Unexpected Delights in Taroko, Taiwan: mountain millet mochi and more

This is the first post in my new Unexpected Delights series! I cover Taroko National Park’s Shakadang Trail, a bit on Truku history, millet, weaving and Taroko trip planning

Taroko Gorge National Park entrance
Taroko National Park (太魯閣國家公園,  Tàilǔgé Gúojiā Gōngyuán)

My day trip from Hualien to Taroko Gorge was epic. I went solo and on public transportation. I took 6 buses and hiked on 5 trails. By far my favorite hike was the Shakadang Trail (砂卡礑步, Shākǎdàng Bùdào) or “molar” trail in the indigenous Truku language, named after the human molars Truku settlers found when they first arrived around 300 years ago. The trail brought together an awesome mix of tectonic geology, vibrant nature, a rich history, food and culture.  

The massive gray marble cliffs of Taroko Gorge were formed millions of years ago with the collision between the Philippine and Eurasian tectonic plates. The Liwu River (Tkijig in the Truku language) flows from Qilai Mountain and carves the deep gorge that makes the Taroko region famous and habitable before it empties into the Pacific Ocean. The Shakadang trail follows the Shakadang River, a tributary of Liwu River, a gorgeous ethereal turquoise blue ribbon next to the gray marble cliffs.

I got off the bus at the Taroko Visitor’s Center to borrow a hard hat and chat with the rangers and then hiked to the Shakadang Trail entrance via the Xiaozhuilu Trail, which took about 40 minutes with lots of well-maintained stairs and a fun rope bridge over the forest canopy. I did not encounter other hikers along the Xiaozhuilu Trail and took my time to enjoy the sights, sounds, textures and smells of the gorge. Along the way, beautiful butterflies fluttered around me, birds sang in the trees, and monkeys ran through the forest. 

Xiuzhuilu Trail’s rope suspension bridge.
The view of the bridge at the Shakadang Trail’s entrance from Xiuzhuilu trail.

The Shakadang Trail was a different story. While I managed to get there in the morning before the biggest tour buses, I had to navigate a bunch of loud, selfie-taking groups, which made me nervous about finishing the hike and catching the bus to the next trail. (Note to self: stop trying to do so much in one day and stay in Taroko Gorge for a few days next time!)

Still, I was able to slow down enough to enjoy the gorgeous views of the Shakadang River:

About 1.5 kilometers in I arrived at Wujianwu (五間屋), named after the five Truku homes that were originally there. Among Truku people, this location is called Swiji, meaning banyan trees. From 1896 to 1914, Truku people in this region fought fiercely against Japanese colonists, who wanted to exploit the land for minerals, camphor and other trees. During those 18 years Truku warriors fought the Japanese military and held them off until the final battle of the Truku War in 1914, during which 20,000 Japanese soldiers with heavy weaponry were brought in to overpower 2,000 Truku fighters. The remaining Truku people were forcibly moved from the mountains to the plains and into Han Chinese settlements.  

Since then Truku families have returned to the area and now sell food and other goods at Wujianwu. When I arrived, I heard as much Japanese spoken among visitors as I heard Chinese spoken. I wondered how the Truku sellers felt about coming back to the land their ancestors were forcibly removed from, and how they felt about the Japanese tourists. I also wondered how the Japanese tourists felt about their country’s colonial history in Taiwan, about how Japan’s imperial forces stripped the island of natural resources and decimated the indigenous communities they were now visiting on holiday. 

The shops at Wujianwu (五間屋)

My stomach grumbled and my mind turned from big historical power struggles to my tiny present-moment body struggles. Was there food I could eat at Wujianwu? I had heard about the famous Truku-style makao (mountain pepper) pork sausages sold here. I wasn’t sure what was available for a vegetarian/pescaterian like myself. I asked the friendly Truku family at the sausage stand, and to my delight they offered their freshly-made mochi made of locally-grown millet that they would grill for me and top with soybean powder and black sesame powder (Millet mochi: 小米麻糬, xiǎomǐ máshǔ). For a drink without added sugar, they recommended their home-grown and homemade “eternal licorice iced tea.” 

Foxtail millet is an ancient grain grown in Taiwan for the past 5,000 years. Millet seeds have been a staple crop for Austronesian indigenous people as well as my Hakka ancestors in Taiwan. Millet is easier to grow, less resource-intensive, and contains more nutrients and fiber than rice. I love the texture and flavor of millet in Hakka cooking, which I’ve eaten steamed, in porridge (粥, zhōu) and in zongzi rice dumplings (粽子, zòngzi). Millet growing declined significantly during the Japanese colonial and KMT periods when farmers were forced to prioritize rice as export cash crops, but in the past 10-20 years, millet has returned as a valued cultural and food tradition. I had not yet eaten millet in mochi and was excited to try it.

