We’re about 500m above the floor of the valley, clinging to a chain on a ledge on the side of a sheer marble cliff. Welcome to the Taroko Gorge in Taiwan. The path is a few feet wide. Safety barriers are scarce.
This path – the Jhuilu Trail – was hacked across the side of the abyss by the Japanese military a hundred years ago as part of a campaign to subjugate the Aborigines of central Taiwan. It only opened to hikers in 2010. The park authorities are afraid that it’s too dangerous, so permits are strictly controlled. Taiwan’s nascent tourism industry doesn’t need the negative publicity of a fool like me plunging to my doom.
Frankly, I share their concern. My mouth is dry from the anxiety as I concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, and watch the back of my wife’s blue weatherproof coat cautiously bobbing ahead. Stones and gravel crunch under my feet. It’s cold, and the damp of the fog is chilling my jeans. From this height, the cars below us on the winding tarmac road alongside the bubbling white water of the Liwu River are so small they are barely visible through the mist. It’s nicknamed The Vertigo Trail for a reason. I feel simultaneous exhilaration and fear.
Taroko National Park is the Taiwan you probably never expected to find – a rugged wilderness of craggy mountains 3,000m high, rising out of lush, subtropical forests. It’s a far cry from the stinky bean curd and swanky shopping malls of Taipei. The Taipei 101 tower may be the most celebrated tall object in the country, but many of Taiwan’s hot One Hundred Peaks dominate Taroko Park, with excellent hiking trails maintained by the very diligent national forestry department.
A network of Indiana Jones-style wood and rope suspension bridges over the chasms of the gorge links hundreds of kilometres of dirt paths together. If you are afraid of heights, then hiking across bucking sets of planks held together with hemp ropes and steel cables, hundreds of metres above a raging river, is probably not for you. It’s certainly not family-friendly, either, with gaps between the mesh sides of the suspension bridges and the planking large enough for a small child to tumble through, and often-terrifying vertical drops along many of the other paths, too. In some places we had to haul ourselves up the slopes with chains.
However, if you like a challenge and love nature and fresh air, then there are few places as stunning as Taroko within easy reach of Singapore. Tour buses crowd the floor of the valley with mainland Chinese visitors snapping the scenery, but the park’s strict permit system means that most of the paths are empty most of the time. We hiked for hours without seeing another soul, hearing only the peculiar yap of the tiny barking deer in the undergrowth, and the distant grunt of wild pigs. It’s a verdant carpet of conifers and deciduous trees. In winter, the leaves of the maples and sycamores lining the wall of the valley turn red and gold in a sumptuous display, so at times it felt as if we were trekking through New England.
The fourth day of our trip brought more surprises, as we wound our way up towards the central spine of the island and the Wuling Pass; at an elevation of over 3,200m, it’s higher than the St Bernard and Gotthardt passes in the Alps. From a zig-zag of hairpin bends, the vistas are spectacular, and in summer the route is a Mecca for motorcyclists.
However, a cold front descended this January. It wasn’t just distant mountain summits dusted with white; the roadside was blanketed in snow as we approached Mount Shihmen. It rapidly became apparent that snow chains were needed to continue. Fortunately, an entrepreneurial taxi-driver was flagging down the few passing vehicles and offering to sell sets, which he fitted. This was a skill I hadn’t ever expected to learn only a few miles from the Tropic of Cancer, which bisects Taiwan.
The next day’s hiking was a most unexpectedly frigid trudge through deep snow and slush up Mount Hehuan, the path fringed by ice-encrusted dwarf bamboo and rhododendrons. My wife retreated to the Song Shyue Snow Lodge for hot chocolate and buttered scones after the first hour, thankful that we had opted to upgrade to more luxurious lodgings in the icy conditions. We’d never expected to experience a white New Year in Taiwan, but it was certainly worth getting off the beaten path to find such beauty and wilderness.
Taipei is just under five hours from Singapore and the route is served by many non-stop flights by carriers including China Airlines and Singapore Airlines. We took a bus to the city’s main train station and then a three-hour direct “north link” train around the top tip of the island to Hualien on the east coast.
Hualien is a centre for stone-cutting and you can buy both local jade and rose stone jewellery there. After crossing the centre of the island and the Wuling Pass, we took a high-speed bullet train for the hour-long journey from Taichung on the west coast back to Taipei.
We hiked with Barking Deer Adventures, run by Richard Foster in Tainan. The Irishman is one of Taiwan’s preeminent mountain guides and has been trekking there for two decades. Richard knows the trails of the island like the back of his hand and speaks fluent Chinese. He arranged all hiking permits and accommodation, as well as ferrying us round in his Toyota. Visit www.barking-deer.com.
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