If you want to experience the scenic charms of "Taiwan's back garden," then the East Link Railway from Hualien to Taitung is just the ticket. The route, which is lined by stunning scenery, runs the length of the narrow valley between the two cities, and passes through Chihshang, where travellers can enjoy the town's famous rice boxes. Formerly a narrow-gauge track, the line has now been widened and is gradually losing many of its distinctive historical features.
Even on the laid-back Hualien-Taitung Line, it is increasingly hard to find old-style local services. If you like slow trains with windows that open, you have to be up at the crack of dawn to catch one. Should you disembark to enjoy the air, you may have to wait until evening before the next stopping train trundles into view. The line has never been particularly busy, however, and even the Chukuang-class expresses running between Hualien and Taitung feel much like slow trains elsewhere.
Artist Li Chin-hsien once travelled Taiwan for a year, painting all the old railway stations. He recalls that between Hualien and Taitung he was sometimes the only passenger in his coach, which thus became his studio. "If there were worries at either end of the journey, the part in between was a time for contemplation, thoroughly refreshing to both body and mind," he says. The beautiful landscape along the route could indeed be a good backdrop for meditation.
Mother Nature's palette
Heading south into the Hualien-Taitung Valley, the view is rich in different shades of green-as if this is where Mother Nature mixes her supplies of that color. To the right are the thrusting heights of Taiwan's central massif, and to the left, the mountains of the coastal range, crossed by the Hualien and Hsiukuluan Rivers. The valley provides a textbook introduction to the geography of Taiwan.
The journey is also a good opportunity to learn for those who can't tell one variety of crop from another. Bright green paddy fields are seen close at hand, some showing golden ears of rice. Banana and papaya are in full
fruit in the orchards. The darker-hued fields contain ripening maize, or purplish sugar-cane, and indeed the railway used to have a number of sugar refineries along its route, serviced by special little cane trains. A strip of betel palms is visible in the distance, and their blossoms lend a sweetish scent to the air.
Train driver Cheng Jen-chung used to keep records of the surrounding flora and fauna as he drove up and down this line: Autumn's northeasterly wind brought flocks of migrating birds to the banks of Hsiukuluan River; after New Year came the scent of pomelo blossom; fields turned gold in February when the rapeseed flowered; in March it was the turn of Chinaberry blossom-light purple petals and a delicate fragrance; the rainy season in June and July filled the rivers to flood, often submerging watermelon patches along the banks. "We were even more worried than the watermelon farmers," chuckles Cheng.
Tunnels under rivers
Flood waters not only inundated watermelon patches, but also washed away bridges. The rivers around Hualien are usually dry, but heavy rainfall in the mountains brings flash floods, and so it was decided in 1971, when the tracks were being widened, to tunnel under two of the riverbeds.
The tunnels, which are the only two of their kind in Taiwan, lie under the Chakan and Matai'an rivers. The piers of the old bridges can still be seen from the highway, rising from the riverbed. When you get to Kuangfu, you can see in the distance the smokestacks of the Hualien Sugar Refinery. Rusty rails still wind from Kuangfu Station out to the refinery, and although the line looks abandoned it is actually still used. "From December to March every year you can see the little trains ferrying sugar cane," points out Ye Jen-yen of Taiwan Sugar Corporation.
The sugar-refinery railroad and the Hualien-Taitung main line share a common origin. The refinery was established in 1913, during the Japanese occupation, and had its own railway for transporting cane. The refinery once operated as much as 100 kilometers of railway, but in 1922 the Taitung-to-Kuanshan section was acquired for the new Eastern Taiwan Line.
Other stretches of sugar-refinery railway were not so lucky. "The refinery lines were gradually torn up after 1971, and trucks took over transporting of cane. The only section still in use is the 5 kilometers from Kuangfu Station to the refinery," says Ye Jen-yen.
Juisui: warm in winter, cool in summer
Further down the line the train comes to Juisui. While some visitors come to soak in the hot springs, this is also the stop where thrill-seekers get off to go rafting on nearby Hsiukuluan River - which makes Juisui a place to be "warm in winter, and cool in summer." Tens of millions of years ago Hsiukuluan River commandeered the headwaters of the Hualien River, and cut a 90-degree bend through the coastal moutain range to reach the Pacific Ocean, coursing over more than 20 sets of rapids in 20 kilometers. The rapids now attract rafters to Juisui in their droves, but the peak season has passed by late Autumn, and many of the tour companies have closed for the winter, leaving the town looking dormant at lunchtime.
I remember going rafting at Hsiukuluan with my friends when I was at university, taking the train from Hualien to Juisui by night. Air was blasting in through the wide-open windows, and we stood in the open doorways of the train, as if ready to drop down into the corn fields at any time.
