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September 23, 2017

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The Shi Guanyin Temple experience in Miaoli offers an inspiring view

For a feel of authentic Taiwanese culture, pay a visit to a nearby temple. They're often microcosms of traditional Taiwanese life, many with their own mini-communities working, eating and maybe even sleeping within the temple precincts.

Temple visiting can be fun for a while, but there comes a time whens they all start to look monotonously similar. Those long-whiskered dragons on the roof of the main hall and the cute ball-cuddling lions guarding the entrance all look very nice, but seem to moonlight at several temples.

Fortunately, a handful of temples do offer unique experiences, and the Shi Guanyin Temple (石觀音寺) near the town of Shitan (獅潭) in Taiwan's western county of Miaoli is a prime example.

Perched high in steep, rocky peaks in a remote part of the county and reachable only by narrow, winding mountain roads, the temple itself isn't especially noteworthy, but its setting certainly is. The temple is built over the front of a natural cave near the summit of the peak, offering inspiring views over the scenic rocky domes and ridges that dot this corner of Miaoli County.

Getting to the temple is a bit of a challenge. The physically fit can hike there from the main road: The area is dotted with historic trails that were once the main paths, and five have recently been cleared and opened, forming a network of routes between the temple and National Route 3 far below. If you go this way, expect a challenging five-kilometer walk.

Drivers can follow one of the narrow mountain roads up from the main road (several are signposted). By far the easiest is County Route 22, which is just north of Shitan village (獅潭庄) on National Route 3 and turns off at Yun Dong Temple (雲洞宮) in four kilometers onto a minor road along the ridge for the last couple of kilometers to Shi Guanyin Temple.

An alternative way up is to take the wider and straighter County Route 26, turning off in about five kilometers onto a signposted minor road that leads up the mountainside to the temple. The last stretch of this trip, however, is nothing more than a single-track lane with some hair-raising blind bends and steep drops, and is probably best left to the locals.

From either route, leave the car at a parking area just below the temple and walk to a short approach road uphill to it. The main building is built into the foot of a large, overhanging cliff, and the temple's main hall, adorned with a gilded statue of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, makes use of the shallow natural cave at the foot of the bluff. Apart from novel use of surrounding natural rocks, the temple itself is unexceptional, but the view from the wide terraces out the front is simply stunning in clear weather.

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