Saturday, October 30, 2010

Taroko Gorge


Today we took a trip to Taroko Gorge; I've visited Taiwan seven times in the past two-and-a-half years, and people have always banged on about the need to visit Taroko Gorge, so finally we booked a tour through Golden Foundation Travel. (You can use Expedia to book with them online - 200 USD at the time of writing - if you don't like faxing credit card details around.)

We had an early start: the bus to the airport picked us up at 5:50am, so my alarm went off at 5:20. I feel a bit guilty, given the thinness of the walls at the United Hotel: we were probably ruining somebody's beauty sleep.

Down in the lobby, the staff asked if we were Mr Tomizawa or not. I suggested not, as I'm of stout European stock and my girlfriend has red hair. And is female. That obstacle sidestepped, a driver appeared, slapped Have Fun Travel stickers on us both, and drove us to the domestic airport, a few minutes north.

It's a small airport (large enough to serve us waffles, small enough to provide quite horrid coffee) but the airplane was smaller: a propellor affair that took us up and put us down quite satisfactorily. And the pilot waved back at us when we waved at him as we crossed the tarmac, which was nice.

A small but perfectly formed plane, waiting to take us away from Taipei
Hualien airport is dual use (we landed, two F-16 fighters took off) so no photos in or near the terminal. F-16s are grey, fastmoving and boring to look at; no great loss there. We were picked up as we came through arrivals and deposited onto a minibus, and then driven out of Hualien to the gorge, in a little over fifteen minutes.

Our guide was supervising two Thais, four visitors from the People's Republic of China and five English-speakers, but managed this with aplomb, keeping up a commentary on the sights we passed in both languages without becoming grating. She was also good at giving us enough time to explore each area we stopped at independently, rather than being the sort to stop at each viewpoint, supervise a mandatory photo and then move on.

There is some luck involved in visiting Taroko Gorge; if you're unlucky, a rockfall may force various parts to be closed. The Tunnel of Nine Turns, for example, was only navigable to the third turn, beyond which some men in hard hats were clearing rubble. Or possibly our guide was telling this because she wanted to slack off, but I have faith in humanity at this point.

One day isn't going to be enough for a comprehensive viewing of the gorge. There was one trail near the start (Shangzhen) that we managed the first two hundred yards of before returning to the bus, which looked very promising, but we did get to walk all the way to the Eternal Shrine (built to commemorate those that died building the road through the gorge - and perhaps anyone who died building the shrine, which is on its fourth incarnation, the previous three being destroyed by landslides, earthquakes and typhoons).

Hard at work, apparently

One very striking aspect is how well maintained the infrastructure of the gorge is; all the bridges are freshly painted (one of which has a series of temple lions on the rail, each of which is different from the rest) and the tunnels are all well-lit. I suppose if things weren't well maintained, they wouldn't be around for long, given there's around 400 tremors per year, but it's still quite a contrast with Hualien itself, which seems a bit scruffy and down-at-heel as you drive out from the airport. (From travelling around Taiwan, it does appear that Hualien is more the norm than Taipei; for example Kenting, although a perfectly fine surf town, could also do with a lick of paint and a bit of freshening up. We're not talking abject slum conditions, more South London in the 1980s.)

After four hours of driving up the gorge, our tour terminated at the Grand Formosa Hotel, where I could spy a woman on the top floor on a running machine. Which seemed a shame, because it was a clear, warm day and probably more pleasant to exercise outdoors than in a hotel fitness centre. But perhaps she was scared about being squashed by a falling rock. Some people, eh?

There's a combined Buddhist/Taoist temple up there (the Taiwanese really seem to go for their multi-functional facilities, whether it's a monument to ecumenicism or a civilian airport/jet fighter base) that our guide suggested we photograph ourselves near, "as though we're Superman" which I never quite understood, and then we made our way back through the gorge, stopping at a few places we'd only glimpsed on the way in, and encountering a large rock that looks like either a bear or a turtle, depending on the direction you approach from.

Indian Chieftain's Profile Rock

There are lots of rocks in the gorge, and a lot of them look like something. There's a cliff that resembles an elephant, a mountain like a gorilla, some rocks like a hundred-foot-long alligator, a field of marble like a thousand tons of whipped marshmallow, and a bunch of rocks that look like, well, rocks.

What I'm trying to say is that if you had a bad experience with a boulder in your childhood, or you're allergic to granite, or just really, really hate overhanging rocks, you are unlikely to enjoy Taroko gorge.

If you don't like heights or precarious situations (like me) you won't enjoy the wobbly suspension bridge I was cajoled into walking across. On the other side, the trail was closed (and looks like it's been that way for years) so I had to summon up my courage and walk back, and as I did so, I felt my legs shortening and my back cramping, as I had to fight from dropping to my hands and knees and crawling across. This wasn't made any more enjoyable by the planks of the bridge being just far enough apart that they threatened to catch the ends of my shoes and trip me, sending me plunging to the river far below. Or by the rail of the bridge on either side being a parabola that moves from shoulder height at either end, to ankle height in the middle. While wobbling.

Still, didn't fall off or fall to my knees. A victory of sorts.

Near the end, we were taken to the visitor centre for lunch, which was a pretty good meal: fish, rice, soup, rice wine in pig-shaped drinking vessels. (There seems to be some obsession with kissing pigs in these parts - I wonder if it's an obscene pun visited on tourists by the locals, or if they just think you should enjoy drinking rice wine out of the mouth of a miniature earthenware pig). I was totally flabbergasted to find that the vegetarian option was actually a complete and satisfying meal, rather than a confused Chinese chef pointing out that you should eat pork, "because it tastes good". So full points there.

About two pm, we were done with the gorge and flagging after our late night flying to Taipei and our early start.


So we were driven to a factory outlet to buy pineapple cakes (most satisfactory) and then to a marble factory to buy jade (which is satisfactory if you have your grandmother's taste for overblown tat, and somebody else's wallet to pay for a seven foot tall marble catfish). But it's something when you see a granite effigy of Mickey Mouse giving what looks like a religious oration.

A horse, of course

You could also see an aboriginal dance, but forewarned that this involved audience participation1, we sensibly declined and went to the beach, which was windlashed and well-supplied with fried pork merchants.

Staring at the ocean

Then it's either the train station (a two and a half hour ride back to Taipei) or (as we'd paid another 900 NTD in advance) the airport, where you depart an hour later, but beat the train back by an hour, in time for another helpful holiday representative to pick you up at arrivals and drop you back to your hotel.

All in all, a very economical and enjoyable way to see Taroko Gorge. If we were around for more than the weekend, and if we knew more about the area, we might have done it differently, but for a first time there, most satisfactory.

Taroko Gorge

1 Not in the clap-your-hands-in-time sense, in the put-a-chair-on-your-back-and-dance-around-while-carrying-your-girlfriend sense.


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