The International Writers Magazine: Hacktreks in Taiwan - Archives
in Taroko Gorge
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.
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
"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
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
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.
Schnapp. May 2004
I am a zoologist and travel writer, who hopes to spend more time whale-watching.
Denni Schnapp in Taiwan
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