More Bad News Regarding Access to Taiwan’s Mountain Landscapes

The wonderful Stegasaurus Ridge trail is now closed,, and hiker5s that attempt to walk it from the main trailhead on the northeast coast road could face jail time.

The wonderful Stegosaurus Ridge trail is now closed, and hikers that attempt to start it from the main trailhead on the northeast coast road could face jail time or a huge fine.

 

UPDATE September 21st: In true Taiwanese fashion, a resourceful local hiking group has already found a way round the ominous sign that blocks entry to the Stegosaurus Ridge trail, with a new trail skirting around the perimeter of the disused copper plant. It starts a little further down the coast road at the 80.2 kilometer marker. A post on the group’s Facebook page (in Chinese but with a sketch map of the new route, which joins the original route behind the compound) is up here:  https://www.facebook.com/paul.lee.79827/media_set?set=a.1378880355474393.1073742720.100000573244989&type=3&hc_location=ufi

Yesterday I learned that the trailhead of a very popular Taipei-area trail, which I (and many others, no doubt) regard as one of the finest day hikes in Taiwan, has now been officially closed, and with warnings of jail-time, no less, for those caught trespassing. It’s just the latest event in an ongoing, but seemingly intensifying attempt to curb or limit access to Taiwan’s beautiful countryside, or to ‘tame’ it with the intention of making it ‘safer’ and more ‘accessible’.

From now on, hikers illegally entering the Stegosaurus Ridge Trail could face a fine of up to NT$500,000 (or up to a year in jail). Compare that with drunk drivers, who, for a first offence, face a maximum penalty (in a 2013 amendment to the law) of only NT$200,000. 

The Taiwanese authorities have a history of meddling with hiking routes they feel to be unsuitable for general consumption. Well over a decade ago, the beauty of one of the Taipei area’s most popular hiking routes, Huangdidian (皇帝殿) was compromised  when the rock of its famous knife-edges was chiseled away to  make the way along their top easier and, supposedly, safer. Iron bars and rope handrails followed shortly after, and these artificial additions now adversely affect the beauty of the ridge. Taipei area’s other great knife-edge ridge walk, Wuliaojian (五寮尖) later suffered a similar fate, with steps and footholds being hewn out of the natural blades of rock, and a long handrail installed on the main knife-edge ridge. Here, at least, it could be argued that the additions are a necessary safety feature on such an exposed ridge; however the physical chiselling away of the natural rock has of course permanently defaced the natural scenery.

The new, 'improved' Huangdidian

The new, ‘improved’ Huangdidian

A more recent victim of meddling by the authorities is another classic Taipei walk, the Sandiaoling Waterfall Trail (三貂嶺瀑步步道). In an attempt to open the trail to the less able-bodied, a year or two back a bulky flight of metal stairs (which a number of friends have described as ‘ugly’) was installed beside Sandiaoling Waterfall itself, replacing the far more compact (and much more natural-looking) wooden rope ladder that once scaled the rock face there.

This log rope-ladder that for many years climbed the rock face beside Sandiaoling Waterfall has now been replaced by an unsightly flight of metal stairs

This log rope-ladder that for many years climbed the rock face beside Sandiaoling Waterfall has now been replaced by a bulky flight of metal stairs

Signs like this one (at the the start of the Datun Stream Old Trail in Yangmingshan) have been a common sight for hikers in Taiwan for decades.

Signs like this one (at the the start of the Datun Stream Old Trail in Yangmingshan) have been a common sight for hikers in Taiwan for decades.

The sign blocking the trailhead of the Stegosaurus Ridge walk (which was put up very recently) is unusually harsh in its promise of p[unishment to offenders. The sign says the area is polluted and anyone that enters is liable to a fine of up to NT$500,000 (US$16,000) or up to a year in prison.

The sign (which was put up very recently) blocking the trailhead of the Stegosaurus Ridge walk  is remarkably harsh in its promise of punishment to offenders. The sign says the area is polluted and anyone who enters is liable to a fine of up to NT$500,000 (US$16,000) or up to a year in prison. (Thanks to Jean for the photo)

Stegosaurus Ridge is just the latest of a whole series of trails where hikers are either warned to steer clear of, or are officially banned outright from entering. In most cases hikers have until now simply ignored the signs, especially since the trails beyond (including Stegosaurus Ridge) offer no appreciable risks to any reasonably experienced hiker. The threat of a huge fine or up to a year in jail, however, is a startling new development that I haven’t seen on any other closed trail in Taiwan, and seems to indicate a hardening of the local authorities towards hikers. It might cause even those who have long been accustomed to ignoring these familiar, scaremongering signs, to think again before enjoying the glories of Steg Ridge.

