Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Wonders of Orchid Island

This article was published in the July, 2012 issue of Verve, the inflight magazine of EVA Air.

In terms of both location and lifestyle, Orchid Island, or Lanyu as it’s known in Chinese, stands apart from the rest of Taiwan. Situated 62 kilometers off Taiwan’s southeastern coast, its battered, rugged landscapes bear testimony to the relentless onslaught it receives from the wind, sun, and Pacific Ocean. And the people who live there, relatively isolated by their remote location, enjoy a rich, timeless culture that has more in common with life in the Philippines than mainland Taiwan.

Stunning Scenery

Sparsely populated and largely undeveloped, Orchid Island is dominated by its landscapes. Steep grassy hills and rough outcrops of jagged volcanic rock rise, sometimes from the water’s edge, to grand heights. Elsewhere, the weathered coastline has a starkness to it that, though it might not properly be called beautiful, is about as striking as scenery ever gets.

Most of the tourist brochures will direct you towards rock formations that resemble animals and, in one case, a battleship. These features are impressive, especially Dragon Head Rock, but the more enduring sights are to be found along the many footpaths that give you better glimpses of the island’s rough bays and ragged capes.

The best way to see it all is to travel along the main road that runs around the island. If you rent a scooter at the airport or ferry harbor, you’ll be able to complete the journey in a few hours. Quite a lot of people follow this hurried schedule, as it allows them to fly to and from the island and see the main attractions in a single day. Unless you’re severely pushed for time, though, you’d be advised to stay longer and properly take in the island’s charms.

There are a few roads and footpaths leading inland, but as they’re generally not well maintained, they might not be appealing to all visitors. One of the better roads winds its way inland near to Yenyin Village on the eastern side of the island. It leads towards the weather station, where you can get great views of the entire island. Further south, there’s a footpath to Lanyu Pond. The locals say it’s a challenging walk, so it might be best left to keen hikers. Remember to take sun cream, a hat, and plenty of water with you if you go for a walk, as the temperatures can get very high in June.

Yami Culture

Most of Orchid Island’s permanent residents belong to the Yami aboriginal tribe, and their distinctive culture is one of the main reasons why Taiwanese people venture out to the island. Unlike the rest of Taiwan’s aborigines, the Yami are fishermen and their various festivals and ceremonies celebrate that heritage.

For hundreds of years, the most important time of the year for them has been flying fish season. During this period, huge schools of flying fish swim through the waters off Orchid Island, and the Yami fishermen work hard to catch as many as they can. They still go out to sea in traditional, handcrafted vessels that are painted white with red and black patterns. These boats have become a symbol of the island and appear on many souvenirs. By visiting Orchid Island in June, you should be able to the real boats in action.

At this time, there should also be several boat launching ceremonies on the island. These are very important events, and hundreds of local people might come together to take part in the proceedings. The men wear their traditional costumes, which consist of little more than loincloths. They sing songs, pray for safety and a good catch, and then then pull angry faces, shout, and make gestures to scare away evil spirits. While that’s going on, the men will hit the boat before lifting and throwing it into the air. If you get the chance to see a boat launching ceremony, you shouldn’t miss it. Unfortunately, the exact dates of these events are often not advertised months in advance, so ask the owner of your hotel or hostel. People are very proud of their culture, and they’ll likely be very happy to help you.

Another interesting feature of the local culture is the practice of building houses underground. The Yami constructed their homes like this for centuries as a way to protect themselves from typhoons and the summer heat. Underground homes didn’t meet with the approval of Taiwan’s former leader Chiang Kai shek, however, and after he visited the island, people were forced to move into new, above-ground houses. There are still a few traditional homes left in Yenyin Village on the east of the island, and you can see a recreated underground home in the Lanyu Museum, which is just south of the airport in Hungtou Village. The museum is also a great place to learn about Orchid Island’s boats and fishing culture.

Scuba Diving and Snorkeling
During the summer months, Orchid Island is an ideal location for snorkeling and diving. The warm waters are perfect for swimming in, and they’re also brimming with plants and animals. Not far offshore, coral reefs provide the perfect home for sea snakes and well over a thousand species of brightly colored tropical fish. If you join an organized snorkeling trip, you’re guaranteed to see a spectacular display of underwater life.

Those with scuba diving certification can venture further out to sea. The highlight for divers is a sunken cargo ship that now supports a vibrant coral reef system. At these depths, in addition to the fish and snakes, it’s also possible that you might see green turtles swimming by.

Scuba and snorkeling businesses, where you can hire equipment and guides, can be found all over the island. They’re especially plentiful on the west coast where the best diving spots and snorkeling beaches are located.

The Wildlife
Animal life is just as plentiful back on land. The most visible and numerous creatures are the goats that roam freely across the island. During your time there, you’ll see them wandering along the roadside, scampering up cliffs, and sitting in bus shelters. There are even stories of them finding their way into hostels and homestays.

Anyone venturing inland along the hiking paths will undoubtedly see large spiders and lizards on their way, but the land animals that attract the most visitors are the birds. Photographers and birdwatchers flock to Orchid Island every year to see the wide range of species that make their home there. The bird they most want to see is the Lanyu Scops-Owl, a small and very rare brown owl that can only be found on the island. You’ll be lucky to see one yourself, since they generally hunt at night, but brightly colored birds such as the Japanese Paradise Flycatcher and the Ruddy Kingfisher are not an uncommon sight.

What you need to know

Getting there

By air – Daily Air operates six flights between Taitung and Orchid Island every day. As the planes are small, seats are limited so make sure you book tickets well in advance. Flights last about 25 minutes, and a return trip will cost you NT$2,690.

By sea – Ferry tickets are slightly cheaper, NT$1,040 for a one-way ticket, and NT$2,000 for a return. However, trips last around two and a half hours, and the conditions can get very bad. Call Gold Star Ferries on 089 280226 to ask about dates and times of travel. There is no fixed schedule as the boats only run when the seas are calm and there are enough passengers. Ferries should run regularly in the summer, when the seas are calmer and there is greater demand for seats.

Since both ferries and planes can get cancelled when the weather gets too bad, you should be aware that you might have to stay on the island a bit longer than you originally planned. There shouldn’t be many cancellations in the summer, though.

Getting around

Orchid Island is a small place, and if you’re fit and healthy it’s possible to get around on foot. If you want an easier option, you can rent scooters or bicycles from the airport or harbor. It’s unlikely you’ll get asked for a driver’s license if you ask for a scooter, but unless you’ve got experience riding them, Orchid Island isn’t the safest place to do it due to the strong winds.

Where to stayMost of the accommodation on Orchid Island comes in the form of hostels and homestays. Rooms are generally simple and inexpensive, and you’ll find places to stay in almost every village.

For something more luxurious, try the Orchid Island Leisure Hotel, which is just north of the airport in Yeyou Village. Double rooms in the hotel’s old building start at NT$1,800, while in the new building, they cost NT$4,800. For reservations, call 089 732032.

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