When we first arrived in Taiwan, neither of us knew what to expect. Most folks in the developed world are only familiar with the country as a name stamped underneath a cheaply-made product following the words “Made in…”.
Practically no one in the West thinks of Taiwan as a holiday destination, which explains why my partner and I arrived there on the promise of work instead.
We were due to be posted as English language teachers in one of the many “cram schools” there. We were unsure whether the name “cram” referred to how many pupils they could get into a classroom or how much knowledge they could fit into the poor kids’ heads. Either way, these money-making institutions are generally meant for unfortunate children whose sadistic parents insist on giving them a few hours more study on top of some already gruelling schooling.
Before being stationed at one of these inner-city English language boot camps, we were determined to see something of the Taiwanese countryside. As hikers and nature lovers, we wanted to discover the natural treasures Taiwan had to offer.
Yet despite a circuit around the island, our search for what appeared to be untouched, unpolluted landscape free from human interference became a somewhat hopeless quest. Unless we were willing to venture into Taiwan’s formidable mountainous interior (allegedly still home to leopards, monkeys and bears, oh my!) we would only find nature presented in its most convenient form.
We left the metropolis of Taipei and took the high-speed train down the west coast; we hurtled across flatlands filled with factories and warehouses, onwards through concrete-box urban sprawl and grid-form paddy fields. Within sight of the towers of Taichung and the blossom trees of Chiayi we sped, journeying southwards via the former capital of Tainan, eventually arriving at Taiwan’s third largest city, Kaohsiung. The line ended here, so we took a break from the railway to have a trip to the seaside.
After our bus-ride detour to spend a few days on Taiwan’s golden beaches of Kenting, we returned to Kaohsiung and took a train that headed east, south of Taiwan’s central mountain chain. We emerged on the less-developed eastern coastline and sojourned for a night and a day in the strange, backwater town of Taitung. From there we followed black-sand beaches northwards, green, cloud-wearing peaks to our left and the glittering Pacific Ocean on our right.
Apart from Taiwan’s mountainous spine, its east coast is the only part yet to be touched by industry on the same scale as the intensely developed western plains. On an island overflowing with industrialisation and plagued by catastrophic air pollution, the greener, cleaner, breeze-blown Pacific side of Taiwan is a literal breath of fresh air.
Before our perambulation brought us back to smog-shrouded Taipei, we stopped in a region named Hualien County: The gateway to Taroko Gorge, one of Taiwan’s most celebrated natural landscapes. Surely, we would find unspoilt wilderness here.
Hualien City itself was a peaceful, almost rustic place compared with congested towns on the west coast.
As we approached the main drag, its status as a tourist destination among natives soon became apparent. Between the ads for accommodation, glowing neon signs declared mopeds for hire, or the best traditional hotpot in town. It was a riot of deals and attractions common to honeypot towns everywhere. We explored the streets and found places synonymous with backpacker trails: jazz-playing cafes serving barista-grade lattes and avocado on toast; hostel ‘sports’ bars with widescreen TVs and pool tables; even a bona fide Mexican restaurant offering tacos and tequilas.
And while you can’t deny that pandering to Western tastes and emulating American culture is perhaps a disappointing sign of globalisation, you have to admire the enterprise taking place in Eastern destinations like this.
For all its unashamed commercialism, Hualien did possess a certain charm. But we hadn’t come here to sink tequilas, play pool or jive to jazz. We were still set on escaping urban culture and discovering the natural splendour of Taroko Gorge.
The next day we found our transportation and in a minibus with only a handful of other tourists, we approached the steep forested slopes that encircled Hualien.
Beneath the dispiriting veneer of industrialisation, the geography of Taiwan is spectacular. The central range of mountains rise abruptly from unbroken plains, as though a huge, languid dragon had once decided to doze on the flat bed of paddies and never got up again.
And we were about to scale that sleeping giant.
The bus took a road that ran alongside an ice-blue river. This was the Liwu, which begins as countless tumbling streams from the centre of the island and converges as a mighty torrent washing out onto a plain of white boulders. The name “Hualien” means “eddying water”, a perfect description for this land where the rivers swirl among fragments of natural marble on their journey to the ocean.
Entering the gorge, we crossed immense, crimson-painted, iron bridges and drove through tunnels blasted into the rock, all part of a road first constructed in the 1950s over what was once just a perilous trail connecting west-coast civilisation with indigenous eastern tribes in Taiwan.
Where the river widened, and the mountains rose sheer and tall either side of the road, we saw a golden-roofed pagoda-style building across the water, built on a narrow ledge beneath the cliffs. This place was a monument to the hundreds of workers who died while constructing the route.
The 19km-long gorge is notorious for its hazardous “Cross-island Highway”, where tourist-filled buses, private land cruisers and suicidal moped riders all jostle to negotiate the blind bends and narrow passes. Gazing at the canyon sides that towered above and yawned below the road, I could now understand why so many visitors clamoured to see this magnificent natural spectacle and the impressive feat of human engineering that had been forged through it.
The road began to climb suddenly, swerving switchback as we moved up and into the gorge. We sped through human-carved arches of marble and emerged onto narrow roads that hugged the cliff-line with vertiginous drops to our right. We were scaling the canyon sides, leaving the river to surge silver and turquoise beneath us.
We were moving closer to Taroko’s heart.
The waters coursing between narrow walls of stone below us were a constant companion, moving in aquamarine eddies around marble boulders bigger than Tiananmen tanks. The river looked glacial-cold and unforgiving in its course, foaming and frothing as it imperceptibly carved its way through millennia of compressed limestone.
