When it comes to the rain, there is no escaping it. Nearly every day since landing in Taiwan, rain has been dogging our every step. Fleeing as far south as Tainan bought us a brief reprieve, but now that we’re back up in the north, the miserable, cold drizzle has returned with a vengeance.
We’re on Taiwan’s eastern coast in a little city called Hualien. Our first night here, within minutes of stepping off the train, the heavens open up and down comes the rain, flooding the streets and taking our dreams of exploring right along with it. We have several hours before our CouchSurfing host can meet us, so we find the nearest movie theater and duck in for a showing of Life of Pi. Miraculously, it features weather that makes our current stormy skies look downright idyllic and we remember that sodden as we are, things could certainly be worse. After all, neither of us is traveling with a tiger… yet. After months on the road, stopping in for a film is a luxury we haven’t afforded ourselves, but we argue that this little outing is really a form of appreciating the local culture since the director, Ang Lee, is Taiwanese.
But truthfully, we haven’t traveled all the way to Taiwan in general, nor Hualien specifically, to watch movies in their director’s homeland. No, we’re in Hualien for much the same reason that most visitors come calling, to visit the nearby Taroko Gorge.
Now, if WikiTravel is to be believed, the best way to see Taroko Gorge is by scooter, which isn’t really news to us, since it’s our opinion that a scooter is pretty much the best way to see nearly any place. The only possible exception to this is when it is raining, in which case riding a scooter swiftly transforms from being one of life’s purest delights to a soul-crushing form of torture.
But we aren’t going to let a little thing like bad weather get in our way. After all, the local cinema only has so many English-language films on offer, and we already have tickets booked to our next country, so the clock is counting down before we have bid farewell to Taiwan. There is no way we can let the possibility* of rain keep us from seeing the gorge, and on our own set of wheels. I mean, this is the very reason we have been carting around our rain jackets, right?
*In all honesty, the rain has been such a constant during our time in Taiwan, that it’s really more a question of “when” not “if” it will rain at this point. It is silly for us to think we can make it to the gorge without getting soaked, but we’re dreamers, and stubborn ones at that, so we decide to go for it anyway.
Renting scooters as a foreigner in Taiwan can be tricky at best and impossible at worst; of course, should you prove successful, the subsequent riding of said scooter is likely to be considered by most Westerners a cruel and unusual extreme sport given the creative rules of the road that fellow Taiwanese scooter drivers employ and obey. Lucky for us, our CouchSurfing host in Taipei, Jackie, has hooked us up with a close friend of his named Ingrid who lives here and has generously offered us the use of her scooter for the duration of our stay. Better yet, Tony has been riding motorcycles for something approximating 20 years at this point, so he’s got the skills that make sure we not only arrive in style, but also alive.
With all possible obstacles out of the way, we wake early on the morning of our second day in Hualien and head for the hills.
I keep referring to Hualien as a town, because that’s how it feels. With such dramatic mountain scenery ringing it, Hualien feels like it has been plopped right down in the middle of nature and is simply to sleepy to move anywhere else. So, of course, it is impossibly picturesque and I seem incapable of thinking of this city as anything other than a quaint, quiet mountain village. The ride out to Taroko does little to dissuade me of these notions as the skies are (mercifully) blue, the air is crisp and clean, and all that seems to be missing are little twittering flocks of bluebirds to make this seem like something right out of a fairytale. It seems like a good sign that we haven’t even made it to the gorge yet and I’m already blown away by the scenery and have a grin that’s impossible to wipe from my face.
Although there is a tourist bus that services Taroko, for us, a scooter is clearly the best way to experience the gorge, though with all the winding roads and the many tour buses that pass us along the way, it’s not a ride for the faint of heart (or novice riders). With our own wheels, we are free to drive at our own speed and enjoy the fresh air (well, so long as another exhaust belching bus hasn’t cut us off), and simply stop wherever strikes our fancy and see the sights at our own pace. If we see something pretty (there are several temples scattered about through the park, and of course the natural landscape itself is stunning) and want to stop for a photo, or simply laze about lying on our backs on a picnic table gazing up as wispy white clouds swirl about across the canvas of blue sky above us, we can.
And so naturally, we do.
