According to a couple of local girls we got talking to while hiking up to the marvellous Heaven Lake (天池), Lanyu (蘭嶼, Orchid Island) isn’t as quiet as it was a few years ago, but for me, as a first-time visitor, it’s an absolutely magical outpost of Taiwan, unlike anywhere else in the country; it’s far more rugged and pristine even than Green Island, its nearest neighbour, and although the numbers of visitors prepared to put up with the three-hour boat ride over from the Taiwanese mainland are increasing (on summer weekends at least), so far Lanyu, like the smaller islands of the Matsu group, remains blessedly undeveloped, tourism-wise, in comparison with Green island, Penghu or Kinmen.
To get to Lanyu, you first have to get yourself to either Taitung or Kenting; boats from each of these places cross the ocean to Lanyu in 3 and 2.5 hours respectively. Unfortunately our trip across from Taidong took nearly six, after thick grey smoke emanating from the direction of the engine half way through the voyage caused a brief emergency. Green Island had already receded into the distance, and Lanyu was still just a distant blotch of dark color ahead, and while the ship’s engineer dashed around looking harried, passengers crowded off the outside deck into the cabin to escape the thick fumes: a few worried souls even rushed to put on their life jackets! Luckily the problem was fixed without the boat bursting into flames, but the remainder of the trip was taken at half speed, and it seemed as though we’d never reach dry land!
First impressions of Lanyu as we rounded the rugged northwestern point of the island and limped down the eastern coast was quite spectacular. Lanyu is a real, rugged volcanic island, but also an amazingly lush one. This place isn’t so much a green island as an emerald one.
Members of the Dawu tribe make up the vast majority of the population, although Taiwanese settlers have been coming in in increasing numbers over the last few years, setting up homestays all around the island to supplement the couple of rather dour hotels that were once the only places to stay here. It seemed to me that much of Lanyu’s increasingly lucrative tourist economy seems to be enriching the pockets of the Taiwanese rather than the Dawu. All the big expenses of the trip – the hotel (NT$1,600 a night), and the boat fare (a seriously steep NT$2,000 for a return trip of 62 kilometers each way) seem to be run by Mainlanders; only the eateries we ate at each night, the little corner stores where we bought food and drink, and a couple of shops selling simple but pretty, handmade souvenirs using aboriginal designs were locally owned.
A loop around the road circling Lanyu is 36 kilometers long (exactly twice the length the road around Green Island), so a set of wheels is pretty much essential. Our scooter was at the port to greet us, which was just as well as it’s five kilometers from the little harbor to our hotel, in the island’s main settlement, an untidy jumble of buildings known as Hongtou (紅頭). By various accounts, the machines for rent on Lanyu are in pretty poor nick. A fine jet of gas spurted out of the first bike we tried as we filled its tank; we were luckier with the next one, which didn’t leak, although the brakes hardly worked and the engine roared like a tractor. Still, it got us around, and Lanyu is a fantastic place to explore, whether on the back of a bike, on foot, or with mask and snorkle.
The scenery around the island is simply superb. Bizarre coral or volcanic formations such as the Jade Girl Rock (玉女岩) and the Twin Lions (雙獅岩) are familiar from tourist brochures, but the whole island is a showcase of bizarrely eroded rocks, such as the huge rock stack known as the Old Man (老人岩), the weird contortions of the Dragon’s Head (龍頭岩), and (my favorite) the stunning Mantou Rock (饅頭岩), which looks like a rough, pointed pinnacle from the north, but when seen from the south turns into a shapely, symmetrical dome rising out of the blue sea, looking just like one of those steamed bread buns found in 7-Eleven.
We never got organised enough to hire out snorkeling gear to explore underwater, although we heard that diving and snorkeling are both superb here, but I can vouch for Lanyu’s hiking as being the finest in all Taiwan’s offshore islands. Lanyu is a pretty rugged place (its highest point is 551 meters high), and most of the interior is guarded by a rampart of extremely steep slopes, covered in thick, dense undergrowth and infested with a nasty red bug called the tsutsugamushi mite, whose bite causes a serious, sometimes fatal infection which together contrive to make the center well-nigh inaccessible. However there are several places to get into the interior with relative ease and safety.