The ‘official’ reason for the closure of the Stegosaurus Ridge trailhead doesn’t really make sense. The sign states pollution of the water and soil inside as the reason for the ban on entry. However, the water in the famous Golden Waterfall (黃金瀑布) nearby is tainted with arsenic and other highly toxic substances, yet upon my last visit, access to it was open to everyone. The waterfall lies right beside a busy road just below the hugely popular former mining village of Jinguashi, with no safety barrier of any kind between the road’s edge and the contaminated water. The real reason for the closure is more likely due to the death of a hiker on the nearby Banping Cliff trail in early June. But even then closing the whole route still makes sense. A number of people have been killed by falling rocks while simply driving along the Taroko Gorge road; similar accidents have happened along the Suhua Highway, yet it’s extremely doubtful that the authorities would ever permanently close either route to public vehicles.

The water of the Golden Waterfall at Jinguashi is contaminated bu several toxic substances including arsenic, yet on my last visit there was no barrier to stop visitors walking right down to the water's edge.

The Golden Waterfall at Jinguashi is contaminated by several toxic substances, including arsenic, that are present in ground water flowing out of old mine entrances upstream, yet on my last visit there was no barrier to stop visitors walking right down to the water’s edge.

Hikers in Taiwan have for decades had to decide whether or not to heed the ‘no entry’ signs posted at the trailheads of many popular routes.In the past it’s generally not been a problem. The Stegosaurus Ridge trail closure, however, may well be ushering in a new era where authorities are taking a much more pro-active role in dictating just where hikers can walk, and where they are most definitely not welcome.

A new threat to access to Taiwan’s greatest asset – its countryside

A piece was printed in Taiwan’s China Post newspaper this morning. Here’s the main thrust of the story:
China Post September 8th, 2016
Nantou’s county council passed a statute Wednesday that requires mountain hikers to equip themselves with GPS and basic communication devices, and to buy insurance before going hiking in the mountainous county in Central Taiwan. […]
Fair enough so far… most of this is what any sensible hiker would do on a trip into the deep mountains. But then it continues…
Under the new law, which will go into effect after being sent to the central government, people planning to engage in mountain activities must present their proposals in advance, including routes and destinations.
This looks bad – routes and proposals will now need to be sent to (and approved by??) the authorities before we can enjoy a hike in the mountains. It gets worse, though. The last part of the law, as reported by the newspaper, is the real knockout blow to responsible adult hikers everywhere:
Once in the mountains, they [the hikers] are required to stick to the planned routes, carry location and communication devices, and to hire professional guide with emergency rescue abilities, according to the text of the law.
What? When hiking in the mountains of Nantou County we’ll now have to engage a professional guide, just to hike??
If only the new law (passed by Taiwan’s central Nantou County yesterday after being rumored for many months) limited itself to the perfectly reasonable demand that hikers take responsibility for themselves while out in the wilds, it would have been be perfect. Yet again, however, local authorities seem to be treating hikers like kids. Not only must hikers in Nantou now present routes and destinations in advance (any good hiker would immediately do this – leaving details with a trusted friend), but they also need to bring GPS (which is useless unless the user knows how to use it properly). Furthermore, they now need to take a professional guide with them! The full text of the law stipulates that it will apply to all places where permits are currently required. In this case hikers will need a guide for the easy North Peak of Hehuanshan, and to follow the not-so-easy but very clear route to Hohuan West Peak. They’d also need a professional guide to follow the old Taiwan Electricity road out to Qilai South Peak. For any experienced hiker this would be a complete waste of time and money as all those routes are perfectly easy and clear to follow.
The point is the law, as reported, appears to be just another half-baked attempt to protect authorities from blame when they should instead be doing their part to educate Taiwanese and foreign hikers in how be a responsible adult in the great outdoors. Safe hiking practice really isn’t rocket science. It’s simple, common-or-garden common sense, including such simple concepts as:
– Check the weather forecast before heading out.
– Bring plenty of food (and energy snacks) & water.
– Leave details of where you’re going with a trusted friend.
– Bring a map and know how to read it.
– Stick to marked trails of a difficulty you’re OK with; if unsure of the way ahead, or if conditions become too difficult to follow in reasonable safety, go back.
– Bring adequate clothing and footwear for the conditions you expect to face.
This is all second nature to most hikers I know. But maybe not to the authorities in Taiwan, who have already imposed some ridiculous rules and stipulations. They’re going to have to man up and ask themselves if it’s reasonable to:
– Patronizingly tell foreigners they “don’t know Taiwan’s mountains” and present it as a reasonable argument for not allowing them to hike into the mountains unless they bring a token local (it can be any local adult) along for the hike.
– Consider if frankly embarrassing kiddy stuff like the animated quiz questions (below, which a hiking group of adults I lead a couple of years ago were obligated to answer before being granted entry permits to Yushan National Park) is actually of any use, or if it simply makes Yushan National Park authority look ridiculous in the eyes of foreign hikers.
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– Review their demand that an adult, who would be accompanying his own son on a trek, sign and send back to Yushan National Park authority an ORIGINAL signed letter of consent (a scanned copy of the document with the signature was not permitted). This was recently made to a member of a group of which I’m a member, on threat of cancelling everyone’s permits if not promptly done.
If the authorities that be continue to think this is all good, solid practice, I suggest a complete change of leadership should happen immediately. Taiwan’s greatest tourist asset isn’t the National Palace Museum; it’s not Taipei 101, nor is it the island’s night markets. It’s the island’s incredible countryside as a whole (and not just Taroko Gorge, Alishan and Sun Moon Lake, but ALL those vast, glorious mountainsides and wilderness areas that cover much of the island). If the present trend continues of restricting access to Taiwan’s greatest asset on the naive and frankly unreasonable assumption that the average adult hiker can’t be trusted to take responsibility for themselves, then Taiwan has a very gloomy future, both for foreign tourists and for the life education of its own people.
Postscript:
This new law is just a symptom of a much larger and more serious problem, and a tragic one, especially for a country like Taiwan and it’s people, both of which I love dearly. The new restrictions strike me as reinforcing an institutionalized feeling that people can’t be expected to fend for themselves without guidance. In Taiwan there’s very little life-learning of the school-of-hard-knocks kind that’s common in the West, and while I don’t for a minute say that our Western way is the best (after all, kids die and are injured every day in the West because they learn the hard way that some things just shouldn’t be done), but because sometimes you simply have to let people learn the hard way for themselves. For example, if a group goes into the mountains ill-prepared, stays the night there and has to get rescued, they take  responsibility for their actions, pay the costs for being rescued, learn from the experience, and don’t do it again. We learn from our mistakes. However in Taiwan I often feel that I’m being treated almost like a child, maybe because in some senses many local adults do retain aspects of childlike naivety. Kids here aren’t learning life skills in school – they’re too busy cramming for a never-ending succession of exams – so they urgently need to start learning them after they leave school. The Great Outdoors, just like travel in a wider sense, is probably the world’s best life teacher, and is the perfect place to learn self-reliance, independence, and a host of crucial life skills. These can’t be quantified in words or figures, or represented by a degree certificate, but they’re a necessity for leading a successful, productive adult life. I might also add that most of the finest, most interesting people I’ve met have all been travelers.
Go out, do it, make mistakes, find a way to survive. There’s no better education anywhere, yet the Taiwanese authorities appear to think they’re doing the best thing for their people by stopping them from encountering these confrontational and potentially dangerous experiences. It’s exactly the worst thing to do. New laws like the one signed in Nantou County (Hualien County is apparently following suit with its own similar law) indicate that the authorities are keen to restrict the activities of its citizens, thus giving them even less opportunity to learn fundamental life skills that many of us in the West take for granted.
Original China Post article is here: 

