I checked out of the hotel, and loaded my bags in Tonny’s taxi, and we headed off. Tonny spoke excellent English – a rarity in these parts – and was a veritable fountain of knowledge regarding the history of the gorge, and the subtle viewpoints on the route, and the meaning behind the shape of some of the rocks. He’d been a corporal in the army, training in the USA, and was living out his retirement doing what he loved doing – chatting to tourists. As we approached the entrance to the gorge and past the majestic mountains, I made an off-hand comment that the mountains would make excellent secret prisons or bases for the military. “Well, it’s true, actually. There are planes stationed inside different parts of the mountain, ready to attack in case China decides to launch an offensive” he said, rather grimly, then added “that’s classified information….I shouldn’t be telling you that” and laughing weakly. If anyone knew what was in those protected mountains, it was going to be a high-ranking army senior. He was full of anecdotes, and I couldn’t recommend him highly enough. He told me he gets on average one or two tourists a week, if he’s lucky. It must be difficult – most people, me included, wouldn’t trust a taxi touting his guide services outside a train station. I told him he needed to get a website set up, and then hopefully a Lonely Planet listing, and he’d be laughing. He’s probably the only guide who can actually speak English in Hualien. I’ll certainly make a point of recommending him to friends, and the Lonely Planet.
Toroko Gorge lies inside Taroko National Park, 15km north of Hualien. It’s touted as Taiwan’s top tourist attraction, and after my day here, I could see why. It’s an area of rivers winding over boulder-strewn beds, inside huge marble-walled canyons shaped by nature, incredible sheer-face cliffs, and lush vegetation all around, the forests hiding monkeys, including macaques, wild boar, and even black bears. It’s a big place – 120,000 hectares, and full of amazing short and long hikes. Somehow, by some fantastic feat of engineering, a smooth road has been chiseled in the deep valleys through the imposing cliffs ( it was the Japanese military who first cut the roads and widened the walking trails). It’s possible to see most of the sights by walking not far away from the road.
Our first stop was the Shakadang Trail, a nice 4.4km hike. Tonny said he’d take me part of the way in, then meet me back at the car later, but we got chatting, and he was so interesting I let him accompany me all the way to the tall, thin waterfall at the end. On the way, we went down to the river bed, took photos, and passed a few local tribes people, the Atayal people, who sell woven goods and trinkets to tourists. Tonny waded into the forest at one point, and picked out some big leaves, the stalks of which you can chew, and they are immensely thirst quenching.
We headed back and drove on to other areas or interest, though one of the most recommended, the Tunnel of Nine Turns, was closed as there had been a rockfall a few days earlier. Such rockfalls are common occurrences here, especially after heavy rains like last night. I knew walking with one hand held over my head would do little to stop a 1-tonne boulder from flattening me like a pancake, but it felt a little more reassuring. We saw the Eternal Springs Shrine – an iconic place sitting on a steep cliff overlooking the Liwu River, dedicated to the 450 workers who lost their lives building the highway. 2 marble lions guard the suspension bridge that crosses the ravine to where the shrine is. We continued further, with Tonny pointing out little oddities in the geology – rocks shaped like faces or animals, and an area between sheer cliffs where if you looked up, the sky you could see between the cliffs was shaped like the map of Taiwan. On a short hike I discovered a ‘speed burst’ setting on my Lumix camera, and found a new passion for using it to photograph butterflies gathering pollen, which looked great when I flicked through the photos later. On the way out we stopped at Hsiangte Temple – high on a cliff overlooking the valley, under which run lots of little streams washing down into the river.
I’d had a great day. We were back at the train station in time for my 6:30 train back to Taipei. I tipped Tonny – he’d done me proud, and I went to 7-11 to buy some snacks for my journey back to the capital. The train was packed, and I was glad I’d bought my ticket a few days in advance. Back in Taipei, I checked in to the same hotel I’d stayed in before, the Shin Shih Hotel. It was Friday night. I texted a bloke called Nathan – a friend of a friend – Toby – in Singapore. Nathan couldn’t come out, but he did recommend me some good clubs. I went to one of them, and walking in I felt suddenly transported back to the days of Sam and Daves in Osaka. It was a meat market in here – full of scruffily dressed expats, mainly unqualified teachers at language schools, and full of Taiwanese tarts on the hunt for a Western boyfriend – or should I say a cool accessory to take around the shops. I was transported back to a time of youth and abandonment, a time of free love and lack of responsibilities, a time of innocence in one way, the beginning of lust on the other. I bit the apple in Japan, and suddenly all became clear. Here I was in Taiwan, also devoid of responsibilities, still younger than most in here, but a bit wiser than I was in Osaka. But no less stupid. I got stuck into the Taiwan beer. One two three four five six seven…before I knew it I was that sad lonely guy with no friends dancing on his own to Jason Mraz. Oh dear. Still, I’d had a great day, and I had a right to let my hair down!