former movie theatre/meeting hall. 
Rather than demolish what used to be senior managers’ official housing, TSC renovated the refinery’s Japanese-era wooden bungalows and turned them into Hualien Tourism Sugar Factory Guesthouse. 
The Japanese personality of these buildings has been preserved, even after extensive rebuilding using hinoki wood sourced from the US and Vietnam. Within the 28 rooms, guests sleep on tatami mats, and don yukata (traditional dressing gowns) after soaking in ofuro (high-sided wooden bathtubs), prompting one local Chinese-language blogger to wax: ‘The style allows you to feel the beauty of the Japanese culture of silence, soft colors and soft lighting’.
This visit and blog post were sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.