Biking, Hiking, Trail Running and Kicking Ass in Taroko Gorge, Taiwan

Taroko Gorge, Hualien City, Taiwan

All pictures are here.

Richard Foster of Barking Deer is here.

The original plan was to visit Mount Yushan in Taiwan and do a couple of kick ass hikes there. Unfortunately though, our last minute planning meant that we weren’t able to secure permits on time. So, Richard Foster of http://barking-deer.com/ aka “the barking deer guy”, who was helping us with the Yushan permits, told us that we could instead visit Taroko Gorge near Hualien. We were initially disappointed to learn that our dream hike in Yushan ended up being reduced to something sounding like “Tomato Gorge” near Hualien but a quick Google on the name lifted our spirits. The images of Taroko Gorge on Google were stunning! Apparently, the place was occupied by the Japanese several years back, hence the Japanese sounding name.

Apr 28th 2011

Armed with a US visa and a sense of adventure, Romain and I set off to Kaohsiung in Taiwan. Well, actually, I was the one who was armed with the US visa, which apparently is a good enough substitute for a Taiwan visa but Romain, who is a French national, didn’t need a visa to visit Taiwan. Anyway, the plan was to land in Kaohsiung, then take the subway to Kaohsiung Main Station in order to find the train time table to Hualien for the next day. We were then supposed to find a place to stay the night in Kaohsiung.

However, China Airlines didn’t quite appreciate the subway timings in Kaohsiung and we ended up arriving 1 hour late at the airport at around 12am. So, we had to instead take a cab to Kaohsiung Main Station. But then again, the Main Station was also shut! Some cabbies outside the station were flocking around, waiting eagerly to drive us to some hotel. Unfortunately though, there was a big barrier between us and the cabbies. Not a physical barrier but a big LANGUAGE barrier! My Putonghua was sadly limited to “Bu Ji Tao Putonghua” (can’t speak Mandarin) which worked great but unfortunately wasn’t a problem-solver by any means. So, the cabbie then called some Taiwan Tourist Translation hotline (can you believe that?!) and bingo! We were communicating! I asked the translator to ask the cabbie when the morning train to Hualien would depart. 0712 came the answer! With that, we decided to go to a hostel to catch some ZZs for a few hours. We ended up choosing the same hostel where Romain stayed the first time he was in Kaohsiung.

This hostel was called Cozy Planet. I called the owner, a guy called Sam who speaks flawless English and he volunteered to pick us up from the station and drive us to his hostel. He even upgraded us to some special room which included a TV, a computer and … a lady who’d make just ANY man do the dishes.

Ok, fine.. a POSTER of the lady.. but it certainly had the same affect!

After sleeping for a mere 4 hours, we were up nice and early the next day, all set to board the 0712 train to Hualien. We took a morning walk to the station at 6am and bought tickets to Hualien City station which cost about 1400 bucks for two.

Apr 29th 2011

Riyang or Jeff?

After a 5-hour long journey, we were all set to meet with The Barking Deer guy’s contact in Hualien station. A guy named Riyang Su who lives in Taroko.
We got off the train and soon saw Riyang waiting in his white van and waving towards us. He seemed like a very friendly guy, more like a long lost friend than just a tour guide. He drove us to his house in Taroko in about 20 minutes.

The house was nice and big! We had two bathrooms and the first floor all to ourselves. I saw Riyang’s name cards everywhere. However, one version of it read “Riyang Su” (the guy we knew) and the other read “Jeff”. We suspected that there could be a fellow guide living in the same house or maybe it was Riyang’s son who was called Jeff. We were inquisitive enough to ask Riyang who Jeff was. “In Taiwan, this guy, that guy, every guy is Jeff” came the response! Ok, so it was a fake English name and quite a popular one in Taiwan! Well, Riyang aka Jeff speaks passable English but you’ve got to speak slowly, very slowly! Otherwise conversations will last longer than you originally intended!

