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Published: October 1st 2014
We had absolutely no problem getting our connection down to Taroko Gorge from Taipei. Vegetables for breakfast again - lots to choose from, usually mixed into rice congee, but we bypass that. We're really enjoying the vegetables - sweet potato seem to be eaten every meal. To me it has a slimy feel in the mouth which i don't like. One of the hotel staff played the violin that morning whilst we ate breakfast. A lovely handwritten note from hotel staff and weather information etc for the gorge as well handed to us as we were waved into the waiting taxi.
We only waited a short time for the bus, they left every few minutes with super efficiency - never a second late, all spotlessly clean, very comfortable with onboard wifi! And only AUD $3 each. A pretty boring trip to Ludong - lots of tunnels, an odd glimpse of the sea and the emerald green hills which seem to be so much a part of the Taiwanese landscape. They are densely covered with low trees - all virgin forrest I would think. Even Taipei has many fingers of dense growth flowing through the built up areas so it's very
easy to escape into the greenery. There are many bike paths which are widely used though as throughout the rest of Asia scooters are the transport of choice.
The bus station was a short distance from the train station so we were able to purchase onward train tickets and have some lunch in the air conditioned comfort of the 7/ 11 nearby. We discovered really nice iced cafe lattes in the refrigerator there and have been enjoying them ever since. I discovered cheap cans alcoholic cider at one the day before as well! We also forgot to cash in our MTR easycards before we left Taipei but have found that you can use them as cash in 7/11's everywhere.
An hour later in a virtually empty train we arrived in Xincheng, the small town closest to the gorge. We saw plenty of views of the ocean as the train followed the coast. It was very blue, mirror flat with black sand beaches. But the coastline was lined with cement factories which rather spoilt the scenery.
Thankfully I had booked a room a few moths ago close to the gorge entrance as the area is very busy, though
most tourists come up from Hualien, slightly further south. Our room at the Crossing the Rainbow Bridge B&B was lovely and the owner could speak some English. It was at the end of a very long bridge linking Xincheng township with the gorge area. Despite the heavy traffic, including many high speed motor bikes, it was surprisingly peaceful. The only noise was the hum of cicadas in the background and that was constant all day. The whole house was full of pots glorious orchids as growing them was a passion of the owner.
Later in the afternoon when it had cooled down we borrowed some bikes (it took about three attempts to find ones we were happy with) and headed off across the very long bridge over the river opposite the guest house to find some food. Later, with slightly wobbly legs from the long ride, we were armed with cider and beer, back in the comfort of our bedroom trying to work out actually how to to the gorge the next day.
The owner ended up booking a very expensive taxi (AUD $180) drive cum guide for us to use. It ended up being a very good
decision as though there were local shuttle buses along the gorge their timing was very infrequent and they didn't even go the the trail we enjoyed the most. Other people rode bikes in but the roads were very narrow, there were literally dozens of large tour buses and many long tunnels so it would not have been an enjoyable experience.
Next day a lovely happy female driver arrived who spoke excellent English and spent a lot of the day giggling arrived to collect us. All national parks here have no entrance fees. Our first stop was further up the coast at the at the viewpoint for the stunning Qingshui Cliffs. These cliffs are the most spectacular of the hundreds that line the east coast of Taiwan. They are 21 klms long and a narrow road running along the side of them was once part of the main coastal road. Now there is a very long road and train tunnel running underneath them. We had gone through it the day before without realising it. They were amazing to look at - the sea was a glorious blue, the beach was volcanic so very dark. And they were high with the
old road line visibly hugging the cliff edge. These cliffs form the outer edge of the gorge.
From there we drove to the information centre in the main park where she explained some of the customs of the local indigenous people who live in the area. They all now live very westernised lives and no form of traditional dress is worn at except for tourism and festivals.
The traditions have been gradually dying since the Japanese banned facial tattooing in the early 1900's. There are only three women alive today (no men) with the distinctive tattoos. Young girls had a wide tattoo down their foreheads to the bridge of their noses at age 6 and when they learned to weave to a certain level, usually around 15 they had a large wide tattoo from ear to ear running around both sides of their months. They looked ugly I thought as the tattoos were very heavy without much patterning. Them males had less facial tattooing and received theirs when they learnt to hunt. Predominantly white woven costumes were worn by both sexes, women's heads were trimmed with thick strands of red and blue cords. Both sexes wore very long
pieces of twig through their ear lobes. They also were head hunters....
We had no real idea of what to expect once we were in the gorge. There are no really long treks (and the ones that there are need permits applied for a long time before) but lots of shorter ones all leaving from the roadside. With no space for much parking - it was just too narrow - the little bit of space there was was totally crazy with buses and dozens of yellow taxis triple parked. Our driver had to stay with the car a lot of the time just to shuffle it around. The road through the gorge is 18 kilometres long and was originally a trail cut by the Tarako tribe hundreds of years ago. In the late 1880's the Japanese 'invaded' looking to exploit the forestry and minerals so they widened the trail, using the Taroko tribe as labour. It wasn't until the 1950's that the KMT extended and widened the road to form the first cross island road. It is still virtually the only way as the other two are closed and half been for a long time due to typhoon damage.
