Sorry for the late update on this one folks.
This morning saw us waking up around 7am to so downstairs and have breakfast before our tour guide, Jason would come and pick us up for our tour of Taroko Gorge.
My ‘meh’ opinion of this hotel was further vindicated by the very lacklustre breakfast. The breakfast room itself was set up with several large circular tables, think ballroom tables, seating about 10 people each. I frankly felt ridiculous just Nick and I sitting at one of these massive tables.
The food on offer was nothing special either. I ended up breaking my (self-imposed) rule about only eating local while we were here and I ended up having some toast beside my salad and fried vegetables. Nick, ever the trooper, managed a couple of plates still. There was an epic breakfast malfunction when someone (probably one of the other tourists) managed to mess with the dumpling warmer and ended up burning the entire bottom row of dumplings. We watched as the servers cleared away a whole tray of burnt food in obvious dismay. This is why we can’t have nice things I guess.
The tour started at 8:30am after a little mix up with the hotels. It seems there are two KKS Hotels in Hualien right next to one another. I wonder if the other one is any nicer than the one we were staying at? Jason had been waiting across the road from us. This wasn’t to be the only meeting spot mix up we would have that day but I’ll get to that later.
Once we were underway, Jason Lee proved to be a wonderful tour guide. Born in Hualien, he was in his 60s and had a delightful sense of humour but, more importantly for a tour guide, was an absolute font of local knowledge.
As we got underway, Jason gave us a little bit of an overview of Hualien. There is no industry in the town itself aside from a cement factory which made good use of the high quality limestone in the mountains to make high grade cement. The main income of the township relies heavily on the tourist trade.
Our first stop was the Seven Star Lake (Qixingtan, 七星潭). Despite the name, it is actually a crescent shaped bay of the pacific ocean which is north of Hualien city. The beach itself has a lovely pebble beach and a view of the cliffs of Taroko Gorge in the distance. Jason offered to take many pictures of the two of us together which was really lovely – we will have the most pictures together during this tour. Its just too bad that my hair went absolutely wild in the humidity but you know, you can’t have everything.
After this beach stop, Jason very kindly took us to Taroko Station so we could sort out some train tickets back to Taipei. He spoke to the lady for us and secured the tickets. Unfortunately Jason explained that usually at this time of year it is extremely quiet but we had chosen to visit during a 4-day public holiday so it was crazy. The train seats were completely booked out so we would have to stand on the train. We assured him this wasn’t a problem (I have stood on a VLine train for almost as long – thanks Bendigo line!) so neither of us was at all phased.
We then looked at Xincheng Shrine which enshrines 13 Japanese soldiers. Jason explained that in during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, in December of 1896, an indigenous girl was ‘assaulted’ (as it said diplomatically on the signs at the shrine – they meant raped) by a Japanese soldier. To get revenge, local native Taiwanese tribes-people attacked and murdered 13 Japanese soldiers. The Shrine has been destroyed by the local people several times but the Japanese shrine has been appropriated by a Catholic church and hospital so the shrine is no longer vandalised/defaced.
Our next stop was at a small fishing village which was completely deserted (off the tourist track!) where we saw a group of fishermen mending the extremely expensive nets they use to catch the fish. Jason then took us to the beach of the fishing village where we could check out the small fishing rigs made out of PVC pipe (no joke) and have a better view of the cliffs than was previously afforded from Qixingtan.
Apparently in the rainy season, the cliffs become a crisscrossing of waterfalls. As we are only just at the beginning of rain season, there wasn’t a waterfall in sight yet – but Jason suggested “maybe for a future trip”. The beach is a cool pebble beach with the kind of smooth stones I really like the look and feel of. Jason also told us about a type of fish caught in this village by the name of Sandfish. The largest one he had ever seen caught was supposedly the size of his car. Apparently it is ‘good for women’ as it has a high proportion of collagen. Shiny hair and glowing skin! Maybe something for me to look into….
Our next stop was the Shakadang Trail. This trail is well known for the crystal clear turquoise waters of the Shakadang stream which is strewn with absolutely massive marble boulders. The trail itself is 4.4km long but Jason only wanted to show us the first kilometre or so which he claims has the most beautiful scenery. Without having seen the rest of the trail, I feel I must agree with him. There was something really lovely about being able to see the marbled veins of the rock, some green, some black, some white against the lovely blue toned water which really was clear and perfect. Jason says that in Summer, people have an overwhelming desire to go and jump into the stream. I can see why that would be!
After this, we had lunch in the Taroko Gorge Visitor centre. The menu was limited but Nick had a spicy beef dish and I had basil chicken. Both came with rice, a salad side, a whole apple and a cold drink.
Now, before we left the centre I really wanted to use the bathroom. Just in case there would be no further chances before the end of the day. But I was faced with my travel nemesis. Squat toilets. In the jeans I was wearing it just wasn’t going to happen. But could I hold it for another 4 hours? Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry about this for too long as while we were leaving I spied a disabled toilet which was suitable for my needs. Feeling guilty I went in there and used it. Sweet relief! I did get a nasty look from a cleaning lady but I am thinking it was more because she wanted to clean up rather then because I was clearly not disabled.
