It’s time to share my sort-of latest adventure. Actually, I’ve been describing it to anyone who’d deign to listen, but now I shall cement the soggy details as a record for all posterity (or till bytes hit the dust).
Went to Taipei for a Jay Chou concert on 13th June (thanks again, JLim!); feared boredom in Taipei so was planning to hike the Caoling Historic Trail (草嶺古道) with MY and her sis on the 14th (they’d kindly extended their stay to do so) but a downpour put paid to that; decided to do the hike anyway by myself on the 15th as the weather was better though still rather wet (and there was apparently tremors that morning!).
Quick background on the Caoling Historic Trail
During the Qing Dynasty, this trail was used to reach the eastern side of Taiwan (there being no trains or tunnels). I was drawn because of this historical significance (few of such ‘old roads’ are intact) and what’s said to be gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean and Taoyuan Valley. (My past visits to Taiwan included a stop in Wulai and a day trip to magnificent Taroko Gorge, so I was hankering more to commune with nature rather than engage in commerce.)
Reported to my dad and MY as I chugged my way to Fulong on the TRA. I don’t know why my dad lets me do these things, but yes, he knew I was going alone into I knew not what. The sense that I was being foolhardy ballooned when MY conveyed news of an earthquake in Hualien that morning, resulting in tremors in Taipei that she herself felt, and also when she became really worked up about me coming back alive. To my mind, for her to be that worked up about a possibility of me perishing on the trail had to mean that the possibility was pretty much a probability! But anyway, my feet had got me on the train already, and I didn’t feel like turning back, so that was that.
Now let’s talk about the mercy of breakfast — I didn’t wake up in time for it at my hotel or with MY, so I was really hoping for a train bento. Then voilà! A vegetarian train bento!
The hearty, healthy breakfast would get me through the first part of the hike, and tasted all the better with the rustic scenery observed from the train.
I then arrived at Fulong Station, one of the possible starting points of the hike. I’d thought there was supposed to be a convenience store selling rice balls opposite the station, but I couldn’t spot any — only local shops selling lunchboxes that I couldn’t stomach (mainly cos they feature meat). So I did the truly foolish thing and decided to set off without sustenance, thinking that the train bento, a complimentary bottle of water from my hotel, and a box of sugar-free mints would suffice for the couple of hours the hike was supposed to take. But God proved merciful to me, as you shall see.
From Fulong Station, I was supposed to trek for 40 minutes or so to get to the start of Caoling Historic Trail itself — Yuanwangkeng Park (遠望坑親水公園). I strode off in the direction signalled by a signpost (the type that looks trustworthy cos it has more than one language). Was a bit dismayed to find there wasn’t one of those lovely paved paths you’d find on hiking trails in HK, but rather an actual road I had to trust would lead me to where I was supposed to go:
Let me just say it sucks to have to trust a road when you’re on your own, especially when there are seemingly deserted houses everywhere it winds:
It started getting pretty freaky when the deserted houses were left behind and all I saw were abandoned cars, a sign to a chicken farm and tall grass on either side of me, all capped with occasional showers. Then I hit a spot that gave me some perspective:
Not too shabby. Gave me hope. But then the Weirdness of the hike began, of which there is no photographic record (cos I was too freaked out to take any photos!). The trusty-looking signposts ceased, and there was only a spray-painted sign on a stone wall — the kind that looks as though it could be a prank, complete with a big arrow pointing ‘that-a-way’. I followed it anyway and ended up at a fork in the road.
One took me down to a barn, with a guard dog, a guardian cat and a dead end, and the other past a dodgy-looking shack that could’ve been the gruesome abode of a masked butcher of human flesh (for there was no one there to tell me otherwise) and another spray-painted sign. OK, so follow the sign, right? Right.
The road became a cobbled path, which bridged a stream (why does it feel so creepy to cross a bridge over a stream when you’re alone in a forest? Danged fairy tales!), wound through a really wet and wooded stretch, then ended up at a stone arch that led to a house. I wondered if it was a strangely positioned visitor’s information centre. But then why would the stone arch proclaim the place to be a “靜修之地” (“a place for contemplation”) instead of, say, “Visitor’s Centre”? Brow furrowed, I went through the arch and into the mystery.
There was a bungalow there with a well-tended garden but no one in sight. “有沒有人啊？” (Anybody there?) No reply. I peered through the windows. A pantheon of idols were arrayed in the gloom within, gleaming in the half-light. Oh, that kind of contemplation. Still no one emerged from the shadows. I hoofed it outta there.
Back at the arch, I wondered whether I’d unwittingly strayed from the path when I noticed a leaf-strewn staircase mere paces away. Worse than a spray-painted sign, there was a tiny wooden board with the Chinese name of the trail painted on it, pointing downwards at the 45 degrees the buried stairs were angled. But worse than a tiny wooden board and a slippery staircase and the midday dusk cast by the canopy were rows of hastily scrawled amulets hanging above either side of the stairs.
My first thought was: What the heck happened (or happens!) here that someone thought it necessary to hang these! My second thought was: There’s no way I wanna go down leaf-strewn stairs that end in a corner I can’t see beyond. MY’s admonishment to turn back immediately when I felt something wasn’t right came ringing back to my ears. Then, dear reader, I fled the way I came.
There was time to think as I did my scurrying. OK, I managed it this far, and it was really quite creepy. OK, so I’ll have to handle a bit of ignominy for my timidity, but I have a wealth of experience in that area. OK, so I’ll just have to take more photos now to make up for whatever view of the Pacific I’m going to miss. OK, so I’ll just hit the beach when I get back to Fulong or head to Yilan to make the most of the trip.
I got back to the town I didn’t expect to see again. I noticed the Visitor’s Information Centre I should’ve spotted and consulted before the whole sorry sojourn started. I thought, maybe I’ll just ask them where the beach is. As I crossed the road to the centre, I finally caught sight of the mythical beast, the convenience store with the legendary rice balls. Was it the promise of those that gave me strength to do another truly foolish thing? At the centre, instead of asking where the beach was, my mouth enquired about the place of contemplative horror, and my ears were informed that no, I hadn’t got lost, and actually, had been very close to the starting point of the trail, and yes, there was a ‘brighter’ way of getting there — a walk along the highway. Would take another 40 minutes, but there should be enough daylight to get me to the end point at Dali Station and onto the train back to blessed Taipei.
A plan formed as I walked away, buoyed by the sound of another human voice and the facticity of the town around me. I swept into the convenience store, came into possession of two tuna rice balls and a bottle of “Daily C” orange juice, returned to the train station (so shamed at having to start over), and hopped into a cab.
Get me to Yuanwangkeng Park, mister! So, mister, what time of the year do people actually hike here? Oh, in the fall? Because no one in their right mind would hike during the rainy season (i.e. inclusive of 15th June)? I see … Wow, this road is longer than I expected. Glad I took a cab. Yes, I’m intending to go on the Caoling Historic Trail. Yup, alone … (Here he probably assumed he was going to read about a missing hiker / body found on the trail in a couple of days.) Here’s your exorbitant pre-arranged sum of NTD200. Buh-bye! Bah, didn’t even bother to leave me a word of warning before zooming off.
So there I was at Yuanwangkeng Park at long last, insanely intent on finishing what I’d started, knowing I was being reckless but muffling my alarm again. I’d been through quite an adventure already, but had no inkling that the rollercoaster had only made its first plunge. There was more to come.
To be continued.