Friday, September 12, 2008

Hiking Tidbits

An interesting article in the China Post outlines a walk along the Xiao Tzukeng trail near Ruifang and Jiufen. As a huge fan of Taipei county's "Old Trails", this one is definitely now on my list of places to visit. I'm not a fan of climbing steps as opposed to hiking - preferably on a dirt trail, close to nature, with some monkeys at the end - but it still sounds like a lovely trip.

Gold Mining Country: Xiao Tzukeng Old Trail

Two things immediately stood out as I followed Xiao Tzukeng Old Trail near the Taipei County town of

Ruifang one beautiful early morning recently. The first was the beauty of the mountain scenery rising high above my head, which is rugged and precipitous, yet covered in a dense canopy of trees and undergrowth.

It's hardly surprising that this is an outstandingly beautiful slice of countryside: the upper Keelung River valley is possibly my favorite part of Taipei County. More unexpected is the high quality of the wide, expertly cut steps that carry the trail up to the heights, quite unlike the usual uneven, narrow and slippery slabs of rock that negotiate the steepest stretches of most historic trails I've followed.

It's not until exploring further up the mountainside, as we start to decipher the information boards placed alongside the trail at intervals, that we learn why the trail here was built with so such care, and it's a surprising discovery. Xiao Tzukeng Old Trail connects the lowlands of the Keelung River valley just north of the village of Houtung (侯硐) with the tiny, long abandoned settlement of Xiao Tzukeng, a tiny place perched high in the mountains (unreachable by any road), built to house the families of miners hoping to make their fortune at the gold mines above Jiufen, which is just a short climb over the ridge behind.

Recently upgraded and signposted, Xiao Tzukeng Old Trail (小粗坑古道) is a gentle walk, yet one that's peppered with fascinating relics from an exciting period of Taiwan's history -- the Jiufen gold rush. A few minutes after leaving the road, the first of many stone buildings, now nothing but a picturesque ruin enveloped in the jungle, stands beside the track.

In another minute or two, the track becomes a trail, crosses the rocky stream twice in quick succession, and reaches the bottom of a grand staircase of wide, well-hewn steps that lead all the way up the mountainside to the abandoned village and beyond.

The width and careful construction of these steps really is quite surprising to anyone who has walked more than a couple of Taiwan's hundreds of "old trails," so it's obvious that the villagers here were far wealthier than the farmers, villagers and fishermen who laid many of the other trails across the mountains throughout Taiwan.

About half-an-hour from the trailhead, the path climbs onto a large, stone platform rising high above the stream that flows at its foot. A quick look at our trusty hiking book revealed that a waterwheel was apparently once fixed here, and that gold-bearing rock brought from the mines was crushed and washed at this place. Or at least maybe it could be after wet weather -- the streambed was bone dry on our visit.

A long, wide staircase now climbs for about twenty minutes from the bank of the stream to the edge of the abandoned village of Xiao Tzukeng, a wonderfully atmospheric place, with a handful of half-ruined stone buildings lining the path, half hidden by the thick foliage of the encroaching jungle.

A trail on the left leads past the ruins of the village's old elementary school (which had a single classroom and just one teacher, so that only first and second grade kids could be taught here), and on up more steps past a picturesque small Earth God shrine to a wooden platform atop the nearest summit, providing a good view of Ruifang and the Keelung River Valley.

It's hard to imagine a bustling community of over 200 people once lived here, but another helpful info-board informed us that Xiao Tzukeng was once quite a lively place. A stage once stood in the playground of the school, and the village even had its own ensemble of Chinese Beiguan musicians!

Continuing onwards and upwards, after diverting around the grounds of the only house in town that's still inhabited (apparently by a couple of monks), a short but narrow, overgrown and difficult trail leaves the steps on the right and contours the precipitous hillside, reaching (after about five minutes' scramble) the foot of the small but very pretty Yingssu ("silver silk") Waterfall (銀絲瀑布), a hidden little place that's worth the trouble of getting there even when it's dry (as is often the case!).

The steps (a bit dilapidated in places now) climb steeply for another hot twenty minutes to reach a large and dignified stone shrine, protected by an unsightly concrete roof. This is the Temple to the Mountain Gods, a place at which miners en route to the mines at Jiufen would request permission before extracting rock from the mountainside, in the hope that the assent of the gods would ensure their safety while underground. The shrine is big enough to enter. Inside, in a niche at the back, sits a small stone figure, a replacement for the original statue (covered in gold leaf) that once sat here.

Jiufen (and, of course, its crowds) is now just a short climb, over the ridge.

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