29 Dec 90
I have planned to spend the New Year long weekend at Hohuan
Shan. I thought I would walk up from Tayuling and then down to
Wushu returning to Taipei. As the bus from Hualien to Tayuling
will leave only at 730am, it did not really matter if I leave
Taipei late on Saturday.
That timing was fateful, as was the can of Pepsi I bought.
I took the 11.43pm train from Taipei to Hualien. I bought some
snacks and a Pepsi from the Station. Finished the snack and
fell asleep on the train.
30 Dec 90
They woke me up at Hualien. That can was still unopened.
Taking that with me, I slung on the backpack and walked out of
the station. Pulled the tab and strode on into the cold morning
air of Hualien City. I wanted to go to the nearby park to watch
the dawn breaking over the city.
Walking past the bus stop, I thought it would be more
comfortable to sit there and finished the Pepsi first. There
were some Taiwanese there sleeping and sitting at the bench when
I made my way to a seat.
A conversation started up with three guys there. They had
backpacks all over, and I think people with backpacks always
find others with backpacks to be fascinating to each other.
While we may have different dreams and routes, we share the same
urge to explore and find out a bit more of our world. That
curiosity extends to people as well. Besides, talking about
routes help to pool information for any later plans.
They knew I was not a local from the way I talked. They were
intrigued by the way I wandered around by myself here in
Taiwan.Told them also of the way I checked out other parts of
the world by myself.
The talk switched to philosophy and political world. I guessed
that failed when they brought in one more member of their group
as interpreter. She told them I was talking on 'Eastern Europe'
and not 'Eastern neu-rou' and that have nothing to do with
neu-rou mein or neu-rou chang (this is directly translated to
'beef place', a place where pretty girls will sing two songs
each, the first song will be sang in beautiful elegant outfits,
and the second song with just their shoes and a smile).
The disparity of what I was saying and what they thought they
were comprehending was so vast. That knowledge of the standard
of Chinese I commanded depressed me. I wondered that perhaps my
earlier conversation with them on philosophical matters must
also have taken on warped undertones as well. I reckoned if I
try to set that right, even greater damages may result. I gave
a big sigh deep inside my mind.
Her name is Amanda and she has a friend Chin-hua with her( I
tend to pay more attention and remember girls' names better).
It was getting about 5am, I suggested we could perhaps walk on
to the bus station about 1/2 hour away.
They woke up the rest of the group, a guy with his newly wed
wife, her sister and boyfriend, and a girl with a most
enchanting voice like notes tinkling from wind-chimes. A
pretty girl with delicate Chinese features and who smiled from
I gathered they were going to walk on an old road at the Taroka
Gorge though I was still not clear of the details yet. I
gathered the road was somewhat above the existing road that the
traffic runs. I thought it was going to be a fairly easy walk.
I enjoyed their company, and I thought where I wanted to go can
still be done another time by myself. A trip on their route may
not be possible on my own. They readily accepted me when I
asked to join them.
Shortly after breakfast, we left on the local bus to Taroka
Gorge. It was driven by a very friendly man who became even
friendlier and talkative when he heard from them where they
intended to go.
We dropped at the bridge shortly after a dam. We clambered 20'
down rocks,a little bit different from the 'old road' I expected
to 'walk' on. I thought that's only the start, and that it
should get easier later on. Never was I more wrong. We crossed
the bridge to the other side of the Gorge. We then climbed up
more boulders, pushed through some under growth, and down onto
the river bank. I cracked my right knee on the first jump, just
what I need to add to my left ankle, still wobbly after the
wrench it received 6 weeks back. Grit my teeth , told them no
problem and continued. The pain eased after a while.
