Fri, Jun 02, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Off the Beaten Track: Water Curtain Cave: A perfect introduction to enchanting Taiwan

In the first installment of a weekly column dedicated to exploring Taiwan’s rich natural and cultural heritage, expat author and hiker Richard Saunders explores the beautiful mountain resort of Caoling

By Richard Saunders

Water Curtain Cave waterfall.

Photo: Richard Saunders

Perhaps I’m preaching to the converted, but for those fresh arrivals still unaware of the dangers they face, Taiwan has an uncanny knack of snaring foreign visitors, bewitching them with its incredible beauty, rich traditional culture and quirky unpredictability, and refusing to let them leave without a struggle.

Before I first arrived in 1993, the exotic and often slightly mysterious-sounding places described in my already dog-eared copy of Lonely Planet Taiwan were almost as strong an attraction as the prospect of teaching English and earning some much-needed cash to further my travels in the Far East. The original intention was to stay for maybe six months, and scoot around some of the more intriguing places described in the guide. I’d save some money, learn a few words of the local lingo and then get lost in the vastness of China for a couple of months before returning to London to find a proper job.

Needless to say, my plan didn’t work as expected, and almost 25 years later I’m still here, still teaching and, above all, still exploring. It’s an extraordinary, if slightly unnerving, fact that Taiwan, although just a small island, has a virtually inexhaustible list of things to do, places to discover, experiences to experience. Almost a quarter of a century after arriving, I’m still finding remarkable, occasionally astonishing, places that were unknown to me until just months or even weeks ago. Taiwan is a (benign) Pandora’s Box for explorers.

In this little weekly piece I’d like to introduce a selection of the many places, sights and experiences I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy over my many memorable years here. Hopefully, my experiences will encourage others to explore Taiwan’s towns, temples, mountains and gorges for themselves. The only pre-requisite to becoming an explorer here is a genuine respect for Nature and the local culture, as well as a healthy dose of common sense.

Getting there

Sadly, the bus service that once served Caoling was suspended years ago, so you’ll need your own wheels to get there. Scooters and cars can easily be hired in Chiayi City, from where it’s a rather beautiful two to three hour ride to Caoling via Meishan (梅山) and Huashan (華山), Taiwan’s premier coffee-growing area.

Let me kick off with the place that first really captured my imagination, back in 1992. Trapped in a boring clerical position at a music publisher’s office in London’s Oxford Street, I’d escape during my lunchtimes into the travel guides of a nearby bookshop. One day I stumbled across a guidebook to Taiwan (the only one in those days), and was especially smitten by the description of a mountain resort, in the central county of Yunlin, called Caoling (草嶺). Near the resort were places with names such as ‘Lost Soul Valley’ (斷魂谷) and ‘Spring and Autumn Cliffs’ (斷崖春秋) that piqued my interest. Luckily I visited them both the very next summer (my first in Taiwan) as those last two places were lost forever on Sept. 21 1999, when a magnitude 7.2 earthquake — today known as the 921 Earthquake — caused a vast landslide, burying them, and killing several people living nearby.

Thankfully Caoling village lay out of the path of the falling mountainside, and to this day it remains (in my humble opinion) one of Taiwan’s loveliest weekend mountain retreats. Right below it lies the beautiful Water Curtain Cave (水濂洞), the place that intrigued me most of all during my book-reading lunchtimes back in London all those years ago.

The Water Curtain Cave is not one but two caves, behind a lofty 60-meter-high waterfall. It can be a tad underwhelming during the winter dry season, but this time of year it’s returning back to full, boisterous life with the arrival of the plum rains, while the oppressive summer heat is still hopefully a month or so away.

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