The second section of Taiwan that we visited was Hualien. We traveled from Kaohsiung to Hualien via the Tze-Chiang Limited Express. Train travel during Chinese New Year in Taiwain is incredibly busy. We had tried to book seated tickets weeks beforehand but met with utter unavailability. We ended up purchasing ‘no seat’ tickets from the train station in Kaohsiung the day we arrived. This was not ideal as the journey would take five hours but, it was the only option we had. A bus would take far too long and renting a car was also not an option price wise. Therefore, we resigned ourselves to the fact that we would probably have to stand or sit on the floor. Both of us are from England however and you can rarely ever get a seat on our native train services anyway so this really wasn’t too much out of the ordinary for us. The Taiwanese railway officials seemed genuinely astonished that we were happy to purchase no seat tickets. Each to their own I guess.
Anyway, I have digressed. Once we boarded the train, we were surprised to see numerous empty seats. We had been under the impression that the train was sold out. We pondered quickly on the etiquette of just sitting in a seat until someone turfed you out. Eventually, we decided that’s how we were going to roll. We’d seat hop until there were no more seats left to hop to. The seating was an actual revelation compared to our English expectations. On an English train, in standard class, you get a seat barely wide enough for your bum and no leg room. On the train in Taiwan, we got ample bum room, stupendous leg space and even a foot rest. Here’s a blurry photo of the foot rests and also the fact that you could not touch the seat in front with your arm fully stretched (and the seats in front of us were also reclined). Amazing!
The train took us around the southern coast of Taiwan. From one side of the train, you saw mountains:
From the other, you saw the sea/ocean (geography was never a strong point for me):
To get from Kaohsiung to Hualien along the Southern coast of Taiwan cost us NT$707. A bargain if you ask me.
On arriving in Hualien, we really didn’t have time to do anything that evening apart from grab a meal from 7-11 and crash out at the hostel. We were fully aware that a full day at Taroko National Park would require a decent nights rest so that is exactly what we got. We stayed at the ‘Colourful Taiwan’ hostel which was, overall, disappointing. The staff were not particularly friendly and there were extra charges for room keys which had not been mentioned in any emails or small print. I had also, weeks previous to arriving in Taiwan, used the hostels ‘tour booking service’ to book a whole day tour of Taroko gorge for two. When we arrived at the hostel, we were told that the tour I had booked wasn’t available anymore and presented with a couple of (unsuitable) options. Only on really pushing did I find out about bus services to the park. Once I had this basic information, I went to Google which was far more informative than the staff at the hostel. By the end of the night, we had a game plan for the next day.
Our day at Taroko began with a 9am bus from Hualien front train station to the Buluowan recreation area in Taroko National Park. The scenery from this area is absolutely beautiful.
A special arrangement for Chinese New Year meant that all ‘Hualien Company’ busses services within the park were free. If you visit the park when you do have to pay for the busses, there are several options. I would definitely go for the shuttle busses over a proper tour though as you can meander around at your own pace. I would have felt too pushed had we been on a tour as the ones we saw were practically herded around like cattle. Also, all of the visitor centres have very friendly staff who will furnish you with many pamphlets. The signage in the park also includes English so, you really shouldn’t struggle too much. The paid for services include the option of an all day ‘hop on/hop off’ type ticket for each service. These are definitely the ones I would go for if you want to see all of the major parts of the park. They also work out very cheap. One of the companies (I think it’s called the Taroko Shuttle) is only NT$250 for a day ticket which makes planning your own day really cost effective.
Again, I have digressed. Back to it. So, we began at Buluowan recreation area. The scenery that surrounds the recreation area is stunning. Here’s a picture of the view from the recreation area.
There are several short trails which you can walk around from the Buluowan recreation area. We took the upper and lower trails. From the upper trail, you walk around the grounds of a hotel and can see a small bamboo wood. On the lower trail, you follow a wooden walkway to a few viewing platforms. There are excellent views of both the river and the mountains from the platforms. Neither trail is particularly taxing on the body but there are considerable amounts of stairs to get to the upper trail. It took us around an hour to complete both trails.
We hopped back onto a shuttle bus after than and headed for the Swallows Grotto trail. This is, again, not a taxing walk along the side of the road. It follows the river path so that you can appreciate just what a wonder of nature the gorge is. Taroko gorge was initially formed by tectonic plate movement. Over the years, the river has also played its part and eroded the gorge even further. Swallows grotto is so called because of the swallows which flock along it during spring. You are required to wear hard hats on the trail as it’s very easy to hit your head on rocky outcrops as you peer through gaps in the walls to see the river below. Truly awe inspiring sights.
There seemed to be two ending places for the Swallows grotto trail. You come to a park first of all which has a souvenir shop and toilet facilities. You also seem to have an option to continue further along a trail should you choose to. However, this ‘further along’ looked distinctly like taking your chances with streams of coaches and cars along the road to us so, we stopped where we felt safe (at the park) and boarded another bus towards our next destination. Had you continued the walk, you would have gone through the bridge you can see at the back of the following photo. The photo is the view you have from the park where we stopped.
