Yahoo News and the Taiwan Weather Bureau both called for heavy thunder storms not only for Haulien County, my destination for this trip, but for the entire island of Formosa. And yet, as my train approached Rueshui station in the East Rift Valley, I was frantically applying 100 SPF sunblock (I’ve become obsessed with guarding my skin against UV rays since going for my medical exam last month; when I took off my shirt the dermatologist gasped in horror -not at my gut- but at the “severe sun damage” in the form of freckles on my back. She was to check for leprosy, and judging by the shock in her voice, I thought I had a horrific case of it. Freckles are bad news, I guess…)
After checking into my “minzu” (B&B), I rented a scooter and began roaring down highway 9, heading south towards Taitung. I vaguely recalled seeing a side road on the map (the minzu laoban thrust one in my hand when I checked in) for a side road off “the 9” with some scenic spots. As I rolled down the valley on Monday morning I decided that route 18, the side road, would be what I
explored today. The little or lesser known always interests me more, even though I had never driven the East Rift Valley before, a ride many in Taiwan rave about.
At Yuli Township I turned off at 18 and decided to grab a beer and recheck the map. Sure enough, I was only about 10 km from Nanan Waterfall, after which there was Walami Trail. Never heard of either before -I was sold.
The air in the massive valley between the Central Mountain Range and the Coastal Mountains is like some sort of wind from paradise compared to the toxic stew stagnating in Taipei, but the fragrant, jungle-minted breeze drifting down from the walls of forest as I hung right, buzzing into route 18 was nothing less than -god’s breath… In a minute I noticed waterfalls shimmering down through cracks in the tropical canopy on both sides of the Shanfeng River.
After crossing a small bridge, I decided to take a little swimming excursion to wash off three hours of train riding. The nameless “farmer’s road,” as I like to call those little paved one-lane streets that appear as though they were simply painted on the earth, led
to an abandoned Catholic church, behind which another narrower, rougher cement road led up into wilderness. I took it, straining the 125cc Kimco motorbike’s engine to its limit, before leveling off at a small bridge. And like magic, there was the swimming hole -a clear pool surrounded by fern trees, dipterocarps, and nameless others. A few smooth boulders conveniently led down to the lip of the pool, and I stripped down to my boxer shorts and dove in. Floating on my back in a remote stream pool on an unnamed artery in Taiwan’s Central Mountain range, completely washed of city worries, my trip was already a success, regardless of what happened from here on in.
After a few more minutes of dipping in the elixir, I was back on the 18, on my way to Nanan. Whirring by rice fields and Montane forests, I espied a gushing waterfall high on a green ridge up ahead. This was Nanan Falls, an impressive 70-foot plunger spreading a mist in the small gorge it created. At the base of the falls lays a massive boulder worn flat and smooth from years of aqua pummeling. A teenager sat on a stone near the
pool, contemplating the surrounding jungle with a cigarette in hand. As I splashed my face with water, I decided to practice my Mandarin on an older guy who was also cleansing himself in the turbulent pool. I was just finishing up my second beer, and the Chinese was flowing from me (beer has that effect on my linguistic skills, at least it seems that way to me).
In the “excitement” of our chat, I dropped my beer, all of it draining into a crevice. The old guy grabbed me by the arm and brought me up to a huge boulder that he and his friends were picnicking on. His pal was about 15 years his junior, and their “girlfriends” were about 20 years younger than them. Both of these chicklets, so to speak, had been to the plastic surgeon, I am certain, judging by the stretched, polished and sudden contours in their faces. They were friendly, at any rate, and within seconds a bottle of Young Deer Antler Licquer was thrust in front of me. Using Mandarin and hand motions (unnecessary, of course) my friend explained that “beer make penis go down, deer antler make penis go up! Haha!”
These guys were clearly out on a little local R&R with some fine babes from around the way. We drained one bottle and out came another. I didn’t want to indulge in too much fun with them, because I had serious mountain driving ahead of me.
They would hear nothing of it. The cups were refilled and it was time “gahm-pei” time again, and again, and again. Finally I pulled my map out and pointed to Walami trail, which was also written in Chinese. They had never heard of it. I told them I was assigned to do a story on it for The New York Times, and I had to get going. That still didn’t do it. Only after several original dirty jokes did they permit me to depart. I could hear them laughing all the way back to my scooter. The jokes (too “un-pc” to repeat here “in public”) and the deer antler licquer likely ensured the two saucy ladies were in for a wonderful night.
The 18 climbed and turned for another 2 km through mountains of undulating tropical forest -Taiwan’s are some of the best
preserved in East Asia, according to the World Wildlife
Foundation. The road terminated ahead, I could see, and I was stunned to see a large ornate wooden sign announcing “Welcome to Yushan National Park.”
I had never been to Yushan (Jade Mountain), and it had always been on my list of must-do’s for Taiwan (but since I live here, that one could always be postponed, I reasoned). The sign at the trailhead noted that a Class A hiking permit was required for entry. But on a Monday afternoon, with not a vehicle or soul in sight, who would ever know? Walami trail must be a sort of secret eastern corridor entrance to Yushan National Park, a backdoor entrance from Haulien. Little known, off the beaten gorge. Perfect.
The air quality -already at the level of some form of natural ayudveric lung massage- became distinctly…cloud clean. No humidity, a subtle tropical-alpine zephyr (for Yushan’s peaks rise into the alpine world), and stillness. As I hiked along the Walami trail, crossing large suspension bridges spanning deep rocky gorges fed by numerous white waterfalls, alone in this majestic slice of the planet, I fully expected to find nymphs bathing in the plunge pools at the bottom of the falls.
At Shanfeng Falls, I followed some steps down to a viewing platform, where a sign warned against climbing over the partition. With no one around, I was over that thing and at the base of the falls, searching for river sirens. No cherubs in sight, but heavenly bath tubs to be found, beautifully melted into the marble stream bed. Clothes off, into a tub, carved out by Zues’ fingertip, it seemed.
I spent about two hours in the park, and when it began raining for the second time (first time was just a sprinkle), I thought it prudent to head back to the village near Nanan Falls and grab a beer or two and look for monkeys. Tomorrow would be whitewater rafting on the Hsukulien River, and any leftover time would be spent exploring the countless no-name farmer’s roads spidering into the mighty Central Mountain Range.
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