Last weekend we did a one-day hike up the Dali (大里）side of the Caoling Old Trail （草嶺古道）- you can get there on the local trail to Su'ao, getting off at Dali, which is a few stops beyond Fulong (the other end of the trail, which we could see at a distance on the upper reaches of this hike). It's walkable from the station. The coast is quite beautiful here, but the views from the train station are marred by fences, wires and poles. Fortunately, before you get to the temple where the trail begins, you can follow a path along a stream under the road and tracks (the sign calls it a "Wild River" - which is hilarious) to better admire the scenery from the beach.
I, however, prefer this view that keeps all the industrial-ness of the railroad in the picture, inc contrast with the beautiful cliffs in the distance. This looks so much like those old railway postcards you can buy in souvenir shops in Taiwan when tinted sepia that I'm just a sucker for it.
From the outset, Turtle Island is visible, looking very much like a turtle from this vantage point. (When I'd previously seen it from farther south along the coast, I'd wondered how it got its name).
From the temple - which is very well-marked, as is the trailhead - just north of Dali Station, you start climbing. You can climb a short ways and then catch a road winding up the hill, or you can stay on the stairs, which will take you to a gorgeous lookout point and then back over to the road, where you can pick up the staired historic trail.
Joseph had done the staired trail before and I HATE STAIRS (I really, really hate them) and can move much faster on hills or even steep trails than I can on stairs, which exhaust me. So we decided to take the switchbacked road instead of the stairs leading straight up to the ridge. From the top, the route we traversed looked like this:
...and the road, which had no shade (but also had fantastic views as there were no trees in the way), was a perfectly good walk up the hill. Partway up both the trail and the road reach a forestry station with bathrooms and vending machines. On a hot day, there's almost no shade so I recommend stocking up on water here if you did not bring enough.
Not far from the top of the pass - the lowest point in a ridge of mountains where the trail begins to descend to Fulong - is the Reed House. Reed House is the ruins of an old inn where one could stay along the trail, now just some heaps of rock and a faux reed hut for people to rest in and get some shade. This is also visible from both the road and the stairs.
Not long after that you reach "the top", although of course it was not the top for us. There is a wide area with tablets and a small shrine to Tu Di Gong and some other guy (or his wife; who can tell).
...and not long after that, you pass over the top and begin the descent to Fulong. About ten meters below is the famous Tiger Tablet, a historic landmark.
A Chinese official traversing the trail during inclement weather in the 19th century grabbed some grass and twisted it into a brush, painting the symbol for "Tiger" on this rock to quell the winds (an old Chinese saying goes "Clouds obey the dragon; winds obey the tiger") - it is apparently a female tiger, not that I can tell. The inked character was later carved into the rock for posterity.
This area gets buffeted by very strong winds coming in from the Pacific, and as such beyond a certain point trees do not grow, or if they do they are stunted. The upside of this is that the view from that point on is stunning and completely unobstructed.
(The sunlight was too direct to take a good picture of the entire Tiger character - 虎 － though frankly it totally doesn't look like "tiger" to me. I am sure this is because I am an uneducated Philistine).
Anyway, we did not continue along the trail because, as Joseph put it, "other than one more tablet that isn't even all that exciting, there's not much else to see on the way to Fulong".
Instead, we began a path to higher territory - we walked the ridge to its peak at Wankengtou Mountain (灣坑頭山) - the trail to that begins here, veering uphill at the rest/lookout pagoda. It's quite clear which way is up and which continues along the trail.
We were assured by Joseph that it would be "up and down", with a few peaks and then more or less easy going. Joseph's a damn liar, but we still like him anyway. After a good rest and then a hot&sweaty climb up stairs - damn stairs! - to the next lookout point, we were assured that the next peak may be the top. I had my doubts.
This, however, was not the top.
We rested and kept up the climb - fighting the good fight, as it were - up to another rest station and over a somewhat flattish area. Assured that this was quite likely the top, we huffed it up there pretty quickly.
This was, however, still not the top.
