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Truly Taiwan's Treasure: Taitung, pure and natural

Taitung's attractions should be tasted at leisure, and from pristine mountains and streams, aboriginal gatherings, sacred spots and hotsprings, there are many things to guarantee return trips to this paradisiacal place. Like "Taiwan Fun" show host Janet Hsieh said: Taitung (台東) is "truly Taiwan's treasure" — and one of my favorite places, too, so here are some pointers about spending quality time in Taiwan's jewel by the sea.

A 45-minute one-way flight costs NT$1500. For budget travelers, take the last, overnight train from Taipei or Banqiao stations at NT$600-800 each way (10% discount on return tickets). Sleep on the train, and you'll be well-rested when the train arrives at Taitung station at 6:05 a.m. — there's a full day ahead to explore Taitung's charms!

Scooters or a car can be rented right at the station; it requires a Taiwan or international driver's license. Scooters are only NT$300 a day (US$10), and cars NT$2,000 (US$70). Then, make your way leisurely north, up Taitung's lovely coast.

Surfers are fond of these beaches for their tasty waves, especially May-October. Bicycle rentals along Haibing Oceanside Park are NT$100 per person a day and are a great idea for seeing places like Luye Sightseeing Tea Farm, or Chihshang Silk Recreation Farm.

If you have a few days, stay in Zhiben (知本), famous for its spa hotels and hotsprings developed 60 years ago by the Japanese. Go off-season (November-March) and it's only NT$2,200/night for two at Hoya Resort or Feng Tai Hot Springs Hotel — and practically empty. High season, it's NT$6,490 a night (see www.hoyaresort.com.tw). For modest budgets, stay at the photographer Eco Lin's Curry & Cafe in Taitung City (Reservations: 089 334 942).

To me, Taitung has a special, sacred importance. It has the highest concentration of "original people," as aborigines are appropriately called in Chinese. Six tribes (out of 12 or 13 official ones) inhabit this area — primarily the Amis, Bunun, Paiwan and Puyuma people — the most of any region in Taiwan.

If you visit in December, indigenous peoples from around the world come for the Austronesian festival. This year, it was a bit subdued due to budget cuts, and the men were away hunting flying squirrel. But still there's always drumming in Nanjing Road in downtown Taichung, and films, music and aboriginal craftsfolk along the coast. Almost every tribe in Taitung celebrates their New Year on July 15th, so that's a good time to go, too.

A must-see is Taitung's impressive National Museum of Prehistory, covering Taiwan's volcanic inception, land connection with Southeast China during the last Ice Age, to its earliest human visitors an estimated 30,000 years ago. Nearby at Beinan (卑南) Cultural Park, archaeologists are slowly excavating a village dating back 3,500 to 2,500 years ago.

Today, the Beinan site is recognized as the largest and most intact Neolithic village of its kind in the Pacific Basin; in fact, archaeologists believe it may hold the key to understanding human development and migration in the Asia-Pacific.

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Truly Taiwan's Treasure: Taitung, pure and natural
Japanese scholars discovered hundreds of slate stone pillars such as this in 1945, and 1,500 slate coffins dating back some 3,000 years during construction for a Beinan Train ...

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