I find it almost impossible to do any serious low-level hiking here during the Taiwanese summer without thoroughly regretting my crazy idea while I’m out, and returning home with a nasty and very sore heat rash, so, unless I can get up into higher altitudes (which has been sadly uncommon this last year), hiking is put on hold until well into September and outings are usually confined to short strolls to waterholes or waterfalls with waterholes below them, or to summer-friendly places like the wonderful Keelung Island.
Getting to Keelung Island is a piece of cake, as (unlike Turtle Mountain Island to the south) there’s no permit to obtain weeks in advance or other annoying restrictions to worry about. Simply get yourself on a bus or on one of those snail-slow trains to Keelung (and they really are slow, stopping at every single station on the way, plus three new ones that I could swear didn’t exist a few years ago). Finally arriving at Keelung station, swap to bus 103 or 104, which trundles eastwards, finally joining the coast and leaving the city simultaneously at Taiwan Ocean University. Get off just after this, at Bisha Harbor, sign up for a boat at the little desk set up near the harbor’s edge, and board the vessel when it’s ready to sail.
Twenty minutes after leaving Bisha, the boat docks in the peaceful, cliff-bound harbour at little Keelung Island, and from the utter tranquility of the scene, it feels as if Taipei is hours away. The peace is soon unfortunately shattered by a megaphone totting guide that accompanies each boatload on a tour of the island, but it’s easy enough to lag behind and explore at your own pace.
Which is exactly what I managed to do this time. This was my fifth or sixth visit to the island, and I’d never managed to climb the path to the lighthouse at the island’s highest point, but breaking away from the group and my friends, (the guide was too caught up in describing sea cockroaches or something similar to notice) I veered off up the side path that climbs into the island’s interior, and in a minute or two was safely shielded by scrub, out of view of the guide below.
The usual tour of the island lasts only 40 minutes or so, which is only just time for a very quick dash up to the top and back: if you’re quick. At first the path, zigzagging up the hillside, is fairly easy, but after five minutes or so, it reaches the narrow ridgeline forming the spine of the island; the ground drops away steeply on either side and there are magnificent 270-degree views over the ocean and across back to mainland Taiwan. Now though, the stepped path becomes steeper, climbing straight along the narrow ridgeline – and it was punishingly hot work under the beating sun.
Finally passing under an overhanging rock, the way is easier at last, and it’s just a short climb until the lighthouse (surprisingly small and unimpressive from close-up) stands in front. The real attraction of being here, though, is the tremendous view. The island is quite pristine, and being up here I feel like I’m back on Matsu or Lanyu once more.
After a quick breather, it was time to head back down at double-quick speed. The remaining members of the group were already heading back, and I couldn’t afford to miss the boat. As I linked back up with the main group, panting furiously, the guide was busily explaining the short history of the large structure beside the round-island path on the island’s northern side which, apparently, was supposed to be a hotel, only no company stepped forward and took it on. Now all it’s good for is to provide elevated views from its 2nd story patio, and provide a little welcome shelter from the beating sun or pouring rain.
The average trip to Keelung island takes only 90 minutes (including the boat ride over), so it’s not exactly a full day trip, but there’s a great deal more to do in Keelung than simply eat at the famous temple night market. Braving the ever-increasing heat we climbed the paths that wind through the cool forested slopes behind the nearby Ocean University to Gangizihliao Fortification, which sits atop the cliffs right above Bisha Harbor and commands a very fine view over the port area, and Keelung island.
Next on our itinerary (it was still only just after lunch) we took a bus back to Keelung station, then changed to bus 302, which made its leisurely, meandering way to Keelung’s western port area (bus 301 is much more direct) and one of Keelung’s most extraordinary sights, hidden behind a forest of tower cranes – Fairy Cave.
I suppose ‘Immortals’ Cave would be a more accurate translation but the cuter English name seems to have stuck. This is one place I insist on bringing all my friends and family to see when they visit Taiwan, as it’s quite unique. From the outside, it looks like an ordinary temple, huddling at the base of an overgrown cliff, but in the fact the main part of the temple is built into a natural cave in the rock face. The main chamber goes back quite some distance; the walls are carved with base-reliefs depicting various Buddhist and Taoist deities, decorated on our visit with lots of fresh flowers, in honor probably of the climactic event of Ghost Month, Zhong yuan pudu, which was just a few days away.
Best of all though, is the second tunnel that snakes away to the left. Within a few meters it’s narrowed to a claustrophobic squeeze, and at one point the only way ahead is to get down on hands and knees. At the end of the crack-like passage lies a small chamber with another small shrine. The walls are covered with old (and modern) graffiti carved into the sandstone, and the chamber is often filled with the choking fumes of burning incense.
Next to the entrance to Fairy Cave, a sign in English points down a narrow and atmospheric alley along the foot of the cliff to steps which descend into the larger Buddha’s Hand Cave. Only opened to the public a few years ago, this second natural cavern in the cliff face is a zigzagging maze of dimly lighted passages (some artificially widened) which lead in about five minutes to a dead-end. Look up at this point, though and on the ceiling of the tunnel is a striking natural formation where veins of different colored sandstone make a strange, hand-like design.
We finished our tour by walking further out through the port area, towards the end of the headland ahead and the great chimneys (visible for many miles around) of the power station there. Finally taking a left up a side road climbing steeply through a very traditional neighbourhood of old houses and tiny corner stores, at the top we reached the grassy park that’s been laid out on the site of the old Baimiwong Fort. There’s not so much of the fortifications visible today, and the structures are dwarfed by the huge twin towers of the power station chimneys just behind, but it commands a magnificent view over the ocean, with the impressively steep pyramid of Keelung Island rising out of the ocean, commanding the attention, as always.
Getting there: Boats to Keelung Island leave throughout the year, weather permitting, although the easiest time to turn up and get a ride is naturally at the weekend. Tickets have gone up quite a bit the last couple of years now, and the basic trip (which includes a 40 minute landing) is NT$450. Take a passport or ARC card, as the coastguards check passengers in and out of Bisha Harbor and even did a spot check of the ID of one of our group this visit!
More details of all the places in this blog can be found in Taipei Day Trips 1 (the caves and fort) and Taipei Day Trips 2 (Keelung island and Gangizihliao Fortification).