Yesterday’s weather promised so little hiking fun that if I wasn’t so far behind on my hike-revising schedule, I’d have stayed at home with a good book, practiced the piano, or gone out to see Paranormal Activity II at the movies. In the end however, a grim determination to get this book revision finished and done with asap (so I can get back to exploring some new places, and, just maybe, a few more high mountain trips) saw me and David heading out to Ilan to tackle a hike I haven’t done for nearly a decade: Paradise Valley.
Paradise Valley is more generally known as Taoyuan Valley (桃源谷; ‘valley of the peach spring’ ); I came up with my name for it simply because it reminded me of a famous old Chinese poem I vaguely remember from Chinese classes many years ago, about a Chinese Garden of Eden called the peach blossom spring garden, surrounded by mountains and reachable only by floating down a long, flooded tunnel. Quite inappropriate perhaps, but a much more evocative name for this wonderful place than ‘Taoyuan Valley, which sounds miserably flat.
The Ilan coast was far from paradisiacal on Sunday morning, although emerging from Hsuehshan Tunnel, it was a relief to see the rain was still falling quite lightly – not unpleasant conditions for a hike – except the dampness makes so many places dangerously slippery underfoot.
The surfers were out in force, enjoying the sizable waves breaking on Honeymoon Bay as we drove into Daxi, a town on the northern Ilan coast at the trailhead for Paradise Valley. Five minutes later we were on the trail. The route from Daxi up to Paradise Valley was originally a narrow and often steep dirt trail, but once again the local authorities decided to ‘upgrade’ the route a decade ago by cutting a new, more winding (and thus less steep) path of wide, stone slabs. This is great for those who get easily lost on dirt paths, but on the debit side, it
– looks un-natural, feels hard underfoot, and turns the long, long climb into a dull, endless slog up stairs, and
– becomes hellishly, dangerously slippery when wet.
Slipping literally every few steps as we climbed (I don’t even want to imagine going down this way) we quickly remembered one reason why we don’t hike so often in the rain. This stone path, shaded by trees and covered in a thin but extremely slick film of algae, was one of the worst I’ve experienced, reminding me of the notoriously slippery old descent route from Mt Guanyin towards Bali; that route was closed years ago when a new, safer alternative way was cut.
It was a relief to find conditions got (a little) better after about twenty minutes, when slightly more open country meant more sun which in turn meant less slimy greenery on the stone underfoot. It’s still a long slog up steps though, and in today’s whiteout mist conditions, we didn’t even get to enjoy the reward of the magnificent view from the top of Fanshuliao Hill, the first summit of the long ridge eventually leading to Paradise Valley itself.
It was a damp, dull climb of about 150 minutes before we first spotted the valley, from the Land God shrine on top of the ridge to the south. The rains, instead of getting heavier as the forecast had gravely predicted, had almost eased up, and the view over the surrounding grassy, shrubby, Yangmingshan-like downs was very lovely, in an eerily English kind of way.
The scenery, like the weather, became ever-more evocative of some corner of home (Exmoor, or the North York Moors perhaps) as the path climbed up onto the ridge for an exhilarating march along the spine towards Paradise Valley, now clearly visible ahead, although it was still nearly a half-hour’s walk away.
As we approached the grassy downs of the Valley, which rise up gently to suddenly fall away precipitously on the east side down towards the coast, the rain miraculously stopped completely, the moisture that condensed into thick wisps of cloud as it rose up the hillside slowly dissipated, and the grassy slopes were revealed, at just the right time, in all their apple-green glory. There are plenty of wonderful places just like this in England, but in Taiwan, Paradise Valley is a rare beauty indeed. The grasslands at Buffalo Meadow and Big Sharp Mountain in Yangmingshan are similar, but beside this spacious ocean of close-cropped greenery carpeting these shapely peaks, commanding a tremendous view over the coast, those smaller meadows pale into insignificance.