I knew I dressed wrongly, having thermal undershirt on with
thick T shirt and padded shirt. Also had on my old pair of
jeans meant for walking. That was with me for over 15 years and
we have been to many treks together. It was too tight to allow
me to bend my legs freely to climb up or down. I thought I was
going for a walk in the cold air of Tayuling to Hohuanshan in
the first place. Stripped off my shirt as I was over heating in
the climbing up and down of the boulders along the bank. It was
The boulders appeared so deceptively small when seen from the
roadside. They were the size of big buses and cars we have to
climb over. At one place, we had to take off our shoes and
socks to wade in the swift cold water of the river. The
smoothness of the boulders,despite their size, gave an idea of
the force of the river at its peak flow. Powerful as the river
was, the driftwood packed twenty feet above the water line
showed what it could really do. Those boulders must have been
washed along like pebbles. The banks were molded out of granite
and marble. History of powerful events of long time past where
recorded in the striations. They were further twisted and fused
by the forces of the tectonic plates grinding and heating them.
Pages of the history of the world written in a way befitting to
To add to the fun, at one point, some yellowish metallic
particles were found in the sand. One of the guy collected a
fair bit of that. I thought they were probably mica. However,
when examined through a magnifying glass, they appeared to be
granular and not flaky. I did not see any quartz normally
associated with gold, should that really have been gold. If I
had, I would have collected some myself. I thought also if all
those shining stuff have been gold, people would have been
mining and panning for those stuff as well.
We climbed up and down, transfering backpacks. I felt
embarrased at the weight of those three leaders' pack. They
must have packed a lot of gear. My own pack was light,
consisting mainly of warm clothing. I noticed those three were
normally in front actively seeking out the route. I wondered
why are we looking up at people at the road above us when we
should be looking down on them far below as briefed earlier.
They did their best, but it was not passable. We turned back
the same way we came by to the bridge. We rested at the
northern tunnel which seemed to be abandoned half constructed.
It had chinese words saying it was connected with hydroelectic
power. Still, looking at the construction, it contained certain
characteristics and seemed to be designed for military uses. I
have build and seen enough of such features. They pulled from
the packs stoves, pots and pans and cooked up a meal of instant
mee. Very tasty too. Also showed a little bit why the packs
After a short rest, we carried on by the main road. Looking
back across where we tried to travel, we could see why it took
us two hours to get to a point where the main road on the other
side took us 20 minutes. At the point where we turned back, not
even a mountain goat could get through.
Just before Yen-chi-kou, there is a spidery suspension bridge of
steel wire and bamboo spanning the river 200' below us. The
leader pointed us to go down. By now I expect the unexpected.
I peered over the road edge to see a series of flimsy ladders
going down. It moved with my every step. I thought it to be
dangerous. When I finished with the trip, I would have consider
that to be so ridiculously safe.
The bridge could take us across one at a time. The swaying
could get you queasy but it was fun in its own way. The other
side have broad paths of cobble stones. The way water were
seeping out from the wall, a series of pools of clear running
water were formed like fountain terraces backed against the
cobble paths where they seeped through in turn.
It was a beautiful day with little wisps of clouds and a nice
warm sun. The green trees and bushes marching down the gorge
slope made us linger on a while.
I was fascinated with the tadpoles in the pools. Acid rain and
other pollutants have apparently wiped out a lot of the frogs in
Europe and North America. As amphibians they seem to be most
sensitive to the effects of man. Whether we shrugged off their
departure or we take them as canaries used at mines where their
deaths will give early warnings to miners is up to us. I am
happy to see them around.
As we gathered to move on, I offered to switch the heaviest pack
as I felt guilty. They declined assuring me it is ok with them.
We went up the slope on a little path. Zig and zag up the side.
The trees and undergrowth were thick and cannot be seen through
to a distant. Now and then, yellow trail markers were tied to
indicate the path.
It was tiring and hot. The nice warm sun that felt so nice
earlier seemed to be making its effect even through the cool
leaves. I was glad no one took up my offer to switch packs. 15
minutes took us to another suspension bridge spanning a chasm.
I thought the 'road' would start there as that was a big red
bridge easily seen from the main road.
There was no 'road'. If one look carefully amonge the bushes to
the side after the bridge, a little path can be seen. Seems
like the bridge was build big and painted a nice red so pretty
pictures can be taken of it by tourist in their buses on the
The uphill climb continued. The mountain slope is a good 65-70
degree. The path twist and turned upwards.
