The vast majority of multi-day hikes in Taiwan seem to be in the high mountains, so it’s refreshing to come across a few places such as the Walami Trail in southern Hualien County where hikers can really get away from civilisation for two days without suffering headaches from the altitude, freezing each night, or – worst of all – having to beg for a precious permit from one of the not particularly foreigner-friendly National Park authorities.
To really get away from civilization for a weekend though, you’d be hard put to find a better place than the abandoned aboriginal village of Jiuhaocha (舊好茶), high in the mountains of southern Pingdong County. This old Rukai settlement, abandoned over 30 years ago, is the only aboriginal village in Taiwan afforded Historic Monument status (and Grade Two, at that, which makes it pretty important). It forms the focal point of a remarkable 2-day hike in the magnificent mountain scenery of northern Pingdong County.
Jiuhaocha sits high on a mountainside directly north of Mount Beidawu (北大武山), the southernmost 3,000-meter-plus peak in Taiwan and among the most popular of the Top Hundred Summits among hikers. The pyramidal peak of Beidawu dominates the magnificent view across the valley from the row of traditional stone-slab houses still standing at Jiuhaocha, yet while the mountain continues to be a popular favourite, since the old (easy) path to Jiuhaocha was knocked out by Typhoon Morakot in August 2009, the numbers of hikers visiting this fascinating old village have reduced to a trickle.
Morakot destroyed so much infrastructure down the south of the island that four years on, many fascinating and wonderful mountain areas from Chiayi County southwards are still struggling to rebuild, to make it known that they can be visited once more, and to bring back tourists and the economic benefits they bring with them. This process is neither easy nor quick, and it was only while visiting one of these devastated areas, Wutai (霧台) earlier this year that I found out that Jiuhaocha (which had intrigued me for over a decade, through descriptions and photos in old local guide books) was in fact not only still intact, but could be visited. The once 2-3 hour walk up to the village has become a 6 – 8 hour trek each way post-Morakot, and it’s a far more strenuous trip than before, but for keen hikers this, of course, is part of the charm of going there. And wow, it’s a really fun trip!
Don’t even consider trying to get to Jiuhaocha without an aboriginal guide (all of whom were once residents of the village). Not only does hiring a guide help the local economy, but you’ll never find the way by yourself. There’s no trail at all for sections of the route, and you won’t believe some of the places the route passes, including some scary-steep and exhausting cross-country work. I almost began to doubt our guide’s memory, his sanity, or both once or twice, but he got us up there unscathed. When there is a trail (such as on the Cliff) the crumbling slate and shale underfoot is occasionally dangerously unstable, so the help not only of the fixed ropes on these sections but also of a local guide who can find the safest way through, and who can hopefully leap into action (or at least get in touch with outside help) in the event of an accident is well-nigh essential. Insurance is also definitely a good idea (our hosts insisted we bought some), because the going is pretty dicey in a few places.
There seem to be two ways to Jiuhaocha, post Morakot; we combined the two routes into a great 2-day loop walk, although some guides apparently don’t like to take the longer route (which I”ll call the Cliff Trail) because some people regard is as dangerous.
Trips to Jiuhaocha start at the new village of Gucha (古茶), a tidy grid of independent 2 or 3 story houses just outside Sandimen (三地門), each with a small garden, built three years ago for the inhabitants of Xinhaocha (新好茶), which was itself built to house the residents of Jiuhaocha when they moved down from their mountain abode in the 1970s. Xinhaocha was evacuated as Typhoon Morakot bore down on Taiwan in early August 2009, and the village was obliterated by the floods and landslides that swept down the gorge the next couple of days.
After spending Friday evening at a homestay run by the village Headman’s lovely wife, we set off soon after 7 on Saturday morning with our two guides, father and son. The first 10 kilometers or so are by car, along the road that once led to Xinhaocha village. The road abruptly ends about 1.5 kilometres before the former settlement, as the tarmac teeters into a desolate wasteland of sand and gravel, peppered with larger blocks of stone, brought down the riverbed by the torrential rains triggered by Morakot. It’s a place of impressive beauty in a raw, austere kind of way, although the biggest impact of this first section of the hike is seeing the remains of the former village of Xinhaocha. All that is left is the roof of the village church. Once six stories high (according to one of our guides) we could now easily climb onto its roof. Surveying the sea of stone and earth around it, it’s hard to imagine the settlement that once stood here, now buried many meters beneath. Our guide, visibly quite agitated, sadly pointed out the location of his former house and of several other landmarks in what was once a good-sized village. Later, as we climbed out of the river valley, he showed us the slopes (now nothing but pulverized dirt) where he once tended mangos, taro and the like: a moving snapshot of the sheer enormity of the misery caused by Morakot.