The authorities wisely stopped laying the stone path at the edge of the grassy carpet, and it’s magic tramping over the springy turf at the edge of the ridge, looking over the sharp drop-off on the right down into the densely forested coastal slopes, with Turtle Island looming out to sea in the distance, through a thin veil of sea mist. A little later there’s another, less delightful, memory of the English countryside: the resident buffalo have churned the trail into a sea of mud as it passes through a small thicket.
Muddy shoed but happy as Larry, we puffed up the steep slope to the highest point of Paradise Valley (546 meters). If it had been dry, the soft carpet of close-cropped grass would have been a perfect place for laying and rolling on, but then if the weather had been better there’d have been far more people up here. As it was a group of local hikers who had similarly braved the bad weather enjoyed their rich reward, lingering at the top and enjoying the marvellous 360 degree panorama over mountains, inland forests and long band of coastline. The roofs of Stone Guanyin Temple, our next staging point, were a conspicuous feature in the thick forest, way down the hillside below us.
No need for umbrellas anymore: one had been stuck into the soft mud at the summit like a second trig point while its owner enjoyed the brief but very welcome break in the weather.
Unfortunately all is not well in Paradise. The stone-slabbed path up here is perhaps a necessary evil, considering the erosion that would inevitably be caused by the thousands of feet that tread the slopes each year if the surface was left as dirt. If only the authorities had stopped at that. Unfortunately, to make the Valley even more accessible, the road from the inland side (which a few years ago stopped at a car park 10 or 15 minutes below the grassy downs) has now been extended right up to the top of the ridge, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone pushing a pram across the grass one day. It’s pretty irritating, after a three-hour trek up here, to see wedding couples dressed in their finest or noisy families step out of the car with karaoke machine in hand. At least this latest assault on this once so secluded place isn’t visible until the way down, on the far side of the peak.
We went down via the second of the three hiking routes to the Valley. Leaving the magnificent ridge walk marching over the hills to the highest point of Caoling Historic Trail for better weather, we dived down the path to Stone Guanyin Temple (石觀音寺). This trail is only partially paved, and in places the stone path is sprayed with a thin smattering of cement, on which even the pernicious algae refuses to grow, so it’s much safer going than the ascent route.
A sign at the bottom of the mountain, near the coast road, proclaims that Stone Guanyin Temple is over 150 years old. Unfortunately it has very little to show for it, although the view from the front terrace is magnificent.
A large red sign and arrow stencilled onto a temple way show the way down the mountain, which begins by climbing uphill for some distance, with views down into the deep gorge below and the high Shimen Waterfall plunging in multiple falls down the cliffs, inaccessible to all but determined river tracers.
Once it finally starts down, the trail seems to descend forever. The concrete steps here have a charmingly rough, home-made quality about them after the neatly squared stone slabs of the ascent, but subsidence and earthquake damage have taken their toll, and in places, they slope dangerously, while in two places the path has gone completely.
Finally the path descends into the beautiful glen way below the big waterfalls, and it’s a gentle (but still slippery!) stroll back to the road, and a final kilometer-long walk along the road back to Daxi, where we finally got to rest our tired legs over a very late lunch of delicious seafood in the locally famous Lixiang Seafood Restaurant (李香海產店).
The rain was picking up again as we left the restaurant and started the trip back to Taipei.
GETTING THERE: The trail to Paradise (Taoyuan) Valley is in northern Ilan County, and can be reached either from north, by a beautiful ridge walk beginning at the highest point of the famous Caoling Historic Trail or from the village of Daxi on the coast. The trailheads are well signposted (although only in Chinese). The entire hike route (under the title ‘Paradise Valley’) is written up in Taipei Day Trips 2 (page 225), and and revised route will appear in the new edition due out (fingers crossed) in March 2011.
Lixiang Seafood Restaurant (李香海產店; 173 Binghai Road, Section 5, tel: 03-978-1226 ) is on the main road, in the southern part od Daxi not far from the train station, next to a small, colorful temple. It’s open daily except the third wednesday of each month.