Visitors may have the impression that Taiwan is a developed country filled with bustling cities crisscrossed by highways.
This is not far from the truth, but there is another side to the country, said some of Taiwan’s foreign hikers who view the nation’s mountains as its most treasured tourists attraction.
“Taiwan’s hills and mountains are incredibly beautiful. There are many hikes around the island that are not too difficult but still offer amazing views of flora and fauna,” said Andrew Scott, an English teacher from Michigan who has hiked at more than 30 spots in his three years in Taiwan.
He calls his weekend excursions “lifesavers” from his busy schedule.
“My advice to any foreigners that come to Taiwan is to get out of Taipei or Taichung or Kaoshiung or whatever big city you are in as often as you can. Thrust yourself into the mountains of Taiwan because that’s where you will stand in awe of the true beauty of this island,” he said.
Taiwan is hailed by Lonely Planet and other travel books as one of the best places in Asia for trekkers, both novices and experienced. Its terrain is divided into two major parts — the flat rolling plains of the west and the rugged forests of the center and east which include East Asia’s highest peak, Jade Mountain or Yushan, (玉山), which reaches 3,952m.
For many Taiwanese, climbing Yu Shan is one of the three must-complete feats in order to be a “true Taiwanese,” the other two being swimming across Sun Moon Lake and cycling around the island.
However, for a keen climber such as Briton Richard Saunders, who has written two books on hiking in Taiwan with a third coming out, the beauty of Yushan is second only to his favorite spot, Jiaming Lake (嘉明湖) in Taitung, which was created by a fallen meteorite.
“It is incredibly beautiful and quiet. It has less people so it is not as spoiled as Jade Mountain,” he said.
Saunders also heads a hiking club that meets periodically to pound the peaks of northern Taiwan.
“The network of trails in Taiwan is by far more developed and comprehensive than in many countries,” he said, touting the national park service as having done a good job in clearing some off the beaten track treks for adventurers.
Julie Lanshee, a US writer and member of the hiking club, also credited the government with putting great effort into creating and maintaining the trails, such as stone steps seen in several spots in the Yangmingshan National Park, to make hiking possible even in the rain.
American Institute in Taiwan Director Stephen Young is another fan of Taiwan’s hiking delights.
“I find the trails on the main hiking mountains to be well maintained, which is not easy given the rain, rockslides and typhoons that Taiwan experiences. Trails in national parks are especially well maintained. I first hiked up Yushan in 1964 and Hsuehshan (雪山) in 1982, and the trails are much better today than back then,” Young said.
With more than 3,000 peaks nationwide, Taiwan appeals to die-hard thrill seekers as well as novices.
Saunders suggests starting with more straightforward hikes such as Cing Tian Gang (擎天崗) in Yangmingshan, Taipei or Pinghsi (平溪) in Ilan County.
Kuanyin Mountain (觀音山) on the south shore of Danshui or hikes in Taipei’s Muzha area, Young said, are also good places for novices.
“My favorite beginners hike is the Teapot Mountain (茶壺山) in Chiufen. It is relatively easy and when you get to the top, you get a gorgeous view of the old gold mining town. After the hike, you can soak up Taiwan’s tea culture by going to some of the tea shops in the area,” he said.