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.

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.

Walking the Dragon

When I first came across the urban trail in Hong Kong called the Dragon’s Back, it would have taken me the same amount of restraint not to walk it as is required to prevent me from entering every bookshop I pass. That is, a level of discipline I do not possess was needed, so from day one I knew I would be winding my way along the Dragon’s back sooner or later.

The Dragon’s Back is a part of the eighth and final section of the Hong Kong trail. This section stretches from To Tei Wan to Tai Long Wan (Big Wave Bay) and was the route I walked today. While the official site considers the route as very difficult and taking 3 hours, I would say it is only moderately hard. As for time, it took me two hours but I was pushing myself as I enjoy the challenge of maintaining a faster pace.

But I digress, let us return to the beginning. My day did not have an auspicious start and I ended up take three buses instead of one to get to the start of the trail. This was – in part – my fault as the nature of how to ride the Hong Kong Public Light Buses still eludes me and I am terrible when it comes to shouting for anything, let alone demanding a bus pulls over because it has missed my stop. Ah… these English sensibilities of mine. Clearly this is something I must learn to overcome in the future – I cannot forever be adding hours to planned travel times just because of a dislike of “conflict”. Sometimes I fail to understand my brain.

Anyhow, after making it to the stop, only forty minutes later than intended, I embarked on my quest to climb up to the Dragon’s Back. Years of walking the wild(ish) cliffs of Guernsey had prepared me for this moment and I bounded up the first hundred and fifty steps before slowing to a slightly more maintainable speed. After all, it is important to pace oneself I wasn’t tired.

Making it to the Dragon’s Back, or rather the connecting ridge of the trail, I was transported for a moment back to Sarnia cherie and the sweet cliffs of my homeland. For that precious second, as I gazed down at waves crashing on granite, I saw not the bamboo and machilus trees but instead was surrounded by brambles, gorse and wind swept blackthorn. It was naught more than a fleeting fancy, but it invigorated me nonetheless, and I mad my way along the ridge with renewed vigour.

What goes up must come down, and so it is with any hike. All to soon I found myself descending from the Dragon’s Back and into the tree lined second half of the trail. This section of the route was extremely pleasant, with the worst of the sun blocked by gordonia trees and a few streams crossing it here and there.

Eventually I hit the road and followed it until I finally reached the last descent to Big Wave Bay. This certainly lived up to its name, with a large number of surfers all gathered in the shallows. The extremely jealous part of me tried to console itself by pointing out how the waves broke too soon but in truth my heart sang out with longing for the ocean as it always has and always will. Instead I was forced to merely walk the beach in search of shells and lost treasure

My quest over, I returned to the hostel, catching the correct bus this time, and enjoyed a little Lord of the Rings before eating a well deserved bowl of wanton noodles at Mak’s Noodles.

Buddhas and the Market

Today dawned bright and late. After yesterday’s hike, I decided to have a more relaxed day, with considerably less walking. So after a leisurely breakfast I naturally headed to the Ten Thousand Buddha Temple north of Kowloon. While the train ride was relaxing, the 431 steps up to the temple were slightly less so. Fortunately, the marvellous golden Buddha statues that lined the path cheered me on with the promise of beautiful views and level ground when I reached the top.

Despite my visit coinciding with a group of school children who were all trying to complete some kind of questionnaire or scavenger hunt, the temple itself was undoubtedly impressive. The name of the Ten Thousand Buddha Temple is something of a misnomer as there are in fact almost 13000 Buddha statues in the main hall alone. Sadly the nine level pagoda was under maintenance and I was unable to climb to the top. Nonetheless the views were still spectacular, offering a stunning contrast between the urban and natural landscapes of Hong Kong.

After descending, I made my way back to Hong Kong Island and headed over to Stanley. This was a little nerve wracking as I had forgoton to make a note of where to disembark and of the bus number I needed to catch. There was a part of me worried that I was going to end up in some tiny village with no idea how to get back. Thankfully my memory didn’t fail me and I made it safely to Stanley.

