I knew I couldn’t leave Taiwan without another trip to the Taroko National Park, one of the most GORGEous places on the island. Its impeccable marble cliffs and serene turquoise river, not to mention its rich indigenous history.
Granted, Taroko is normally one of the easiest national parks to travel to, with the comfy Puyuma express trains, reliable daily busses, and the local familiarity with hitchhiking. However, all of that goes straight out the window anytime a severe typhoon or earthquake hits, sending the vertical hovering cliffs crumbling down onto the park’s only paved road.
Beauty always comes with a price. The most breathtaking sceneries are usually the craft of great natural erosions. Everything is temporary, especially anything man-made.
Unaware of this, we arrived in Taroko right when it was under repair due to a recent earthquake. The entire park had to be shut down for a few days after the severe February quake caused a major rockslide, and strict road closings were implemented for the subsequent months. The road to the gorge was only open for traffic between 6:30-8:00am, 12-13:00, and 17-18:00, causing many oblivious visitors to either be stranded inside or unable to make it into the park.
Nonetheless, we were determined to make the most of it. Of course, this caused a lot of delays and completely ruined my initial bus-riding itinerary, but we made it in with savvy hitchhiking skills and a lot of wander-waiting.
And let’s just say waiting is a lot less annoying when you’re surrounded by steep cliffs of untouched forests and fresh air. The serene lack of tourists is an added bonus.
We stayed at the Tiansiang Christian Church, a quiet place tucked away in the hills of the surprisingly convenient town of Tiansiang (天祥). I say “convenient” because it has a newly built 7-11, an active post office, and restaurants, on top of being right in the middle of the gorge.
Just past the creaky red gate, the church foyer is decorated with flowers and hanging plants, surrounding stone tables and chairs beaming with history. Its steeple is made beautifully with stone, with a chapel illuminated by its tall windows and views of the gorge.
Stranded at the nearest Visitor’s Center due to the road closing, we were picked up by the church’s co-owner Mr. Ciu after a helpful phone call with Mama Ciu. Riding up in his grey van, Ciu Baba blasted Kpop music all the way as we chatted about countries we’d traveled to, and places we wanted to go.
Ciu Mama later told us that the Tiansiang Church was built by a German missionary during the 1950s. At the time, a lot of western missionaries traveled to mountainous regions to work with the indigenous people. Although the church is no longer active after the minister retired, it was turned into a very affordable hostel perfect for backpackers and hikers like us. According to Ciu Baba, the stone chairs in the church foyer has for years been a lucky spot where many hikers apparently met and fell in love at first sight. Some even got married at the very same steeple. My heart melted at his joyous expression as he shared the stories.
Tiensiang Christian Church (天祥基督教會)
No 19, Xiulin Township, Hualien County, 972 (花蓮縣秀林鄉天祥19號)
NT$400 per person for a shared room
NT$600 for single room
NT$1200 for two-person room
Due to our unexpected delay on the first day, we did an easy hike at the Baiyan Trail (白楊步道). It was more of a casual stroll than a hike, alongside old couples with poodles and grandmothers in groups. It ended at the Baiyan Water Curtain, which was basically a pitch-black cave dripping with water. To our surprise, it was surrounded by tourists on this modest Tuesday afternoon. Not sure why it’s such an attraction, but all visitors seemed braved the trickling waters and trekked in the cave with their umbrellas. Making a few people’s jaws drop, I walked in without an umbrella, getting baptized by the surprisingly pleasant cave water. Had I known, I would’ve brought some soap and downright had a decent shower.
The next day, we hit up the famous Zhuilu Old Trail (錐麓古道), a permit-required hike known for its steep cliffs and historic artifacts. The trail was once a pedestrian highway for the villagers in the gorge, where remnants of old stone structures can still be seen. It was also once a place of conflict between the Japanese and the Taroko tribe, where the military sent hundreds of its soldiers into the steep hills with guns for the “proper management” of the indigenous people. Plaques commemorated the many lives lost during the unrest.
With hours of steep vertical incline, we found ourselves sympathizing with the villagers and soldiers carrying artillery or anything while hiking up the trail daily. Whoever said hiking in Taroko National Park is easy has obviously never done one that required a permit. Get ready to sweat for this one.
We eventually arrived at the cliffs — an un-fenced narrow path with a definitely-fatal thousand-feet drop into the turquoise river below. The scope of the gorge from the top of these cliffs were absolutely breathtaking. Though I will admit the height made me quite tingly inside, it was simply incredible. A view that can’t be beat.
Although the trail was closed halfway due to Taroko’s natural wear and tear, we were rebels without a cause and braved past the many intimidating “DO NOT CONTINUE” signs and red tape. There we continued to hike for another few hours, sneaking past wooden bridges that were severely dismantled by fallen rock with explosive momentum. We eventually came to our senses and turned around. Without any regrets, of course.
We continued our illegal trail hiking the next day between the Tiensiang Trail and the destroyed end of the Baiyan Trail, with the advice from Ciu Baba. Hey, if a local says you should go for a closed trail, you just can’t not do it. I should correct myself – it was really more like rockclimbing and forest scrambling for the most part. We both even suffered cuts on our fingers from thorn bushes and got a little lost in the dense forest. But we retraced our steps and stumbled safely back down, and spent the rest of the day lounging at the quiet and over grown wooden platform behind Tiensiang Youth Center. Despite our debatable stupidity, it was rewarding. Til next time, Taroko.