The idea was to take on more Himalayas. However, that needed planning and I and my hiking companion, DC, seem to have lost the art of doing that. In addition, the only time that we were both available was too late in the season in Nepal, and the flights were ludicrously expensive. So, I had a brainwave: Taiwan.I’d been there a few times over the years but had never explored, and the Taiwanese Alps looked interesting.
They still do. The alps consists of national parks that, if you’re a foreigner, need to be booked 35 days to four months in advance, and we’d booked our tickets more like three weeks in advance. And although it did occur to us that we could kind of pretend to be local foreigners, the Taiwanese authorities can be strict, and languishing in jail for a week didn’t seem a good way of exploring the country.
So, to Yang Ming Shan, an area that is in the north of the island. It doesn’t have the altitude of the Taiwanese Alps, but it seemed from the map to have lots of trails, and was generally quite lumpy. And, if we hiked all that had to offer, there was the Taipei Grand Trail, which encircles the city.
For those who’d rather skip the words, you can jump to DC’s facebook page, which has all the pictures he took. The common theme of these pictures is: mist.
Our arrival in the suburb of Bei Tou was characteristic of a bygone era. DC stands for “Diamond Card,” and the cabin crew on the flight from Hong Kong were more than obliging when it came to keeping us topped up. As a result, our arrival in Taipei will forever remain shrouded in mystery. I remember a lot of red wine on a very short flight, a very long queue at immigration, and then there’s blank during which we took a lot of public transport to arrive, by some miracle, at the hotel. We found some noodles, had a beer from 7-11 in the park opposite the hotel and staggered back to our respective rooms.
Day one saw us both at breakfast by 7ish. A quick exploration of the area found a Subway, so we bought a couple of takeaway subways for lunch – which became our modus operandi. The public transport, once we got the hang of it, is excellent; we took a bus up to the park and walked through the thickening mist. All those views you see on the official websites were obscured from us. We passed a house built for Chiang Kai-Shek, and I saw a small snake. After a while we stumbled on a signposted path which we followed up to the start of the rise to Qixing or Seven Stars Mountain. Here, the mist became cloud. The trails in the national park (and elsewhere) were laid with rock paving stones which seem to provide the perfect surface for a particularly slippery and treacherous type of moss, which led to a few near slips. Anyway, the prospect of ascending a steep and high mountain for no views at all did not appeal, so we went instead to the Qingtiangang Grasslands where we found a small-but-perfectly-formed temple and some very damp feral cows. By this time, I was becoming distinctly cold, so we headed back and down. Bei Tou is known for its natural springs and a hot tub after a long walk has rarely felt so good.
Dinner that evening was a shock. Not so much dinner as looking for it: the Taipei I remembered was a city with a big drinking culture. That night, it took us the better part of an hour to find a restaurant that even served beer.
The next morning, a quick trip to Subway and we were set to rock and roll on Section 1 of the Taipei Grand Trail. This was well sign-posted – as is the entire park – and we soon found ourselves striding up between the Taipei University of Arts with its beautiful green campus and eclectic buildings on the one side, and the functional concrete cube of a Technical University on the other. Rising above that, we headed up the first hill and came across two enormous – 100ft / 30m diameter – Chinese graves. Perhaps the Soong family that was so influential at the end of the Ching Dynasty? Be that as it may, the weather held and we managed to knock off a few lower peaks, a circuit, and stumbled across a very colourful golden pheasant that seemed quite unperturbed by us.
With one thing and another, we ended up in Shilin. This supposed night market was bereft of beer, and the only two pubs didn’t open for ages. We ended up outside 7-11.
Day three saw us on Stage 2 of the Grand Trail. This took on the Datong peaks, which turned out to be tough. Very tough. The path involved scrambling up rocks and between trees. I did my best to avoid relying on the ropes, but there were a few points where it was just too steep and too slippery (especially after a few days rain) not to. Hiking with my usual backpack full of stuff – including DC’s lunch as well as mine – didn’t help, but we got to the top. And the next one. And the one after that. By this time, however, the weather was turning for the worse so, rather than head up Seven Stars Mountain, we took the bus back to Qingtiangang and took the long walk down to the city. This was delightful, cutting through different layers of forest and different types of tree. And I only slipped and fell twice! The only problem was at the bottom, where an automated bus stop kindly informed us that it would be 92 minutes before the next bus. As we were ingesting that piece of intelligence, a car pulled up out of nowhere and gave us a lift.
Back once more at Shilin, we skipped its delights, had a beer and took the MRT back. DC had read of a pizza place further up the hill in Beitou. The food was so-so, the beer expensive, and they only took cash – which left me wiped out.
Day four was chucking down rain, so we did sections five and six of the Taipei Grand Trail. I’m sure the views would be nice in good weather. but we barely caught a glimpse of them. The sixth section was one of those that just went on and on. There’s a very steep hill in the middle which had one false summit after another. I would have happily taken one of the shortcuts off the trail at the end, but DC had got the bit between his teeth and, in the end, we only just made it down by dusk. At least the 7-11 was close by. 7-11 was becoming a regular thing.
On the way back, DC remembered a pub downtown, the Brass Monkey. It was a nice change to have a draft beer. All the others had been cans or bottles.
Day five was clear. (By that time, “clear.” was defined by the absence of rain). We headed up to Seven Stars Mountain and summited it with good views – of the mountain’s secondary peaks. The other mountains were hidden in cloud. By the time we were back down at the level of the road, the weather had set in once again, so we pivoted, retraced our steps of two days before and, after a few misturns and directions from friendly hikers in my very limited Mandarin and their very limited English, found our way to the top of Stage 4 of the Grand Taipei Trail. I enjoyed that. It was a slippery, muddy path through the forest, but there was something about it that appealed. I suppose on reflection it was this: the other sections were well signposted and the trails themselves laid with paving stones. This one was more raw, without the flagstones, and all sorts of side paths and whatnot.
By this time 7-11 was the default. We did that and found an excellent dinner in the night market in Beitou. The chefs were amazing: they cranked out one dinner after another, the woks roaring away and their movements almost balletic. The food matched the performance.
The last day saw more rain and we’d pretty much hiked all that Yangmingshan had to offer, so we took on Section 7 of the Taipei Grand Trail. This led us in a meandering route over and around the hills of south Taipei. We lost the trail at one point and ended up ascending a long and winding road, only to find ourselves at the top of the path we were supposed to have taken. DC insisted we find the temple supposedly further down, which led us back to where we’d lost the trail, but no temple. Back up (1000+ steps!) and we found a load of temples, each quite nice. From there, the path was much better marked and took us through tea and strawberry plantations. It did not end at the cable car, but there were some restaurants selling beer so I made an executive decision on that one.
Back to the night market and the same excellent food. One of the chefs burnt himself: he stuck his hand under a tap for a minute and went back to the woks. More Taipei Beer, then back to the 7-11 near the hotel for a last couple of drinks.
In total about 145km hiking, but a total of closer to 180km including our explorations of Taipei, and about 6,000 metres of ascent. Not bad for six days. Next time, the Taiwanese Alps!