Stanley is possibly the earliest settlement on Hong Kong as records of the initial Chinese fishing village date back to the Ming Dynasty (1573-1620). My reason for going to this scenic little town was the market. There is just something about narrow roads lined with trinkets that draws me in. I often find myself humming the one or two lines of Portobello Road from Bedknobs and Broomsticks that I can remember as I wind my way through piles of keychains, electronics and authentic looking knick knacks.

Stanley market was no different and is perhaps my favourite market so far as it truly had a mix of everything except food and I was hard pushed not to buy more souvenirs than I could carry. After thoroughly exploring it, I meandered along the waterfront, enjoying a little of the tranquillity that always comes from being near the sea. A full stomach later and I once again boarded bus and then train back to the hostel in time for an early and relaxed night before a planned hike tomorrow.

Hong Kong from on High

If yesterday was all about the less talked of side of Hong Kong, today was all about seeing it from the heights. Another girl from the hostel and I started the day off by visiting the Sky City Church, 75 floors up at Central Plaza. From there we rushed over to St Joseph’s Cathedral to meet up with a skip the queue tour on the tram up to Victoria Peak. This was definitely a wise decision as people can wait for over two hours in line to get on the tram otherwise, whereas we waited the five it took for the tram to arrive.

Victoria peak offered impressive views over Hong Kong. We took pleasant stroll around the peak, giving us a chance to appreciate a little of the nature that Hong Kong has to offer. After the compulsory photos up on the Sky Terrace we got the tram back down and rushed across the water and Kowloon to hike up to Lions Rock.

Lion Rock was enthusiastically touted by our guide as a better version of Victoria peak looking down on Kowloon. We had hoped to reach it in time for sunset as this is supposed to be particularly spectacular view, however the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley and so it was for us. We watched the light fade from the sky as we doggedly continued upwards.

Eventually we were force to resort to torches but still we climbed, and it was most definitely worth it. The view out over a field of city lights was breath-taking (though this could also be attributed to the final upwards stretch). While we may not have been able to see the Lion Rock itself in the dark, the illumination of the city made this my favourite part of the day.

To finish off we climbed back down and got the MTR back to Nathan Road from where we enjoyed a gentle stroll from the Ladies Market down to Temple Street and the Jade Market. This provided a nice opportunity for us to fill out stomachs with a few skewers of dumplings and meat, although I confess to not being adventurous enough to try the pig’s liver or intestine.

So all in all a marvellous day, the only real drawbacks being the view-impeding smog that seems to sit over Hong Kong like a blanket and my very tired feet.

Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay

From the moment I decided I was going to Hanoi, I knew that I had to cram in a day trip to Ha Long Bay with its rocky karsts that rise imperiously from the water.  Rather than booking onto a tour in advance, I decided to wait until I arrived in Hanoi.  Hence, after my walking tour I found myself sitting in the common area of the hostel, surrounded by cigarette smoke and scrolling though internet page after internet page about the best way to visit Ha Long Bay.

Recurring themes began to appear:  you have to go, lots of tourist boats, and be careful of super budget tours as safety isn’t always a priority.  The first point I already knew, the second I was a tad worried about but knew it was the off-season, and, as a sea-faring soul, the third concerned me deeply.  Eventually I stumbled across a blog post by Budget Travel Talk that sung of the advantages of visiting Lan Ha Bay instead. It is the same karst rock formation but falls under the jurisdiction of a different province and is not nearly as crammed with tourist boats. At that moment, in the way that coincidences often happen (may the spirits of chance forever look favourably upon me), I looked up just as the hostel’s propaganda information screen showed off their cocktail cruise to, you guessed it, Lan Ha Bay.

