What’s so special about a drive through winding mountain roads that pierces through a slew of tunnels on a misty December morning? Most mountain roads are beautiful, aren’t they? But this drive on Taiwan’s Central Cross Island Highway offers spectacular vistas as it runs parallel to the mighty Taroko Gorge – a constant reminder of how nature works and how beautifully carved creations it leaves behind.
On a wintry December morning we embarked on our drive to Taroko from Hualien – a coastal town in Eastern Taiwan. Within a few minutes – from sea level we drove into the steep landscape on the Central Cross Island Highway – one of the most scenic highways I have ever been to.
The highway is not just beautiful it is also considered one of the most dangerous highways in the world due to rock fall incidents every now and then, especially after heavy rainfall or typhoon, when the highway is closed for safety reasons. Interestingly, Taroko Gorge has been formed due to the shift in plates – the Philippines Oceanic plate pressing against the Eurasian Continental Plate. In fact the Gorge is still gaining height which is why the place is prone to earthquakes and hence considered risky.
The Shrine of Eternal Spring and more
After about 20 minutes, we reached the main entrance to Taroko Gorge – a favorite stopover for tourists and take photos. We also did the same touristy stuff. As we proceeded on the highway, the stunningly carved Taroko Gorge became more and more intimidating. The 19-km-long marble canyon is formed by the flowing Yiwu river which runs in between the gorge.
Our next stop was at the Shrine of Eternal Spring. We walked up to the other side of the Gorge to the Shrine via manmade tunnels. Just for trivia, the central cross island highway was constructed by workers using simple tools and some 200 of them died during the construction. This shrine is dedicated to them. Next to the shrine is a natural spring and its water empties into the Liwu River below. The legend has it that the spring never dries up and hence the name. The view of the temple with the gushing spring water amidst the steep gorge seemed surreal and looked like a postcard straight out of some ancient Chinese book.
December is the time for monsoons on the east coast of Taiwan and certain parts of the Gorge were covered in mist. Capturing all the picturesque vistas, we drove to our next stop – Swallow Grotto. We had a chance to observe the marble carved by the Yiwu river from closer quarters. Our cabbie dropped us at a point from where we walked close to the gorge to explore on our own. How artistically the marble has been formed with the water flowing and cutting the rocks over several hundreds and thousands of years. We were told, in earlier days, marble was extracted from the gorge for personal / commercial use by locals. But today, it’s banned and the canyon is protected by the government.
Thereafter, we also stopped by at the Suspension Bridge that goes over the gorge. The wobbly bridge reminded me of the Lakshman Jhula in Rishikesh, India.
Apart from these stopovers along the gorge, the drive itself was brilliant as we crossed one section of the gorge moving into the other with some sharp hairpin turns leading to a new vista every time. We crossed several long tunnels cutting through the gorge.
Another major attraction at Taroko is the Tunnel of Nine Turns, but it was closed for maintenance when we visited.
Drive to Hehuanshan and ahead
After sometime, we gorgeous gorge gave way to central mountains. We stopped by at the Bilu Sacred Tree which is said to be 3,200 years old and about 50 m high with a diameter of 3.5 m. The trivia that our cabbie shared – this tree is even older than Taiwan’s civilization – because the island has seen human settlement only in the last 2,000 years or so. Interesting, but not sure if it’s true!
At this point the weather was slowly getting cold and we stopped by at a local restaurant on the highway for lunch. The food served was pepper chicken with rice – was finger licking good especially on such a cold winter day.
After lunch we headed to the Hehuanshan Mountains. For those unfamiliar with Taiwan’s geography, the country is shaped like a sweet potato and the central mountains separate the east from the west coast as it runs from north to south.
Hehuanshan mountain range is the tallest mountain that is accessible by vehicle in Taiwan at 3422 meters. The day we visited the mountain, the temperature dipped to -2 degrees! We shivered and it started to snow – tiny little flakes. Coming from hot and humid Singapore, it was such a wonderful thing to shiver! After crisscrossing the several beautiful mountain ranges, our cabbie dropped us at our final destination on this leg of the trip – Cingjing Farm in Taiwan’s Nantou county. So, stay tuned for this part of my Taiwan trip in my next post!
Things to Remember while visiting Taroko Gorge
- The best way to travel to the gorge is from the nearby town of Hualien – which is well connected by trains from Taiwan’s major cities like Taipei and Kaohsiung.
- Bring warm clothes as it can get cold in Taroko. Bring an umbrella if you visit during the rainy season.
- There are buses that take you to Taroko Gorge from Hualien station. We took a cab because we were doing a cross island trip to Hehuanshan and Cingjing Farm.
- A typical cab ride from Hualien to Cingjing via Taroko and Hehuanshan costs about TWD 5000. A cab can take a maximum of 4 pax. Check out http://www.hualien-taxi.tw/ This is a very reliable agency. But you need to book in advance.
- There is no entrance fee into the gorge. However, please check out the official website http://www.taroko.gov.tw/English/ for any news of closure.