I originally wasn't supposed to spend the weekend here, but they kept adding work to the point where we extended my trip. As this is not a holiday weekend, I was determined to make it to Taroko Gorge, unlike last time.
The guys at work assured me that they would have tickets, unlike last time. So, I researched the options and asked the train ticket teller for the ones I wanted. Except that those trains were all filled up. I could get to Hualien (the city near Taroko), but instead of 11pm, I'd arrive a half hour after midnight. I could get a return ticket, but only to Taipei and not Hsinchu. I hope there's a high-speed train that comes back from Taipei that late. If not, I'll get a taxi.
I wasn't delighted with this development, but I was determined to make it.
The trains were actually pretty full, and I get how they don't have seats. But they should offer standing room or run more trains, in my opinion. As it was, there were a few people sitting in between the cars anyway. And there were some people in seats until the seat's rightful owner came to claim it. So maybe there's an unwritten rule about being able to take a different train that the one printed on your ticket. I saw only one ticket checker on-board, but I fell asleep before he got to me. He didn't wake me, so maybe they aren't that diligent.
The train stopped at Shulin for me to transfer to another train. I had quite a while to wait. I asked the ticket seller there if there was an earlier train I could take, but the train that left earlier arrived later.
I walked around the streets near the train station to kill time, but the excitement of bright city lights has worn off a bit for me. The lights are bright and exciting, but then you see that they're just trying to get you into another store. The stores here are the same as everywhere- drug stores, shoe shops, clothing stores, restaurants. The proportions are a little different in some ways. Pretty much every shopping street here has a bubble tea shop. I've seen more motorcycle helmet stores here than I have in the whole rest of my life combined. And there are a plethora of convenience stores.
There used to be a comedian who had a bit about how the Starbucks density was so thick he saw a Starbucks across the street from a Starbucks. 7 eleven is like that here. In Hsinchu, I stepped out of one, turned the corner, and literally saw one on each side of the next street, right across from each other. I'm not sure there's anywhere you can stand in a city here where you can't see at least one 7 eleven, Family Mart, or other convenience store.
Eventually, the train came and I got to Hualien. It was after midnight and the streets were empty. They didn't have a creepy-empty feel, just a sleepy-empty feel. It reminded me somewhat of a beach town in winter, when there's just nobody around to make a ruckus.
Empty Daytime Hualien
It was a very short (and safe) walk to the hostel. I'm staying at Colorful Taiwan Hostel and I can't rave enough about the staff and service. I booked 24 hours before I planned to arrive, and was planning on a late arrival (which was listed as an extra fee because they usually close the front desk earlier.) They were very quickly abke to confirm my late arrival via email. And when I saw that I was going to be even later due to the train situation, I called and was able to get a later arrival, no problem. The lady who greeted me at the hostel was friendly and helpful. She got me checked in quickly so that I could get myself some much-needed sleep.
Beyond the above-and-beyond check in, the hostel is super-clean. There is not a sign of mold in the bathroom. Even the slippers they give you when you leave your shoes at the door have a sign saying that they are sanitized after each guest. I can't recommend this hostel enough. For the great cleanliness, location, and service, the price is amazingly low. I got an awesome deal.
I did not set an alarm last night, so I didn't get up until after 8, which is super-late for me. I needed the sleep though. I quickly got my stuff together, checked out, and grabbed a 7 eleven breakfast. I was sure that there must have been some sort of bus to Taroko, but the internet said the bus was over an hour, and a car would take only 30 minutes. I decided not to waste my precious day-off time dealing with the bus, and just grabbed one of the many cabs parked outside of the train station.
The ride was about 30 mins mostly on open road and it only came out to about a $15 fare, which was totally worth not dealing with the hassle. It dropped me right at the visitor's center. I finally made it!
The visitor's center had great maps and the lady behind the desk even suggested which paths I should hike based on my time limit. She also gave me a printed copy of the schedule for the bus that takes tourists around the park and back to Hualien station.
I started down the main path that was right by the center. It was mobbed with tourists. It's an easy path- relatively flat, paved or semi-paved, and has railings anywhere you might need them. People were walking it in flip flops and dresses, and lots of families strolled slowly on their way or stopped on the benches for little picnics.
The scenery is beautiful.
You see the river flowing through the gorge. You see the beautifully striated rocks that almost seem as if somebody painted the stripes on them. You see tons of trees and forest. It's a very pleasant start to the day. The official "suggested" trail ends at a cabin.
Striated Rocks of Taroko Gorge
end of the main trail
But the trail continues on.
But the tourists don't.
Trail without people
Beyond the cabin, the trail gets rockier and less paved. There are fewer handrails, although they aren't really needed. The crowds thin out so that you can actually hike instead of tripping on families who feel the need to block the whole path. The gorgeous scenery continues though. I took the path another kilometer or so past an "aqueduct" that looked a lot more like a pipe than a stucture to me to a "dam" that I'm not sure actually did anything.