The air must be cool. After all, it is supposed to be winter,
on a mountain slope with air filtered by green leaves. Others
are wearing thick sweaters and moving on smoothly. I only feel
my sweat coming out, flowing down my back. I breath heavily, to
draw in more cool air. I meditate on ice orange juice . I
switched to thinking of wind-swept Artic winter. I imagined the
soaked thermal underwear and T shirt to be evaporating and
cooling me. My legs kept moving. I looked above at the swaying
hips of girls and imgagined how the rest of their bodies would
looked like to distract myself. My body could not transcend to
those thoughts. I poured and poured sweat.
Then the upward climb ended after rounding a group of boulders.
We reached a meadow where we rested. I could only think of
water to drink. After a long draw at the bottle, my mind then
recovered enough to look around.
Before us, stretched a field of waving 'Maung chow' grass in
full flower. The sloping light of the sun backlight the bushy
tops in a soft silvery glow. On a gentle rise just behind the
field, humble dwellings of two families can be seen. Then the
ground rose again into a knoll. Two jagged mountain tops appear
behind them with white scars tracing where parts broke off into
screes dusting lower parts of it. Clouds flow past them playing
a game of hide and seek . Right of the clearing, the forest
grew rising and dipping carpeting the slope in different shades
of green towards the top. Now and then, maple trees with red
leaves made crimsom splashes in that sea of green. Standing on
the boulder, the other side of the gorge loomed upwards. The
main road and traffic could just be made out at the foot far
below. Yes, I could see that we are way above them now.
We walked on to the huts. That place is called Pata-Kang.
There were two families there from the Tai-yah-chu hill tribe.
Their traditions were fast fading. They lived off the land on
sweet potatoes and other crops they grow. The youngest is a
toddler about 3 years old. One of them was said to be near one
hundred years old and looked like it. She have a broad black
band tattooed across her mouth. They allowed us to camp and
presented us with some sweet potatoes.
Three tents were quickly set up. Stoves, pots and pans and a
staggering amount of food poured from the backpacks. That
explained the weight of some of the packs. The girls got
organised and I tried not to get in their way. We ate and ate.
Fruits were Mandarin oranges and tiny hill peaches taken off the
orchard nearby. Flickering flames from a big wax torch lit up
the night while we glutted ourselves. The tattooed lady joined
us producing a bottle of rice wine. I bribed her with
cigarettes to get a share. It tasted so nice in that cool night
air. None of the other guys wanted it. Yu Hwa, the girl with
the tinkling voice liked the aroma and joined us two in enjoying
We sat around and talked away in the warm afterglow of a good
meal and our sense of achievement of that day. They still
thought I was a bit unusual in traveling so much on om own.
Then a voice broke in on us.
My jaws dropped along with the others at the sight of this guy
walking nonchalantly into the circle of light with his backpack
and a small torchlight slung over his shoulder asking if he
could join in. It was tough enough during daylight hours to get
up. He came in alone in the middle of the night like he was
strolling to the 7-11 store. When asked how he felt about
coming up alone at night, he said "oh yes, it was a bit scary".
We laughed at his understatement breaking the ice, if any.
Quite a good looking slim guy and charming too. It was
interesting to see Amanda (the interpreter) and her girfriend
Chin-hwa talking to him like probing his suitability as a
boyfriend. I must say that is my guess from the body languages
expressed as they were using their normal chinese too rapid for
me to understand and not the simple one they used with me.
The others soon prepared to go to sleep. I declined their
sincere invitations to join them in the tents. I have been told
by friends I snore and I do not wish to strain the new
friendships I have made.I also do not sleep early. The night
was really too beautiful up there by the mountainside. The moon
was nearly full, lighting up the surrounding with its silvery
beams, almost bright enough to read by. The air had just a
slight nip of chill. The down sleeping bag I was in would be
enough. The canopy of the sky was comforting . It was one of
those rare moments in life where it is good to sleep under the
stars. I took out a candle preparing to read Barry Lopez's
latest book, 'Crossing Open Ground' before I sleep.
