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Dulan, Taiwan: Exploring Taiwan’s east coast

By John McMahon 5 May 2020

When one thinks of Taiwan, its neat and orderly tenement buildings and fragrant street stalls immediately come to mind, enchanting visitors with its frenzied dining culture and vibrant night markets. But outside of its storied capital of Taipei, the east coast of the Kingdom of Fruit boasts soothing beaches, ornamented temples, indigenous villages, and rapturous mountain terrain. We explore one such rural settlement in the shape of Dulan, a community in the Donghe Township of Taitung County.

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When I bought my ticket for Taiwan as a rest stop on the way from Bangkok to California, it was hiking that I had in mind. Taiwan has 26 peaks over 3,000 meters with trails that criss-cross the island. It was a coincidence that I met up with some friends of friends who own a little bar and brew their own beer in a small town on the east coast a week before I was to leave. They described the place as a cool surf town that harbours an eclectic cast of expats, local artists, and craftspeople, that their bar is built inside the guts of an old sugar factory, and that Dulan, their town, looks down on a black sand beach and is backed up by craggy green mountains. It was reason enough to put off hiking and check out Taiwan’s east coast instead.

I went straight from the airport to Dulan in Donghe Township, Taitung County, known as the heart of the arts and surf culture that has developed along the east coast. It took a couple of trains, a bus, and a taxi ride. By serendipity, my trip would span the end of the annual cultural festival of the indigenous Amis people and the opening of the national Taiwanese surf championships. There was some waiting for connections and transferring but I never felt haired or lost. Travel was easy and didn’t cost much more than in Thailand.

I woke up a bit discombobulated in the house I had rented from an Australian expat. The temperature was about half of what I had just left in Thailand but the house had hot water in the shower, a luxury I have little use for normally, but a simple pleasure on a cold morning. Afterwards, I strolled along Dulan’s main street which hosts a few guesthouses and eateries catering to the international backpackers who come to either surf or be surfer-adjacent. I had breakfast at a place that advertised tacos but served me a delicious lentil soup, homemade bread, and two steaming mugs of tea as I chatted with the owner, an eccentric, self-described geriatric playboy, before heading down to the festival.

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If you’re old enough to remember the 1994 hit Return to Innocence by ambient rock supergroup Enigma, then you’ve heard traditional Amis chanting sampled in its haunting opening. Several hundred Amis attended the 2019 festival dressed at least partially in traditional custom, speaking their own language, and serving up Amis food to the uninitiated. Thousands of Taiwanese came from around the country to take in the spectacle and scattered among them a handful of westerns. A dance ring formed on the lawn in front of the Amis Folk Center and an ages-old dance began.

The music continued unabated throughout the morning as dancers gathered and wandered off to eat or talk or rest beneath the trees but the dance circle never broke. By noon the yen to hike along the sea called me away from the festival and so I set to the water. The weather was cool enough to walk the cliffs and black sand beaches for five hours without breaking a sweat but still warm enough to strip off for a plunge into the sea late in the afternoon. Waves were cresting over three meters and from where I sat drying off among the scattered stones and boulders I watched both kiters and windsurfers beating against the surf on a stiff wind.

The beauty of the place draws more than surfers to the coastline. Highway 11 is a favourite for both on and off-road cyclists as well as motorcyclists who come to ride the twisty Route 23 that winds through the mountains. Hikers also find their way there to explore the Dulan Forest and package tour busses come through to the natural phenomenon of ‘water running uphill,’ which I was told was much less interesting than watching the tourists themselves.

Along the coast, there is an assortment of places to stay that range from the Dulan Cape Café with restaurant, pool and shipping container rooms perched on the sea cliff offering million-dollar views to Black Boss Camping. A place to pitch a tent or rent a trailer in an environment that feels like a cross between a cartoon magic garden and a militia settlement, complete with outdoor bathtub, arc welders, and ATVs.

Highway 11 hugs Taiwan’s east coast for a hundred kilometres, which is why Brian and Rita, the couple I had seen in Bangkok, named their bar and boutique after it. Located in the Sintung sugar factory, the bar has a comfortable DIY feel to it and the gallery is bright, displaying handmade clothes and crafts that Rita sources from locals. The shop’s head-high, peek-a-boo walls reveal the guts of the factory’s monster machine that once rendered plants into table sugar.

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On the final day of the surf contest, a typhoon was blowing. The water was rough enough that, in the first three heats, none of the surfers managed to paddle out past the break, focusing instead on scoring some points on the inside. As the morning went on, the rain increased and the crowds shrunk back off the beach to the food stalls to indulge in all things BBQ. A beer tent was pitched, where lines of pedestrians clad in everything from bikinis to parkas were waving bills in the damp air vying for plastic cups of watered-down lager.

I rode the Kymco out of town and made a random right up into the lush mountainside. Vegetable gardens border small concrete block houses showing the wear and tear of the island's fierce storms along the steep terrain. The roads though are in fine condition and coiled like snakes through the hills but the Kymco was out of true from front to rear and neither of its two gears ever seemed to be the right one. I could see heavier clouds blowing in over the sea and was already out of my depths on the little death machine on the steep twisty roads.

By the time I got back to town, it was dark and raining, and I was cold right through. I headed for Highway 11 with one of Brian’s coffee oatmeal stouts in mind but took a mug of homemade mead instead. It was Saturday, which meant a band was playing out in the drizzle so I took a seat near the fire, and rocked out to the nineties covers.

My four days in Dulan wasn’t near enough time to do and see all that the east coast has to offer. For me, the area offers almost the perfect balance of beach and mountains. There are more beaches and coves to explore, trails to hike and roads to ride. Which I will, when I come back.

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John McMahon


John McMahon is a freelance writer and artist who lives on the banks of the River Kwai. He is the author of five novels and countless short stories, and his work has been published all over the English-speaking world.