Taiwan 101: Part 5. The South

The endemic Formosan macaque at Shoushan, Kaohsiung City

The endemic Formosan macaque at Shoushan, Kaohsiung City

The Boat Burning Festival at Donggang, Pingtung County

The Boat Burning Festival at Donggang, Pingtung County

Titantic Rock, Chiayi County

Titantic Rock, Chiayi County

Sperm Whale skeleton, Taijiang National Park

Sperm Whale skeleton, Taijiang National Park

Southern Taiwan has some of the most interesting aboriginal culture on the main island, with atmospheric (and often remote ) villages of Paiwan and Rukai stone houses, and several of Taiwan’s most memorable traditional festivities, including the insane Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival, surely one of the most intense traditional annual participation events anywhere in the world.

For lovers of natural beauty, Chiayi County is unsurpassed. The crowds all flock to Alishan, but the best places in the area are Continue reading

The best of the best: five fantastic Taiwan day hikes

Shipwreck on the Chufengbi Coast Hike, Pingdong County

Shipwreck on the Chufengbi Coast Hike, Pingdong County

On the Stegasaurus Ridge, New Taipei City

On the Stegosaurus Ridge, New Taipei City

Jhuilu Historic Trail, Taroko Gorge, Hualien

Jhuilu Historic Trail, Taroko Gorge, Hualien

On the 'Cliff Trail', en route to Jiuhaocha aboriginal village

On the ‘cliff trail’, en route to Jiuhaocha aboriginal village

Cloud Dragon Waterfall, Batongguan Historic Trail

Cloud Dragon Waterfall, Batongguan Historic Trail

Without a doubt, Taiwan’s finest hiking is in its astonishing high mountains, but with a very few exceptions (the peaks of Hohuanshan and the Southern Three Stars, which are still out-of-bounds over half a decade after Morakot destroyed the road leading to the trailheads) arranging the logistics of the trip (permits, transport, accommodation etc) is guaranteed to prove anything from a headache to a full-blown migraine.

However Taiwan (and especially the northern half!) has scores of outrageously good day hikes, most of which are free of such irritating hassles, and there are enough hikes of all grades to satisfy all but the most demanding of hikers. Continue reading

Twenty Favorite Taiwan Waterfalls

The Golden Grotto in Hualien County

The Golden Grotto in Hualien County

The YUanuang Waterfall on the Xiaonianxi in Kaohsiung County

The Yuanyang Waterfall on the Xiaonian Stream in Kaohsiung County

Longgong Waterfall, Chiayi County

Longgong Waterfall, Chiayi County

Taiwan is paradise for a waterfall lover like myself. It’s a bit of a joke among friends and family, but I’ve loved these things since I was a kid and used to scan guidebooks back home in England, reading about stunning cascades with rich and evocative-sounding names such as Cauldron Snout, Pistyll Rhaeadr, Falls of Glomach and Sgwd y Eira. When I finally passed my driving test (em…on the fourth try…) and got my first car, a Datsun Violet, there was no stopping me  – in a series of weekend trips and longer holidays I started methodically touring first Wales and then England, exploring all those waterfalls I’d read and dreamt about in books. Within a year or two the interest had become almost an obsession, resulting in me writing a book (sadly never published) covering the complete waterfalls of England (totalling some 370… named examples).

It would probably be near-impossible to see all the waterfalls in Taiwan even if I made it my full-time job, since they are just too numerous and many are simply very remote or otherwise difficult to reach, so it’s just as well I’ve at least partly grown out of my youthful obsession. Waterfalls are still an irresistible magnet  however, and I’m never happier on a hike then when it includes at least one (but preferably more than one) waterfall. Continue reading

Poseidon’s Palace: A Return Trip

In Poseidon's Palace

In Poseidon’s Palace

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Last summer we really got a taste for the joys of river tracing, so although tackling any streams in the Taipei area at the moment would quite possibly result in a nasty case of pneumonia, it’s great to discover that in southern Taiwan, winter is still a great time to be taking to the water. In fact it’s probably the safest time of the year, since the wet/dry season is far more pronounced down here than in the north, and during the May-September rainy season rivers and streams are often raging, while flash floods are a real hazard.

Anyway so far I know of three or four important streams for tracing down in the south, which I hope we’ll get to explore over the next months, and of course there must be loads of others, so it looks like we’ll be doing some more trips down south this winter!

