Saturday, December 20, 2008

Day 11: Time Out in Taroko II

Our agenda for the day was to explore Taroko National Park. For that, a good breakfast was necessary. The hotel had a buffet spread laid out.

congee with the usual accompaniments, fried bee hoon, even mantou

After that, we hung around waiting for our driver to appear.

jing - a hotel that reminds its guests to keep quiet is, in our opinion, an excellent one

On our behalf, the hotel had arranged a tour of the park. The hotel itself provided drop-off and pick-up services to the start of and from the end of specific trails. Jonathan himself occasionally acted as a hiking guide. This being our first trip to Taroko, we decided to do the touristy thing and adopt the hit and run approach instead, so as to get a good feel of the park as a whole. Perhaps we would have the opportunity in the future to explore the trails in greater detail. Anyway Mr Fang's services would set us back 2800NT (S$140), not too bad for a whole day tour.

Mr Fang turned out to be a retiree turned tourist taxi driver. Reeking somewhat of cigarette smoke and perhaps a little less personable than Mr Yang, he was nonetheless similarly professional. He had a comprehensive itinerary planned out and many nuggets of information to share.

a view of the Liwu River

Our first stop, a quick drive from Bulowan, was Swallow aka Yanzhikou Grotto, one of the narrowest points of the gorge. The attractions were the many potholes in the walls - not made by swallows surely? - and the rushing water beneath. Mr Fang instructed us to take our time walking through the tunnel flanking the gorge.

Swallow Grotto - the potholes

At the other end, Mr Fang was waiting for us with the car. Our next stop was Jinheng Bridge.

according to Mr Fang, named for the architect who died crushed by rocks

It was apparent to us that the road system of Taroko, with its many tunnels and bridges, was an architectural and engineering wonder. The walls of the gorge, like that of Jhuilu Cliff, went up to 600 m.

manmade wonder

manmade wonder

Of course these were overshadowed by the natural wonders.

splendour falls on marble walls, a Taroko specialty

let's not forget the birds! - plumbeous water redstart

We were off to a good start. Mr Fang sped us to our next stop.

Cihmu (Loving Mother) Bridge - in memory of Chiang Kaishek's mother

From where we were, the scenery was breathtaking.

Next up was the Lyushui Trail. This time, Mr Fang hopped excitedly out of the car. He grabbed two torchlights from the glove compartment of his car, and announced that he would personally lead us on the trail. The torchlights were for a short section of the trail that was in pitch darkness - it really was pitch dark in there - cutting through as it did the rock itself.

Lyushui Trail

at last, a real trail

Many of the trails were actually created by the tribes, before the opening of Taroko. Without roads, the tribal people traversed the mountainous landscape on foot, cutting trails that hugged the mountains. A little later, we would drive past from below and realise how high up the Lyushui trail was.

that's where we were

The Lyushui Trail was one of the highlights of our day. It was one of the few moments when we came anywhere close to hiking, and experiencing Taroko as the tribes did, and not just sightseeing. We even managed to see some birds, notably Muller's barbet, minivets, and the Formosan Yuninha.

Lyushui Trail - birdwatching spot

Sadly, the part of the trail that was open to the general public was relatively short. To proceed beyond that point, Mr Fang said, we had to apply for a permit. That was important for safety reasons. Apparently every now and then, someone, most famously a young American some few years back. went missing in the park.

When it was time for lunch, Mr Fang seemed most pleased to find out that we preferred to eat at one of the local eateries, a xiao chi place, at Tienhsiang, rather than at the nearby five-star hotel. I think he liked the idea that he would be able to have lunch with us at the same place. Well, not quite with us, since he chose to eat at a neighbouring table, chatting with the staff of the eatery, rather than at our table.

more fern tips and the bamboo shoots we could not get enough of

fried fish

glutinous rice

meatball soup

After lunch, we did drop by that five-star hotel where we had declined to eat. It had lovely grounds...

... and a herb garden. Parsley...

... sage ...

... rosemary ...

... and thyme

of course, there was a bird or two - white wagtail

After that, Mr Fang took us on what felt like a whirlwind tour, a notable pavilion here, an important bridge there. Despite the rush, we were left in no doubt of the park's scenic grandeur.

we were on this bridge, gulp

looks like the giants had a game with these

time and time again, the marble walls themselves became nature's canvas

After a series of minor sights, we finally reached one of the park's most wellknown sights.