Beyond the site of Xinhaocha, we continued following the great dry riverbed upstream for nearly an hour further, then beside a small tributary stream, running through its own strip of ugly bare gravel and pulverized rock, we suddenly started climbing through the undergrowth, straight up the side of the gorge. It’s steep, rough and most of all very unstable, with the crumbling slate/shale underfoot providing very poor traction in places, and we soon learnt the best way to continue is to move fast, and find a new foothold before the earth under the last one gives way and we slid downhill.
After a shortish but exhausting climb, we emerged onto the traces of a trail. The going was finally relatively easy for a spell, as the trail climbs upwards into the forest towards the base of a cliff. The trail crosses the cliff via a short but rather precarious section on a ledge cut into the crumbling face. It’s only a minute or two long, but a bit iffy; the safety rope is welcome here!
After the cliff the route soon settles into a more mundane climb through scrappy woodland, where our guides stopped and made us rest twice, the second time beside a pretty stream falling over a tiny cascade into an attractive rock pool where several of our group had a swim.
For some reason I thought that after all this climbing we must be getting close to the village, but sadly not! Our guide assured us that it would be another 4 hours or so before we reached the shelter of his house at Jiuhaocha, where we’d spend the night. In fact, that pretty little stream and waterfall marks just the beginning of the really interesting part of the hike. Shortly the woodland ends, the trail emerges onto the steep open mountainside, and climbs to cross a small tributary stream below a very tall waterfall created by a landslide during Marokot. According to our guide, the whole side of the mountain here fell away in the floods, creating the great gorge visible today.
The scenery is now starkly grand, but gets even more exciting as the path climbs higher onto the precipitous slopes, and then zigzags up the cliff face on an astonishing trail that reminded several of us repeatedly of Jhuilu Cliff Trail in Taroko Gorge. The cliff here isn’t quite as vertical as there, and the drop is perhaps a hundred meters or so less, but the trail is a bit narrower, it’s scarily unstable and crumbly in places, and it’s thrillingly exposed: the safety ropes were a pretty essential precaution!
The trail climbs dizzyingly high up the side of the mountainside at the Cliff Path, but after this high point, leaves the huge drops and exposed views behind and dives back into the forest, although it’s as steep, crumbling and unstable underfoot as ever, and the going is hard with a heavy pack on the back. It began raining about an hour before we reached Jiuhaocha, which put an unwelcome chill in the air, and made the crumbly, slippery scree underfoot even harder to walk on.
Finally we descended to cross an enchanting, fairy tale mini-gorge which in better weather (and if energy levels were higher) would have been a great place to explore. Ten minutes later, the trail underfoot turned to large slabs of slate and tall hummocks of shrubby bushes covered in bright orange daisy flowers heralded the entrance to the abandoned village of Jiuhaocha.
Apparently over 300 people once lived in Jiuhaocha. Today only a handful of houses are in a good state of repair (inhabited on occasion by ex-residents, hunters and guides with their groups). A group of three houses stand in a line, commanding a marvellous view over the mountains to the south, and we managed a last glimpse of the sharp-profiled Beidawu (sacred to the Rukai tribe) for a few minutes between the swirling clouds before they covered it for the rest of the afternoon.
First priority was to get dry, but before we could do that we were invited in for a chat by an inhabitant of a nearby hut with a very curious tale. He wasn’t Rukai at all, but Chinese, but after apparently once crash landing his paraglider in the forest somewhere nearby (!), he made friends with and then was apparently ‘adopted’ by the Rukai, who let him rebuild a stone-slab house in the village (a feat which took him seven years). During the dry season he now spends many of his weekends up here.
