Taroko National Park

On Thursday 31st May 2018, our last full day in Taiwan, we got up at 6:45am to go to the Taroko National Park. The national park is a few hours away from Taipei and so we had to get an MRT to Taipei Main Station to then get a train that left at 8am to get us to a place called Hualien by 10:15am. The train ticket cost us each NT$440 (£11) one way and the really nice girl who worked at our hostel helped us to book the tickets the night before which was a lifesaver! From Hualien we were then able to get a shuttle bus that would take us in and around the Taroko National Park costing NT$250 (£6.30) for the day. A lot of people get to Hualien the night before to avoid the early morning train and give themselves more flexibility with how long to explore the national park but we decided to do it all in a day instead.

We got to the train station with no issues and got our tickets. We had been put in different carriages for both our journeys (on the way back we were literally at other ends of the train from one another) but the trains weren’t full for either journey so we were able to move and sit next to one another after all. This was particularly lucky as Niall doesn’t have a phone so he wouldn’t have had any way to entertain himself or even know what time it was. Niall slept for pretty much the entire journey there and I slept for a chunk of it too but between sleeps I saw beautiful green fields, blue seas and towering mountains. The scenery was really great and we had blue skies the entire way there which we hoped would continue once we reached Hualien and the National Park.

We got to Hualien at around 10:15am and had seen on the website for the National Park that we could get a bus into the park at 10:50am. The shuttle bus ticket we had read about ended up having limited stops and wasn’t actually scheduled to leave until 11:10am so we had to wait longer at the bus station than we anticipated and also rework our route for the day. The most annoying part of this was that the route map we were given which also has the bus timetable on it was in Korean and they didn’t have any in English! This is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country but that would have been impossible to tell by the bus information station, we couldn’t believe it!

After two very helpful girls from Hong Kong helped to translate some information with the bus station staff we bought our passes and got the bus into the national park. It takes around an hour to get into the national park from Hualien and you pass the coast and a few small towns on your way in. I had a lovely chat with the girls from Hong Kong who told me that Taiwan is a popular holiday destination for them as it’s really easy for them to travel around with the language being the same, they can fly there in an hour which she said was the same amount of time it took her to get home from work and there was endless greenery and wildlife for them to enjoy which they don’t have in Hong Kong.

Our first stop of the day was to Yanzikou which is where the Swallow Grotto Trail is which takes around 40 minutes through some tunnels and along the edge of the gorge. This place was beautiful. We had managed to keep the nice weather we had seen on the train and when we got off the bus we headed straight to the beginning of the trail. You’re advised to wear hard hats along this trail incase of falling rocks which we were very happy to do except we couldn’t find any hard hats anywhere and we later found out they were much earlier on in the national park. A lot of people drive around the national park either on there own or with a hired driver and so they would all be able to get the hard hats easily but considering they advertise and put on a shuttle bus service, I would have expected the hard hats to be more accessible. We took the risk (which wasn’t a big risk at all) which paid off as we weren’t hit by any rocks and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Taroko National Park Gorge which we were walking along that day is made from marble and as you explore the park you’ll see the patterns in the marble and the huge slabs that have fallen from the mountains above or been cut away from years of flowing water. The water itself is a cloudy blue and looks lovely against the grey and white stone that makes up the gorge river bed.

The swallows that give the trail its name fly in summersaults above your head and dart in between holes in the mountain. There are also a lot of caves within the rock and potholes and we sometimes saw water poring out of a hole which must have run somewhere deep into the rock. The whole canyon was vast and towered over us even from our height half way up the gorge. It didn’t get old looking up and down at our surroundings and we were just happy to be there walking along the gorge and exploring the national park.At the end of the trail we expected to be able to get picked up by the next shuttle bus (they’re meant to come around every hour) instead of having to walk 40 minutes back to get the bus from the same spot we got off. We saw this to be common sense and waited in the lay-by that was at the end of the trail so that the bus could easily pull in and pick us up. We aren’t 100% sure of the reason but the bus driver decided it didn’t want to pick us up and shook his head at us as it drove right past. This left us with two options: wait another hour or walk on. We chose to walk.

The national park has designated walks along the gorge (you need permits for other areas of the park) but it isn’t really designed to have you walk the entire thing. Winding roads around the edge of the mountains join up the different stops and we spent quite a lot of our time walking on these roads. We didn’t mind this at all as we came to see the gorge and the national park and so walking the entire way meant we were getting to see it the entire time too.We had hoped to do a trail called the Tunnel of Nine Turns which is meant to be one of the prettiest parts of the national park. When we reached what we thought was the trail it was blocked off and so we had to walk through the road tunnel instead. We later had it confirmed that this was the trail but that rock slides had meant that it was closed which was a shame. I guess we got to experience walking through a long concrete tunnel instead though!

