Lanyu (Orchid Island)

Right: Orchid Island, Ancestral home of the Thao

While I didn't see much in the way of orchids, the island itself was quite picturesque. Orchid Island lies about 60km to the SE of Taiwan and is the ancestral home of the Thao people. It's terrain is rocky and volcanic, and similar to Green Island (Ludao) further to the North.

Taoist ritual

I had hoped to fly directly from Kaohsiung, but as I discovered, that service has been discontinued. One Uni Air staff member cheerfully informed me that it was possible to fly North to Taipei take a flight South to Taitung (almost doubling back completely!) and then across to Lanyu. Those of you who know Taiwan will realise how ridiculous that would be and yet at the same time not be surprised that one might be offered such an absurd itinerary. I rejected that particular route and instead booked a return flight from Taitung to Lanyu, then raced into town to book the train ticket from Tainan to Taitung. The express train only took a shade over three hours and it was quite worthwhile trip, cutting across the mountains south of Kaohsiung and heading back up the East Coast. The East Coast beaches are quite scenic reminding me of NZ's West Coast beaches.

As I made my way to my seat I was not at all surprised to find it already occupied. I've come to expect this in Taiwan. Often you'll see whole groups entering into negotiations and jockying for position, particularly on international flights. There may of course be some deeper cultural significance to all this that I'm missing completely, but anyway on this occasion it passed without incident as the guilty party spotted me scrutinizing my ticket, looking puzzled, and apologized profusely before moving on. The woman sitting next to him promptly slid across to occupy my seat leaving the one next to it vacant. Heh...O.K. well, anyway..... From the station in Taitung I caught a taxi to the airport and borded the plane to Lanyu. Someone was actually sitting in my seat so I took an empty one just behind the cockpit. I'm not a great fan of flying it has to be said, so the single engine propeller driven aircraft just added to the excitement. My Chinese at the time was still quite poor, but what I overheard of the pilots conversation sounded a bit like..... "Are you sure you know how to fly these things?" and the reply "Well not really, but I flicked through the manual in the pub last night." The terminal on Lanyu is painted in the tribal colours, black, white and red and styled on the islanders' canoes. True to form I hadn't made any accomodation arrangements, but a local bloke, dribbling betel-nut and gesticulating wildly, was on hand to rent me a scooter for $500/day and a room for $400/night which seemed quite reasonable. $500 is a bit steep for a scooter but apparently that's the going rate on Lanyu.The bike seemed to be held together with industrial sized strips of sellotape, however it managed to hold together for the duration. The room was OK, nothing fancy, a couple of tatami mats and two fans.

Right: The islanders' canoes are constructed entirely without the use of nails.

Lanyu is the ancestral home of the Thao, whom the Japanese called Yami, a people distantly related to those of the Philippines and Pacific Islands.

Thao canoes

To my ear the name Thao sounded more like "Da wu". Their language is considered to be of the Malayo-Pacific (Austronesian) family, however most of the people I encountered were speaking Mandarin Chinese. On the few occasions when I did hear the local dialect being spoken I would say it sounded a bit like Tagalog.

No Nukes

Lanyu is also the home of considerable malcontent at the Taiwanese government which has has been slow to act on a number of grievances including the small matter of 98,000 barrels of nuclear waste that Tai-Power saw fit to deposit on the island. I have been told though I couldn't confirm it here, that the depository was built by islanders who were told it was built for some other purpose that would be of benefit to the island. On the whole interference in island affairs has been anything but beneficial to the islanders and Lanyu remains one of the poorest regions in Taiwan. Under the Japanese, the islanders were pretty well left to their own devices while a few scientists were sent there to study the flora and fauna. After the KMT assumed control they decided the islanders weren't Chinese enough and thus began decades of sinicization. Part of this involved shipping in a good number of Mainland Chinese residents which in turn contributed to racial tensions. In 1966 the redevelopment program forced islanders to stop living underground and build concrete dwellings.

Right: Signs of a colonial past

Unfortunately in many of the buildings that were built during this time, too much sand was used in the concrete in order to save costs and many have fallen into disrepair. In more recent times the young people have departed for the Mainland seeking employment opportunities further eroding the culture.

Thao canoes

I managed to explore some of the island before sunset and returned to the village of Yuren where I was staying and tried some local fare at the "Epicurian Restaurant". The meal consisted of poached fish and island vegetables (mainly taro). The taro was quite nice steamed and there was also a dish of steamed taro shoots. Much of the cultivation on the island is taro but I think it is a different strain to what is available in Taiwan. It's texture was quite smooth. The "Epicurian" is run by Charlene and HaiAn. Charlene is from Taipei and speaks pretty good English. HaiAn is an islander though his father was Mainland Chinese. I also met a bunch of young guys from Taipei who were there for a diving trip. (I had to ask what Epicurian meant; it's derived from the Greek philosopher Epicurus who was fond of food and drink and the word is an adjective to that effect.)

Bin Laden

The next day I got to do a slow circuit of the island, 37km right round. There are 6 or 7 villages and a couple of small ports scattered around the island but it is nowhere near as developed as Green Island. I got to the first village north of the airport when the intermittant rain got a bit heavy so I stopped in at a noodle shop for lunch. As the weather cleared a bunch of kids came down the road singing "Haaaalelujah. Haaaalelujah" and chattering away as kids do. I didn't quite catch all of it but I did hear this followed by some reference to Osama Bin Laden. This was not so long after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Kids eh?

The villages have a couple of churches (one of each), so the missionaries evidently did their jobs well. Curiously, one I saw had a pentangle on the front of it. Catholic, I suppose. I did see one run down Chinese shrine but clearly Christianity has the ascendency on Lanyu. I saw them making canoes in one of the villages. The canoes are of some interest as they are made of 14 pieces of wood and constructed without the use of nails (apparently).

Left: Cute kid.

There was a road heading up to a weather station which afforded some pretty good views of the island and I got some really nice shots. One thing about Lanyu is that there are goats all over the place. They seemed to be living wild though I was assured that they had owners.

Somewhere near the South of the island is Lanyu Pond which I made an attempt to find. It wasn't signposted but I'm pretty sure I found the right track. As it was already after 3:00pm I decided to give myself a cutoff of 4:45 to start turning back, I have heard of people getting lost in those mountains. Being summmertime there was still a bit of daylight available. It was quite a hike. I encountered one young bloke coming down. I asked him how far to go and he relied that he never got there. Bad sign! He didn't hang around to chat unfortunately, so I kept going only to find the path peter out into a riverbed which I followed up to the point where sucessive landslides had made any progress impossible. (He could have told me that much!). It started to rain so I made my descent. Maybe next time. Good exercise though. I flew out on Sunday at noon which gave me enough time for another quick circuit of the island. I got up to the weather station to get a few more shots where I was press ganged by a large group of Taiwanese tourists to take pictures of them. This tends to happen. I was laden with no less than 5 cameras and required to take two or three shots with each. Taiwanese are obsessed with obscuring interesting places with dorky looking pictures of themselves. My Taiwanese friends find my pictures strange because there are often no people in them. I took a quick swim at one of the beaches (on the other side from the nuclear waste depository) but the surf was a bit gravelly. The trip back was pretty uneventful though there was someone sitting in my seat on the train. I found an empty one.