aiwan offers limitless opportunities to try new things. Despite the occasional nasty surprise (stinky tofu), the bulk of my Taiwan travel experiences have been overwhelmingly positive and, of these, rock climbing is up there with eating too much peanut mochi.
One beautiful Saturday morning, a group of four classmates from a Taipei language school, myself among them, rose early to catch the bus to Lungtung, a climber’s paradise.
Lungtung, or “Dragon’s Cave” in English, lies on the island’s northeastern coast, where the crystal clear waters of the Pacific Ocean meet two kilometers of rugged sandstone cliffs. We scrambled across the field of broken boulders that lay between the bus stop and our ultimate goal, weaving between rock pools where red and blue crabs danced between clumps of coral. On our way we happened across a group of professional climbers who were surveying the main routes up the cliffs. They pointed out some alarming weaknesses – wobbly pegs jammed into crumbling rock – not the most encouraging start to our day.
Indeed, the overuse of steel pegs along the Lungtung climbing routes makes them vulnerable to corrosion in the salty ocean air. Luckily most of the cliffs are covered in cracks, ideal for traditional climbers chasing solid, natural handholds. We got our tips on the best routes from the surveying team. When planning your trip, get hold of a copy of the locally compiled guidebook, and equip yourself with sturdy footwear as the going can be tough on unseasoned feet.
Waiting our turns to climb, we lay stretched out on the warm rock face, savoring the breathtaking views over the Pacific, dozing in the sun and listening to the waves lap at the rocks below. Then we climbed until our hands were blistered and our tan lines had crisped, at which point we left our ropes and switched from climbing up rocks to jumping off them. The heat and dirt from the day’s climb sluiced from our skins in an instant as we plunged six to seven meters into the cool water below. On our next visit, we vowed to try our hands at scuba diving – Lungtung’s other popular pastime – with dives arranged through nearby Hemei Elementary School. Multicolored fish dart in the waters along the coast, and renting equipment is straightforward and affordable.
Misjudging the hour and too absorbed in the beauty of the evening light to worry about such trivialities as bus timetables, we found we’d missed our ride. Once again, the pro climbers came to our rescue, ferrying the four of us to Jui-fang, where trains back to Taipei run every half hour. We were also ravenous – more substantial supplies than water and beer are hard to come by in Lungtung, and we had subsisted for the entire sweltering afternoon on a couple of guava and an egg roll.
For those who are not looking to spend a whole day in Lungtung, the nearby town of Chiufen provides an ideal stopover on the way back to Taipei. Built by the Japanese and famous as the setting for scenes from A City of Sadness as well as Spirited Away, this old gold mining town has become a tourist hotspot thanks to its stunning mountainside views, as well as for its winding maze of old streets and alleyways.
These play host to many dozens of small stalls, selling everything from calligraphy brushes and handcrafted jewelry to some of the island’s most delicious snacks. Most popular among these are yuyuan taro balls and wraps filled with ice cream and peanut shavings.
If, like me and my friends, you end up going a bit overboard sampling these goodies and need a light walk to aid your digestion, there are also some great hiking trails nearby. If you are lucky enough to be in Chiufen on a day when it isn’t engulfed by clouds (a rarity), these walks promise beautiful Pacific views. If you don’t catch a sunny day, though, don’t fret. With the exception of heavy rain, all other weather conditions become Chiufen in their own way, with the mountain mist enshrouding the charming streets in a veil of mystery.
Unfortunately, unlike Lungtung, which remains largely unspoiled by development and relatively uncrowded, Chiufen’s many attractions combine to mean that the town is absolutely packed with tour groups on the weekend.
However, it’s worth braving the squeeze as, in the evening, the lanterns strung around the town glow red and yellow in the dusk, the traditional teahouses scattered over the mountainside lighting up like beautiful old dollhouses.
If you’re in search of the magic of historic Taiwan, Chiufen is it.