Wow… the mochi and tea were so delicious!! And not only because I was hungry and hot and needed a rest. I was a little skeptical when they took out the dense hard block of uncooked millet mochi, but it totally transformed into a pillowy puffy treat with a crunchy and lightly charred crust as they patiently flipped it over the open-fire grill. 

Grilling the millet mochi…
…into a pillowy puffy treat!
Grilled millet mochi topped with black sesame and soy bean powder. So delicious!
The eternal licorice iced tea was refreshing and in a cool reusable flask.

The family also had a craft shop next to their food stand. There was a tabletop weaving loom and a variety of small weavings sold as bracelets, keychains and lanyards woven by the matriarch of the family. Weaving (tminun) is a crucial traditional skill and art among Truku women, and a prerequisite to earning facial tattoos and getting married. I fell in love with a bracelet that featured a turquoise blue pattern that reminded me of the turquoise blue Shakadang River. While the mom and son prepared food, the dad came over and fitted the bracelet on my wrist. Perfect fit! Yes!! 

The shop also had a variety of handmade owls, carved from wood or fashioned from fiber. Owls, or “cat-faced hawks” (貓頭鷹, māotóuyīng) in Chinese, are also called “night elves” in some indigenous communities and are symbols of luck in Taiwan. My kid loves owls, so I bought two super cute wooden ones carved and painted by a friend of the Truku family.  

Bracelet woven by the Truku family’s matriarch with a turquoise reminiscent of the Shakadang River.
Wooden owls carved and painted by a Truku artist.

As the refreshing tea and millet mochi filled my body, I admired the weaving and hugged the owls nestled in my bag. I felt a warm happy glow from the unexpected delight of food and art that this Truku family shared with me.  

Sculpture of a Truku woman elder at the Taroko Visitor’s Center.

Resources I used for Taroko trip planning:
  • Taroko trails and road info on the official park website, including current conditions and open/closed status.
  • Xiaozhuilu to Shakadang trail on Anusha Lee’s excellent English-language Taiwan Hikes website.
  • An overview of Taroko Gorge trip planning is on Nick Embel’s English-language Spiritual Travels website.
  • Taroko weather forecast and Taiwan’s weather warnings
  • Public transport:
    • To take the train from Taipei to Taroko Gorge, get TRA train tickets as far in advance as possible (to get seats) to Xincheng station (2-3 hours), the closest train station to the gorge, then take a 10-minute taxi or Taroko bus 310 to the park entrance. If you are staying in or visiting Hualien city, you can also take the train to Hualien (2-3 hours) and the hour-long ride on Taroko bus 310 or a local bus from Hualien city to the park entrance. I used the iBus app for real-time local bus info.
    • Taroko bus 310 offers DIY hop-on, hop-off transport from Hualien bus station to all major sites in Taroko and other interesting sites along the way.
  • Where to stay and day trip planning: 
    • Hualien (day trip): I stayed in Hualien for a week in an AirBnb/minsu to explore the city and took a day trip via local bus to Taroko Gorge, then bus 310 to get from trail to trail. It’s too far and dangerous to walk between sites/trails due to the narrow mountain roads and vehicular traffic. 
    • Taipei (day trip): It’s also possible to do a long day trip to Taroko from Taipei via a tour group or an early morning train. For example, take the 6 am train from Taipei to Xincheng, taxi/bus to the park entrance, bus 310 to get around in the park (last bus 310 leaves Tainxiang at 4:30 pm) and back to Xincheng station, then a train back to Taipei. 
    • Stay in Taroko: The day trip to Taroko felt rushed, so the next time I visit Taroko Gorge, I would stay for 2-3 days in Taroko Village (Liwu Hostel), in the gorgeous Truku-run Taroko Village Hotel near the Buolowan bus stop, or in Tianxiang Village (with multiple hotel options) at the end of the bus 310 route. 

P.s. Shoutout to ZJ Eskman, who inspired me to write a series of posts on “unexpected delights.”  Thanks, ZJ!

2 thoughts on “Unexpected Delights in Taroko, Taiwan: mountain millet mochi and more”

  1. I woke up to walk my daughter from her room to mine. It was 230 am. Couldn’t fall back asleep immediately, so I thought I would catch up on your life. Thank you for this post! Delightful!

  2. Hi Sunny, wow, thanks for thinking of me and so happy this post kept you company during a middle-of-the-night toddler awakening. 🙂

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