Lone Ranger joined me shortly. Found he is better known as
Chen-hung. He lectures in software and 'C' language when he is
not roaming around the mountains on foot or on his mountainbike
normally on his own. He decided too that the night is too
beautiful to sleep in the tent and dragged his sleeping bag out
as well. We talked on for a long time, sharing our experiences
and philosophies, too complex to put into words here. Went to
sleep as we did not want to disturb others too much. I think
we may see a bit of each other after the trip.
31 Dec 90
Woke up from a good sleep I have had. The wind blew up a bit
during the night. I was aware of it in my dreams. Nice to be
wrapped up in the sleeping bag and cocooned by the raw
elements. Felt good to have been near and intimate with Mother
We all packed and prepared to continue on. Chen-hung said his
goodbyes and continued on while we carried on with the
breakfast. We then loaded up with water and went on. The trail
snaked up behind the fruit trees at the back. I got an inkling
from the day before and stripped down to a T shirt and jeans
this time as it was hot work walking up. Got to know better
what we were doing too.
I first thought we were going on some road build in the Ming
dynasty because of the name . It was Mingkuo chu liu nien
(translated roughly to 6 years from the start of the present
rule started by Dr Sun Yat Seng) or 74 years back. It was the
only way through the gorge before the new road was carved out
Now the old road is used mainly by hikers. Not many hikers
here. We did not see anyone else coming or going on this way
unlike the normal 'renshan renhai'(mountains of men and seas of
men) that packed and jammed others places I have been to here in
Taiwan. I shortly understood the reasons why.
The climb started upwards sharply again after the little knoll.
We got into the rythmn . Consisting of weaving our ways up the
forested slope on the path marked out by other groups. Couldn't
see much of the woods for the trees so to speak. Compared to
the later part of the day, the morning climb had no difficult
spots to speak about other than the physical task of taking
yourself and your pack up the slope.
It was tiring work. The heat build up in my body wasn't so bad.
We stopped for welcomed short breaks now and then. We could
then look around and admire the view if there were breaks in the
trees. During the walk up, one have to concentrate on the foot
holds and the surroundings could not be taken in well.
The dynamics of the group was getting clearer to me as well.
The first three guys I meet took us all up. Lee Wen-hwa, the
leader of the group took up the rear. He seemed serious and
wrapped in his thoughts as the trip went on. Lee Chinghai and
Ting Huakuan took the front actively seeking the path markers.
They were more relaxed , possibly less burdened with the
responsibility of the group.
Amanda bubbled along with energy ,quite expressive with her
voice and gestures as to her likes and dislikes. Chinhwa, her
goodnatured friend was more quiet and always seemed happy. Hsu
and Shi kept much with the Lin sisters in their quiet little
group. I concentrated on absorbing as much as I could of the
feeling of this place.
About midday, the steep almost continous upwards climb ended.
We came to an overgrown rough path which could be seen easily
unlike much of the trail before. It turned sharply right
punching through an outcrop of the moutain. It was a short
lenght of tunnel that we would have camped in last night if not
for the time lost in the morning.
Beautiful place where we had a short break. A maple tree was at
the edge. The sun overhead shining behind it made its red
leaves glow like rubies. The richness of the red against the
light blue skies can only be captured in the mind's eye.
We walked on. I was already deliriously happy with the
exquisite beauty of such a place. Then after another turn in
the trail, the true grandeur and the magnitude of the trail
broke on me.
The trees fell away as the side of the mountain plunged into an
85 degree drop. The tiny path was hacked and blasted as a
little niche in the sharply sloping granite walls of the
The mountains marched motionlessly on to the horizon. Down,
down at the bottom of the gorge the river flowed as a tiny
trickle of water. A thin ribbon of black with just barely
discernable box like objects was the road with their tourist
buses. The mountains we were on were accompanied by the
mountains on the other side of the gorge. They seemed alive
infused with a bemused air at us.