The first trail we did was the Shakadang Trail, once 4.4 klms long but currently closed at the 500 metre mark due to a landslide. It was very pretty as you follow the river and most of the path is under overhangs of the cliff wall so it was pleasantly cool. It was crowded in places but the path was very narrow and people were walking in both directions on the same path. Plus the fact that they all carry umbrellas for sun protection (they think they we are odd because we only really use them in the rain)...
All the rivers here are very wide and rocky and dry or with narrow channels of very grey water. They only fill with water after typhoons and then the water even subsides after a few days.
By the time we had driven through the first long tunnel to the next trail we were very happy that we had not ridden bikes in. There would be nothing pleasant about narrow dark tunnels full of car exhaust fumes - plus a constant stream of tourist coaches. The road is one of the only cross island highways as well so that
adds to the traffic.
The next stop was at the Eternal Springs Shrine, a small temple perched on the cliff side, with dedication plaques to the 450 workers who lost their lives building the road. Most of the workers were ex military men, though there was some prison labour as well. Below the shrine is a gushing spring which never runs dry. To reach the shrine we walked along the road as there was no car parking area and all waiting cars were lined up one after the other.
One of our favourite areas was Swallow Grotto, a half kilometre of old highway which is cut into the side of the cliff and passes by one of the narrowest sections of the gorge. You walk through virtually a tunnel cut into the cliff overhang and there are openings onto the gorge cut into the sides. And the river (there was a lot of water in this section) was quite deep here. We all had to wear dorky helmets and you could see why as the road surface was patched in dozens of places from rock falls. A Chinese mainland child was killed there a few months ago by
a rock fall.
We walked out of the Swallow Grotto along the road to the next viewpoint which was the narrowest point within the gorge. We spread some more of David's ashes at this spot. The walls above this section of the gorge reach a height of 600 meters above the water and the cliff face is 1100 metres wide. Our guide pointed out a narrow footpath cut into the rock cliff face 500 metres above our heads - you could just see the dark grass line edging the path. This is part of the Jhuilu Old Trail and the footpath that we could just make out was only 60 to 70 cm wide! No railing, just a rope to hold onto clamped into the rock face. Not for the faint hearted and that certainly includes us!
From there the road wound around and through some very dramatic scenery passing some road works busy with men repairing the highway from a major landslide caused by a typhoon last year. The highway must have been closed for quite a while after that. The next spot was one of the most famous spots in the park which has been for
the last couple of years, again due to heavy rockfall damage. There are currently ongoing, fairly major repairs happening, and our guide said it will be at least another twelve months before it reopens.
Next stop was at a restaurant crowded with diners where we had an expensive and unappetising meal of rice and sludge, plus paper cup of orange cordial for $AUD 10 each. Our guide was totally horrified when we said that we had bought picnic food - nobody eats in the parks at all and though we've seen plenty of seating we have yet to see tables outdoors. We humoured her and went the Taiwanese way to our regret. Though we would have had to eaten in the car as there was nowhere to actually sit outside the restaurant. We did however insist on a balcony table not one within the stuffy hot confines of the room. Our guide said that she rarely cooks a meal at home - they are either at night markets or heated in a microwave after being bought prepared from the supermarket. The supermarkets do have an amazing range of 'lunch-boxes' available - we have been enjoying the salad bowls that
Our final trail for the day was the 2.1 kilometre one way Baiyang trail which wound it's way along the gorge, passing through a total of eight dark tunnels - the first one, a 380 metre long very narrow one which led straight from the road into another another part of the river. The tunnels were originally built by a hydro electric company who were going to dam the gorge. Thankfully the government saw sense before it was too late a prevented them doing it. It was a really lovely walk - passing over a suspension bridge and two large waterfalls before ending at another man made tunnel where water rushes out of faults in the ceiling creating water curtains which you can walk through. The entrance was crammed with people waiting to go through - we decided not to bother.
Another two kilometres back to the car where our guide took us to her favourite part of the gorge - an amazing area where the cliffs are made of pure white marble. There was a lot of marble throughout the gorge but it was interspersed with granite. Here the cliffs glowed - they really were
Our last stop of the day was at a park above the gorge where there was a display of the aboriginal lifestyle. It was beautifully set out. We watched a video about their lifestyle and visited the museum. The whole park was beautifully maintained, as have all the parks we have visited been. A wonderful end to a really enjoyable day. Our guide waited while we shopped for food for dinner and then dropped us back at the guesthouse. That saved us a long bike ride across the bridge to the little restaurants in Xincheng.
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