Taiwan, part 3 – Taroko National Park

Taroko National Park - view from the ridge above Lushui to the east (Wenshan-Lushui trail)
Taroko National Park – view from the ridge above Lushui to the east (Wenshan-Lushui trail)

We got to the Taroko Visitor Headquarters around noon – it was only slightly over one hour on foot from Xincheng. We asked the park employee (again a nice lady with a big smile, very happy to help) for some detailed map of the mountains, but they only had simple touristic/schematic maps – they were free and enough to get around, but not really what we were after. We would, of course, later find out that detailed maps wouldn’t be of much use to us anyway, as the lower mountains are completely covered with impassable vegetation and as the lady told us, we would have needed permits for the higher mountains.

Some of the giant butterflies in Taroko
Some of the giant butterflies in Taroko

We might have felt an earthquake while we were waiting for a bus to Lushui, a village further up in the park near Heliu camping ground, though I did not find any record of it on the Internet a few weeks later, so maybe the kids running around the restaurant we were sitting at were just really heavy 🙂 We also enjoyed the sounds of a bus worth of Taiwanese men’s cleansing at the toilets at the bus stop. Shortly after the spittle-snot symphony ended, our bus arrived, and after about 30 minutes of jumping up and down in a bus without shock absorbers on a pothole-filled road, we stepped out in Lushui. From here, it was only about 7 minutes to Heliu camping ground on foot.

Tianfeng Pagoda, part of the Xiangde Temple complex, above Tianxiang
Tianfeng Pagoda, part of the Xiangde Temple complex, above Tianxiang (photo by Marketa)

The campsite was empty, and the groundskeeper – a very nice and friendly guy – told us to pitch our tent under the roof at a nice terrace above the river, even though the sign said not to 🙂 The camping grounds were quite nice, with water taps and fireplaces at the individual tent platforms, and with cold-water showers. I am not sure if the water was potable, maybe it was, but at this point we still avoided drinking water out of random taps outside plus there were some little signs on each tap (in Chinese or Taiwanese only). Also the campsite’s cesspit was just getting a makeover that day and we didn’t want to take the chance of getting any of the old makeup into our bottles.

Xiangde Temple - one of the two main temple buildings
Xiangde Temple – one of the two main temple buildings

The next day we went to Tianxiang. There is a nice monastery on the hillside – Xiangde Temple – with a pagoda visible from far away.

After a tasty lunch at a local restaurant, we continued toward Wenshan, properly sunburned at this point. Our original intention was to reach Lianhua (Lotus) Pond, but there was not enough time, so we turned off onto a trail from Wenshan to Lushui. The trail is quite nice and well marked with signs. It leads through thick vegetation, but at one point, it goes along a ridge with beautiful views. It also goes past small remains of police outposts and two Taroko villages from the Japanese era, but these aren’t anything spectacular, they are mostly just the very bases of walls, covered with dirt and vegetation – basically just bumps in the forest. The trail crosses a small stream of clear water, but I don’t know whether it is potable. After about fifteen minutes of an effort to get our SteriPEN working, we decided to get water somewhere down in Lushui.

At the bottom of the Taroko Gorge in Wenshan, with a suspension bridge above
At the bottom of Taroko Gorge in Wenshan, with a suspension bridge above.

The trail took slightly over 2.5 hours from Wenshan to Lushui (it said around 5 hours on one of the signs, but I suspect that would require either several lunch breaks or walking backwards). In Lushui, we asked for tap water at a local restaurant and the waitress was happy to fill both our 1.5 liter bottles.

Typical low-growing palm tree in the forest
A typical low-growing palm tree in the forest.

It was Friday and we were no longer alone at the campsite. When a couple from Taichung saw us eating cookies and drinking water for dinner, they invited us for a meal. We didn’t want to impose, but upon their second invitation, we accepted. They were very nice people and gave us each a bowl of broth with noodles. There was just one catch to it – in Taiwan, the broth is usually full of fat meat, to which, unfortunately, I have a heaving reflex. So I swallowed even the biggest chunks whole, smiling 🙂 We thanked them and talked for a while. Since we didn’t know any Chinese or Taiwanese, and they didn’t know any English or any other European language, this comprised of a lot of dictionary searching and picture-drawing. As a thank you, we at least offered them the technical gasoline we bought by mistake in Taipei, but they had no use for it. After the dinner, they brought us a small lamp for our tent and in the morning, they brought us some fruit and vegetables, candy and cappuccino. Unfortunately, we didn’t have anything to give them in return, but as we gradually learned with each such act of niceness, the people in Taiwan are really selflessly generous and happy to help. In the end, we gave the technical gasoline to the groundskeeper, and he brought us a bottle of flammable gel in return.

Views at the start of the Wenshan-Lushui trail, looking north
Views at the start of the Wenshan-Lushui trail, looking north.

In the morning, I lost a game of hide and seek to some formosan macaques, trying to take a picture of them that wouldn’t be blurry. We went back to Xincheng by bus. Once again, there was not even a hint of the bus having shock absorbers, and this time it was going downhill. A piece of advice – take off your backpack, when you sit down in the bus, especially if the backpack is heavy. I didn’t bother taking it off for the short ride and my back certainly wasn’t pleased. Also, have the exact amount of money ready – buses in Taroko have a coin box by the door and the drivers do not handle money, so they don’t give change back.

From Xincheng, we went to Hualien by train, and then further south to Shitiping by bus.

Taiwan's most famous eye candy - the face of Taroko
Taiwan’s most famous eye candy. You’ll see this face everywhere.

Taroko – first impression

Overall, Taroko, or at least the small part of it that we visited, is definitely worth seeing if you are in Taiwan. However, I liked it more for the vegetation, the people, and the atmosphere of something new more than for the everywhere-advertised Taroko Gorge. The gorge is nice, but for anyone used to alpine scenery, it is not that special. Unfortunately, we didn’t have permits to go to higher mountains, so I can’t say anything about that. Maybe next time 🙂

Quite a big wasp appartment building
Quite a big wasp apartment building

Practical note

There are many signs warning about wasps and snakes – especially in summer and autumn. We were there in spring and apart from a few individual wasps and some wasp nests, we didn’t encounter either. But judging by the size of the wasp nests, things might get quite stingy if you cross their path. The term wasps probably includes hornets as well.

An empty shell of what appears to be a Taiwanese combat snail :-)
An empty shell of what appears to be a Taiwanese combat snail 🙂

Practical note 2

From time to time, you’ll see someone with an open wound caused by some flesh-eating bacteria. I’m not sure which bacteria is the cause, maybe staphylococcus or, less likely, vibrio vulnificus, but I don’t know. One such man (a station garbage collector with an open wound on his mouth) wanted to help us at the bus station in Hualien and touched our map, which was not entirely pleasant, since we didn’t know the cause of his wound, but obviously it wasn’t anything highly contagious since no wounds opened up on our bodies after that 🙂 I later rubbed the map with whiskey, but still, it plants some seeds of worries into your head.

Taiwanese combat wasp :-) (photo by Marketa)
A Taiwanese combat wasp 🙂 (photo by Marketa)


Eternal Spring Shrine - photo taken through a bus window. I kept the image uncropped to show the fairytale nature of the site.
Eternal Spring Shrine – photo taken through a bus window. I kept the image uncropped to show the fairytale nature of the site (click to enlarge).