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Taroko Gorge tops Taiwan's natural wonders

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Taiwan is not Mainland China, yet I am struck by how the landscape is so much like the classical paintings that go back to the Qing Dynasty - the dramatic topography of mountains that rise steeply, often covered in mist. It is another clear example of how nature and culture are interwoven.

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Despite its compact size that enables us to see a large portion of the country in just six days time, Taiwan offers a variety of natural wonders that make this such a fabulous destination to really explore - like the hot springs of Beitou; the cold spring of Suao; the jagged rocks off Aodi on the northeastern coast that are visual evidence of how Taiwan is actually rising each year because of the tectonic plates below. Now we are off to visit Taiwan's most dramatic natural wonder of all, Taroko Gorge.

Taroko Gorge

Despite the gloomy, rainy day, the Taroko Gorge is still spectacular - you can see the misty, mysterious images of classical Chinese paintings. Established in 1986 and one of Taiwan’s eight national parks, Taroko National Park is also one of the biggest attractions in Taiwan. Buses line up end to end.

Famous for its marble gorge, Taroko National Park, spans 92,000 hectares, approximately 227,336 acres.

We get a tourist view (as most of the visitors who come to the park), driving the route in our minivan from the low point to the highest elevation, stopping every so often for photos.

But the way to truly appreciate the Gorge is to stay over and hike - preferably with a group, since most of the hiking trails carry warnings of unstable rock. (Prepare for your visit by reviewing at the Taroko Gorge National Park site, www.taroko.gov.tw/English)

There are a few hostels and lodges in the park that cater to climbers, hikers and bikers. We are fortunate to stay at the Silks Place Taroko.

From the outside, Silks Place Taroko looks fairly simple, built into the mountain side, but inside, it is a gorgeously designed luxurious resort hotel with marvelous amenities: a rooftop pool with lighted fire torches at night (the pool stays open until 11:30 pm); a tennis court (also on a roof), a fitness room, a yoga room (free aerobics class at 10 am), a full-service spa, nightly aboriginal entertainment, nightly movie, and even a Kids Club (though I am told this is an activity program and not babysitting). There are even a few rental bikes available, as well as shuttle service to hiking trailheads and guided tours.

It also features The Wellspring Spa at Silks Place Taroko, with breathtaking views from the treatment rooms.

There is a small set of shops next door but really, the hotel is quite isolated, which is one of the best features. I can't think of a better place for a retreat, or a mountain wedding (there is even a pavilion), or a honeymoon.

Because it is so isolated, it is doubly wonderful that the hotel provides dinner and a choice of dining rooms, Mei Yuan Asian Cuisine, Wellesley Western Cuisine; plus a lavish buffet breakfast.

The dining rooms are absolutely lovely and the dining selections marvelous - for dinner, you order an entree and then help yourself to a smorgasbord of Chinese, Japanese and Western selections.

Our entrees - lamb shank (so-so), braised beef, salmon (excellent) - are served with choice of sauces- and a whole buffet of Western and Asian selections - vegetable dishes, salads, breads, soups, desserts, sheep ribs, mushroom teriyaki, chicken curry, Chinese kale with oyster sauce, baby octopus, fern salad, charcoal-coated peanuts (the list goes on and on).

After dinner, I take in the aboriginal show (an aboriginal singer performance is presented Monday to Friday; a dance performance Saturday and Sunday, outside, weather permitting). Tonight is the singer, a personable fellow with a guitar who wears a hip brimmed hat and sneakers and strikes me more like a Hawaiian guy. The kids, who sit on mats right in front, and their families are really entertained, especially his friendly banter. It would be better, more atmospheric when it is held outside.

Silks Place offers a selection of accommodations - Garden View, Japanese style; Gorge View, Gorge View suite, and "The Generalissimo Suite" The views are amazing - some look out to a pagoda built into the mountain.

