This one’s for the road.
With a week prior to my holidays, I was caught in a dilemma – I either: (A) remain stuck at home for 2 weeks with absolutely nothing to do, or, (B) force myself to go for an overseas vacation that is not anywhere in Japan. (A) was largely due to forced leave, and (B), well, would have resulted in sighs from friends and acquaintances alike: “You do know that the world is bigger than just Japan, right?” Needless to say, I’m at the age where I shouldn’t care about sticks and stones, but comments like this weren’t what impeded me from the land of the rising sun – I had made a promise that I shouldn’t be there until the 2020 Olympics.
Nonetheless, with all these considerations in mind, I had decided that I wanted to take a short 4-5 day trip, and one that included a ride at least.
Now, I have never done a travel entry before, which seems to run contrary to the purpose of this blog (is that word still used these days?). This is mainly because I believe there are tons of influencers and what-not out there who have already detailed most of the famous/touristy places and it would seem counterproductive to produce a run-of-the-mill post. Hence, I’ve decided that this post should be aimed at plugging the gaps about the research I’ve sought online and hopefully help future riders with a one-stop and more updated post about riding in Taiwan’s Taroko Gorge.
To begin with the end in mind, riding in Taroko Gorge (太魯閣) was all I’d imagined it to be.
My journey began in Hualien (花蓮) County, roughly 2 hours by train from Taipei. The tickets cost about 440 TWD ($20.70 SGD), one way, and they can be booked online at Taiwan Railways Administration. If you need help navigating the site, MeetMyGuide or Alec Travel Guide provides great step-by-step directions, including how to pick up your tickets. After 2 hours 20 minutes on the Puyama Express, I found myself away from the humdrum of Taipei city, standing still at a quaint station in Hualien.
A less commercialised county meant that public transport would prove less accommodating than in the city. After checking into my Minsu (民宿) or homestay, I realised that getting to any place of interest either involved a lot of walking, or a lot of waiting (for buses). Fortunately, my homestay owner recommended a bike rental place nearby which she said would provide a discount. My memory is hazy, but I roughly recall the name to be something along the lines of Lowest Prices (最低價).
In any case, it didn’t matter because the shop refused to rent their scooter to me.
A quick check with my homestay owner later revealed not just bewilderment on her part, but also the revelation that there has been an increasing number of traffic violations by foreigners. As they would have returned home by the time the offence ticket is dispensed, it would thus be left to the shop to bear the brunt of the bill. As such, there are increasingly fewer shops that are keen to rent scooters out to foreigners.
The lady at 最低價 then pointed me in the direction of another shop nearby, Meigui Rental (梅貴租車行).
What struck me as odd was when I asked about Pony Rental (小馬租車), she told me that it had two branches – one which could loan to foreigners, and the other which could not. When I asked about the one for foreigners, she pointedly said she could not divulge any information. This ran contrary to my online research, which said that Pony Rental was the most convenient rental company for foreigners. Odd.
One road crossing later, I was approached by a man near Meigui Rental who took me through the paperwork. The necessary items were:
- International Driving’s License (obtained at Automobile Association of Singapore for $20 SGD)
- Passport (which they will keep as insurance; I was a bit iffy about this but apparently this was the practice here)
- $600 TWD (my homestay owner said it was usually $400 TWD for locals)
I guess the place is foreigner friendly because there were quite a number of signs/brochures in English. Lest I forget, you were required to test drive your 125cc scooter down the road, do a u-turn and then return to the shop – the shopkeeper will be watching you throughout.
And I was off to Taroko!
As contributed by /u/behemothpanzer, ensure you take route 193 from Hualien. It’s a short detour of about 5 extra minutes that gets you past Qixingtan coastal area (七星潭海濱公園) before you hit route 9, the main road north that leads to the gorge. Trust me – it’s a truly scenic route on a clear day.
