Taiwan is rainy. This is not statistically proven (well, at least, globally. There are a lot more places, or cities, in the world that has a lot higher annual rainfall – like Colombia), so this is strictly personal. I visit Taiwan so many times every year and 9 out of 10 times when I was there, it rained. Yes, I know, Taipei is my new London! What’s worse, London usually has an overcast and the rain comes and goes, raining in Taiwan is basically unstoppable (again, just for me, yay!).
I might not have written this opening if it hadn’t been three days straight since I arrived in Hualien and it hadn’t stopped raining. I was really looking forward to visiting Taroko National Park, one of the most stunning places in Taiwan, and it seemed like I will be seeing it in the rain.
Taiwan’s heavy rainfall mainly comes from typhoons, and as part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, Hualien suffered from a magnitude 5.8 earthquake earlier in February 2018, it caused at least 6 deaths, and almost 100 are missing. Hoping the city will quickly recover, Hualien welcomes worldwide tourists to the beautiful Taroko Gorge with open arms.
Before my trip to Taroko (which I will get into it very soon, don’t worry), let’s talk a little bit about Hualien, the city where I stayed. Hualien is located on the east coast of Taiwan and it’s the major travel hub in the area, connecting to a number of natural treasures, and interest spots like the central Pine Garden, Stone Sculpture Museum, and Tzu Chi Cultural Park.
I settled down in an intimate homestay and it’s a short walk to the Hualien Cultural and Creative Industries Park, which is a nice place to start as it has a good mix of art, food, and shopping. Talk a walk within the old buildings, which used to be red wine and rice wine breweries and distillery during the Japanese colonial period, cafes, shops and galleries have set up businesses after a mindful restoration. I love how the warehouses and lofts have high ceilings and giant windows, inviting a great amount of light and spaciousness. I enjoyed a comforting tea set and walked around the site afterward. The designer stall showcases some original handicrafts and the nearby hall exhibits artworks designed by local designers and the history of the building.
Top 4 Street Snacks in Hualien
Taiwan dishes are enchanting. Hualien is known for its wide selection of street snacks. Take a break from sightseeing and head to the local market for some tasty refreshers! Here we have the top four must-haves while you are in Hualien.
Taiwanese Shaved Ice: A beautifully presented dessert, the Taiwanese Shaved Ice is far from the simple ice ball drizzled in sugary syrup. In Hualien, dessert toppings such as herbal glass jelly and chewy tapioca balls are nestled beneath the mounds of shaved ice which is then covered in a layer of condensed milk and caramel. Cold, sweet, and with a satisfying bite, the Taiwanese Shaved Ice is perfect for dessert fanatics!
Lao Pai Scallion Pancake With Deep Fried Eggs: Scallion pancakes are a traditional Taiwanese delicacy and Lao Pai has improved on this national favorite making it a must-try snack for anyone visiting Hualien. The scallion pancakes are made to order with a runny eff yolk in the center and a fresh, crispy outer layer. However, you can also choose to enjoy the pancake on its own. The pancake is made flavorful with various sauces and chili. There is a limited number of pancakes sold each day, so it is no wonder there are always endless queues outside Lao Pai’s!
Chiang’s Family Coffin Toast: Don’t be fooled by its name, Chiang’s Family Coffin Toast features one of the best street snacks at the Tze Chiang Night Market. The coffin toast promises no bad luck but rather incredible flavors, as Chiang’s family reinvents simple sandwiches into stuffed deep-fried toasts. The bread is first fried to a golden yellow and generously packed with a creative selection of savory meats and seafood fillings. Soft and crunchy, the toast is a Hualien favorite!
The Taiwanese Staple Bubble Milk Tea: In Hualien, Xiangrikui tea is deeply enjoyed by many locals and tourists. The tea is freshly brewed every day and every topping is handmade locally. Add in all-time favorite toppings such as tapioca pearls, glutinous yam, and sweet potato balls, and the tea is elevated to an aromatic masterpiece.
