Every time I visit Taiwan’s northeast coast (usually on one of those uncommon days when the weather is actually OK there), I’m immediately reminded why this is undoubtedly the most exhilarating impressive chunk of scenery within easy day-trip reach of Taipei. The shapely volcanic peaks of the Mount Keelung group have little of the thick jungle cover that covers the mountains elsewhere in northern Taiwan in a lush, softening blanket, so the contours of the impressive, jagged peaks are clear. Plus the East China Sea/Pacific Ocean confluence makes an incomparable backdrop to this impressively rugged stretch of coastal mountains, especially in those especially rare almost cloudless days, when the sea is even deeper in color than the skies above.
Although last Saturday was one of those cherished better-weather days on the Northeast Coast, we weren’t blessed with cloudless skies and azure seas, but I for one was grateful to see the thin layer of cloud, which for much of the day gave us a bit of shelter from the merciless heat of the sun. We were walking one of the ‘classic’ trails of the Taipei area, the circular hike along the Mt Nanzihlin ridge above the village of Nanya, on the northern border of the Northeast and Ilan Coast National Scenic Area, with a return along the Shitikeng Old Trail.
I’ve been meaning to do the whole of this trail for ages – ever since doing several parts of it a couple of years ago, and even though summer has arrived and it’s about time to put away the hiking boots and switch to less strenuous outdoor activities like easy strolls to natural waterholes and beaches, the cooler air of October seems a long way away, and it’s going to be a lot hotter in another couple of weeks!
The trail to Mt Nanzihling (南子吝山) is one of the many trails in the Taipei area that were ‘improved’ by the authorities a few years ago to make it more appealing for less experienced walkers, and it’s a great one. The view from the top is certainly equal, if not better than the panorama from the summit of nearby Keelung Mountain, and far less popular. However after a ninety-minute ride from Taipei by snail-train and bus and at 8:30 the sun is already powerful, and the forty-minute climb up wooden walkways and slippery stone steps to the top is like doing penitence.
We’re already dripping when we reach the star-shaped view indicator at the summit, and water bottles are a lot lighter than when we started, but the view really is exceptional. The great expanse of sea laid out in front reflected the thin layer of cloud cover above and was a bit greyish, but looking inland, the twin peaks of Mounts Banping and Keelung, together with the craggy little Teapot Mountain below, rose out of a huge sea of grass, shining a healthy apple-green color thanks to a good watering by the plum rains which had stopped just a day or two before.
Despite a thin sheet of cloud, it was damn hot already, and looking at our next goal, a great sweep of steep, grassy ridges marching upwards, I began to think we made a mistake in not leaving this hike until the cooler months.
But no pain, no gain! Even if the others feel the same way, they certainly don’t look like they want to turn back, and we part the thick curtain of silver grass behind a pair of benches just below the summit, and start the main part of today’s walk.
The first half-hour is a relaxing and enchanting stroll, gently undulating down the side of Mt Nanzihlin then up to a second grassy hummock, all through a sea of tall grass. That’s the easy bit. Soon after the second ridge, the path, overgrown as ever, becomes steep as well, and fixed ropes ease the steep scramble to the top of the next ridge.
Now the way is basically up, up, up, with some small, easy rocky bluffs to climb, and we’d have probably given up and started back if it weren’t for the fantastic views over the steep grassy mountains and ocean, and the regular, life-giving patches of stunted woodland , which were remarkably cool oases between the hot climbs.
It was nearly three hours’ climb from the summit of Mt Nanzihlin before we reached the topmost ridge, the trail bids farewell to the best of the hike’s views, and shoots steeply down the far side, before climbing gently up through a valley of thick, tangled undergrowth to a concrete trig point marking Mt Shitikeng. There was absolutely nothing in this very ordinary patch of stunted woodland (certainly no view) to make us linger, yet we gladly sat for a bit, relieved to see from the map that the long climb was finally over, and even happier to find a cool place out of reach of the sun.
Leaving the trig point, for a few minutes we thought we’d lost the path when several traces of trail dissolved into featureless woodland. These must have been nothing more than toilet trails, because we found the onward route a minute or two back along the path, clinging to the top of a narrow and very steep ridge, then dropping down the steepest drop of the whole hike (the fixed ropes here were essential), only to discover the mouth of a short tunnel bored right through the ridge.
The rest of the hike was, as far as the hiking went, a doddle. Five minutes’ level walk later, we were standing beside an attractive old Land God shrine which is apparently a century old. From here, we had a long but gentle descent along the Shitikeng Old Trail back to the coastal road and Nanya village. We’d come this far without any worse injury than arms scratched and cut from being incessantly brushed by silver grass leaves. Then, about halfway back to the coast, Ted, walking in front of me, suddenly started waving his arms around him like a madman, and cursing. We’d run into a swarm of angry bees, although they didn’t seem intent on stinging any of our party other than Ted. Fleeing to safety, the stings were obviously still pretty painful ten minutes’ later, and looking at Ted’s arms, we saw why: rather than stinging, it’s almost as though they’d bitten small round chunks out of his arm, leaving angry, red holes, although the pain apparently did abate after a while.
This reminded me uncomfortably (as if I needed reminding) of my one (and, please may it be my one-and-only) run-in with tiger’s head bees, which just so happened to be only a kilometer or so away from this spot, while temporarily lost in the silver grass covered slopes of Mt Nanzihlin. A single tiger’s head bee had attacked me, stinging me on the head and on a finger as I was trying to find my way back to the trail, which I’d strayed off. The pain, which lasted four or five days, was quite excruciating for the first twenty minutes or so – the second most painful experience of my life (the most painful was the time when I was in India in 1990 and a doctor in New Delhi repeatedly cut into the bottom of my foot with a scalpel – but without any anaesthetic – to drain the puss from a nasty infection I’d caught while swimming in a waterfall near Shimla).
Ted was definitely the focus of the wildlife attacks this hike, as when, half-an-hour later, we reached the beautiful pool in the stream shortly before it flows down to the road along the coast and tore off shirts and socks ready to dive into the cool waters, he discovered a pair of black leeches snacking on his leg! An application of insect repellent quickly persuaded the little beasties to release their grip, and we were able to celebrate the end of a long but memorable hike (we’d been walking well over six hours already) with a swim in the deep, pure water.
From the pool, the coast road, the village of Nanya and the bus home were all only about ten minutes away, and the last obstacle of the day, a tall, padlocked gate across the track below the pool, was easily dealt with by crawling underneath. Five minutes later we were well and truly back to civilization, admiring the ‘strange rocks’ at Nanya, along with the usual weekend crowds, and gulping down barely cold tea bought in the village’s only corner shop. It’s been a good day….
Date of Hike: June 19th, 2010
Getting There: Nanya is easily reached by regular buses (no 1052) along the coast from outside Keelung train station. Bus timetables are up on the Web at: