We were riding the Taroko Express, a high speed rail (HSR) down the coast to the port city of Hualien. It is always nice to ride modern trains in foreign lands – they do rail travel oh, so well. This one was particularly nice – clean, modern, comfortable and built in a way that allowed it to take the multitude of sharp turns along its way with only the slightest tip to the inside. While not as fast as Japan’s Shinkansen, the Taroko moved along at a respectable 70 or so miles per hour heading first due east from Taipei before turning straight south on a route that hugged the coast while passing through numerous tunnels in the coastal mountains. I set my camera to a high ISO and a higher shutter speed and sat by the window mesmerized by the verdant jungle that was flowing by my window. Once far from the city, we broke out of the mountainous green belt and traveled along empty gray gravel beaches that stretched for miles, providing a neutral color break between the azure and turquoise sea and the tropical plants that stood between the tracks and the edge of the strand. Every once in a while we would pass under one of the coastal spurs and emerge from the darkness into a broad valley, the product of some unnamed river that was flowing down out of the mountains. We were entering Taiwan’s Eastern Rift Valley and the home to Taroko Gorge.
The geology and geography of Taiwan are typical of that of the Ring of Fire. In this case, the tiny Philippine Plate is being pushed under the much larger Eurasian Plate by the ever expanding Pacific sea floor. The result is that Taiwan is surprisingly mountainous, with more than 20 peaks topping 10,000 feet. On the west, broad flat plains have developed as a result of sediment being carried down from the central mountains, a classic fault-block of limestone that has been forced up by the imposing plates. On the east the newer mountains fall directly into the sea and there is not a lot of flat land between the peaks and the ocean. The Eastern Rift Valley is a product of this push and pull of the plates and is a tourists dream with lakes, gorges and villages and a bicycle path that would me cry. It starts at Hualien and heads off to the southwest before disappearing under the cordillera. Geologically active, it is the also home to numerous hot springs and a regular source of earthquakes.
Hualien County is Taiwan’s largest, and Hualien City is of a medium size with around 100,000 inhabitants. It was initially founded by a small migration of Han Chinese farmers who entered the area in the late 1800’s. Before that it was the home to the Truku, Ami, Atayal and Bunyun people, four of the seven indigenous tribes of the island. The Spanish tried and failed to make a go of mining gold in 1622, and aside from that the area was largely neglected by outsiders due to its remoteness. At the beginning of the Japanese Colonial period the city was renamed from Kilai to Karen by the occupiers as the original name had a bad connotation in Japanese. When Taiwan became the Republic of China in 1949, it assumed its current name.
The train rolled past the occasional cement plant, a testament to the amount of limestone in the region. Marble mining is a very big industry here and the product is renowned for its beauty and subtlety. Take coral reefs that have fossilized into limestone, heat and compress them under the pressure of a crustal plate, push them up and stand them on their ear and the result is a never ending supply of materials for monuments and kitchen counters the world over. Outcrops of the raw stuff could be seen in every road cut. Bright white with the thinnest streaks of black.
We arrived at Hualien Station on time and met our guide for the day, Mr. Lin. He was different and he reminded me quite a bit of Tse Tan, my guide in Tibet. Short, a bit stocky with no Chinese features at all, Mr. Lin was clearly from one of the tribes. He wore a beaded and belled satchel over one shoulder that made quiet tinkling noises as he walked. We got into his van and decided to stop for lunch since there would not be many opportunities up where we were going. Mr. Lin dropped us at a street market and we chose a dumpling stall based on the availability of air conditioning – traveling south had not done much for the heat or the humidity.
We were certainly the objects of attention in this place as we sat eating steamed dumplings and da shao bao (stuffed and steamed dough rolls) while drinking the house sweet tea. Red shirted employees scurried around rolling and steaming under the direction of a middle-aged woman in a black and gold pantsuit who was barking orders and waving her arms this way and that. She was very glad to have us in her place and when left I turned to take a photo and she shot me the “V” sign and a big smile. After a quick visit to Starbucks (yes, even in Hualien) we went off to our first stop, the former command center of the Japanese Air Force during World War II.
