Taiwan: Aboriginal Ecotourism
If you do not have your own vehicle, your best bet to get there might be with a tour group as Smangus has no public bus service. Alternatively, the visitor center in Smangus can also arrange transport between the village and HSR Hsinchu Station/Hsinchu Railway. If you plan to drive yourself, a four-wheel drive would be most suitable, in particular on rainy days when the road can become treacherous. Due to the remote location of Smangus, it is better to stay overnight in the area. If you want to stay in the village itself, you will need to book well in advance, especially for weekend stays. Bookings can be made through the Smangus visitor center.
The hike to the giant trees is a must-do. Registration is compulsory before accessing the trail (contact the Smangus visitor center for more information). For those who don’t get put off by strong smells, a short detour on the hike will take you to a section of the mountain stream where the tribe’s people traditionally stored the carcasses of animals they had hunted in order to keep them fresh. There is a small convenience store in the village, and the food halls serve food at mealtimes. In addition, an old lady with a small van supplies the village with a daily delivery of baked goods.
With its tropical climate, rich cultural heritage and beautiful scenery, Taiwan offers many opportunities for those looking to get away from city life to slow down and immerse themselves in nature. In June, I spent a weekend in the aboriginal village of Smangus (known as Simakusi in Chinese), home to the indigenous Atayal tribe. This is one of the most remote settlements in Taiwan, nestled in the mountain forests of Jianshi Township in Hsinchu County, and home to a cluster of giant cypress trees, each over 1,000 years old. As well as offering scenic mountain hikes, Smangus also provides an insight into a fascinating community structure, as the inhabitants work as a cooperative to tap into the growing market for ecotourism, working together to harvest the fruits of the land.
We set off for the mountains one Friday morning, an eclectic group of four Taiwanese adults, four children under five, an elderly grandmother – and two foreigners. While technically not very far from Taipei as the crow flies, to get there we left the main road at Hsinchu City to begin a three hour, winding mountain ascent in fairly heavy fog. We finally reached the village, perched far up a mountain with extraordinary views over the valley, and consisting of a cluster of wooden cabins, a couple of communal eating halls and a small church.
We arrived just in time for a tour given by one of the locals, who showed us around the village.
We were told that, with fewer than 200 people, this tribe was the last aboriginal village to be connected to the road network, their road being built in 1995. From this point, tourists began to trickle in. The initial influx created disunity in the village, as relatives and friends began to set up competing accommodation and catering services. The threat of outside competitors entering the village to capitalize on the growth in tourism, and the possible resulting loss of autonomy, ultimately led to the establishment of a cooperative among the villagers in 2001, developing into total co-ownership of all means of production in 2004. The money brought in through tourism is redistributed between all the members of the cooperative, and the same minimum wage is given to all men and women. Breakfast and lunch are also provided to members, as are subsidies for childcare, elementary education and care for the elderly.
The guide explained that the inhabitants share everything, and, to demonstrate, he called over a couple of mischievous-looking brothers of about 10 years old who were returning from the mountain where they had been picking plums, the fruit now carried in a plastic bag between them. One lady in our group went over to them and stuck out her hand, and the boys unflinchingly began to hand over their goodies. I couldn’t remember the last time I met a 10 year old who took to sharing so naturally.
We encountered another example of this principle later that evening, as we passed a man on a motorbike loaded with freshly-picked peaches. We tried to buy some from him, but he handed them over and refused to take payment. However, it was later explained to us, for our Taiwanese friends it was natural to try to meet a favour with an even greater gift, and therefore they had handed over the best thing to hand to the villagers, which happened to be an expensive gift we had brought for them from Beijing. While I understand the cultural practice, to us foreigners this looked suspiciously like re-gifting in disguise! Maybe I just need to get better at sharing.
Dinner was served at 6:30pm on a covered terrace overlooking the mountainside. We were brought steaming platefuls of fresh vegetables grown in the shared gardens, and boar raised on the mountainside. We ate until we were stuffed, before sinking into surprisingly comfortable beds for the night.
The next day after breakfast, we set out to hike to the giant cypress trees, just over 5km away. The path wound around the edge of the mountainside, sometimes with impressive drops, crossing bamboo bridges arching over mountain streams.
Suddenly, after an hour or so of happy hiking, a shrill scream echoed around through the forest. We rushed to investigate, and found that our group’s grandmother had lost her footing and slipped from the mountain path, skidding down the rocky slope to be swallowed by the greenery a short way down. Luckily, help was at hand as some passing good Samaritans had already leapt down to her aid, and with a combined push-pull effort she was restored to the path, shaken but miraculously unharmed. The children with us were devastated by the event, and needed much consoling before we could continue. We eventually distributed the little dead-weights and slung them onto our backs for the rest of the journey.
We finally arrived in an enchanting clearing, where we began our loop around the huge trees, scrambling over giant tree roots and little streams. The scale of them was absolutely breath-taking. The two largest trees measure 20.5m and 19.7m in diameter, both around 2,000 years old, a humbling thought when one considers the powerful world dynasties that have risen and fallen during their lifetime. I felt very much like an intruder in what was undoubtedly their forest.
To our surprise, when we returned to the previously-quiet village that afternoon, we found a newly-arrived flood of tourists pouring from large buses. The village’s growing popularity, and the ensuing risk to sustainability, was behind the decision to cut tourist numbers from 500 to 250 a day in 2015. We had to wait until 5pm to descend the mountain, as the road allows only one direction of traffic at a time. When our turn came, we headed back towards the bright city lights of Taipei, carrying with us a new-found recognition of alternate ways of life, where communities don’t compete, but rather work together to create a happy, sustainable environment.