Unchanged through centuries of fatal wars, earthquakes, and typhoons, the historical stone village buried deep in the southern mountains of Taiwan now faces a different kind of threat. At the age of 65, Vuvu is the last remaining member of the Tjuvecekadan inhabitants.
Nobody is allowed into Tjuvecekadan without Vuvu’s blessing. In fact, nobody can enter the centuries-old stone village at all without having first secured the permission and supervision of a local guide from the Paiwan indiginous tribe. It’s a sustainable take on tourism that not only allows Tjuvecekadan to retain its traditional way of life, but it may just be the answer to keeping the culture from disappearing from existence completely.
Carved into the almost vertical slopes of the Central Mountain Range, the stone village of Tjuvecekadan exists as a living time capsule hidden in a country that is developing seemingly at the speed of light. Taiwan is a tiny island that is home to almost 24 million people, and is probably best known as the largest manufacturer of the chips that power the entire world’s digital devices. High speed trains connect the sprawling metropolises where many stores stay open 24 hours a day to serve a digitally-savvy population. But for Tjuvecekadan, time stopped hundreds of years ago. There is no electricity, phone signal, W-Fi, or even the presence of clocks. And in the absence of these, very little worries.
"When you walk into Tjuvecekadan you immediately feel the centuries winding back."
Each of the 50 houses that make up the village was laboriously built, stone by stone, from rock cut from the river bed below by early inhabitants and carried up through the densely thick vegetation to the carved terraces that overlook the valley. There are no neighbours, water was brought in from a natural stream (the location of which remained a heavily guarded secret until the recent addition of pipes), and everything that is eaten is grown or hunted in or around the village.
The village is 100% self-sustaining, but faces the risk of being forgotten in a world obsessed with constant improvement and endless consumption. And in just 48 hours of living in Tjuvecekadan it became difficult to see how much we’ve really gained through rampant development, but easy to see how much we’ve lost.
Our journey to Tjuvecekadan began with Saive.
Originally from the Puyuma tribe, Saive joined the Paiwan tribe through marriage and now serves as the director general of the tribe association which aims to rescue and preserve traditional housing settlements, restore traditional culture, and maintain precious ecological environments in Taiwan.
Through Saive we were given the honour of being hosted in Tjuvecekadan for two full days. Perhaps not long in the grand sense of time, but stripped of almost all distractions, concerns, and modern responsibilities, immersed in silence, and surrounded by unbroken views of seemingly endless valleys and peaks, 2 days was enough time to share stories, meals, and (at least for us) learn a lesson in what we truly hold dear.
We spent the night before in Fangliao, a rural township in Pingtung County. Fully trusting the Paiwanese hospitality, we packed little more than a change of clothes, a rain jacket, and a toothbrush. At the first sign of light we began the 2-hour drive to Tjuvecekadan.
Fully trusting the Paiwanese hospitality, we packed little more than a change of clothes, a rain jacket, and a toothbrush.
The drive to Tjuvecekadan is not accessible to all vehicles, and it’s hard to imagine how members of the tribe still do it on foot. But turning off from the main road into the rocky riverbed was a distinct point of where we left modern society behind and where our adventure began. Below us an endless river of rocks as far as they eye could see, to our left and right a vertical, prehistoric-like jungle of which the top could only be seen by tilting one's neck, and in the distance the figure of a man with a spear-like object taller than himself.
The figure that awaited us on the river of rocks was Tai-Shan, a member of the indiginous Paiwan tribe, son of Vuvu, and the host for our time in Tjuvecekadan.
Dressed in the traditional colours and patterns of the Paiwan tribe, Taishan immediately gave us context to our surroundings. He explained that where we stood is where the Tjuvecekadan river and the Lareklek river meet, and that the original road is now 3 metres below the rocks we drove in on. Typhoon Morakot remains the deadliest typhoon to impact Taiwan in recorded history and its force is almost hard to fathom. An unstoppable barrage of wind, water, and rocks, Typhoon Morakot obliterated everything in its path, including the bridge which once stood 10 stories high, leaving nothing but two concrete stumps on either side of the river of rocks and a single tin roof protruding from the the rocks as if it was trying to come up for air.
