A Wonderful World Out There
A Wonderful World Out There
Among the first impressions many people get after arriving in Taiwan are the busy roads filled with motor scooters, the crowded neon-lit streets, and the hectic activities at night markets. Taiwan, of course, has more in store than just the frantic life of the big city. For those who spend some time on this amazing island, their picture of Taiwan will soon include the beautiful mountains and valleys that cover more than two-thirds of the island. This is especially the case once you leave your vehicle behind and venture out in the wonderful world of Taiwan’s outdoors.
When I first arrived in Taipei, I can honestly say, I had very little interest in hiking. Coming from a coastal town in the UK, most of my free time was spent at the beach swimming and sunbathing (on the rare occasions when it was sunny enough to!), and I had never once climbed a mountain. It wasn’t until I had been living in Taiwan for a couple of years that I really started to hike.
The first time I went hiking was “by accident.” Sitting at home bored, I decided to go out for a ride on my scooter. With no plan of where to go, I randomly picked a road heading south out of Taipei and started riding, looking for something of interest. After about 30 minutes or so I spotted a brown tourist sign indicating a waterfall and, feeling curious, I headed in that direction. The road very quickly ended and I found myself at the entrance of a short trail to the Yinhedong (Silver Stream Cave) Waterfall.
The fall is about forty meters high, and on a rainy day huge amounts of water pour over the clifftop and smash into the rocks below. Next to the waterfall, built high into the cliff face, is a beautiful little temple. I climbed the steep and slippery stairs up to the temple and was amazed to find that I could continue and actually walk behind the waterfall. The cascading water was sprayed back towards me by the wind, and I got completely soaked. This short walk inspired me to find more trails, and hiking became an obsession.
In Taiwan there are myriad opportunities to go hiking. Wherever you are, you are never really far from a mountain or hill trail, and this is notably true of Taipei. Set in a basin, the city is surrounded by mountains, most of which can be hiked by following routes ranging in difficulty from gentle paved paths to sheer cliff faces with fixed ropes.
One of my favorite day-trip hikes is the Huangdidian trail near the quiet, little town of Shiding southeast of Taipei City. It involves an exhilarating walk along a bare spine of exposed rock. All 43along the top, to left and right are huge drops, making this a very exciting place indeed.
I first read about Huangdidian in Richard Saunders’ excellent book, Taipei Day Trips 1, which is a must-buy for any hiker looking to explore the mountains surrounding Taipei. It is full of useful information, including descriptions of trails and details regarding public transport. I was particularly intrigued by Huangdidian, as it sounded like a thrilling trail – and certainly proved just that!
I’ve now been to Huangdidian many times, but the first time remains the most memorable. I went there with two friends and we almost met with disaster when, halfway along the trail, one friend jumped off a large boulder and landed on a loose patch of ground. The soil gave way and he slid down the side of the mountain. All we heard from behind us was whirling around , whirling around, found he had disappeared. Looking over the edge of the ridge, we saw him holding onto a tree branch and waiting for us to pull him up. A very close call, and a good reminder to always be careful!
After that we continued following what we were sure was the trail; but still we managed to get ourselves lost at the end, and came down the wrong side of the mountain. Not being able to find a bus to get back to our starting point, we started on what would have been a long trek back to our bikes when, much to our relief, a passing car stopped and the driver very kindly offered to give us a lift. Despite such minor setbacks we had a wonderful day, climbing the sheer cliffs and making our way across the precarious ridges.
In Taiwan there are myriad opportunities to go hiking and you are never really far from a mountain or hill trail
As well as short day-trips, Taiwan is also a great place for hikers looking to spend several days trekking through the higher mountains. The majority of Taiwan’s landscape is classified as mountainous, and there are countless trails that can take anything from a few days to a couple of weeks to complete.
An excellent place to go for a two-day excursion is the Xiakeluo Historic Trail in Hsinchu County’s mountainous Jianshi Township. Originally, this trail connected villages of the indigenous Atayal Tribe. During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945) the Japanese widened the Xiakeluo Trail and built police stations along the way in order to gain control over the unruly tribespeople.
The trail still exists today, as do remnants from some of the police stations. Walking along the path you can spot the old copper communication lines that connected the Japanese who were stationed there, and at every point of interest there are bilingual signboards that give excellent explanations.
Most people begin hiking at the small village of Qingquan and walk to the abandoned Baishi Police Station at the halfway point, which makes a great place to set up camp for the night. Planted outside the station are several cherry trees that blossom in the springtime, making it a very picturesque place to relax after a hard day of hiking.
On the second day hikers are faced with two choices, to return to Qingquan or, if transport has been arranged, continue on to Yanglao and complete the trail. From the police station there’s a steep downhill section that leads Dawsontowards the beautiful Sakeyajin River, and spanning the river is the impressive Baishi Suspension Bridge. This 145m-long bridge was built in 1921, and was used by trucks to supply Japanese forces. Walking over the bridge, which is about 80m above the valley floor, is frightening enough – I can’t imagine how the soldiers felt driving over it!
As Xiakeluo is a linear trail, most day-hikers start at one end and return the same way. However, many hiking groups arrange trips with transport to the trail’s start and pick-up at the end, meaning that the entire length can be completed, which takes two days.
Whilst hiking is a fantastic activity to do in Taiwan, average daytime temperatures of around 28°C during the summer make climbing a mountain sometimes seem like self-inflicted punishment. So during the summer months, the best way to get outdoors and enjoy nature should involve water. River tracing combines swimming, hiking, and rock climbing together in one sport, and is my favorite way to cool off and escape the heat and bustle of the cities.
River tracing combines swimming, hiking and rock climbing, and is my favorite way to cool off and escape the heat
With so many mountains, it is no surprise that Taiwan has lots of rivers and gorges which are perfect for tracing. For anyone new to this outdoor activity, a good place to start is the hamlet of Jiajiuliao, just outside of Taipei and close to the hot-spring resort of Wulai. The Jiajiuliao Stream is mostly shallow and the gradient isn’t particularly steep, meaning no special equipment is needed to enjoy tracing up this beautiful waterway.
Near the beginning is an artificial waterfall built to protect a bridge further downstream, an excellent jump-off spot for the first plunge into the cool waters. An hour and a half of tracing will get you to the best part of the stream, a 15m stretch of rock that has been smoothed down by the action of the waterway, forming a natural waterslide. Here you can slide down with the current and plunge into a deep pool at incredible speeds.
When I look back at the last few years, I realize that since I first began exploring Taiwan's mountains a lot has changed for me. I’ve become a lot fitter, and trails I used to find difficult are now very easy. I’ve been to some of the most beautiful and spectacular places in Taiwan, if not the world, and I've made lots of friends along the way. And even though I’ve traveled all over the island, there are still hundreds of trails, peaks and valleys left to explore, so hopefully there’ll be plenty more adventures in the years to come.