Jeff’s house!

Romain and Jeff

We weren’t really sure what kind of adventure was awaiting us in the next couple of days but we soon realized that Riyang had everything set for us! He drove us to the Taroko Information Center on the same afternoon for our first glimpse of the gorge. It was beautiful! Truly, a geographical wonder!

Taroko has many, many beautiful trails. Hard ones and easy ones. At the tourist center, you can get a map of the place with the common trails on it. However, the timings on the trails are written more for grandmas and grandpas. If it says you need 4 hours to complete a trail, simply divide that by two! We did our first little walk/trail run that afternoon. A trail called the Shakadang trail.

Shakadang Trail

Shakadang Trail – along the gorge. Water is in a beautiful green color

We did a little something extra as well. We went up from about 100m to 850m hoping to find something special but only found a bunch of red flags before we ran out of time and had to return.

Gimme a minute – I am off to the Pacific Ocean

Once we were back at Jeff’s house, he gave us some surprising news. “My house only 5 minutes from Pacific Ocean”, he said. That gave us an idea. We knew he had some great bikes, so we rented two of them and off we went riding to the Pacific Ocean!

Gimme 5 minutes – will ride to the Pacific Ocean and back!

Swimming there was not an option though, as the ocean is over 100m deep, even in the parts closest to shore! But, riding a bicycle on a pavement right next to the ocean was an option and we did exactly that! It was truly an awesome feeling!

After riding for a while, we returned to Jeff’s home for a nutritious and sumptuous dinner in the evening, topped with Taiwan Beer. We were looking forward to more adventure in the following day.

Apr 30th 2011

Biking ain’t easy

We weren’t really sure what we were going to do until the very last minute. Not because there wasn’t sufficient planning but because we didn’t quite understand what Jeff was telling us! But, things became crystal clear when he got our bikes out in the morning, took a picture of us and said ‘bye bye’. Our adventure for the day began shortly thereafter! We had two awesome bikes, a map of Toroko Gorge with the names of several trails on it and plenty of energy and a sense of adventure!

Taroko Gorge stretches a long, long way. From Taroko station, the altitude gradually rises from 100m to 3000m (Wu Ling). At the 23km mark from Taroko station, there is a place called Tiansiang which is at about 450m in elevation. Many beautiful tunnels adorn the road to Tiansiang from Taroko town. Biking on this road is a surreal experience! And, I realized soon, that it can also be a very difficult experience!

Getting ready for a 50Km bike ride!

Biking along the road that hugs the coast of the gorge


Not sure how the Tour De France guys do it but my little elevation gain from 100m to 400m was far from easy! Romain was up ahead speeding away and I was struggling a good 100m behind! Also, my use of the bicycle gears weren’t exactly right. I learnt on the trip that the gear controls on the left side of the handle bar are different from the controls on the right!

Riding in the dark tunnels was especially a thrilling experience! Some of the tunnels were dimly lit and we felt like we were riding bicycles in some caves! There was also a section called Swallow Grotto where they were lending free helmets to everyone crossing that area as it was prone to falling rocks! Not sure how a helmet would really help when a boulder makes a hard landing on your head!

After a thrilling experience (and a lot of pain for me), we reached Tiansiang some two hours later after some hardcore pedaling for 23kms. From there the trail running began! Armed with a map, we attacked as many trails as possible in about half the time it said it would take on the map!

Baiyang Trail – we took an extended path to get there

Baiyang Trail – Picture Perfect! On the way to the waterfalls

Chilling on a suspension bridge

By 4pm, we had biked 50km, hiked/ran close to 20km and were still going strong! We returned to Jeff’s place after that for our next mini adventure. This was a van trip to the Pacific Ocean again. It was actually a viewpoint from where we could see a steep cliff precariously dropping straight into the Pacific Ocean.

Steep Cliff descending straight into the ocean

50Km of biking, 20km of hiking/running and now enjoying the Pacific Ocean!