Deeper into the gorge, we encountered huge man-made tunnels that had been christened “Swallow Grotto” for the birds that supposedly nested there. Our driver assured us of great photo opportunities, so we disembarked to stretch our legs and do a spot of “twitching”.
Whether the flocking tourists had scared away the resident birds, or perhaps it was just the wrong time of year, we saw very few swallows zipping around the water-weathered hollows above our heads. After a short walk and a wait, we boarded the next bus, leaving the empty, cavernous passages behind us.
We eventually came to a wide valley where a tall pagoda was perched upon a seat of cloud-grey marble. Beside the unremarkable temple buildings more tourists were gathered, idly wandering in their search for more social-media-worthy photos beneath the gaze of a pre-fab statue of Buddha. This was the Tianfeng Pagoda: a place of religious worship completed in the 1970s, with unlovely, mock-ancient architecture so typical of many places in Taiwan and China.
We alighted from the bus uphill from this site, among a group of buildings by the river. Here we found a collection of amenities familiar at all tourist stops: modern toilets, an information booth and a series of shabby-looking huts serving valueless meals and tacky souvenirs. Wherever there are tourists, there are always profiteering traders.
We fled the depressing presence of capitalism via a trail into the forest above the village. As we hiked up the hill behind the dreary, concrete structure of the Silks Place Hotel, something wholly unexpected emerged out of the luxuriant foliage: a tiny Protestant church. Its stones were alive with moss and creepers, the green bricks stacked into a compact tower holed with tall, arched window-frames the colour of jade.
Tiptoeing inside, we found an airy, white-walled room lined with wooden pews. There was a sad hopefulness about this place. Years ago, someone believed that faith could be encouraged in the wild depths of a gorge home only to bow-wielding indigenous Taiwanese. Now it seemed they prayed it could still flourish among hordes of invading tourists.
We left the well-kept church to continue our hike, following a disintegrating trail that ran behind the vestry.
On we trekked amid a blitz of midges and bomber-sized beetles. We ducked as they nose-dived upon us and hopped like lunatics whenever enormous ants started scaling our shins. This was the untamed world we’d been craving: Flying nasties indifferent to our layers of bug-repellent; talon-bearing plant-life that clawed at our clothing; the redolence of earth and loam and tropical dampness. The air was a melee of buzzing, fizzing, hissing sounds and the treetops melodic with hidden birds. All the while Taroko’s River Liwu could be heard as a background roar as it gobbled up the gorge.
A crack sounded to our left, higher up the slopes of dripping foliage.
Macaques were noisily clambering through the flimsy canopy, tumbling downhill towards us. I always think these animals look menacing. Their faces are naturally fixed into mean frowns, like football hooligans on the lookout for someone else to glass. These macaques looked no less aggressive, yet I felt compelled to stop and try to photograph them. It was our first real sight of Taiwanese wild mammals, after all. Maybe the leopards and bears (oh my!) weren’t too far behind them.
My partner nudged me along, exasperated by my efforts to snap the fast-approaching primates, “Those are dangerous wild animals!” he chided urgently, “And you’re no Attenborough!”
Duly reprimanded, I stopped trying to digitize the monkeys and hastened onwards.
We’d not paced ten minutes more along the track, when the dirt path coalesced into a flight of lichen-rimed, concrete steps. We descended them reluctantly and were brought to another man-made road.
It seemed our quest for a Taiwanese wilderness of unpaved trails had ended abruptly.
It had been the same story throughout this leaf-shaped island. From the pine forests of Alishan to the coastal walkways of Kenting, whatever was classed as a nature reserve invariably included concrete paths, regimented planting and more rusty iron street furniture than a scrapyard. These reserves are often dubbed “national scenic parks” by the authorities, as though the only things worth preserving are those worth staring at.
It was what you could expect from a nation that has exploded with development and industry since the 1970s, put to work by First World countries who are still hungry for cheaply-made, mass-produced goods. If commodification represents the height of progress, then surely commodifying nature makes it more appealing too. Pave the trails, signpost the sh*t out of everything and decorate it with familiar urban features. A truly tamed wilderness of convenient “hiking”.
I’m confident we’d have found the alternative, genuine article if we’d macheted our way into the jungle-interior of Taiwan and been apathetic to its perilous nature.
But unlike our home turf of England, Taiwan is no green and pleasant land of inviting tracks that wind through pretty glades and soft summer meadows. What remains of Taiwan’s natural heritage is an unforgiving territory of sheer slopes, impenetrable forests and animals on the offensive.
In our ignorance and naivety, we soft Brits had arrived in an urbanised land expecting to find exotic nature somewhere at its fringes, then thoughtlessly judged the country’s accessible versions of it.
We had forgotten that Britain used to be a wild and danger-filled landscape of ancient forests and fells, once home to wolves, bears and boars. Centuries of deforestation and “land management” have domesticated our homeland into the countryside we know and love today. There’s very little ‘natural’ landscape left.
The Taiwanese have created their own kind of convenient, commodified nature, out on the edges of their sprawling development.
Perhaps it’s just as well… While we tourists safely stick to the waymarked tarmac, the wild fauna can be left undisturbed in their insurmountable highland wilderness.
Unless a blundering Attenborough-wannabe ventures off the beaten path, of course.
As we rode the bus back the way we had come, talk turned to our experience that day. We both agreed that for all the human activity in Taroko Gorge, it is still a wholly unanticipated natural spectacle on an island mostly known for mass-production and manufacturing. Commodified or not, if Taiwan’s astonishing natural heritage receives more recognition on a global scale, its stewards may receive even greater support in preserving it.