Heading south from Juisui takes you across the Wuhe plain, where tea is cultivated, and through two tunnels. Before the widening of the tracks, the line ran through an old one-kilometer-long red-brick tunnel. A pair of new tunnels was planned to accommodate the wider tracks, but terrible tunnelling conditions meant that the work could not be completed to schedule. Instead, the new tracks were laid in the original tunnel. The new tunnels were only completed in 1985, finally bringing to a close the work of track-widening for the Eastern Taiwan line.
Home base for steam trains
Yuli is the stop midway between Hualien and Taitung, and formerly served as the home base for the "Black Engine" steam trains that used to ply this line.
Li Chen-hsien, a history teacher at Hualien High School, rode the steam trains as a child, and recalls that it could be quite troublesome. Steam engines consume a steady diet of coal and water as they go, burning coal to boil the water that turns to steam, and so the larger stations along this line, such as Shoufeng and Yuli, used to be equipped with towers for coal and water. After the train pulled in at the station, the locomotive was uncoupled and taken to fill up at the water tower. There was another wait while the water was heated to boiling. The passengers meanwhile stretched their legs and chatted on the platform, and snacked on local specialities sold by hawkers, such as yangkeng (a Japanese confection) in Yuli, and sushi in Shoufeng.
Hsu Hsing-fa, who retired in April from his post as chief of the Hualien Maintenance Section, recalls that many railcars were still war-damaged in the period after Japan's defeat. Train passengers often had to ride in open-top freight cars, bringing along a rock from the station to sit on. The trains were so slow at climbing inclines, even at full steam with the fireman furiously shovelling coal, that "a passenger could hop off to relieve himself beside the line, and still have time to get back on board," laughs Hsu.
The steam trains stopped running in the 1970's, and the water and coal towers at the stations in Yuli and Shoufeng were pulled down earlier this year. "These changes have happened before my very eyes," remarks the retired section chief with a wave of his hand, "and this is in only 40 years! The changes ahead may be even bigger."
The rise and fall of Little Ding-dong
Yuli Station is home to several undistinguished looking diesel-engined passenger coaches, known affectionately as "Little Ding-dong" trains. Some claim that this
name was given to the trains because of their appealing smallness, and others say it was because of their dark blue livery, similar in color to the Japanese cartoon character Little Ding-dong. Either way, the very mention of Little Ding-dong is enough to bring a smile to the faces of Taiwanese train buffs and railway personnel.
These trains used to be a frequent sight along the Hualien-Taitung Line. Each is driven by a powerful engine, and a Little Ding-dong once set a world speed record for trains in its class. When the line was widened the trains were altered accordingly and continued to operate.
Only four of the trains have been kept in operation, however, functioning mainly as early-morning connecting services for students. By June this year, Kuanghua-class trains from western Taiwan had been fully introduced into service on the Eastern Line, taking over from the Little Ding-dongs.
Nostalgic passengers and train buffs alike hoped that the Taiwan Railway Administration would somehow keep the Little Ding-dong in service, but in early November the train was officially retired.
Another feature of the Hualien-Taitung Line surviving from earlier days is the use of right-of-way tokens. As the train pulls into a station, the driver tosses an iron hoop to the waiting station master. Although an apparently simple manoeuver, a mistake catching the hoop could be fatal.
The hoop, which is about 40cm across, is attached to a leather pouch containing a brass token. The driver must have this token in his possession before proceeding down the line. At the next stop he throws the hoop to the station master there, and picks up the token for the next section of track. The token is the train's safe-conduct pass on a single- track section of line, and prevents head-on collisions. Most of Taiwan's rail network has already converted to computer-controlled signalling, and the use of tokens now only survives on the Hualien-Taitung line and certain branch lines.
Half a century of rice boxes
Nearing Fuli in Taitung county, the landscape becomes a patchwork of rice paddies. The next stop is Chihshang, famous throughout Taiwan for its rice boxes. You may be surprised to learn that it was on the platform of Chihshang Station that this local speciality originated.
There is a story of the jilted lover returning by train from Taipei to his home in Taitung. He set out early in the morning, and cried all the way to Ilan, and then Hualien. When the train pulled into Chihshang he heard the platform vendors and realized that he was famished. One rice box later his mood had brightened considerably, and it suddenly occurred to him: "That's life!"
For the last couple of years, however, the train traveller in search of the genuine article has had to walk out to the road in front of the station, where the original creators of the Chihshang rice box-with 50 years' experience-run their store.
Although a long-established operation, the current store opened only recently, and has a bright and spacious interior like any fast food restaurant. The portly proprietor, Li Chao-yi, is the third generation owner of the store, which was started by his grandmother.
