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With almost 25% of the population indigenous, Taiwan is rich with tribal culture. There are 16 tribes spread around the country, six of which can be found in the Hualien area. Also home to Taroko Gorge, the national park is one of Taiwan’s most beloved natural treasures and visited attractions. Many tourists just go for the day, not realizing that a few hardy natives still live there and you can spend the night in their home. It’s a hard hike, but the payoff is worth it: it’s a cultural experience few are privy to.
How to Do It:
Datong village is fairly small and remote with five b&bs that offer similar accommodations. You get there by combining three trails in Taroko National Park, two of which are rarely used by tourists. Read: this is not a walk in the park. Dekalun, the first portion, picks up right from the visitor’s center parking lot. The beginning of the trek is a series of developed stairs straight up the mountainside with almost 1,000 feet of elevation gain within a few kilometers. Continuing to climb, the next segment is a series of switchbacks up the Dali trail. Prepare for your legs to be burning on both portions.
You’ll then reach the first village – Dali. It is basically abandoned with a few signs of a former settlement here and there, including a picturesque church if the weather cooperates enough to see it. There are no accommodations so if you want to spend the night, you must continue onwards. The final segment to Datong splits into two paths, giving you the choice between the Tongli Trail, a shorter jaunt uphill for 2.9 km or the Shakadang Logging Road, a paved, flat abandoned highway for 6.4 km. The total trek is 8-11 km each way (depending which path you take) through dense forest. With only five guesthouses, it can feel a little anti-climactic after a long, tough day on the trail, but wake up to the solitude of the mountains and the lush tropical greenery and you just might change your mind.
I stayed at Sapah Yayku, or house of Yayku, the name of the kind Taiwanese woman who runs the inn. She is 64 years old has lived here for seven years. She grew up in the area and moved back to retire after her husband passed, leaving her the land. She has three daughters who live in Taipei and help out when there are a lot of bookings, sometimes even giving up her own bed to accommodate weary travelers. Her daughters bring meat and supplies from the city about once a week, which is the only time they can cook meat or fish due to the lack of refrigeration. The guest house looked like a converted barn meets refugee camp with a bunch of mattresses on the floor dorm style and eight cats to keep you company. There used to be 15 cats, but bizarrely hunters killed seven of them (they really don’t see many people around these parts). Despite the modest accommodations and her complete lack of English, Yayku was warm, welcoming, and quick to fill our bellies with warm nourishments, preparing dishes from the vegetables she grows in her garden.
The tribes believe power is too convenient so everything is either gas or solar charged with a real focus on living off the land. This is not a journey for everyone. It’s a place to disconnect for the night and get back to the basics. It’s not a glamorous trip by any means, but a fascinating local experience that offers insight into a unique way of life. I’m sure she had countless stories to tell, I just wish there was a better way to communicate them.
How to Do It:
It costs about 900-1200 Taiwan dollars ($30-40) to spend the night at a Datong b&b with breakfast and dinner included. You do need a pre-approved hiking permit from Taroko Gorge.
It’s recommended to book accommodations ahead of time, which is difficult to do on your own since I didn’t see any with websites (some have Facebook pages), phone reception (some use the app Line, which is popular in Taiwan), or speak much English.
The easiest way to book the experience is by paying for a guided excursion through My Taiwan Tour who can handle all the logistics. Plus, you really do need a translator. Even with a guide, we communicated primarily with basic signs (made easier since my brother is deaf).
I would imagine it’s hard to accommodate specific food requests, as Yayku just whipped up whatever was accessible. If you have allergies or dietary restrictions, make sure to plan accordingly and bring your own snacks and meals.
Dress for the elements. Bring layers and a headlamp, as it does get dark and chilly at night. Make sure to pack quick dry gear as the weather can change rapidly. Hiking shoes are highly advised; especially in inclement as it does get quite muddy and slippery.
Understand that this is not in one of the main sections of Taroko Gorge – it’s trails that are rarely seen by tourists. If you’re looking for the well-trafficked and well-photographed marble gorges, turquoise waters, and suspension bridges, head elsewhere. This is a completely different experience and something that few people get to do.
Does this sound like an adventure you’d like to embark on?
Special thanks to My Taiwan Tours for their guide services.
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