A trip to Taroko National Park is the reason most people visit Hualien on the East coast of Taiwan. Famous for the marble gorge at its heart, Taroko National Park is over 92 hectares in size and is sliced open at the centre by the surprisingly diminutive LeeWoo Ho River. It’s a place that begs to be photographed.
After a few days in Hualien I started to think that the shutters were down on the small city’s shop fronts, restaurants and cafes more often than they were up. For local people the day starts early, very early but it finishes early too. There’s no chance of a late dinner or much of a night out in Hualien, would be fine if we were making the most of the days but our body clocks are screwed and we’re still wide awake at 4am and sleeping until the afternoon.
Maybe these early mornings and brief days are a symptom of living in a mountain town. Hualien is surrounded by mountains, big green mountains reaching so high that you can’t see their peaks most of the time because they’re wrapped in a scarf of mist that blends up into the sky. The mountains are like a wall, constantly reminding the little city just how little it is. How flat and temporary and miniature. One good typhoon could sweep the whole lot away.
But on this day, our third day in Hualien we drag ourselves out of bed before 10am and put on the most sensible clothes and shoes we can find for spending the day at Taroko National Park. In my case this is black denim jean shorts, the Rob Zombie t shirt I bought in Taipei and my red puma trainers that are still caked in mud from Malaysia’s Cameron Highland’s mossy forest.
The LeeWoo Ho River created Taroko Gorge, gradually carving its path through the marble mountains over the course of millions of years. We drove to and through Taroko National Park, stopping at the park headquarters on the way in for an essential map. On the day we visited, at the end of October 2016, certain sections of the park were closed for safety reasons. There are regular landslides at Taroko and problems with rocks falling onto the roads but we managed to drive through most of it, stopping at scenic spots and doing a short hike along one of the mountainsides.
It’s a magical place, so beautiful it’s tempting to stand still and stare and I felt compelled to take a huge number of photographs, something I’m normally too lazy and distracted to do.
Driving your own car is really the only way to take on Taroko National Park. The majority of the traffic on Taroko Gorge’s twisting roads was made up of diesel fume-belching tour buses packed with hard hat wearing tourists from China but if you time your stops so that they don’t coincide with the buses you can just about avoid the crowds.
If you’re a cyclist and want to ride a bicycle on the same roads as tour bus drivers who have been behind the wheel for 24 hours then you’re braver than me.
First we drove as far as we could away from the crowds, all the way to the Luisui Trail beyond which the road was closed.
Once we had driven as far as we could we ditched the car and did a short scenic hike along a path cut into the cliffside. In places fresh water poured down on us in a mini waterfall, the remains of last night’s rainstorm filtered down through rocks and vegetation and a short stretch of tunnel brought us up close and personal with a number of sleeping bats.
The higher we climbed the more beautiful the dramatic scenery became.
Back in the car we drove the long stretch of road again, this time stopping every time we wanted to get out and take in the beauty without a pane of glass between ourselves and the landscape.
Up to now we had hardly seen another soul and as we mingled with the rest of the tourists enjoying a few minutes freedom from their tour bus I did briefly wonder why I was the only one not wearing a hard hat.
We left Taroko National Park before the tour buses had a chance to begin their mass exodus along the only road that leads back to the highway and drove back to Hualien, exhausted but exhilarated, hoping we would still find a restaurant open for dinner.