Arrival at the Hotel Likko in Xincheng was after dark, so in the morning I was surprised to find the Asia Cement Corporation factory looming behind us. It was nestled in the town’s backside, quaintly dwarfed by the pristine mountains behind it. Clouds of smoke spewed from smokestacks, with endless trains carrying raw materials in and processed materials out, adding to a haze of grey dust engulfing the manufactory.
Our brief exploration of the previous evening had already hinted that the town was either very new to, or very bad at, tourism. Here was evidence the town did not intend to depend on tourism for its livelihood. People needed cement, and they clearly had all the ingredients swirling around them. Diversification is a good thing, particularly when it gives folks ill-suited to sucking-up to passing gawkers something else to do.
Even so, it was a bit of a puzzle. The Taiwanese had shown themselves to be highly efficient in providing quality tourism infrastructure, and more than adequate in sucking-up, as the industry demands. Here we were, within sight of Taroko National Park, whose spectacular geology seemed to be on every Taiwan tourist’s must-do list. Yet hotels and restaurants were few and far between – and these folks, although friendly, didn’t seem too interested in sucking up.
At the Taroko National Park Visitor Center, the woman in front of us in line innocently asked the dowdily uniformed middle-aged park ranger “Will it rain today?”
“How do I know? I’m not god!” she shot back. I have to admit, the response made my day – but the woman on the receiving end was rather offended. The same ranger was more helpful to us, explaining that our plans to see the park would need to be modified because of recent landslides. I did not dare ask whether there would be more landslides today.
This change in plans left forty minutes before the next tourist bus was due. I calculated this as time enough to walk the first few kilometers into the park, to the first attraction, the Bridge of 100 Lions. There we could catch the same bus to bring us further into the park. Off we went.
At first, the well-maintained walking track was squeezed between a cliff-edge and a narrow, twisting mountain road. The road was busy, mostly massive trucks carrying large amounts of cement-making ingredients, and private tour buses. Then the path narrowed to a catwalk along the road, entering a tunnel — well-lit but, from all appearances, endless. Were we really supposed to walk in there? I re-checked our map.
There are several things those of us who like to walk must strive to remember. First, most people would prefer having termites fed up their nostrils to walking. That is to say, we walkers are a minority. Second, just because some map-maker says you can walk somewhere does not mean you should. It certainly doesn’t mean it will be pleasant. Thirdly, massive trucks carrying large amounts of cement-making ingredients, and private tour buses are powered by diesel engines.
We entered the tunnel. Need I go on? After a few minutes, I was asking myself that very question. The daylight from the tunnel entrance faded behind us with no end to the tunnel in sight. Vehicles roared by. I could feel the diesel soot settling in my lungs. Then, rather unexpectedly, a broadside of sunlight hit the side of my face, beamed through a short pedestrian passageway, an exit to our left.
Another thing those of us who like to walk must strive to remember is that walking can be very rewarding.We emerged to discover we had the park to ourselves, at least for a kilometer or so. The traffic remained trapped in its subterranean hell, and it appeared no other hikers hadbeen so, um, committed as to traverse the tunnel.
Sweeping views of the lower stretches of the Taroko gorge revealed themselves to us alone. Boardwalks and bridges led us over precarious cliffs and between ridges, spiraling down to a muddy flat by the river bed. For a moment, I thought we had lost the trail. Then a roar from above caused us to look up, spying the bridge fifteen stories above. A stairway returned us to the crowds around the tourist bus stop.
Over several million years, the Liwu River carved the park’s main attraction, “The Marble Gorge”, which wends for miles, bearing the striations of geological upheaval, a solid rock face hundreds of meters deep in some places, a marble bath in its natural form. In the river itself thousands of huge boulders lay, rounded by erosion, resembling marvelous massive marble marbles. Countless waterfalls leap off the gorge walls, flushing well this day from recent rains. Some of the more spectacular spots have ancient temples, reflecting the clergy’s role as the original tourist officials, promising the heavens to the uninformed and curious.
In addition to the private tour buses, scheduled public tourist buses sputter and sway along the switchbacks up and down the river’s sheer cliffs, with drivers displaying more confidence in the journey’s outcome than their passengers. The first bus we boarded presented the heady aroma of unbathed campers carrying week-old dried fish, and outfitted to scale Mt Everest. Here and there the bus navigated sharp corners wrapped by guardrails bearing telltale indications of past misfortune. One such gap led me to wonder whether the vehicle responsible lay smoldering below, the passengers’ pleas for quick and merciful death smothered in their airbags. I would not recommend the Taroko National Park tourist bus for the faint of heart, nor to those prone to motion sickness or other forms of queasiness. For the rest of us, though, it is pretty cool.
