Gardens by the Bay

I have a confession to make. Despite having been in Singapore for the better part of five months, the observant among you may have noticed I still haven’t been to the famous Gardens by the Bay. This was not for a lack of trying. However, the weather seemed to conspire against me and whenever I had a deadline free afternoon set aside to visit them, the rain would thunder down in true tropical climate fashion. Even when I finally fitted in a visit recently, I did not succeed in fully escaping the rain.

The gardens were wonderfully laid out and even though relatively small, one could meander around for as long as one can stand the Singaporean heat and humidity. For me this wasn’t long and I was happy to enter the eternal spring of the flower dome. It showcased a delightful array of flowers and plants from a variety of Mediterranean climates, many of which I recognised by sight if not by name. I was particularly fond of the driftwood animals hidden away amongst the foliage, notably a dragon perched overhead.

I was immediately taken with the cloud forest dome, it reminded me of a cooler version of the Eden Project back in England. Another reason for my excitement was the large number of dragons tucked away for the observer to find. I many grow old one day but I will never stop loving dragons. It is probably best that I study Physics and not Biology or else I suspect I would already be trying to create a dragon.

Descending through the clouds along aerial walkways and reading about the human impact on the world was as interesting and enjoyable as reading about an upcoming mass extinction can be. I also enjoyed looking at the stalactites and geodes on one level of the mountain.

I had hoped to walk along the famous OCBC Skyway in the Supertree Grove but by this point it had start to spit and the walkway had been closed due to the risk of lightning so I made do with craning my head back to admire the towering artificial “trees” that make up the grove. With the rain getting worse, I gave up on my original plan of seeing the trees light up as the sun set and returned home.

Zuocang (Sakura) Trail, Hualien

One of the things I have struggled with in Hualien and to an extent the whole of Taiwan, is trying to find out what to do. This was apparent when visiting Taroko Gorge yesterday and again today when I tried to plan my day. There is very little online other than other people’s blog posts and a lot on the brochures are in Chinese or Taiwanese. Even Lonely Planet has left room to be desired. The only real exception to this trend has been the supremely helpful and friendly hostel staff at Journey Hostel here in Taiwan. After asking the them last night, I decided to walk the Zuocang Trail today.

While I had been given rough directions to the trailhead last night, I didn’t know its name so trying to check my route was frustratingly difficult. I was fairly certain I had the correct name from a tourist map but still couldn’t find any infomation about the route. Since reading the sign at the start of the trail, I realise that this may be because the trail seems to have had half a dozen different names in relatively quick succession. Eventually, just running with the rough directions I set out in the hopes I would see a sign sooner or later.

The trail was an old road up the mountainside that used to be used by a cement company to access their mine. It offer some stunning views out over the city and I enjoyed my walk to the top lookout point, even if it it was all uphill. I also took a short side trail near the trailhead to view a lovely little waterfall, though I was a little wary with all the signs warning me to watch out for wasps and vipers, even if my logical brain new they are only really around in the summer and autumn months.

Taroko Gorge

Today proceeded in a relaxed manner. Unlike one of my fellow hostel guests, who veritably sprinted out the door to go to Taroko Gorge, I had a relax, slightly singed breakfast before teaming up with a Swiss couple from the hostel. After a large amount of hemming and hawing and the consulting of timetables, we opted to rent a couple of scooters on which to drive along Taroko Gorge.

Scooters rented for the next 24 hours, we set off out of Hualien towards Taroko National Park, only getting lost twice while trying to leave the city behind us. In light of our first few misadventures, I was tasked with giving directions because I was riding pillion. As someone who could probably get lost on a straight road I was a little reluctant to assume this role. However, once we were out of Hualien City, it was smooth travelling up highway 9 and straight into the gorge.

The Taroko gorge was absolutely beautiful to drive along. I frequently found myself wondering why I had decided not to study geology at university (the answer being that I would have had to suffer through two years of A-level chemistry first). The “partly cloudy” weather forecast was one word too long with clouds shrouding all the surrounding peaks. By the time we reached the top of the gorge, it was considerably colder than it had been when we set out. This was odd as I barely noticed an incline and can only assume that we entered the cloud base for such a dramatic temperature change.

