Taroko Gorge: tunning vistas, spiritual treasures

Taiwan's secret candidate for Eighth Wonder of the World

Few of those hordes of blue-suited businessmen visiting Taiwan from the West ever leave the hustle-bustle of the capital city of Taipei.

Given its throbbing business atmosphere, remarkable shopping, eye-popping National Palace Museum, and the best Chinese food in this or any galaxy, that may be understandable.

But to those who have both the time and adventuresome spirit to trek the wildness of Taiwan's east coast: Fasten your seat belts and get ready for a dramatic change of venue.

Here you can enter those Chinese scrolls you've seen in museums and Art History 101 textbooks. In living 3-D you're able to walk in a land of vertical precipices boasting more nooks and crannies than a six-pack of Thomas's English muffins.

I took a 30-minute flight from Taipei to Hualian on a warm and clear day enhanced by a streaked sky the color of pale-blue raw silk, ideal weather for exploring the wonders of Taroko National Park.

At first glance, Hualian has the humble appearance of a small, working-class town. But the real story lies at your feet. Creamy-white marble sidewalks, the color of wet tofu, hint at treasure concealed in them thar hills. For beneath the green, tree-shrouded mountain patina lies a trove of marble and granite that locals have mined for hundreds of years.

I boarded a bus for a12-mile tour through the narrow, picturesque ravine.

The sinuous road snakes along midway up 3,000-foot craggy cliffs that soar high above the Liwu River. The rushing water continues to etch out the gorge as it has for millenniums.

Sheer marble and granite formations tower hundreds of feet into the mist. Ancient Ami aboriginals, in a gesture of understatement, named the gorge Taroko - "beautiful." And even today, no tacky shops or eateries mar its raw beauty.

The narrow road continues through long, dark, man-made tunnels only to open onto bright, blinding vistas of staggering beauty. Only the occasional brightly painted pagoda, or small temple, adds an unexpected dash of color to the stark, serene grayness. The vistas and stops are as beautiful as they are poetic: the Bridge of Motherly Devotion, Tunnel of Nine Turns, Swallows' Grotto, Light of Zen Monastery, and on it goes.

Most notable and picturesque is the Eternal Spring Shrine, built in memory of the 450 retired servicemen who lost their lives building the Cross Central Island Highway. The shrine straddles a multilegged waterfall that cascades into the gorge. Each day a bell is rung to usher in the morning; a solemn drumbeat ends each day. Here, cigarettes - rather than incense - are lighted to honor the departed workers.

Along the way the bus stopped at intervals of particular interest, where we could get out and walk, and take advantage of the many photo ops.

What really makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention are the miles of 3-foot-wide trails carved into the face of mountain walls hundreds of feet above the ravine. With Flying Wallenda nerves, the ancient aboriginals crawled along these trails they chipped into the mountains, inches from sure death.

Taroko Gorge is, understandably, the country's most impressive scenic attraction; sort of a Grand Canyon with studded with beautiful temples, pagodas, and shrines rather than horses, donkeys, and dust. No wonder it is considered by many to be a candidate for the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Travelers from Taipei can go to Hualian by train or fly to Hualian, then take the bus, taxi, or trek through the gorge. However you do it, be sure to put this extraordinary piece of real estate on your Taiwan itinerary.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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