The only noise you can hear in the early morning in Taroko Gorge is the sound of frogs, birds and insects. Here in Taipei we're currently enduring our upstairs neighbours' renovations, so I recall our time there with some fondness. The second day of our visit was best of the three.
We had a full breakfast at Leader Village and set off early to catch the tourist shuttle bus at Bulowan, a short walk from the hotel. It was lucky we got to the bus stop early because the bus arrived ahead of schedule and quickly departed. As far as I could tell the driver made little attempt to stick to the advertised timetable for the rest of our journey.
Tianxiang is the final stop on the bus route, a small collection of shops in the centre of Taroko and also the site of the Silks Palace Hotel and Taroko Catholic Hostel. We didn't enter either (in fact, we didn't spot the hostel) but I was surprised the hotel was a 5 star because it looked unimpressive from the outside. There's also a tiny information office advertised as a service station. It's staffed, though I'm not sure if the employees speak English, and has a few leaflets.
As far as we could tell, the only trail within walking distance of Tianxiang is to the Baiyang Waterfall. To get there, we walked up the main road and entered the trail from within a tunnel. We had a torch, which came in handy, and was fun for my son to use, but you could probably manage without one, even though there are several tunnels to negotiate on the route.
On the way to Tianxiang the views from the bus had given us a taste of what to expect once we started to truly explore Taroko and the trail to Baiyang didn't disappoint. Sheer mountain slopes rose around us, their interesting rock folds and other formations often completely clear of vegetation. Below, a river wound along the bottom of the gorge, sometimes milky blue and gentle, sometimes grey-white and roaring.
The trail was flat and wide all the way along, which made the going easy despite the blistering heat.
Once we reached the waterfall, after about 45 minutes' to an hour's walk, we found you had to cross the Gorge on a wooden suspended bridge, to get the best view. I managed to accomplish this through not ever looking down.
The view was worth it.
After filling our senses with the sight and sounds of the waterfall for some time, we headed back. There were only three buses a day that stopped at Bulowan on their return journey, so we caught the two o'clock bus, rather than waiting for the last one of the day. I didn't want to rely on catching the last bus in case it was too full, left early, or didn't arrive at all. My confidence in the service's reliability wasn't strong after our earlier experience.
Back at Leader Village we took a stroll around the short bamboo walk at the back of the site, and relaxed the rest of the day.
With only the morning of our final day to spare, we hesitated between a standard half day tour or a particularly enticing place I'd read about, Wenshan Spring, where apparently you can relax in hot spring water then cool off in the river. According to what I'd read, it was easily accessible, though whether the site was actually open after a fatal rockfall had closed it some time ago, wasn't clear. We did plump for the spring in the end, but never got to find out whether it was operational.
Without a car or scooter, it's very difficult to get around Taroko. It's a long walk from one area to the next and public transportation is scarce. Walking the single narrow road also feels unsafe because walkers share it with large tourist coaches. There's no pedestrian pathway. Most people either use their own transportation, take a tour or hire a taxi for the day. To get to Wenshan Spring our only option was to hire a driver through the hotel, have him drop us off, then return later to pick us up. Which would had been fine had our driver known where Wenshan Spring was.
He dropped us at a sign stating it was the beginning of the Wenshan Lushui trail and left, after assuring my dubious face that this was where the hot springs were. I spent 5 minutes scouting around until I was pretty sure he'd taken us to the wrong place, then phoned the hotel. The driver reappeared after 20 minutes. He repeated his assurances that we were in the right place and took us for a half hour scramble along a narrow and arduous trail. I wouldn't have minded quite so much if the trail hadn't clearly been unsuitable for my son. It was littered with loose stones and earth, and so steep and difficult in parts there were ropes and chains installed as climbing aids.
Finally realising there was, as I'd said, no spring, we turned round and scrambled back for another half an hour. On returning to the car, we walked past the spring, directly off the main road, that the driver had failed to spot when he'd parked the car to return to us. He was relieved and happy. I was not as we no longer had any time to spare and had to return the hotel to collect our bags.
Leader Village did refund the fee we'd paid but of course they couldn't return the time we'd wasted, which was far more precious to me.
Despite a disappointing final day, we'll be back. I love Taroko Gorge, but I'd love it more if it were a little better organised.