In 1956, skeptical Taiwanese doubted that the initial 20km of Central Cross-Island Hwy was possible. The marble canyon that challenged it is today the most remarkable natural setting in Formosa.
The kind of road roller coaster that runs along the east coast of Taiwan's main island, between Suao and Hualien, seems to only entertain us. Inveterate cyclists report to each other and beyond that, despite its crazy terrain, Formosa is probably the best Asian destination to explore by cycling. They curse, however, this stretch between the Pacific Ocean and the rocky foothills of the Cordillera Central. Lyndall Pyckering, for example, complains to an online cyclo-community that barely had time to admire the landscape or feel the pain in his thighs caused by the constant climbs, such was the concentration he was forced to maintain to avoid being sandwiched against the walls of stone or cement, by the lorries and tourist buses that disputed the asphalt.
At the wheel but in his boss's Volvo sedan, Jack suffered a lot to prevent his job from having the same fate: “damn traffic! The government should ban heavy trucks once and for all on this coast!” We realized that this would be his protest, even if expressed in the rudimentary English we were already used to. We already trusted your experience. For this reason, we were still dedicated to the most photogenic sections of that extreme coastline, which, by the heights of Chingshui cliff, became vertical as never before. There, cliffs of mountains with more than a thousand meters plunged, steeply, into the blue sea.
A few kilometers to the south and inland, we enter the land of Hsiulin. This district has long been Taiwan's largest in terms of area. It houses six villages and has almost 15500 inhabitants, the vast majority of the Taroko ethnic group. In more recent times, the island's aboriginal ethnicities and the Taroko Gorge gained such importance that the authorities forced Hsiulin to change his name to Taroko, an ethnic term truku meaning wonderful. This is allegedly what an indigenous of this tribe uttered when he left the excavated territory of the gorge for the first time and was amazed at the ocean.
Soon we left that eastern marine vastness behind. We entered a narrow canyon, sometimes green, sometimes rocky, made of raw marble to be more precise, the reason for its other name, Gorge of Marble.
We detour 2.3 km west of the main road and come across the Eternal Spring Shrine, a fruitful and uninterrupted natural spring that a Buddhist order blessed with a sanctuary crossed by the stream. It was erected in honor of the more than 200 workers (military veterans) who perished in the bold construction of the Central Cross-Island Highway and have their names inscribed on stone plaques.
Even today, Taroko Gorge and Eternal Spring Shine reserve their risks, especially if those who visit them are caught by storms or typhoons, which are very common in Taiwan.
Although he prefers this new domain to the frantic side road that brought us from Taipei, Jack is well aware of its dangers. “Be careful on this trail!”, he alerts us with an unusual drama. “Once, a honeymoon couple posed for pictures near the sanctuary when they were surprised by a landslide!”. We also found that that slope had already collapsed several times and that, since 1950, the sanctuary had been rebuilt twice.
When we returned from the walk and the rejuvenating splashes of the spring, Jack sighed impatiently behind his crumpled Taiwan Times. “I was starting to get worried” justifies his discontent, still and always in rudimentary English.
We don't want to intensify your despair. We stuff ourselves and our work packs into the Volvo and set off towards Taroko's bowels.
At 3.6 km, we reach the surroundings of Swallow Grotto, a cliff covered with small caves carved by ancient underground currents and where thousands of swallows have installed their nests.
Onwards, we find the Jinheng suspension bridge and cross the Liwu River again, which runs through the entire gorge, this time in an inevitable vertigo caused by the permanent sway of the rope structure.
As we cross it, we realize the drastic speed with its deep bed must flood again and again, as it receives the bulk of torrential rain fed by the overheated Pacific. After some effort, also the latent form of Yindiaren Rock, a huge boulder carved by erosion into the shape of a Native American chief with his headdress.
Back in road mode, we cross the Liufang colored bridge and reach the Tunnel of Nine Turns. There, Taroko's Man versus Nature confrontation takes on unprecedented gravity. At one point, the main road turns into a detour that leads to a series of short tunnels carved out of the marble, along the winding gorge and irrigated by waterfalls that plunge into the Liwu River, which is agitated there by furious rapids.
We walk along these semi-open tunnels. last reveals the true dimension of the scenario
Just 2 km further on, the capricious Liwu forces us to make a new crossing, the Bridge of Motherly Devotion.
This bridge was built by former Taiwan President Chiang Jing-guo, son of another far more famous, Chiang Kai-shek political-military pioneer of the Republic of China (Taiwan) who saw his army defeated in the civil war raging in China continent and was forced to take refuge on the island.
Chiang Jing-Guo, opened the bridge in memory of his mother, inspired by his father. Chiang Kai-shek himself had had a Buddhist pavilion built in honor of Jing-Guo's grandmother.
We beat the stone lions that guard their entrance and contemplate the huge pebbles that share the rich flow, now in the company of Jack, who once again uses one of his favorite Anglophone terms: “Crazy river, isn't it" ? ” asks us knowing by heart and stir-fry that we would confirm it.
Tiangsiang is the last and largest settlement in Taroko Gorge. It appears embedded in its threshold, with verdant mountains in the background. We glimpse the six-story pagoda of Heavenly Summit and a golden Buddha that blesses visitors, those who, like us, sacrifice themselves to climb the steep path to the Xiangde religious complex, and others who, like our plump and indolent conductor, they shunned the little pilgrimage. " Up there??! You are crazy. Marco is crazy, Sara, that's got to be it!"
We had a good laugh, we left him joking with other drivers and tour guides, and we went on our way. We were in the last canyon territory and we had no time to relax in its Wenshan thermal baths, an additional moment of leisure with which many visitors make a point of finishing their exploration of Taroko. Instead, we went back to slaughtering the legs in the name of Buddha and discovery. A long road trip followed the continuation of the Central Cross-Island Highway, to Hsitou, on the other side of Taiwan.