Taiwan: Island of Lanyu (April 2017)

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Lanyu (Orchid Island) is a small island located 63km east of the southern tip of Taiwan′s mainland (91km southeast of Taitung). Within a perimeter of 63km and an area of 25sq.km, it is made of craggy volcanic peaks (culminating at Hongtou-shan, 552m) surrounded by a coral reef coastline. The island is mainly populated by the Tao (or Dawu), who migrated here 800 years ago from the Batan Archipelago in northern Philippines. They are mostly fishermen and farmers. Flying fish, omnipresent in Tao′s culture and diet, are the main catch, but only for a short period of time in each year.

 

Photos of Tao fishermen (circa late 1940s?) posted at Lanyu′s airport. Note the vests on the 3rd and 4th fishermen in the first photo and the 3 rightmost fishermen in the second photo: these vests are supposed to protect them against malevolent spirits when at sea.

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Mural paintings celebrating the fishing culture of the Tao people, with flying fishes and tataras (locally made canoes used to catch fish). The circular patterns at both extremities of the canoe are the boat′s eyes. They guide and protect the fishermen. The jagged patterns on the sides of the boat represent the waves and the intermediate patterns represent human figures. Tao have many taboos regarding their tataras and flying fish. Outsiders should not touch tataras or take photos of fish (including drying ones) at a close distance.

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There are 6 villages on the island (see map at the top of this page), each with a Tao and a Chinese name. In counter-clockwise order they are (the Chinese names are in parenthesis): Jiayo (Yeyou), Jizatay (Yuren), Jimozod (Hongtou), Jivalino (Yeyin), Jizanmilek (Dongqing), and Jizazalay (Langdao). The total population is approximately 4000. One road goes around the island and a smaller one cuts across the narrowest part of the island between Jimozod and Jivalino. The main port served by the ferries from mainland Taiwan is Kaiyuan on the west coast. The airport is also located on the west coast, further south.

 

The island was off-limits to the public until 1967. Since then it has opened up, but the number of visitors remains relatively small. Thanks to a collective management of land property by the Tao, there are no big hotels or large restaurants on the island. The only odd shop is the 7-Eleven of Kaiyuan harbor, unique in Lanyu, which opened in September 2014. The islanders are friendly, but for good reasons wary of outsiders. After all, in 1982 the Taiwanese government opened a nuclear waste storage facility at the southern tip of the island with no consultation with the local people. Earlier, in the mid-1970s, the Tao people were told that the government was going to build a fish cannery! (See here.) This facility is still an unresolved issue.

 

The island is often hit by typhoons or lesser tropical storms. So, not too surprisingly, this was my third attempt to visit Lanyu. I had previously planned to visit Lanyu in November 2015 and again in November 2016. In each case, bad weather prevented me from reaching the island. On the eve of this third attempt a plane from Taitung to Lanyu skidded off the runway and crashed into a fence after landing, due to crosswinds; the flight that I was supposed to take on the next morning was canceled. Fortunately, I could take the ferry that connects Fugang harbor in Taitung to Kaiyuan harbor in Lanyu.

 

The crashed plane in Lanyu airport.

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Arrival at Kaiyuan harbor.

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View of Jiayo village and the mountains behind it.

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Main street of Jiayo at night.

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Mantou rock located behind the school of Jiayo village. It is one of the many distinctive rock formations along the island′s coastline. Spirits of deceased Tao are believed to reside in this rock, Outsiders must not get too close.

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Mantou rock seen from further south.

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View toward the interior of the island from the road south of Jiayo village.

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Mixing of volcanic and coral rocks at a promontory south of Jiayo.

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Goats at the promontory. Goats roam freely everywhere on the island. Each of them has a owner. They are killed only for certain important celebrations.

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Mantou rock seen from the promontory on a cloudy and a clear evening.

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Coastline south of the airport just before reaching Jazatay village, with Jimozod village visible on the left.

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Taro cultivated in small ponds bordered by walls made of coral rocks in Jazatay village.

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Flying fishes drying in Jazatay village.

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Young girl holding a freshly fished flying fish in Jimozod village.

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Flying fish served for lunch in a restaurant in Jimozod village.

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Oldman rock, one of the most beautiful sites in Lanyu. The small island on the right side of the second photo below is an uninhabited islet (also part of Taiwan) called Hsiao Lanyu.

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Cloud formations on Dashen-shan seen from the grassland above Oldman rock.

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Dragon′s Head rock located near the nuclear waste storage facility. Most of the names of the distinctive rock formations on the island have been given by people from mainland Taiwan in the hope to develop tourism. These names are not related to the Tao culture and the islanders often find them ludicrous.

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Views from the weather station:

- Of the southeastern coast of the island.

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- Toward the north. The second line of rocks in the back is called the Warship rock. It is said that during World War II the US Air Force mistook this rock for a Japanese warship and started bombing it, hence its name.

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Coastline between the villages of Ivalino and Jizanmilek. The Warship rock is visible on the horizon.

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Traditional walls made of coral rocks between the villages of Ivalino and Jizanmilek.

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Tataras, traditional Tao boats, in Jizanmilek. The decorations of the boats are chip carved in the wooden hulls, before being painted.

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Beach and rocks in Jizanmilek:

- View toward the south. The village of Jivalino is visible on the right.

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- View toward the north.

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Twin Lions rock.

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Underground house in the village of Jizazalay. This type of traditional Tao houses was built in the past to sustain typhoons, at a time when typhoons arrived unannounced. In the 1960s the Taiwanese government decided that they should be torn down and replaced by concrete structures. Today, few such houses remain. The largest cluster is in Jivalino.

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Inside the house. The vest suspended in the inner room is the same as those worn by fishermen in the two photos shown at the top of this page.

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Tatara on the beach of Jizazalay.

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Left: Jade Girl rock. Right: Crocodile rock.

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Coastline near the northwest tip of the island, below the lighthouse.

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Views from the road leading to the lighthouse:

- Of the north coast.

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- Toward Kaiyan harbor.

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Spiders along the road to the lighthouse.

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Coast north of Kaiyuan harbor (visible on the far right).

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Taro field near Kaiyuan harbor.

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Views from the plane on the way back to Taiwan′s mainland. Left: The narrow runway of Lanyu′s airport. Right: The northwestern tip of Lanyu, with the lighthouse (white) visible on top of the cliff and Jizazalay village behind at the center of the picture.

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