There is an even more upscale accommodation at The Retreat at Silks Place Taroko. Retreat guests have various exclusive benefits, including access to The Retreat Lounge with all-day beverages and snacks service and Taroko half-day tour.

There are also pleasant lounge and sitting areas inside and out.

This hotel was one of the first in the area - it was originally opened in 1961 as the Tian Hsyang Lodge – laying the foundation for tourism development in the Taroko region. Chiang Kai-shek visited in 1964 and between 1966 and 1967, his son Jiang Jin Guo accompanied Korean President Park Chung-hee and Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi here, establishing the hotel as a place suited for high officials and dignitaries.

The lodge was acquired by FIH Regent Group in 1991 and renamed the Grand Formosa Taroko, bringing it up to an international standard. In 2009, it changed again when the hotel became the flagship for Formosa International Hotels Corporation's “Silks Hotel” brand and renamed the Silks Place Taroko. The hotel was given a complete facelift with comprehensive upgrades in facilities and services to cater to luxury travelers.

From the outside, the building still reflects the 1960s architecture, but inside, it is truly a luxurious, modern resort hotel (in fact, rated 4-stars and would probably be five-stars but it does not offer a garage).

You are fairly isolated here, but that is probably the best part - you really commune with nature. Wherever you look, it seems, there are those craggy rocks, mist rising, waterfalls spewing from crevices, water rushing in streams.

Nearby Hikes

Literally next door to the Silks Place Hotel, just a few minutes walk across a suspension bridge, you can climb up to the Xiangde Temple, as I do early the next morning, the mist still hugging the jagged peaks. You can easily understand why these temples are built at such heights - your heart races, you get a little lightheaded as you climb one staircase after another, and by the time you reach the top, you are very open to be awed by the spiritualism of the place.

As I begin my descent, I meet a couple who are coming up the steps, stopping every so often to bow and pray before continuing on.

Xiangde Temple features what is claimed to be the world's tallest Bodhisativa statue. From where it is perched you have magnificent views of Taroko's mountains and merging rivers (the temple gates open at 6 am).

Visiting the temple is my Plan B, though.

My Plan A is to hike the Baiyang trail, just 10 minutes walk from the hotel.

I get up at 5 am to head out by 5:30 am to hike the trail before we are scheduled to depart. The fellow at the desk provided precise directions to the trailhead, even pulling out photos so I could see how you walk up the road, enter a tunnel and then midway through the tunnel, come to the entrance to the trail. It comes to my mind to ask whether there are any animals I should be concerned about. Monkeys, he says.

Sure enough, as I walk a bit, passed the stray dogs (they seem to be everywhere in Taiwan and no one seems fazed), two monkeys cross the road ahead of me.

It raises concern because no one is about this early in the morning - I am on my own - and that is usually the time of day when animals also are lurking about.

I get to the tunnel and sure enough, midway there is a very clear sign (in English and Chinese) announcing the entrance to the trail - which turns out to be at the end of what seems a quarter-mile long dark, damp tunnel. I imagine there might be animals who live in it during the night - bats, for example, or possibly rats. So I stare at it for a long time, trying to discern any movement or sound.

My heart racing with anxiety, I summon the courage to walk through the tunnel to get to the trail.

But there I am greeted by another large sign, offering up additional warnings: Beware of rock slides. Beware of wasps. Beware of venomous snakes. And some helpful emergency numbers to local police and such.

The sign says that it is 2.1 km from the entrance to Water Curtain Cave (don't you just want to go there?????!!!!), but advises that the section between the 2nd and 3rd tunnel and before 4th tunnel are susceptible to collapse "so please pass quickly", and that there are eight tunnels, "so use a torch" (flashlight). It's "wonderful to go from light to dark" the sign encourages.

I start up the trail, not happy about the various warnings but motivated by the promise of amazing sights.

But when I round a bend, there is a sign with a giant picture of a wasp. And that's when I turn back and visit the temple, instead.

