Allow me to begin with a brief disclaimer. This is not a logistical or informational post about Wutai, Taiwan. Rather, this is a story about how amazing Taiwan and its aboriginal people can be.
Wutai is a small village situated east of Pingtung and about an hour and a half drive from Kaohsiung. The village is an important center for the indigenous Rukai tribe. It also happens to be one of the places where the famed hundred pacer snake has been found. Naturally, we needed to take a trip there eventually and this weekend happened to be perfect for our trip.
The road to the village (Highway 24) winds through Pingtung and Sandimen before reaching the “Climbers’ Checkpoint.” Here, travelers are required to report their names, phone numbers, and addresses to the authorities. They are also supposed to provide documents such as an ARC or passport, but no one checked our IDs. After the checkpoint, the road climbs steeply to Shen Shan and finally reaches Wutai at kilometer number 40.
The village is beautifully set on the side of a mountain. Its buildings are mostly constructed in the traditional Rukai style with walls of slate. All the public spaces are adorned with snake decals and decorative pots. What’s more is the smell. The scent of wood fires and roasting meat permeates the streets. All in all, the mountain atmosphere creates an excellent escape for any city dweller.
Unfortunately, after taking in the atmosphere, we quickly discovered finding a place to stay would be more difficult than we had imagined. The demand for rooms seems to outweigh the amount available in this tiny town. Eventually we met a guide of sorts who suggested we go to the police station and ask the police officer for ideas. We followed his advice and in broken Chinese, conveyed our predicament. The officer phoned his friend who promptly collected us from the police station.
His friend turned out to be a spunky Rukai woman we now call Ina (auntie in the local language). Ina showed us to her daughter’s house. Her daughter’s family lives in Pingtung and returns on the weekends. This weekend they happened to be staying away from Wutai. Thus, we could have her entire stone-slab home to ourselves for the evening. We quickly jumped at the offer to stay in the traditionally decorated home.
(Although I’m not sure the rainbow bridge is a part of the local culture.)
What followed this episode was even more unexpected. Ina proceeded to give us a tour of the village, introducing us to most of the villagers, showing us the traditional structures, and filling us in on some history. In particular, we learned the history of the Hundred Pacer snake decorations. She told us that many people believe the snake is a god to the Rukai tribe, but this is not true. The story goes that at one time an enemy tribe wanted to take the Rukai village. However, the venomous snake bit the enemy leader in the foot, preventing the enemy tribe from reaching the village. So, the snake is in fact the protector of the tribe, and consequently painted everywhere.
Later that evening, we went walking around the mountain in search of some interesting creepy crawlies. While we didn’t find the sought after Hundred Pacer, we did find a few snakes and an adorable tree frog.
The next morning, we did a most unexpected thing…we went to church. 90% of aboriginals are Christians and take church very seriously. We were not allowed to enter without proper aboriginal-style clothes and flower headdresses. We rehearsed the rules before entering. And just when I was ready for a stuffy church service, the rock band started. The service included all the traditional elements (only in Chinese and the local language rather than English). It seemed to be over in the blink of an eye. Afterwards, we were invited to have a small lunch with other church members. Of course, the hilarity of half translation ensued followed by what seemed to be an endless stream of photos. Ina ended the afternoon by informing us that she is now our Taiwanese mother and if we are ever sad, she expects us to call her.
And, we absolutely must return to visit Ina and Wutai again before we leave Taiwan for good.