Sunday, December 21, 2008
The Back End of Maokong
We went hiking up the backside of Maokong today, starting at the gondola station (which was frighteningly deserted) and winding our way up, over and across to Maokong Peak. Maokong Peak seems much higher than it is (about 560 meters) because of the tricky terrain - nothing an enthusiastic hiker in good shoes couldn't cover, but still requiring ropes and a good sense of balance - when you get there, you feel you've climbed much higher.
We were originally aiming for Erge Shan, but when we realized exactly how far it was, we scrapped that plan and stopped early. You see, we'd wasted the morning with a hearty 'hiker's breakfast' of cranberry scones, muaji-red bean buns, toast with jam, pomegranate, oranges, apples, coffee, goat milk and of course Bailey's Irish Cream (breakfast of champions!). If you set out at 11:30 from Jingmei, you aren't going to make it to Erge Shan in a day.
The hike starts at the trail behind Sanxian Temple (not sure about the Pinyin there), which is directly across from the final stop of the (hopefully not erstwhile) gondola. Climbing lots of stairs, you pass a small tea farm run by a friendly man and his dog...
...and then eventually make it back into the shade, where rockier, more 'natural' stairs take over. By 'natural' I mean "better looking, but less comfortable to climb."
Hiking aficionados will be happy to hear that the stairs end here, and what begins is a real trail. Dirt, rocks, tree roots and everything. An honest-to-goodness hiking trail! So much of hiking in Taiwan, especially around Taipei County, is stair-based that it's a relief to finally do something that really feels like walking and not just, well, stair climbing. The scenery also gets a lot greener.
...with lots of really big bugs to gape at.
The signage is not very good as the trail progresses, but there's always at least one sign to point the way if you speak Chinese. Not far after a lovely clearing the trail splits in two - take the lower; the upper goes to an electrical pylon. Then a narrow ridge of a trail (one member of our group did fall off, but only fell a few meters into the undergrowth) winds along, with hiker's ribbons and lots of signage...if you can read Chinese. Fortunately most of our group can.
At only one point in the trail is there no signage whatsoever; there is another lovely clearing with bamboo and a flat rock, perfect for a picnic. Heading towards Erge Shan/Maokong Peak, awhile later you will reach a T-junction with no guidance. (Head left). You'll pass a bamboo clearing with a camping/BBQ area and after a few tricky sections requiring ropes, you'll be at the top.
We tried to descend the fast way, that is, straight down, but soon became discouraged with the condition of the trail in this area, as well as the 70 degree straight drop. We're not entirely convinced it was a trail, and with fading daylight we felt that it would be much smarter to just head back the way we came.
All in all, Maokong Peak is a great idea for a quiet day with great weather, when you just want to get out and walk around in nature. The views are mostly obscured by forest growth and bamboo, but the air is clean and you can make it there and back in half a day.
We settled in at a teahouse (Mountain Tea House, next to Red Wood House). Mountain Tea House may not have a very original name, but they're friendly and down-to-earth and their upper balcony has the requisite amazing view of Taipei. They also have mountain pig, lemon diced chicken, mountain vegetables and other delicious items on the menu for around 200 NT/plate. The lemon chicken comes with diced sweet potato and is served in a tart, tangy sauce. I highly recommend it.
One more thing before I sign off for the day - go to Maokong, people! The tea is still great, the teahouses are still there and the view is still the best in the city (and I work on the upper floors of Taipei 101 a few times a week; I should know). Did you know former president Lee Tung-hui refused to have the teahouses, which were illegal at the time, torn down because he loved them so much. Well, Lee might be KMT but he's got good taste in tea and views, that's all I can say.
It's not as expensive as you think to drink tea at some of these places, and the food is generally pretty good at the more homey ones, the ones without all the tourist frippery.
And yet, because the gondola is out of service, nobody's there! On a beautiful Sunday night, with a bright night sky and reddish clouds rolling in over a spectacular view, we were the only customers in that teahouse, and looking in the others, all were doing slow business. Nevermind that the gondola is perfectly safe (I have a good source and I believe this person) and should never have been closed in the first place. You can still get there for about 200 kuai in a taxi - which is nothing, if you're sharing with friends - or take the Brown 15 bus from Taipei Zoo station every half hour. Any teahouse owner will happily tell you when you can catch one back.
Not only will you enjoy the treat of having Maokong all to yourself - no crowds, no irritating music, no shouting kids, no tourists - but you'll be helping out a sector of the economy that is really feeling the economic crunch.
Go to Maokong!