First the bad news. If you hike through Kaohsiung’s Panlong Gorge (盤龍峽谷) at this time of year, brace yourself for bites. The resident mosquitoes are fast and hungry. Last week, whenever I stopped to snap a photo, I found myself trying to brush off the bloodsuckers before they could pierce the skin on my neck or my hands.
Unless it’s rained recently — in which case I’d advise you to wait several days so the hillside can dry out — there’s really nothing else to worry about. Even if you somehow got lost, you’d find your way back to a road quite soon. This isn’t the Central Mountain Range, but rather Dagang Mountain (大崗山), which straddles the boundary between Alian (阿蓮) and Tianliao districts (田寮). The mountain’s highest point is 312m above sea level, and nowhere are you more than 1km from the nearest homestead or temple.
I began my hike at Danantian Fude Temple (大南天福德祠), on the mountain’s northside. The shrine, dedicated to a land god, is at the junction of local roads 13 (高13) and 37 (高37). It has its own parking lot.
Photo: Steven Crook
Around the temple, I didn’t see any signs mentioning Panlong Gorge, so I headed up some steps into the poorly-maintained Fude Park (福德公園). After passing a concrete pavilion, I came across three colorful yet lonely statues that seemed to be an incomplete depiction of key characters in the Chinese fantasy classic Journey to the West (西遊記).
Just beyond the statues, a pair of short red pillars pointed the way to the gorge, and listed the distance as 875m. The trail looked rough and a bit muddy, but finding firm footholds wasn’t difficult, because Dagang Mountain is largely composed of coral limestone. This type of rock is often quite jagged; you wouldn’t want to come crashing down on it, but the risk of slipping isn’t great.
After 465m of twisting and fairly steep forest trail, I came to a narrow road suitable only for 4x4s and the short-wheelbase trucks favored by Taiwanese farmers. A notice hand-painted on a section of bamboo told me to go left. Around 300m down the road, I followed another sign back into the forest.
Photo: Steven Crook
The gorge, which is 247m long, is believed to have been created when a fault line shifted. It doesn’t vary much in width — at a few points, I could touch both sides at the same time — but in parts the walls are as high as a three-story house. This place deserves the other name it’s been given: A Thread of Sky (一線天).
The gorge gets its name from what English speakers call Strength vine or Burny vine, a rambling creeper that thrives within the defile. As the first of those names implies, the fiber of Panlong Mu (盤龍木, Malaisia scandens) can be turned into good rope.
Photo: Steven Crook
The rock is dark, and trees overhang the gorge. For much of the way, I was tramping through gloom. In one spot, cinder blocks have been arranged like stepping stones so hikers can keep their feet out of the mud.
I didn’t see any of the snakes I’d been warned about, but there were frogs and long earthworms. Just as I was emerging from the far end of the gorge, I flushed a raptor. Was it hunting squirrels? I’d seen a few scampering along branches.
Ninety minutes is enough to walk from Danantian Fude Temple, through Panlong Gorge, onto Sinliang Pavilion (心涼亭), and back to the temple. From the pavilion, there are views westward over the lowlands. Conditions weren’t especially clear when I got there, but I could make out the twin smokestacks of the power station at Singdagang (興達港) on the coast.
Photo: Steven Crook
When I got back to my motorcycle, I set off in search of a strange temple I’d heard about. I took Local Road 37 south to the intersection with Local Road 14 (高14, also known as Sinsing Road, 新興路), then headed east on the latter.
In a hamlet near Sinsing Elementary School (新興國小), I stopped to talk to a senior citizen who was turning over clods of mud spread out over a sheet of cardboard. He told me he was sun-drying the mud to use when cooking turnips, as it imparts a good flavor. He didn’t describe the precise cooking method, and when I asked if he’d gathered the dirt from one of the mud volcanoes nearby, he seemed surprised. No, he replied, he’d got it from his own field.
Slightly more than 2km east of Sinsing Elementary School, an orange sign pointed me north down a side road to Cihsuan Shengtian Temple (慈玄聖天宮) and the adjacent Stone Temple (石頭廟).
The former offers a free vegetarian lunch to all-comers. The food isn’t remarkable, but — perhaps because of the temple’s remote location — even if you arrive after midday, you’ll find plenty still available. Do bring your own bowl and chopsticks, as only disposable tableware is provided.
I couldn’t find a donation box in the dining hall, which didn’t surprise me, as this Buddhist place of worship seems more interested in doing good deeds than fundraising. Back in 1994, a group of Thai nationals laboring on Freeway 3 (which runs a few hundred meters to the east of here) found themselves jobless and penniless when the company they were working for suddenly collapsed. Cihsuan Shengtian Temple fed and sheltered the men until they could be repatriated.
To show their gratitude and kill time, the Thais built from scratch what’s since been called the Stone Temple. Most of the stones they used are smaller than an adult’s fist, and the structure obviously includes a good amount of concrete.
It’s a strangely engaging sight, yet not one I’d describe as beautiful. Moss grows in the darker corners. Some of the wiring looks substandard. Stray dogs wander in and out. However, as a symbol of altruism and cross-border compassion, I’m not going to disparage it.
Steven Crook has been writing about travel, culture, and business in Taiwan since 1996. He is the co-author of A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai, and author of Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide, the third edition of which has just been published.
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