Taiwan’s Wild Hot Springs 1: Sileng and Xinxing Hot Springs, Taoyuan City

The river at Sileng Hot Springs

The river at Sileng Hot Springs

Pool near Xinxing Hot Springs

Pool near Xinxing Hot Springs

Looking down into the Xinxing Hot Springs gorge from Galahe village

Looking down into the Xinxing Hot Springs gorge from Galahe village

volume 1

both hot springs (and the routes to them) are described in detail in Taiwan 101, volume 1, on pages 137 – 142.

We’ve got Taiwan’s position on the Pacific Ring of Fire to thank not only for its hot springs, spooky, steaming fumaroles and volcanic peaks, but for its very existence!  The island was created as the Eurasian Plate and the Philippine Sea Plate met, pushing the first under the second. Of course it’s not always peachy living on the scenic collision point of two massive chunks of the Earth’s crust, and earthquakes (most, thankfully, only big enough to jolt rather than do any real damage) happen several times each year, even in Taipei.

The benefits, of course, generally far outweigh the potential for violent natural mayhem, however. Taiwan probably wouldn’t be nearly as beautiful, as mountainous, or as enchanting if it were created any other way, and the chilly, rainy weather that descends on the northeast corner of the island every winter from December to about April (thanks to the prevailing northeast monsoon winds) would make life in the capital a lot more dreary if we didn’t have a choice of hot springs (to the north, east and south!) to head for during those long, cold, wet evenings.

Sileng Hot Spring waterfall

Sileng Hot Spring waterfall

Taiwan’s hot springs were generally only enjoyed by the island’s aboriginal population until the Japanese introduced hot spring culture to the island during the colonial era (1895-1945). The ensuing popularity has since seen most of the island’s hot spring sources (many in beautiful, wild spots, deep in the mountains) developed, robbing them of their former wild beauty.  The last decade or two has seen a huge growth in more aesthetically pleasing hot spring spas, and while most of them make no attempt to blend into their surroundings, they do at least look less of an eyesore than the horrible, purely functional concrete-box designs that once seemed to be the default for hot spring developments island-wide.