As advised by my homestay owner, I took a short detour to Qing Shui cliffs prior to the gorge. Being on two wheels had its visible merits; you get to stop as and when you like – and there’ll be a need to stop multiple times due to the spectacular view – and you also avoid any jams should they arise. On the last stretch of the road to the cliffs, there was a huge pileup with no semblance of the jam easing. Weaving my way to the front, I spoke to the construction worker who informed me that they were repairing the road up ahead and it would take close to an hour before they were done. It was nigh impossible for cars to do a u-turn considering the narrow road and I couldn’t imagine myself idling away for an hour in my vehicle despite the spectacular view. With only a day for the gorge, I was so glad I could whisk away from the inconvenience so easily.
In reaching the gorge, there’s actually a great number of places to visit while there. Unfortunately, the famous Tunnel of Nine Turns Trails (九曲洞步道) and Swallow Grotto (燕子口) were closed for construction. Upon checking with front desk, I was told to try the Lushui trail (綠水步道) if I only had time to trek one. I also took his advice to start from the back of the trail at Tianxiang (天祥) Village, which was a 30 minutes’ drive from the entrance (!).
Along the way, I had to force myself to keep going on because the views were just so picturesque. It felt so surreal to be surrounded by tall rock faces and vistas at every turn, as if you were riding into the centre of paradise itself.
At Tianxiang (天祥) Village, I had lunch before I took a short hike to the top where there were a temple and a tall, golden statue of Buddha. I almost gave up on the climb because I wasn’t sure what awaited me at the peaks, but it was truly a sight to behold.
It was nearing 2 p.m. as I headed down and I had to make a decision on which trail to hike. A quick search on the internet proved Shakadang Trail (砂卡噹步道) to be the easiest, with most hikers clocking in an average of 1-1.5 hours. The time also seemed to be worth the effort as one could get the chance to see a scenic pool at the end of the route. With little time to spare, I made haste to the entrance of the gorge.
Shakadang is actually located near the entrance of the national park, which made the deadline of returning the bike less worrying. The trail is actually pretty easy – users just have to watch out for overhanging escarpments as they make their way through. The route does get narrow at times, which means you’ll likely be hugging the rock face as you trudge forward. Watch out for your head.
Unfortunately for me, the road at the end was closed due to damage from Typhoon Saola in 2012. I believe tourists used to walk ankle deep in the shallow pools ahead and these pools arguably made for the most photogenic spots on the trail.
Comfort came in the form of man’s best friend though.
The clouds soon drew in and threatened to put a damper on my parade, but I consider myself lucky enough to have had almost 8 hours of sunny weather.
I was all right with the rain.
Unless the rain fires at you like unending pallets from a BB gun. The ride back was punctuated with intermittent rain that threatened to rip my rain jacket from my body. Goodness. I’m never going to complain about the force of the rain in Singapore again.
After a short 40 minutes ride home (no stopping for pictures this time), I headed to the rental shop and managed to return my scooter without any fuss. They did a quick check of the bike before whipping out my passport with no extra charges. Sweet.
So if you’re ever thinking of heading to Taroko Gorge and wondering what would be the best way to do so, I would definitely recommend the bike/scooter. Pray for good weather (but don’t forget your rain jacket), grab plenty of water bottles and also sunscreen to boot. If you can, bring your own helmet if you have it. The one provided by the shop did nothing more than to keep out the sun, and I couldn’t help but be aware the entire time that it served a rather perfunctory function.
I know some of the concerns online are regarding falling rocks and the dangers of riding a scooter there, but the national park does provide signs to inform you of the high risk areas where rocks are likely to fall. You are, of course, expected to drive through there quickly without stopping for pictures. Exercise due caution, never compromise safety (such as checking with front desk prior to your trip about the safety hazards/warnings) and you should be fine.
Sometimes I see reviews/pictures of places online and think to myself if they’re worth all the hype, what with photo edits and other beautifying paraphernalia. The funny thing about Taroko Gorge is – the pictures can’t do it justice. You have to be there to soak in all its beauty.
And I’ll definitely be back in Taiwan for another riding trip, with Taroko as a definite stop. Hopefully, the Swallow Grotto will be open the next time around.
Until next time, Taroko.