Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Taiwan Trip (Part IV): Taroko Gorge & Zhuilu Old Trail

After a close shave with the mountains, we were quite looking forward to get out of all the crazy weathers and high altitudes. Our plan was to go to the East Coast via the Taroko Gorges, which is a must-visit & A-Class natural attraction in Taiwan. 

We got to our bus stop and found a litter of hungry and curious puppies nearby. Taiwan has a lot of stray dogs like these, they are not super hostile but neither are they very friendly. It took us almost an hour and all our leftover food (which was a lot, cos we planned to stay in the mountain for two days but gave up after one) to convince the mother to let us near her babies. 

Little guy was sooooo cute I couldn't resist hugging him when I got the chance to, but he seemed rather scared by human touches and was all tensed up at one moment. The mother dashed over, gave him some comforting licks and he's all waggy tails again. 

After a continuous 4 hours of descent down the mountains, we reached at Taroko Liwu Hostel and called it a night. Though the beds and showers were really the bare minimum, the common areas were quite cosy and the hosts were very friendly and warm. Besides, it is right outside the Taroko Gorges Park entrance and so it saved us some sleep the day after. 

Taroko is a major tourist attraction, but don't thus assume restaurants and shops to surround the place. In fact, the whole place was quiet and dark after 8pm, like a ghost town. We would soon come to realize from subsequent travels that it's the actually the norm for all the towns on the East Coast. 

Luckily, there's always the good old trusty 7-Elevens no matter where we go. Taiwanese called them 'Seven' and they are a world away from their Singapore ones! 

Taiwanese 7-Elevens have microwavable meals, hot food (eg. Tea-boiled eggs and Guandongzhu, a similar concept of Japan's Oden), toilets, dining areas; some even have Wifi and huge lounges to hangout in. While it's hardly a monthly thing for me to get anything from 7-Elevens in Singapore, we had to visited the stores on a daily basis in Taiwan - Just imagine how irreplaceable they are!

We then started our Day One exploring in Taroko Gorges - The Shakadang Trail
It's walkable from the entrance and you just need to follow the signs, go through a tunnel, and you would have arrived at the trail start. Do give it a visit if you were there, the place was so serene and majestic.

The trail ended abruptly due to a landslide some years back and we kind of not so legally got through the closed gate and explored a little further inwards. Sometimes, you can find more beauty outside the rules. 

Look at that rock! I was instantly mesmerized when I saw it. 

Found some tadpoles along the side and guess how I spent the next 10 minutes..

The whole place had no one else but the two of us, and we lied on the rock soaking up some sun, munching on our snacks, getting freak out by snakes nearby, exclaiming about the power of nature, chatting, snuggling up to one another... 

It's so absolutely beautiful - the entire place, the entire afternoon. For a moment, we were nothing more than just two very mortal beings in this unworldly gorge. We had no more labels but just lovers. It was a moment where we were stripped of everything we had, and could see ourselves for who we were. For that, Shakadang will always hold a special place in my memory of Taiwan.

As the day came to an end, we grabbed our stuff from the hostel and headed in to the Heliu Campsite inside Taroko. We had to hitchhiked cos we missed the last bus and it was a good 20km+ in. And as always, Taiwanese people were ever so helpful. We called it an early night to sound of running streams beneath us. 

Some heads up, Heliu Campsite has first-come-first-served camping platforms and toilets with showers (cold water only). Though the website claimed that a fee would be charged, there was no staff around the area at all. 

Morning came around 5am and the glamping family beside us were up early while my lover still refused to worm out of his sleeping bag.

We had breakfast and hot Milo overlooking the mountains and streams. It could have easily be the most beautiful morning of our trip, if not for the monstrous insect bites on my legs. 

I didn't know better back then that those bites would be a constant torture for my subsequent trip and the scars would still be slow to disappear even till a month later now. Please be very afraid of Taiwanese mozzies in summer and do all necessary precautions. You won't EVER want to go through the horrendous itch that I had.