Near Sileng Hot Spring

Near Sileng Hot Spring

For the nature lover, however, the relatively few completely unspoilt, undeveloped hot springs sources that can still be found around Taiwan can’t be beat. Just a couple, such as Wenshan Hot Springs (文山溫泉) in Taroko Gorge and that wonderful gift to Taipei-dwelling nature lovers, Bayan Hot Spring (八煙溫泉) lie just a short walk from the road, and can be enjoyed by just about any able-bodied person. The real charm of most of Taiwan’s undeveloped hot springs, however, is in getting to them. Getting to several of the island’s remoter springs takes several days, which is too big a commitment for most explorers. A number of others, however, are day hikes – remote enough to keep the crowds (and the developers) away, but within the range of reasonably fit hikers. Over the last few years I’ve started exploring more of the island’s natural hot springs,  and a goal for the approaching winter/spring season (2016-7) is to get to some of the others. Meanwhile I’m hoping, in a series of blog entries, to write up those I’ve already visited. As I explore the others, I’ll add them to the blog.

To start with, then, here’s two of the closest natural hot springs to Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, and both feasible (if rather long) day trips from the city.

 

Sileng Hot Spring

Sileng Hot Spring

Sileng Hot Spring

Northern Taiwan has around eight or ten natural, undeveloped hot springs, including a couple (Bayan and Houshan in Yangmingshan, Xiuluan in Hsinchu, Paiguxi and Fanfan in Yilan) that are well worth visiting. Pick of the bunch though is definitely Sileng, a hot spring waterfall reached by a short but very steep scramble down from the scenic North Cross-island Highway, near the border between Taoyuan City and Yilan County.

Sileng Hot Spring (四稜溫泉) is a ten meter-high cascade of hot water secreted in a deep, wooded gorge with a fast-flowing river of pure, sapphire-colored water rushing past. The forty-minute hike from the road down to the spring is steep and tricky in places (although the only really hard bit is the rock face right at the very bottom), and this relative inaccessibility is the only reason this slice of paradise isn’t overrun with families on weekends.

Don't get lost! There are a number of dividinbg trails on the way down to Sileng Hot Springs

Don’t get lost! There are a number of dividing trails on the way down to Sileng Hot Springs

The river just above the hot spring

The river just above the hot spring

The trailhead is on the scenic highway 7 (also known as the North Cross-island Highway), at the 58.4 kilometer road marker sign – there are several places beside the road to park a car nearby. At first the trail (marked with those familiar plastic trail-marking ribbons that indicate countless trails in Taiwan) is level or even occasionally uphill for about twenty minutes. Pass two large, flat clearings (both good for camping), and then the trail finally descends, soon getting steeper, into the deep gorge. The final five minutes is very steep, with several small rock faces to clamber down (fixed ropes are provided), and at the bottom a final sheer cliff (with footholds) about ten meters high, which needs great care. Once safely down, the hot spring waterfall is directly opposite. Wade across the stream (which would be impassable after heavy rain – come here only during the winter or spring, and never after heavy rain), and enjoy!  While the remote location and strenuous climb down may make you want to bathe in the buff, bring your swimwear; this place might be a bit difficult to reach, but it still attracts a steady stream of more adventurous hot spring lovers!

 

Xinxing Hot Spring

Xinxing Hot Spring

Xinxing Hot Spring

The gorge below the hot spring

The gorge below the hot spring

Almost as beautiful as Sileng, and quite a bit easier to reach, nearby Xinxing Hot Spring (新興溫泉)  is a good choice for bathers who don’t mind a steep hike, yet aren’t keen on negotiating intimidating rock faces. Since it’s a safer hike down there, it sometimes gets busy on weekends, so for the best chance of getting them to yourself, visit in the morning, or (of course) during the week.

On the trail down

On the trail down

A ladder gives easy access down the final rock face to the bank of the stream beside the hot spring

A ladder gives easy access down the final rock face to the bank of the stream beside the hot spring

The hot spring from a bit further up

The hot spring from a bit further up

The hot spring lies below the Atayal aboriginal village of Galahe (嘎拉賀; known as Xinxing (新興) in Chinese), which is reached by turning off highway 7 at Xiabaling into route 60-1 (signposted to Yiehang; 爺亨). At the junction 1.5 kilometers up this road turn left and it’s ten kilometers to Xinxing village. Now take a narrow concrete lane on the left, winding steeply down into the gorge. It ends in a kilometer, where a stone-stepped trail accomplishes the final six hundred meters to the hot spring. At the very bottom an iron ladder climbs down a rock face to the bank of the stream, and the hot spring is immediately opposite, fed by a small hot spring waterfall.

