Day Fourteen: Taroko Gorge

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I won’t lie. The thought of driving my motorcycle through the meandering roads of Taroko gorge was one of my prime motivators during planning. For the uninitiated, it’s a 20-ish kilometre canyon based in Hualien county which shapes a gloriously rewarding route to drive taking you through the central mountain range, as far as Taichung or Sun Moon lake. Along the way you’ll see the turbulent Liwu river, rushing from the highest peaks of Taiwan down to the Pacific ocean. Let’s not forget the amount of lush vegetation, staggeringly high cliff drops and wild hot springs (if you can find them…) that are gagging to be checked out too. To sum it up, it’s a nature lover’s paradise.

Arguably holding the top spot in my list of favourite places in Taiwan, I’ve been here a couple of times already. I came with Masta Minch in 2015 on a 5 day camping trip, and distinctly remember saying that “if we have to drive the whole length of this road every single day, I’d be happy”. Luckily we did, due to necessities such as petroleum and food from the 7-eleven, both located outside of the national park area. Anyway, hopefully now you understand the magnitude of the beauty and my love for this place, so we can begin. About time.

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Frankly, even I am getting sick of mentioning that military jets woke me up early again. But it bloody well happened. From 8:30am to 8:45am, I counted no fewer than 7 low flying fighter pilots hell-bent on fucking up my comfortable sleep, but for once, I welcomed it. The weather reports looked good around Taroko gorge and I was keen to get there early and do a little hiking before the inevitable afternoon rain set in. My heart was set on one particular route, known as the Lianhua pond trail (蓮花池步道) as I attempted this with the previously mentioned Mr Minch in 2015, however we were forced to turn back as the trail looked a little dangerous while simultaneously seeming to be closed a few weeks after a typhoon.

Approximately five minutes after entering the national park, the rain started to come down, enough so that I admitted defeat by pulling out the poncho and rain shoes. I remember feeling pretty gutted that my Taroko experience would have to be under grey clouds and rainfall, but so be it. 20 minutes passed as I made my way through sweeping bends and mountain road tunnels, when all of a sudden I was greeted with fresh blue sky and dry roads. Was I dreaming? For the rest of the day, the rain clouds were being kept out of the majority of Taroko by the might of the mountains, and I couldn’t believe my luck. Off came the poncho.

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This charming little spot is called “Frog Rock”, because… the rock looks like a frog. And the pavilion is like a little hat, I think. It’s normally flooded with tourists so watch the road as you come by here. They like to shuffle around on the sharp bend like lemmings sometimes.

At one point on my journey I had a moment of severe déjà vu. I was sure that the trail I was aiming for began at a small car park on a hairpin bend, and – while the roads certainly are winding – there aren’t many bends as sharp as the one I was looking for. I drove past one that was missing the car park, but looked familiar. So, stopping at a small viewpoint sixty seconds down the road, I checked my GPS. It confirmed that my instinct was right, and this was indeed the bend I was looking for. Maybe I’ll go back for another look. Well, I did, and I was a little upset. Without a doubt the victim of a gargantuan landslide, the car park had disappeared, and there was nothing to indicate that it had ever existed. The mountainside above the trail used to have a thick carpet of vegetation, but was now reduced to a cold stone face. I took a few minutes to reflect and imagine how terrifying this landslide must have been to anyone unfortunate enough to witness it in person. On my previous visit the Lianhua pond trail began with a memorable low cliff overhang above, but the damage was so severe it was difficult to see any traces of its original state. So I suppose it’ll be a few years before I can try this one again, unless I’m willing to brave the locals’ “safety rope” system…

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Squint a bit, look to the left of this picture and you’ll see some very thin ropes that I assume the locals use to get around the pesky inconvenience of a massive landslide. I thought about having a try myself, but quickly realised that I value my life.