At breakfast, I tell our guide, Michelle Cheng about my misadventure at the trail. She looks mystified and says that she has done that Baiyang trail many times and never encountered any of those things. (In my defense, I point out that it was early morning and I was completely alone). Moral to the lesson: go with a guide and don't be rushed, which is what I will do when I return.

In fact, the Silks Place Taroko offers half day and full day trips, including transportation to the trails as well as shuttle service from Hualien train station or Hualien airport, each about an hour away, for NT$250 (about $8), per person each way. The hotel also offers shuttle transportation and a backpack filled with what you need for the hike (including a flashlight) for about $30 (you return the backpack and flashlight after).

The trail that really excites my imagination, though, allows 66 people a day (midweek) and up to 96 people a day on weekends and holidays. You need a permit in order to hike the trail (and I definitely wouldn't do it without a guide).

This is the Zhuilu Ancient Road trail (also referred to Jhuilu Old Trail), 10 km long each way. Situated between the Swallow Grotto and Cimu Bridge, also known as "Mercy Mother Bridge," for the mother who mourned the place where her son died. At 755 meters high elevation, the trail travels along the national park's only historic preservation district. This was the path connecting the various settlements of the indigenous people. During the Japanese era, it was a military road to govern the indigenous people. There are still many tribal relics, which give the road historical and cultural importance. Also, there are houses, guesthouses, a school and police station which were established during the Japanese era. The highlight is walking along the Zhuliu Cliff - very narrow, no railing and straight down from there. "You feel like you are a God when you look down," the fellow at the hotel says. In fact, this is known as the "Land of the Gods" - no wonder they erect temples here. At the Ancient Road Tunnel No. 2, there is a Ksitigarbha Bodhisativa Statue carved into the wall (to protect and bless travelers).

The trail is considered "difficult," requiring a full day (Michelle says it takes about two hours each way). You can obtain the required "Ecological Protection Area Entry Permit" from the Taroko National Park website (you are advised to apply 30 days before; Silks Place Hotel can help).

Driving the Central Cross-Island Highway, we pass the access to Swallow Grotto (Yanzikou). Seeing it, you can imagine why it is said the rock cliffs of the Liwu River gorge "seem to reach to heaven". The trail runs about a half kilometer starting from the entrance to Swallow Grotto to the Jinheng Bridge - along the way, you can see the Liwu River from nearly straight above the water, the potholes on the cliff faces, the springs sprinkled along the lower parts of the walls, as well as a famous rock formation "Chieftain's profile rock". During spring and summer, the grotto is aflutter with flying swallows (located 9 km from Silks Place Hotel).

Shakadang Trail, also known as "Mysterious Valley Trail" because of the year-round limpid green water with marble lines, follows along the river cliff so hikers can easily observe both the rock folds and plant ecosystem beside in the river valley. After the first curve there is a deep pool with clear water that has enchanted many visitors. In May, Tung tree flowers bloom, turning the trail into a pleasant flower hallway with flowers filling the air like snowflakes (21 km from the Silks Place Hotel).

Another trail that is on my wish-list for my return is Chingshui Cliff, which according to the notes "is one of the world's rarest sights, with a 90-degree drop precipice, the spectacular ocean view and panoramic park views" (this one is 30 km from Silks Place Hotel).

The hotel (which provides excellent information about the hiking trails and attractions) also offers Taroko half-day tours and full-day tours, and round trip transportation to the hiking trails (reserve with the Concierge in advance; for tour schedules (visit: taroko.silksplace.com.tw/en/tours.html TOURS+). The hotel also has a bicycle rental service on the premises (1 Hour NT$150 ($5), 2 hours NT$250, 3 hours NT$350 ($12), 1 day NT$450 ($15).)

Taroko Gorge is very much a four-season resort - I can only imagine the colors and the scenes that it presents in each season - spring is colorful, summer offers respite from city heat, autumn is comfortable. winter is peaceful. (The Silks Place Hotel the site has videos of the different seasons and what activities are recommended.)