 

Guguan Seven Heroes, Taichung

 

 

 

Near the summit of Mount Baimao

Near the summit of Mount Baimao

Mt. Wuwowei, the steepest climb of the seven, is also one of the most interesting

Mount Wuwowei, the steepest climb of the seven, is also one of the most interesting

Mount Tangmadan, although the l;owest of the seven peaks and the shortest hike, is one of the most unremittingly steep climbs

Mt. Tangmadan, although the lowest of the seven peaks and the shortest hike, has one of the most unremittingly steep climbs

The Seven Heroes are also described in Taiwan 101, volume 2, on pages 57-60

The Seven Heroes are also described in Taiwan 101, volume 2, on pages 57-60

Flowing westwards down from the mighty central mountains towards Taichung city and the coast, the Dajia River (one of Taiwan’s major waterways) cuts a magnificent gorge through the foothills of the Snow Mountain Range, threaded by highway eight (the Central Cross-island Highway). Before part of the road was severely damaged during the great 921 Earthquake in 1999, the highway connected Taichung with Hualien on the east coast, climbing over the Snow and Central Mountain Ranges. Once one of Taiwan’s best road trips, part of the western half of the highway remains closed in early 2016, although there are persistent rumors that the road may eventually reopen.

Until that day, heading eastwards from Dongshih (東勢), just east of Taichung city, highway eight can be followed for only about 35 kilometers, till just after the hot spring resort village of Guguan (谷關), beyond which a roadblock bars further progress. It’s a very scenic drive out there, however, and Guguan itself (apart from the charms of its hot spring resorts and hot spring park) has a magnificent setting, deep in the Dajia River gorge.

The trail up Mt. Maluan

The trail up Mt. Maluan

The trail up Mt. Tangmadan, the seventh Hero, is short but steep

The trail up Mt. Tangmadan, the seventh Hero, is short but steep

For hikers, Guguan is famed for the Seven Heroes (谷關七), a set of nearby peaks that are popular (although fairly strenuous) day hikes, all starting in or near Guguan. The seven peaks, which have both Japanese and Chinese names (Guguan was one of the three main logging areas in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial era), range in height from 1,300 meters to over 2,300 meters high. All seven are reached by well-maintained, easy-to-follow trails, but most are steep and strenuous climbs (with a vertical ascent on each of between 700 and 1,200 meters), and should only attempted by reasonably fit hikers. Other trails connect several of the peaks together, and connect the peaks to the north of highway eight with the Daxueshan Forest Road further north, but most of these are in poor shape, and several have a reputation for being badly eroded and dangerous, so check the conditions before attempting any of these other trails.

 

No. 7: Mount Tangmadan 

Near the start of the climb up Mt. Tangmadan

Near the start of the climb up Mt. Tangmadan

The seventh and lowest of the seven heroes, Mt. Tangmadan (唐麻丹山; 1,305 meters) is the shortest hike (just over 5 kilometers return; allow 3-4 hours), and with the least vertical ascent, but because the trail is so short it’s among the steepest and rockiest. There are two trailheads, the main one starting at Tongxin Bridge (同心橋), just south of highway 8, eight kilometers west of Guguan village. Right from the start it’s a steep, rocky climb as the trail threads a narrow ridge with precipitous drops on either side and passes fine old trees with gnarled roots snaking over the exposed rock. Keep straight ahead at the junction and the trail continues steeply upwards to the compact summit, with partial but impressive views.

Approaching Butterfly Valley Waterfall

Approaching Butterfly Valley Waterfall

Follow the trail ahead down the other side and it descends to another junction. The short (but also steep) side trail on the right drops down to the Songhe Stream, where a raised wooden boardwalk leads up the short gorge to the small but lovely Butterfly Valley Waterfall (蝴蝶谷瀑布). A deep pool at the base is great for swimming, but remember there’s still a steep climb back to the main path (and a steep, knee-jarring descent back to the trailhead!). Tangmadan is the shortest trail, both time- and distance-wise, of the seven, but it’s quite a tough walk. It’s often said to be the easiest of the seven to climb, but this is not the case – the unremittingly steep, rocky conditions make it among the more tiring peaks to summit.

The small but lovely Butterfly Valley Waterfall is a short, steep detour off the Mt. Tangmadan hike

The small but lovely Butterfly Valley Waterfall is a short, steep detour off the Mt. Tangmadan hike

 

 

No. 6: Mount Baimao

The impressive narrow ridge just below the summit of Mount Baimao

The impressive narrow ridge just below the summit of Mount Baimao

Mt. Baimao (白毛山; 1,522 meters) is one of the finest of the seven peaks, with great views from the summit, and a short but interesting (and oft-photographed) stretch just before the top along a knife-edge ridge, giving incredible views in clear weather. It’s also an easier climb than Mt. Tangmadan, even though the hike takes considerably longer; allow 5-6 hours return. Once again there are two routes, although most hikers approach from the north, crossing Ma-anba (馬鞍霸) dam. Scooter riders can cross the dam and follow the narrow road downstream on the far side, past the trail that cuts off a long bend as it winds uphill, almost to the trailhead itself. By car, stop either on highway eight, or cross the dam and park on the far side, then walk from there, turning left at the signposted path that short-cuts the road up to the true trailhead.

