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The International Writers Magazine: Hacktreks in Taiwan - Archives

Tea in Taroko Gorge
Denni Schnapp

I glanced out of the window just as the bus crossed a bridge over a newly built section of motorway at the outskirts of Hualien. A massive sign was fixed to a concrete arch spanning the new road. It depicted a scooter surrounded by a forbidding red circle with a fat red bar drawn diagonally across. Underneath the sign, dozens of scooters zoomed up the wide stretch of asphalt. The occasional car was lost in the weaving current.

The image summed up Taiwanese traffic perfectly: free-for-all and scooters everywhere. I was happy to leave the smog, noise and chaos of the urban sprawl behind as the bus rolled towards Taroko, gateway to the most spectacular national park in Taiwan.

During the construction of the Central Cross Island Highway in the late fifties, large deposits of marble, locally known as "white jade", were discovered in the area around Hualien. Nowadays, the "City of Marble" is one of the biggest producers in the world, but the spectacular Taroko Gorge was saved from the mines and set aside as a national park. In the language of the native Atayal tribe, "Taroko" means "beautiful". This is an understatement. Here, narrow paths sneak along steep cliffs which drop hundreds of metres down into cool blue rivers, the water gushing around giant slabs of gleaming white marble. At intervals, the gorge is crossed by suspension bridges leading to a monastery, a pagoda or a sleepy aboriginal village.

I had planned to spend a few days hiking in the area apparently starting with immediate effect. The bus had dropped me by the park entrance 19 kilometres from Tienhsiang, the nearest village with accommodation. Some very expensive tour buses were going that way but there was no public transport because the Cross Island Highway had been closed by landslides, brought about by the intermittent earthquakes.

I shouldered my rucksack and turned towards the park entrance. I had barely begun to walk when a police car drew up next to me and the two officers beckoned me to get in. With trepidation, I climbed into the back. Was some special permit required for foreigners to enter the park? Was I to be arrested for not being part of a tour group? The two officers drove along the road for a while without saying anything, then the driver stopped the car at the end of a tunnel and the pointed down the road. "Tienshiang!" he said, then pointed at the car and up a side-road: "Police station!" They both gave me a wide smile, waved me on my way and turned towards the station. It was a short but fortunate lift, the tunnel was too narrow and too dangerous to cross on foot on this potentially busy road.

It seemed I would hitch-hike rather than hike and without any effort on my part. Not much later a young man on a scooter stopped and patted the pillion. I smiled and got on. My rucksack wasn't a problem; I had seen entire households moved by scooter during my stay in Taiwan. I balanced the weight and trusted my driver to keep the bike on the road.

I hung on for dear life as we skidded on gravel and leaned into hair-pin bends. The road weaved along the cliffs, through dripping tunnels hewn into the towering granite and around boulders dropped onto the tarmac by frequent landslides. When at last we stopped by a pavilion overlooking the Liwu river, I breathed a sigh of relief and dis-entangled myself from the driver who nearly had the breath squeezed out of him. He grinned and indicated the scenery: "Short break. Look! It's beautiful."
That was fine by me. We stepped into the pavilion and absorbed the view in silence for a while. Then he reached for my hand. I flinched.
"Don't worry", he said: "Dance!"
So we danced, bizzarely, with the rushing waters of the Liwu providing the sound-track.
"You are so tall," my would-be seducer whispered.

It was a come-on. Taiwanese men find tall women attractive, but while one Taiwanese supermodel is nearly as tall as Nicole Kidman, I about matched the guy's five foot-seven frame. I stopped dancing.
"Look, you are very kind, but I want to go. My boyfriend is waiting at the Catholic Hostel!"

I am sure he did not believe me, but there was not much he could say without losing face. We mounted the bike and he dropped me at the hostel where, fortunately, there was a free dorm bed. Carefully placed on the pillow of the basic bunk was a small toiletery bag with a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, tissue and two sachets of Oolong tea. This was an endearing custom in Taiwan. Weeks after my stay I kept finding shrink-wrapped toothbrushes and tiny tubes of toothpaste which I had collected from pillows and bathrooms in even the most basic hostels.

About three kilometres up the highway from Tienhsiang, just past the police station, steps lead down a path to the Taisha river. Formosan rock monkeys (Macaca cyclopis) played in the trees as I made my way down. As I descended further towards the river, the vegetation became lusher. It was as if walking into a jungle-valley. A suspension bridge led out of the dense bush across the river to the Wenshan Hot Springs which gurgled from the rocks below. I entered a wooden cabin and changed into my bikini. With a towel slung over one shoulder and my clothes stuffed into my daypack, I rounded the last bend on the path. There by the bank was a group of Buddhist nuns.

Their bodies were covered in layers of clothing, they even had cloth wrapped around their feet. Two of them had immersed themselves in the water, garments and all. Another sat in quiet meditation on a rock. The fourth was preparing a pot of tea over a small fire. I quickly withdrew, before they noticed me, and retraced my steps to the cabin where put my clothes back on. Then I walked past the group, smiling shyly and joined a gaggle of civilians further upriver, nearer the springs. Here, a pool had been hewn into a cavern under the rock in which the spring water collected before spilling into the river.

A few people in swimwear were sitting in the pool. I changed behind the cover of the bushes and, keeping myself covered with a towel, slipped into the cavern to join them. Shrieking, I leapt straight back out again, the water felt as if it was near-boiling. While the locals looked on bemusedly, I hastily put my clothes back on. Hopefully the nuns hadn't noticed! It seemed I would have to give up on the hot springs. Here at the source they were much too hot and downriver I would be imodestly exposed. Sadly it was my last day in the national park. I had missed my chance.

As I walked back towards the group of nuns, the one who had been making tea smiled and waved me over. She beckoned me to sit and drink with them. I did not speak any Mandarin and they did not speak a word of English but it didn't matter as we sat in companionable silence around the small fire. One of them pointed down the valley: the murmuring river, marble boulders and granite rocks with the cliffs and lush vegetation forming the backdrop. She smiled. It was truly a good place to meditate. Then her colleague pointed at the river, her dripping wet clothes and myself. I shook my head. She laughed and beckoned me on. So I entered the water, clothes and all. It was like lying in a warm bathtub at the bottom of a Chinese painting. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

© Denni Schnapp. May 2004
I am a zoologist and travel writer, who hopes to spend more time whale-watching.

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