Monday, August 31, 2015

A Trip to Guguan's Hot Springs and The Atayal Jew's Harp

          Leona and I got back from Guguan a few hours ago. Despite the constant rain from Friday night on, we had a wonderful time. When you plan for a trip, it is good to be flexible; being together with the one you love is the only thing that matters. Of course it would have been nice if the weather were clear and we could go on more hikes in the mountainous rain forests, but fate intervened to keep our get-away as sparkling as we liked even if there were no stars in the cloudy sky.
Dajia River Dam rebuilt after it was
 breached in the 1999 earthquake.
          Every trip begins with transportation to the destination and in Taiwan it is no different. The best case scenario is to make the modus operandi facilitating an escape as pleasurable as the crime of vacationing itself. Contrary to Taiwanese public opinion, driving a car or motorcycle to a vacation spot is not the way to get off on the right foot; how can the driver enjoy the scenery when he or she must concentrate on not hitting the vehicle in front or driving off a cliff on the hairpin turns of Taiwan mountain roads, not to mention the traffic or finding a place to park once you arrive? Going by bus, train, and on foot are the only ways the all parties on the trip can enjoy themselves and each other without keeping one eye on unreliable GPS directions.
      To go to Guguan from any point in Taiwan is easy, convenient, and dirt cheap in Taiwan. Furthermore, you don’t want to mess with currency when you are on the road to salvation. I have only two words for you if you plan to trip around: Easy Card! Go to any convenience store, ask the clerk for a “Yo-Yo Card.” It costs 100 NT; add at least 500 NT to it and you are set.
      Since we live in Beitun in Taichung, if you want to go to Guguan, it is best to take a Taiwan Railroad local train to the Feng-yuan station. Outside the station in Feng-yuan, there is a little bus depot. Get the # 207 bus; it departs at least once an hour. The ride takes about ninety minutes. The bus will make many stops at first but by the middle of the trip up the mountain, when the view goes from heart-breaking through the 1999 earthquake destruction zone to breath-taking view through the valley along the Dajia River, it is almost non-stop. When you arrive in Guguan, go to the cultural center for brochures and maps. In the center, you will see a display:
Jew's Harp Display in Hot Springs 
White Pine Ice Pop Display
 “Atayal Traditional Cultural Artifacts” is the name of Bobao Yasu’s start-up. The packaging is slick and the spelling is American English but the items Bobao and his wife make are not “artifacts” per se. Placed in the Hot Spring Cultural Center which was opened in 2005, the display is one of a few there along with pine tree ice pops. The center is where we picked up maps, brochures, and got information.
 Being a mouth harp aficionado, having played in a blues-rock band for a number of years, I was interested in the mouth organ called the “Jew’s harp,” actually a derogatory term invented by anti-Semites in Europe and appropriated by the American English speaker who carried the subliminal prejudice to Taiwan. Let’s keep the name, anyway, to remind people in Taiwan how my people are treated - not unlike how indigenous are treated in Taiwan - but use the Atayal for the musical instrument, “le-ong,” instead.
      Guguan, in Bo-Ai Village of Heping District, is northeast of Taichung, 800 meters (2,600 ft.) above sea-level. It is located on the Central Cross-Island Highway, the one that used to cut through Taiwan in Taroko Gorge before the 921 earthquake of 1999 and Typhoon Toraji decimated the roadbed and made it unpassable to tourist going to Hualien on Taiwan's east coast. The many businesses and hotels along the route have suffered for fifteen years of it. Today, only old-time Taiwanese visit this spot, international tourists having to take the long way around to Taroko Gorge. 
     The hot springs in Guguan, are odorless and carbonic, with a pH of 7.6, 48-60 degrees Celsius. Most of the dozens of hotels and spas there have hot spring, some public, some private. The Dajia river, where fisherman can still catch small trout, rises up across footbridges from the valley into luscious rain forests of creeks and waterfalls with a dozen trails of various lengths and challenges.   
          My wife and I stayed at a place called Li Chih Shan Shui. The name is too small to read in English but it is well worthy finding because 
Li Chih Shan Shui Spa
The view outside our private Jacuzzi
it is secluded behind the main road near the bus stop up a path a few minutes from the entrance. We were fortunate to stay in the VIP suite, an upgrade because of the lousy weather that caused
cancellation. Prices range from 1200 NT to 10,800 NT. By taking the public bus to Guguan, you can splurge 
on a room with a private hot spring Jacuzzi. Meals are included in many rates.
Private Jacuzzi with a great view of the river
     Once we got settled in the hotel, we walked out looking for a place for lunch. When we saw the crystal clear fish tanks outside the Jin-Gu Restaurant, we knew we had found the right spot. The cooking there was tasty and inexpensive. We opted for fresh ferns, deep fried salted pork, and fresh steamed baby trout raised in Dajia River water. The only English menu in town made it all clear. As the rain poured outside, we chatted with the owner, Mr. Chen Jien-Sen, who has run the restaurant there for thirty years.
     "Say, you wouldn't know where we can find this place that sells Jew's Harps, would you?" My wife asked after I insisted he must know. He did know! We gave him the phone number from the display and he made a phone call.
     "They are not there today; they are away in He-huan-shan, a few hours away in Nantou, to teach a class of indigenous handicapped children who he just couldn't let down, despite the driving rain. "He will be happy to see you tomorrow morning, okay? Call me up when you're ready and I'll drive you to his place" We couldn't believe our ears! We were in for a real treat. 
Baby trout raised in river water
Mr. Chen calls for directions
     After an evening of wine sipping in the Jacuzzi, we were tenderized and ready to go on our adventure into the Atayal community down just down the road.  
     Mr. Chen called up the artisan one more time to get exact directions. We met Babao in his mini-van at a junction across the Rainbow Bridge, one of three red structures the government had built after the earthquake and typhoon.
We drove a few minutes away down rainy roads until we reached Bobao's home and Mr. Chen bid us goodbye.  
     "That was very nice of Mr. Chen to bring us to you," I said.
     "Many foreigners find us through him because they see the sign that he has an English menu. We appreciate him very much. Please, come in." We entered a corrugated aluminum 
 structure with long tables and a display of homemade arts and crafts. 
          "There was a Canadian folk musician that discovered the Atayal le-ong years back," Bobao said reflecting. "He was so interested that he went on a search to find out where he could get one. He contacted the Taiwan Aboriginal Culture Affairs Bureau and they did a search. Finally, after ten years, he came to visit us and learned about the history of the le-ong."
          As we  sipped tea prepared by his lovely wife, Bobao Yasu told us the origin of the "le-ong" as it is called by the Tai-ya (Atayal) people. For centuries before the first Europeans encroached on Taiwan, the indigenous Tai-ya lived on the plains west of the mountains. The community became too large and so the elders chose to spread out across Taiwan in all directions. They tried to avoid head-hunting in other tribes' territory but needed a way to keep in touch with each other when returning from a hunting trip. On their return, the tribe played the le-ong, which sounds like indigenous bird calls, to let their settlers know they weren't enemies approaching. 
          The "go-gao" is a Jew's Harp made of bamboo without a copper strip, copper from Dutch arms left behind after Koxinga expelled the European colonists. A warrior was rewarded with one or two copper strips to his go-gao depending on his exploits. Three copper strips were reserved for the le-ong of medicine men who used the instrument in incantations and magic spells. The warriors gave their le-ong to their wives as gifts of love. It is only recently that the le-ong has been used for musical purposes.      

