When I headed to Taiwan last Summer, I had in mind an outdoor rock-climbing course at Long Dong, an hour’s drive from Taipei. Unfortunately, the rainy season meant that it was off-peak for climbing. Knowing that there was no way I would just be staying in Taipei city the whole time without first going broke from shopping or suffering from indigestion from all that eating, I decided on making a trip out to Hualien to experience two of their highlights – a hike at Taroko Gorge and River Tracing.
When searching for a tour operator who covered both activities, I came across Hualien Outdoors. I could have gone with a local operator, that charges probably half the price they were charging, but decided against it due to the rave reviews Hualien Outdoors had and also I was very sure I wanted a guide who was fluent in English (because my Mandarin has its limitations, sadly).
Getting from Taoyuan Airport to Hualien itself is straightforward. We took a bus to Taipei Main Station for 90 Taiwan Dollars (TWD). When we got to the train station, we asked for the first train out to Hualien and managed to get seats on the Tze Chiang train for 440 TWD each. The journey took 2 hours and 40 minutes. Depending on the type of train you get, trip durations generally range between 2-3 hours.
In Hualien, we stayed at Journey Hostel and Bar. (Yes, you read right- bar. The hostel’s welcome lounge is a bar complete with a well-stocked pantry of beers, ciders and liquor.) The owners and staff were some of the friendliest people I met in Taiwan. They would give us tips on where to go, what to do, and what we had to try for the day. The hostel is a leisurely 10-minute walk from the station and is a breeze to get to. Most of all, I loved how clean, homely and quaint it felt. Going back to the hostel after a long day out actually felt like I was coming home, where they would ask about our day out, over a pint, of course.
Trying out a specialty – Mi Ka Nai comprising Mi Jiu (rice wine), Ka Fei (coffee) and Niu Nai (milk) – apparently a cheap favourite for the locals because of the low cost of rice wine.
On our second day in Hualien, we attempted the Old Zhuilu trail at Taroko Gorge. We were quite fortunate that we were still able to do so as there were some quakes in Taiwan a few weeks prior, and most of my friends who have attempted a hike have been turned away due to falling rocks.
But before we headed up, our Dutch guide Peter brought us to a bustling Taiwanese eatery for breakfast. They had really, really good Dan Bing (egg pancake) which reminded me a little of our local favourite Roti Prata with egg.
Our guide mentioned that the Old Zhuilu trail is a more serious hike up to the valley, and while it has one-of-a-kind views, a certain level of fitness and hiking experience is recommended. You don’t need equipment and most of hiking route is actually stairs. (Quite different from the other hikes I’ve been on where it is mostly rocky, uneven terrain!) You will however need to wear a helmet once you hit the cliff-side trail because there is quite a bit of rock-fall there and you don’t want to take any chances.
The view was indeed majestic once we got to the top of the Gorge. Having mainly hiked mountains and volcanoes so far, I was used to a more gradual slope towards the ground. For a Gorge, the valleys are extremely steep and almost vertical, with a river flowing through it. Before the hike, I thought my acrophobia would make me freak out when during the trail because it was such a steep drop! Surprisingly, the path’s width was not as narrow as I had imagined it to be, so I wasn’t that close to the edge. While being way up there did unnerve me a bit, I kept telling myself to concentrate on the view, and it was indeed a good distraction.
Verdict – The hike is a relatively strenuous one, and would require some sort of cardio fitness, but it is not too difficult if you have hiking experience. Since it is also predominantly steps, you don’t really need hiking boots for this. (I wore trail shoes and my friends wore regular sport shoes.) We took about 2.5-3 hours up and slightly less than 2 hours back down.
The Old Zhuilu trail actually extends quite a bit, but we were not able to do the rest of it as I understand it was closed off due to a typhoon. So we stopped right before the trail was marked off and had a small picnic lunch brought up by our guide.
When we were descending, we actually heard loud rumbling and thought it was thunder, but the rumbling actually went on for quite a bit. Peter attributed it to moving rocks, and at that moment when I heard “rocks” I was actually genuinely afraid that it would be an Indiana-Jones moment where we would have to run from boulders. Given how loud the rumbling was, I couldn’t help but wonder just how big the rocks actually were! When got back, we asked around but no one seemed to know what had happened.
Once we finally finished the route, we saw many tourists looking curiously at us and wondering how they could go onto the suspension bridge (in one of my earlier photos), because it was locked off and only accessible if you have a permit (which the guides duly took care of). At that moment, I felt really accomplished that we actually got to see the Gorge from a totally different perspective.
Peter then drove us to various points along the Gorge where we could see it from different points.Due to reconstruction works, our access was also quite limited.
But Peter made sure we didn’t lose out, and took us to two other viewpoints – one that was slightly down from the Gorge and was actually out-of-bounds, and to Qingshui Cliffs, another lesser-known area. We also stopped by a pebbled beach and a vantage point where we were greeted with yet another view of the Hualien coast.
If you ever find yourself planning a trip to Hualien and Taroko Gorge, I daresay there is no better way to see it than by taking the Old Zhuilu trail. Not only do you get the been-there-done-that boasting rights, but the route is uncluttered and perfect for a relaxing, leisurely hike away from tourist crowds. It is also in that serenity that one can really take in the striking beauty of the Gorge.
Also, a huge thanks to Peter from Hualien Outdoors for making our hike such a comfortable and fun one! Will be sharing our River Tracing experience with the team in another post!