By Tricia Chen, The China Post October 28, 2009, 10:28 am TWN
I'm not sure what's on your list of places you must visit before you die, but I have two words for you: Taroko Gorge. Think I'm exaggerating? Read on, and you decide.
Categorized as one of the eight scenic wonders in Taiwan by the Japanese occupiers, the gorge's beauty has been appreciated for generations. Although the gorge is now officially part of one of the seven national parks in Taiwan, that process stretched over 50 years, involving more than 2,000 government proposals, and hampered by politics.
But with Taroko's struggles past, all that remains is to marvel at and cherish this national treasure.
Let's start with geography. The gorge is enveloped by boundaries including the mouth of Liwu River and Mt. Nanhu. With zero elevation on one side and a 3,800-meter tall mountain on the other, the park's drastic altitude differences provide visitors with a captivating experience rarely accessible elsewhere – especially all in one go.
Tour guide Lin Mei-lin said Taroko is home to a wide range of vegetation – apparently one-third of all vascular plants found in Taiwan are found here. Because Taroko Gorge's unique geological structure prevents soil and water from accumulating, the vegetation is mainly hardy and drought-resistant, able to grow on rocky areas.
Lin told me that half of the mammal species found in the country, 90 percent of bird species and over half of the butterfly species reside in the park, too (I guess even they cannot resist Taroko Gorge's charm).
Join me in exploring some corners of the 270,000-hectare national park, starting from the Changchun Shrine.
The Eternal Spring Shrine
Not too far from the entrance near the Liwu River is a shrine. Although grand, the site is humble in comparison to the magnificent natural backdrop of marbled stone, known as Changchun – literally meaning "Eternal Spring." The shrine commemorates the lives of 212 workers who died after periodic earthquakes and typhoons in the late 1950s wreaked havoc on construction of the Central Cross-island Highway that zigzags across Taroko. About 6,000 men, some prisoners, worked on the project. Lin said frequent visitors often stop by the shrine to pay their respects.
The current shrine was rebuilt after the first one was destroyed by a rockslide in 1987. Restoration took nearly a decade.
Adjacent to the shrine is Chanchun Falls – Taroko's spring water that flows all year round. It's a scenic spot with special significance because people view the non-stop flow of water as a symbol of unceasing vitality.
Behind the Changchun Shrine, a staircase leads to the Kuanyin Cave, the Taroko Tower, and at the very top, the Bell Tower. The leisurely walk to the Bell Tower usually takes about 45 minutes. It took me more than an hour as the surroundings often kept me rooted to the spot.
Note: The trail up is considerably steep, so sightseeing is discouraged on rainy days.
Journey further into the park and make a pit stop at the Swallow Grotto, also known as Yanzihkou. The rock cliffs that rise from the Liwu River seem so gigantic when you look up, topped with wispy clouds, you can't tell where they end. It's almost as if the rock climbs endlessly into heaven.
As you near the end of the grotto, it's about half a kilometer to Jinheng Bridge. Views of the Liwu River as well as the watermarks on the opposite cliffs' faces are clear; the distance between the gorge walls is so narrow, the rocks are almost kissing.