Saturday, December 6, 2008
When is a hike not just a hike? For some it might be when it there is a nice meal awaiting at the end. For others when a swim or hot spring slips in somewhere. But for me it's a hike that involves temples, monks, monkeys, and an odd meditation centre where "the tea is free if you don't feel the chi."
On a brilliant Sunday sunny morning in October, Chris and I set out for the thrilling ridge walk known as Huangdi Dian, the Emperor's Hall. I'm not sure how many times I've done the hike but the first time was over 10 years ago. Back then the ridge was not chiselled flat on the top, and there were no marque style ropes and supports as you see now.
I remember once taking my wife on the trail and about halfway along finding two Taiwanese office workers and a couple Filipino girls just sitting on a lonely stretch of bare rock. In that odd Asian way, no one showed the slightest sign of anxiety, though after a few lines of conversation it was obvious they were all too scared to go on or turn back.
So, the safety additions are sensible on a trail this popular and they really don't distract too much. Nicely they did leave this one section unadorned:
As I wrote it was a gloriously sunny and clear day when we set out from Muzha. At last I figured, I would get some distance landscape shots of the craggy dark hills of the north that roll on and on in successive layers. If was a nice thought, but of course the sky grew grey as we rode the 666 bus (which long habit and tradition requires me to now call the bus of the beast) to nearby Shiding.
I try to take advantage of change now, rather than gripe about it, and decided to use the overcast sky to force my eye downward. As it turned out, some nice opportunities arose to observe the smaller forms around me. Thanks to Chris for providing the names of these little critters:
Formosan Swallowtail (Papilio taiwanus)
Golden orb-weaver (Nephila pilipes).
Stag beetle (Neolucanus swinhoei).
Swinhoe's japalura (Japalura swinhonis).
The charmingly named camel's toe (Chris insists it is "foot") tree (Bauhinia purpurea).
And the flower of the fried egg tree (Gordonia axillaris), looking a little overcooked today:
From Shiding, the ridgeline is reached from a number of staircases. It's about an hour no matter which way you start, and then another two hours or so humping up and down the contours of the ridge to the west peak. This is one of those hikes that make you feel like a kid in an adventure playground.
Below the west peak is a small Buddhist temple that literally hangs off the slopes.
On an earlier hike we had pushed our way down the overgrown trail to the temple and met the resident monk. He was a nice old fellow, and with his lose grey robes, shaved head, and sly humor he was like a character in Journey to the West.
In the pic below he is entertaining us with tales of his master's own monkey friend who would sit in the chair opposite during meditation, meals and tea drinking.
But on this day, Chris and I continued along the ridge, making our way to the east peak. Between the two ridgeline is mostly exposed limestone. You can see a long stretch of it from the west peak.
It's not as hairy as year ago, but do be cautious none the less. People still do fall to their death here. Our friend Michael (on an earlier hike) was lucky.
Lots of graffiti carved into the soft stone:
At the east peak we began our descent to the road. It is possible to continue east from here until a point where the ridge is literally cut in two by the Jingmei River. Chris and I plan to finish the walk to this end one day and then follow the road to the back of the wooded hills south of Pingxi. At this point we will have walked, at different times of course, the entire distance from the end of the MRT line in Muzha to Daxi beach on the east coast: a journey of four days in all!
The path down from the east peak is steep and loose in many section. This may explain why I have never seen this large cave on any other hike. Note the shaggy buffalo painting on the far wall:
A little further down was this shrine dedicated to Guanyin and the God of Wealth.
Note the cliched foregrounding of the burning incense:
From the trail exit we followed a small mountain road down to the 106. Not long after, we passed a rather pretty looking teahouse, set across the river, and popped in for a quick looksee. The owner stood at reception (there were no customers) and graciously offered to give me a tour - for NT50. Thinking this might be interesting enough to include in the next LP Taiwan, I agreed.
The shop ran lengthwise above the river: it was 100m long but was barely 3m across. There were small dividers to break the length into little spaces for tea drinking, or meditation as Mr Chen, the owner, informed me. I looked across the river to the 106 and watched a spewing scooter roar by. Odd place for a meditation centre, I thought.
But Mr Chen, who had lived in Toronto for some years and spoke decent English, was a bit of a character and didn't seem the type to lose faith in a meditation centre off a busy road. And as we stepped from the reception area across a pond on a series of stones, he explained the rather labyrinthine code of discounts:
"If you are over 60, half price."
"If you are over 70, free."
If you can jump across the pond from rock to rock, half price."
"If you can cross the pond on the rocks with your eyes closed, free."
And my favorite, worthy of Johnny Cochrane:
"When you're drinking tea, if you don't feel the chi, it's all free."
The man was serious about the power of his tea. Or rather he trusted the tea god, which he had placed halfway down the shop on a large alter. Unlike other shops where you choose tea from a menu, here you select a divining stick from the cup. And it is the god who makes the selection for you: Oolong, Baochong, Fushou, Longjing, Oriental Beauty, and so on, depending on your needs, and perhaps the god's whims. What would Jesus drink, you might ask yourself?
"All the tea has very powerful chi," Mr Chen said matter-of-factly. "I haven't eaten since breakfast. I just drink tea. But I'm not hungry at all."
He then led me to the far back of the shop where a small wooden shutter let in the artificial light hung on an outside tree. Mr Chen pointed to a wide wooden chair under the shutter and invited me to sit down. I faced back down the length of the shop.
"This is the emperor's throne," Mr Chen said. "You can watch as everyone comes in or out."
"Huangdi Dian," I muttered. It was a nice coincidence.
I got up and we strolled back toward the front. I noted the attractive use of carved wood and unpolished stone in his decorations and Mr Chen lit up with just enough wattage to switch on a firefly.
"This is real Chinese style. Most of what you see in Taiwan is not real. It's polluted with western influence."
I laughed. So we westerners are a form of environmental damage?
"Yes. Westerner people are pollution."
He cracked just the tiniest smile.
At the reception area we crossed the pond again and Mr Chen stepped to his desk and took out a name card. He wrote NT50 on the front and said he would give me a discount next time I came as compensation for paying for the tour.
And remember, he said in his deadpan way as Chris and I headed for the door, "If you don't feel the chi, the tea is free."
In Shiding, as we waited for the bus, Chris and I knocked back a couple beer we had picked up in the local Family Mart, a convenience chain store in Taiwan.
"Oh shit," I muttered suddenly. "I forgot my Nalgene bottle at the tea shop."
I guess we westerners really are a type of pollution.
To get to the trailhead, take the MRT to Muzha Station and walk down to the main road. Cross and catch the 666 bus on the other side to Shiding, a 30 minute ride. Get off at the main junction at a convenience store and head up the alley to the left of the store (you'll quickly pass an open plaza). Turn left at the first road and follow that UP a winding km or so. You'll see the obvious trailhead stairs to your right.
The hike can be a long one so give yourself plenty of time. The shortest route would be to head down at the west peak. You can't really get lost and there are always other hikers about.
For the Dutch, well, times are tough so I suspect you may not have the cash for the airfare this time. No worries, you may live vicariously through this blog for the time being.
Full set of pics here.