Taiwan is very mountainous and gets plenty of rain, so it’s no surprise the island is cleaved with short, fast rivers. The longest waterway is the 186 km-long Zhuoshui (the name means ‘turbid water’). Only four other rivers are more than 100 km in length.
For centuries these waterways hindered north-south journeys. Few permanent bridges were built in Taiwan until the Japanese colonial occupation of 1895-1945. Each autumn, after summer’s typhoons, temporary bridges made of wood and bamboo were assembled. Where there was no bridge and the waters were too deep to ford, a thick section of bamboo with a strap attached sometimes served as a flotation aid. As recently as the late 19th century, Western travellers were reporting that by far the best way of getting from Takao (as Kaohsiung was then known) to Taipei was by sailboat.
The vessels crossing the Taiwan Strait during the Qing Dynasty (which controlled Taiwan until 1895) were tiny by modern standards. Because they were flat-bottomed, they could make their way several km upriver. At inland neighbourhoods like Taipei’s Wanhua, riverside docks were always busy as immigrants from China arrived, while tea, camphor and other products were loaded for export.
Many of Taiwan’s hot springs are found beside rivers. But even if you’ve no desire for a soak, you’ll find several gorgeous riverside spots where you can relax awhile. One of the nicest is the headwaters of Baibao Creek in Hualien County, not far from Liyu Lake. If you’ve an interest in how humanity can better manage the environment, you’ll happily spend an hour or two here, because this waterway has been chosen as a demonstration site for eco-friendly construction techniques, such as wooden weirs which don’t impede fish moving up or downstream.
Interfering with rivers, so they don’t break their banks and change course after typhoons, is understandable – but has contributed to the decline of freshwater species including the extremely rare Formosan landlocked salmon. Tourists hoping to glimpse the salmon in its natural environment should book a night or two at Wuling Farm, deep in the mountains, and linger beside Qijiawan Creek, the species’ main habitat. The creek is just 15 km long and no more than 12 m wide.
Many visitors don’t have enough time to venture deep into the mountains or over to Taiwan’s eastern side. However, not far from Taipei the Keelung River topples over the inspiring Shifen Waterfall (middle picture). Alternatively, head out to Guandu Temple on the outskirts of Taipei for late afternoon views over the Danshui River (lower picture).