I find it amazing (although, for selfish reasons, I think it’s also very fortunate!) that almost all of Tianmu’s health-conscious inhabitants (and indeed many residents from elsewhere in Taipei as well) limit their longer walks in the area almost exclusively to that long, dull trudge variously known as the Tianmu Steps, the Pipeline Trail or Tianmu Old Trail. It’s not a bad way to get from Tianmu onto the mountainside, and after the steps the contour path along the steep hillside is admittedly very attractive, with its wide views over the city, but the fact is there are (at least) another three ways to get from Tianmu up onto the Chinese Culture University area of the mountain by footpath or trail, and two of them make for an excellent loop walk, which a couple of us enjoyed the other day, during an expected and welcome break in the long streak of thoroughly grotty weather we’ve been slogging though the last couple of months.
By far the roughest, most natural and most interesting of the four Tianmu-YMS routes, the White Cloud Hill Trail, which starts at the very end of Dexing East Road, is tricky to find. I’d publish the exact directions here, but sorry! – I’d best not play even a small part in turning this little-known delight into a popular favorite; in any event the route is described in detail in Yangmingshan: the Guide (on page 109).
A (luckily short-lived) setback to our plans at the very beginning of the hike was waiting for us at the original, number 21 trailhead of the White Cloud Hill Trail (just before point 2 in the route description) – it’s locked up behind a tall gate and this short stretch of the trail is now inaccessible. As we were examining possible ways to creep through or climb over un-noticed, an elderly local lady appeared, but far giving us the good telling off I was half expecting, she explained that the owners of the house next to the trail had – for no good reason she could find – blocked the entrance themselves. She continued explaining the situation in a mixture of Chinese and Taiwanese for the next 4 or 5 minutes until we finally broke free, preparing to tackle the alternative, less interesting, route along the narrow road that runs basically parallel to the obstructed path.
In Taiwan, when one trail is blocked, wiped out by a landslide, or gets obstructed by fallen trees or whatnot, another route or a diversion is rarely long in being found, and sure enough, after walking about 10 minutes up the road (simply keep straight ahead past the old trailhead and the water conduit and follow the road ahead, soon steeply uphill), plastic ribbons mark the new trailhead, on the left of the road beside a metal plaque explaining the history of the adjacent, protected Qing-dynasty era tomb of Pan Gongchou.
The dirt trail drops down to cross a stream, balancing on a narrow strip of metal that serves as a bridge, then climbs up the opposite bank into the woods. Keep right at the allotment at the top, and the original path is picked up, climbing into the woods, soon along the top of a vertical cliff, offering fine views in places through the trees over Tianmu and beyond.
Finally descending to a road, it’s a short downhill walk until the tarmac ends and the trail to the top of the main ridge begins. The trail is a little unclear at first (look for rough stone steps on the right, just after the road ends) but in a few moments it’s clear, climbing quite steeply through several attractive bamboo groves and woodland dotted with fine old camphor trees.
At the top the trail joins a track offering magnificent views over Taipei city, although the developers have been busy here since my last visit perhaps five years ago, and a small pocket of the original woodland has been cleared to make way for what looks like a plant nursery, growing conifers.
In another 10 minutes we’re in Huagang, on the edge of the precipitous escarpment in front of the Chinese Culture University, enjoying one of Taipei area’s most magnificent panoramas, with the whole of Taipei laid out below, spread out beneath a huge, thin blanket of cloud which cuts Taipei 101 in half, just its summit spire poking out the top.
The way ahead is straight through the huge campus of the Chinese Culture University, a surprisingly pleasant return to civilization, with its fine, classical Chinese-inspired architecture, santa hat-wearing students and makeshift stalls (staffed by other festively dressed youngsters) hawking festive goodies, although I never worked out the reason for the conspicuous hand-colored sign in front of one, proclaiming “WOW! CLOUD” …
Once through the university campus, take a left and this road drops stiffly down to the upper trailhead of the (in)famous Tianmu steps (or whatever you call them). Giving this over-used trail a wide berth, a few minutes further along the road we joined the familiar but less crowded stone trail beside the beautiful Huangxi stream, its waters carrying minerals from various hot-springs above, which stain the rocks of the riverbed a rich, bright coppery-orange color. And it’s not just the lovely colors that make this a particularly scenic spot for a walk. A little downstream is Shamao Waterfall (the first of two fine falls on the stream), although since the old, easy routes to it were blocked a decade ago getting to the base of it requires a further hour of walking from this point.
Keeping right at junctions, the path finally joins Shamao Road just a few minutes below the 260/R5/ 108 bus station on Yangmingshan. Making a beeline for Yangmingshan Park and the famous Flower Clock, it’s only another five minutes or so to the upper trailhead of Banling (or Huangling) Old Trail., which starts out as a delightful dirt trail through the woods, skirting the base of steep Mt Shamao.
After crossing the road, the trail reverts to steps and a slippery concrete path, but halfway down, a turn leads in ten minutes into the deep gorge of the Huangxi stream below the upper waterfall, and my confirmed favorite spot in all the Tianmu area. Although well-enough known among locals and some foreign residents, this spot continues to feel like a forgotten place – a real secret valley – and it always seems to be deserted when I visit. About halfway up the gorge, the trail climbs up beside a small waterfall, then at a much higher level continues to contour the west face of thickly wooded, unspoilt gorge to end, rather surprisingly at a gate fixed to the rock face beside the narrow water channel.
Ignoring the sign not to enter (as one tends to do in Taiwan…), the gate is an easy obstacle to pass, and immediately after it Shamao Waterfall can be seen plunging over rocks into the gorge. A disused footbridge and a small stone building detract a little from the natural beauty of the scene, but this is still an absolutely enchanting place, and today, with the stream running high after all the recent rain, and the red, orange and yellow leaves of a large maple tree arching over the glen beneath the falls carpeting the river bank, it was positively magical.
After the idyllic twenty-minute walk back to the Baling Trail, the trail itself is pleasant but dull, descending through a few terraced fields and beside a minor stream to join a lane above Tianmu, now just twenty minutes or so away.
Before returning to the city though, a quick side-trip leads up the Huangxi to the lower and better-known of its two falls, Emerald Peak Waterfall. Like Shaomao Falls above, this fine small fall has suffered at the hands of aesthetically challenged humans – lengths of irrigation piping are draped down the cliff faces on either side of the main plunge, but even these fail to destroy the beauty of this very fine little place. Today, with the water relatively high, it was actually mildly dramatic, forcing its way powerfully through the cleft at the head of the falls and plunging into the big pool at their base, and the 15-minute walk to them is a finer, much more scenic short stroll than I remember. A trail from the falls continues up the side of the gorge to connect with the crowds on the Tianmu Old Trail itself, but we retraced our steps beside the stream to return to the road for a final walk down to Tianmu and the 220 bus stop. On the way, we made one last stop to admire the fine old arched footbridge over the river just a few minutes downstream from the Emerald Mountain Waterfall trailhead. Although it’s almost beside the road, the bridge is virtually hidden in undergrowth these days, and easily missed. Look out for it just above the point where the modern road crosses the Huangxi stream.