The Raknus Selu Trail - A Slow, Romantic Journey

(2018-10 Taiwan Panorama / Cathy Teng / tr. by Jonathan Barnard)

Although the winding trail is narrow, it holds an abundance of culture and history, and it beckons to people to explore it for themselves. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
Although the winding trail is narrow, it holds an abundance of culture and history, and it beckons to people to explore it for themselves. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

In 2018, a partly finished national-level hiking trail that stretches more than 400 kilometers was given its official name: the Rak­nus Selu Trail. Running through Hakka communities near Provincial Highway 3, it has been stitched together from old trails, farming roads, and narrow hiking paths. This area used to be covered with native camphor wood forests. When the Han Chinese pioneers first entered these mountains to cut the camphor trees, they ended up creating an industry that would earn Taiwan the moniker “kingdom of camphor.” The industry would connect Taiwan to the global shipping routes of the 19th century.

With that industry’s demise, camphor forests would be replaced by fruit orchards and tea plantations. With the construction of Provincial Highway 3, some of the roads that connected those settlements in former times were covered over with asphalt, while others, as they fell into disuse, were reclaimed by nature.

Members of the Taiwan Thousand Miles Trail Association spent more than half a year investigating on foot, walking both where there were paths and where there were none, to clear a way once more for the Raknus Selu Trail.

A trail along Taiwan’s “romantic highway”

The trail’s name comes from rak­nus, which is Ata­yal and Sai­si­yat for “camphor tree,” and selu, which is Hakka for “trail.” From the name, one can tell that this area holds the culture of both Aborigines and Hakkas. The trail’s route closely follows the route of Provincial Highway 3 as it connects old foot roads, farming roads and narrow trails between Tao­yuan’s Long­tan and Tai­chung’s Dong­shi. Although the trail can be quite narrow, at every twist and turn it shows off broad cultural and historical wealth.

Tsai Ing-wen’s first campaign for the presidency introduced a “Taiwan Romantic Route 3” plan, which aimed to bolster the tourism industries of Tao­yuan, Hsin­chu, ­Miaoli, and Tai­chung along the Provincial Highway 3 corridor by drawing inspiration from southern Ger­many’s Romantic Road. One fruit of this plan, Rak­nus Selu, pieces together a long trail intended exclusively for walkers, giving them opportunities to explore communities on foot, to experience nature up close, and to strengthen the economies of small towns.

The Taiwan Thousand Miles Trail Association, founded in 2006, announced back in 2011 that its next step after establishing a network of 3,000 km of trails around Taiwan would be to promote the creation of long-distance trails.

Finding a way through the wilds

“In fact there was never a single ‘Rak­nus Selu’ road that went all the way from Long­tan to Tai­chung,” explains the association’s deputy executive director, Hsu Ming-­chien.

The association linked together several old trails that were popular with hikers, but realized that many of the vehicular roads that they had chosen as connecting segments were ill-suited to become part of a hiking trail. Association members had to go out in the field to investigate for themselves and look for mountain trails to replace those segments of highway.

They found a set of topographical maps from the Japanese colonial era, which they compared to current maps. And they went into local communities to ask elders if they knew of any abandoned old roads or trails. In places where these efforts provided no leads, the members of the task force were left to their own devices. ­Huang Szu-wei, who is heading up this project for the association and took part in surveys of the entire route, explains that they might walk along a ridgeline or follow paths that locals use to cut bamboo shoots. They followed all leads, continually searching and exploring. Where there was no path to follow, they’d pull out machetes to make their own way, as group members behind them hung marker strips on trees to blaze the trail. Friendly locals would often give them lifts or offer them hot bowls of noodles on cold nights. Their hospitality was a heartwarming part of the process.

Apart from the popular old trails, the Rak­nus Selu Trail also features sections of roadways of important cultural significance that had completely disappeared. The hope is to bring these back to life. Hsu Ming-­chien cites the lao guan­dao—“the old government road”—which was the main route connecting ­Miaoli’s Dahu and Zhuo­lan during the Japanese era. Getting little use, some portions of the road were abandoned to nature. But on the topographical maps completed in 1904 you can find the road. “Before Provincial Highway 3, it was the most commonly used road hereabouts, and it didn’t fall into disuse until the highway opened,” Hsu explains. “So we felt it was important to make that road part of Rak­nus Selu.”

Digging up local stories

The trail association has also tried to locate a variety of sites of cultural significance along the trail. 