The main trailhead for Mt Baimao is the Ma-anba dam, beside route eight,

The lowest trailhead for Mt. Baimao is the dam beside highway eight

Mt. Baimao has one of the finest views of all the Seven Heroes

Mt. Baimao has one of the finest views of all the Seven Heroes

The route includes a few steep sections

The route includes a few steep sections

From the summit a much shorter (and less interesting) trail connects with the second trailhead, down a series of narrow roads way south of highway eight, and probably only accessible by scooter drivers.

The trailhead for Mt. Baimao lies up a long, narrow road, which can be driven by scooters, shortening the hike by well over an hour

The trailhead for Mt. Baimao lies up a long, narrow road, which can be driven by scooters, shortening the hike by well over an hour

 

 

No. 5: Mount Dongmao

Mt. Dongmao has easily the most distinctive profile of the Seven Heroes. Here it's seen from the slopes of Mt. Baimao

Mt. Dongmao has easily the most distinctive profile of the Seven Heroes. Here it’s seen from the slopes of Mt. Baimao

The trailhead

The trailhead

Easily the easiest of the Seven Heroes to climb, Mt. Dongmao (東卯山; 1,690 meters) is reached by a long but amazingly gentle trail (especially since it’s the sharpest and shapeliest of the seven peaks, with 900 meters of vertical ascent). The trail ascends gently almost the whole way from the trailhead, which lies next to Guguan Monastery (see below), where most hikers doing a couple of the seven peaks stay the night. The boulder-strewn summit  also commands the finest view of the seven.

The view south from the boulder-strewn summit

The view south from the boulder-strewn summit

Although the easiest of the Seven Heroes to climb by some distance, the final approach to the summit has some fun scrambling...

Although the easiest of the Seven Heroes to climb by some distance, the final approach to the summit has some fun scrambling…

...and a final clamber up a rocky scree to the top

…nd a final clamber up a rocky scree to the top

The summit peak presents the most impressive profile of the seven peaks, especially when viewed from the slopes of Mt. Baimao, when it looks like a steep-sided pyramid. Allow 5-6 hours for the return trip. The large concrete platform and cluster of aerials and whatnot on top are a bit of a letdown after the beautiful climb, but a few meters away the rest of the bolder-strewn ridge is magnificently untouched. A detour off the main trail to the left (marked with ribbons) towards the top follows a far more challenging and airy alternative approach to the summit, along the rocky spine of the ridge.

It's a surprisingly gentle walk to the summit of spiky Mt. Dongmao

It’s a surprisingly gentle walk to the summit of spiky Mt. Dongmao

 

 

No. 4: Mount Pojinjia

Mt Pojinjia is, along with nearby Mt. Wuwowei, the steepest climb of the Seven Heroes

Mt. Pojinjia is, along with nearby Mt. Wuwowei, the steepest climb of the Seven Heroes. (thanks to Marco Thomas Seidel for the photos of this climb)

Me on the distinctive summit rock , which offers one of the finer views of the Seven Heroes

Me on the distinctive summit rock , which offers one of the finer views of the Seven Heroes

In Taiwanese, Mount Pojinjia (波津加山; 1,772 meters) means “really steep mountain,” and it’s a sustained slog to the summit (about 6 hours return). The first part of the trail, up a steep, wooden boardwalk trail which starts in the hot spring resort area of Guguan, beside the Siji (Four Seasons) Hot Spring Resort, is very popular with local tourists at weekends. After this short but stiff climb, the route (now reverting to the usual rough dirt trail), descends to a narrow ridge between the main river and the Xiaolai Stream, then climbs stiffly all the way to the summit.  Compensating for all that hard work though, it’s perhaps the most scenic of all the seven trails, and there are awesome views at several points along the trail and from the summit itself, crowned with a distinctive overhanging rock formation that makes a great photo op. My camera conked out at the beginning of this weekend trip, so I’ve had to borrow photos from Marco for this summit and Mount Baxian, below.

