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August 19, 2017

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Taiwan's highest waterfall

Among Taiwan's many natural wonders, one of the most impressive has to be among its less well-known. An island internationally famous as the current home of the world's tallest building, Taipei 101, Taiwan also has, it is said, the tallest waterfall in East Asia, Jiao Lung Waterfall, (蛟龍瀑布, Dragon Waterfall) in Chiayi (嘉義) County.

Although local pride has exaggerated the facts a little (several awesome waterfalls in China are even higher), Jiao Lung Waterfall is far and away the highest in Taiwan, at an impressive 600 meters in height. The tricky bit is getting to see it in all its glory.

Jiao Lung Waterfall is fed by a stream which drops 1,300 meters in the four kilometers between its source (just a couple of kilometers from the ever-popular mountain resort of Alishan) and the village of Fengshan (豐山). The bulk of the drop is at the awesome sheer cliffs of Mt. Da Ta, where it forms Jiao Lung Waterfall.

Such a lofty waterfall can be seen from far away when in full voice, and it's clearly visible from the mountain resort of Caoling (草嶺), eight kilometers away, in good weather. But to get really up close and personal with the waterfall, bump along the rough, sometimes unsurfaced road to the isolated hamlet of Fengshan, which lies in the valley at the base of the cliffs.

Fengshan isn't the easiest place to get to, and some years it's cut off for days (or even weeks) when floods wipe out the solitary road that connects it with the outside world. This is too bad, as the waterfall is at its best just after a heavy typhoon dumps its load on Alishan above, as the amazing photos which are proudly displayed in each of the village's handful of home stays and simple hotels make clear.

On my first visit to Fengshan, a decade ago, the waterfall was completely dry, and I couldn't even make out its location. I was luckier on my second expedition out there, in the middle of October this year. Five or six hours after leaving Chiayi city on rented scooters, I and a group of friends turned off county route 149 onto the little road that runs up the valley to Fengshan village, and the waterfall, plunging out of low cloud and down the great crags of Mt. Da Ta immediately commanded the view ahead.

There had been light rain for a day or two which was just now clearing up, and the waterfall dropped in countless skeins, glistening in the weak late afternoon sunlight. As we pulled into our lodgings at Fengshan twenty minutes later, it was already dusk, and we'd have to wait until morning to get a clearer view of the great fall. The following morning dawned a perfect, cloudless day, and before breakfast, a small group of us were already sitting astride our scooters, easing our way along the deeply potholed, unsurfaced road that leads from the village up to the viewing platform that gives a remarkable view of both the waterfall and the whole valley below.

It had already been a day since the light rain of the last few days had stopped, and the flow was already much reduced from last night, to just a few small strands, moving seemingly in slow motion as they plunged hundreds of meters down the cliff face. The sun was rising somewhere directly behind the waterfall, plunging the whole valley into dense shade and making the waterfall's slender outline harder than ever to make out.

Standing on the viewing platform, we were still two kilometers below the waterfall, so it was back on the bikes to negotiate a very rough, signposted track that took us a little closer. When the way got too rough to go any further, I continued on foot, soon climbing over huge boulders in the stream bed, until I was in the rugged gorge below the falls.

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