Days 1-3 of my Taiwan trip
06/16/2014 - 06/18/2014 84 °F
temple lions rock,and so does Taroko Gorge in Taiwan
It seems odd that after three days in Taiwan, I feel like I've had only one real day of sightseeing. That day, though, made up for it. Through my hotel, I purchased a full-day tour of Taroko Gorge -- a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was amazing, and I'll tell you about it shortly. The other two days really weren't all that bad, involving scenic train rides along the East coast of Taiwan. My base for visiting Taroko Gorge was Hualien, which is the biggest city on the East coast. That isn't saying much, though, as this coast is Taiwan's back country. A better comparison to the United States might be "highway 1" coast of California. It is very scenic, with the deep blue Pacific contrasting with the steep green mountainsides of Taiwan's central backbone. Of course, you have to throw in rice paddies and more green and lush vegetation to get a more accurate picture.
Okay, so enough comparisons, "Worldwide" (as some of my coworkers haven taken to calling me). How about describing what you've seen and done? After more than 24 hours in transit from Columbus, Ohio, I finally arrived in Taipei, Taiwan, more than two hours late. I'd previously decided to bug out of town immediately, and head for a smaller (read: cheaper to stay in) town immediately. Catching the train was a snap, but I didn't get to my hotel until after midnight. The next morning I was up bright and early, catching my first train ride along the East coast. Amazingly, I did not doze off, and drank up the scenery eagerly. The crash -- thankfully NOT of the train type -- was coming, though. Just wait for it. I'd booked all of my hotels ahead of time through hotels.com, and I have to say I recommend it wholeheartedly. I'd picked out one that some of the many positive reviews had mentioned that the hotel will pick you up at the train station. Sure enough, a fluent driver was waiting for me and whisked me to the Cullanin Hotel.
steep canyon walls and a rocky river provide the base for a day of great sightseeing
My room was all that hotels.com promised, and I unpacked, and let out a sigh. Two-plus days of transit were over. Whew! So, what did I do next? Oh, nothing more than violate Rule #1 of transoceanic travel: Don't nap! I collapsed on the bed and did not wake up until after the sun had gone down. The Type A part of me is grousing, "Nice job, jerk-face (Type A's aren't know for being "touchy-feely"), you just wasted a whole day of travel!" I can hear you, my reader, defending me, though. "Hey, cut him some slack! He's been on the go for two days straight...!" I do appreciate you sticking up for me...especially since one thing I could have done was update this blog. And you, my defending readers, are the ones suffering. Anyway, to sum up day one: Gorgeous train ride, nice long nap, and aimless wander about town before finding a really cool barbecue place where you grill your own meat and veggie choices at your table.
A full-day tour of Taroko Gorge made up for the slow start to my Taiwan trip
Ah, but Day 2. My Type A self was sooo pleased with Day 2. I'd been debating whether to hire a cab and design my own tour of Taroko Gorge or to buy in with a tour. The more I read, the more it seemed very few of the many trails you can take in Taroko are circular. And my guidebook said you don't find it which are open until you get to the visitors center. So, I decided to go ahead and buy the full-day tour my hotel recommended, and pray that it wasn't too obnoxious. As it turned out, this was the right call. We had only 7 of us in a van on this tour, and we got to hike 3 different trails. I was the last one back to the van, as usual, every time. No one seemed to mind, and it was a good group who was there for the same reasons as I was. Our driver/guide, Douglas, explained everything in both Mandarin Chinese and English. He took a liking to me because I had lots of questions and obviously had read up on it beforehand. Hey! I can be Type A sometimes, too, so cut me some slack...!
A temple lion enjoys a kingly view in Taroko Gorge
Taroko Gorge was stunning. The river has carved out steep canyons -- much of it marble -- that tower above the river and sometimes the road. Cut its climb higher into the cliff sides, and Douglas dropped us off at each of our half dozen walks and explained where we had to go. He would be waiting for us (ahem, usually me as the last one...) on the other side, so to speak. We stopped at both the entrance and visitors center to get our bearings and take some pictures. The area of Taroko Gorge has been inhabited up until recently by some of the aboriginal tribes of the island of Taiwan. The quick road to the city, though, had led many tribal members to abandon their cliff top villages and move to the city for work. Progress always brings its trade offs, and the loss of colorful traditional lifestyles is definitely one of them, worldwide. Our first mini-hike was to the Eternal Spring Shrine, which was built to honor the 450 workers who lost their lives building the road through the Taroko Gorge I the 1950s. There are lots of scenic overlooks and great places to see the frequent road and foot bridges spanning the river gorge.