We headed all the way to the top of the gorge and after looking around Xiangde Temple, intended to stop at a number of short trails on the way down. We knew in advance that a number of the trails were closed due to rockfalls or ongoing efforts to stabilise the cliff faces. Sadly the other trails we tried also seemed to be closed, most likely due to all the recent rain. For instance, we could only view the Changchun Shrine from the road. Nonetheless, the drive was still stunning, with sheer cliffs eroded away over the course of eons and places where the road curves, allowing views down long stretches of the gorge.

The sun setting, we left Taroko behind and drove a little further up the coast to Qingshui Cliffs. Here the mountains drop into the turquoise ocean which stretches out to the horizon and beyond. With sheer cliffs behind and only ocean ahead, one feels like they are standing at the edge of the world and that maybe anything is possible.

Darkening skies saw us heading back to Hualien and the Dongdamen Night Market. This was very different to most night markets I have seen. For starters the stalls were much more spaced out and permanent. The stalls were also different in terms of what they offered. While there was a wide rage of food as one would expect, there were very few stalls selling goods and instead a large number of old fashioned arcade games where one has to pop balloons or some other variation. All the same, it was an enjoyable end to a delightful day.

Hualien

On Sunday, with rain clouds looming over all of Taiwan for the foreseeable future, I decided to move down to Hualien City for the rest of my holiday. I spent yesterday looking around a the small city including an enjoyable walk along the river and coastline, despite the rain. I particularly liked the A-zone which had a variety of local artisan shops in a similar layout to that of the Red House in Taipei.

Today I had something a little more thrilling booked. Initially I had hoped to try tandem paragliding but with the weather as it is, this had to be put on the back burner for some other time. So, I asked myself, what can I do outside while not being bothered by the rain? Being at that awkward stage between an intermediate and beginner level, I didn’t want to take a surf lesson. This left river tracing or white water rafting. Initially I planned to both, however river tracing doesn’t run during the winter months so I was left with just white water rafting.

The driver collected me from the hostel at 07:30 and we headed to the Xiuguluan River, picking up one other person along the way. Once there, we learnt that we would be joining a large group of high school students for the rafting. After a lot of Chinese and no English we headed to the shore. With ten to a boat we set off into the great unknown. I briefly noted that the mountains, shrouded in cloud were quite picturesque. This was the first and last time I admired the scenery. Ere we made it to the the centre of the river, toy water cannons were produced and bailers were weaponised.

What followed was a hilarious four hours of occasional paddling, falling overboard and splashing all who came within firing range. When it comes to splashing a teacher in the face, language is apparently universal and victory achieved. I admit to feeling a tad sorry for the safety boats as they sped up and down the river, continuously retrieving oars and returning people to their boats.

Museums and Temples in Taipei

After a lateish breakfast I set off northwards towards the Confucius temple. This was really well laid out (plenty of English) and explained the basic concepts of Confucius’ teachings as well as having amazingly intricate detailing within the architecture. The temples here seem so lavish after the relative simplicity and refined grace of the Japanese shrines. The differing architectural styles have put a new wind into my sails, otherwise I think I might be fully templed out by this point in my holiday.

Emerging from the temple, I found myself caught in a large procession, all wearing matching yellow and purple hats and following a dragon towards Baoan Temple. I have absolutely no clue what the event was and couldn’t find it anywhere online when I returned to the hostel, but it was fun to watch, even with the increasingly heavy rain.

I wanted to visit Taipei Fine Arts Museum but on arriving found that it is currently closed for renovation. Unwilling to have walked through the rain for nothing, I visited the Story House next to the museum.

Built in 1913 by a tea merchant, this quaint little Tudor-style house seems extremely out of place halfway around the world from England. Inside there was an array of different Chinese woodworking plains, which as a crafting and handiwork enthusiast I couldn’t help but admire. There were a couple of lovely art pieces made from the wood shavings and I really enjoyed looking around.