In Grandma Li's day, Hualien to Chihshang took seven hours by steam train, followed by five hours from Chihshang to Taitung. It was near the end of the war that Grandma Li began selling Japanese rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaf to hungry train passengers. Soon afterwards the balls expanded to rice dinners, and in 1951 she introduced the use of special boxes made of moisture-absorbing wood. Thus was born the definitive Chihshang rice box.
A view of green mountains
"The soul of a rice box is in the rice," declares Li Chao-yi, explaining the secret of the family product's success. But what makes rice from Chihshang so good? Contributory factors include the great amount of organic matter in the mountains, and the wide temperature differential between day and night, as well as the fact that there is not a single factory for miles around. It is an environment which produces a rice that is tasty and firm, and doesn't harden when cold.
Li says that when train passengers could still open the window the railway accounted for two-thirds of his customers. Business was badly affected, however, when the windows were sealed, on top of the fact that fewer and fewer people take the train these days anyway. Li's solution was to relocate to the road, to target automobile-borne business. Indeed, the aroma of Li's establishment drew a steady stream of customers from their cars wandering in for rice boxes.
After Chihshang, comes to Kuanshan, where the fine old station-house can still be seen. One of the last of its kind on the Hualien-Taitung Line, the building now serves as a warehouse. Many of the original stations along the line were demolished or renovated when the tracks were widened. Fortunately the stations are still blessed with magnificent mountain scenery.
After crossing Luyeh River the line reaches Shanli, and then passes through seven tunnels in quick succession. The Shanli Tunnels are reminiscent of the strings of tunnels along the Mountain Line in west Taiwan. Not far beyond the Shanli Tunnels the line comes to Taitung Station, where the train terminates.
Kao Tsung-lu, who teaches at Gateway Community Technical College in the US, and has lived in the States for 30 years, makes a round-island train trip every time he returns to Taiwan. One morning he disembarked at the new station in Taitung to find himself the only person on the platform, with a view of green mountains all around. It was unforgettable for Kao, as time seemed to stand still, and he was moved to call his wife in America just to share it with her.
Can this beautiful scenery survive? What kind of transformations will the "eastward shift" of Taiwanese industry bring to areas along the Hualien-Taitung Line? And what of the railway and all its features, after decades of humble service? How many people are left that know the stories of this railway?
Race against time
Just as the eventual fate of Little Ding-dong hangs in the balance, the prospects are not good for the offices of the former Hualien Railway Administration. After the completion of the North Link Railway a new station was built in Hualien. The old station was demolished in 1992 to make way for a road intersection under the city's sixth phase of urban redevelopment. Currently the site serves as a parking lot for buses of the Taiwan Motor Transport Corporation, and the bustling station scenes of former days are now just a memory. The engine repair shop was torn down in April, and two Little Ding-dongs in the sheds were sprayed with graffitti one night. All that remains of the original station complex is the abandoned Hualien Railway Administration building. Driver Cheng Jen-chung recalls riding the train from Yuli into Hualien 30 years ago, when he was a boy, and being immediately struck by the sight of this edifice alongside the station.
After the repair shop was demolished, local cultural and historical groups banded together to plead for the preservation of this nearly 80-year-old structure, hoping to turn it into a railway museum. As Cheng Jen- chung concedes, however, "It is unlikely that the policy will change."
Today, the doors of the former Administration building are locked. We crawl in through a hole in the wall, and it is rather like stepping back through time. The structure, built around a central yard, is finely constructed out of Chinese juniper. The occupants left nearly three years ago and the courtyard is now overgrown, while pine trees at the front almost completely obscure the building's tower.
The former filing office is built completely of concrete blocks, presumably for the security of confidential documents. Looking in through the broken window you can see piles of damp documents lying around, and witness the railway's history slowly fading away.
"It really is a race against time," says Cheng Jen-chung. Currently carrying out a historical survey of Mt. Lintien for Hualien Cultural Center, Cheng spends his own time talking with the old drivers and other railway workers for an oral history of the Hualien- Taitung Line. Of course, the number of such characters is always diminishing, and there is no telling when the original structures of the railway will disappear without trace, but Cheng does what he can nevertheless.
The Hualien-Taitung Line leaves the traveller with some regrets and some uncertainties-and also with a thread of hope.
Map drawn by Lee Su-ling
Surrounded by lushness, the Hualien-Taitung Line picks its path between a backdrop of mountains and a carpet of paddy-fields.
The 80-year-old building of the former Hualien Railway Administration is now dark with foliage. Will this deserted structure be lucky enough to become a railway museum?
"Hear the rumbling as I roll under the river." The picture shows the entrance to the Hsikou River Tunnel.