It turns out there’s a good reason that I don’t go hiking in the Tucheng area (just west of Taipei City) so often. It’s not that there aren’t lots of trails there, or that there isn’t so much to see, but simply because the meddling local authorities have ‘improved’ so many of the area’s trails, which are now under wide bands of stone (well at least it’s not cement for the most part). Local residents have added their own deft touches – makeshift shelters of iron, tarpaulin and other fine materials, which become an impromptu karaoke parlour on fine weekends, a series of kitchen gardens (which seem to be multiplying) stocked with cabbages, onions and the like, and rustic outdoor ‘gyms’ with bars, swings and (of course) giant hula hoops for getting that waist in trim! Walking along the once lovely wooded ridge between Zhonghe and Sanxia is these days best considered an interesting introduction to Taiwanese culture rather than a walk in the bosom of nature.
There is at least one route in the area that’ll please those of us that crave the feeling of dirt and rock underfoot, and a rope in the hands – the long trail from the tea plantations at Matsu Fields along the Mt Shimen Neijian – Chengfu Hill ridge, coming out midway between Tucheng and Sanxia. This route, incidentally, is described in Taipei Escapes II (as the last part of walk 34, starting at direction 11 on page 171). It takes less than 3 hours to walk though, so on our last visit on an unusually nice day in early January, we made it part of a long horseshoe-shaped hike, starting and finishing at two of the area’s finest old temples.
After a short bus ride from Yongning MRT station (near the western end of the blue line), we started the walk at Matsu Fields bus stop (媽祖田站). A few meters further along the road towards Sanxia, just after the Highway Three bridge, a small lane on the left leads up into the lovely valley at Matsu Fields, and in about 600 meters, old stone steps on the left lead upwards through a beautiful old temple gate. Joining a side lane, a short climb leads to the beautiful red-brick building (through a gate on the left) of Puan Temple (普安堂). Built in 1914, the temple (unusually built in the style of a traditional Taiwanese sanhe yuan house) is now a photogenic ruin; its replacement lies a few meters further up the road. We were given an interesting talk on the temple’s history by a retired professor who has researched the temple and happened to be nearby when we visited – he must have been startled to suddenly see ten foreigners turn up at this almost forgotten spot. The newer temple was built over the large Buddha statue inside, which originally stood in a little garden above the original structure. Some old photos inside a room to the side of the main hall offer an interesting insight into the temple’s history.
Just below the temple a signposted path climbs stone steps – slippery as hell after the recent rains. Shortly the path rounds a small wooded rise and descends a little. The surfaced path ahead climbs to the summit of little Mount Matsu (媽祖山, also called 大暖尖), while an unsurfaced trail on the left at this point climbs through the woods to the ridge to join another stone path that follows the ridge to the summit. Needless to say we took the dirt path, although it was only a temporary postponement of the inevitable – from Mount Matsu wide, surfaced stone trails (dangerously slippery after rain) run all the way to the head of the Matsu Fields valley, with the promise of better hiking conditions beyond.
Apart from Puan Temple, really the only reason a ‘real’ hiker would likely want to start the hike here is to visit the startling little feature known as the Monkey Cave (猴洞) hidden in the cliffs just below the summit of Mount Matsu. It’s just a short distance (signposted) off the surfaced trail from Puan Temple to the summit, but it’s very steep and (I think, at least) positively dangerous when the ground is wet. The dirt path to the cave soon reaches the extremely steep escarpment, and it’s on ropes all the way down to the cave, down a couple of small rocky pitches, along narrow ledges, then down a final rock face to the shallow, natural overhang in the sandstone cliff. I’ve been there just once – about 15 years ago – and that time I got stranded for a while at the cave (the rope back up wasn’t long enough to reach from the bottom) before somehow managing to haul myself back up to safety. It remains one of my most alarming hiking memories ever (I’ve been lucky!), and so this time I didn’t attempt the final few meters down to the cave. A few of the others did though, and seemed to have no problem, so perhaps it’s just a personal thing (I have a very bad head for heights in certain situations). The rope, at least, seems long enough nowadays to make for a safe way back up!
It’s at least an hour from here to the head of the valley at the Matsu Fields tea plantations, but the stone steps were so slippery, and we had to take it so carefully, that it was a monotonous slog of far longer before we reached the insignificant next summit on the ridge, Mount Huoyan (火焰山), marked by the first of several makeshift Karaoke shelters that accompany the trail around the head of the valley. The slopes hereabouts are laid to neat rows of tea bushes, although they bear an air of neglect these days. A decade or so ago the bushes seemed to be actively nurtured, but now the plants are surrounded by stocky weeds – sad, considering these fields once grew some of Taiwan’s best tea, which was exported as far away as the US (according to our friendly retired professor, back at the temple).
Leaving the shelters, the surfaced paths, and the other walkers behind, the trail to Mount Shimen Neijian (石門內尖山, at 408 meters the highest point of the walk) feels refreshingly natural. The authorities laid the first part of the path to dirt steps with wooden risers some years ago, but mercifully stopped there – so far.
The remainder of the walk is certainly my favorite stretch of trail in this area – a fine ridge walk short on views (although there are a few good ones near the first little summits) but quite high on beauty, and great fun, with three easy rocky scrambles about halfway through, at the Luohan Strange Rocks (十八羅漢奇岩).
After these it’s quite a tiring last stretch, and it’s a relief to eventually reach the final descent to the beautiful Yuanheng Temple (元 亨堂). We paused a bit at this lovely red-brick building, which is a close counterpart (with its red-brick construction and small garden) of the older Puan Temple at the start of the hike, only this one is still in use.
The sun was by now sinking low on the horizon behind nearby Yingge, and a rainbow appeared in the sky opposite, directly above the temple as we rested – an unexpected and magical ending to a rather uneven hike. Maybe the stone paths on its first half would make for a more pleasant walking experience in dry weather, but they’re really not the main reason to come walking here. The second half of the hike, along the ridge, is by contrast a quiet classic. True, it lacks the magnificent scenery and sense of challenge that make the best trails elsewhere around Taipei so memorable, but for nearly three hours there’s just a (mostly) dirt trail, thick woodland, several lovely bamboo groves, a couple of steepish climbs and descents, a few rocky scrambles and even the occasional fine view. And sometimes that’s all I need for a fine day out in the hills!
The trailhead at Matsu Fields is easily reached by a short bus ride from Yongning MRT station. Leave the station by exit one and a variety of buses make the ten-minute run. The hike ends at Changshiushan bus stop (長壽山站), two stops further along the same road, and regular buses from here return to Yongning MRT station.
You’ll probably need a good hiking map or (even better!) a copy of Taipei Escapes II to find you’re way along the trails here. The best map for this area is the Taipei Jiuteng Co. map of Shulin, Yingge and Sanxia (number 3). The Sunriver map of the area doesn’t show all the trails.