With the rain only worsening, I headed to the National Palace Museum via Cixian Temple. I ended up spending the entire afternoon here, my imagination captivate by lustrous paintings and intricate carvings. My favourite exhibit was one of the temporary ones named Story of a Brand Name and was succcinctly summed up as “The Collection and Packaging Aesthetics of the Qing Emperor Qianlong”. This brevity does not do justice to the exquisite attention to detail that Qianlong afforded his collection. In the creation of unique cases and boxes for each item, new pieces of artwork were born. Small display boxes were carefully constructed to house jade marvels, each shelf specifically shaped for each piece. All in all, a trove of beauty and the part of me that strives to create order in all things was most pleased.

A close second in terms of favourites was some of the intricately carved jade and gemstone artefacts. There were also a number of ivory pieces that were stunningly carved, including fourteen balls all contained within one another and carved from a single elephant tusk. While these displays of ivory were undeniably amazing, the killing of elephant and rhinos is much less so and I was most pleased to see the following sign:

A visit to the Shilin Night Market concluded the day and left me pleasantly full with delicious street food.

Taipei, First Impressions

My first though on seeing Taipei through the train window is “grey”. This was mostly likely because of the rain and a severe lack of sleep. Walking to my hostel to drop of my luggage, I was once again struck by the lateness that everywhere opens at in East Asia. Despite it being almost nine, the only open cafe I passed was a Starbucks and so my breakfast consisted on a cinnamon roll and the largest feasible sugar and caffeine monstrosity. After recovering from some minor brain freeze and dropping of my luggage I made my way to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

The huge square in front of it was almost deserted, the early morning and light drizzle deterring most tourists. An amusing observation was seeing so many people in winter coats even though it was somewhere around 18 degrees, practically shorts and T-shirt weather after the biting temperatures and wind of Japan. I dread having to readapt to Singapore’s humidity in just over a weeks time. The art exhibition halls within the memorial building were very nice, I particularly liked the information they had about other museums and memorials that remember the darker events of the 20th century.

The little I could see of the changing of the guard (aren’t tall people annoying?) was very impressive, almost perfect synchrony without a word spoken and lots of guns twirling. There were also a couple of pieces of snazzy footwork where I could hear the K-pop music playing.

I next had a look around the 2/28 Memorial Museum. This gave a really good explanation of the events that took place in 1947 between the people of Taiwan and Mainland Chinese. The English signage was limited but the museum provides a free audio guide so it is still worth going. The only downside was the length of each audio clip meant one was left awkwardly hovering around waiting to move on.

After the museum I wondered around a little more of Taipei, visiting a couple of temples, notably Longshan Temple with appropriately cool dragons on its roof, and looking around the historical Bopiliao block and Dihua Street with its huge bags of dried mushrooms, fabric shops and a few souvenirs. I also visited the red house which showcases a number of local artisan stall ranging from melted bottles and leather work to jewellery, clothes and homemade soaps. It was very stylishly put together and would be a could place to by something for an alternative souvenir.

Walking the Kumano

Inspired by the scenic photos of misty mountains and cobbled paths and swayed by a wish to be surrounded by nature, away from the hubbub of cities and every tourist attraction ever, I decided that the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage route was for me. I admit that there was probably also an element of romanticising the idea of walking a pilgrimage route with the hope of coming to some deeper understanding of myself and my faith.

The Kumano Kodo is an ancient Japanese pilgrimage route centred around the Kumano Sanzan, the three Grand Shrines of Kumano: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha, and Kumano Hayatama Taisha. Like a spider’s web, routes span out from these three shrines, stretching across the peninsula and beyond. I walked one of the best known routes from Takijiri-oji to Kumano Nachi Taisha via Kumano Hongu Taisha before taking the train to visit the final shrine of Kumano Hayatama Taisha, right on the Pacific Ocean.


29th December 2017

Accommodation: Kiri-no-Sato Takahara Lodge

Route Name: Nakahechi Main Route

Start point: Takijiri-oji

End Point: Takahara

Hours walked: 2

Daily overview: My first day dawn bright and early in Tanabe. As the walk was going to be relatively quick, only two or three hours according to the route book, I took my time packing and headed over to the Kumano Travel shop to store some of the luggage I knew I would not be needing. From Tanabe I caught the bus up to the Takijiri-oji trailhead, admiring the mountains as they gradually began to loom over the road. I was the only person on the bus for the entire journey despite it being close to the new year, a major public holiday in Japan.