Well, as I was in the area I decided I may as well enjoy the roads. I carried on a little further and traffic was stopped by a band of aboriginal construction workers who were clearing loose debris from the mountainside above the road. It’s not unusual to see this around here, and the normal protocol is to park up, wait for 15 minutes and then continue on. A couple of Taiwanese bikers started chatting with me, one with a Kawasaki sports bike and the other with a rather fetching Triumph. The latter seemed to take pride in showing off his bike to a Brit, but I didn’t mind at all. In fact, I could barely take my eyes off of it. He was a middle aged chap, mentioned he had been to London twice, and was a professional photographer. Mid conversation, I noticed how impressed some tourists on a bus were that a Taiwanese person and a foreigner were having a normal conversation, so they decided to take some very low-key (and by low-key, I sarcastically mean extremely unintentionally obvious) photos of us to commemorate the occasion. They’ll talk about that for years.

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After the initial disappointment of the day, I decided to head to another spot that Mr Minch and I failed to properly explore back in 2015. At that time, it seemed to be a shamefully neglected and overgrown entrance to a possibly abandoned temple. While making our way in we noticed that a gang of macaque monkeys were sneakily trying to get into some sort of defensive or ambush position, so we called it off pronto. This time when I stopped by it looked to have been cleared and open for business. Here we go then. There was no sign of any mischievous monkey activity thankfully, but there were a few angry chained mutts. Anyone that has owned a dog will know the sound of a bark from a genuinely angry or aggressive canine. In the first instance I brushed it off as your classic chained dog behaviour, but as I got nearer to one of the buildings I could almost feel the burning fury in this mongrel’s soul, and the froth spraying out of his angry gob. Taking the hint that I wasn’t welcome in the slightest, I 180’d and headed back to my bike, much to the relief of the flea-infested guardian. Today was not going well.

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Welcome to the jungle, we’ve got dogs and chains.

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An abandoned old wooden shack discovered shortly before the livid guard dog.

My final stop – one which I prayed wouldn’t let me down – was going to be the Wenshan hot spring (文山溫泉). Every time I’ve been to Taroko, no matter what time of year, I religiously stop by this place for a soak in the soup. It is arguable whether or not you are allowed to be there, but it seems while the local authority would like to dissuade you from entering there with tough-talking “prohibited” signs, they also know it is virtually impossible to police. Some visitors may be put off, but there are almost certainly a troop of local residents that regularly visit, enjoy, and maintain the hot spring for others. Every time I have visited here the layout or construction of the spring has been different due to the fast flowing river along side it, and of course those darn landslides.

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The famous Wenshan hot spring view from the suspension bridge above. It used to be much more polished than this, but a huge landslide in 2005 dramatically altered the layout.

A short walk down some stairs of varying degrees of traction followed by a cheeky hop around the side of a metal gate gets me right where I want to be, down at the bottom of a canyon next to a raging river and a natural hot spring conveniently located inside a shallow cavern, like a big sheltered bathtub. There are already a number of other bathers already here. One is a well groomed young gentleman sporting a Duke Nukem haircut and sunglasses, whose main pastime seems to be taking hundreds of selfies. There are a boisterous group of two middle aged women and a man enjoying themselves, who I thought might have been on the Gaoliang, but it turns out that they were just from Guangzhou in southern China. Through my broken Chinese and his broken English, we managed to find out enough about each other to satisfy our curiosities. It takes me around 5 minutes to reach some kind of relative comfort in the hot spring, as temperature here is normally around a scalding hot 45 degrees Celsius. The river next to the spring is a Godsend, as you can switch from hot to cold water or vice versa instantly.

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A shot from the river beside the hot spring.

After starting to feel a little light headed, I decided that I’d had enough bathing for today. A 45 minute drive home was fairly uneventful in the dark, except for when one of the biggest moths in the world decided to fly directly into my face when my visor was up, causing significant panic. Kids, if you learn one thing from this blog, it’s that you should always ride with your visor down.

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