As a bonus to our great Jiuhaocha aboriginal village hike last weekend, we tacked on a quick river trace to a place I first discovered back in March: Poseidon’s Palace (海神宮).    Continue reading

Jiuhaocha: A Forgotten Aboriginal Village deep in the mountains of Pingdong County

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Approaching the Cliff Path (day one)

The abandoned aboriginal village of Juhaocha

The abandoned aboriginal village of Juhaocha

The long way back (day two)

The long way back (day two)

The vast majority of multi-day hikes in Taiwan seem to be in the high mountains, so it’s refreshing to come across a few places such as the Walami Trail in southern Hualien County where hikers can really get away from civilisation for two days without suffering headaches from the altitude, freezing each night, or – worst of all – having to beg for a precious permit from one of the not particularly foreigner-friendly National Park authorities.

To really get away from civilization for a weekend though, you’d be hard put to find a better  place than the abandoned aboriginal village of Jiuhaocha (舊好茶), high in the mountains of southern Pingdong County. This old Rukai settlement, abandoned over 30 years ago, is the only aboriginal village in Taiwan afforded Historic Monument status (and Grade Two, at that, which makes it pretty important). It forms the focal point of a remarkable 2-day hike in the magnificent mountain scenery of northern Pingdong County. Continue reading

Kenting – SO much more than beaches, booze and banana boats

A rare example of a natural Eternal Flame at Hengchun, near Kenting, where natural gas rises through cracks in the rock and is ignited at the surface

A rare example of a natural Eternal Flame at Hengchun, near Kenting, where natural gas rises through cracks in the rock and is ignited at the surface

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Qikong Waterfalls

Climbing Big Sharp Rock Mountain, the Kenting area's most conspicuous (and impressive) landmark

Climbing Big Sharp Rock Mountain, the Kenting area’s most conspicuous (and impressive) landmark

In the Fairy Cave (supposedly Taiwan's largest stalactite cave), Kenting Forest Recreation Area

In the Fairy Cave (supposedly Taiwan’s largest stalactite cave), Kenting Forest Recreation Area

The 'Big Gorge,' Sheding Park

The ‘Big Gorge,’ Sheding Park

The old town walls at Hengchun

The old town walls at Hengchun

I’ve lived in Taiwan (apart from an eighteen month hiatus around the Millennium) for exactly twenty years this month (June 2013), yet in all that time have only been to the Kenting area once, about a decade ago. Finally I paid a repeat visit last weekend when a group of us zoomed down there by HSR for a weekend exploring. Local guidebooks suggest that there’s more to the area than the famous beaches (which I still don’t think are that great) and the party atmosphere (which is admittedly a lot of fun), but it was only on this second trip that I realised just HOW much there is to see, do and experience around Taiwan’s southernmost tip.

Here are seven sights within a short(ish) scooter’s ride of the party strip that are guaranteed to change anyone’s view of this well-loved but under appreciated corner of Taiwan. A couple are already firmly on the (local) tourist trail, but the others are still an open secret guarded by those in the know. The most astonishing of all – Big Sharp Stone Mountain – is an inescapable landmark from almost anywhere around Kenting, but few actually climb it because the trail is hard to find. Climbing to the summit of Kenting’s most memorable landmark (which lies on private land) is also technically illegal (although when that stop people doing anything in Taiwan?) and fairly hard, vertiginous work, so consider if you want to risk it before going. If you make it to the top though, the panoramic view over Taiwan’s southernmost tip is unequalled. Continue reading

Typhoon Morakot: (nearly) four years on

On the typhoon-damaged road to Ali village

On the typhoon-damaged road to Ali village

Just over three-and-a-half years ago Typhoon Morakot swept through southern Taiwan, causing catastrophic damage and killing over 600 people. Today a memorial park stands on the site of Xiaolin (小林) village, which was completely buried by a landslide that day, while the devastation also remains obvious in many other places in southern Taiwan.

A particularly dramatic example of the terrific destruction wrought by the astonishing 2.7 meters of rain that fell on that single day can be seen in Pingtung County, at the abandoned Rukai aboriginal villages of Ali (阿禮) and Jilu (吉露).  These two neighbouring settlements were evacuated following massive damage due to subsidence caused by the typhoon floods. Luckily no-one there was killed, I was told.  The two settlements lie in a magnificent setting, clinging to the steep sides of a huge valley high above Pingtung city, and hikers heading to the remote but once popular Little Ghost Lake (小鬼湖) would have once gone right through both on the long drive up to the trailhead. The once motorable track beyond Ali (nearly 40 kilometers long) to that apparently very beautiful place was destroyed during Morakot, and the lake is now effectively inaccessible.

The village church at Ali

The village church at Ali

Ali and Jilu on the other hand can still be easily reached, and for northern Taipei dwellers, who escaped Morakot’s wrath, a visit is to this scenically magnificent area puts into dramatic focus just how terrible the destruction visited on the area by the typhoon really was. Continue reading