In the distance were a group of excavators which almost looked like toys in a sea of rocks and against the backdrop of vertical green peaks. But Tai-Shan seemed to brush off their efforts as completely meaningless. “They’ve been digging for decades. Every year during the typhoon season, the landslides bring more rocks and mud.”
Despite the weapon in his hand (used for hunting wild pigs), Tai-Shan’s demeanour could not have been more welcoming. A contagious smile and always laughing, Tai-Shan is one of those rare people you meet in life who seem to be entirely content with who they are and what they have. A purity that set the tone for our experience in Tjuvecekadan.
No cars are allowed to park outside Tjuvecekadan, so we completed the final leg of our journey on foot. And with no guests allowed inside without the blessing of the ancestral spirits, we waited patiently for the arrival of Vuvu - Tai-Shan’s mother, the spiritual guardian of the village (known as the Pulingau), and the last remaining inhabitant of Tjuvecekadan.
Seeing Vuvu come into sight was the second time that day that felt like we had been submerged in a different world and a different time. She came towards us on an ancient stone path dressed in traditional clothing, the bright shades of red contrasting against a backdrop of darkened stone houses and misty green mountains. The silence of an empty village and the magnitude of its surroundings painting the picture of a peaceful yet demanding way of life, and the confidence of an elderly woman willing to single-handedly uphold it.
For centuries, the Pulingau of Tjuvecekadan has performed the welcoming ritual for anybody entering the village. Speaking in her native tongue of Pinajuanan, Vuvu spoke with ancestral spirits, detailing our reasons for entering the village and asking for their blessing. Offerings of food and drink were made as she repeatedly dipped her fingers into a cup of liquor and flicked three times, a ritual we would see time and time again as it is required for the first drink within a given space and also when mentioning the names of deceased tribe members. The three respective flicks being for the gods, the earth, and the ancestors.
Having received Vuvu’s blessing, we were welcomed into Tjuvecekadan for another step back in time and a cultural experience that often felt surreal.
The earliest records of Tjuvecekadan are from the Dutch and date back around 400 years, however, according to elders of the tribe, that figure could be closer to 1600 years. And when you walk into Tjuvecekadan you immediately feel the centuries winding back.
Built entirely from slate and stone, the village blends in perfectly with the thick, green vegetation that surrounds it, feeling as much a part of the natural forest as the river, soil, and trees. A maze of haphazard stone paths jump between the terraces to connect the roughly 50 stone houses, each about 6 x 6 metres in diameter, and standing just over 2 metres in height. Doors were specifically designed to be below head height, forcing enemies to bend down in the case of an attack, leaving their necks exposed for a knife, arrow, or spear.
"Unnerving to know was that the deceased residents of each house lay buried beneath the floor."
Above each door is a wooden plaque that runs the length of the house with carvings of snakes, hunters, and beheadings that offer a glimpse into the history and culture that lie within the four walls.
The walls are made simply of stacked stone slate with no mortar used to bind them, while larger yet thinner slate pieces are stacked in the formation of a snake’s scales to make the roofs. There is little else inside each house other than a slightly raised platform for sleeping, a number of wild pig jaw bones hanging on the wall to demonstrate the skill and success of the hunter, and the ancestral spirit pillar in the centre of the room that holds the weight of the roof. Unnerving to know was that the deceased residents of each house lay buried beneath the floor.
As we were still in winter we were pleased to see that some sleeping bags and candles had been prepared for us in our rooms. And after being treated to a traditional Tjuvecekadan lunch, Tai-Shan began to break down the complicated yet fascinating structure and history of both the village and the tribe.
Tjuvecekadan is ruled by a monarchy. And even though Vuvu is the only inhabitant, it is currently a queen (known as the Mamazangiljan) who is theoretically in power.
What is immediately clear and particularly refreshing to see is the ingrained respect the tribe has for female members, who for centuries have been empowered to perform all the same roles as men except for fixing rooftops (it’s rumoured that this is due the fact that women wearing dresses could be exposed to men standing on the ground level, which would not be dignified).
