Sunday, 15 July 2012

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

The saying you should be careful what you wish for is a truism if ever there was one. One of the things I used to look forward to about living in Taiwan was the climate. I'd grown so tired of the long, dark, dank British winters and hit-and-miss summers. At least in Taiwan it's guaranteed that the summer will be hot, I thought.

The thing is, you can only enjoy hot weather if you can actually go out in it. With temperatures reaching the high thirties recently my adventurous spirit has been quavering somewhat.

Last week Number 2 son and I thought that hiking in this heat would be more trial than pleasure, so we chose instead to visit two nature reserves that lie close together at the northern end of greater Taipei. These are the Guandu Nature Park and the Hongshulin Mangrove Forest.

If you've ever flown long haul, you'll know how beneficial it can be to have a stopover somewhere, so that you can relax and re-energise yourself, in preparation for for the next leg of your journey. Well, Taiwan is the ideal stopover destination for migratory birds. Many bird species take advantage of the wide, flat estuarine and swamp areas to rest their wings and eat some of the teeming millions of small creatures that inhabit them.

Guandu Nature Park is one area that the Taiwanese government has set aside so that the birds can do this in relative peace and safety, and lucky visitors can take advantage of the bird hides and powerful telescopes and binoculars there to watch them.

On the day we visited we travelled up on the - blissfully air-conditioned - MRT. The reserve was quiet, no doubt because it was a weekday, but also no doubt because it was so extremely hot. We managed a little half-hearted wandering around. We saw this bed of giant poppy-like plants that was particularly beautiful:

But there were few birds to see. Either it was the wrong season, or the birds were far more sensible than us and had decided not to venture out. Even the reserve's many crab species were hiding somewhere down in the dry, cracked mud.

We ended up gravitating to the visitor centre, where we spend quite a long time avoiding going outside again. When we did, we left to ride the MRT couple of stops further to Hongshulin Station.

You don't have to travel far to get to the visitor centre for this reserve as it's right above the station. I'm sure Hongshulin Mangrove Swamp is very interesting. It's the largest swamp of its particular tree species - kandelia candel - in the world. But I'm ashamed to say that the information centre was as far as we got.

We wimped out and went for a late lunch instead. I'll return one day when the mud skippers and crustacea haven't been driven underground by drought.

On a side note, a friend was commenting that Richard Saunders' books on hiking aren't easily available. For anyone who is interested in buying these (and in my opinion they are well worth having as an English resource not just for walks but many day trips around northern Taiwan) they can be bought at the Community Center. Please look here for a map as they are a little tricky to find. And do note the opening times too.

We'll be returning to the UK for a short holiday for the next three weeks, so I won't be posting for a while. In the meantime I hope to revamp this blog it may look a little different when it resumes.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Silver Stream Cave

Sometimes I think one could spend a lifetime tramping the hills of northern Taiwan and still find a new place to explore every day.

Last week my son and I went on another walk from Richard Saunders' Taipei Escapes that once again just explored a tiny fraction of forested mountain areas surrounding Taipei City. This time we walked from Zhong Sheng Qiao Tou to the Maokong Gondola station, which lies in the mountains above Taipei Zoo.

(A note of caution to anyone reading this who may be contemplating doing something similar:

It's currently in the mid-thirties Celsius here, which isn't particularly good hiking weather. We always take two litres of water each to drink even on our comparatively short, 3-4 hour walks, and most of the time we drink it all. I would never attempt to do these walks alone as the mountains are generally deserted, especially during the week. There are snakes and hornets, and trails are sometimes quite rough. If one were to be bitten or fall things could turn very nasty very quickly.

Having said all that, the mountains are very beautiful and if you can do so safely, I'd encourage any visitor or resident who hasn't yet ventured out there to go and see for themselves.)

The highlight of our walk last week was Silver Stream waterfall and cave. We had to climb 500 steps to reach it, but our effort was well rewarded. The waterfall is the prettiest I've seen so far, and the cave is behind it. You can walk up into the cave to look out through the fall to the mountains and valley beyond. Here's the fall itself:

I could have stood and watched it all day, except for the fact that the mosquitoes would probably have organised themselves into a taskforce and carried me off.

At the foot of the falls, there is a continuous rainbow in the spray:

And the view from the top was, as always, stunning.

There's a temple right next to the waterfall and the water from it is collected and blessed. The temple itself is of course very wet, with water welling up through the floor in some parts.

We didn't stay too long despite its clearly very holy atmosphere!

There was no one else around at all but the usual encroaching wildlife.

I think if humans were to disappear from Taiwan tomorrow the climate and local wildlife would wipe all sign of us away in just a few decades.

This fellow was also gazing at us quizzically at Maokong, as if to say, what are you doing here?

We were reminded twice more of how we were gatecrashing the wilderness party on a less-frequented part of the trail. In one place a recent downpour had completely washed part of it away and we had to scramble across the exposed yellow clay mud to continue on.

Then we encountered the hornets. They had nested right on the trail itself and whenever we came close they seemed to be flying at us to warn us to stay away. We watched a butterfly wander guilelessly into their vicinity. The butterfly was hustled off too. There was no doubt about it: the hornets had declared the area a no-go zone.

Except we had to go that way, or else go back all the way we had come. After some time, we managed to sneak around them by forcing a path through the undergrowth, giving their nests a wide berth. I did feel a little silly taking a large detour to avoid a creature barely as long as my little finger but silly was better than in pain, I thought.

At last we arrived at Maokong, tea plantation area of Taipei:

This is a fairly touristy area due to the gondola and the teahouses.

