A quick drive through the PengShan and XueShan Tunnels, Ilan (宜蘭) County offers a dramatic contrast to the bustling weekends and dense high-rise lifestyle of Taipei. Getting there is not the issue, getting back before dinner is.
By Stuart Hill
Talk to Taiwanese about Ilan County (also spelt Yilan) and you might be mistaken you were discussing Shangrila or Xanadu. The region seems to hold some kind of romantic allure, at least for those who remember how remote it used to be. These days, Ilan County is something akin to upstate New York or the southern highlands just outside Sydney, where many of Taiwan’s landed gentry and “urban pastoralists” have a few acres of land to grow on. If you are driving there yourself, the obvious destinations are the hotspring town of JiaoXi and the beach district around TouCheng, but there are other scenic spots you can enjoy just by driving away from the main roads. That’s also where you’ll find some great stuff to eat too. The opening of the XueShan Tunnel–truly a major engineering feat in itself–joined the Taipei basin to Ilan County and turned the nauseating multi-hour mountain drive into a fast 45 minute subterranean sprint.
You can still take the mountain road if you want. But it is a narrow and winding 2-lane track, which impatient city drivers and schedule-pressured truck drivers seem to attack with pure recklessness. If you want “scenic mountain driving” you best tackle it on a dry weekday. If you don’t have your own car, there is a train and there a plenty of private bus services that can get you to Ilan County in under an hour.
With such a huge improvement in transportation, the area has in turn opened up to hordes of Taipei tourists, all looking for that romantic countryside escape without too much inconvenience. Ilan County is a big hit with families, and with several interesting sites to keep both parents and kids occupied, it is no wonder the place is over-run on the weekends. For centuries Ilan had been locked away by steep mountains on one side, and the sea on the other. The rich soil and excellent water quality still provide highly productive land that’s exploited for growing rice and other crops even up to this day.
It’s coast line has also been a reliable source of food. Meanwhile its relatively small population, and reliance on rural industries, has kept the landscape fairly unpolluted. High in volcanic activity, Ilan has its share of natural hot and cold springs, which have attracted substantial investment in hotels and spas, focussed around the JiaoXi area. The traditional public baths are worth the visit, though you will need to wait in line.
A tip on scheduling your trip A good time to leave Taipei is early morning on a Saturday, as many hours as you can before lunch, or better yet, Friday night. If you stay overnight to Sunday, choose to leave around 11am while everyone is getting ready to eat, or after dinner around 9pm. Everything in the middle runs the risk of encountering frustrating delays as you wait to get back into the tunnel for your return trip to Taipei. At that time of day, the mountain route is not a sensible option.