Jiucyudong (Tunnel of Nine Turns)

Unfortunately, a busload of Chinese tourists had disembarked just after us. Needless to say, it was a quiet walk no more. We paused only to take some photos and then tried as best we could to stay sufficiently ahead of them so as to not to have to suffer the loud comments and even louder dressing. We could only wonder how the marble cliffs and limestone walls were reacting to that much cigarette smoke.

Back in Mr Fang's car, the mad rush of the day was taking its toll on us. We caught ourselves dozing off in the car and were only too glad to see a tourist rest stop at the next sightseeing spot, Changchun aka Eternal Youth Shrine. Perhaps we could buy a coffee. Hence we were most pleased to see that the rest stop not only had toilet facilities, it had a snack bar.

the abundance of marble was evident

I emptied out the change in my pockets, about 100NT or SGD$5 in coins, which HM took to buy us a cup of java while I snapped some shots. Barely five minutes later, she called me in despair. The cup of coffee, which she had just been served, cost 150NT or SGD$7.50. I had to trot back to the carpark, look for Mr Fang and interrupt his smoke break so that I could retrieve my wallet from my bag. It turned out that the cup of coffee was no ordinary cuppa, made with Eternal Youth spring water no less. Spring water or not, it was an unexpectedly expensive cup of coffee.

The shrine itself was perched picturesquely on a height.

like a Chinese ink painting... or the setting for a wuxia pian!

bridge leading to the shrine

inside a grotto on the way to the shrine

Eternal Youth, referring to the many lives that had been lost in the opening of Taroko

Our last major trail of the day was the Shakadang Trail which ran along the Shakadang River, in its characteristc shades of green and turquoise.

We couldn't get over how clear the water was. And, this being the last trail, Mr Fang gave us a whole hour to explore the trail. Whee! It was nice to be able to walk a distance, not just hop, skip and jump.


Some of the highlights of the Shakadang Trail:

interplay of water and rock

a Formosan rock monkey

yet another plumbeous water redstart

you don't say...

back at the start

All too soon, the hour came to an end. It had been a most pleasant walk which, we agreed, if we ever returned to Taroko would be high on our priority list.

On the way back, Mr Fang had us pop by the Taroko National Park Headquarters where there was an exhibition on the park and a video screening in the theatrette. Beautiful as the images of Taroko in the various seasons were, I fell asleep. And then our tour was over.

Back at our hotel, the dinner menu was Tribal Dinner. Despite the change of moniker, it looked remarkably similar to our dinner the night before.

salad again

millet wine again

lamb, instead of wild boar, and pork belly, instead of poached chicken

a different dessert - lemon pie with wedges of tangerine (from the hotel's garden)

It was a tasty and hearty meal nonetheless. After dinner, we were happy to stay back for another performance. Our host this time was a different member of staff.

a skull in hand

While our host of the previous night was all banter and quick charm, this one was quieter but had stories about hunting and tribal life to share.

and he was a better singer and musician!

As he explained, being able to sing was important for boys in the tribe. Many of them, like him, were shy and found it easier to express their feelings and impress the girls through song.

And, to prove the point that song and dance ran in the blood of tribal people, who should put in a special appearance but...

Xi Wan A Yi

She treated us to a simple but melodic rendition of an old Chinese song.

And, like the night before, the evening's performance ended with the entire staff taking part. In the absence of the owner, Jonathan did the honours, explaining about the hotel's mission to help re-establish the Truku people's presence in Bulowan and leading the chants and songs.

To those of us who had been on the walk the night before, Jonathan invited us to join the group again; our young host would be leading the walk and he, unlike our host and guide the night before, had real experience out in the field, hunting with his elders.

While we waited for everyone to suit up, torches to be located and so on, we had a look at the hotel's art gallery:

sketches of traditional tribal life

That night, we heard the bark-like call of a muntjac or barking deer, and spotted flying squirrels in the trees, their red eyes glowing in the light of our torches.

making a second appearance

Moltreche's green tree frog - a protected species in Taiwan

All too soon, the walk came to an end. It was time to retire to our cosy room; we now knew better than to let in the cold air.

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