On our way to our next stop, Jason played some traditional music of the Taroko Aborigine tribes in the car. It was very similar to Hawaiian tribal music but I actually really enjoyed it. He also stopped to borrow a couple of free visitor helmets for Nick and I for our next stop: Swallow Grotto – Yentzihkou.
Swallow Grotto is aptly named – due to long-term erosion of Taroko by the Liwu River, the marble cliff faces have been scoured into hundreds of small potholes, which have become a natural nesting location for swallows. During our walk through this area, we could hear the swallows calling to one another, though sadly, as Jason informed us, the swallow population has been largely scared off by the human visitors to the area.
For this whole stretch of trail, Nick and I were required to wear helmets as it is a dangerous rockfall area. As Jason informed us, there has actually been a bad rock-slide the day before which had blocked off a major bit of highway leading to Hualien. It still hasn’t been cleared by that day but the point is that rock-slides are very common in the Taroko area. Amusingly, Nick and I were just about the only people taking the ‘Please wear safety helmet’ signs seriously. Tsk tsk.
On the way to our next destination we went past the Tunnel of Nine Turns – Chiouchüe Tung, a narrow canyon way with (as per the name) nine turns in the river bed – this lead to Tsihmuchiao – The Bridge of the Kind Mother, which featured a lovely pavilion where Nick and I stopped to take pictures.
We stopped at several viewing platforms as well to take more and more pictures. The scenery was simply stunning and the rain which had been predicted didn’t come other then a few threatening drops here and there. We have been so lucky this trip – its been amazing!
Jason also set us loose to walk a short trail that wound above the roads. There was a really cool 30m tunnel in the middle of this walk. Instead of using a torch, Nick and I walked through the tunnel ‘blind’ which was a much more fun and eerie experience. Having said this it WAS a very short tunnel, but never-the-less, it was interesting! We toyed around with staying in the tunnel to scare the group of four Asian girls following us (we had helped them take a group photo just prior to the tunnel) but as they were strangers we didn’t know how well recieved that would be. Nick settled for making ‘scary’ moo-ing noises down the tunnel. Terrifying <sarcasm>.
Jason explained to us that all the tourism in Taroko is free – you don’t have to pay entry to access any of the sites I have mentioned above. But as Jason showed us, they are gearing up to start charging tourists with several ticket booths being installed that we could see. We are probably one of the last groups of tourists who will get to enjoy all this natural splendour for nothing.
The tickets Jason helped us book for were for the 4:53pm train to Taipei. Coming up to 4pm I was getting a little ansty as we weren’t headed back towards Hualien, but we had one more stop to see. The Eternal Spring Shrine.
Eternal Spring Shrine, also called Changchun Shrine is a memorial shrine complex that commemorates the memory of 225 veterans who died while constructing the highway. The name of the temple comes from the Changchun Falls that never stop running – even in the dry season. The Shrine is located right above the waterfall streams. It has been rebuilt at least twice, after being destroyed by rock-slides.
Now Jason told us to go take some pictures and he would meet us further down the way and then we would be off on our way to the train station. Nick and I meandered down towards the shrine and went down a flight of stairs to a viewing platform. We took photos, had a look around… and then completely f**ked up where we were supposed to meet Jason.
Now, it was the end of of REALLY long day of hiking and sightseeing and I don’t think I got a restful night’s sleep the previous night as our room faced the road (another mark against KKS Hotel – grrr!). One or all of these things contributed us to getting muddled about where to meet Jason. Was it after the first bridge? Was it after the bridge and the tunnel?!?! Where was Jason?! Where were WE?!?!
Not proud of this. We panicked. Instead of doing the sensible thing and heading back to where we left Jason, we followed the road further down. We wasted about half an hour before we turned around and headed back to the Shrine where we finally found Jason who had been frantically looking for us as well. He bundled us into the car and we were all apologising to one another and Nick and I were lamenting the fact that we had almost certainly missed the train.
Jason didn’t think so. “Let’s try!” he said. And, like the legend he is, he proceeded to break a few road rules and speed limits in a way that would make my dad proud. Shockingly, he got us to the station at 4:52 and bags in hand, we pelted it to the security gate. The guys on the gate radioed to the train telling them we were coming and asked us to ‘please hurry!’ – no problems there mate!
I could practically hear the Indiana Jones theme music as we bounded to the platform and jumped onto the carriage. Literally we just made it. This has to have been our closest shave on making our transport and I was so rattled ha ha! It took a looong while for my heart to stop pounding though we had a 2 hour train trip to stand through.
Eventually, we settled and made it to Taipei where it was a simple matter of changing lines at Taipei main station and getting to Daan Park where our next accommodation, The Dandy Hotel was located.
Luckily, there was a 7-eleven right next door so while Nick checked us in, I went and got some victuals as we were too exhausted to go out hunting ‘proper’ dinner.
We dined on a bento and cup noodles while enjoying the marked upgrade of hotel over our previous one. Weirdly, we had scored a triple share room with a double bed and a single but its a very spacious room so nothing to complain about.
Tomorrow: a double story! Nick does his thing, Carla does hers. Solo Soaring adventures, coming soon.