Story and Photography by Barbara Penny Angelakis
On my recent visit to Taiwan I spent part of the time exploring its electrifying capital Taipei, and the other part visiting some of the world’s most impressive natural scenery, namely, the Taroko National Park, and the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area. The tiny island of Taiwan was raised through seismic activity and assaulted in a collision between the tectonic plates of Eurasia and the Philippines. This double whammy from Mother Nature gave birth to two mountain ranges, parallel to each other, spanning the entire length of the east coast, and not incidentally, created a land of incredible scenic beauty and abundant natural resources.
TAROKO NATIONAL PARK
Escorted by our delightful and knowledgeable guide Lily Chuang (email@example.com) we departed Taipei early morning from the modern, user-friendly main train station on the Taroko #1091 to Hualien, a coastal village just south of the Taroko National Park. The high-speed train - traveling 130 kilometers per hour- whisked us to our destination in a quiet, comfortable, clean, well-maintained car. Each passenger had a clearly marked reserved seat thereby eliminating the chaos that results from open seating; and each car had an attendant – in our case a lovely young multi-lingual woman – that helped with the bags and made sure everyone was safely seated… and most importantly, that the restroom was kept meticulously clean! A screen in the front of our car announced the speed, destination, and time of arrival for each stop along the route, and during the 2 hour trip a snack cart came by at intervals. The train offers a good alternative to traveling by air and we arrived at Hualien station rested and eager to begin our adventure. Lily had pre-arranged for a van and local driver to collect us at the station so without delay we were on our way to the gorge at Taroko National Park.
The imposing Eastern Entrance Gate of the central cross island highway begins the 20km-long dazzling main section of Taroko Gorge. The gorge cuts a horizontal swath deep into the imposing marble mountains and provides breath-catching views of nature showing off its majesty. The impossibly deep gorge was carved by the Liwu River which happened to be very low at this time of the year - in many areas non-existent - allowing us to see exposed massive boulders lying in the riverbed that had been polished to a high sheen by the action of the water. The steep, neck-craning vertical cliffs can hold a candle to any sky-scraper I ever saw, including Taipei 101.
The Amis aborigines - the largest one of the many original tribes indigenous to the island discovered by the Han Chinese during their immigrations of the early 17th century - call this narrow strip of land between the Central and Coastal Mountains home. The terrain is so rugged that none of Taiwan’s later occupying nations – including the Japanese – ever conquered the Amis, thus ensuring that their ancient traditional way of life continues until this day. We stopped for lunch at Leader Village, an Amis hotel, restaurant and craft workshop, just off the main highway #8 which transits the gorge. The village is set on a level plain surrounded by high mountains shrouded in mist. The architecture was authentic Amis as was the food. All the ingredients were locally grown or farmed – and in some cases unidentifiable – but regardless of recognition, the lunch was delicious. Afterwards we browsed the gift shop and one of our party was captivated by brightly colored, intricately hand-woven placemats, which she ‘just had to have’. Later we saw the weaver in action as she was demonstrating her art to a group of middle-school children. Some of the kids bravely approached us to practice their language skills but after a few words dissolved in giggles, covered their faces, and retreated to the safety of the group. www.leaderhotel.com/blw/leadervillage/e-about.htm
Back in the van we continued our trek, stopping periodically to take pictures of the gorge, each other, and various and sundry tourists we met along the way. There are several paths to hike along the river and Lily laughingly took us on the Shakadang Trail - also known as Mysterious Valley Trail - one of the “easier” ones, reached only by descending what seemed like a bottomless stairway beneath a bridge. From this vantage point we got a good look at pools of brilliantly colored water in hues of blue and turquoise, made so by the minerals in the rocks. When we climbed back up the stairs - no easy task - and continued past the bridge, we experienced views of such imposing magnificence that you simply have to get out and walk along the safely cordoned-off lane along the edge of the road to get an up close and personal look.
After a photo op at the Eternal Spring Shrine, a lovely pagoda style building over a waterfall, we entered the Tunnel of Nine Turns – one of a series of tunnels penetrating the mountain - and as we exited we spied the beautiful red Cihmu bridge with splendid Fu Dogs or Lion Dogs (mythical guardian animals) flanking both sides. We stopped for yet another photo op when we realized the Fu Dogs were not necessarily guarding the bridge but were in fact defending the entrance to a Buddhist Temple partially hidden in the hills. Focused on our picturesque find we did not see a Buddhist Nun approaching until she was upon us and graciously invited us to enter the sanctuary, the Hsiang-Te Temple of Taroko. Concerned about the lateness of the hour and aware that the curving road would become too dangerous to navigate after dark, we declined and returned to the van to continue on our way without realizing that our hotel was just around the corner and had the temple nuns as neighbors.
