Last Christmas, while clearing out heaps of junk in my bedroom back in the UK, I came across several boxes of old print photos from my various world travels in the early 1990s, along with some photos from my earliest years in Taiwan, almost two decades ago. Among the tourist must-sees such as Wulai Waterfall, Sun Moon Lake, Taroko Gorge and Yehliu, however I found photos of two places which will be far less familiar to the majority of Taiwanese expats, for the simple reason that (for completely different reasons) neither of them exist anymore!
Apologies in advance for the poor quality of the photos (the little Olympus Trip I used then wasn’t quite as good as today’s digital point-and-shoots, and the prints have faded after fifteen years or so sitting in a cupboard), but since both amazing spots are sadly gone for ever, it’s probably worth sharing them!!
LOST SOUL VALLEY, Caoling, Yunlin County
The mountain village of Caoling (or rather its amazing surrounding scenery) has been one of my favorite places in Taiwan ever since I first visited it the summer I came to Taiwan: 1993. Indeed after accidentally settling upon a copy of the Lonely Planet Taiwan guide (written by Robert Storey way back in those days) in a bookshop while working in London’s Oxford Street in 1992, it was partly a map of Caoling, marked with such fascinating-sounding places as Water Curtain Cave, Great Steep Wall and Lost Soul Valley, that made me consider coming to Taiwan in the first place.
That first summer in Taiwan I took a bus from Yunlin to Caoling and spent two days exploring its wonders, finishing off the first day with a long walk down a narrow road to the unique Lost Soul Valley. This strange place was a sort of gorge created by a vast slippage of the land (possibly caused by the same earthquake that created the Spring and Autumn Cliffs nearby), forming a narrow, overgrown gorge that was (according to the dimensions listed in an old guidebook) about 30 meters wide, 40 meters deep and 200 meters long. In several spots wispy waterfalls trickled over the cliffs, which were topped by fine trees, giving the place an even more impressive look of fantasy. Heading back to Caoling village after my visit it was already getting dark, and I was lucky enough to get picked up by a couple of farmers, in an early personal example of that amazing Taiwanese hospitality towards Westerners.
Visit Caoling today and most of its wonderful sights – Water Curtain Cave, the lofty Penglai Waterfall, Tongxin Waterfall and the Heart Rocks, the Frog Rock, Great Steep Wall – seem to have changed little apart from improvements in the trails connecting them. Where Lost Soul Valley and the Spring and Autumn Cliffs once rose however, the mountainside has been pulverized as if by some vast steam roller into a huge, desolate, flat slope dropping down to the shore of the Clearwater River hundreds of meters below.
Caoling was one of the places worst hit during the great earthquake of September 21st, 1999, and during that terrible minute or two the whole summit of Caoling Mountain became dislodged, and slid down the mountainside (burying both Lost Soul Valley and the Spring and Autumn Cliffs). The remains of the peak now lie several hundred meters below, near the base of the gorge. The now desolate site of Lost Soul Valley and the surrounding area is now the Caoling Geopark, with a monument and several plaques explaining something of the magnitude of the event; on my last visit several years ago, vegetation had started to grow back and smooth the devastated hillside.
Ironically, the lost Spring and Autumn Cliffs were the product of an earlier great earthquake, which struck in 1941. Many people (I was told on my last visit to the Geopark) died in the huge landslide of 1999, and locals stay away from the area for fear of ghosts. We can only be grateful though that the landslide didn’t occur a kilometer or two up the valley, or the whole village of Caoling might have been engulfed.
THE OLD FAIRGROUND, BITAN, XINDIAN, near TAIPEI
The little wooded ridge called Hemei Hill that rises directly above the suspension bridge at Bitan in XIndian at the southern terminus of Taipei’s MRT line has recently been redeveloped, new paths have been put in, and it’s become a favorite spot for short walks among locals, and something of a nature reserve, with a rich selection of butterflies, plus fireflies in season. Two decades ago though a large fairground stood on its slopes, culminating in an impressive Ferris wheel (at the highest point of the theme park) which could be seen from many places in Xindian. Even today there are still plenty of memories of the fairground, including an abandoned shuttle ‘train’ that once took punters up and down the approach road, several ruined buildings and the remains of the original paths. Fifteen years and more ago though, this was one of the best adult playgrounds in the Taipei area, as the entire abandoned fairground, although slowly rusting away, was freely open to anyone. These photos were taken way back in about 1995, when in an earlier, smaller scale version of my present hiking club, I used to take roommates living with me at the Happy Family Hostel near the Train Station (in a building that’s now also long gone) on hiking trips to spots around Taipei. The undoubted highlight of a trip here was the big Ferris wheel: it was possible to enter the huge cylindrical wheel supports and climb 15 or 20 meters up the maintenance ladders inside the tubes, emerging into daylight way above the ground at the central axis of the wheel.
After one visit we ran into a local (English-speaking) woman who told us that the park had closed several years before after someone died when a car on the Ferris wheel came adrift…. I’ve since heard several different stories as to what happened. Whatever it was, it resulted in one of Taipei’s most extraordinary sights, which was sadly demolished over a period of several years over a decade ago.