Karen W. Lim
It rains for over 200 days a year here.
But this doesn’t dampen the spirits of the Atayal people in Bulaubulau, who play host to groups of tourists who come visiting for a day to down copious amounts of rice wine while indulging in a sevencourse meal.
Nestled deep in the mountains in Yilan County, Bulaubulau is a small village that is home to members of the Atayal tribe, or “taiya zu” in Mandarin.
This is where clusters of nine families cook, hunt, weave and entertain guests who come here to learn about the culture of one of Taiwan’s indigenous tribes.
There are no roads here and there’s hardly any mobile network either. The only vehicle
you’ll encounter will be the jeep that will pick you up from the sleepy town of Hanxi, and then drop you off halfway up the mountain.
From there, the rest of the journey is on foot.
Three tribe members came down from the mountain to guide us up to their village.
Our main guide, Kwali, was a young chap who had returned to the mountain after studying in Australia for eight years.
Along the way, he showed us how the Atayal grow wild mushrooms, and pointed to the boar raps that they use to hunt the hairy beasts, which feature pretty heavily in their diet.
The climb wasn’t treacherous. In fact, it was rather easy but because the place was mostly wet and the sky overcast, the track did get a little slippery from the mud and leaves.
Once we reached the rusticlooking yet modern village, we were greeted and given lemongrass tea and skewers with marinated pork to barbecue over a fire pit.
This was when I had my first taste of Taiwan’s aboriginal rice wine.
The rice wine is a shade of milky yellow and is considered valuable because of the immense amount of work required to harvest the rice and ferment the wine. It is also used in some of the Atayal rituals.
We were told that Atayal newlyweds are made to drink from a small wine glass, cheek-to-cheek, and if any of it is spilled, this spells bad luck for the couple.
After downing a shot of rice wine, we were given a quick tour around Bulaubulau – quick because it’s a rather small village.
We saw the Atayal living quarters, which, to our surprise and envy, were not old and dilapidated wooden huts but modern villalike constructions that looked like what you might find at a holiday resort.
Taiwan has its fair share of typhoons throughout the year and to minimise the destruction of their huts, the Atayal built their houses in Bulaubulau with the backs facing the direction where the winds strike the hardest, our guide told us.
They reinforced these walls with bricks. This also helps keep
the houses cool during summer.
We were treated to demonstrations of how Atayal women make use of traditional weaving tools to create handicrafts and embroidery, and witnessed the painstaking process of making rice wine.
After the tour, we proceeded to a thatched hut for lunch. The menu comprised mostly of fresh produce from the Atayal farm, the chickens that they keep, and meat from wild boar.
Four kinds of rice wine were served as pairing partners to some of the dishes. So, before our last course, we were rather tipsy – but also rather merry.
Halfway through lunch, we followed our guide Kwali into a grass field, where we danced in their tribal footsteps and made friends with two goats nearby.
We then proceeded to make our own dessert – mua chee, made from the same fermented rice that’s used to make wine.
Two people are required to pound the sticky glob into submission. When it was ready,using just our fingers, we took out small pieces, dipping them in fresh honey before eating.
What I won’t forget is the hospitality of the Atayal people, which was apparent from the moment we got there. They were warm, friendly and generous, traits I’ve observed among many Taiwanese people.
As we were leaving Bulaubulau, we were each given a small bag with some Atayal local produce – a small gesture that comes from big hearts.
Maybe it was the effect of the alcohol, but spending a dayin this hidden village made one forget that there’s a noisy, modern world out there that is constantly screaming for attention.
Here, in the mountains, one feels light, and free.
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