Mon, Jul 26, 2004 - Page 2 News List

Saved by a dream of sacred trees

The Atayal village of Smangus had fallen on hard times, but an elder's vision launched a search for giant trees that gave the community a new life and firm connections to the modern era

By Lindy Yeh  /  STAFF REPORTER

The biggest sacred tree in the Smangus community's sacred grove is about 2,500 years old and 35m tall.

PHOTO: LINDY YEH, TAIPEI TIMES

When the flood triggered by Tropical Storm Mindulle destroyed many Atayal villages in Nantou County earlier this month, Hsinchu County's Atayal settlements as a whole were not affected much. The only loss was some peaches swept down by the storm along with some fallen rocks.

But the fallen boulders on the roads were immediately cleared, as roads bring tourists to the scenic villages.

Like many other mountainous scenic communities, Smangus, a tiny village with a population of only 134 people, thrives on tourism. It can't afford to leave any damaged roads, given there is only one single-lane work road leading to the Atayal settlement.

Recent visitors of Smangus would have difficulty imagining life there eight years ago, before the road reached the village. During the past eight years, tourism has created income and job opportunities for the settlement.

The Atayal settlements located in Hsinchu County's remote mountains were once dubbed "the dark settlements" (黑色部落) because of their underdevelopment and geographical isolation.

Among them, Smangus was the most backward and remote.

Only in 1979, did the community gain electricity, the last village in Taiwan to have power.

It was also the last one to have car access to the outside world when a work road reaching Sman-gus was inaugurated.

Without a road, there was not even postal service, because the postman would not take a whole day walking back and forth only to deliver a letter.

While unemployment remains a serious problem for Aborigines, there is not a single jobless person in Smangus, thanks to the practice of a collective business system created three years ago.

The villagers once lived on small incomes by growing mushrooms. Before a road was opened, the villagers had to carry dried mushrooms on their backs along a mountain trail for at least six hours to the nearest village on another mountain, Hsinkuang (新光), for trading.

"The mushroom trading lasted from 1970 to 1991. Before that, we led a self-sufficient life by hunting and growing millet," said Yuraw Icyang (曾傳光), a young leader of the settlement.

But during the 1980s and 1990s, as mushroom smuggling from China was rampant, local mushroom prices fell.

"Many villagers moved out to earn a living. That left only some 10 households in Smangus," Yuraw said.

Without any educational facilities, kids had to attend primary school in Hsinkuang and lived in a bamboo structure built by their parents within the campus.

As high as Smangus, Hsin-kuang's altitude is also over 1,500m above sea level. The two villages face each other, with the gorge of Takechin Creek (塔克金溪) in between.

Every Monday morning, higher-graders led the smaller kids to go to school along the V-shaped mountainous trail. The track was so steep that they had to go down to Takechin Creek and then climb up to Hsinkuang.

"During my years, our school principal said it was OK if the first-graders could arrive at school before dinnertime on Monday. On Saturday, we lower-graders could leave for home as early as after breakfast, while the higher-graders could leave only after finishing schoolwork, " recalled Yuraw, 31.

The kids had to cook for themselves. The older boys and girls usually cooked a big pot of rice for many meals. They would cook another pot only after the previous one was finished, no matter how many days it had taken, according to Yuraw.

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