Saturday, June 27, 2015

Taroko National Park

27 June 2015

Today we took the train from Hualien (pronounced hwah-LIN or hwah-LEE-IN or occasionally HWAH-lee-in, depending on where one is in Taiwan) to Fangliao (pronounced fang-lee-OW).  Fangliao is down on the southern coast, and is the jumping off point for travel to Kenting National Park and some of the best beaches in Taiwan.  So that's why we're here.

And later (or tomorrow) I'll blog about our train trip here.  

But yesterday, we went to the Taroko National Park, and that's the focus of today's blog.  Because there are so many photos, since the place really is that gorgeous!

Hualien is an interesting city.  With a population of nearly 340,000, it's the second largest city on Taiwan's east coast - not exactly a big city, more like a large town.  

Hualien (and the eastern area of Taiwan) is populated by more of the indigenous people of Taiwan than most other areas of the country.  There were numerous groups of people living on the island of Taiwan prior to the influx of Chinese people, and then the European invasions.  (First the Portuguese, who named the island Formosa; then the Spanish, the Dutch, the Chinese, the Japanese up until WWII, and then the Chinese again.   However, Taiwan broke away from mainland China when the Communist Party took over, and Chang Kai Shek left and became the leader of the independence movement on Taiwan.)

At any rate, the indigenous people make up about 2% of Taiwan's total population of 22 million or so.  The groups are referred to as the aboriginal people, or first nations, and ten groups are recognized.  (It depends on who you talk to, I've also heard that there are 16 groups, other people say 25.)  

In the area of Hualien, there is a significant number of people from the original tribes, and the local culture features the art, cooking, and traditions of the people - in this region, the Hakka people.  Makes for a very interesting mix of art around town.

The city is surrounded by mountains on the north, south, and west, and the Pacific Ocean on the east.  The mountains tower over the town, and hold wisps of cloud and fog even on the hottest, clearest summer day.  They're part of the Central Mountain Range, and make up the Taroko National Park.  (And, Taroko National Park is named for the Taroko tribe, one of the indigenous groups who still maintains small villages within the parks borders.)

The mountains in this area are comprised predominantly of marble, gorgeous white and black marble, though some of it is also red.  There are small deposits of granite, and also large deposits of jade, rose stone, and random gemstones buried in there as well.  

While marble is a fairly hard stone, it can be eroded over time.  So the various rivers running down and around and through the mountains have carved intricate and deep gorges, creating absolutely incredible scenery and vistas.  There are also springs of clear, rock-filtered water bubbling up, beautiful waterfalls, grottos with holes eroded into cliff faces, and the silvery river running through the bottom of the gorge.

We went with a small tour group, a mother and daughter from St. Louis, MO (the daughter was an exchange student here for the year), and a couple from Taipei.  So our tour was in English as well as Mandarin.  (Oh, funny small world story - the mother was telling me about a friend and colleague who also retired and was travelling the world - turned out the friend is a cousin of Richard's!  When the woman said she attended X college, he asked if she knew JR; the woman said that's the friend I was telling you about; Richard said that's my first cousin once removed!  We were all obviously meant to meet up!)

Anyway, we drove up into the Taroko National Park and stopped at various points, looking over bridges, walking through rock tunnels carved by the Japanese who built this highway, and under huge overhangs of rock.  Yes, helmets were required, and signs urged us to walk quickly.  One section of the road was closed due to landslides which collapsed part of the tunnel - so the helmets weren't just an empty precaution.

It was just so beautiful, all kinds of amazing rock formations, cliffs, rocks that looked like Buddha or a mouse or even faces looking out of the stone, swallows flying in and out of the crevices in the rocks.  The rock itself was mostly dark grey with streaks of white, which made the green of all the plant life look really bright in contrast.

We had time to hike along the river, just about half an hour.  Then short walks at the various stops along the way.  This is always the problem with tours, there's a schedule to maintain and it never feels like enough time at each stop.  But the tour was the only way we could get an English speaking guide, so we went with it.

The bridges were interesting - they seemed to be either bright red, or carved marble.  Lions were a common theme and stood sentry at each end of the bridge; one bridge was almost all marble and had playful lions frollicking along the balustrade.  (I love the carved lions!)

And of course there were temples and shrines and a few monasteries dotting the landscape, adding small bits of bright colors.

The last - and most gorgeous - temple is really a memorial to all the people who died building the road, some 226 people.  I know, it sounds like a huge number - some 3-4% of the workers dying on this dangerous job!  It took ten years to carve the highway through the rock, and something like 5,000 to 6,000 people were employed on a daily basis. 

Anyway, the memorial is a temple built over an eternal spring, symbolizing both that the spirit/soul lives on, as well as the individuals are remembered by their friends and families.  The water flows down the rock in a branching waterfall.  There is also a temple further up the hill, looking down at the entry gate which sits right over that waterfall.

And while the families would definitely have preferred to not lose their loved ones, it really is a beautiful memorial.

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