I have been working in Taiwan the week before Easter so we plan that Vicky will fly out and join me for the weekend. We have decided to visit the Taroko Gorge on the east side of the island near the small city of Hualien. My Taiwanese team member kindly books us tickets on the train from Taipei so that we don't have to grapple with websites or ticket offices (you have to book) and on Good Friday morning we are riding down the coast on a comfortable, medium fast train. At Hualien station we are met by the hotel shuttle on the 60 minute drive to Tianxiang.
As far as we can see the road up the Taroko Gorge is under permanent repair. It is actually closed for big chunks of the day while various bits of road and bridge are repaired so you need to plan your arrival quite carefully. This road is the start of the cross island highway and was built by soldiers in 1956. How you can drive a road through precipitous limestone and marble cliffs in an area prone to earthquakes and typhoons is amazing. Not surprisingly around 450 soldiers died in the construction. We are staying in one of the only hotels in the gorge, beautifully situated at the confluence of two mountain rivers. The room was very expensive but when we find we are upgraded to the "river view suite" we are very tickled. The big room has wall to wall windows looking over the cliffs and the river below (above).
Having settled in we go and explore the temple up the hillside above the hotel. Here we find some very fine buddhas watching out over the hills and a vertiginous pagoda. Both us us feel giddy when we get to the top. We can look down and see our hotel (below) complete with hot jacuzzis on the roof. It is pretty chilly so that is where we decide to go next. Having thoroughly relaxed in the tub - that is until a family with naughty boys arrive - we head for the "Retreat floor" where they have a wine and nibbles happy hour before finishing the evening in the Chinese restaurant sampling the 8 course set menu.
The following day we have arranged to go on a guided tour of the gorge. This half day excursion starts at 12:45 once the road is open. First stop is the spectacular Swallow's Grotto (below) where we jump out of the bus, don helmets to protect from falling rocks (they are very safety conscious here), and wander along the gorge old road for 50 minutes. The cliffs are spectacular, rising vertically for 100s of metres in places. Some swallows are still darting in and out of holes in the cliff - there used to be more apparently before the levels of tourists increased. The river itself is very fierce - there has been a lot of rain but we can imagine what it must get like in the typhoon. We see one bridge that was swept away twice within four years before it was rebuilt higher up to avoid the floods.
After the Swallows' Grotto walk we visit a rather tame exhibition of the local Taroko people who lived here, subsistence farming for hundreds of years before the road arrived. Then we are off to a laybay by the sea where we enjoy views along the cliffs and out across the Pacific Ocean. This side of the island is amazingly scenic with huge cliffs pushed up by the Philippines plate colliding with the China plate. Vicky tells me that the island is still getting 1cm higher each year. We chat to our cosmopolitan fellow travellers - a British mum with her lively kids from Hong Kong, and a Taiwanese American (via Argentina) with her US husband and kids. Our last stop is the Shakadang trail which we explore for about 1.5km with hundreds of Chinese tourists.
We had hoped to explore some of the more adventurous trails in the Gorge but find that most of them are shut because of danger of rockfalls. Whether this is just the authorities being super careful or heightened risk in the rainy season we are not sure. The Taiwanese appear to only consider a trail 'open' if it is a groomed motorway. The Shakadang trail stops by some huts where you can buy tea and coffee, locally picked edible ferns and tourist nick nacks. In fact it looked perfectly passable further on if just a bit more of a scramble. On my run that morning I had passed several other trail starts including the famous Baiyang trail (which starts through a spectacular foot tunnel), the Lushwei trail and the Wenshan hot springs all of which are closed. Never mind, this is a pretty cool place to spend a weekend.