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Published: October 1st 2017
Geo: 23.9949, 121.602
Overcast and cool today – but no rain and not bad weather. Woke up early, brekkies, then were met in hotel lobby by driver. We were placed in a mid-size bus (about 16 seats), so we figured we were meeting more people … and, indeed, we were taken to the airport, where we picked up another eight tourists who had flown in from Taipei for the day. Our guide was rather hilarious – very energetic and clearly enamored with being a guide.
We drove the not-quite-20 km up the coast, to the entrance to Toroko Gorge (that marvelous, gorgeous marble gorge). We paused first at the entrance gate and bridge for photographs, then climbed back in the bus for the winding drive up the road. Our guide had the timing all worked out, so that we could make it through the one-way area at 9am … apparently, we had a ten-minute window of opportunity between 9am and 9:10am to pass through, otherwise, we would have to wait an hour.
There were several stops along the gorge: a small canyon, the swallow grotto, a suspension bridge, the Grand Formosa hotel, and Eternal Spring Shrine. The gorge really is very beautiful and
very impressive: the water running down the canyon is quite clear, and the walls are smooth, marbled blue and white. Some walls and perfectly vertical, and 600 metres above the river, and the canyon is very narrow, showing only a small ribbon of sky. The road clings along one side … and, because traffic is limited to certain times, you can walk along the road without always feeling like you're about to be run over. Our guide was also very good at assuring that we were the last bus, so that the large tourist groups were ahead of us and out of the way before we proceeded, meaning that we often had the view to ourselves.
We were pleased because we were allowed to walk more than a few hundred metres away from the bus … no long hikes, but most of those require permits or head high into the hills, away from the gorge. We walked Shakadang Trail for a little less than a km – we were passed by a scooter; the sign says that indigenous peoples are allowed to use the trail to transport produce, though the government tries to encourage them to only drive scooters early
in the morning, at lunch time, or late in the day, they can, by law, go any time.
Swallow Grotto (not well named because it has multiple entrances) is perhaps the most impressive walk. We had to borrow hard hats at the entrance, saw a monkey in the trees, then we walked alongside the road through a very narrow part of the canyon, with sheer cliffs on both sides. Water seemed to flow through the very rocks – at one point, it actually squirted out horizontally, as if under extreme pressure. At the end, we paused for snacks at a small park established in memory of the chief engineer, who was killed by a landslide when checking the road following an earthquake in the 1950s.
The suspension bridge was fun … it is limited to eight people at a time, so we took turns going across. The trail on the other side was intimidating … not so much by the rapid elevation gain (although there was that) but more because it was so rocky and overgrown with moss. I think hiking would be quite challenging, and probably unpleasant in the heat.
The most expensive coffee we've had on this trip
– in fact, more expensive than several of our dinners – was had at a stop along the road. The coffee included a cream bun, but even then, it was clear that it was all about location, location, location. We sat on the deck, with a view of the gorge (and the alligator rock) … but it was quite windy and cool so we weren't too sad to leave.
We did not actually enter the hotel but merely walked from the parking lot down to the bridge across to a shrine. Kyla and I had a lot of fun looking at all the jetsam in the riverbed: umbrellas, a hat, the usual assortment of water bottles.
The lunch stop was at Baiyang trailhead … a restaurant serving aboriginal food. We had a beef stock soup, fish (which we all agreed was most delicious), sticky rice served in a bamboo tube, greens similar to broccoli rabe, a salad, mushrooms, and a tomato salsa. Also, a gulp of rice wine served in a "kiss the pig" shot glass. Our time was a little short … in the middle of our coffee, our guide came motioning us to leave, because we had to time the
1pm-1:10pm opening of the road.
At 1:04pm, we passed the police check … then immediately stopped so that we could visit Eternal Spring Shrine … dedicated to the memory of the more than 200 people who lost their lives building the road for Chiang Kai-Shek's army. This was actually one of my favorite spots: the shrine does not sit too far off the road, but you cross a bridge, then enter a small cave, which has three large, white statues of goddesses. The trail passes through short tunnels, in and out of the rock, until you reach the pavilion and shrine, built over a natural spring. The spring water tumbles off a waterfall, down into the river below. It's a beautiful setting, very serene.
But we could not linger, because the indigenous dances awaited. This was not part of the tour we booked, but extra – and only arranged in case the majority of people on the tour were interested. The four of us, along with two additional people, were not interested … but the rest were. We said that we would find something else to do while the others went to the dances; later, our guide offered us a two-for-one
rate, so we said okay. It was already not terribly expensive (NT200), so the half-off price was even better.
Actually, the indigenous dancing was fine. As far as I'm concerned, there are two ways to watch native dancing: as an insight into a culture or as intrinsically about the dance. This definitely fell into the latter category. First, the dances were held in an auditorium with maybe about 200 seats (built for a bowling alley, by the way). The music was recorded, and put over a regular pop beat, and the room was lit with disco balls. One dancer provided a brief introduction in Mandarin, but clearly not a lot of information about the stories or intent behind the dance was communicated to the main audience. We think we saw a marriage dance, a dance of offering and worship (and, I hoped, maiden sacrifice), a courtship dance showing farmers pairing off with mates, and a regular circle dance (not in that order). At the end, nearly the entire audience (the twelve white tourists and a busload of mainlanders), was coaxed on stage, where we all participated in a circle dance. This including an amazing bit of entrepreneurship: at the beginning of
the circle dance, the four of us were posed with two dancers, and our photo was taken. At the end of the circle dance, the photo of us was printed, cut, placed in a marble frame with tassel hanger, and presented to us for sale. I was so impressed, we bought it.
Then, the inevitable jade market. We were not given the spiel about how the marble and jade is cut … which was odd … but we were given plenty of opportunity to shop. I still really like the rose marble, which forms scenes like in Chinese painting, or looking like writing, cut into the shape of books … but it's so expensive. More amusing (but far less attractive) were the pink and white marble shirt and tie … and grey stone jacket, cut like it is hanging on a hook. Also amusing: when we were finally let out of the gift shop, we exited through the gift shop. Buy a souvenir of your marble shop experience! Okay, it was really a different show room, with some different wares and some the same … less jewelry, I think, and more stone furniture.
The last stop of the day was
the beach by the airport. It was a gravel beach, although the sea near the shore was surprisingly blue, given the grayness of the day. We got out and took photographs, but we didn't linger, as it was quite chilly.
Then, to the train station for our trip back to Taipei. The train was quite crowded, but Keegan was still able to sit near us, even though his ticket was for a totally different part of the same car. The train was on time, and we zipped up the coast on a narrow ledge between the high cliff mountains and the sea. The track goes through many tunnels, as you can imagine, and soon it grew rainy. We passed through endless rice paddies and towns. It was too bad it became dark soon, as the ride along the sea must be very beautiful.
We arrived Taipei station right on time and were met by our driver. There was a delay, as the driver was meeting some other people who could not be found. We started to drive away from the station but were called back … and sat in the van for a long time while our driver went out to find
the missing people. This meant that we did not get to our hotel until almost 8:30pm. We went out right away for dinner and found a nice Italian restaurant, with a wine shop on the lower floor, so bought a good Chateau Neuf de Pape and enjoyed the lingering meal. Closed the place down after 10pm, then got ice cream. Very tired; to bed soon after.
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