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Text: Cheryl Robbins
When visiting Alishan, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Taiwan, it’s worth spending a few days to learn about the indigenous people living in mountain villages scattered around the area, and take in the marvelous scenery.
The Alishan National Scenic Area, located in the mountains of Chiayi County in southern Taiwan, was established in 2001. This region has long been drawing tourists with its tea plantations, glorious sunrises, and pristine forests. There is often fog, especially in the afternoon, creating a cloud and mist effect that is romantically depicted in Chinese landscape paintings.
With more than 41,000 hectares, this national scenic area is quite large, but most tourists stay close to the main road, the Alishan Highway (Provincial Highway No. 18), visiting such attractions as the Alishan National Forest Recreation Area. Those who take a detour to visit one of the eight villages inhabited by members of the Tsou tribe, however, will be rewarded with a unique experience of tranquility, natural beauty, and cultural learning.
The Tsou are one of Taiwan’s 14 officially recognized indigenous tribes, and has a population of around 6,200, most of which is concentrated in the Alishan area.
Visiting one of the eight Tsou villages you will be rewarded with a unique experience of tranquility, natural beauty, and cultural learning.
South along County Road No. 169 – Dabang and Tefuye Villages
Follow the Alishan Highway to Shizhuo, and then take County Road No. 169 southward to Dabang and Tefuye Villages. These are the only Tsou villages to possess a kuba (pronounced “Kooba”), a wooden hut-like structure on stilts covered with a thatch roof. This is a meeting hall where the men will meet to make political decisions and to train the young males in hunting and warring techniques, as well as teach them the history and traditions of the tribe. Women are prohibited from entering or even touching this structure.
In Dabang visitors can hike the Bird Worship Trail, which leads through the forest surrounding the village. The name comes from the many Tsou legends and traditions that are associated with birds.
The Keupana Guesthouse in Dabang has four rooms, and a large garden area where it is possible to pitch tents. It is run by Luo Yu-feng, also known by her Tsou name Yangui. Yangui is a knowledgeable tour guide regarding local attractions and culture.
Between Dabang and Tefuye villages, you can enjoy a walk over the brightly colored Dabang Suspension Bridge, the starting point of the Tefuye Trail, which leads to Tefuye village about two kilometers away. In Tefuye, below the kuba, is the head of another trail that takes hikers to a cluster of giant camphor trees.
It is possible to reach Dabang by bus. Chiayi County Bus offers service to Dabang from Chiayi Railway Station; get off at the last stop. This route has a stop at a point where the road forks, the other branch leading to Tefuye, but it is still a few kilometers’ walk from here to reach the village. (Note: If you plan to stay in a guesthouse in the area, call in advance to inquire about pick-ups.)
Warring Ceremony (Mayasvi)
In Tefuye, the sloping road that leads past the village’s kuba allows for direct views inside this structure. Below the road and next to the kuba is a plaza for holding important ceremonies, such as the Warring Ceremony, called Mayasvi in the Tsou language.
Mayasvi usually takes place in mid-February, but the timing can change from year to year. It is held either in Dabang or Tefuye. This originally was a ceremony to honor the gods and to welcome the return of warriors, as well as to recognize important achievements such as the construction of a house. However, during their occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945) the Japanese discouraged warring by the indigenous tribes, and any references to it, and this ceremony was transformed into an event held just once a year.
Next to the Kuba is a ficus tree that is considered sacred. To begin the ceremony, a piglet is sacrificed. Tsou males take turns inserting the tip of their spears into the piglet and wiping its blood on the trunk of the sacred tree to attract the attention of the deities. Most of the tree’s branches are then pruned to make a ladder for the gods to descend from Heaven. After this, the men go into the Kuba to carry out blessings of newborn boys. From time to time, warriors run out from the Kuba and return with food and drink. This is distributed among the men by the elders. Later, men and women join in a session of singing and dancing outside the Kuba. In the evening the singing and dancing starts again and continues to dawn, to provide the deities with a proper send-off.
During major ceremonies, the Tsou are dressed in traditional clothing. The men’s headdresses consist of a red headband lined with shells, with the fur of the black bear and eagle feathers for adornment. This can be placed over a leather cap. Males also wear a bright red shirt and leather leggings. The Tsou learned leather-tanning processes early on, and leather traditionally played an important part in protecting them against the elements. The use of shells points to the tribe’s much larger area of activity in times past, which extended to the coast. The females of the tribe wear brightly colored outfits that include a diamond-shaped chest piece, skirt, leggings, and headdress.
North along County Road No. 169 – Laiji Village
To reach Laiji village, head north from Shizhuo along County Road No. 169. Pass the old forestry town of Fenqihu, then turn onto County Road No. 149. Laiji is soon reached. There is no bus service to the village (the closest bus stop is at Fenqihu), but you can arrange for pick-up at Fenqihu if you plan to stay at a guesthouse in Laiji.
The entrance to this village is marked by a painted-stone wild boar. According to legend, this site was discovered during the hunt for a wild boar by hunters from Tefuye village, and this animal has become a village symbol.
Start your tour of Laiji at the visitor center, managed by the Laiji Community Development Association. Here you can find travel information and buy locally made handicrafts, such as hand-carved wild boars and owls.
There are several artisans who reside in this village, such as the multi-talented Paicu Tiaki’ana, who runs the Tashan Gallery. She is a singer, rattan and bamboo weaver, woodcarver, painter, and leather engraver. Her works incorporate themes related to Tsou culture. The village also features an organic farm and a cooperative for growing and roasting coffee beans.
The Lanho Guesthouse provides accommodation and tours of the villages. Its entrance is marked by a traditional-style watchtower and a one-room museum housing Tsou cultural artifacts.
With advance notice, this guesthouse can prepare a banquet featuring local ingredients called the Tashan Wedding Banquet. Tashan refers to the sacred mountain of the Tsou tribe. Dishes include stone-grilled pork, chicken stewed with plums, Tashan Bride (mashed taro root steamed and kneaded with wild mountain honey and decorated with dates), Tashan Groom (millet, sticky rice, and banana steamed inside leaves), and Tashan Gold (deep-fried pumpkin strips, wild celery, and perilla leaves). This is washed down with a glass of millet liquor.
A good time to visit Laiji is between March and May, during firefly season. No matter the time of year, however, there is always a rich trove of natural beauty and indigenous culture to explore in Alishan’s Tsou villages.
English & Chinese
Bird Worship Trail 鳥占亭步道
Chiayi County Bus 嘉義縣公車
Dabang Suspension Bridge 達邦吊橋
Luo Yu-feng 羅玉鳳
Tefuye Trail 特富野步道
Tsou tribe 鄒族
Provided by Travel in Taiwan Bimonthly January February Issue, 2013