Stillness of the Tao and motion without motion. The mind expand
and the body falls away as the consciousness struggled to take
it all in. That subconscious attempt conflict with yet another
part of the mind yearning to stay in the comfort of a smaller
world where the Id is tangibly bigger in comparison.
Like a frog taken out of the well to see the world and finding
how small it actually is against that scale, then struggling to
get back in preferring the more comforting illusion the whole
world is in the well.
Tiny bushes, flowers and ferns clung on to life even on the bare
granite walls and the path we were on. I walked in small
measured steps half in reverence for that place and to savour
the feeling in the air.
Also, perched on that 2 feet wide path suspended 2000 feet above
the ground below by an almost vertical granite wall doesn't make
you want to take very wide steps. Helped also by the granite
chippings which skid a bit now and then. And thinking of the
earthquake which struck Hualien with a force of 6 on Richter
scale only a weekback. And that 600 over earthquakes struck
Taiwan every year. I was happy no strong winds were blowing to
add in the fun. I recalled a walk on a similar path a few years
back after Jomosom in Himalayas where I faced winds gusting
between force 2 to 5.
That was a very long 400 meters stretch. When then path turned
around the shoulder, I was relieved to be back in a more
sheltered stretch . The slope wasn't vertical allowing soil to
support trees growing there. Nice for this frog to be back in a
well. Then, the path twisted out again. With the road far far
below , and we were walking on the ledge once more.
Earthquakes did not hit us then. But over 67 years, it hit the
trail many times. It is a measure of how well it was build by
those brave people way back then that the trail remained intact
most of the way. It is only in a few places where the mountain
cracked and tumbled down, taking the trail with it leaving empty
At those places, the 2 feet wide track I thought to be scary
looked so safe and comforting to be on when you crossed the
gaps. They span them with little pieces of wood tied up with
thin wires. I looked at my lifeline etched in my palm to reassure
myself many times that day. I became very conscious of the 105
kilo I packed into a pair of shoes.
At times, we have to make our way down across debris of granite
and marble boulders and clawed our way back up again. Or up
over the break and down again to the path. At places, thin
steel cables were in place to assist. If your footing gave way,
those cables would slice into your palms. Movements have to be
made very slow with fingers feeling for every fissure and feet
placed very carefully. Had to expand the consciousness to
heighten the awareness of the environment and every movement
made with slow deliberation. At lips of overhangs, the path was
the dust which gathered on the tangled roots of grass. They
gave slightly with every step.
In addition to those plastic strips of trail markers, we looked
for 'lohans' or little rocks piled up to show the way. The knee
hurt a bit especially on the downhill parts across the debris.
It would be a bad place to have further injuries. The jeans I
wore as I thought I would be walking did were difficult to
climb with. I should have just changed them but never thought
of it then. Stiff-legged myself down by the seat of the pants
over rocks the size of small cars and inched up again.
Those three guys have been incredible in getting us all across.
At bad places, they got over and ferried the backpacks to the
other side. I found it tough enough without the packs and they
crossed with that on. Of the three, Ting was the mountain goat.
Small size but really tough guy. My heart dropped to see him
move at some places. He have an incredible eye for ledges and
footholds which do not exist till you see him like walking on
People seating in cushioned comfort in buses and wooing and
wowing at the river a few hundred feet below them and probably
thinking that was all to it at Taroka gorge could not imagine
the drama played 2000 feet above them. They may, but I wasn't
looking at them.
At one part, the pieces of wood I was worried about have been
longed for. One strand of wire hung down from the other side.
An earthquake took out our side leaving a gap of about 15 feet.
They got the packs over. Positioned themselves to pass the
girls across. I have to say, the girls were courageous. Anyone
panicking will not panick for long.
I crossed last. I spend the time in re studying the foot and
hand holds, replaying that over in my mind a few times to make
sure my movements would be smooth. I had to depend on myself as
I do not want to take the chance of pulling anyone.. Taking
faith in that only the good die young, I moved through like a
wraith in a dream.