Hidden in the highlands of the interior close to the island’s southern tip, Heaven Lake (天池) is a startlingly large body of water for such a small island. This natural lake, nestling in thick forest about 350 meters above sea level is reached by the island’s best hike: a steep, muddy trail (70 – 90 minutes each way). Get there early if going on a summer weekend . Despite being a hot, and in one place quite tricky, climb, Heaven Lake seems to be a compulsory part of the Lanyu tour for the Taiwanese, and hundreds of them were clambering up as we headed back down. On the other hand, you might want to forget it after heavy rain, when the trail would probably be reduced to a slippery and dangerous quagmire.
Far less popular it seems is the Little Heaven Lake (小天池; apparently there’s only water in it for a short period after a typhoon), close to the island’s northwestern tip. It’s a short but scenic hike out there from the road up to the lighthouse, and side trails lead to the edge of the cliffs with great, lonely views over Lanyu’s impressive coastal landscape. Overgrown trails continue into the interior, but the very real threat presented by the tsutsugamushi mites here mean it’s probably not worth the risk.
With a sea that blue and beaches that deserted, not going in once during our three days on the island was a shameful missed opportunity which I swear I’ll put right on my next visit, but we did get in a full afternoon soaking in one of the island’s best-kept secrets – its wonderful cold springs. Green Island’s seaside hot springs seem to be common knowledge these days to locals and foreigners alike, yet I hadn’t heard a peep about the similar but completely undeveloped coastal springs on Lanyu (on the east coast, a kilometer or so southeast of Yehin (野銀) village) until an hour or two before I found myself soaking in them. Unlike the bath-hot waters of Green Island, the springs at Lanyu are cold, but the flow is powerful enough to flood a whole system of rock pools (both shallow and surprisingly deep) in the coral with fresh water, and it’s heated by the sun until swimming-pool warm. Wear footwear as the jagged coral is painfully spiky in places. Sea water mixes into the pools closer to the sea, and the brackish water hosts an amazing variety of colorful tropical fish, which we enjoyed, thanks to a handy pair of swimming goggles. We were far from alone here, but most people stayed in the pool furthest from the sea, with its soft coral-sand floor, leaving the rockier pools beyond to us and a handful of others. The place is so natural, unspoilt and beautiful, it’s hard not to regret the concrete pools and changing rooms (however discreetly low-key they are) that have compromised the natural spectacle of the far better-known springs at Green island.
Lanyu’s natural heritage enchants, but what truly makes the island unique and memorable is its aboriginal culture. Old traditions are dying out, and (outside of traditional events such as the flying fish festival in spring) the only place you’re likely to see male tribe members in their traditional thongs and metal helmets is in photos hung on the walls of a couple of souvenir shops around the island, but this still feels utterly un Han Chinese. Lanyu’s famous canoes are a conspicuous presence in bays around the island, and although it’s clear some of them at least are there for tourists, a few of them are definitely meant for serious use. The island’s famous underground houses are nowhere to be seen in five of the six villages around the island these days, replaced by functional but thoroughly commonplace concrete box houses. However a whole area of the village of Langdao (朗島), on the north coast, consists of these traditional Lanyu residences, and although some are falling into ruin, some are still preserved, and even lived in. Next to each is the elevated portion of the residence, where flying fish are laid out to dry and the males of the family have their long siesta, while closer to the seashore a row of long, narrow structures are also shelters, each housing a family boat.
Walking along the narrow paths through the traditional part of the village is a slightly uncomfortable experience. It’s clear that the aboriginals are fed-up with insensitive tourists, and just being there seems a bit of an invasion. An old man resting in one of the huts-on-stilts glowered at me as I passed through, and asked for NT$200 to take a photo – the first time I’ve been asked for money in exchange for a photo in all my 17 years in Taiwan. Lanyu’s menfolk in general seem to be going through a depressed time. All around the island, we saw them passing the day laying and dozing in these raised shelters, which offer shade from the sun, yet catch the breeze blowing in from the ocean. Some of the younger men get work at weekends as guides taking groups up to Heaven Lake, and some go fishing, but otherwise it looks like there’s little work to go around.
