One of the many advantages of Taiwan’s relatively new-found sense of identity has been the gradual rediscovery and clearing of the nation’s countless old trails that, before the roads were built, were the only way to get between certain villages and settlements.
The best-known — and longest — is Batongguan Ancient Trail (八通關古道), which crosses the Central Mountain Range, passing the shoulder of Jade Mountain (玉山) en route. Since the reclaiming of old routes took off with a vengeance at the end of the 1990s, possibly hundreds of long-forgotten paths of all lengths can once more be followed, and many offer the chance to enjoy not only the countryside, but also examine traces left behind by farmers, miners and villagers, for whom some of these routes were an essential mode of communication around a century ago.
THE BLACKSMITHS TRAIL
Photo: Richard Saunders
Northern Taiwan seems especially rich in these historic trails — there are over 20 in the mountains of Yangmingshan National Park (陽明山國家公園) alone. Further west in Taoyuan, Dasi Township (大溪鎮) is an especially rewarding place to head for a walk back in time. The town boasts no less than nine old routes, of which the longest and most interesting is Datieliao Old Trail (打鐵寮古道) — the Blacksmith’s Trail.
Apparently named after the settlement that once lay on its route, rather than for its hiking blacksmiths, Datieliao makes a fine hike through some lovely and (for Taiwan) relatively gentle countryside, but it also has a smattering of historical remains, including a quaint old stone bridge and a pair of weathered stone plaques.
The old trail itself is a fairly easy-going walk, but it can be turned into a more exciting hike by adding on an extension taking in nearby White Rock Mountain (白石山), a shapely knife-edge ridge of rock, which commands spectacular views of rural Taoyuan from its summit in clear weather.
Photo: Richard Saunders
Datieliao Old Trail today starts three kilometers outside Dasi, in the tiny settlement of Sanceng (三層). At the trailhead is a small car park, from where a track descends to cross a stream by the first of several bridges on the route. Nearby, a large, rounded tablet of rock stands on a pedestal beside the path, carved with the names of the people who donated money towards the cost of building the original bridge, many decades ago.
A minute or two later, the path crosses a small tributary stream by a tiny humpbacked bridge, then climbs high above it on a stretch of path surfaced in old, time-worn cobblestones. It’s a bit late in the year now for tung blossoms, but in April and early May the trees of the forest bordering the trail on both sides turn white under a spectacular display of delicate blossoms, which fall to the ground and carpet the dirt path.
At one point, an open patch of dirt to the left of the trail is the site of a small shop, and it’s not hard to imagine villagers stopping here for a cup of tea and a chat before tackling the hike over the ridge, which looms immediately afterwards.
Photo: Richard Saunders
A long staircase of stone-flagged steps zigzags uphill to an abandoned military post, a reminder that the once heavily-guarded Cihhu (慈湖), one of Chiang Kai-shek’s many holiday homes, lies at the foot of this wooded hillside.
The next stretch of the trail, beside a bubbling brook, is a particularly idyllic walk. Shortly after passing another old stone plaque beside the trail and a tiny, rustic Earth God (土地公) shrine, there’s a fork. For the craggy cliffs of White Rock Mountain, keep straight ahead, beside the stream.
First, though, make a short detour along the trail on the right, across the stream. Climb over a small wooded rise and down the other side to the lovely stone Dongsing Bridge (東興橋), the arches of which span a small cascade in a lovely wooded glen that makes an especially attractive spot for a rest and a picnic. Check out the lovely pool just upstream from the bridge — a great place for a swim on a hot summer day.
Photo: Richard Saunders
WHITE ROCK MOUNTAIN
The trail to White Rock Mountain follows the stream for some distance further, crosses it by a wooden bridge, then starts a lengthy climb to the summit, passing a few stately remnants of a camphor tree plantation that once stood here. Camphor, along with tea and rice, was once a big earner in these parts.
The trail climbs quite steeply in places, to reach a saddle. Swing left here, and the trail follows the narrow spine of the ridge. This is the same ridge that forms the highlight of the longer and more spectacular hikes at nearby Wuliaojian (五寮尖) and Jinmian Mountain (金面山), and the exposed blade of rock is similar, though less strenuous than, those two classic hikes.
After passing the summit, marked by the Chinese characters for White Rock Mountain carved into the rock face and magnificent views, follow the trail ahead, which soon doubles back to the left, follows the base of the sheer cliffs below the summit ridge and returns to the outward trail.
The easiest way to get back is to retrace the outward route. Reaching the earlier abandoned military post, take the signposted trail on the left, which descends (steeply in places) to Cihhu.
The trail emerges at the Cihhu Memorial Statues Park (慈湖雕塑紀念公園).This beautifully upkept park, established in 1997, is studded with 176 statues of Chiang Kai-shek, as well as other leaders such as Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) and Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙), and makes for a unique end to a fine walk through scenic rural Taoyuan.
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
Before setting out, be sure to first look at Google maps by searching Datieliao Old Trail (打鐵寮古道) using the Chinese characters. Leave Taoyuan’s Dasi District by route 7 (Beibu Cross-island Highway, 北部橫貫公路), and about three kilometers out of town, turn left at a brown sign with the Chinese characters for “Datieliao Old Trail” (打鐵寮古道). The trailhead is at a parking area and farm house about a kilometer down a very narrow road. Otherwise take the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle bus Cihhu route, which starts at Jhongli bus station (next to the town’s train station) to Dasi Mausoleum (大溪陵寢, stop number 15), and walk back to Sanjheng and the turnoff for Datieliao Old Trail, 1.5km back along the road. For bus timetables see the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle Web Site: www.taiwantrip.com.tw.
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