That was a very very long two seconds in my life.
Anyone of those crossings will be enough to flavour the trip.
Just like a little bit of chilli will be nice with food, but a
lot of it really spice it up to the stage that the whole mouth
It was like that on that trail. What would have been dangerous
were became routinely expected. The already tremendous
experience from the view transcended further into one where we
walked with our souls.
We have been lucky. The weather was fine. If it have had
rained, some of those crossings would not be passable.
We ran short of water. I sweated a lot and the dehydration was
getting in on me. We have been moving with very little stops
since morning when we set out. No lunch either except for the
beef jerky and chocolates and caramel sweets I had with me that
we shared. We wanted to get to a place with water for the
night. Exhaustion was setting in as well. In the late
afternoon, every stop would have me out completely in a
dreamless sleep, sometimes not even taking off the backpack.
Night came. We carried on a while with torchlight. The
concentration required to walk on safely cannot be sustained
with the fatigue and using torchlight. Those three must have
came to the same conclusion. They called a halt where the path
broaden a bit. I dimly recalled pulling out the sleeping bag,
changing out of my sodden clothings and sleeping immediately.
Woke at 11pm with most of the fatigue gone. Found the three
have courageously gone on to try to get water. The rest of us
were resting across the path shrouded with trees on both sides.
So many times I woked up on New year day with hangover vowing I
will spend a 'dry' New years eve.
I got to do it this time, the last day of this decade. I
thought of my friends who would be drinking away wondering where
they are and the cheers they would be exchanging. It would be a
New year eve I will always remember.
Tried to bring comfort to the girls assuring that those three
would be safe as time went on and they did not return. I felt
they must have been tired also and would be back in the morning.
Spoke to Shi taking turns with him to keep watch. Some
moonlight filtered in through the trees allowing a bit of
visibility. It would be comforting place, but the absence of
those three gave me a deep disquiet and troubled all of us.
1 Jan 1991
Light broke. I decided to stay in the trackpants I used for
sleeping. I knew I could not take the girls across the way
others did. In case they did not get back, I have to assume the
worse and go down myself to get help from other people. I threw
the jeans down the slope among the trees and bushes. It will be
a fitting rest for it from the trips we shared together. It
also lightened my load. If necessary, I might abandon the
backpack as well.
The others wanted to leave that place. I told them those three
would have started at day break. It may take 1 1/2 hours. That
place we were at have been the best place to rest since the
whole afternoon before. We should wait for them there. If they
did not get back by 730am, I would go down while they stayed.
I felt good when at about 7am, we heard a whistle. Then their
shouts from across a valley. I never wanted to be a hero.
Heros are good guys and they normally die young. Especially
since by doing so, it would have meant that those three have met
with accidents. They got back with the water 20 minutes later.
They got down allright. Lost their way getting back. They were
tired and rested till daybreak before getting back.
That water was important. We cooked breakfast and drank to our
hearts' content. Giving us the strenght to continue on. We
still had to make a few more dangerous crossings. I would have
hate to do it by myself even in the morning without the food and
drink. It would be very dangerous when done at night. Only
they could have done it. It exceeded by far what the other guy
have done the night before. After that, it was all downhill.
We took all together about 3 hours to get to the spring water at
the bottom of a valley strewn with huge marble boulders the
size of houses.
From then it was easy. We made our way to the main road. Got
out near a bridge. I forgot the name, but on the other side of
the bridge is a gigantic boulder with a little pavilion build on
top. Thumb down a lorry which gave us a lift to Tienchi a few
kilometers down the road. While forest and wilderness are nice,
I must say so is civilization where there are restaurants and
cold drinks. Interesting coincidence was the bus driver taking
us back to Hualien was the same stout friendly driver who took
us there originally. Found he was called Mr Yen. He detoured
the bus to drop us at the railway station.
I have to say it was a real good trip. I do not know if I get
such experiences again. But one thing for sure, I will find