We alighted the bus for the short hike at the Swallow Grotto Trail, the most spectacular of the gorge’s features not currently closed due to landslides A couple of private tour buses were already at the trail head, with dozens of folks milling about. Immediately we noticed everybody had been provided hard hats except us. Perhaps by walking out of the Visitor Center, rather than taking the bus from the start, we had missed the helmet distribution point.
Here, signs urged helmet use, also suggesting one hasten along to avoid getting beaned by tumbling boulders –a bit like suggesting one gets less wet running in the rain.Overhead fencing had caught hundreds of falling cliff chunks, demonstrating the seriousness of the peril. We hastened along, helmetless.
Soon we came to a souvenir and coffee shop — this was no wilderness trail. It sat on an outcrop, beyond boulder-beaning range, with a gorgeous gorge view at the confluence of two rivulets, wisps of waterfalls all about. A good place to settle in for a hot chocolate, which we did.
Studying the map, we realized we had seen what we came to see. Studying the bus schedule, though, we realized we could either await the next bus out in two hours – OR take the next in, due back at the trail head in fifteen minutes. Then I realized the next bus in WAS the next bus out. We hastened – again — back to the trail head, where we boarded to complete a two-hour bus tour of the park. This bus was less crowded, and had no smelly campers. We also got to see much we would have missed. A good call.
Back at the hotel I found housekeeping had left the window open, just a crack. A dusting of white powder covered everything, to the point I could sign my name on the coffee table. Frank called housekeeping. Oddly, the woman who answered comprehended the issue immediately and completely, despite demonstrating little in the way of English comprehension. “Yes, dust, sorry sir, I clean.” I sensed this was not a unique event. Such is life downwind from a cement factory.
An alarm went off – “Dah-de DAAAAH, dah, Dah-de DAAAAH, dah, Dah-de DAAAAH, dah, Dah-de DAAAAH!” I fiddled with the clock radio, trying to turn it off. No luck, it wasn’t the clock radio. Over and over the alarm sounded. Was it the smoke alarm? The air conditioner? TV? Refrigerator? Toilet? No, no, no, no, no. What the hell was it? We scampered about the room, poking our head under the bed, pressing an ear to the hotel telephone key pad. Then, the alarm faded, then it disappeared. We shrugged.
It was now after two in the afternoon. We’d had a huge hotel breakfast, so we hadn’t had lunch yet. Back on the streets of Xincheng we discovered all the places Google had marked as “Good for Lunch!” had closed at two. We marched hopefully towards the town center, a kilometer away.
“Dah-de DAAAAH, dah, Dah-de DAAAAH, dah, Dah-de DAAAAH, dah, Dah-de DAAAAH!” Frank and I exchanged an excited glance, turning to see a garbage truck roar by, blaring its happy tune. Oh.
We found an open restaurant, Formica and fluorescent, selling soup. With much pointing and chirping we ordered chicken soup, I think, from the proprietor. She set her young son upon serving us as she disappeared into the kitchen. The pre-teen boy grabbed a couple of bowls, blowing the dust off them, spittle visibly travelling from his lips onto the bowls. Then he ladled the bowls full of piping hot soup, serving them to us while wiping his runny nose on his sleeve.
What, exactly, is the prudent traveler supposed to do in this circumstance?
I turned to Frank, who, having watched this floor show, sat there silently, jaw agape. I said “I don’t know about you, but I am not touching this.”
“No.” Frank responded. “No, I am not.”
I tucked a NT$100 bill under my bowl – the bowls of soup were NT$40 (A$1.50) each – and we headed for the exit.
At the greengrocer next door, we bought bananas and tomatoes. This we fondly called “lunch”. That evening we dined again at bad-translation-but-clean hole-in-the-wall restaurant next to the hotel.
In the morning we left Xincheng from its Taroko Truku station, Truku being the name of the indigenous people after whom Taroko was named. In the light of day, the station was something of an attraction in itself, with some interesting modern sculptures, historical interpretive displays of museum quality, and uplifting architecture. It could be these folks recently figured out they are sitting on a tourist goldmine after all.