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.