Nonetheless, we started on our Day Two in Taroko Gorge - Zhuilu Old Trail (see below on application process).
Zhuilu Trail was a trail that was first built by the indigenous Taroko Tribe and later developed by the Japanese to facilitate trade and tourism. It used to be a much more challenging 10km hike, but only 3km remained after a recent earthquake. This bridge marked the start of the trail, and it's a tiring, humid and vertical way up from there. 

This couple was our awkward "frenemies" throughout the whole hike up - the kind whom you take turn to overtake each other every 10 minutes or so, and yall had to exchange hellos and smiles back and forth so many times that it's just really awkward towards the end. It's like we both want to be the faster couple, but we still had to make it seem friendly on the surface. 

Q said it's all only in my head and no one was actually in a race with me. And I blamed him cos when we met them for the first time, he ended the conversation with 'right, see yall up there'. That was just a more French way of saying 'yeah we're way too fast for you y'all loserssss'. Afterwards, the couple just kept KEPT K-E-P-T catching up with us, falling short for a while, catching up again... So I was merely upholding our honour for a competition that he had started.

But yeah, they were a big part of our hike that day and were a nice people of course. 
(This is a thing that frenemies do, they talked shit about one another, but they always end off saying that the other party is quite 'nice' after all)

The trail ends with the Zhuilu Cliff where you get to have a bird's eye view of a part of the Taroko Gorge. It was pretty scary since the walkway was barely a metre wide and it's a straight vertical drop on the sides. But ohh what a view!

We grabbed our dinner at what seemed like Taroko's only restaurant, which we had been patronising since we reached Taroko. It's the ONLY place (not counting the 7-Eleven) that's open around the entrance part of Taroko Gorge after 730pm and they served pretty delicious food. The lady boss was extremely friendly but looked like an ex-gansta but you know what's the real tell-tale sign of how badass this place was? They opened until 11pm!! That really was something for a ghost town like Taroko. 

At night, the boss and her sister would be sitting in their car in front of their shop smoking and chatting up passing males; her kid and his friend would be sitting beside us talking about girl problems and earthquakes (it is a legit conversational topic in Hualien county cos it happened almost every day) and the shop would be booming some Taiwanese hits. We would be drinking the free-flow wintermelon tea that's full of ants but still extremely yummy all while soaking up all these badassness.

I love our days in Taroko, it was an odd mixture of beauty, serenity and randomness.
Please leave at least a day for Taroko if you are heading to Taiwan. You won't regret it.

1) From Central Taiwan to Taroko/Hualien: Take the 350pm bus from Dayuling and it's a straight ride down from there. Make sure to be there on time since there's only ONE bus per day. 
2) Around Taroko: There are bus service in Taroko but the timings are rather irregular with quite long waiting intervals apart. If you do not have your own transport, hitching a hike is the way to go. 

Application for Zhuilu Old Trail:
- First of all, you need two types of permit to hike this trail: a standard National Park entry permit and the Police permit or Mountain Entry permit. You would need to obtain the first one, before you can apply for the Police permit
1) I have uploaded a copy of the Park Entry permit here and you just need to follow accordingly. Take note that the 'Rear Personnel' (I can't help but laugh whenever I see this term) must be a Taiwanese ROC citizen with a Taiwanese number. They would actually call that number and verify several times. We told our Taipei hostel owner about this and asked for his chinese name, ID no., phone no., & DOB and he gladly helped us. The emergency contact can be the same person.
2) When you are done, email the document to taroko100@taroko.gov.tw
3) They would reply in a few days' time and you would find your permit issued which looks like this
4) You can apply for the Police permit personally at the Park Entrance on the day of visit. Alternatively, you can apply through here if you can read Chinese.

5) Once you have gotten the permits, print them out and bring along your passport on the day itself.   

Yes it's a little of a hassel going through the application, but it's all gonna worth the effort if you'd think about all these A-Class National Park Scenery and facilities that you'd get in return for freee!