From here, we could see the top, though. That was reassuring. Looking down from this part of the ridge is breathtaking - near the trail the cliff drops straight down, and you can sometimes see wisps of clouds or sea mist below.
Yes, that is, in fact, straight down. Pretty awe-inspiring and worth the stairs.
From the far side, the little rest pagoda was quite picturesque against the teetering mountain.
The path did finally head down after this, albeit briefly. We gave our calves a rest as we wandered over hills and rises, occasionally passing grazing cattle and fences&stone posts to keep them reigned in. Cow poop and the rustic smell of cattle (and their assorted waste products) wafted in the air but it was not unpleasant.
This part of the trail offers spectacular ocean views as well as views over Taipei County - various posted signs at scenic points highlight the distant peaks - some as far out as Shiding and, apparently, Keelung Mountain peeking out in the background. In the foreground, green grass, cattle and mist gave the place a very New Zealand, Lord of the Rings sort of feel. Extremely panoramic. Ponds for bathing cattle here and there dotted the grassy hillsides.
After some time we finally made one final push up the big mountain and a sign at the top assured is that this was, in fact, the top.
Not long after we reached the top, mist began to pour in earnest over the hillsides, creating not just a "cloud sea" but what is apparently called a "cloud fall" (like a waterfall but with, err, clouds). The misty air made it that much more magical, though obscured views over longer distances.
We reached the top at 3:30pm (we rested a lot on the way and it took us longer than it should have), and figured we had plenty of time to get back down. The map indicated two paths down through the Taoyuan Valley and grasslands （桃源谷), one of which seemed to descend quickly as well as being quite close by. No problem, right?
Wrong. We walked and walked - mostly down, a little up - with no route down in sight. The sun dipped lower and lower and the light soon became good for photos again...though maybe not so good for people on a mountain ridge with no discernable way down except possibly Death Toboggan (I suggested Death Tobogganing down; my idea was rejected for some reason).
Finally, after passing a few more ponds and scenic outlooks, we reached another high point that had quite a few visitors even in this advanced afternoon hours. A road led up to a parking area nearby. "If there's no path down here, let's take the road and stop at the first farmhouse we see to ask for help in calling a taxi," we decided.
Fortunately, I had thought to bring flashlights so we had some source of light once the sun set. This would be quite handy later.
After this point it was no longer possible to take good photos with my dinky little out of date Canon Powershot, so I put it away. We did find a path down, and after a long scramble down some stone steps came to a temple about halfway (maybe a little less) along. "You guys have flashlights, right?" they asked (in Chinese).
"Yeah, we have two."
"Good, you're going to need them. It's already dark farther down on the ocean side of the ridge."
"How much longer until we get to the highway?"
"About an hour's hike."
"...and until we get to the nearest town?"
"Daxi is about a half hour farther south down the highway."
So we girded our loins and took off after refilling some of our water supply at the temple. Flaslights soon came on as the path wound down the mountains, over the folds and in places straight across the ridge. Not going straight down meant that it did take a good hour, through some scary parts. One area was landslided out, and we had to cross it - a short section but still a terrifying one - with ropes. There was about 3 inches of mud to hold you up, rock on one side and a steep drop-off down several tens of meters on the other. Brendan, who is not afraid of heights, just went across. I am afraid of them just a bit and I freaked out, slipping at one point to land against the rock. Fun times.
Another part has the path following a stream, where it's slippery, pitch black from the set sun and clouded moon as well as thick overgrowth, and hard to make out where the path ends and the stream begins. We followed that for awhile - after that it was fairly easy going. Over another fold in the mountainside and down to the highway, where we walked that half hour (no choice really) to the bus station and ran-limped (run-limping is great, isn't it?) onto the local train pulling in.
For dinner - and we were starving - we went to Luodong 40 minutes south, ate ourselves silly at the night market and boarded an express bus through the Xueshan Tunnel back to Taipei, which we reached at midnight.
So, as we decided at the night market, our day was not just seized. It was throttled a bit, thrown to the ground, and kicked in the dust for good measure.