But coming from such a distance, you should avoid monsoon season and typhoon season. Late fall, winter is probably the best - in fact, the best time is around the KOM race, which takes place in November (if you are staying in the hotel during the race, you would have a good view but you would have to stay put because they close the road).

This place is heavenly.

I am in love with the Silks Place Taroko hotel and the Taroko Gorge. I can easily see staying three nights or so in order to really explore and commune with nature (www.silksplace-taroko.com.tw).

The Silks Place Taroko website is really excellent and explains the different pricing and packages, but here are some examples: a two night stay in late September including the shuttle pick up would cost NT$15398 weekday (that's about $515 for 2 people for two nights, including breakfast and dinner); a third night NT$7918 ($265 more); weekends NT$2200 ($74) more. (www.silksplace-taroko.com.tw)

High Country Fruits, Tea

The Silks Place Hotel is at the edge of the Taroko Gorge. Leaving the hotel, we continue the drive following the KOM (King of the Mountain) bike race route to the 3275 meter high peak of Mt. Wuling where the race finishes. (See: Bikeways lead to more personal discoveries of Taiwan and slideshow.)

It is the weekend, and the entire area is filled with travelers, including a few bikers. The road is absolutely gorgeous (though with such tight twists and turns, you may want to take some Bonine or Dramamine).

We stop at a roadside farm stand which features vegetables grown on the mountain that are not available anywhere else - high mountain cabbage, Dang Kwai which is like a subtle basil and used make with soup and a kind of mountain tomato I have never saw before that looks more like passion fruit or papaya, plus luscious looking fruits like apple, peach, pear.

We stop for lunch at a delightful restaurant in Ching Jiang called Lu Mama (Mother Lu, www.lumama.tw), which is set at the top of terraced farms, and is furnished with the modern art of a local artist, Kuo Han Cing.

This area was principally settled by people from Yuen Province in southwest China, and the cooking style is Yunan. It's Saturday and the restaurant is packed with families. We sit upstairs on a porch with a fabulous view of the terraces. The restaurant's specialty is Yunan air pot chicken - it takes 6 hours to prepare which is why it is a costly dish at NT$950 ($32). I relish the chicken soup, NT$300 ($10). The noodle soup is prepared with morning glory (a delicious vegetable) and pork.

Just up the road from the restaurant is the Tien Chih Tea Factory, Ching Jing tea store. Wendy Lee, whose father has been selling tea since he was 14, grows the tea leaves and started the store 20 years ago which her mother runs, shows us how to appreciate and sample the tea.

As complicated as wine, tea similarly depends on such factors as the elevation, temperature, the soil, how long the leaves are allowed to ferment. The process of making tea is long and cumbersome - involving rolling and drying multiple times. This is the reason why oolong tea is so much more expensive than green tea - there is so much more preparation that goes into it, but the reward is that you can brew oolong tea 8 times and it gets stronger and keeps its taste quality; green tea you can only brew once or twice).

With oolong, she says, you feel the after taste in throat - which is one of the features that is most appreciated, and why oolong is famous. It's not just the taste on the tongue, but the sweet after taste you feel in your throat.

Jasmine tea, she says, is mixed with flowers - "We don't need the flower - this tea is so good."

We sit at a magnificent table of varnished beech wood salvaged from a storm, and watch with fascination at Wendy's choreographed process of preparing the tea and serving it into small vials then the cups in a massive carved granite bowl, like a sink.

We first sample the Black Qili Mountain early spring tea - and just like wine, you first smell, look at the color, take a taste that you roll around and then swallow to best appreciate.

The second tea we sample from Lishan Mountain, picked May 6 - and is different than the tea picked May 5.

Wendy says that their customers come from all over, Hawaii, etc., and more and more are foreigners.

Back in car, we pass a place called "Mountainview Pasteurland" - jam crammed with weekend visitors who have come for a sheep shearing show.

