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Jhuilu Old Trail: A spectacular new viewpoint on Taroko Gorge

Monday, June 1, 2009
By Richard Saunders, Special to The China Post


The trail is less than a meter wide and five hundred meters long, but as our group gingerly follows the narrow strip, suspended halfway up the sheer face of Taroko Gorge's highest cliff face, I think the feeling is unanimous that this is probably the most spectacular, easily accessible hike in Taiwan.

The weather has done us proud, and a clear, deep blue sky forms a magical backdrop for the breathtaking, sheer walls of Taroko Gorge, plunging from our feet for almost five hundred meters straight down to the waters of the Liwu (立霧) River, which from up here is just a narrow ribbon in the depths of the canyon. Beside it lies an even narrower thread, the Central Cross-island Highway, and the colorful bodywork of a convoy of coaches (it's a weekend) can be made out, although they look far smaller than Matchbox toys from this elevation.

This incredible half a kilometer long stretch of trail is part of the Jhuilu Old Trail (錐鹿古道), itself a small section of a 145 kilometer long Japanese built trail cut between 1914 and 1933, linking Taroko Gorge with the village of Wushe, over the mountains in Nantou County, as part of the Japanese attempts to subdue the island's aboriginal inhabitants. Various parts of the trail have been restored and can be hiked, (including several stretches in Taroko Gorge) but none are nearly as famous as the 10.3 kilometer Jhuilu Old Trail, named after the stunning vertical face of Jhuilu Cliff, across which the trail is cut.

Almost all of the keen hikers in Taiwan will have heard of Jhuilu Old Trail, (it has a great reputation) yet for almost a decade no one was able to follow it. Damaged by the great earthquake of 1999, the trail remained closed until park authorities decided to reopen the trail to hikers with permits in July 2008. Less than a month later, the first of last year's three devastating typhoons closed the trail once more, and that way it remained until, after a nine month wait, it reopened a couple of couple of weeks ago. Let's hope this year's typhoons don't wreak similar havoc on this amazing place.

The trailhead lies beside the mouth of the road tunnel at the eastern end of Swallow's Grotto in the central section of the Gorge, marked by a locked gate and a long and graceful suspension bridge which spans the chasm high above the water, a great improvement on the series of makeshift bridges that took hikers across the Liwu River here pre-1999, and which were regularly destroyed by typhoon floodwaters. Not quite so welcome, perhaps, are the painstakingly made but rather intrusive steps which climb the steep side of the gorge on the far side of the river.

Every few meters, small signs warn of all manner of risks to be faced on the trail, from unstable ground and slippery rocks to poisonous bees and snakes, and a sign at the beginning of the trail states that the path is of 'a high level of difficulty' and is, in parts 'potentially very dangerous.'

Those not warned off by these scare tactics will, however soon discover the trail is remarkably well made, if a tad monotonous, and the five hundred meters of vertical gain (a good bit more than climbing to the top of Taipei 101) is achieved remarkably painlessly.

It helps having a few spots of interest on the way, of course: a rather innocuous-looking suspension bridge that actually spans a narrow but gaping chasm with a drop of around a hundred meters beneath your feet, and the site of the old settlement of Badagang (巴達崗), which in Japanese times boasted a clinic, school and several hotels for travelers passing through on foot! No one does this hike to enjoy the remains of old villages or suspension bridges however, so on we go up the trail until, an hour to ninety minutes after leaving the road, it flattens out, the view opens up, the surroundings become rockier, and the cliff trail draws close.

Passing through a short tunnel, the path narrows, the ground on the left begins to fall away steeply, and finally, beside another sign warning hikers of the 'dangers' of continuing, the great cliff (and part of the path cut into its prodigious face) appears ahead.

For the next five hundred meters the path is squeezed between the vertical face of the cliff above, and a huge, sheer drop below. It's an airy, exposed and thrilling ledge with astounding views over the central section of Taroko Gorge and the high mountains beyond, invisible from the road, half a kilometer below.

It's a mesmerizing spectacle and it takes over twenty minutes to reach the far end, where the trail dives back into the trees and a small shaded area of flat ground, the site of an old Japanese police post and our lunch spot today. Ahead, Jhuilu Old Trail continues for another seven rough kilometers before descending back into the gorge at Zimu Bridge.

On our visit in mid May, this section of the trail had yet to be reopened (rumors say it will open later in the year), but we're quite happy to retrace our steps to Swallows Grotto, enjoy a shorter day's walk, and, above all, experience those amazing views all over again.

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