The steep scree slope along the route to the summit

The steep scree slope along the route to the summit

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N0. 3: Mount Wuwowei

There are two very different routes to the summit of Mt. Wuwowei. The southern route (pictured in these photos) is now officially closed, but is still in good shape, and vastly more interesting than the trail from the north

There are two very different routes to the summit of Mt. Wuwowei. The southern route (pictured in these photos) is now officially closed, but is still in good shape, and vastly more interesting than the trail from the north

A green valley near the start of the southern route

A green valley near the start of the southern route

Along with Mounts Dongmao and Pojinjia the finest of the seven peaks, Mount Wuwowei (屋我尾山; 1,796 meters) once again has two trailheads. The steep and rough route that leaves highway eight two kilometers west of Guguan is officially closed (perhaps because local authorities fear hikers might injure themselves or worse on the rocky scrambles), but this is really the only way to go. After an easy, level kilometer at the start, it’s quite a rough route, with a few easy rocky clambers (with fixed ropes) in the early stages, and is extremely scenic and great fun.

There's no view from the summit of Mt. Wuwowei, but that's made up for by some wonderful vistas on the ascent

There’s no view from the summit of Mt. Wuwowei, but that’s made up for by some wonderful vistas on the ascent

The last few meters to the summit involve a final short, easy rocky scramble

The last few meters to the summit involve a final short, easy rocky scramble

There’s no great view from the summit, but the reason for climbing it (apart from completing the seven peaks) is to enjoy the ascent. The much easier route from the north, which leaves the Daxueshan Forest Road about 4.5 kilometers east of the trailhead for the famed (and very spectacular) Mount Yuanzui, goes down to the summit, rather than up, and is vastly less interesting. Despite this, because the southern route is relatively challenging (and since it’s officially closed), almost everyone takes this route from the north nowadays.

Messing about on the summit

Messing about on the summit

 

 

No. 2: Mount Maluan

Beautiful woodland scenery is perhaps the highlight of climbing Mt. Maluan

Beautiful woodland scenery is perhaps the highlight of climbing Mt. Maluan

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The second highest Hero, Mt. Maluan (馬崙山, 2,305 meters) is a very fine hike, with a couple of good views, and the scant ruins of a Japanese-era logging village and railway at the half-way point. Reached by the longest trail of the seven (13 kms return; 6-7 hours), it’s a fairly straightforward climb, with just two very steep stretches, one near the start and another right at the end, which is cruelly trying at the last stages of a long upward hike.  The trailhead lies several kilometers up Taidianxiang (台電巷), which leaves highway eight two kilometers east of Guguan village, and is too narrow for anything larger than a small minibus to get through.

The gang rests on the summit

The gang rests on the summit

Although generally a relatively gentle climb, there are two extended, very steep sections along the 6-kilometer trail to the summit

Although generally a relatively gentle climb, there are two extended, very steep sections along the 6.5 kilometer-long trail to the summit

 

 

No. 1: Mount Baxian

A photo at the summit plaque of the highest Hero is perhaps the main highlight of climbing Mt. Baxian!

A photo at the summit plaque of the highest Hero is perhaps the main highlight of climbing Mt. Baxian!

Although the tallest hero, Mt. Baxian (八仙山, 2,366 meters), is naturally the most popular of the seven, it’s probably also the least interesting. The trailhead is next to the tiny Jinghai Temple, at the back of Baxian Forest Recreation Area (for which there’s an admission charge). During the 6 kilometer-long climb there’s some lovely woodland (especially a small but magical area of forest dripping with mosses and lichens just before the top), but the summit itself is a huge, undefined plateau. There’s large, flat area of scrappy grass beside the summit plaque, surrounded by untidy thicket, and it’s a huge anticlimax, with no view whatsoever. For most of the way the climb isn’t too steep, apart from a long and punishingly tough stepped section about two-thirds of the way up.

 

 

Staying overnight

Guguan Monastery, which provides simple but excellent dorm accommodation (and an amazing view) for hikers bagging the seven summits

Guguan Monastery, which provides simple but excellent dorm accommodation (and an amazing view) for hikers bagging the seven summits

There’s plenty of (expensive) accommodation in Guguan village; hikers doing the peaks, however, usually stay in the comfortable dorms at Guguan Monastery (谷關大道院), nine kilometers west. Phone in advance ((04)-2594-3555) to book spaces in the dorm. The dorms are simple but comfy and spacious, there’s a free vegetarian breakfast (of widely varying quality), and the views across and down the gorge are magnificent.  There’s no set fee for spending the night, but be sure to make a small donation (perhaps NT$200 per person) at the temple office before you stay; also get a receipt to show you donated, which eases things if you want to return to stay here again.

David, Leigh, Wolfgang, Megan, Me and Dan at the summit of Mt. Wuwowei, after bagging the seven peaks in four weekend trips.

David, Leigh, Wolfgang, Megan, Me and Dan at the summit of Mt. Wuwowei, after bagging the seven peaks over four weekend trips.