Something about… Taroko
That morning, and of course, it was still raining heavily (and the weather forecast said it would probably continue to rain like that for the next five days), we headed off to Taroko Gorge from the city of Hualien. The park is merely 30 minutes away from Hualien, and we had quite a lot of spots to cover in a day. While I was still, apparently, holding a grudge against the bad weather as I took off, I found my inner peace at the end of the day and began to appreciate the “fairy-like” quality of the mountains as they were surrounded by misty rain and filled with dramatic waterfalls.
Taroko National Park is part of Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range and one of the nine national parks in Taiwan. The park is all about mountains and gorges – Nanhu peaks, Qilai peaks, and Hehuan Parks are the main mountain ranges and over half of the national park is covered by mountains over 2,000 meters high.
The most picturesque scenic spots in the park are the Taroko Gorge and the Liwu River, a river that basically carved Taroko Gorge over millions of years; the park is closed to the city of Hualien, the backyard of the island, and the region is always considered the best-kept secret for its stunning beauty, and less-developed tranquility. The route that passes through Taroko is also part of the Central Cross-Island Highway, one of the three important highways in Taiwan that connects the eastern and western parts of the Island.
Like Jiufen, another famous mountain town in northeastern Taiwan, Taroko was a gold mine during the Japanese-era gold rush. While Taroko wasn’t as quite productive as Jiufen in gold, it has also an abundant supply of marble.
First, we stopped by the Qingshui Cliff (or, Clearwater Cliff), which is layers of the precipitous rock face that rises from the Pacific Ocean. The cliff is one of the end results when Taiwan has formed around 6 million years ago, the collision between the Philippines and Eurasian tectonic plates caused the earth’s crust to lift and so – a long stretch of cliffs was created along the coast.
Trains could be seen running through the tunnels down the cliff, it was the railway link that connects Yilan and Hualien as part of the major development project back in the 1970s. The railway passes through some of the most winding and steep cliff terrains in east Taiwan, yet I considered it a scenic train route that offers spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean between tunnels.
Railway Tracks Along the Cliff
Looking from the cliff’s viewpoint, trains occasionally can be seen traveling between Daqingshui and Chongde tunnels. This is the Northlink Railway Line.
Work on extending the Northline Railway Line from Suao to Hualien, one of the 10 Major Construction Projects of the time, began in December 1973 and the line opened in February 1980. Building of the line established a railway link between Yilan and Hualien and also connected to the existing Hualien to Taidong East Line, substantially reducing traveling time between Hualien and north Taiwan. Electrification of the Northlink Railway Line was completed in 2003 and the line became a double track on its entire length in January 2005, greatly increasing capacity and speed.
The Northlink Railway Line passes through the winding and steep cliff terrain by means of a number of tunnels. Of its 79.2 kilometers in length, 31 are tunnels; the longest tunnel in Taiwan. Sitting on a train traveling on the Northlink Railway Line, as tunnel after tunnel shoots by and light and darkness interchange suddenly, beautiful Pacific scenery can be enjoyed between tunnels.
Entering Taroko National Park
Standing on the bank of the Liwu River looking at mountain upon mountains in the distance, you are at the entrance to Taroko National Park… Taroko National Park is a national park with mountains and gorges. Mountains extend west from here, as far as the eye can see, with the Nanhu peaks, Qilai peaks, and Hehuan peaks the main mountain ranges. With an area of 92,000 hectares (920 square kilometers) the park is 3.4 times the size of Taipei City and over half of its area is covered by mountains over 2,000 meters high, with 3.742 meters high Mount Nanhu the highest in the park. The mountains are the source of the Liwu River, the Sanjian River, the Hualien River, the Zhuoshui River, the Dajia River, and the Heping River. Almost the entire Liwu River and Sanjian River basins are inside the national park; two-thirds of the park is in the Liwu River basin; it is the main river in the national park. The Liwu River originates on Mount Qilai’s north peak and then flows east, winding through the mountains and cutting through the marble between Tianxiang and Swallow Grotto, creating the world-famous Taroko Gorge, before it flows into the Pacific.
The Liwu River provides what the forest needs, while the forest conserves the river’s water source; various wild animals live and breed beside and in the river. As well as mountains, water, forest, and animals, people have also created a unique culture here.
