Standing for a group shot in front of the simply named Ancient Tree no. 1, there’s ample room for ten of us to pose, lined up in a row and leaning on the tree’s prodigiously broad, curving trunk. The biggest of the four Beidelaman Ancient Trees (北得拉曼神木) on the slopes of Mount Niaozui (鳥嘴山) in Hsinchu County, it’s a true giant, so it’s astonishing to find this leviathan has no place in Taiwan’s top ten largest (or rather hugest) ancient trees.
Reaching the ancient trees of Mount Niaozui requires a bit of a trek (by car and then on foot), but it’s well worth it. It’s astonishing to think that hundreds of trees dotted around Taiwan are 2,500 or more years in age, which means they’d have pushed through the earth at about the time that Confucius wrote the Analects. Apart from seeing these leviathans, hiking out here is the only way to really experience the sheer size and sense of remoteness of these wild areas.
The Beidelaman Ancient Trees lie at an altitude of 1,400 meters in mountainous Jianshi (尖石) Township, eastern Hsinchu County, and it’s quite a rough drive to the trailhead, the last three (unsurfaced) kilometers of the mountain road were especially challenging, and one of the cars in our little convoy got a flat tire on the way in! Finally reaching the board map which marks the trailhead (the road was so rough we parked the cars and walked the last kilometer, which was just as well, as with a couple of vehicles already parked nearby, there was little room to park at the trailhead). From here on the way is up, up and up, along a clear trail.
The path immediately starts climbing, and there’s a quite a long ascent (400 vertical meters) in store, although the beauty and intense quiet of the forest takes the mind off the climb.
About twenty minutes into the hike a sign in Chinese announces the beginning of the ‘Slope of Real Men’ (好漢坡), a long and unremittingly steep slog all the way to the ridge, another forty minutes away.
Near the top the path passes beneath a bluff of rock known as Echo Valley, and a few meters later wooden steps carry the path up to the narrow spine of the ridge below Mount Niaozui, marked by a striking, jagged rock formation.
With the main climb of the hike out of the way the hike becomes both easier and more exciting, as the trail follows the spine of the ridge, which would have commanded a magnificent view over the surrounding mountains had the afternoon mist not swept in a few hours too early, just as we arrived at the ridge.
Sometimes the path meanders through the woods on a soft and remarkably springy bed of peat, while in places negotiating some rocky and steep terrain with the aid of a series of wooden boardwalks and rustic ladders hammered together from sturdy tree branches.
These were easy for human feet, but presented a few special difficulties for Gem, our long-hike-loving golden retriever, who needed a helping hand in several spots.
The first two ancient trees stand beside the trail in about half an hour, surrounded by protective wooden fences.
The roots of these trees, which, like most of Taiwan’s oldest and biggest trees, are red cypress, often lay just below the surface of the soil and can be damaged by tramping feet, so it’s a case of treading very lightly while approaching close for the mandatory photo.
It’s hard to get a realistic idea of the scale of the trees without walking right up to them, but pressing on up the trail a minute or two further, the third tree stands in splendid isolation in a small clearing, rearing up over 30 meters into the air, a truly impressive sight.
The trail now strikes uphill for a tiring, twenty-minute clamber, but at the top lies the biggest and most impressive of the trees at Beidelaman, the enormous specimen we would choose as an imposing backdrop for a group photo.
The great, gnarled trunk is flat and curved, almost like some monstrous stick of celery looming out of the forest floor, the result of a lightening strike which blew half of the trunk away. The remaining half of the tree survives to this day, although the black scorch marks are clearly visible. Happily those black marks aren’t the result of burning by a thoughtless camp fire, a fate which befell one of the giant trees at Daguan Mountain some years ago. That tree died and its sad skeleton remains – a warning to hikers to behave responsibly when in the mountains.
Getting There: The ancient trees are in a remote corner of Hsinchu, accesible only by car or scooter
Difficulty: Moderate (long ascent, dirt paths are sometimes rough)
Date of trip: May 2009