Six of the Best: my favorite corners of the world (so far): Part One

Incredible coastal scenery in the Faroe Islands

Incredible coastal scenery in the Faroe Islands

Adele penguins in Antarctica

Adelie penguins in Antarctica

The unforgetable ice fjord at Ilulissat, Greenland (taken just before midnight in July)

The unforgetable ice fjord at Ilulissat, Greenland (taken just before midnight in July)

Following an enforced change of plans this summer, over the last six weeks I ended up exploring Ireland and Sicily, two European regions I’ve been fascinated by for years, but never made it to until now. Both are magnificent, amazing places, although their also far from unknown quantities to travellers. Ireland was about as wonderful as I’d long expected, but Sicily really took me by surprise – it’s surely one of the great travel destinations of the world.  Despite the popularity of both places, one thing that struck me in a very positive way was how ‘authentic’ they felt on the whole. Tourism is still relatively low-key in Ireland, Sicily and elsewhere in southern Italy, the people of both countries are curious, friendly almost to a fault, and absolutely fascinating culturally, retaining their own unique characters in a world where people often seem to be losing their individuality. Best of all though the despised plague of mass luxury tourism that’s infecting popular tourist destinations the world over has yet to taint either.  This summer’s travels set me thinking about other far less well-known places that I’ve been lucky enough to visit already, and how bizarrely and inexplicably (although so fortunately, for us travellers) they’ve remained off the radar for most to this  day. Continue reading

Taiwan 101: The books are out!

volume 1

volume 2

WARNING: This blog entry includes an image of a bawdy traditional folk belief which might offend some readers!

After three years of writing, and a gaggle of delays and headaches, my latest (and probably last!) books are out. They finally emerged at the end of May, just a week before I jetted off for my summer holidays (which themselves didn’t turn out anything like I had planned, although that’s another story completely…).

Anyway I think Taiwan 101 is my best work (although I suppose I would say that), and I certainly learned more about the history and culture of this wonderful island than while writing anything else about it.

I’ll keep this brief, since I’ve got to get back to regular blogging, so if you’ve bought a copy, thanks, and of not, buy them! They’re available in Eslite and Caves books around Taiwan, and I can send them by mail if you don’t mind paying the postage.

 

Thanks,

Richard

Salt fields in Tainan City, a reminder of an ancient industry that's been practiced in today's ROC for eight centuries

Salt fields in Tainan City, a reminder of an ancient industry that’s been practiced in today’s ROC for eight centuries

Memorial at Checheng, Pingtung County, one of several places in the area associated with the Mudan Incident of 1871, one of the key defining incidents in Taiwan's history

Memorial at Checheng, Pingtung County, one of several places in the area associated with the Mudan Incident of 1871, one of the key defining incidents in Taiwan’s history

Here’s the advertising blag (and I’ve scattered a few photos around to keep things colorful too…):

Taiwan 101: Essential Sights, Hikes and Experiences on Ilha Formosa  

Taiwan is a perfect illustration of the saying that good things come in small packages. In comparison with more popular tourist destinations in the Far East, Taiwan is very modest in size, but despite its diminutive scale, the island has an astonishing amount to offer the curious explorer.

The boat burning ceremony at Donggang, Pingtung County...

The boat burning ceremony at Donggang, Pingtung County…

...and Yanshui Beehive Firework Festival, two of Taiwan's amazing, unique traditional festivals

…and Yanshui Beehive Firework Festival, two of Taiwan’s amazing, unique traditional festivals

The two volumes that make up Taiwan 101 are the perfect guide for exploring the very best of Taiwan: not only the island’s finest hikes, but also its best historic towns and cities, brightest traditional festivals, unique Chinese and aboriginal cultural riches, and its little-known natural wonders such as eternal flames, mud volcanoes and badlands.

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The huge Lulin Tree in Chiayi County is ranked only fifth in Taiwan, meaning that there are at least four larger on the island, while other bigger ones could exist. [There have recently been reports that a tree has been found that might now be the largest in Taiwan]

More giants, and the outrageous phalli spaced around Man Rock in Taitung County, one of the more unusual sights of folkloristic Taiwan!

More giants, and the outrageous phalli, placed at intervals around the Man Rock in Taitung County, one of Taiwan’s more unusual sights!

Together, Taiwan 101 Volumes 1 and 2 present Taiwan’s finest attractions to anyone who wishes to get to know this island of kaleidoscopic charms, and comes with detailed information on getting around by public transport, and accurate GPS coordinates of nearly 800 fascinating places.

The Crescent Pillar at Taitung City, part of a huge prehistoric site that includes the largest known prehistoric graveyard in the Pacific Rim area

The Crescent Pillar at Taitung City, part of a huge prehistoric site that includes the largest known prehistoric graveyard in the Pacific Rim area

Liukou Hot Spring, one of many wild, untapped hot springs that can still be found around the island.

Liukou Hot Spring, one of many wild, untapped hot springs that can still be found around the island.