Note: I am currently in Nepal, and have had only intermittent and slow ‘net access. I’ve had a lot of trouble getting the photos up for this post, which is why it’s taken so long. Will post another couple of Shakadang photos when I get a chance.
I had given up my plan to visit Sun-Moon Lake on the advice of the T.I. office in Tainan, although looking at the rainfall maps later I thought they had been over-cautious, but after tourist-trap Jeonju I wasn’t eager for another such experience too soon, and it sounded like Sun-Moon Lake had become over-popular with the mainland Chinese tourists now flooding the island. So I wasn’t too sorry to spend extra time in Taipei instead. I did baulk when the T.I. people at Taipei Main Station suggested I should reconsider my visit to Taroko Gorge, and after they called the T.I. in Hualien they agreed that it would be OK.
The high-speed trains only run down the west side of the island, so I took a regular express to Hualien. On the way I chatted with a Peace Corps volunteer about my own age, on holiday from Thailand, but she was staying at the upmarket Silks hotel inside the gorge, and we parted company at the station, where a man with a sign was wating to drive me to my hotel. I had reserved an ocean view room at the Bay View, which turned out to be a bit further out of town than I had expected. The room was as pictured on the web site, but unfortunately the weather, and therefore the view, was not. I really liked the room, and quite liked the view too, but instead of placid blue waters, I saw – and heard – an angry grey sea breaking high and white as it hit the beach.
The typhoon had passed, and the young English-speaking man running things at the Bay View told me that the ferocious winds whipping the trees out front were just normal winter weather. If so, I would recommend avoiding winter! I took a car and driver south down the coast road (the section to the north had suffered badly in the typhoon), and the views were really too hazy to see, and the winds too strong for taking photographs. Spectacular in the sunshine, I’m sure, but when you have to fight to stay upright, you can’t appreciate much besides shelter.
Taroko Gorge, on the other hand, had plenty of shelter and not much wind, and all the magnificent views anyone could want. I spent a whole day there with a car and driver, and most of a second using the (rather unreliable) buses. While I’d say it’s good by bus, it’s wonderful by taxi, as you can stop when and where you want. Of course, the earlier you start the better, as otherwise you’ll find the best viewpoints infested with tour buses. Even my taxi driver (a rare woman driver), who makes her living from tourism, complained about the number of mainland Chinese visiting. (Perhaps they don’t take taxis.)
The typhoon had affected some of the trails, others have been closed even longer, and the one I really wanted to try, the “Tunnel of Nine Turns”, was off limits. I did hike a few shorter trails, doing the one that was my clear favorite, the first part of Shakadang, the morning of the second day. The Shakadang River shone crystal clear and glacial blue in the sunshine, while the main river, swollen by the typhoon, was burdened with loads of grey silt.
I ate lunch twice at Tienhsiang, where the bus turned round, and a few services were located. Not liking the look of the eating places by the bus stop (even Lonely Planet remarked on the “awful food”) and not wanting to trek up to the Youth Activity Center on the off-chance I couldeat there, I ate expensively at the Silks Hotel. Very nice set Asian meal the first day (although I still wonder how you are supposed to eat ribs with chopsticks), so-so pizza the second. Elegant surroundings both days.
Eating dinner was more problematic. The Bay View provided a so-so breakfast, and free coffee or tea all day (and night), but didn’t do dinner. The women on the front desk suggested a taxi into town and the night market. Again, I was in no mood for street food. The only place open near the hotel served western food – soup and steak were quite good, if also quite expensive. The other night I insisted that I wanted a Chinese restaurant in town, and eventually they came up with a place for me. Not a word of English on the menu, but a combination of a very helpful waitress with a little English and the no-so-helpful food section of my guidebook worked. I ate egg drop soup with baby shrimp, spring onion pancakes and sweet and sour chicken. With beer.
I had been unable to get a ticket on an express train back to Taipei, or even a slow train at a reasonable hour, so I left before breakfast to catch the 7:20, sharing my carriage with what appeared to be a school basketball team.