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The amazing rock formations of Shiba Dong Tian

Ever wondered where Maokong (貓空), that ever-popular hillside on the southern edge of Taipei where everyone goes to drink tea, got its name? Despite having the character for 'cat' in the name, it has nothing whatsoever to do with our feline friends.

Instead it's a transliteration of the Taiwanese name, 'Niaokeng,' ('teapot hole'), an allusion to the many potholes eroded into the rock of the riverbed in the valley below. For many years this fascinating sight was visited by few visitors to the area other than local geologists, but now the potholes are easy to get to, thanks to a new, well signposted path that begins not far from the upper station of the Maokong Gondola (forecast to reopen for Chinese New Year 2010).

Potholes (otherwise known as kettle holes or giant's kettles) occur when small stones or gravel, spun in a circular motion by eddies in the water, gradually erode smooth-sided, circular depressions in a stream or riverbed. These examples at Muzha might not look especially big or impressive, but they're of great interest to geologists, as they're quite uncommon.

Maokong isn't the only place to see these curious natural phenomena. The best-known kettle holes in Taiwan are a mass of indents in the exposed bed of the Keelung River at the town of Nuan Nuan (暖暖), near Keelung in Taipei County, although part of their fame is surely due to their lying right beside a busy road. The impressive cluster of holes somewhat further up the Keelung River, near the settlement of Dahua (大華) has a much more scenic setting in a lush gorge a kilometer or so below the famous Shifen Waterfall (十分瀑布).

Perhaps the most beautiful examples of this strange and rather beautiful form of water erosion in northern Taiwan, however, lies at Shiba Dong Tian (十八洞天) on the Dabao Stream south of the town of Sansia, in the far west of Taipei County. Although it lies right beside local route 114 (en route to the popular tourist attraction of Manyueyuan National Forest Recreation Area) Shiba Dong Tian is little visited, mainly because the only safe way down to the potholes is from a small, easily missed side road on the opposite bank of the river.

To get there, follow the signs from Sansia towards Sanmin (三民) and Manyueyuan (滿月圓), but continue along the Sanmin Road (provincial route 7) as the road to Manyueyuan branches off to the left, over the bridge. Pause at this junction for a minute or two to admire the view from the bridge over the Dabao Stream, which at this point cuts a fine rocky ravine through the rock.

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The amazing rock formations of Shiba Dong Tian
Near the head of the gorge stands Elephant's Head Rock. (By Richard Saunders, Special to The China Post) 

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