After collecting the Takijiri-oji stamp, I started out on the day’s walk. And what a start it was. Guide books and route maps can only go so far in describing what a trail will be like and they had not fully imparted just how steep ascending three hundred meters over a kilometre would feel. What made it particularly challenging was the way most steps were only ever conveniently positioned tree roots or slightly less jumbled rocks. This meant there were a few occasions on which I was left trying to decide if a slope was the path or not.

After this shaky start which had me more than a little worried about my chances of completing the Kumano, the path became a little more legible and I was able to enjoy more of the scenery. Admittedly, the scenery was mostly cedar trees and rocks but it was a welcome change from the city landscapes I have spent so much time in recently. The lodge was lovely, and I luxuriated in having a room to myself instead of the shared hostel dorms I normally bunk in. Like all the meals I had over the course of my journey, dinner was of a traditional Japanese style with lots of different little bits that I can only hope I ate correctly. It was accompanied with a delicious glass on homemade umeshu or Japanese plum wine.

30th December 2017

Accommodation: Guest House Mui

Route Name: Nakahechi Main Route

Start point: Takahara

End Point: Tsugizakura-oji

Hours walked: 6

Daily overview: After a filling and tasty breakfast, I set out on the next leg of my journey. There was a definite bite to the air but the steady uphill hike quickly warmed me up. Re-entering the forests of Japanese cedar felt a bit like entering the depths of Mirkwood with a perpetual gloom enveloping the forest floor. Despite being initially amazed by their height and the straightness with which they grew, after about four hours of almost nothing but cedars (they even blocked any potential views out over the mountains) I began to get a tad bored of them. Another thing I began to notice is that, like cedars which were planted in great quantity after WWII, very little of the landscape has been left to chance with many of the streams and rivers set between concrete banks.

I was the only guest at the guesthouse. Apparently it is too cold for most people to be gallivanting around mountains. A part of me has to agree. The dinner was probably my favourite meal from while I was walking the Kumano and I had a lovely chat with the innkeeper. I was impressed to learn that both he and his wife had walked the Camino de Santiago before coming to run the guesthouse, something I have been eyeing up for 2019.

31st December 2017

Accommodation: Yoshinoya Ryokan

Route Name: Nakahechi Main Route and Dainichi-goe

Start point: Tsugizakura-oji

Via: Kumano Hongu Taisha

End Point: Yunomine Onsen

Hours walked: 7 to Hongu Taisha, 1.5 to Yunomine Onsen

Daily overview: This was the longest hike at over 23 kilometres and I was a little worried I would not manage to finish it before sunset so had a contingency plan to get the bus from Kumano Hongu Taisha to Yunomine Onsen if needs be. However, I arrived at Hongu with plenty of time to spare and was able to walk the whole way.

The day started off with rain and foggy glasses and I was extremely grateful for my walking trousers which kept my leg nice and dry while still being extremely comfortable, unlike many waterproof trousers. Most likely because of the rain, I only saw one other person walking until the final stretch, an American with amazingly yellow waterproof trousers who I ran in to a few times. He seemed to move at an astonishing speed that I confess to somewhat envying.

In 2011 a typhoon caused a crack to form in the mountain next to the path so a permanent detour has been put in place. This was probably the most brutal part of the route, with lots of steep ups and downs. Even the spectacular views of mist shrouded mountains couldn’t make up for it. I think what made the whole detour particularly nasty was the lack of place markers. The actual Kumano has five hundred meter markers and small shrines or teahouse remains that are all marked on the map. However, the detour had nothing so it was impossible to mark my progress.

When the rain stopped around eleven I cheered up a little bit and enjoyed walking through some small villages rather than the gloomy cedar forests which had not improved with the weather, letting absolutely no warmth reach the ground. I eventually made it to Kumano Hongu Taisha which was a hive of activity with ongoing preparations to welcome in the new year. This was a little overwhelming after three days of relative solitude and being wrapped up in my own thoughts so I collected my stamp, had a look around and moved on. The warm promise of a soak in the onsen at my hotel drawing me on.