Well who am I to ignore signs.  The hostel trip was cheaper than most two day one night tours to Ha Long Bay because it stayed on the tour provider’s island, Cát Ȏng, rather than sleeping on board and it was focused in Lan Ha Bay so didn’t have the same tourist saturation to drive up prices.  Futhermore, even with low price there would still be the opportunity to hike on Cát Bà island, swim in the sea and kayak among the karsts so I saw no reason not to sign on to the next day’s tour.

The tour bus picked everyone up from their hostels the next day, thankfully at a late enough hour that I had a chance to make the most of the hostel’s free breakfast.  On a side note, I am never going to get used to English watermelon and pineapple after the deliciously ripe versions of the fruits I eat on a regular basis here in Singapore.  The bus journey provided a nice opportunity to catch up on sleep and see a little of the Vietnamese countryside (rice paddies and roadworks).  Suddenly, over the flat horizon the tall rocky hills of Ha Long City rise up.  However, it was not to them that we headed.  Instead we drove to Cát Hẚi Island, part of Hai Phong City.  From where we set out on our six hour cruise among the thousands of islands of Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay.

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The lovely smog and dust cloud over mainland Vietnam.  Fortunately it disappeared as we got in among the rocky karsts.

We were extremely fortunate that the rain of the previous day had cleared up and we were left with beautiful blue skies as we ventured through the karsts.  Something everyone on the cruise really appreciated was the lack of other boats.   I think this was mainly because we were in the less visited Lan Ha Bay for most of the cruise but I expect visiting in the off season also helped.

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A typical Vietnamese lunch was provided on the middle deck about an hour into the cruise.  Our guide seemed confused when we asked for more of the tasty chili sauce, checking several times we wanted more of the chili sauce before getting it.

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We moored at this floating pontoon to go kayaking.  I don’t trust myself with anything electronic in close proximity to water so don’t have any photos of this part of the cruise but can assure you, my dear reader, that it was a huge amount of fun.  We went through a couple of cave tunnels where stalactites reached down to the water and bats screeched up in the shadows before stopping in a little lagoon to try and see the white headed langur monkeys.  Unfortunately, even our guide’s hand whistling couldn’t tempt them to appear.  However, the break did give my arms a chance to recover slightly so I can’t complain.

The only downside to the kayaking was that we were close enough to the karsts to see just how much rubbish had washed ashore.  Over the duration of the cruise, I found the amount of rubbish we saw floating around, most noticeably in the Ha Long Bay section, really saddening.  I knew that this would be the case before we set out however it was still a shock to see.

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We had a huge amount of fun leaping from the roof of the boat into the blue depths below by this little island.  No one swam to the beach but it was lovely to be swimming in the sea again and cheering for everyone to jump in.

As previously mentioned, we spent the night on Cát Ȏng island.  We all stayed together in one of the dorms rather than in the little cottages.  All the food was included in the trip, and there was certainly a lot of it, particularly at the evening meal.  The “starter” buffet table alone had enough for everyone to eat their fill.

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Nothing beats a full stomach and midnight campfire after a blissful day at sea.

The next day, we paid an extra $10 to take a little boat over to Cát Bà island and climb hike through Cát Bà National Park to Ngu Lam Peak.  The hike wasn’t too strenuous in  and of itself, it was just the heat at the jungle floor that had us wishing for the end.  However, the view we had once we reached the top was definitely worth it and was made all the sweeter by the effort we had put in.  Oh woe is me *dramatically faints at the thought of exerting oneself*

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Having scaled the mountain *strikes dramatic pose of victory* and while waiting for our bus, I took the opportunity to try drinking straight from a coconut, a beverage that every man and his dog had been trying to sell to me since I arrived in Cambodia at the beginning of the week.  While it was nice enough, I think I will continue with water unless someone starts spiking the coconuts with rum.   Eventually our bus returned and we were driven to our final lunch before getting the ferry and bus back to Hanoi.

All in all, a very fun cocktail cruise and tour around Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay where ironically everyone’s least favourite part was the cocktails.