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Gorge of the giants

People come to this mysterious Eden to gape, muse and pay homage. The majestic Taroko National Park in northeastern Taiwan is the ultimate wide-open space in the world's second most densely populated country, write GUSTASP and JEROO IRANI ... .


MOUNTAINS, forests, gorges and rivers merge in a grand tapestry at Taroko which covers 92,000 hectares in the northern part of the Central Mountain Range.

The park is a source of spiritual and physical nourishment for the 27 million Taiwanese, many of whom flock here over the weekends to hike up the mountain trails (some massifs soar over 3,000m) and gaze at the marble cliffs that form walls several metres high.

Our odyssey started with an early morning, 30-minute domestic flight from the capital Taipei to Hualien. From Hualien, the entrance to Taroko is 26 km away. The drive to the park down the Central Cross Island Highway was a haze of green — lush fields, forested hills, banana plantations, and groves of sentinel betel nut palms. The bus stopped briefly at a neat white stall where a pretty young girl sat dispensing betel leaves. These scantily clad girls are part of local lore, revealed our guide Michael Yau. The Betel Nut Girls, as they are dubbed, are generally seen on highways as they cater primarily to truckers who buy and chew betel nuts to stay awake at the wheel and boost their energy levels.

By then the sky was the colour of faded denim, and the sun had stretched its rays across the world. Songbirds frolicked by the wayside even as mountain silhouettes loomed on the horizon. The scenic highway took four years to build (from 1956 to 1960) and winds through 38 tunnels, many cutting through the vertical face of towering cliffs. Four hundred and fifty lives were lost in the process, and the memory of the workers' sacrifice is enshrined in the Eternal Spring Shrine at the far end of one tunnel. This was a picture-perfect setting of colourful temples and cascading waterfalls that resembled the veins on the back of an ancient hand. (From here commences a 1.35 km trail which crosses a suspension bridge and ascends along a series of steps to plunge into a jungle paradise.) To soak in the landscape, we walked along a part of the highway for views of the spectacular Taroko Gorge and the Liwu river. We looked down at the sensuously curving jade-green river which mirrored the marble cliffs that polka-dot the land. The river banks were splashed with the colour of wild flowers, and all was still and silent, barring the whisper of the wind and the occasional raucous call of a bird. Walking was an irresistible exercise, for the scene scrolling by was in turn arid and at times luxuriant. It prompted an outburst of clean-edged adjectives from our travel companions who described the area as "remote, austere, pure, rocky and verdant".

We were clearly in nature's domain, amidst gravity-defying gorges and bush-covered precipices, where she alone was in charge. Perhaps, for us, the most scenic section of the gorge was the Swallow Grotto, where flocks of swallows flit around in spring and summer and are said to nest in holes in the sheer cliff face, carved by the relentless surge of the river. The fissures in the rocks seem to burrow ever deeper into the earth and seem blindingly black and dark. (A bifurcation here allows cars to race ahead through another tunnel.)

As we ambled along, we noticed signs in Chinese engraved on the cliff walls which our guide translated for us as we went along. One of them meant, "A dragon is curving in nine caves", indicating that the tunnel winds like a dragon on the move. Further ahead, another sign in Chinese read, "The mist rises like a song". In fact as we mused on the sign, a pearly mist muted the rainbow colours of an unknown bird and we turned to see another startlingly blue bird which resembled a piece of torn sky. A huge butterfly appeared, fluttered awhile and left us behind in its bouncing, flitting flight. The park, whose elevation rises from sea level to 3,700 m, is home to 144 species of birds and 251 species of butterflies.

"This is what the Chinese call `the land of the one line sky,'" explained our guide. For here where massive granite peaks shoulder each other, only a strip of sky can be seen above. This ephemeral corner of Taiwan, which the Portuguese dubbed Ilha Formosa or beautiful island, is wild and whacky ... a rock formation resembled a Red Indian brave in profile, another looked like a giant carp — a favourite fish of the Taiwanese. Nature was obviously having fun here, chiselling the rocks.

We emerged from the dark tunnel into a green sun-filtered world where a foam-flecked waterfall cascaded down sheer rock to collect in a small jacuzzi-like pool. The grass was tall enough to hide a horse and waved in the breeze like a wind-roiled sea. It was easy to imagine tattooed aborigines lurking in this wild landscape. In fact the aborigines who first peopled this island off the southeast coast of mainland China were of Polynesian stock. They now total about four lakh and are spread across nine tribes. The sites of 79 old Atayal villages have been found here; now only a few aborigines live in the park. "In the old days facial tattoos were culturally significant in the Atayal tradition," related Michael. Every seven or eight-year-old child had to be tattooed on the forehead for tribal identification. At 14 or 15, a young man would be tattooed on the chin after his first successful head hunting expedition. The head hunting initiation rite was banned in 1913 during the Japanese Occupation of the island and was completely abolished by the 1930s. A 15-year-old girl would be tattooed on the cheeks when she had mastered the art of weaving. The Atayal are very skilled weavers and fashion lovely handicrafts from wood and bamboo as well.

GUSTASP IRANI

The park's spiritual element _ the golden statue of the Buddha.

And at the Grand Formosa Taroka hotel where we stopped for lunch, we saw a young Atayal woman weaving a multi-hued shawl with the traditional patience and artistry that she had inherited from her forebears. She also had the high cheek bones and half petal eyes of her tribe and the shyness that comes from being an exhibit of sorts in a touristy area. Tien-Hsiang where the hotel is located is a popular stop (there's a youth hostel here as well).

One can grab a bite at one of the many food outlets, shop for memories at souvenir stalls and mail a letter from the tiny post office.

We, however, continued our exertions. Here, where the river takes a sharp U-turn, a suspension bridge connects the highway to a small mountain studded with a temple, a towering pagoda and a large golden statue of the Buddha.

(There is a shop run by Buddhist nuns spilling over with souvenirs and local handicrafts.) The climb up the face of the summit was strenuous and a little slippery for there had been a light drizzle while we had lunch.

But the reward was generous — a tremulous rainbow arched over the mountains, shaggy with greenery. As we walked back to our coach for the drive to the airport, we talked about the infinite canvas on which nature had painted with flamboyant excess.

Fact file:

Taiwan is served by some 20 airlines but only China Airlines has non-stop flights from Delhi to Taipei and provides the quickest connections from there to the west coast of the United States and to Vancouver.

One can either fly to Hualien and then drive down to Taroko National Park or drive there all the way which takes around five hours. One can explore the park by walking along the designated portion of the highway or retreat from the highway and hike up some of the mountain trails. Before you enter a wilderness area, away from the main trails, notify the park headquarters of your route and destination.

An entry permit for hiking in the park is available at the local police station behind the park headquarters. Watch out for falling rocks and killer bees when on the trails.

For travel information e-mail the Tourism Bureau at tbroc@tbroc.gov.tw

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