Swallow Grotto gives you a good sense of the scale and majesty of Taroko Gorge's scenery
Next up was Swallow Grotto -- an even more impressive eyeful of canyons scenery. Our "trail" is actually a one way road with frequent overlooks far down Into the river canyon. And we saw a number of darting swallows (birdses, as Gollum would say) zipping along the cliff walls. This was when the "wow" factor of Taroko Gorge really kicked in. Previously, it had been at the "cool" stage. It is important that travelers use accurate terms so that their readers can get a true sense of what the destination is really like. Can you imagine how disappointed you'd be if you were expecting "wow!" and actually saw only "meh, that's pretty cool..."? I aim to please here at worldwidemike.com! You can thank me later...but be sure to tip your waiters and bartenders...
The overlooks along Swallow Grotto were great places to snap photos of the gorge
Next up was lunch...easily the only disappointing part of the tour. Douglas took us to the cafeteria of a "Youth Activity Center". It was NOT set up to receive tour groups, though we were not the only ones in attendance. The food wasn't even "cool" (but definitely "meh"). What's worse, they had nothing but tasteless hot tea to drink. They served our group a couple at a time over a 25-minute period, making it pretty awkward eating in front of those who hadn't been served, yet. The staff had the congeniality of a prison cafeteria, plus there was nowhere to buy more water or alternative drinks, if you desired. After the warden let us out, we were off to the Lushui-Heliu trail. This was our first real hike -- or at least what I would call one. It was two kilometers and climbed up a jungle slope, peeking out for time to time at the river and road curving and recurring a hundred yards below us. Cicadas whirred in the treetops, sounding for all the world like a science fiction soundtrack. I expected Klaatu to step out of the jungle foliage at any moment and hold us up at ray gun point. I caught sight of an awesome-looking footbridge spanning the gorge and kept hoping the trial would end with that. Think Indiana Jones on steroids. The drop may jot have been to crocodile-infested waters, but it was easily a football field high. It wasn't to be, though. Douglas later told me you need special permits to reenact that scene with Short Round. Our trail did cross a mini version of it, and I wished I had a machete so I could have one of the other tour group members take a picture while the others called me "cwazy".
the jungle pathway of Lushui-Heliu Trail
Following the Lushui-Heliu trail, we wound our way back out of the park. The weather had been cloudy and overcast most of the morning and early afternoon. This was doubtless a geological thing, as the moist sea air hits the central spine of Taiwan's mountains. I could get technical and explain how one coast of the island may get rain for months on end while the other gets sun, due to the season monsoon pattern, but I'm off duty from teaching right now. Catch me in August when I go back to school and I can explain how a "monsoon" is NOT a rainstorm but refers instead to....hey! Nice try, there...
the Qingshui Cliffs near Hualien, Taiwan
The cliffs at Qingshui were our next stop. The weather obliged and cleared up and the sun shone down on the Pacific (nope, I'm not explaining why...not gonna do it!). Our viewpoint was kind of mediocre, though. I imagine there could have been a couple other places we could have piled out of the van for a quick picture besides the one we spent a half hour at. But hey! I'm not the tour guide, and don't know. Even less thrilling was our final stop at Qixingtan Beach -- just north of Haulien and hated by spellcheck programs across the world. This is a euphemistically called "pebble" beach. I would call it rocks. Or gravel. I can't imagine laying out here, or even going swimming. It would be like putting your plastic pool tub in your grandpa's old gravel driveway. The sun was blazing down, though, and there were a few cute dogs to pay with, so I was happy. Plus, I got to scratch my head at the 17-step process the local workers went through to take some supplies out to a fishing trawler about 50 yards offshore. Suffice to say, it involved an earth mover (technical term for a really big back hoe), pickup truck, two motorized rafts, several bales of rope, and a lot shouting and armchair quarterbacking from loafers like me. You had to be there, I guess.
My family is saying, "You stood us up at Hilton Head to spend time at this beach...?
All that aside, there is no second guessing how awesome Taroko Gorge was as a place to visit. If you are in Taiwan, do not snooze and miss this attraction. It was worth it, and made up for the less thrill-packed days on either side of it.