1st January 2018

Accommodation: Minshuku Momofuku

Route Name: Kogumotori-goe

Start point: Ukegawa

End Point: Koguchi

Hours walked: 6

Daily overview: After catching the bus to trailhead, I set out on the most leisurely section of the route. Gone were the threatening rainclouds of the day before and with the exception of the final descent, there were no particularly steep slopes and many level stretches. The route map predicted four to six hours and unlike before where I’d hovered around the minimum times, I fully intended to take the full six hours to make the most of the sunshine as well as recover from the previous day’s 23 kilometres.

In this second half of the Kumano, I found there was a huge amount more variety in plant life, including many ferns lining the path. With less cedar trees blocking the light, the route was bathed in sunlight and I ate my lunch at the remains of an old teahouse, looking out over the mountains.

This was the only day I didn’t have a lunch box prepared by the hostel so had bought a few things to eat the day before. Included in my lunch were eggs I had hard boiled in the hot spring waters that morning and was very excited about. The only downside to this day was the final descent, not because it was particularly challenging but because it offered an excellent view of what the next day’s hike involved.

2nd January 2018

Accommodation: Minshuku Kosakaya

Route Name: Ogumotori-goe

Start point: Koguchi

Via: Kumano Nachi Taisha

End Point: Kii Katsuura

Hours walked: 6.5 to Kumano Nachi Taisha

Daily overview: This was the day I had been dreading, ranked as the hardest section of the routes I would be walking and to make matters worse, a recent landslide meant an additional 40 minutes of walking along a detour path. Fortunately for me it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had be predicting, or rather, it was bad in a completely different manner.

I had been expect a repeat of that first ascent at Takijiri-oji, with an unclear path and lots of roots just waiting to trip a person up. Instead I got a relatively well “paved” path for much of the way. What made the route so challenging was the never ending ascents and descents. The route started out with four kilometres of pure up. It didn’t seem so bad at first, but gradually the constant gradient sucked all strength from my legs and I found myself taking regular breaks. Only the five hundred metre posts kept me going.

When I reached the top, it was only to begin an immediate descent and so on. The only respite from this constant yo-yoing was the detour, which rather sensibly decided to go around the mountainside at one level instead of going up and over, even if it did add to my journey time. After the final descent (another four kilometre stretch), I reach Kumano Nachi Taisha on wobbly legs.

Naturally there were more steps down to the waterfall, but they were worth it. The Nachi-no-Otaki waterfall is the tallest in Japan and is striking against its rocky backdrop. The whole of Nachisan, both waterfall and shrine was crowded with people going about their first shrine visits of the year, despite the scafolding that covered the shrine, so I quickly moved on.

The well marked part of the Kumano ended here, with only sporadic signs showing up seemingly at random. Nonetheless, I decided to walk a little of the way down to Kii Katsuura, mainly I’ll admit, because I wanted the perfect number of stamps to fill up my stamp book. Extra stamps collected, I caught the bus the rest of the way and had a well deserved early night.

3rd January 2018

Accommodation: Hotel Sunshine

Route Name: N/A

Start point: Kii Katsuura

End Point: Shingu

Hours walked: Sporadic Meandering

Daily Overview: The pilgrimage routes that I may have taken between Kii Katsuura and Shingu have long since been eaten up by roads and railways so I took the train to Shingu. From the station I walked up the most vertigo inspiring stairs ever to Kamikura-jinja shine. They were so steep in a few places, I felt the need to use my hands on the steps in front for balance. Fortunately, the view was worth it and after a little time to recover I descended and made my was along to the final Grand Shrine, Kumano Hayatama Taisha.

Even though it was now the 3rd January, the shrine was still extremely crowded with people on their first shrine visits of the year so I took a few photos, collected my stamps and proceeded to wonder around Shingu until my hotel check in opened. This was a little dull as almost everywhere was closed for the bank holiday but I did enjoy looking around a large stationery store and having crepes for lunch in a really cute little cafe.


All in all I really enjoyed walking the Kumano and was amazed by how few other people I met along the way. While I know I have complained about the cedar forests, they were beautiful in their own way and some of the mountain scenery was absolutely breath-taking. I may have not reach some great deeper understanding but time away from the world has allowed me a little space to arrange my thoughts and look forward to the new year.

Now I only need to complete the Camino de Santiago side of my stamp booklet and I’m all set to be a daul pilgrim.