Assorted hand-made le-ong and go-gao
          During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the le-ong was banned; the Japanese realized the instrument was being used by the Atayal warriors to pass secret messages to defend themselves and attack the invaders from the north. in the 2011 Taiwanese film Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale depicts the resistance 
Taiwan indigenous people put up against the JapaneseOn October 27, 1930, hundreds of Japanese converged on Wushe for an athletics meet. Mouna Rudao led over 300 Seediq warriors in a raid of strategic police sub-stations to capture weapons and ammunition. They then moved on the elementary school, concentrating their attack on the Japanese in attendance. A total of 134 Japanese, including women and children, were killed in the attack.

          Aboriginals have criticized politicians for abusing the "indigenization" movement for political gains, such as aboriginal opposition to the DPP's "rectification" by recognizing the Taroko for political reasons, with the majority of mountain townships voting for MaYing-jeou.
 Vietnamese sign for foreign brides of Atayal
          The Taiwan regional government promoted Bbao's art. They sent slick packaging for it and put it on display in the hot springs museum. They even sent Bobao around the world as an ambassador of Taiwanese indigenous culture similarly to how Darwin came back from South America with Patagonian giants or Wild Bill Hickok returned from the wild wild west with plains Indians. Not as bad as an entire village from the Amazon brought to Coney Island for the gawking pleasure of the Brooklynites, but Babao felt that way, with body guards around him to protect the natural treasure, without interpreter to interact outside of their purpose. There was even a businessman who wanted to take Bobao under his golden wings and mass produce his Jew's Harps in a factory on the Mainland for distribution worldwide. Bobao was having none of that. He wants to spread his people's story like smoke spreads; naturally. 

Leona and Mrs.Yasu got along like old friends
          We went to Guguan not knowing we would have the  pleasure of meeting Mr. Chen, or Mr. and Mrs. Bobao Yasu. Travelers should never lose the opportunity to go off the map and learn about the lives of natives in the vicinity, in this case, the indigenous Atayal people.
Mrs. Yasu in the workshop shed
     Guguan's clean mountain air, without the rush of tourists you find in other spots around Taiwan. is refreshing. There are many trails to burn, and the accommodations when you return from hiking range from bed and breakfast, to hotel spa, to campsites. There aren't too many stores or restaurants though there is a 7-11 and Family Mart, On a rainy weekend in Central Taiwan, do yourself a favor, get on the #207 bus from Feng-yuan (you can also get a bus from the HSR station in Taichung) and ride up to Guguan before it becomes too well known again.  The medicinal hot springs are just what you need to take the stress off during Taiwan's busy winter.