At this point, I took a break at one of the seating areas. A group of guys were having a picnic. It featured a steaming pot of tea. He had lugged some sort of gas heater and fancy teacups all the way out here, just so that he could have hot tea in the "wilderness." He was nice enough to offer me some. I don't like tea and the caffeine makes me wild, but I just couldn't resist drinking hot tea out of a tiny china teacup in the forest. It was a surreal tea party.
DSCN8864- forest tea party
On the way back, I stopped at the cabin ending point of the recommended trail. Of course, several people had set up shop there. One sold meat on a stick. The next was weaving a bracelet and had several woven items on sale. I believe she probably makes them all herself as she waits for customers- impressive. She said that they were native patterns.
The last had bananas. I didn't really care how much they cost. I wanted one. She kept trying to sell me two. In the end, I paid about a quarter. I'm not really sure if that was the price for one or two, but I only took one. I suspect it was the price for two based on the lady's body movements, but I was only in need of one banana.
I also suspect that these vendors are local aboriginals. The signage all over the park denotes areas that are reservations for the aboriginal people, and maybe some of them make money selling to tourists.
Instead of heading back to the visitor's center, I headed to the next trail up the park. To get there, I first had to climb a bridge pylon to get to the road. It looked huge, but was less than 100 stairs. I walked through a car tunnel, but the park planners were smart, and put a well-lit pedestrian area in the tunnel. I walked through some pretty rock arches, althouh the pedestran path under these was less great than the tunnel one.
Finally, I arrived at the entrance to the entrance to the eternal spring path. I walked a short distance up a very steep hill to arrive to the real trail head. A bright temple sits at the trailhead- I guess you can pray for good luck on your hike.
The park service put up an extremely helpful sign at the trailhead. It not only had a map of the trail, the distance, and time to completion, but they had even updated it with a note saying that the trail was only open to the bell tower, and then was closed the rest of the way.
The first part of the trail is a suspension bridge. It's pretty long, and sways/bounces as you walk across it. The weight limit is 5 people. I enjoyed crossing it, as the view was amazing, but some people might want to pass on that.
On the other side, I started up the path. It wasn't a path so much as a staircase with all of the qualities of a path- uneven, rocky, and somewhat treacherous. I was ready to turn back, but a couple I passed insisted that it was worth it,even just to the closure point. I lumbered on, hauling myself up more steps than I could bother to count.
The couple was correct- the top has a great view. And anybody who gets there can ring the bell- there are no restrictions. The little lookout tower was decorated beautifully and was a site in its own right.
Temple from Bell Tower
I climbed back down, which was much easier and faster, and returned to the bus station for the first trail. The bus does a sort of circle, and the stop by the temple was for the bus headed in the wrong direction.
Next stop was Buluowan. This stop doesn't have so much to do. A hotel overlooks the gorge, but the trails are all very short- some less than a kilometer. Compared to the hours of hiking I had put in elsewhere, that doesn't even count, even with the many stairs one had. I hiked them before the next bus came to that stop. They did have a small museum that depicted abiriginal life. It was interesting,but very small. I'm not sure that I really understand their culture based on a short display about facial tattoos and weaving patterns.
I had seen a ton of beautiful waterfalls, a clear river, and colorful rocks. The last inward-bound bus of the day came, and I took it to the end, Twhatsit stop.
This stop has a 7 eleven (of course) as well as a few other shops. The bathrooms had run out of water- toilets wouldn't flush and sinks didn't turn on. I guess the end of the day is not the time to be here.
The view was as good as everywhere else though. I marveled at the scenery as I snacked and waited for the bus driver to reopen the bus. Just as we were riding back through the park, night fell. The mountain clouds and walls of the gorges prevented us from seeing any sort of sunset. It just started getting blue out. Then bluer. Then it was nighttime.
The bus took me back all the way to the Hualien train station, but it was running a few minutes late. I am really glad that I got the second-to-last bus both because I didn't need to see a dark park, but also because the later bus may have been too late for me to make my train. I'm also really glad that I didn't get the train tickets I wanted yesterday. I wouldn't have had nearly as much time in the park.
I also noticed that this side of the train station is very different. Yesterday and this morning, I saw a quiet, residential area that reminded me of a sleepy beach town in winter. The only bright lights bonged to the requisite 7 eleven. That is the city out the "rear" side of the station.
The front side of the station faces shops and neon lights and a 7 eleven, just like any other Taiwanese city. Plenty of souvenir shops offered local Hualien goods- mostly mochi and pineapple cake. The signs for several small eateries lit up the night, trying to pull in customers. This side is not as quiet as the other.
The ride back to Hsinchu was uneventful- train to Taipei, high speed rail to Hsinchu. I got back to the hotel just before midnight after a really long day, but it was totally worth it. Today made my trip!