After getting through the tunnel we started seeing more places where people were stopping for photos or hikes. We passed by Cinu Bridge which was a red bridge with a little Chinese pavilion and so we stopped here to have some Doritos we had brought for the journey. So far we were really enjoying our day and the mishap of not having the bus stop for us ended up being a blessing as we probably saw parts of the gorge that most people won’t see and that we certainly wouldn’t have seen very well from the bus.We carried on walking further as we still weren’t at another bus stop and reached Heilu around fifteen minutes later. Here there was a campground and some toilets as well as a swing bridge that went over the river and could only have eight people on it at a time. The sign had said that the bridge would give us views of some waterfalls but maybe they didn’t flow all year round as we didn’t see any, not that it mattered too much as the view over the river was lovely anyway.

From Heilu we were able to walk an established hiking trail (instead of just the road) to the next stop on the shuttle bus route, Lushui. This trail took us through a tunnel and along a path that was bordered with a fence on the very edge of the mountain. The views were nice here especially looking out into the distance of the tall, forested mountains of the national park. The trail only took us around 20 minutes though and we reached the next bus stop at around 3pm. We ended up just missing the shuttle bus to take us back towards the start of the national park where we would be able to do some more trails and then ended up waiting for over an hour without another shuttle bus in either direction appearing. According to the shuttle bus timetable, in the time we were sat waiting for the bus, there should have been two buses able to take us back down towards the start of the national park and then back to Hualien Train Station.We really didn’t know what was going on with the buses and we were very surprised at the inefficiency of the entire service as all the buses we had seen had been running late. Even the bus we got from the station which is the first stop of the day waited longer than it was meant to which made every stop time after that delayed! Because of the bus not turning up we were running out of time to see anything else in the national park which was a real shame as we were having a good day and were up for more hiking. After another half an hour a car stopped in front of us with a Taiwanese couple in who owned a Bed and Breakfast in Hualien. They asked if we were wanting to go back to Hualien and we told them about wanting to go further into the national park, particularly to see the Eternal Spring Shrine that is one of the most photographed landmarks of the national park. After speaking with them for a while they offered to take us there for free as they said the buses weren’t coming and we could be waiting for ages (which we already had been!) The wife of the couple was called Lilly and was very sweet, she spoke good English and ran tours from her Bed and Breakfast with her husband being the driver. We got to know them more and when they found out we had a train to catch later on that evening they said they would wait for us whilst we went to see the shrine and then take us to the station to make sure we didn’t miss our train as they weren’t convinced the bus would ever come get us!

The Eternal Spring Shrine is built on top of a waterfall and commemorates the 212 workers who died during the construction of the Central Cross-Island Highway. It’s around 60 years old and has had to be rebuilt a number of times due to landslides which are common in the area due to earthquakes and typhoons. These landslides are causing quite a lot of problems within the national park and we saw a number of tunnels being built through the mountain itself as the rock slides are becoming a particularly bad hazard in the area – I wonder how this will affect tourism once completed.

Particularly from a distance, the shrine looks really pretty and we are grateful to Lilly and her husband for taking us to see it. It was especially fortunate that they insisted on waiting for us as going across the red bridge by the shrine, walking the short walk through a tunnel in the mountain and stopping to take photos only took us 10 minutes so we would have been waiting ages for a bus!The generosity and kindness of Lilly and her husband was incredible and they even gave us water and snacks on the journey back! We didn’t see any buses drive past us in either direction once we were in the car and so I don’t have a clue whether we would have been picked up by the shuttle bus or not so them stopping by really was a godsend! This stroke of luck also meant that the day didn’t end in disappointment and that we got to see the last stop that we had wanted to do. We had hoped to get extra bits of hiking done as well even if we wouldn’t be able to complete full trails (one is around 6-8 hours long) but the late and non-existent buses stopped us from being able to do this. If we were to go again but still needed to get the bus I wouldn’t bother with the shuttle but would just pay single fair tickets on the local buses (#1133 and #302) as we saw them a bit more often going to the same places as the shuttle. The money we spent on the shuttle ended up being a complete waste but the day wasn’t so that’s the main thing and we got to experience the lovely nature of the Taiwanese people which I’d heard about so that was also great. We had been blessed with good weather for our day in the national park which always makes somewhere look better but I think we’d have liked it here even if it hadn’t been as sunny. The gorge was spectacular and it always amazes me that nature can move such enormous rocks the way that it does.

We got back to Hualien with a couple of hours to spare but we would have had that anyway even if we had gotten the bus so that wasn’t a issue. We got some papaya milk (it’s our new favourite drink) and some food for our tea and watched the clouds float low over the mountains that are the backdrop to the town until our train came.

We didn’t get back into Taipei until around 10pm but that didn’t matter as we had nothing to get up early for the following day and it was less than 10 minutes from the station to our hostel. It had been a good day and I’m really glad we had clear weather to enjoy it more – it’s definitely somewhere I’d recommend going to see.

Sending love x

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