It felt like a long time coming as I touched down at Hualien airport, Taiwan, during the Chinese New Year holiday. Given its close proximity to Hong Kong, it seemed there wasn’t a single person I knew who hadn’t yet sampled the friendliness, beauty and exquisite food of the small Asian island. Now it was my turn and the Taiwanese people’s welcome certainly didn’t disappoint. Passing through immigration at the tiny airport, I was handed a red packet (lai see), a traditional gift at CNY and welcomed warmly to the country by the immigration officer. It took me back quite a bit. I’m so used to the immigration process being cold and lifeless and this was by far the friendliest introduction I’d got to any country.
My friend and I had chosen to fly the east coast city of Hualien, mainly because it was the cheapest flight from Hong Kong, but also to sandwich a city with a bit of a slower pace between Hong Kong and Taiwan’s capital Taipei. Hualien’s biggest draw is the neighbouring Taroko Gorge, frequently cited as Taiwan’s most stunning attraction. Even better? To celebrate Chinese New Year, shuttle buses around the national park were free. Blessed with semi-decent weather (despite the forecasts), we got up early to see what all the fuss was about.
Bus 1133A to Xincheng Station (where the shuttle buses start) departs from Hualien train station throughout the day (timetable here). From there, helpful attendants guided us to the shuttle bus. Ordinarily, you can pay NT$250 for an unlimited day pass on all the buses so even when the buses aren’t free, it’s an absolutely steal.
The National Park is huge so it’s worth planning out logistics and deciding which parts you want to visit, especially if you’re not staying over. There are different bus routes going to various areas around the park, each with a different colour. The last buses to Hualien are quite early (around 2pm) so it’s definitely worth rising early. We got the first bus from Hualien in the morning and managed to see everything we wanted before the last bus, although we’d by no means exhausted all the trails and sights available in the park. Here’s a guide to the trails we did, all of which I’d recommend checking out.
Even if there was nothing here, I’d have to have visited just for that brilliant name. As it happened, this was probably my favourite trail in the park. It’s super easy, relatively short but also absolutely stunning. It will probably be the first stop on the bus. Just jump off when you see the big red bridge. The Shakadang is a looped trail, following the gushing river for most of the trail. There are many times when I just had no idea where to look. The surrounding hills were obviously stunning but looking down, I also got a glance at some of the bluest, clearest water and coolest rock formations I’ve ever seen.
Walking this trail early was definitely a good shout since, on our way back, there was a surge of people hiking in the opposite direction. When we had walked along the trail earlier, we barely had to share the stunning views and the running water was, at times, the only sound. With the loop only taking around 90 minutes, you definitely get a lot of bang for your buck here.
Armed with our complementary hard hats, the Swallow Grotto trail was the next stop on the bus. The hard hats are given out due to low-hanging rocky ceiling in the carved out road – it’s nice to know they care. Walking through the pitch dark tunnel which then opened out to more beautiful views and rock carvings was a real highlight. The trail is so named because of the many swirling birds which frequent this area of the park.
It’s also a very convenient part of the park to walk through, since you hop off the bus at the Swallow Grotto stop, hike through the tunnel and end up at the next stop on the route. It’s always great to try a different style of hike, even if the masses of people marching through the tunnel in hard hats did make us look a bit like a cult.
Odds are you’ll probably end up here anyway since it’s the last stop on a couple of the bus routes before the bus loops back. This area is home to a smattering of restaurants and even a 7-11, but its true draw lies in the scenery that surrounds it. There’s not so much a route up here so much as a number of paths you can meander down and explore. Going over the bridge and up to the temples is definitely worth while. Seeing the traditional Chinese temples set against the lush green mountains was quite something.
Grab some food, have a wander and marvel at the awesome sights. As far as pit stops go, you don’t get much better than this.
Changchun Eternal Spring Shrine
Time was beginning to escape us and the weather was turning but we just had time for one last stop. Although there are (reportedly difficult) trails surrounding this picturesque shrine, the wet weather had made the ground quite slippery and we were advised against trekking in this area. Also we weren’t too confident we could make it back in time for the last bus. As such, we just used this stop as a viewpoint, marvelling at the shrine and the sprawling waterfall beneath it.
The temple has been rebuilt twice after being destroyed in landslides and, when you see its position nestled among the rocks, it’s not difficult to see why. The reconstruction obviously worked though as it still looks as impressive as ever. The cascading waterfall definitely adds to the effect. The hikes in this area do look quite cool and are apparently a bit more of a workout than the others in the park, so it would be good to check them out.
These were our 4 stops on our visit to Taroko but you could spend days here, on and off the beaten track. It reminded me a lot of Zhangjiajie Forest Park in China, though with a courtesy and friendliness you can only find in Taiwan. Taroko is accessible from both Hualien and Taipei so it’s easy to get to regardless of where you are. It’s a hiker’s and photographer’s dream.