Matt is really really angry with the orange. He has been working on it for surely 20 minutes now, its peel coming away in a plethora of tiny layers like a coy citrusy mistress. I slice mine into eight sections and suck on them whilst I spy on all the other people having breakfast at the Hualien Wow hostel.
Mostly I’m interested in a group of ageing Taiwanese men in lycra, stretching out chunky hamstrings or twizzling the ends of their wispy grey beards. I wonder what the day ahead looks like for them. And I realise with a shudder that me and Matt will be the ones sitting on a cosy coach through Taroko Gorge, whilst they look like they will be tackling it on the back of a mountain bike, rockfalls be damned. Perhaps we should be doing something similar? Beside me Matt curses again as a delicate thread of his orange comes away leaving most of Madam Clementine clothed, and I am reassured that we should stick to the simpler tasks.
After gorging on peanut butter we go out to board the bus. We pass through a grid of streets, a myriad of doorways lit up with sprays of flashing lights indicating betel nut is for sale. We creep into the mountains, and they seem greener and more slender than other mountains I’ve been to in the world. They are thick with trees, right to the top.
First of all we stop at the Shakadang trail (Shakadang – good name for a band?), a path hugging the rockface on one side, and dropping into the river on the other. Bird calls criss cross across the gorge, muffled by the rush of the water. The rockface is bare and mighty. The cross section it offers is of layers of rock squashed and warped and curving into each other. It rises from milky turquoise waters burbling over boulders. There are signs pointing to hill tribe villages, something in my ignorance I hadn’t realised existed in Taiwan.
I soon learn that Taiwan is an inherently tribal country, with 2.3% of the population still living in aboriginal tribes. As seems to be the pattern the world over, colonisers have repeatedly worked at ‘civilising’ these tribes. The Dutch in the seventeenth century, the Chinese, and most recently the Japanese, who forged many of the precarious trails around Taroko gorge in order to reach the hill tribe villages. It’s amazing what kind of risks people will take in the name of control. Rockfalls and landslides and poisonous snakes and earthquakes were (and still are) all pretty real dangers when cutting into new territory.
The trail is cut short just where it opens out into an incredibly scenic viewpoint. An Asian woman sits meditating to the rush of the water. The air is slightly damp with spray from the cascading falls. We turn back to follow the path out, as if escaping the jaws of the wild.
Swallow your fear
Back at the road we pick up the bus to the next section of note, the Swallow Grotto Trail. A large tour group is donning shiny helmets for this one, and we should probably have done so too since rockfalls are common. Here there’s a road cut into the mountain, so you’re viewing out of archways in the rock, feeling transfixed and slightly nauseated by the plunging depth of the gorge.
Would you like any Aspleniumnidus with that?
For the next stop we’re a bit hungry so we get off at the Tianxiang service station which has some open fronted restaurants nearby. An elderly man rushes out to offer us menus, and he’s so polite and friendly refusal isn’t really a possibility. The menu is in English too, so shouldn’t be too hard, I think. But once seated I read it properly and am slightly perplexed (see below).
Does the Aspleniumnidus come with rice? And will the greengrocery tributes pill soup be suitable for vegetarians and cure all future existential crises? Hmmm.
Following lunch we wander towards the Eternal Spring Shrine, over a long suspension bridge and up some stone steps where Matt narrowly avoids stepping on a large, smooth, olive coloured snake. At the top there’s a shop selling tacky souvenirs and a couple of devout looking Taiwanese people who eye us suspiciously. The path up the hill to the shrine is closed so we turn back. There sure are a lot of rockfalls around here, I think, holding onto my squishy head.
We get back on the bus to the visitor centre, where we can get on the Lushui trail. The bus is really full and me and Matt have to sit cross legged on the floor in the back, trying not to accidentally look up people’s skirts. The trail itself is a really beautiful one, giving views of the roads and gorges below, as well as quieter sections that snake through the forest.
At one point we round a large bend in the trail and a rainforest carpet is laid out before us, to the left of the path. I sense a movement in the trees that’s too heavy to be a bird (it reminds me of myself trying to do anything gracefully and instead crashing and burning). I know intuitively it’s a monkey of some kind. I squint into the trees, and sure enough there’s the face of a macaque staring back at me, huddled in the shadows of the branches.
It’s not like the cheeky macaques I’ve encountered in tourist destinations, who see walking snack vending machines rather than human beings and pursue accordingly. This macaque looks solemn. It’s like it doesn’t want to have to hide from these weird, vaguely threatening creatures stomping through its home. Do you get xenophobic monkeys?!?
Oh yeah, humans.
The opposite of laughing in the face of danger
At the end of the path we find a trail of tourists heading for a precarious rope bridge strung across a cavernous gorge. A fall would mean pitching into churning water, bumping a few jaggedy rocks on the way for good measure. Matt is itching to get across, I’d describe my condition as more of a squirming. There’s a sign as you enter the bridge that no more than eight people should be on it at once. Eight what kind of people?!? Eight Asians, ie children sized people? Or eight bulky Europeans?!? Is eight the absolute maximum or a very conservative maximum? CAN IT TAKE EIGHT FAT WESTERN PEOPLE???
We walk onto it whilst it’s at capacity and I tell myself not to look down. Immediately I look down. A beetle falls from the edge of the bridge and is tossed like a peanut into the frothing water. I gulp and turn around to make for the exit. Matt calls after me to stop for a photo.
“SORRY?” I call back, cupping my ear. “I CAN’T HEAR YOU SORRY.” Aaaand I’m back on dry land.
We chug back into town on the bus, stopping at the beach for a sunset stroll. It’s a strange kind of promenade with more concrete than I’d normally like on my beaches. As we head for the shoreline we pass a man with one eye who has transformed the back of his little truck into a miniature gig venue and is playing multiple instruments at once. It’s quite the spectacle. As is the graceful sweep of the mountains against the ocean. And once the sun has set the sight of a brilliant star shining beside the dark silhouette of a palm tree is like poetry.
That’s Taiwan. Even where man hasn’t quite got it right, nature comes along and says ‘I got this’ and somehow transforms everything.
We took the local bus through the gorge. You can buy a pass and hop on and hop off. It departs from Hualien Train station with a handy timetable here.
Take water and snacks with you as it can get very hot and there aren’t that many places to restock. There’s a little café at the far end of the Swallow Grotto Trail if you do want something. The food we had at Taroko service station stop was okay but not very good for vegetarians and I don’t think there was anything vegan beside boiled rice.
Poor old Matt with his pesky orange. Note the crime scene effect.