The Marble Canyon: A Sight to Behold

After staying in urban Taipei for two months, I was anxious to see some nature. I rented a car and took a long drive down the mountainous east coast to the city of Hualien and the world-famous Toroko Gorge.

The meandering coastal road was fun to drive on. It was very beautiful with views of both mountains and the sea. Like most roads in Eastern Taiwan, driving always yielded surprises. One moment it was wide with little traffic and another, it was barely passable. When this happened, the road was so narrow that meeting another car head on meant slowing to a snail’s pace while trying not to go too near the edge of the cliff. Passing trucks was even more fun. The road was under constant repair because parts were always getting buried in landslides or crumbling as the land underneath slid into the ocean. This is not the place to be during an earthquake or typhoon. Luckily, everything was well marked but road maintenance here is a hero’s job. Nature is always trying to take back this part of the world for herself.

After a long drive along the rugged coast, I arrived in Hualien, a small town with a population of 110,000, which is remarkable for marble, a large air base and its proximity to the world-famous Toroko Gorge. The surrounding region is full of little military villages inhabited by aging veterans. They fly an unusually large number of ROC flags and look wistfully back to the days when they had proudly served in the good fight against Communism. Now they spend their last days, riding bicycles and selling things in small dark cluttered stores by the side of the road. Nearby is a large airbase that houses several squadrons of US built F-16 fighter jets in form fitting bombproof shelters. During the day, you can see them roaring overhead.

Hualien is also home to the famous Great Love (‘Da Ai’) Buddhist charity that builds hospitals all over Taiwan and runs a university and TV station. It even has a rapid reaction service to deal with natural disasters worldwide. They are very active in Africa and even recently sent aid to Afghanistan. The city is also a good place to buy big, heavy marble souvenirs, locally made candy and aboriginal crafts.

The major attraction in the region is Toroko Gorge, a spectacular unique marble canyon. The few human constructions actually add to the place. There are the red suspension bridges, temples set in mountains and, most famously, the Eternal Spring Shrine. The Shrine is built over a waterfall and dedicated to the 450 people who died making the Cross-Island Highway that runs along the gorge. The Highway certainly gives a feeling of how hard it was to build here. The amazing route is precariously cut right into the side of the gorge. Everywhere I went, there were the gorge’s light blue waters, soaring marble walls and the sound of rushing water. It was quite a challenge hiking up the steep trail along the cliff sides. I don’t recommend the route for those afraid of heights. Thankfully, attempts to mine the gorge got nowhere.

Beyond Toroko, the road goes up into the high mountains of central Taiwan where there are incredible views of numerous peaks lined with terraced slopes. At one point, I drove into the clouds and had the mist blowing through the car. The mountain drive went up to 3,200 m (10,500 ft) high, the highest road in Asia outside Nepal and Tibet. The highest point was near Hohuanshan, where slippery grassy trails went to the peak. Despite its location in the tropics, it snows here in the winter — and felt like autumn during my drive. The grassy slopes and blowing clouds almost reminded me of Scotland.

I stopped in Puli, a town located exactly in the center of Taiwan. Puli was totally rebuilt after the huge 21 September 1999 earthquake which killed hundreds of people. The town has a weirdly uncluttered look because of the rebuilding. Unfortunately, most of the buildings were rebuilt with the same bad tile and concrete architecture as the old structures.

My last destination was the famous Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan’s largest freshwater lake. Romantically set amongst small mountains, the lake is lined with pagodas, hilly roads, and hotels, and is the most famous honeymoon spot in Taiwan. This beautiful place was a favourite of Chiang Kai Shek. For some reason, there was a peacock farm in the area and a huge temple dedicated to Kongzi (Confucius) and Mengzi (Mencius). There was a rather run down aboriginal ‘culture centre’, which had the worst looking stuffed animals I have ever seen. The fur had fallen out and the eyes had sunkened into the skull. The tribe, which had only 200 members remaining, was in about the same shape.

The countryside was filled with tall slender beetlenut trees. The beetlenut is a mild stimulant and a favorite of labourers in Taiwan and most of Southeast Asia. Beetlenut chewing is the local version of chewing tobacco or sunflower seeds. Chewers leave telltale red spots on the ground and have mouths full of red juice. Beetlenut is easy to buy — just look for the scantily dressed women sitting in booths lit up with bright flashing lights.

Eventually it was time to go back to Taipei. After working my way up some dusty country roads, I made it back on a huge super highway. It was nice being able to drive at normal speed again.

Eric Trachtenberg