Just over three-and-a-half years ago Typhoon Morakot swept through southern Taiwan, causing catastrophic damage and killing over 600 people. Today a memorial park stands on the site of Xiaolin (小林) village, which was completely buried by a landslide that day, while the devastation also remains obvious in many other places in southern Taiwan.
A particularly dramatic example of the terrific destruction wrought by the astonishing 2.7 meters of rain that fell on that single day can be seen in Pingtung County, at the abandoned Rukai aboriginal villages of Ali (阿禮) and Jilu (吉露). These two neighbouring settlements were evacuated following massive damage due to subsidence caused by the typhoon floods. Luckily no-one there was killed, I was told. The two settlements lie in a magnificent setting, clinging to the steep sides of a huge valley high above Pingtung city, and hikers heading to the remote but once popular Little Ghost Lake (小鬼湖) would have once gone right through both on the long drive up to the trailhead. The once motorable track beyond Ali (nearly 40 kilometers long) to that apparently very beautiful place was destroyed during Morakot, and the lake is now effectively inaccessible.
Ali and Jilu on the other hand can still be easily reached, and for northern Taipei dwellers, who escaped Morakot’s wrath, a visit is to this scenically magnificent area puts into dramatic focus just how terrible the destruction visited on the area by the typhoon really was.
Leaving Pingtung city (there’s a very useful shop renting scooters right opposite the train station – they’ll rent to foreigners but only those with a local scooter licence), it’s a quick sprint across the lowlands to Sandimen (三地門), where the central mountains abruptly start rising out of the flat plains. Sandimen is the gateway to Rukai aboriginal country, and is one of northern Pingtung County’s most popular tourist destinations – but it’s a Tourist destination with a capital T, and its aboriginal dance shows and big, loud restaurants are uncomfortably reminiscent Wulai – far from authentic and rather tacky.
Luckily beyond Sandimen town the road soon gets deep into the mountains on its way up to the vaguely legendary settlement of Wutai (霧台). Regular viewers of Taiwan’s TV news will know this place well, since it’s often cut off for days after summer typhoons. Just last year, it made the local headlines when the road was wiped out (again) and supplies had to be helicoptered in for stranded villagers.
For such a disaster-prone place, the road to Wutai is surprisingly easy, wide and gentle. Much of it is still unsurfaced, as rebuilding work continues following Morakot, but in many places it’s wide and spacious, and the gradient is pretty gentle as it climbs past the police checkpoint (just show some ID and write your particulars and you can continue), descends to cross the canyon of the Yiliaobei Stream by a temporary bridge (a huge new bridge – locals say it’ll be Taiwan’s highest when finished – is being constructed here). Finally it climbs again, narrows to a one-track lane for a short spot where repairs are continuing (this stretch of road is open for only 10 minutes each hour at the moment as the road is repaired, which means quite a long delay if you arrive at the wrong time!) and at about 900 meters above sea level enters the village of Wutai, about 45 minutes after leaving Sandimen.
Wutai is a great place to stay – magnificent views, a good small Rukai Culture Hall and some nice homestays, but the best scenery lies after the village, when the road narrows, climbs further and passes a couple of seriously dodgy looking cliffs and big landslides.
The village of Jilu is first, down a short and rather steep approach road on the left. It’s completely abandoned and stands eerily silent, big cracks (caused by subsidence) have opened in the village lanes while the lower edge of the village has slid partly down the mountainside.
It’s another couple of kilometers – passing the most spectacular and unnerving bit of road on the route – to Ali, the settlement at the very end of the road. At the entrance to the village the road splits. The overgrown track ahead beside a huge engraved stone is the old forest road to Little Ghost Lake, while the right fork winds up the hill a little to the village, divided in two by the village church and cemetery. This first half of the village is completely abandoned. Massive subsidence has left big cracks in the houses, which were very obviously left in a great hurry. Notices warn visitors not to loot any of the belongings left inside the houses, and all in all it’s an utterly eerie place. Following a lane up behind the church, approaching the back half of the village, I hear distant voices. This half of the village was less damaged in the typhoon, and, incredibly a few families apparently still live here. On my visit the only people around were actually workers toiling on the village Headman’s house, a photogenic, traditional Rukai slate-walled building with some interesting decorative wood carving. A few other slate Rukai houses line the streets of this part of the village, and it’s a fascinating, if slightly unnerving place to wander around.
The following day I discover that these aren’t the only villages that have been abandoned in this area. Staying the night at a homestay in a new settlement built on the edge of Sandimen specially to house the aboriginal community displaced from Haocha (好茶) village, I’m quickly made to feel like one of the family, and have some amazing discussions with these wonderful people. Several villages in the hills nearby such as Haocha have now been permanently evacuated, and their inhabitants now live in this or similar new developments. I’ve never seen anything like it this place in Taiwan before: the housing estate consists of neat lines of attractive detached houses complete with small gardens and reminds me strongly of England. Happily, although the new lowland setting can be no match, scenically, for their former homes, my hosts and their friends all seem very comfortable in their new homes.
Visiting them was certainly the highlight of an extremely vivid weekend exploring Morakot-ravished Pingtung, and I’m eager to go back, with a guide, to make the 2-day return trek up to their ancestral home, the slate-house village (and Grade Two Historic Monument) of Old Haocha (舊好茶).