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A Visit to Beautiful Orchid Island
Map Showing the Train Line and Taidong
Taipei Train Station
A few years ago now, we decided to visit Orchid Island, or Lan Yü, as our Taiwanese friends called it. Children's Day Holiday on 1st June was coming up and that year it fell on a Monday, making a long weekend.
On the Friday evening after work we caught a bus to Taipei Train Station, a lovely modern building with shops, cafés and restaurants. We boarded the train to Taitung (pronounced Táidōng) and settled in. The lunch-boxes we purchased were great and included a tiny bottle of what we call Yakult. We had chosen an air-conditioned train, but it was crowded with excited young people. It was not easy trying to sleep sitting up and the lights remained bright the whole journey.
We arrived early in the morning and enjoyed walking around near the Station, watching people exercising and dancing to music. Then it was time to board a bus for the airport.
The plane was due to leave at 7.30 a.m. and soon we were flying south-east over the ocean. The blue sky and mountains were beautiful in the early morning light.
Orchid Island - Lan Yu
Lan Yu is a small, beautiful volcanic island about forty-five square kilometres and is part of the Republic of China's Taidong County.
About eight hundred years ago, Tao people migrated there from the Batan Archipelago in what is now the Philippines. The local language is Yami, and about two-thirds of the four thousand residents are aboriginal, while the rest are Chinese; compulsory education on the island is in Mandarin. Most of the aboriginal people are fishermen and farmers, although the younger generation usually go to Taiwan for further education and then not return, except to visit.
After the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese ruled Taiwan. They declared Orchid Island an ethnological area so it was restricted and, unlike the other Taiwanese aboriginal groups, most of the Tao traditions were retained until 1945.
The island was known by several different names over the centuries, but was officially named Orchid Island, or Lan Yu, in 1946, because of its lovely orchids.
As the plane neared, we could see the tiny runway ahead. Each end appeared to protrude over the sea; the plane dipped low, rose as it approached the elevated runway, touched down and thankfully came to a stop before reaching the end.
A Taiwanese friend had arranged accommodation in the Kindergarten as it was free for the holiday. This proved economical and suited us, but there are hotels, too. We were met by the kindergarten bus and squeezed into the tiny seats. By the end of our stay we became used to feeling rather like Alice in Wonderland. We sat on tiny chairs at low tables for meals and slept on the floor. it was fun.
The Tao's staple diet is dried flying fish. In the right season, canoes go out in early morning and later the catch is brought in, dealt with and hung up to dry.
The Tao people continue the traditional way of making and decorating their canoes and they looked very colourful lined up on the beach, some with sails.
One evening we walked along the beach and then climbed a green, treeless hill, which was probably an old volcanic plug. The climb was worth it: we sat on the grassy slope looking out to sea and watched some boats coming back to shore, silhouetted against a beautiful sunset.
As we sat, we noticed a lovely perfume and looked around. We were surrounded by dozens of what we call Christmas Lilies. With their cream bells turning pink in the sunset and the beautiful scent, it was a delight to be there.
Not so far out to sea was a smaller, uninhabited island known as Little Orchid Island, or Hsiao Lan Yü. It looked pretty from the distance and there were many seabirds wheeling around above its mountain. We were told it was a nesting place and home of a rare orchid. It was also used by the military for target practice.
We returned to our meal of cooked, dried flying fish plus accompaniments. They had lots of bones but the flavour was good. The other main foods are taro, yams and millet.
The R.O.C. government had constructed apartment buildings that were strong enough to withstand the earthquakes that frequently rocked the Island and Taiwan's east coast. They were intended for the local people and some lived there, but other folk preferred to continue living in traditional houses. These were mostly underground. Pits were lined with stone (see the photograph below) and then roofed over. The pigs' pens were similar. The style protected from the violent storms and typhoons that lash the area from time to time.
Numerous goats wandered along the roads and anywhere that was not strongly fenced. They even seemed to think that the cement bus-shelters were especially made for them and relaxed around on the floor and even on the seats!
Out and About on Orchid Island
There were other visitors staying in the Kindergarten, too, and the Presbyterian Minister kindly took us all for a drive around the island in the little bus. He stopped at various points of interest and we extricated ourselves from the narrow seats to take photographs.
Not far from where we stayed he skirted the Lan Yu Nuclear Waste Storage Facility. Built there in 1982 without permission from the local people, it stored the waste from the three nuclear plants that provide Taiwan's electric power. As it is a humid, tropical climate, especially there in the south, the iron storage barrels were rusting and of great concern.
Since the nuclear power plant disaster in Fukishima, Japan, in 2011, the people are even more concerned, especially for the effect that it may have on their children. Taipower has a huge problem as some of the 100,000 barrels now leak into the sea near where children swim, but no other site has yet been found.
On Children's Day we loaded up with a picnic and, following groups of excited, chattering children, took a road up one of the mountains. There are eight in that small space that are over 400 m. high; the highest is Mt. Hong Tou Shan (Red Head Mountain) at 552 m. I've no idea which one we climbed, but it was high, which made for lovely scenery, but it was hot work in that climate.
There were many tropical plants, some only found on Orchid Island, and as we climbed the vegetation changed. There were many birds flying around and calling. We had read that a number of them were not found on Taiwan, such as the Chestnut-eared Bulbul, and the Black Paradise Flycatcher. We did see a Red-capped Green Pigeon, that reminded us of the Emerald Doves in Papua, but we did not know enough about most of the birds to be able to name them and the people with us only knew the local names. They were lovely, though.
Climbing the Mountain
The higher we climbed, the more beautiful the scenery became. We could see the close mountains and the ocean far below. We could also see the road below that we had already been on, so that was encouragement to keep walking. Although we were hot from the walk, the light breeze was cooler and so welcome.
At the Top
At last we reached the top. One man was already speaking, so we sat down on the cool grass. The students were sitting in a large half-circle, listening quietly and we were glad to join them and cool down. After about half an hour that speaker concluded and the next began. We could see that others would follow and began to feel sorry for the students spending their holiday in this way. Signalling to each other, we quietly left them and found a shady spot with a lovely view where we could enjoy our packed lunches.
Later we walked back down the mountain and cooled off with a swim before packing our things ready to depart.
We had so enjoyed Orchid Island, the views, the birds, the orchids growing wild, the other flowers and the friendly people and were sorry that it was time to catch the plane for our journey back home to return to our workaday life next day, somewhat lacking in sleep! Happy memories!
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