HUALIEN, Jan 31 — Taipei is one of my favourite cities in the world, buzzing with culture and activity. The food choices alone are a challenge for any foodie to conquer. Yet sometimes you just need to escape the bustle of the capital for a slice of the quiet life.
A mere three hours or so away by train or car is the bucolic town of Hualien, tucked in between the Central Mountain Range and the Pacific Ocean. The fresh air and slow pace of life isn’t the only draw though; Hualien is also the closest town from which you can travel to see the scenic Taroko National Park, a few miles north.
Once you reach the town and have checked in, ask your hotel or minsu (bed-and-breakfast) to recommend an experienced taxi driver to act as your tour guide. This is how everyone explores the natural beauty of Taroko Gorge; a good driver can also steer clear of the convoy of tour buses so you have a bit more privacy.
It will take about six to eight hours to cover all the trails and sights of Taroko Gorge, so you’d typically want to start your day early. If a traditional breakfast of youtiao (Chinese crullers) and danbing, a rolled egg crêpe, sounds too heavy, why not try sweet dessert soups instead? A steaming bowl of hongtou sui (red bean soup) or douhua (tofu pudding) with boiled peanuts in ginger syrup will awaken your senses for the day ahead.
The first trail you should hit is the Eternal Spring Shrine while it’s still early morning, before the afternoon tour groups arrive. This shrine, located south towards the Liwu River Valley, was erected in memory of the workers who died during the construction of Central Cross-Island Highway.
Seemingly hanging in the clouds, the shrine is also famed for the tiny waterfalls that flow from rivers next to it. If you walk up the stairs behind the shrine, it’ll take you past a bridge (with the beautiful name “Heaven’s Trail”) and into Changuang Temple, where statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas watch over incense burnt by devotees in offering.
Next head to the Shakadang Trail, which follows the path of the Shakadang River below. This, for many, is the true highlight of Taroko Gorge: the pristine beauty of Mother Nature unfolds at its own pace. (A return trip of the entire trail takes about three hours to complete so take your time.)
Shakadang in the Taroko language means “molars”, referring to the molars excavated by the first aboriginal communities that settled here. The riverbed is strewn with boulders and a canopy of trees hang over both banks. Lovers of birds, butterflies and other insects will have a fine time spotting them all along the trail.
After trekking about 4.5 kilometres, you will enter the old Datong tribe village, where you may encounter the Taroko indigenous people. There is even a garden of bird’s nest ferns, a native Taiwanese plant that is traditionally eaten by the Taroko people.
Take a much needed lunch break after all that walking. Start with some Chinese tea topped with puffed rice to warm you up. To fill your belly, a biandang set of zhajipa, the famous Taiwanese deep-fried chicken seasoned with salt and pepper, served with rice and pickles will do splendidly.
For something more nourishing, try the local braised beef shank, which is braised with candied honey dates, red chillies, old ginger and spices for hours. The gravy — redolent of star anise, peppercorns, fennel seeds and cinnamon — is very slurp-worthy.
After lunch, a visit to the Swallow Grotto may provide you with some post-meal music... the songs of soaring swallows, that is. The grotto is actually a narrow gorge carved out by the actions of the river below over the years.
From the Swallow Grotto path, you’ll be able to see innumerable holes in the rock cliffs opposite; this is where the swallows nest. The lilting, musical twittering of the swallows, especially during mating season, can soothe any troubled heart (or simply city-frazzled nerves).
Another spot you’d enjoy is the Yuefei Pagoda where you may cross the Heliu Suspension Bridge for gorgeous views of the Liwu River. The suspension bridge can be alarming for those who are afraid of heights but those who walk across it are rewarded with the feeling of floating above the boulder-strewn riverbed.
Don’t miss catching the sunset. Leave the mountains and head to Chihsingtan Beach, which is not sandy but covered with fine black pebbles. It’s a great place for a stroll without getting sand in your shoes or sandals. Palm trees wave with the winds. And really, you can’t beat the view of the Pacific Ocean, especially when the waves are rolling in.
Time to replenish your calories after walking all day. Dinner in Hualien may feature a lot of braised meats and vegetables, but look out for something unique — aboriginal cuisine. Chewy and fragrant, zhu tung fan (glutinous rice steamed in bamboo) is a specialty of the local aborigines that is not unlike our lemang.
Another indigenous dish is daylily soup. Also known as golden needle flowers (jinzhen hua), the unopened buds of daylily are harvested, sun-dried and then lightly boiled to produce a clear broth that is believed to rejuvenate the body.
Still hungry? Head to the Dongmen (East Gate) Night Market, where you can sample Taiwanese street food such as oh-a-chian (oyster omelette smothered in a savoury gravy), stinky tofu, guan cai ban (“coffin board” stuffed toast), grilled skewers of meat and vegetables, all manner of shellfish cooked with fiery dried chillies, and endless plastic cups of bubble tea and freshly squeezed fruit juice.
What a delicious finish. Imagine: you have travelled from some of the highest peaks in Taiwan to the wild, wind-blown coast in a single day. Now that’s some journey!
Taroko National Park
291, Fushi Village,
Open daily 8.30am-5pm
Dongmen (East Gate) Night Market
50 Zhongshan Rd., Hualien City, Hualien, Taiwan
Open daily 6pm-12am