Saturday, June 15, 2013
Tombs of the Sky Lanterns and Bamboo Cathedrals
Not long ago we did a lovely, not-too-challenging hike in Pingxi, taking the Dongshige (東勢格) trail from the bottom end of town (if you come by train - right on the road if you come by bus). We hadn't been hiking in Taiwan in ages because we've both been wary after Brendan's terrible fall, and we were out of commission hike-wise for several months anyway for his recovery. We did do World's End and Horton Plains in Sri Lanka (in lieu of still-not-quite-ready-for-it Adam's Peak) in February, but that's been it since September. So if you've been wondering why I haven't done any hiking posts...that's why.
Oh yeah, and from February to May it rained more or less every weekend in Taipei. Months on end. No good hiking.
Ready to start hiking again and wanting to take advantage of a few weekends of not-terrible weather, but not ready for anything too challenging (gotta recapture that muscle memory, or really, just gotta get back in some form of hiking shape) - and probably never again willing to try anything too risky on a hiking trail - we opted to do this lovely, rambling hike.
The three key features of Dongshige are the gentle rock scrambles, often around a cool, bubbling creek (all have ropes for balance and none are impossible to navigate for even the most novice hiker), tall copses of bamboo that arc together high above the trail to create the feeling of a verdant, natural cathedral ceiling, and sky lanterns set off from Pingxi town that have fallen in the hills beyond, ending their lives among the trees.
It's quite lovely to walk along in the dappled sunlight under the trees (assuming you get a sunny day, which you should never assume in northern Taiwan, let alone Pingxi) and catch sight of red, blue, pink and striped sky lanterns saying their last goodbyes, either at your feet or in the trees. Some are so new that you can read the wishes on them. Others have been at rest for so long that the paper has long since disintegrated and all you've got are a few tattered remnants of color - if that - and the metal base of the lantern. They're lifted into the sky by hot air/smoke - think very crude hot air balloon technology - so when the sterno-like fire goes out of their base, they fall where they fall.
And they are everywhere in these hills. I wonder if the one we made a few months before our wedding is up here somewhere.
We accidentally went the wrong way when we started off, and found ourselves on a trail Joseph, our companion, has done before with Richard Saunders - the Stone Candle trail, which from what we've heard is absolutely gorgeous, and also 8+ hours of risky, rocky trails and pure torture if you're not in great shape. (The link above includes photos of our friends Joseph and Emily doing this hike). The first part of the trail is pretty easy, though, and quite lovely as it winds through farmland and up gentle hills to a set of old stone steps (which is where it gets more challenging), so we decided to stay on it for awhile. Then we turned around and hit Dongshige - we didn't complete it, in part because we'd started out too late, in part because we'd spent time on the wrong trail, and finally because my water bottle was not capped properly and I lost my entire water supply in my backpack and down the back of my pants about halfway through.
You can get to the start of Stone Candle, Dutiful Son Mountain, Loving Mother Mountain, Dongshige and more from about the same area - from the train to Pingxi, walk down through the town, turn left and walk down some more, and turn left again at the road at the bottom of the old street. Walk for awhile on hot pavement and the trail entrances will eventually start appearing on your left.
From there, grab a smartphone photo of the map (the correct entrance has a map of Dongshige Trail) and head up. If you find yourself on the right side of the creek, walking through farmland and not on a road scooters can drive down, you're headed to Stone Candle. Turn back (or keep going until you're tired, it's a nice walk at first). You should instead be on a road so easy that it is somewhat motorable up to a certain point.. You end up at an old tunnel (on the way you'll pass the "disused house", "disused office" and "disused tunnel" - this area is full of old forest ruins so you'll see a lot of this kind of stuff) - the trail is pretty obvious from here on out (head right just before you reach the house, the bridge between the forks doesn't look stable).
If you instead head up Stone Candle, to the right of the creek, the easy trail terminates at a long set of slippery stone steps to your right. At the top of that are some old man-made shallow caves, which appear to be some sort of shrine-like dedication to Chiang Kai-Shek (eugh!):
There's another, harder to read inscription that is more obviously Chiang Kai-shek related, too.
But assuming you stay on the Dongshige Trail (left of the creek, for awhile), this is where you hit a series of gentle rock scrambles, some near or in the water, some not.
A red sky lantern impaled on bamboo
The "disused tunnel"
From the Stone Candle (i.e., wrong) trail
The trail gently inclines for awhile - nothing too strenuous, but it's not entirely flat going - and is mostly shaded, The rocks and creek (and lack of pavement) keep it cool, so it's a good choice for a very hot day. Just bring more water than we did, and don't screw the cap on wrong like this idiot here.
After some time, on your right you'll hit a signpost and a turn-off to another super-challenging, Richard-Saunders-style hike that we didn't attempt. It cuts a natural, almost imperceptible trail up a steep, rocky, overgrown hillside and disappears into the jungle above. Maybe someday - not now. Keep going on the route that's not kind of scary, along the rock scramble.
Yes, I am aware that this looks like a giant discarded condom.
You'll also pass an Earth God shrine (you usually do on these hikes!)
We never made it to the "natural endpoint" of this hike - some lovely grasslands about another kilometer away - because of the water situation (we also wouldn't have had enough daylight to go to Houtong to see the cats, but realistically we could have done that on another day), but the hike seems to continue to gently ascend from there and could easily be completed without issue had we a bit more water and time.
On the way back, along the easy motorable trail, you also get some lovely views across the river of Shulong Peak and Stone Bamboo Shoot, which are accessible from Jingtong.