Chuhuangkeng can be found beside Expressway 72 in ­Miaoli’s Gong­guan Township. ­­Huang explains that this was the first site in Taiwan where oil was discovered. The world’s second oil well was sunk there in 1877.

The old Chu­yun and Chu­guan trails near Chu­huang­keng have also been included in Rak­nus Selu. The Fa­yun Temple affords views of Dahu, where Hakka and Aboriginal tribes once battled. A bit farther in the distance is the “Fan­zai forest” depicted in Cold Night, the river novel by Li Qiao. Today, the location is known as ­Jinghu Village, in ­Miaoli’s Dahu Township.

Continuing southward, on the Xie’ai Old Trail (the old Shi­tan‡Gong­guan road) alongside ­Miaoli County Route 26, Huang invites us to examine the old trail’s craftsmanship. On its stone steps one can vaguely see smooth indentations some five centimeters across, which he explains are the marks of chisels from back when the rock was split to build the road.

Next we hit the Shi­guang Old Trail in Hsin­chu’s ­Guanxi Township, which was once an important agricultural road connecting Shi­gangzi (the old name for Shi­guang) with Tao­yuan’s Long­tan. The stone pavers used here were rounded river rocks. ­Huang explains that the area was once a riverbed, and it was full of rocks that had been smoothed by the flow of water. When building the road, the pioneers used those river rocks, so the pavers look quite different from the large cut stones used to pave the old Shi­tan‡­Miaoli road. The height of the steps on these roads was also carefully considered to suit those carrying loads with shoulder poles.

Building the trail oneself

Only by having knowledge of how these roads were built can we gain a better understanding of the pioneers’ lives and the wisdom they demonstrated in living in balance with nature. The trail association has over the years assiduously promoted building trails by hand over the mechanized techniques used when projects like these are bid out to construction firms. Hsu explains that when you treat building a trail as an engineering project, the approach naturally becomes building it once to last forever. But the granite, cement and other outside materials that construction firms bring in are not things that have a lot of durability in nature. On the other hand, the most important consideration when making trails by hand is using materials that are found on site—because that makes it easy to perform regular maintenance. But handmade trails vary from place to place, so it is hard to describe in writing how to make them. Accordingly, the association has organized “trail-building holidays” for volunteers.

We participated on one such outing, repairing the Old Du­nan Road section of the trail. At one place where water had washed out a slope alongside the trail, causing collapse, the maintenance crew decided to lay down layers of rocks to create a solid base for the trail. At first, Hsu and an old master trail builder examined the face of the slope visually and discussed how to repair it. Then they led the team in looking for suitable large stones. The base of the trail that had been washed away needed to be filled in with large stones, which had to be selected for their size and shape. It’s important to plan before digging. After the stones were put down, they had to be turned to get the best fit. Only then were they fixed in place. Then smaller rocks and pebbles had to be found to fill in the gaps. Finally, sand was poured into the cracks to solidify the base. Once repaired, this stretch of trail looked just like neighboring stretches from the top, but from the side it resembled patched clothing. 

“This way of repairing trails is becoming a global trend,” says Hsu. “And it’s also the method the pioneers originally used.”

A Swedish engineer who has lived in Taiwan for five years was on the repair crew, as were volunteers from Taoyuan, Yilan, Changhua and Tainan. Sweat dripped off their brows and onto the soil, and their gloves became smeared with mud as they bent down to carefully examine the rocks. The biggest rocks were so heavy that volunteers could scarcely breathe as they moved them. But their lives became connected to the trail, and they were no longer strangers to the land. These experiences are some of the reasons volunteers come back to work on the trail again and again. As Hsu says, “Those who participate on these outings find them quite addictive.”

In the middle of July, at a press conference to announce the signing of a memorandum of understanding for a public‡private partnership to promote the Rak­nus Selu Trail, the nature writer Liu Ka-­shiang made an unforgettable speech. He pointed out that Provincial Highway 3, the Sun Yat-sen Freeway and the Formosa Freeway were all opened to traffic with the aim of facilitating speed—with the idea that fast, broad roads can foster economic development. But the Rak­nus Selu Trail, whose route was only finalized in 2018, is wholly different: “This slow road perhaps demonstrates how the values and meaning found in life are changing within Taiwanese society.”

The Rak­nus Selu Trail is the Taiwan Romantic Route 3’s most romantic feature. Its path was unknown before a group of people pieced it together segment by segment. In the years ahead many more groups of volunteers will donate their time and energy to it, lugging tools and moving rocks as they build and maintain the trail one stretch at a time.

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