After an interesting, if slightly surreal, chat in front of his tiny fire, our cold and wet clothes forced us back to our own hut to change into something dry and warm, after which we tucked into an early dinner. Most of the party was in bed soon after dark, although a couple of us stayed up to chat for a couple of hours, attracted by the log fire burning in the grate, and the novelty value of four hog’s legs curing in the smoke above it.
The following morning the Rukai (a couple more had arrived early in the morning) were out hunting; the blast of their home-made rifles echoed through the village at intervals as we slowly got up and faced another day, and the prospect of another long, mentally tiring walk.
My original (and in hindsight rather naïve) plan was to be off by 7 am, to allow plenty of time to trace a nearby river in the afternoon up to a rather wonderful place called Poseidon’s Palace and Diana’s Pools. In the event of course that plan went south very quickly, especially since no-one was keen on rushing this misty, damp morning (the rain, which had continued all night, looked set to continue well into the morning). Eventually our aboriginal guides showed up to take us on a quick tour of the village, and paraded us along a path past more glorious massed groups of flowering shrubs to the ruins of the village’s Japanese-era police station (now crowned with spiky yucca plants) the bare skeleton of its old elementary school, and a memorial tablet to the Japanese. Down a short trail beside the memorial stone lies the beautiful small waterfall we’d seen in photos and on a mural back at the homestay on Friday evening. Falling into a large and deep-looking pool, it would have been perfect for a swim if the weather had been a bit warmer and sunnier.
It was after nine before we started on the descent, along the other trail to Jiuhaocha, but we were confident in our time, because both the guide and our new paragliding friend told us that this route was much quicker and easier, and we’d be back at the river canyon in about two hours. The trail passes a couple more traditional Rukai stone-slab houses, and a couple of shapely old trees, and although steadily downhill and crumbly in places is certainly easier (and safer) than the outward route.
Further down it emerges from the woods onto the open mountainside, giving fantastic views as the clouds cleared and the sun began to peak though. Lower down the going gets a bit tougher in a few places, when the very steep slopes are of loose scree, although ropes once again kept us safe.
After crossing a cascading stream (which Grant – who never refuses a chance for a swim – immediately jumped into), the trail clambers over a small saddle and then drops steeply (with fixed ropes) to rejoin the main river canyon. Turning right we began the long trudge back to the buried village of Xinhaocha and our hire cars at the trailhead beyond.
The river canyon makes for magnificent walking: the typhoon-scarred scenery has an austere grandeur about it, and the walking is easy after the steep, rough and precarious terrain of the last two days. The overnight rains had swollen the river quite a bit, and those of us that followed the guides crossed the river a total of 13 times on the way back, although the water helped cool my hot feet, which would have probably developed blisters otherwise.
It was a good two-hour trudge back to the roof of Xinhaocha church, and, a couple more river-crossings later, we reached the end of the old road, and our cars. The return had taken over five hours; the outward route six. It’s quite a hike out to Jiuhaocha, but also an amazing experience – which makes it all the more surprising that very few people go there these days.
PLANNING A HIKE:
It’s simple. To hike to Jiuhaocha, you’ll have to hire an aboriginal guide. Apart from being a simple matter of courtesy (this place was once their home, after all), the residents can arrange you a traditional house to sleep in (an experience in itself), will minimise the risks along the trail and of course will show the way (both routes to the village are impossible to find leaving the river canyon at the bottom unless you know the route, and the trail is indistinct or non-existent in many other places). Bring a sleeping bag, as there are no beds or bedding in the huts.
Jiuhaocha is accessible only during the dry season (October-November to April). During the summer the frequent heavy rains and flooded river and streams make the route impassable.
Perhaps the most important aspect, once you start planning the trip is to check which route they’ll use. Not all guides are prepared to follow the Cliff Path: both our Chinese paragliding friend and another guide we met said they don’t use the trail, saying it’s too dangerous. It’s actually not too bad if great care is taken, however, and is definitely a thrilling way to climb up to the village. The route may however become completely off-limits in the future, since it’s not been repaired for years and is rapidly disintegrating.
We organised the trip through the village Headman of Xinhaocha, Baru Galan (who’s wife has the homestay we stayed in at in Gucha, and can reached at (08) 799-3288, (08) 799-7333 or 0919-606-063. He speaks Chinese only but his son Zhengyu, who helped a load in organising the trip, speaks great English.