It’s astonishing how quickly hiking in the Taipei area has developed this last few years. About a decade ago, fantastic hikes like the stone needle of Loyal Son Mountain in Pingxi and the Jiajiuliao ridgewalk between Sanxia and Wulai (both of which popular are favorites now) were for a long time mainly known only by locals and keen hikers. The first time I climbed Loyal Son, it took some time to even find the trailhead, which was completely unmarked back in the late ’90s.
There was often an appealing element of risk involved as well: the first time I hiked Wuliaojian (五寮尖) I (along with everyone else in front and behind, I’m relieved to say), could only get past the narrowest part of the famous knife-edge at the top by sitting down and awkwardly straddling the blade of rock, one leg on either side – no-one dared to to stand and balance, tight rope-like, along the narrow ledge , which surely would have been suicidal.
How things have changed… Some of my favorite ‘adventure’ hikes of a decade ago have been ‘tamed’ and are a pale reflection of their former selves: those two most famous adrenalin-pumping hikes in the Taipei area, Wuliaojian and Huangdidian (皇帝殿) must have been considered too risky, as both now boast handrails on the most precarious parts; at Huangdidian they’ve even gone so far as to smooth off the top of the knife-edge ridge in a few places, creating a wide, flat platform of rock to walk on. Safer perhaps but a bit boring.
I’ve wondered for some time what’s the logic of opening up to general hikers places like these last two, which were never intended to be places for the whole family to hike. There are plenty of great walks much more suitable for inexperienced hikers, so there should be no need to spoil such wonderfully exciting places in an attempt to make them suitable for everyone.
Unfortunately that’s just what the authorities are continuing to do. At the same time some of their decisions are highly inappropriate, and only serve to encourage casual walkers to get quite out of their depth in places they really shouldn’t be going before gaining experience. This is puzzlingly stupid and, in a few cases could prove downright dangerous.
The hiking trail promoters have been especially busy in the area around Pingxi, on the headwaters of the Keelung River (perhaps my favorite hiking area around Taipei). Besides Loyal Son Mountain, two of the ‘Pingxi Three Peaks’ (Stone Bamboo Shoot and Shulung Point) have suffered the indignity of being made ‘safe’ (an endless flight of ugly steps now climb to the summit of the latter). Thank goodness even the idiots who decide which paths to open up stopped short (so far) of widening the trail up to the third and most strenuous ‘Three Peak’, Fengtoujian (峰頭尖), with its sheer cliffs, although brown ‘hiking trail’ signs have ominously appeared, directing walkers (some of which will certainly have trouble if they attempy the hike) to this strenuous trail as well.
It’s hard to imagine what they were thinking when they decided to ‘popularize’ many of the trails around Taipei that are now clearly signposted and accessible to any casual hiker , no matter how unprepared or inexperienced they are, without even without providing any information on the difficulty or length of the hike. The smart wooden posts and finger signposts that point the way to Zhongyangjian (中央尖), above Pingxi, however are irresponsible to the point of being potentially dangerous.
As seen from the thrilling ridgewalk from Fengtoujian to the Dongshige Old Trail, Zhongyangjian is an eye-catching and impressive pyramid, flanked with great rocky bluffs on several sides. Despite its extremely steep aspect on all sides, however, there is one safe and not too difficult route to the summit, a steep but safe clamber up from a wooded valley at the foot of the intriguingly named Mt Choutou (‘stinking head’) to the south. The second and only other ascent of Zhongyangjian, from the west, climbs to the summit via a series of more-or-less vertical and very tricky rock faces which (despite the fixed ropes) are difficult to scale and downright dangerous when wet, as I realized on my last visit on one of the few dry days of the Plum Rain season early this June.
The trail starts opposite the high school in Pingxi, with a signposted set of steps. Up a second set of steps, you join the wide, gravel-covered route of Dongshige Old Trail (東勢格古道), following the route of an old mineral line, which once served the now-abandoned coal mines up the valley.
About ten minutes along the path, another signpost on the left lures the unwary in with a wide flight of concrete steps that look positively civilized. Within a minute or two, however the wide, easy path disintegrates into a narrow and rocky trail, climbing up the base of an impressive and sheer rock face.
At the top bear right and the trail runs its rough but attractive way along the ridge, climbing several easy and short rocky outcrops. Signs, maps and wooden posts appear almost every couple of minutes, as if to reassure the hiker that he is indeed on the right track (although the distances given are sometimes wildly incorrect). Later there are even some nicely made wooden benches, for hikers who need a little rest.
And then, about an hour into the walk, there’s a clear fork in the path, both ways look equally likely, but not a sign or post in sight. Take the right fork and, less than fifty meters down the path, a carefully carved wooden post stands beside the path, proclaiming that you chose right, and this is indeed the correct path to Zhongyangjian.
A couple of minutes later the summit pinnacle looms up through the trees in front, and the route climbs up the first of a series of very steep rock faces (later becoming almost vertical, give or take a few degrees). After all the work that’s been done to signpost, bench and map the trail, it comes as a surprise to see that no-one actually thought to improve the very insubstantial footholds in the rock face (although it was apparently thought that four of five ropes, hanging side by side were an essential addition). Luckily it’s not too hard to climb up, and on I go.
Then a minute later I’m standing at the foot of a taller and quite vertical looking cliff face. There’s a choice of ropes of various colors and thicknesses to choose from, but just two meters or so up the bluff, I’m out of available footholds, and my shoes are coming dangerously close to slipping on the wet, slippery rock. It seems hikers are intended to put their complete faith in the strength of the soggy rope and man-haul themselves up the rock face somehow. I say to hell with that, lower myself gingerly back to terra firma and, in a foul mood, pick my way back past the string of attractively designed marker posts, signs, maps and wooden benches to Dongshige Old Trail. It’s not worth the risk.
The local authorities really need to get their priorities in order. Fewer benches and more of what’s really needed, like safer footholds, would be nice, although considering the often ill-thought-out or downright illogical decisions regarding the development of Taipei area’s amazing trail system in the last decade, I’m not optimistic they’ll appear anytime soon.
My day’s hike is not a complete disaster. I’m still in one piece, and Dongshige Old Trail turns out to be a delightful and easy stroll through some lovely countryside, with a few interesting man-made curiosities such as ruined buildings and gaping mine entrances to add interest. Most curious of all, though, are the twin shrines that face each other across the stream about 45 minutes into the walk. The one on the left is a small, stone Land God shrine of the kind very familiar to hikers in the mountains. The identical structure on the opposite bank, however, is dedicated to the ‘good brothers,’ the spirits of workers who lost their lives while toiling in the mines nearby, and had no family members to care for their needs in the after-world.
After a gentle climb to the ridge, the wood-and-water scenery suddenly changes to grassy slopes and wide vistas over the Dongshige Valley (sadly in threat of being flooded, if plans to build a reservoir go ahead in the future). The trail threads its indistinct way down through the grass, and then joins a second stream, which it follows through a second delightfully lush glen, to join a narrow lane beside a pretty small waterfall.
At least this time the powers-that-be finally got it right with this trail. Well signposted, supplied with board maps and with interesting info boards at intervals, this is a perfect hike for anyone with a good pair of shoes, a healthy sense of curiosity and a basic level of fitness.
I actually did make it to the summit of Zhongyangjian on another, earlier hike, climbing up by the easier route from the south, and going down again by the sheer rock faces on the east (no-one had warned us it was difficult!). Much of the way down the cliff section of the route was spent dangling from the rope and letting gravity pull me down. For some odd reason that time I thought at the time that it would be easier going up.