The Taroko Gorge, on the East coast, is Taiwan’s #1 tourist attraction, so we planned to spend a full day there. There’s a road that runs through the gorge (which is basically a big river that cuts through the mountains). Most people bike or drive through the gorge stopping at the various view points and trails along the way. There are also several trails that require permits, one of them being the Zhuilu Old Road, the trail with the most spectacular and dramatic views of the gorge and also nicknamed the “vertigo trail” for its very narrow path (about 2 ft. wide in some places), hundreds of feet up in the air above the gorge. Of course, this is the trail we chose for our day in the gorge (they say it takes 7 hours, so it would take up our whole day).
The application for this trail was not an easy one, mostly because you need to have an emergency contact that’s a Taiwanese citizen. I imagine that most people visiting Taiwan do not just happen to have a Taiwanese friend, which makes this requirement seem almost impossible. Luckily, I have 3 Taiwanese students, one of whom offered to help us and be our emergency contact, which required him to give me all of his personal information and even call/email the park headquarters. He was a huge help and I will definitely be bringing him back a gift from our travels to thank him. In addition to the emergency contact, you also need to have a Taiwanese phone number (this requirement was not too hard; I just used the phone number from the hotel in Taiwan that we’d booked a few months in advance) and you have to apply 30 days in advance (I applied in the early morning 30 days ahead of time and was still almost closed out of the trail!). It took a lot of going back and forth with the park headquarters (I had trouble making my account on the website and also had a lot of questions), but finally we got our park permits (we still had to get mountain permits, which you apply for/pick up at the park police station once you arrive) and were ready to go. Amazingly, they don’t charge for any of this… or anything at the gorge. No entrance fee, no permit fee, no application fee, nothing. They even give out free protective helmets to anyone who wants one!
From everything I had read about Taiwan, the hiking and outdoor activities here seemed to be pretty intense. Our book and also the applications for the park permits outline all of the safety precautions that you have to take, talk about the people who are injured or killed on trails, etc. However, our two hikes out of Taipei had been anything but intense. In fact, the trails had mostly been filled with older people and children. So, I was curious to see if Taroko Gorge would be the same.
For our time in the gorge and on the East coast, we were staying in Hualien, the largest east coast city, and also what our book mentions as a great place to base yourself for your east coast adventures. We didn’t get in until noon or so, so for our first day we’d just been planning to stay around our area and see what Hualien was about. But, as soon as we got in, the guy working at our guesthouse told us we should get a bike and head to the gorge for the afternoon. He took Dave to rent our bike, then he told us the trails that we should do for the day and before we knew it, we were back out the door. It was a 40 minute ride to the gorge, and the scenery the whole way was gorgeous, with mountains in every direction. Once we got to the gorge, we were able to get our mountain permit for the following day, and then we drove through for a couple of hours to see all the scenery.
The gorge was beautiful, with huge green mountains all around, and a big river running right through the middle. I had thought that it would be like the Grand Canyon, but instead it was more like the Colorado River. We biked most of the way through until we got to Baiyang trail, an easy 40 minute (each way) trail that leads to a cave that has a “waterfall curtain” in it. It was a nice trail and we were very happy we got this extra time at the gorge to really get to go through it. Now we thought we’d have the perfect amount of time there.
Back in Hualien, we checked out the night market, which was nothing impressive, and picked up dinner to bring back to our guesthouse. They had a microwave and a nice lounge area, and since we’d been out all day, we figured we’d have a relaxing night to get ready for the big hike the next day.
We headed out early in the morning and were back at the gorge by 8:30 or so. When we originally applied for the Zhuliu Old Trail, we were told that half of the trail was closed, and we could only do the other half. When we’d arrived the day before though, our guesthouse told us the trail had been reopened and we could do the whole thing (10.3km), which was a very pleasant surprise. The start of the trail was a little hard to find (it was actually still roped off after being closed for a few months), but we finally found it, had our permits checked by someone from the headquarters (who seemed to magically appear out of nowhere the second we showed up), and we were on our way.
The first 2 km or so of the trail was very slow going, and all uphill. Typically Dave and I are always faster than whatever the average hiking time is for any given trail, but after our first hour, we were on pace to complete the trail in their predicted 7 hours. After another kilometer or so though, the trail flattened out and we were able to speed up. They give out about 50 permits per day for the Old Road, and after about two hours, we started to pass a lot of Taiwanese people, all on the older side. By hour three or so, we reached one of the highlights of the trail, the part that basically runs along a cliff, is very narrow, and overlooks the gorge from hundreds of feet up. Dave is scared of heights (though you would never know this from all of the activities he likes to do), and I could tell that even he (Mr. Adventurous) was a little scared. There was another part of the trail just like this but towards the end, which had an even narrower and steeper cliff. We felt like if a strong gust of wind came along, it could blow us right over the edge. Luckily, there were ropes to hold on to and the weather was perfect.
There were two resting points along the trail. The first one we just took a break for a few minutes, as we weren’t quite hungry yet, and every person there (about 15 Taiwanese people) started offering us all of their food. They offered us sushi boxes, cookies, nuts, apples, etc. They were very cute and very nice. They all wanted to take pictures with us too. We ate at the second stop, where again, we were offered tons of food and asked to take lots of photos.