Rain, Waterfalls, and Rolling Stones
With its high mountains, deep gorge, and precipitous terrain, how can visitors get close to the par? The Central Cross-Island Highway and Suhua Highway are the main routes to access the scenic spots and trails of Taroko.
The section of the Su-hua Highway from Chongde to Heren passes along the Qingshui Cliffs. The precipitous cliffs rise from deep in the ocean and are a product of tectonic plate movement. The northern entrance of Chongde Tunnel, the northern entrance of Huide Tunnel, Daqingshui, and Heren are all excellent spots to view the scenery. On the Central Cross-Island Highway, as well as getting out of your vehicle to view the scenery at suitable places, moving away from the road and entering a trail to have up-close contact with nature is also an excellent choice.
As we passed through the Taroko Arch Gate, we reached the Swallow Grotto, a highlight of Taroko. This is the best scenic spot to view the Taroko Gorge and Liwu River. The place is named the Swallow Grotto because the caves on each side of the cliffs are natural havens to spring swallows. As my friend said, it was somehow one of his most frightening roads to drive through in his entire life – because it’s narrow, and the road is shared by vehicles and pedestrians. Besides, look out for falling stones, which is quite common on rainy days.
By this point, the rain and dripping water didn’t bother me that much anymore. As I was walking down the trails and tunnels, they are mostly covered, and I was fascinated by the rugged Taroko Gorge scenery. The overcast clouds somehow filled the gaps between mountains and added a layer of mysteriousness to the gorge. The rainfall also created ephemeral waterfalls, which only formed when it rains, cascading down from the higher mountains.
Afterward, we had a short walk in Lushui, a river terrace made by the Luwi River.
Lushui is on a river terrace made by the Liwu River and was once the site of Tuoyou’en village of the Taroko tribe. This was also where the Taroko National Park Headquarters was located when the park was established in 1986.
The terrace has a geological exhibition hall, service station, and scenic platform and is also the entrance and exit of Lushui Trail and Lushui-Wenshen Trail. Due to its proximity to the Liwu River, the sound of the flowing water can always be heard on the terrace. The red and yellow leaves of the Green Maple and Chinese Sweet Gum give Lushui Trail a strong autumnal feeling in December.
Lushui’s river, gorge, ecology, and ancient road are beautiful and worth taking the time to savor. Lushui walking trail (which is part of the Old Cross-Hehuan Mountain Road from the Japanese Colonial Period) intertwines with the new Central Cross-Island Highway, and offers breathtaking sceneries of the Liwu River and surrounding mountains.
Traveling west on the Central Cross-Island Highway, Tianxiang can be reached after going through Taroko Gorge, then Bilu Sacred Tree, Guanyuan, and Dayuling, all at 2,000-plus meters, passed, climbing to Mount Hehuan at over 3,000 meters in elevation, moving from the sub-tropical zone to the temperate zone and then frigid zone. Besides, you can also observe the change from Broad-leaved Forest, Mixed Coniferous and Broad-leaved Forest, and Coniferous Forest to Alpine Grassland ecology. In addition, the medium elevation cloud forest and swirling cloud sea are distinctive features, however, visitors should take extra care when driving in the cloud.
Birdwatching on Lushui Trail
Listen carefully, you can hear many bird crisps. The dense forest along the trail is ideal bird habitat, providing abundant food and shelter, so many birds make it their home. Mountain birds such as the Taiwan Bulbul, Black Bulbul, Muller’s Barbet, and Grey Treepie can be seen all year round. Plumbeous Water Redstart, Japanese White-eye, Taiwan Whistling Thursh, etc can often be seen near the river; the Taiwan Whistling Thursh’s call is distinctive because it is so shrill, sounding like a car braking sharply, that is able to cut through the gushing sound of the flowing water; sometimes, a Crested Serpent Eagle’s piercing call “kii–ki—ki–” will be heard from above; look up and you will see a crested serpent eagle circling high above the ridge. In autumn and winter, medium elevation birds move down to this area to feed and Taiwan Yuhina, White-eared Sibia, Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Green-backed Tit, Yellow Tit, and Red-headed Tree Babble can often be seen.