In the local dialect of the aboriginal Truku people who live in the area, Taroko means “splendid”, and when you see the gorge in question, it’s hard to disagree. The force of water flowing through this area has managed to carve out a canyon in the rock, much of which is marble. To gaze up at the towering slabs of rock before us, which form some of the highest peaks in the country, it’s a bit dumbfounding to think about how much time it would take for the water to eat away at something so solid and seemingly unyielding. As I crane my neck and look skyward, I think that if ever there were a monument chiseled from the earth itself in testament to the splendor that is nature, surely this must be it.
Despite my stated aversion to hiking, Tony points out that it would be a shame to visit the park and not at least do one of the hikes on offer. I am feeling suitably inspired by our surroundings to agree that as exhilarating as seeing the park by scooter is, seeing some of what lays not directly on the main thoroughfare would probably be very nice indeed. Unfortunately, because of some recent natural disaster (honestly, with Taiwan, it’s difficult to keep track of what has collapsed due to a typhoon, or landslide, or earthquake), many of the paths to several of the famous hikes are closed, so we decide to do one we simply label as “the waterfall hike”.
Having spent the morning being shockingly lazy given our surroundings and unsure of exactly how rigorous this upcoming hike will be, we decide to first fuel up on the picnic lunch we have packed, comprised largely with things we have purchased from the bakery section of the local Carrefour we passed on our way to Taroko. We pull into a parking lot/rest area just past the gorge proper and proceed to be joined for our meal by the scruffiest, mangiest little puppy I have seen, who also happens to be the most affectionate, friendliest little guy. My heart breaks for him because the mange has rendered him as ugly as can be, so all other visitors flee at the very sight of him, but I can tell that all he wants is a little bit of love, his tail a constant blur as he wags it about like a windmill. I end up playing with him and cuddling him, and then bursting into tears while I feed him the bulk of my lunch. After so long in Asia, this is not the first dog we have seen leading a relatively pitiful existence, but I have to admit, I do not expect to encounter this kind of neglect in Taiwan. We agonize about simply leaving our new less-than-furry friend to fend for himself in the park, but recognize that we’re not equipped to really do anything more for him than we already have. Still, I weep as we make our way to the start of the hike and it takes all of my willpower not to turn and look back at him, as I don’t want to risk encouraging him to follow us.
We walk the first section of the waterfall hike in a silence that is punctuated only by my intermittent sniffling as I try to focus on the beauty that surrounds me. Soon enough, I breathe a little steadier as the gorgeous scenery around me begins to bewitch me. It turns out we need not have worried about an arduous hike as the walk to the waterfalls turns out to really be more of a scenic nature walk that skirts high above a rushing river; in contrast to the water below, we set a leisurely pace that simply lets us enjoy the moment. Not to denigrate the park’s namesake because Taroko Gorge itself is certainly lovely, but for us the waterfall and its adjacent rapids at the end of the trail are by far our highlight of the day, even with the terrifying shaky suspension bridge and all!
On our walk back along the trail, the sky begins to darken ominously, as if in warning of things to come. The path becomes thicker with fellow hikers, and when we reach the road and begin our ride back to Hualien, the traffic is terrible. Our CouchSurfing host DaiDai has warned us that just as Cinderella had a curfew of midnight, Taroko Gorge is best before 3 pm when all the tour buses carting hoards of mainland Chinese tourists descend en masse. We putt along at miserable speeds, dodging gawking pedestrians and trying not get run off the road by reckless bus drivers. Low rumbles begin to sound in the distance so we forego the pilgrimage up to the Eternal Spring Shrine, settling to take some photos from the road instead before piling back on the bike in a bid to beat the rain.
A bid that turns out to be a complete failure as within minutes of clearing the park gates, the sky erupts and a cascade of rain comes crashing down on us. Even with our rain jackets on, we are mostly drenched to the bone by the time we roll up at DaiDai’s door, surely leaving her aghast at the gutter snipes she will be hosting this evening. An ignoble end to the day to be sure, but certainly not enough of a catastrophe to put a complete damper on all we have seen and experienced. I’ve got a feeling that anyone who stands in the shadow of Taroko Gorge, the supermodel of canyons, walks away feeling awestruck, but also more than a little sloppy.
Have you ever visited Taroko Gorge? What is the best hike you have ever done?