The main purpose of our series of ‘Yangmingshan Project’ hikes (of which only three of the six planned actually took place so far, due to some unseasonably crap weather) was simply to get fittened up for a pair of challenging hikes in the high mountains in the center of Taiwan later the same month, but it’s also been a great opportunity to remind myself just what wonderful walking country Yangmingshan has, especially off those well-tramped and widely despised stone trails. It’s also good to discover that two of the National Park’s wildest regions – the strict nature reserves of Mount Huangzui and Lujiaokeng – seem to be much more accessible to general hikers nowadays than in the past, when it seemed only hiking groups led by registered mountain guides could get the requisite permits to enter. Actually these days the trickiest part of arranging a trip – at least to Mount Huangzui – is in determining (or rather guessing) when to go. The weather up here on the northeasternmost of Yangmingshan’s high volcanic peaks is even more useless than elsewhere in the park, and with the need to get permits a week or two before, it’s a case of taking a chance, and if the weather is nasty (as it usually is) deciding whether to make the most of it and go anyway, or wait the requisite month before making another application and hoping for better luck next time. It’s officially possible to apply for the permit as close as three days before the trip, when it’s easier to predict what the conditions will be like, but over the weekends all the available permits often get snapped up several weeks in advance.
Predictably the weather dawned pretty dire on the day of our hike in November, but we went anyway, and since we were prepared to get wet, it was a surprisingly fun day out. I started us out on the wrong foot (so to speak) by deciding to take the bus up to Yangmingshan from Jiantan MRT station – on a weekend! Anyone who knows YMS knows this is a stupid thing to do (it’s usually much better to go from the Beitou, to avoid the worst of the crowds), but the decision was made on the spur of the moment, and I naively thought that at not long after 7 in the morning, it wouldn’t be too bad. I was so wrong, and we were greeted with a mammoth line of students waiting for the R5 bus; the queue went down the road and around the corner and must have been nearly a hundred meters long. Luckily just as we were about to give up on the R5, a Royal Bus Company coach pulled up, and (since it’s a lot more expensive than the regular bus) there was little competition for standing space. Unfortunately we were far from the start of the line for this bus, and we spent the twenty minutes up to the bus station on Yangmingshan crammed in the aisles as exhausted students dozed in the comfy, padded seats on either side. A quick change to bus 108, which does a circle around Seven Star Mountain in the center of the park (and we got seats this time!), and we were dropped off at Buffalo Meadow (Qingtiangang), the start of the trail.
It’s about twenty minutes’walk from the bus along the edge of the grassy expanse (along the popular and very scenic tourist trail to Fengguikou) to the trailhead for Mount Huangzui, marked by a large red sign and a short length of rather pointless fence with a locked gate. Posting our permit in the little box here, I realised we didn’t have the code to unlock the gate, and while the first, over-zealous members of the party began heaving themselves up and over the fence, the rest of us simply walked round it, and along a short trail which rejoins the main route on the other side of the gate…. From here on the stone path is swapped for a mercifully unsurfaced, if rather muddy trail, wonderfully quiet and peaceful, meandering though the forest to finally emerge at a mountain emergency shelter (the only one on Yangmingshan); not as out of place as it seems at first, considering the truly evil weather that can quickly descend on these mountains. Today’s conditions were nothing.
As we arrived, light rain joined the thick blanket of cloud which covers the fells, and as we set off again after a short rest, it started to rain a little more heavily. We’d already given up on the chance of a view before setting off this morning, though, and this lousy weather is somehow fitting in this surprisingly wild and remote-feeling place, considering its proximity to the city bus route. It’s a surprisingly short and easy clamber up the wide, muddy trail to the summit of Mount Huangzui (the ocean of silver grass that sometimes obscures the trail had been recently cut back) and I felt a bit stupid (and a bit disappointed at the same time) considering I’d introduced Mount Huangzui to everyone as one of the toughest peaks in Yangmingshan to climb. The summit trig point stood in the center of a small island of tall silver grass surrounded by a sea of billowing mist, and after the obligatory summit pic, we headed back down quickly.
Mount Huangzui had proved a little too easy to conquer today, so to put a little adventure back into the day, we decided to skip the rather tame remainder of today’s original plan (the stone steps down to Fengguikou) and took a right turn off the main trail onto the little-known Rong Run Old Trail (榮潤古道), and began the best part of the day’s hike. Rong Run Old Trail connects Mount Huangzui with Tianlai Hot Spring Resort above Jinshan, and while just enough hiking groups pass through to keep the trail open and followable (just), it’s a wonderfully unspoilt and surprisingly long jaunt through one of Yangmingshan’s more remote corners. The trail descends to the well-named Emerald Valley (翠翠谷), a gloriously secluded sweep of close-cropped grass in a deep combe between Mounts Huangzui and Dajianhou. The lowest part of the valley is a small area of treacherous marsh which has to be crossed before continuing, and we had a great time trying to get across dry-shod. We all more or less managed except one member of the group, who somehow managed to trip herself up and ended up face down in the grassy, gooey mess.
Begrimed but unfazed, we picked up the trail on the other side of the valley, disappeared back into the forest, and started on the main part of Rong Run Old Trail, which meanders through the jungle for another two hours before passing a second large red warning sign and emerging unexpectedly beside a large tomb. It was still raining lightly, but we took a few minutes to wipe ourselves off. Those who’d remembered a change of clothes changed into something clean, while the rest of us tried to make ourselves look half respectable before rolling up at the posh Tianlai Hot Springs Resort just down the road. In many countries, we probably wouldn’t be allowed onto a bus looking like we must have – especially one as nice and plush as those operated by Royal Bus Company between Jinshan and Taipei. This being Taiwan though, the driver didn’t bat an eyelid as we piled on, sank down into the soft seats and began the long, eminently civilized journey back to Taipei, home, and a much-needed hot shower.
GETTING PERMITS for MOUNT HUANGZUI
It’s a pretty simple process nowadays (as long as you have access to a Taiwanese ID number), but apply a couple of weeks early unless going on a weekday, as permits get snapped up quickly. The permit application service for entering the Nature Reserves at both Mount Huangzui and Lujiaokeng (Fenglin Waterfall, described in the entry below) is on the Chinese language section pof the Yangmingshan National Park website at http://www.ymsnp.gov.tw/apply/apply1/ You can apply for a group of up to twenty people at a time. The ID of the group leader however needs to be a Taiwanese ID number – the system won’t accept ARC numbers. There are several not-quite-legal-but-often-the-only-way-to-do-it ways around this of course; for instance the ‘Group Leader’ might be sick and unable to join you on the hike when you go. Rong Run Old Trail isn’t one the several route options covered by permits for Huangzui issued by the National Park, and entering the trail is officially illegal, so be polite but clueless if you run into any park rangers which sometimes patrol the area, although I’ve never run into any. Mount Huangzui and the route of the wonderful Rong Run Old Trail are described in Yangmingshan: the Guide, on pages 280 and 350.