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September 21, 2017

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Of all Taiwan's six national parks, Taroko is the most sublime

"Taroko" means 'magnificent and splendid,' a description originally bestowed by one stunned indigenous explorer, as he stumbled upon the view from the gorge's eastward opening onto the Pacific Ocean.

Stretching 36km from north to south and 42km east to west, the park houses numerous peaks of over 3000m, including the foreboding Mt. Nanhu and the distinctive Chilai Mountains.

I had spent much of my time in Taiwan riding my scooter pell-mell through the cramped confines of Taipei's bustling thoroughfares.

Fun though this can be, I longed to exchange the capital's claustrophobic skyline for the unspoiled and endless horizons of Taroko (太魯閣).

I admit I had visions of an Easy Rider-esque scenario, albeit with a slightly smaller bike. So I took the four-hour train ride down to Hualien (花蓮), on Taiwan's east coast.

There, a short walk from the train station (veer right as you exit), is a line of motorbike vendors, anxious to pack you off into the mountains on 150cc scooters for as little as NT$400 a day.

After an hour's drive along the coastal plain, hat turned to the back, not as a gesture of style but because to wear it correctly almost sheared my head from my shoulders, I arrived at the last gas station.

Before entering the park proper, one should pay a visit to the park headquarters. The center has an excellent relief map, some stunning photographs, and information on the indigenous tribes that live in Taroko.

Following a short ascent up the gorge's winding and well-paved roads, during which I was passed by the real Easy Riders — Taiwanese with Goldwing-sized bikes — I came to the Shakadang (沙卡礑) River.

Though there is a picturesque walk along the cliffs, I wanted to be closer to the gorge and so decided to do some river chasing. The river is low during summer, but it's important you come equipped with sturdy footwear, as the current is frequently strong enough to sweep flip-flops from your feet.

Light reflected from dissolved calcium carbonate gives the ice-cool water a striking blue coloring, and down among the boulders I believed I was the only traveler for miles.

As I swam, hopped, jumped, dragged, tripped and fell my way up the river, tiny fish zipped around my feet and I soon located two fat frogs basking on a rock. They seemed pleased — an abundance of frog's spawn lay strewn about them.

The onward drive from the river mouth towards Tien-hsiang (天祥) is one of unparalleled natural beauty, comparable even with the views from California's Highway 1.

Of course, there is a certain difficulty in taking in all that's to be seen while keeping your scooter on the road, but I often had both lanes to myself — and a huge grin on my face.

The marble rock formations glistened; waterfalls gushed and trickled down to the roadside and at every turn a new vista unfolded, revealing overlapping ridges like stairways to the clouds.

Just before Tien-hsiang stands the entrance to the Baiyang (白楊) waterfall: a huge, gaping tunnel mouth.

I recommend walking through this at night, when the wind howling tunnel seems to want to suck you into oblivion. I even began to doubt my disbelief in ghosts; this is Taiwan after all.

The waterfall itself, complete with rickety rope-bridge, is impressively powerful and it's possible to follow its path quite a distance down the mountainside.

The final tunnel, which takes about 40 minutes to reach, is really cave, and sports the marvelous phenomenon of indoor rain, made possible by the porous limestone ceiling.

Perched on the cliff top, a steep climb up from Tien-hsiang, stands the statue of the White Lady. It's well worth the short hike just to eat lunch in the Huoran Pavilion and enjoy the panoramic view.

Tien-hsiang is an excellent base from which to explore the surrounding area. It even has an ATM, but beware, I found to my cost that it will not accept Cirrus branded cards and was forced to dine on instant noodles and betel nuts.

I opted to stay at the Catholic Hostel, NT$500 a night for a double with en suite and air con. It's a charming place of rabbit warren design; walkways overhead and below, and a maze of stairs and ladders connect the rooms.

Lying on the breeze-cooled roof was a welcome relief from my usual sweat-ridden berth in Taipei. I listened to the susurrus of running water, the manifold sounds of nature in the surrounding trees, and thought how lucky I was to have escaped Taipei.

I have only sketched some of the many possibilities in the park. There are numerous other trails, hikes and sights, all of varying interest and difficulty. How adventurous you are, how far you stray from the beaten track, is really up to you.

In Taroko, as with much of Taiwan, anything is possible.

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