Lushui Trail is an excellent place for birdwatching; all you need is to equip yourself with a small pair of binoculars, walk with a light step, stay calm and keep your eyes and ears open, and you are sure to be richly rewarded.
There are two river streams in the Taroko Gorge that are quite distinctive, due to their composition of the water. While Liwu River, which originated on Mount Qilai’s north peak, is steep and muddy grey. The Shakadang River, on the other hand, is a clam, beautiful turquoise water stream with crystal clear water, owing to its unpolluted water source, and the white marble boulders release calcium carbonate as the water flows by.
The river’s source is 2600-plus meters high Mount Xiaoxing. It is 16 kilometers long, flowing north-south to this point and converging with the Liwu River. This is the last tributary that joins the Liwu River before it enters the Pacific. The water of the Shakadang River is always clear and blue while the Liwu River is most grey-black so, where the Shakadang River flows into the Liwu River, an interesting line with blue on one side and black on the other is formed. The main reason for the color of the Liwu River’s water is that the river is longer and washes away soft rock upstream, carrying a large amount of river sand to the ocean. The water of the Shakadang River is clear and sustains rich river ecology. It can be said that the Shakadang River has the greatest bio-diversity of any of the Liwu River’s tributaries.
It was a joy walking through the mysterious Shakadang Valley Trail. The trail was carved down by the cliff of the valley, which leads upstream and passes through the Truku Tribal Village. Today, the Shakadang trail is still the main pathway for the villagers to commute (watch out for the motorcycles that drive by as you are walking on the trail). While entrance to the village is not allowed, there is a small market nearby that features local artisans and food vendors with some special indigenous delights.
Walking in the footsteps of the people who have gone before
When you walk on the ancient trail what you see isn’t just natural beauty, you are also walking on the same path trodden by the people who went before over the last 100 years.
Lushui Trail was originally a road built by the Japanese police to govern the people of the Taroko tribe. In 1914 after the end of the Taroko Campaign, Police Inspector Umezawa Masaki oversaw the building of the West of Taroko Road, a road from Xincheng Suprefecture to West of Taroko Road Subprefecture (today’s Tianxiang). This road crossed Zhuliu Cliff, and passed through Heliu and Tuorong (today’s Lushui) before reaching Tabiduo, and was completed in March 1915. The road was 90 cm wide and the gradient was gentle; to facilitate governing of the aborigines if followed a high route. In 1932 the West of Tarokko Road, which became popular with tourists and climbers in the late Japanese Colonial Period. In 1986, when the national park was established, the section of the old road between Lushui and Heliu was repaired and became Lushui Trail. Think back in time when you walk on the old road; it will tell you all about the past.
Eternal Spring Shrine
The shrine was completed at the end of 1957 and was rebuilt twice, both times because it was badly damaged in a landslide. The first time it was damaged was in 1979 and the second time was in 1987, rebuilding was completed to the left of the original site in 1989. The rock near Eterna Spring Shrine is mixed greenschist, thin marble, and quartz schist strata. The rock is fragile and made more unstable because there is a fault running through it. The water of the Liwu River is continually eroding the toot of the slope. “Eternal Spring Plummeting Springs” below the shrine receives a constant supply of spring water that gushes through the cracks in the rock. After typhoons or heavy rains, the water volume increases dramatically and the water makes a sound like thunder. When recent rainfall has been minimal the flow is small but it never stops.
Changchun Shrine trail
Standing on the terrace of the stiff side of Liwu River Valley, Changchun Shrine was built in memory of the workers who died on duty during the construction of the Central Cross-Island Highway. The spring gushing out beside the shrine has formed a waterfall, named the “Eternal Spring Plummeting Springs” by the Directorate General of Highways. The shrine has become a landmark that has a special meaning in the area.
We dropped by Qixingtan Beach at the end of the day while the wind and storm were quite unforgiving. The view of the Pacific Ocean was stunning.
Taroko Gorge has a diverse landscape that appeals to a lot of tourists, and some of the walking trails could be too crowded and they are occupied by big tour groups coming from China. Hopefully, that won’t cause too much destruction to the environment.