Fossil beds, sacred pools and trees, a petrifying spring and something called “monkey coffee” are unusual attractions, even in a place as full of arresting sights and experiences as Taiwan, yet all of these can be found in the oft-overlooked eastern corner of Yunlin County.
Yunlin as a whole is one of Taiwan’s least-known counties, and (truth be told) among its less interesting. Lacking the rich history and culture of Changhua County to the north, and the magnificent mountain scenery of Chiayi County to the south, most visitors simply rush through on the way to bigger drawcards. It does, however, have a handful of popular sights.
At this time of year, Chaotian Temple (朝天宮) in the town of Beigang (北港) becomes the epicenter of one of Taiwan’s unique and extraordinary Mazu processions. For families, there’s Janfusun Fancy World (劍湖山世界), one of Taiwan’s finest theme parks, which boasts the island’s tallest Ferris wheel (88 meters).
Photo: Richard Saunders
Perhaps Yunlin’s finest tourist draw, though, are the mountains in the far east, bordering Nantou and Chiayi counties. The most rugged terrain is around the mountain resort of Caoling (草嶺), one of my favorite corners of Taiwan, which I wrote about in my first two Off the Beaten Track columns (see Taipei Times, June 2 and June 9, 2017).
Clinging to cliffs above the scenic gorge of the Clearwater River (青水溪), Caoling was devastated by the two biggest natural disasters to recently hit Taiwan: the 921 Earthquake of 1999, and Typhoon Morakot a decade later. It has since rebounded from those misfortunes, and is now probably Yunlin’s greatest tourist attraction. To get away from the weekend crowds, try either Shihbi (石壁), perched high in the mountains just above Caoling, or Jhanghu Village (樟湖), on the Clearwater River about 10 kilometers downstream.
Photo: Richard Saunders
It’s at neglected Jhanghu where all those arresting curiosities — and more — I mentioned earlier can be found.
Like Caoling, Jhanghu (once a popular day trip with locals) was severely affected by both 921 and Morakot, and unfortunately never really recovered from that double whammy. The earthquake destroyed the road that once connected Jhanghu with the highway to Caoling, while Morakot wreaked even greater havoc, laying waste to the once beautiful Clearwater River gorge at the heart of the scenic area.
It will be decades perhaps before the scars of Morakot are completely healed, but paths up to Jhanghu’s waterfalls have been rebuilt, the road down into the scenic area (which for several years after Morakot was accessible only by scooter) has been improved, and the area richly warrants at least a half-day visit.
Photo: Richard Saunders
First then, that coffee. Jhanghu lies on County Road 149A (149甲), just a few kilometers from Taiwan’s most famous coffee-growing area around Gukeng Township (古坑).
Local farmers and land owners here grow coffee, and one, the owner of the hotel at Shihchiao (石橋山莊), a kilometer south of Jhanghu village, grows coffee beans that are eaten by the local population of monkeys. The critters eat the soft flesh surrounding the hard kernels, which are harvested, roasted (apparently without washing), and turned into “monkey coffee,” which I can attest is absolutely delicious.
Keep an eye out for the big sign when passing through Shihchiao.
Photo: Richard Saunders
For the best scenic attractions at Jhanghu, take the side road from Shihchiao, winding down the mountainside to the foot of the deep gorge of the Clearwater River, hundreds of meters below. At the bottom, the road crosses the scenic gorge of the Clearwater River by a concrete bridge, and a newly surfaced extension ends at a broken suspension bridge, the trailhead for the main sights of Jhanghu Scenic Area (樟湖風景區).
Walk upstream a few meters from the bridge, and the wide, flat bedrock beside the stream is one of Taiwan’s finest and most famous fossil beds, featuring over twenty varieties, 2.5 to five million years old. Continue following this stream up for another 30 minutes (you’ll need to river-trace if the stream is high) to the impressive Dragon Phoenix Waterfall (龍鳳瀑布), which careens over the edge with such force that it jets well clear of the cliff before falling into a very large, deep pool twenty meters below. The shale of the gorge walls is constantly crumbling, so don’t walk directly underneath the cliffs.
For the other waterfalls, cross the smaller new structure beside the old suspension bridge, follow the road for about 100 meters, and turn left up a stepped, signposted trail. It’s just a short climb to the pencil-thin, 30 meter-high Dizhou Waterfall (地久瀑布). Try to ignore the large concrete water tank, recently built right at the base of the fall by some aesthetically tone-deaf individual or authority, which rather ruins the beautiful scene.
Cross the footbridge below the falls and climb the steep dirt trail to Tianchang Waterfall (天長瀑布) immediately above it. During the dry season this upper waterfall has little to no water, as most of the water disappears into cracks in the rock and emerges from the cliff face beside it to create the deeply strange Lingquan Tengjiao (靈泉騰蛟), surrounded by a curious natural “cowl” created by minerals dissolved in the water, which petrifies foliage growing in the cliff face around the little fall.
Continuing upwards, the narrow dirt trail climbs steeply for five minutes to rejoin the stream above Tianchang Waterfall. From here, an easy five-minute river trace upstream (the trail has long disappeared) leads to the Fairy’s Bath (神仙沐浴池) the last waterfall on the stream. The destructive force of Morakot is most strongly felt at this once very beautiful place, but the little waterfall which plunges into the now silt-filled pool is still pretty, at least in the wet season, which begins this month.
Richard Saunders is a classical pianist and writer who has lived in Taiwan since 1993. He’s the founder of a local hiking group, Taipei Hikers, and is the author of six books about Taiwan, including Taiwan 101 and Taipei Escapes. Visit his Web site at www.taiwanoffthebeatentrack.com.
>> A couple of buses run by Taisi Bus Company (臺西客運) pass Shihchiao daily, but the only practical way to reach Jhanghu’s best sites is with your own wheels. Scooters and cars can both be easily rented in Chiayi, less than two hours’ drive away.
>> To see the waterfalls at their best, visit Jhanghu during the wet season, which starts this month with the plum rains.
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