From the Swallows Grotto trail, we continued to the ultimate destination o four trip, Tianxiang. On arrival, we found it to be not what we had expected. It was more of a town then a recreation area (as our map had called it). There was a proper post office and a police station. Anyway, Tianxiang is the starting point for many of the more ‘hardcore’ trails which we did not have time for. There is a 4km trail which takes you to a waterfall and several other more hiking style destinations which can be reached from your start point of Tianxiang. By now though, the weather was closing in and it had been drizzling with rain for a good 90 minutes. This was making the going fairly treacherous for me in my Converse All Stars (anyone who wears All Starts will sympathise with me when I say, if the going is wet, you may as well be walking on ice if you’re wearing All Stars).
Yet again, I am dancing around the point. My point is that, there are several things to see within very close proximity of one another in Tianxiang. There’s a temple, a pagoda very high on a hill, a gold statue, a statue of the Goddess of Mercy and a small shrine. The slopes and steps are quite steep at some points but nothing that a fairly able bodied person can not manage. We saw some pretty elderly folk at the very top of the hill so definitely nothing insurmountable providing you do not require a mobility aid for normal movement. You can just see on my picture below the temple, pagoda and white statue of the Goddess of Mercy.
When we reached the top of the pagoda, it really was incredibly windy indeed. The weather was taking a sharp turn for the worst so we made haste with our time in Tianxiang as we desperately wanted to see one more place in Taroko before we departed for the evening. Before we left, we did make time to see the golden statue which faces in ten directions.l You can not see this statue from afar, you need to do the walk up to the temple. Here she is and I challenge you to find her blind spot.
So, the last place we wanted to see was the Eternal Spring Shrine. You can not see this until you are ready to leave the park and head back to Hualien. Inbound busses to Taroko (from Hualien) do not stop here, busses only stop on the way out because of the way the road system works. This is worth remembering if you too wish to see the Eternal Spring Shrine. We also wanted to complete the Eternal Spring Shrine trail which was 2km and expected to take an hour. The busses out of Taroko do stop running fairly early (around 5PM) so don’t get caught short of time to walk the trail.
Anyhoo, here’s a snap of the shrine as you will see it from the road.
It is beautiful to behold. The foaming water cascading down the rocks really does make it feel like a very special place.
The trail itself is a hard walk. I really didn’t think I was fit enough to complete it at one point as it is 90% steps. I really mean that. You go up a really, really, really long way. I can assure you it is worth the puffing, panting and sweating though. There are a couple of key place son the walk. There is Taroko Tower, the Bell Tower and a small temple. You finish the trail at Changuang Temple once you have crossed a suspension footbridge. It’s all very exciting!
We weren’t entirely use what the ‘deal’ was with this trail and so ended up missing Taroko Tower out so I can’t comment on that. I can tell you that the highest point you will get to is the bell tower. The view from the top is just amazing. You can see for actual miles. Here’s a picture I took of the view from the bell tower:
From the bell tower, it’s all down hill via steep steps. You will eventually get to the suspension footbridge. I was, personally, quite scared about going across it but, I managed and so will you if you go. Here’s me in the middle of it. You can see me there being as touristy as can possibly be.
Now, once you are across the footbridge, you are greeted by the wonderful Changuang Temple. There was no one else at the temple when we arrived there and it really felt like an active and fully functioning place of worship and religious dedication so we didn’t poke around too much. The other temples had felt like they were there to be photographed and posed in front of but, Channguang didn’t. It felt very sincere. Up close, it is enormous. I couldn’t get a good picture of it. The best snap I got was actually from the top of the bell tower on the trail so I’ll share that one with you.
The good news about the Eternal Spring Shrine trail is that you don’t have to go back up and down 2km of steps. From Changuang Temple you can follow a winding, steep(ish) road down which rejoins the main road. Hoorah!
We had been told that the last free shuttle bus for the day would depart the start of the Eternal Spring Shrine Trail at 4pm. It was 4:15 and we were 2km away from the start. Bother.
As the two, rather sweaty, English girls were rejoining the main road and deciding how on earth to get back to Hualien, an orange coach of free goodness approached. The driver was looking quizically at the two people smiling at his bus. He made a hand gesture as if to say ‘Do you want me to stop?’. This sent the two, slightly damp, English girls into a waving frenzy which in Charades translates universally to ‘OH YES PLEASE MISTER LOVELY DRIVER MAN’. The bright orange bus of joy started to pull over! Once stationary, the two, definitely soggy, English girls ran to the open doors and boarded the coach whilst attempting to say thank you in as many languages as they could manage. The rest of the passengers on the coach giggled quietly at the scene. And so ended the adventure of the two English girls at Taroko National Park.
Tune in next time for the story of ‘Terriffic Taipei’!