One of the striking things about the coasts over here is just how much they look like Northern California. Twisted pines, cedars, low scrub on the ground – you could just as easily be in Monterey or Arcata. This spot was no different, sitting atop a hill overlooking the sea; it was beautiful and peaceful and I would be very glad if it were my home. Mr. Lin told us how this was the place where the Kamikaze pilots spent their last nights before leaving from an airfield down the hill and heading out to see if they could find an American ship to destroy. I stood there under the pine boughs contemplating leaving such a wonderful spot to go out and wreck such havoc in the name of a far off emperor who could not grasp that the war was over. Having just finished a well-written book (Retribution by Max Hastings) about the war on Japan, the spot was even more meaningful. I turned and looked through the trees at the view of the ocean and wondered how anyone could leave here to do what they had to do.
We left town on Highway 8, the Central Cross Island Highway. It’s an interesting road, built between 1956 and 1960 to connect the coasts; it follows the path of the Liwu River. As we would come to see, it’s a tough road, hand carved in many places and today always in need of repair due to the constant landslides associated with earthquakes. Its complete closure is often debated but so far no one can agree. But it is also the only easy access to Taroko Gorge National Park, one of the island’s treasures. Taroko was declared a park in 1937 by the Japanese Colonial Government and “un-parked” in a fit of pique by the triumphant Nationalists in 1951. It remained without title until it was once again designated in 1986. The name purportedly comes from a Truku word meaning magnificent and beautiful which was blurted by an intrepid tribesman who came down out of the mountains and saw the sea for the first time.
The road was slow and twisty and beautiful as canyon roads often are. When went up and up until we reached the parking area for the Shakanding Trail, a path that led up one of the spurs of the gorge. The water below was deep turquoise in spots and the rocks all manners of colors and stripes. Aside from the heat it was pretty easy going – the path was well maintained and gained elevation very slowly. We stopped here and there to take photos and to admire the weaving of one indigenous man. I had to laugh, in China these few people along a path would be selling beer, cigarettes, Cokes and ice cream and the path ahead would be strewn with the subsequent trash. This man was sitting under an umbrella with a small loom and weaving the finest and most delicates sashes in bright yellows, greens and mangos. I asked about the price and it was very steep, but he told me that every piece took two and half days to weave. I thanked him and we walked on.
At the top of the trail we took a rough track down onto the canyon floor where a handful of Chinese families were wading in the blue water. Mr. Lin explained that this was a special place where tiny fish would come and clean your feet if you would let them. I stripped off my socks and shoes and waded in. Sure enough, once the water had calmed down and they perceived no threat, dozens of little fish from an inch to as much as three began nibbling on my toes. It was really an odd experience and felt like tiny suction cups grabbing and releasing.
Back at the car we continued up the canyon through small tunnels that had clearly been dug by hand and chisel. The river was perhaps 50 feet below but you could see places on the wall at the level of the road where the river had rushed by in the past. Signs everywhere warned of getting beaned by rocks and when we walked past a group of Japanese men on some sort of camera tour, we wondered if we shouldn’t have stopped for the loaner hard hats as they had.
After another short trail through a Camphor tree forest which smelled unbelievably refreshing and a walk through a pine forest that had many carved memorials to Japanese who died in landslides in these hills, we spent some time walking back and forth on a true rope bridge that spanned the canyon from side to side. It was not for the faint of heart or anyone with a dislike of heights is it jumped and swayed as you walked across. I loved it, other didn’t and no one seemed to be happy with how low the railing went in the center as part of its natural dip. I spent a long time in the center talking photos of the cataract below. It was beautiful.
The last stop in the canyon was at a memorial built to the 265 men who lost their lives building this road. A secular temple across the river at the top of some delicate waterfalls was accompanied by a more traditional Taoist temple up in the trees – both beautiful.
Our sightseeing concluded at the beach where we sat and looked out at the deep blue sea. People wandered about eating and walking their dogs and judging from the guys on the Jet Skis who were wearing wet suits, just about no one was going to be interested in a dip in what must have been a very cold ocean. The sea was a bit rough, waves driven no doubt by that storm that was somewhere out there. But you would never know it – there were but a few clouds that clung to the rugged black hills that formed the coast and no wind at all. It was very beautiful spot.
Dinner was at an interesting restaurant – all organic including the plates and the building which were made of local Juniper wood. I had a set meal – some kind of smoked pork, tofu, soup, three different kinds of cold pickled vegetables and two things that I was very excited about –Taro root and rice steamed in a banana leaf – true Hualien cuisine. Despite its purple-ness, the Taro was like a sweet, sweet potato and rice was just plain great. We sat under whirling fans drinking cold Taiwan beer and watching as dusk came up, a really fine end to a really fine day.