It is dark when the train pulls in to the small station of Xincheng. The streets are wet when I walk to my hostel, but the next morning, a bright sun sends a lot of warmth to the ground even at an early hour. I rent a decent bike, and pack a lot of water because it is humid, and I feel this is going to be a tough day. Within ten minutes of cycling towards the west, steep walls rise up on either side of me, the Liwu river runs on my right: I have just entered Taroko Gorge. Still relatively wide here, the blue water of the river runs in a bed of grey stones. Green mountains ahead leave no doubt: this valley will not be this wide for long. The road climbs gently, but even so, it does not take long before sweat runs down my back and arms. I soon decide that it would be best to cycle all the way up to Tienxiang, some 18km ahead of me at the end of the gorge, and then hike some of the many trails of Taroko Gorge while cycling down when temperatures will undoubtedly be higher. Even so, I cannot resist to make some stops to enjoy the views of the emerald river, the surrounding mountains reflected on its perfectly still surface.
The walls are narrowing in on me, and when I reach the Swallow Grotto, the Liwu river squeezes itself through the narrowest section of the Taroko Gorge. The road continues through a tunnel, while it is only allowed to drive along the river going uphill. I walk my bike, often putting it against the metal rail to look down into the gorge. There are stretches where you can almost touch the other side: a solid marble wall rising vertically from the wild flowing waters of the Liwu, or Yayung Paru (Great River) by the aboriginals who live in the area since a couple of hundred years. The narrow road often leads through tunnels with openings on the right hand side which give spectacular views of the striped marble wall across the canyon. And yes, swallows fly through this narrow section of Taroko Gorge. Halfway this spectacular detour is a new bridge, and a short explanation of how previous bridges were destroyed by the forces of nature. It is not hard to imagine that flash floods coming down this gorge can reach extreme power and destroy everything on their way down. After the bridge is another section with thrilling views down. Then, I mount my bike again, and cycle up to Tienxiang where I stock up on liquids. The guy at the visitor centre tells me that many trails are blocked by landslides and therefore closed, and I have to revise my plans. No Baiyang waterfall hike, nor the one to the hot springs of Wenshan. Instead, he recommends a hike up the southern slopes of the gorge and tells me I do not need a permit.
After a brief visit to the temple founded by a Buddhist monk in memory of those killed in the construction of the road running through Taroko Gorge, and an early lunch, I cycle down a few kilometres to hike the short Lüshui-Heliu trail. First going through the forest, I arrive at a balcony with views up and down the canyon. Some sections have rocks hanging low over the trail, and I am not sure my helmet would really protect me against them in case they decided to break loose and slide down after millions of years right at the moment I pass under them. A little lower, I park my bike at the Heliu campground, cross a suspension bridge which offers great views of the Liwu river thundering down below, and reach the other side. A sign says that it is not allowed to continue without a permit; I do so anyway and will tell anyone that the visitor centre told me otherwise. As expected, the going is steep, there are sections with ropes, crossing a stream where I refresh with cold water running down the mountains, and after the biking I start feeling my legs. Surrounded by trees almost all the time, there are no views until I reach a higher part with a wooden construction. I clamber up a rocky part and sit down to enjoy the deep Taroko Gorge below the tree-covered slopes on both sides. Clouds are blowing in from the southern side, and for the first time of the day, the sun is disappearing. I see it as a sign to go down again. Ah, what a great feeling to cycle down with a sweat-soaked shirt and pants: fast-dry of clothes and skin. To my disappointment, the trail to a viewpoint at Bulowan turns out to be closed as well. I cycle further down to the Eternal Spring Shrine. Buses loaded with Chinese tourists arrive every few seconds, spitting out their passengers and continuing hundred metres to pick them up again. Here, too, the forces of nature have destroyed the pavilions time and again. After walk through the tunnel with the hordes, looking forward at seeing the pavilions and climbing up to a temple, I come to a fence: this trail, too, is closed. The light in Taroko Gorge is now disappearing, and it is time to ride down the last stretch, back to the train station. On the way, I reward myself with ice cream and yet more drinks after a hard day's work which has allowed me to see some of Taiwan's most beautiful landscapes.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Taroko Gorge (Taiwan). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Taroko Gorge. Read more about this site.