It's a four-hour drive from Taipei to Qing Jing area.

Sun Moon Lake

Altogether, for us today, it is a six-hour drive from the Silks Place Hotel at the edge of the Taroko Gorge where we started to Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area, a stunning area and popular tourist resort in central Taiwan.

The area hosts an abundance of attractions, including the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Center - an amusement park that has been open since 1986 and has the tallest freefall ride in Taiwan, Shuishe Great Mountain, which rises from Sun Moon Lake up to 2050 meters (hiking trails available), and Jiji Mountain and the Mingtan Reservoir. There is also the Sun Moon Lake Assam Tea Farm, where visitors can learn how to pick the tea leaves, make tea and taste tea.

As we drive around Puli and the Sun Moon Lake area I see signs for such attractions as Tae Li Ecological Leisure Farm, the Hung Gee Bee Farm (in Puli) - indeed everywhere we have gone on the roads, there are signs pointing you to historic sites, natural attractions, refuges, wilderness areas.

Our accommodation is the Yoou Sham Grand Hotel (www.yooushan-hotel.com.tw) - which is not in the Sun Moon Lake tourist area (it is the weekend and filled with people) - but in Puli, which is proud of being "the heart of Taiwan" in the center of the island. The Puli Yoou Sham Grand Hotel is a four-star hotel that is popular with local people - it has a marvelous outdoor pool, a fitness room, a rooftop revolving restaurant.

We return to Sun Moon Lake early the next morning to experience the spectacular bikeway that goes for 7 km, but you can ride on the road and ring the lake, about 33 km altogether.

Afterward, we board the high-speed rail at Taichung to return to Taipei City.

Our trip, which was a quick survey mission at the invitation of the Taiwan Government Tourism Office, was helped immeasurably by the services of our guide, Michelle Cheng (email: apple1919@msn.com, tel: +886928021098() who can provide guide service as well as help prepare an itinerary, make meal, transportation and hotel suggestions. She was marvelous at adapting the itinerary to accommodate weather and interests and new discoveries, researching answers to an endless stream of questions, and selecting local restaurants and ordering items to best represent culinary distinctions. The tour guide rate is around NT$5000 (US$160) per day.

Taiwan proves a perfect destination to really explore - by bike, by hired car, by bus or trail. It is compact enough to really see a lot, yet so rich in natural attractions and historic and cultural sites. Excellent transportation, superb lodging and dining, and extremely good value for money (I estimate costs at about 30 to 50% below what you might pay traveling in Europe or US), and most importantly, an extremely hospitable atmosphere.

Prepare for the trip in advance:

The Tourism Bureau of the Republic of China (Taiwan) offers a 24-Hour Toll-Free Travel Information Hotline : 0800-011765, and has an excellent website: www.go2taiwan.net (also eng.taiwan.net.tw).

Tourism offices in the US include: Taiwan Visitors Association, 1 East 42nd St., New York, NY 10017, Tel. 212-867-1632/4, Email tbrocnyc@gmail.com

Taiwan Visitors Association, 555 Montgomery Street, #505 San Francisco, CA 94111, Tel 415-989-8677, email info@visittaiwan.org, www.timefortaiwan.com.

Taiwan Tourism Bureau, The Wilshire Colonnade Building, 3731 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90010, Tel. 213-389-1158, email info@taiwantourism.us.

Next: Two Days in Taipei

See also:

Bikeways lead to more personal discoveries of Taiwan and slideshow

Travel to Taiwan: vibrant, modern society built on bedrock of tradition and slideshow

2 Days in Taipei: Hitting the highlights and the highpoints in Taiwan's Capital and slideshow

Dining on Xiaolongbao at DinTaiFung at Taipei 101 is savory experience and slideshow

Two Days in Taipei: Day 2: Confucius Temple to Fine Art Museum to Night Market and slideshow

Chinese Arts Dancing Ensemble and slideshow

Karen Rubin, Eclectic Travel Examiner

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