Overall, it was a great hike. Definitely our best in Taiwan so far. Dave says that it’s not a good hike unless you are a little scared during it, and this one definitely had us a little nervous at times. Plus, the scenery was beautiful and the weather couldn’t have been better. The whole thing ended up taking us about 5 hours, which left us just enough time to check out Swallow Grotto, one of the parks’ most famous view points before catching a bus that brought us back to the starting point and our motorbike. It was a great day at the gorge and we spent the night relaxing and planning the next part of our trip (which proved to be more difficult than we’d anticipated because there was a holiday over the weekend that we hadn’t known about, making hotels much more expensive and hard to find).
One of the most popular things to do in Taiwan is rent a bicycle and ride up and down the east coast. There are two major roads, the first (Highway 11) which runs all along the ocean, and the second (Highway 9), which runs through the mountains. To ride all along the coast takes about three days, but we had one. So instead of renting bikes, we took our motorbike and planned a one-day trip down Highway 11 and then back up Highway 9. Thank god we decided not to bike (thanks to Dave), as the ride is not easy, is very long, and very hot. I don’t think I ever would have made it and everyone we saw along the way looked as though they wished they had our motorbike.
Driving along Highway 11 was beautiful. The highway takes you all along the ocean, past rocky cliffs and black sand beaches. We made several stops along the way to take pictures and to see “Cow Mountain,” where a new Martin Scorcese movie was just filmed (starring Liam Neeson and Andrew Garfield). The ocean water was gorgeous in all different shades of blue, and looked especially pretty set against the very green mountains and the black sand. The real highlight for me though was that I finally learned how to drive a motorbike. We’ve rented one countless times in Thailand and elsewhere, but I’ve always been too scared to drive (plus, Dave is so good at it, so why bother). Finally though (due to the completely empty roads and my curiosity getting the better of me), I decided to give it a try. Dave said I was a natural!
Despite the gorgeous scenery on the east coast, we started to realize that Taiwan is a little strange. It’s the only island we’ve ever been to or heard of where there is pretty much no swimming allowed. Literally the whole east coast we were driving along beautiful beaches and not one person was in the water swimming. Not only that, but there are big signs everywhere you go listing the fines for swimming. For a place that is so hot and has such pretty beaches, it really makes no sense, and it especially bothered Dave, who loves to take a dip anytime we find a beach. We looked it up to try to find a reason for these weird rules, but couldn’t find anything about it. We did hear that a lot of Taiwanese people can’t swim, but if they see other people swimming, they for some reason think that they can too… so then they drown. Maybe that’s the reason, but I don’t know and we couldn’t find any definitive answers.
Not only that, something else we found strange was that everywhere we past and stopped seemed to be dead. Stores were closed, there were hardly any people anywhere, the roads were empty, and worst of all, there was no food to be found anywhere. The town we had planned to have lunch in and then turn around in, Shitiping (a fitting name for this not very nice place), had literally one restaurant and no 7-11. We ended up eating at a seafood place and ordered noodles and fried shrimp. The noodles were good, but the shrimp was not what we expected at all. They were tiny and fried with the heads and the shells on. For $10 for this dish (usually we spend no more than $3 on any single dish, especially for lunch), we were very disappointed… especially when as soon as we finished we saw someone at the table next to us being served huge, delicious looking shrimp… the shrimp we thought we were getting. There are few things a Stave hates more than having a bad meal…
On our way back, we drove along route 64, a gorgeous road along in the Rift Valley, with views the whole way of mountains, rivers and palm trees, and then to Highway 9. We’ve never been happier than when we got to Highway 9 and saw a 7-11. Highway 9 was equally as beautiful as Highway 11, though instead of driving the whole way along the beach and ocean, we were headed back through the mountains. There was green in all different shades everywhere you looked. Highway 9 was a little more happening than Highway 11, with convenient stores and some places to stop and eat. In hindsight, we probably should have switched the order and started on Highway 9, driving back on 11 (that was Dave’s original suggestion but I reluctantly vetoed him). Oh well.
Overall, it was a very nice day with gorgeous scenery, but we couldn’t seem to get these two annoying facts that we’ve discovered about Taiwan (or at least the east coast) out of our heads. First, the no swimming, which just makes absolutely no sense. Second, for the country that was just voted in a CNN poll as the number one country with the best food in the whole world, we’d certainly not been impressed during our time on the east coast. We’ve lived in Thailand for two years and have rarely had a bad meal (there are literally 2 or 3 that we can remember). In 3 days on the east coast, we’ve had about that many (including our dinner the last night, which we ordered after seeing a group of teens eating the same thing – it looked good, but didn’t taste so great). Not only that, but in Thailand, you never have to worry about finding food (and good food). Anywhere and everywhere you go, any time of the day, there are places serving all the Thai favorites. We struggled on the east coast to find anything (my biggest fear come true!!). Next, we’re headed to Tainan and Kaohsiung, supposedly great food cities, so hopefully these few bad experiences will be just that, rather than the norm, as we were so impressed with Taipei (both the food and the city in general) and had such high hopes for Taiwan as a whole.