As with all monarchies, the chief is selected through being the first born and sits at the top of a defined hierarchy within the village.
At the top of this hierarchy, but just below the chief, are the nobles, who are essentially all family members of the chief in power. Below the nobles sits the Pulingau (Vuvu), who is usually female and chosen for her ability to communicate with the Gods and via the returning appearance the zaqu (a holy bead that will always magically return to the true Pulingau). Below her are the warriors, who are the best hunters in the tribe and easily identified by the number of skulls and jaw bones displayed in and around their houses. And finally, there are the civilians.
Tai-Shan also shed light on the presence of snakes depicted in multiple wood and stone carvings around the village and within the patterns of the traditional clothing.
”There are many legends and tales about the Hundred-Pacer Snake,” Tai-Shan explained. “The slate houses that our ancestors built in the beginning were very shabby and leaked all the time. But the Hundred-Pace Snake came to one of them in their dreams and gave them instructions for how to build a quality slate house based on the shape of the scales on its body.” An improvement that was praised for its ventilation, leading to them often being referred to as “breathing houses.”
Tai-Shan’s story of the village and its past is not for me to tell, as the value of this sustainable tourism model lies in hearing the story directly from those who have been a part of it, and hearing it while experiencing the sights, sounds, and tastes of the village.
And just like the sights and sounds, the tastes were incredible.
Unlike lunch where we were treated as guests, at dinner we became part of the family.
Meal times are where people come together, no matter the society, and Tjuvecekadan is no different. What we thought would simply be a meal turned into a night so culturally rich that it left us all feeling far more content than any meal could.
It began as a lesson in sustainable living as we learned just how much of the surrounding greenery could be eaten. Not grown in designated vegetable patches as you may expect, but rather from between houses and next to paths - another testament to how well the village and the mountain blend together so seamlessly.
Fire lit, we began to prepare dinner, including making the ‘cinavu’, a traditional Paiwanese style dumpling made by wrapping fresh pork and grains inside a leaf before sealing it with string and adding it to a boiling pot of water on the open fire. Prepping meals as a group and the quality social time that comes with it seems to be less common in modern society, so reliving this experience under open skies in a historical stone village felt especially refreshing and pure. And soon all the awkwardness of being strangers began to fall away.
Whether by pure chance, or whether news of our stay in the village had spread through the community, we’ll never know. But shortly before dinner, the rightful Chief and Mamazangiljan of Tjuvecekadan returned from a 30 year absence, offering us the privilege of dining in her house.
At dinner we sat inside the Mamazangiljan’s house, not much different from any of the other houses, and we’re joined by the Mamazangiljan herself, Tai-Shan, Vuvu, and three other members of the tribe. And before even the first bite, the toasts began. Toasts are given using a single piece of wood that holds two cups, one for the person giving the toast and the other for the person being toasted. And once the toasts begin, they continued deep into the night, each toast complete with a heartfelt background story and the feeling of appreciation and togetherness growing stronger.
That night we heard stories of tribes with a proud history, stories of a Mamazangiljan who left at a young age to escape the pressures of a leader, stories of family, failed romances, and growing friendships. We ate, we drank, and we danced beside an open fire under the stars in the pouring rain. And what we’ll never forget is how powerful it was to see that what truly matters in life is simply those we hold dear and the values that bind us. These are the only things we truly need.
That night we went to bed in pure darkness with the kind of silence only nature can offer, and slept with the kind of peace only a content mind and heart will allow.
After a friendly morning breakfast we helped repair the roof of one of the older houses, getting a lesson on ancient DIY from Tai-Shan while the females in the group watched on. With all that had happened the day and night before and with all we had learned, removing and replacing the large slates felt incredibly rewarding, and also vitally important.
Tjuvecekadan is a beautiful part of Taiwan’s history, but sits dangerously on the brink of extinction. But through this model of sustainable tourism the tribe is essentially opening its doors to anybody who is ready to listen, inviting them to understand why this culture deserves to be protected and preserved, why they continue to repair the houses year after year, and why they continue to share their stories. Asking only in return to be heard.
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