When we were at the Pacific Ocean, we were watching a crane dumping a speedboat onto the water. This speedboat was then driven to a trawler for bringing back the catch of fish for the day.

Crane picking up the boat and placing it near the ocean

Boat bringing back the catch of fish for the day

This fish called Ma Yiu (or something similar) weighed over 50Kgs

The day ended with another great dinner and left us tired but longing for more adventure!

May 1st 2011

Time for the high altitude stuff!

We had covered a lot of the relatively low altitude terrain (<900m) and so it was time to climb! Jeff drove us to a place called Wu Ling in the morning. Wu Ling is over 80km away from Taroko town and about 3000m in height. It took us 3 hours to reach the place. The temperature plummeted from 27 degrees to 6 degrees in a span of two hours. It was also drizzling which made it feel even colder.

Our plan for the day was to summit Hehuan Shan (3158m) and after that to climb Cilan North Peak (3600m). There was one big catch though - we didn't have the required permits to climb either mountain! But then, as they say, "where there's a will, there's a way!"

“Korea First, Hong Kong Next”

Jeff’s plan was to have us sneak behind a group that had the permits! This was a group from Korea and Jeff warned us to maintain radio silence and follow the Koreans. “Korea first, Hong Kong next”, he emphasized. So, if the permit guys were to check the Korean group, we were to pretend to be a part of that group. This group was 100% Korean. Romain and I were clearly the odd ones out! Unless we had a face mask on, there was no real point in maintaining any radio silence!! The Korean guys were dressed in multiple layers of clothing heavy enough to cause a crater in the ground. Contrastingly, Romain and I were wearing shorts!

As we started making our way to Hehuan Shan, we discovered that “Korea first, Hong Kong next” meant we wouldn’t reach the peak for several hours! And this was a climb from 3000m (Wu Ling) to the summit (3158m!) What would have taken Romain and I a mere 45 minutes looked like it would end up taking a couple of hours! So, we decided to shed our temporary Korean looks and return to trail running! In 40 minutes, we were at the summit!

Wu Ling – 3000m

The path to Hehuan Shan – 3158m

The heavily dressed and super slow Korean bunch

On the peak of Hehuan Shan

Luckily, we didn’t have any permit issues. Our plan then was to descend to the start of the trail (near Wu Ling) and take another trail to Cilan North Peak (3600m). On the way back down, we saw the Korean bunch still struggling to climb up to Hehuan Shan. We wished them luck and started heading towards the second trail for Cilan North Peak!

Our initial impression was that it would be an easy climb as we were to start at 3000m and climb up to 3600m (only a 600m difference) but this was far from reality!! What we didn’t know was that we were heading for a mammoth knee-and-calf-busting hike covering close to 1500m in total elevation through all kinds of slippery slopes!

The trail from Wu Ling to Cilan North Peak passed through three cabins (these were tents for temporary stops). The first cabin was at 2500m! So, the trail went down from Wu Ling (3000m) to 2500m (the first cabin). The descent was gradual and easy. This didn’t take us much time to cover.

The trail was also immensely beautiful. The colors on either side of the trail were spectacular and the vegetation and feel were typical of high altitude places. Tall trees, unpredictable weather, mist rising from the clouds and that fragrance of fresh mountain air! I felt couple of years younger by just taking a deep breath and admiring the landscape!

On the way to Cilan North Peak, from Wu Ling to the first cabin

After reaching the first cabin at 2500m, there was a 300m climb to the next cabin which was at 2800m. This was no ordinary climb, there were ropes, ladders and some big boulders in places that we had to negotiate.

At the 2800m cabin, they checked for entry permits that were needed to climb to Cilan North Peak. We didn’t have them! After some innocent pleading and reassurance that we were experienced mountain climbers, they let us continue. We took photos with the permit guys – a family that lived in this cabin. The guy there spoke great English.

