Monday, 9 September 2013

Taroko Gorge Day One

Taroko Gorge must be one of the top three tourist attractions in Taiwan. Formed by the tectonic plate movement that gives Taiwan its frequent earthquakes, hot springs and fumeroles, the Gorge is a magnificent, shifting landscape of marbled mountains, dizzying precipices, richly-colored rivers, and abundant plant and animal life. It is also home to aboriginal tribes who strive to maintain their traditions, pass them on to their children, and share them with visitors.

Taroko's dynamic nature makes it prone frequent rockfalls when rainstorms and earthquakes loose boulders, rocks and earth down the mountainsides, closing roads and tourist attractions for weeks or months at a time. We found this out to our cost in May when we first attempted to spend a weekend at the Gorge. We found rockfalls had closed the park entirely and we had to find somewhere else to stay at no notice.

This time we were luckier but our trip was still marred by unfortunate events.

Surprisingly for a top tourist attraction, Taroko Gorge is a little difficult to access. The express train from Taipei bypasses the local station, Xincheng, and travellers are taken on to the nearest small city, Hualien. From there, visitors must double back and either take a taxi, local bus, private tour bus or a tourist shuttle bus to the park. Taroko is about an hour's drive from Hualien. All day and two-day passes for the tourist shuttle bus, which stops at the main sites, are only available from the bus station and visitor centre in Hualien, so anyone who doesn't go to Hualien first can't buy one. Single trip tickets are sold on the bus, but you must have the exact change and the drivers don't speak any English (we can cope in Chinese now but this was a problem for other tourists).

We flew from Songshan airport, which is inexpensive and takes only 35 minute flight, so is much faster than the train. We arranged for our hotel, Leader Village, to pick us up and drop us off. Otherwise, I think the only way to get from the airport to Taroko would be by taxi. 

Day One

Leader Village is a wonderful place to stay. Run by local tribespeople who do their best to make your stay relaxed, enjoyable and educational, it's set in an area of flat ground amid the mountains, giving wonderful views from the cabins, and the constant sounds of birds, frogs and insects in the background. 
Butterflies swarm the landscaped areas and we also spotted iridescent blue, green and bronze lizards basking on the paths, though we didn't manage to get a photo.

In the mornings and evenings cloud descends over the mountaintops.

Leader Village is about half way between the entrance to Taroko National Park and the central village, Tianxiang. Only one site is within walking distance - Swallow Grotto, so this was to be our destination on the afternoon of our arrival. Sadly, after twenty minutes or so of climbing down the mountain stairs and walking another ten minutes up the road, we found that we needed a permit to enter the trail to the grotto. Permits aren't available at the site and the information isn't available on any English language website, so that was disappointing. 

We stopped at Bulowan on our way back to Leader Village. Bulowan is described as a village but it's actually a tourist village: a collection of small museums, a cafe and a shop selling items crafted by tribespeople.

The day was saved by a set dinner and tribal show, which was interesting and entertaining. 

Wild boar ribs on the bottom left, bean soup, steamed rice in a hollow bamboo stem, wild boar skin (top right), tomato and coriander salsa bottom right, mushrooms and mountain vegetable, chillies and roast sweet potato in the centre.

My son sent me a look of deep affection for volunteering him for the tribal dance.

We went to bed late, tired from our first day of walking up and down mountains and in hopeful anticipation of more successful visits to Taroko's sites the following day.

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