What with a nuclear waste dump (which can still be seen, with attached harbor, at the southern tip of the island) and unpleasant past experiences at the hands of rude tourists, Lanyu’s people are, at first glance, far less open than the Taiwanese. While we never met anyone who could be called unfriendly (apart from that poor old man at Langdao), and did meet a number of people who greeted us with a smile, I (a Western, light-skinned, brown-haired tourist) had the unique (for Taiwan) distinction of being more-or-less ignored by many of the locals, and I felt almost invisible at times, so it was especially touching being invited to join a very unusual and memorable church service in a cave on the island’s north shore on Sunday morning, our last day on Lanyu. Quite by chance we were passing the Five Hole Cave (五孔洞), a series of large caverns piercing one of the island’s highest vertical cliff faces, and heard the mellifluous strains of aboriginal singing coming from one of the caves. Standing well back from the congregation, which sheltered in the shade of the cave, an aboriginal man came up behind me, motioned for me to walk up and join the singers, and gave me a low plastic chair to sit on.
There were more friendly, relaxed locals at the east-coast village of Dongqing (東请), which I thought easily the nicest and most interesting of Lanyu’s six settlements. Set on one of the island’s loveliest bays, below the suggestively named Nipple Mountain (乳頭山; a trail leads to the top of the craggy little hill, from where the view is quite breathtaking), the village compliments its outstanding natural setting with the island’s liveliest social event: the daily afternoon/night market, where you can buy grilled flying fish (very tasty but with zillions of tiny bones!) and barbecued mountain pig, along with more familiar Taiwanese delicacies such as stinky dofu, shaved ice and pearl milk tea.
The locals here are very friendly and happy to see respectful tourists, and chatted happily until we finally broke off the conversation to gawk at the clouds turning bright pink. Another magnificent Lanyu sunset (we were treated to two, each of rare beauty),- it would have been an even more awesome sight if we’d been on the west coast! One of the stalls at Dongqing is manned by a decidedly Western-looking face; Leon, originally from Canada, is the only Westerner currently living on Lanyu, with his aboriginal wife. It’s well worth paying his stall a visit: the friendly and voluble Canadian cooks great grilled pork and sausages, and is a mine of information and fun stories. Ask him about his river tracing trip into the interior of the island….
GETTING THERE: It’s only really worth going to Lanyu between late spring and early fall; the weather, according to locals, is truly horrible in winter, and at that time transport to the island is hard to find. Transport and lodging facilities on Lanyu are both still quite limited, so if you’re going on a weekend in the height of summer (as we did) you should book a couple of weeks early. Small planes fly several times daily from Taidong to Lanyu, but they’re extremely heavily booked (I’ve heard some Taiwanese book the trip six months in advance!), and are delayed or cancelled in bad weather. The ferry from Taidong (there are also boats from Houbihu (後壁湖) in Kenting) is much easier to book, although times of sailings don’t seem to be fixed. Try the Lanyu Star website for details (in Chinese only): http://www.lanyustar.idv.tw/ although you’ll need to make a phone call to check times of sailings and make a booking. Most ferries seem to dock in Green Island on the way/from Lanyu, so it’s possible to visit both islands in one trip.
Most homestays on Lanyu are booked solid for months in advance, but there are a couple of hotels in Hongtou village which have many rooms and seem easy to book at short notice. The best resource for information (and about the only really good map I’ve seen of the island) is the guide (in Chinese only) to Taitung County published by Outdoor Life Books Co. Ltd, and available in nearly all bookshops. The book has sections on both Green Island and Lanyu, and a good list of accommodation on both islands, with phone numbers, plus contact numbers of ferry companies.