So we did the obligatory and went to have a late lunch at a teahouse. The tea theme continues into the food so we had tea oil noodles and fried shrimp with tea-flavoured mayonnaise (it was green).

I'm currently torn between attempting another hike in hot weather or trying to find a cooler destination next week. Walking in hot weather is enjoyable, but it does take its toll.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Photos We Didn't Take

Richard Saunders' Taipei Escapes enticed Number 2 Son and I on another mountain excursion this week.

I thought we'd be a little more adventurous and attempt a 'moderate' hike, a step up from the 'moderately easy' one we went on at Wulai. Unfortunately I found, among other disasters, that Mr. Saunders must be considerably fitter than I am.

Yet where are the photos to prove it? I can show you the nicer parts of the day. The rest I will have to leave to your imagination as, for reasons that will become clear, I didn't record our difficulties.

We went on Walk 25, Bishan Temple and Yuanjue Waterfall.

Bishan Temple is at the top of a mountain so to get to it you have to climb a lot of steps. All the way up. But at the bottom there's another temple where you can have a short rest before starting the long climb. This is Jinlong Temple, which contains a huge statue of Guanyin.

Guanyin is the Goddess of Mercy. If you watched the 1970's Japanese series based on Monkey's Journey to the West, this is the goddess sent by Buddha to release Monkey from his 500 years of confinement beneath a rock, where she has put him in order to teach him patience.

The temple was deserted the day that we went there, except for the local wildlife which was out in force. On our trip to Wulai a photographer had proudly shown us his amazing shots of the Formosan Blue Magpie. My own photos were nowhere near as good but I was gratified to get this one of this beautiful bird.

Its common name translates as 'long-tailed mountain lady'. 

In this hot, humid isle, insect life abounds and you always need to walk a little warily out in the countryside. Blundering into spiderwebs is a common occurrence, and they're usually a Golden Orb Weaver's construction. (I've just briefly read the Wikipedia link and it says that in Taiwan they can reach over 5.7 inches across in mountain country. Eeek.)

At Jinlong Temple there was a slightly more pleasant obstruction along the path. At one place at the back of the temple, these were hanging everywhere, exactly like live and slightly creepy Christmas decorations.

After navigating the caterpillar obstacle course, we commenced the climb to Bishan Temple. As it's steps all the way it's quite easy, it's just that there are an awful lot of them. It was a boiling day so we took our time. We were passed by lots of other climbers. One man passed us walking up, then coming down, then passed us again on his second climb!

They all stopped at the exercising area at the top, though. We were actually much tougher because we were going on a much longer walk, we assured each other. How prophetic.

So we made it to the top and followed our guidebook's very clear instructions for the next part of the walk, through the beautiful mountain-top countryside. The air was pleasantly cooler than than at ground level and the going was much easier than our initial long climb.

One thing that surprised us was how populated the area was. Wherever there was level ground there was some kind of dwelling or someone was growing something.

Some of the constructions were very interesting.

Gratuitous photo of a flower.

Eventually we came to what was for us one of the main attractions of the walk: Dragon Boat Rock. And to the first of the photos I didn't take. Dragon Boat Rock juts out of the surrounding forest like a single remaining tooth in a bearded old man's smile. It's an interesting sight both because of the way it breaks the constant lush greenery of the trail and because it harbours strange carvings. The only explanation of the carvings I can find is here

You won't be surprised to find out this isn't the photo I didn't take. The photo I didn't take was of what can be found at the upper and lower edges of the rock. Which is nothing. There is nothing whatever to stop you falling a long way if you happen to stumble off Dragon Boat Rock, and I didn't take a photo of this phenomenon because I was clinging to the rock with both hands and feet at the time.

The next photos I didn't take were of our descent from Dragon Boat Rock all the way back down the mountain to Neihu. When we were climbing the long stairs to Bishan Temple, we'd speculated that coming down was going to be a lot easier than going up. Hee hee. 

In Taipei Escapes this part of the walk is described as a 'rough and steep descent on a dirt path with some small rocky obstacles'. That doesn't sound too bad, does it?

What I hadn't realised at the time was how long this rough and steep descent was. I can take rough and steep for a certain distance. I discovered that rough and steep nearly all the way down the mountain, when the mountain is full of water, and when you have short legs, is quite taxing. That was before I ripped my trousers too.

It was inevitable really. My trousers were suited to gentler occupations. They were old but loved. They'd seen many places and done many things. It was time for them to quit, and they decided to go out with a bang. Or rather a rip. Never mind, I thought, I'm pretty sure the tear isn't that noticeable. Time for new trousers. We continued our descent, helped by ropes in the steepest places.

Then I really ripped my trousers. As in,' my trousers are hanging off me and everyone can see my knickers' ripped my trousers. I hope you can understand why the photo record is blank on this event.

At this point, the enjoyment of the walk started to become a little jaded. When a woman has ripped her trousers wide open, she really needs to get home straightaway. But the rest of the mountain and a walk through Neihu stood in my way. We continued our descent.

Then we took a wrong turn. Where the guidebook said we had to cross a stream, we thought we had to cross something like this, scrambling from rock to rock:

After all, we'd just come down an under-described descent, so presumably equally arduous labours lay ahead. But from what we could tell from the last part of the walk, the guidebook's author probably meant 'cross a stream by use of an extremely convenient and well-positioned bridge'.

Moving hastily on. We emerged into civilisation and with the help of my son's bag positioned behind me, and holding my guidebook apparently carelessly in front, we eventually made it home.

I think I'll read my guidebook a little more carefully next time, but, Mr. Saunders, if you're reading this, you might want to consider reclassifying this walk as moderately strenuous, you know? S t r e n u o u s. And tell people to be careful with their trousers.