Second cabin, these guys live here and check for permits!

Then came a climb that I won’t forget for a long, long time! This was by far the hardest climb I have done in quite some time. The altitude went up from 2800 to 3530 and it was one hell of a steep climb. 90 degree climbs using ropes while battling fatigue generated by a combination of hard exercise and breathlessness caused by the relatively higher altitude. Because of recent rains, the slope at several parts were so wet and slippery that it felt like the legs weren’t moving at all, despite all the effort pumped into making them move. We eventually reached another rocky slope amidst inclement weather and bad visibility. We had to take a break to refuel.

Taking a much needed break at 3500m

We could not see much beyond a certain point and it seemed like we had missed some turn at the 3530m mark which was to lead to the summit of Cilan North Peak. We were supposed to reach 3600m but instead we ended up seeing a huge drop ahead. It looked like we had missed the turn to the summit. Realizing that visibility was low and that we were running out of time (Jeff was waiting for us in Wu Ling), we had to turn back.

The peak to the left is at 3600m, that’s Cilan North Peak

We reached Wu Ling at about 4.30pm. Jeff was worried. The Korean bunch made it down from Hehuan Shan in a couple of hours and told him that we had taken off without them! They asked him to call the police! He breathed a sigh of relief after seeing us and congratulated us on summiting two difficult peaks within a span of a couple of hours!

Returning after summiting Cilan Peak (well, almost!)

In hindsight, we did feel a little bad because, in truth, we were 70m short of the summit! But, we decided that this would count nonetheless!

Wu Ling

After taking more pictures, we headed back to Taroko town. I was freezing as it was raining and my tee shirt was wet from a combination of both sweat and rain. My socks were also wet and the body had taken quite a beating from all that climbing.

The descent to Taroko town took us to a spot at 1500m where we quite literally were just above the clouds!

Above the clouds! Is this Cloud 9?

We returned to Jeff’s place late at night for some much needed rest!

May 2nd 2011

This awesome adventure looked liked it would soon come to an end as it was time to head back to the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong.

However, before that, we had one more 3-hour trail run left in the morning! This one was from a point called Swallow Grotto (before Tiansiang) to almost the start of Taroko Gorge. The beauty of this trail was that it rested precariously at about 700m above the gorge and followed the path of the gorge for the most part. One slip and we would have fallen all the way down to the gorge (and would have broken a couple of bones in the process). This is probably why this trail also required a special permit.

Hi Hamish, Hi Corby

Jeff didn’t know our official names. So, he decided to use some random names for the permits. So, today, I was called Corby Ganesh and Romain was called Hamish Black!

Hamish Black and Corby Ganesh!

Start of the trail

Trail runs at an elevation of about 700m above the gorge

You slip and you faaaaaaaaaaaaaaall!

View of the gorge from the trail

The trail finished at a suspension bridge which connected the mountain to the road.

Suspension bridge

As we were taking photos on this bridge, we saw dozens of tourists walking out of big Volvo buses. It looked like their biggest exercise for the day was to negotiate the steep stairs on their way down from the bus! Romain and I were wishing that we would never end up like them!

Well, all good things eventually come to an end and so did that trail and the trip to Taiwan! We returned to Jeff’s place after this for a shower before boarding the 5-hour train back to Kaohsiung.

In the night, we flew back to Hong Kong.

Summary

This was an A+ trip! 50km of biking, 60km of hiking/running and an altitude climb at 3560m! Couldn’t have asked for more! Riyang Su aka Jeff was a fantastic guide and it felt like we were visiting some friend who knew exactly what we liked and was facilitating that.

Taroko is a place to revisit! We have plans of doing a longish trek from Wu Ling (3000m) to all the way to Toroko Gorge (300m) next time around! Maybe preceded by a nice and long bike ride from Taroko town to Wu Ling (100m to 3000m).

Nature is beautiful!


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