The General Manager Michael B. Gaehler and his charming staff welcomed us to Silks Place, a graceful spa hotel decorated in a minimalist Zen style. How very appropriate given their closest neighbors were Buddhist Nuns and the setting in the middle of the heavenly Toroko Gorge was somewhat other worldly. The low-rise hotel sprawls to give all rooms a view of the gorge from their private balconies. The rooms consist of a large handsomely appointed sitting room/bedroom with doors from both areas entering into a spacious bathroom, and the aforementioned private balcony outfitted with table and chairs. The bathroom sports his and her sinks, shower stall, commode stall, bathtub, and enclosed dressing area with built-in closet and drawers and en-suite safe. The hotel’s single restaurant is a large open versatile space where the buffet featuring both Asian and Continental dishes offers temptations galore, and the ground level reception/bar area has comfortable seating areas and stunning views with floor to ceiling windows looking out over the gorge and hills beyond. The outdoor infinity swimming pool is placed in such as way that it appears to dissolve into the mountains and makes for a lovely platform to watch the setting sun with a Silks Place signature libation. www.silksplace-taroko.com.tw
After the strenuous day of traveling and hiking we were rewarded with a visit to the spa and a de-stressing massage that left me wanting to crawl into bed and sleep for a week. Of course, after a good nights sleep, we were up early the next morning. Reluctantly we left Silks Place wishing we had more time to enjoy the peace and grace of the resort but eager to explore the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area. We took a shorter route out of the gorge and passed through the Eastern Entrance Gate quickly, that is, after a slight delay caused by a rock slide, and continued on route #9 which hugs the coast and the Pacific Ocean before it turns inward to the land between the two mountain ranges known as the Rift Valley.
EAST RIFT VALLEY NATIONAL SCENIC AREA & HOT SPRINGS
The Rift Valley is like a museum of living history for the indigenous people that have been here for ages. There are opportunities to visit cultural villages where tobacco buildings, rice processing plants, sugar factories and many other trades have been preserved. For those looking for more adventurous activities, you can try your hand at paragliding in the Fenglin Recreation Area; here the round hill mound overlooks a broad plateau and has a powerful rising air current that provides a perfect arena for the sport.
Lunch was another wonderful insight into the Amis matriarchal culture. We stopped at Cifadahan Café where we met the owner and Chef Lin, Feng Ting (Nakaw in the Amis tongue) who cooks with only local seasonal produce and fish raised in the pond on the property. Early every morning Nakaw combs the surrounding forest for wild greens, herbs, and mushrooms, and the dishes that come out of her kitchen are amazingly flavorful and healthy. Stone hot pot is the house specialty - and spectacle – for which locals and tourists travel miles. The pre-heated hot rocks are gingerly ladled into a Beatle nut leaf filled with water and an assortment of wild vegetables and grouper fish and when the soup boils, fresh greens are tossed in and the soup is served… sans rocks! The restaurant is typical Amis design built from locally harvested wood and the walls are covered with artifacts mostly picturing the Great Mother suckling her young www.cifadahan.58168.net (unfortunately, the web site is in Chinese without an English translation, but the pictures tell the story)
Satiated with good food and filled with admiration for the Amis lifestyle, we returned to the forested road which very soon gave way from a sub-tropical to a tropical landscape, now covered with tea plantations and rice fields. After pausing at the Monument to the Tropic of Cancer (the imaginary line marking the most northern point of the Sun’s path) we made a tea tasting stop and met Miss Hakka, Princess of Tea and spokesperson for the tea council of the area. Green, Oolong and Black teas are grown, blended and packaged here, but a caution, these teas are powerful and can be bitter to the uninitiated and should be sipped in small doses. Gone are the forested mountain highlands of the north and fields of banana, corn, pineapple, rice, tea, and day lilies now covered the landscape as we traveled south.
All along, the Rift Valley had been peppered with medicinal hot springs, and we were building an appetite to arrive at the Hotel Royal Chihpen Spa and sink into the calcium carbonate waters gushing from deep within the earth. Hot springs have different healing properties for a variety of disorders, but we were interested only in relaxing and ‘taking the waters’. The hotel physically reminded me of the famous Catskill Mountain Resorts popular in the 1960’s and 70’s. A well-preserved family-friendly massive hotel with some services in the main building and surrounded by satellite edifices offering special services. One path led to the outdoor pool, another to the outdoor family hot spring (bathing suits and caps required), another to the kids play area, badminton, mini golf, archery and barbecue areas. Main building indoor facilities included a gym, reading room, internet area, video game room, ping-pong, pool, souvenir shop, art gallery, laundry facility, and spa. The indoor spa had separate unisex areas - bathing suits prohibited - including changing rooms and hot and cold spring pools.
Guest rooms were generally small but comfortable and each room contained an enclosed commode and dressing area. The bathroom was the focus of the room as you would expect. It was equipped with a rain shower and deep soaking tub contrivance that allowed you to move from the shower and descend into the tub pre-filled with hot spring water, the degree of which you could control with hot and cold knobs and a rubber duck water thermometer. Everything was impeccably clean as were all the facilities we encountered in Taiwan. The restaurant offered an abundant buffet but choices tended towards the more regional then conventional western which led to successful – and sometimes not so successful – experimentation. An aborigine dance entertainment in native costume was performed after dinner and enthusiastically enjoyed by the assembled throng. www.hotel-royal-chihpen.com.tw
And so our brief but full visit to Taroko and the East Rift Valley was almost over. In two days we had traveled almost the entire eastern coast and learned much about the rich diversity and incredibly beautiful island of Taiwan. Even if you have neither the time nor inclination to make such an ambitious visit, you must see the Taroko Gorge. It is close enough to Taipei to reach by bus or train ride, and for downright dramatic scenic beauty it is a must see. Also you can not go to Taiwan and miss a visit to one of the many hot spring resorts for a day or a week - as it suits you - but go!
Soon we would board our flight from Taitung Airport back to Taipei and see what the big city has to offer… stay tuned for more on Taiwan aptly named by the Portuguese, Ile Formosa ‘The Beautiful Island’.
For information on Taiwan contact the Tourism Bureau
or visit http://www.go2taiwan.net
For International and Regional flight information for Taiwan contact EVA Airways
© August 2010 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.