Guanyin Mountain is a familiar sight to anyone who’s taken the MRT from Taipei to Danshui as the shapely, many-peaked mountain rising across the broad waters of the Danshui River estuary. It also makes for some great hiking, commanding one of the Taipei area’s most magnificent views from the top if you’re lucky enough to get a clear day. I generally avoid the popular ‘tourist’ route up the mountain from the showpiece Lingyun Temple in favor of a less well-known but more interesting (and demanding!) route from the front (river) side of the mountain, via the satellite peak of Mt. Jhan (占山).
Taking this route also has the advantage of passing close to one of the peak’s most intriguing yet little-known landforms, Chauyin (‘tidal sound’) Cave, a very narrow box canyon rather than a real cave, housing a tiny shrine and, at the end, a small waterfall.
To get there simply follow the small, hand-written signs from local route 56. The approach road is very narrow, but after a sharp uphill stretch, it widens into a small car park. Follow the road as at winds up the slope and the entrance to the ‘cave’ is the narrow crack in the grass-tufted cheer cliff face in front.
Guanyin Mountain is a rich hunting ground for fascinating little cultural and geological curiosities, of which several are very little known, except by people living nearby, and rarely visited, and it’s only the fact that the mountain is almost on my doorstep (I live just across the river in Guandu and am lucky enough to wake up each morning to a fine view of its peaks from my bedroom window) that I’ve not found myself constantly distracted by more ambitious hiking plans further afield and been able to slowly discover the area on various free afternoons over the years .
One place you’ll certainly not have to yourself is the large and colorful Liaotiending Temple (on the old main coast road, route 105, a kilometer or two west of Shisanhang Archeological Museum), built over the tomb of a Taiwanese bloke who resisted the Japanese occupation, was killed by the Japs and later came to be revered for his believed posthumous ability to heal the sick.
Born near Taichung in 1883, Liaotiending was only 12 when the Japanese occupied of the island and after being framed by a local bully working for the enemy he fled to the hills to escape arrest. His mother, refusing to disclose his whereabouts, was tortured to death by the Japs.
From that day, Liao dedicated his life to resisting the occupying forces and protecting the local citizens from the soldiers’ crueler excesses. Escaping to the north of Taiwan, he launched attacks on the Japanese from a cave on the northern face of Guanyin (觀音山) Mountain, which rises steeply above Bali township, sleeping (legend says) with one eye open in case of surprise ambush. Eventually he was killed, aged just 27, after being betrayed by his lover’s brother. His body was dragged down to the village below and promptly buried in an unmarked grave.
As legend has it, following Liao’s death, strange and inexplicable things began happening: on cloudy nights when rain was expected, traces of the blood that had dripped from his body as he was brought down the mountainside for burial began to glow with an eerie light. During a period of very dry weather, a ball of green light was seen shooting out of the mountainside in the neighborhood of Liao’s former hideout and flying towards the residence of a local Japanese officer.
Soon after, the officer’s wife and daughter were struck by an unknown disease that made it impossible for them to talk. The local villagers, suspecting that Liao’s ghost had a hand in the illness, advised the officer to seek repentance at the unmarked tomb, which he finally did.
Miraculously, in a week the ladies were cured! In heartfelt thanks, the soldier had a small headstone carved and placed at the head of the tomb of his late enemy (today the stone can still be seen, standing mounted on a plinth outside the temple). Liao’s fame now began to spread far and wide.
The tiny original shrine, now lined with glittering golden tiles, lies inside a far larger and more ostentatious temple, and Liao’s tomb is under the rather threadbare grassy mound behind – the grass growing on the grave is believed to possess healing powers and was regularly swiped by believers until the present day surrounding metal grille was erected.
The cave reputed to be the one Liao hid out in lies in the hills above. Take route 49, which begins just a couple of hundred meters from the temple, and in a couple of kilometers turn left at a sharp bend (right next to the 3 kilometer marker) onto a signposted side road. The trailhead for the cave is 250 meters up this narrow lane on the right and is marked by a map board. The climb to the cave is short but quite scenic.
It looks deceptively easy at first, starting out as a wide stone path. The surfaced trail soon peters out, however, and there’s a fun scramble through a small rocky cleft on the way, with ropes to help, before the stone path returns just before the tiny cave. The cave itself is a disappointment; It’s too small for anyone to hide in comfortably (he’d have had a lot more room at the far deeper Quhu Immortal’s Cave, not far away, if only he’d found it), but the short walk up there is pleasant.
Well hidden on the wooded lower slopes of the mountain, Quhu Immortals Cave is its only true cavern. Although one of the traditional ‘Eight Sights of Bali’ and by all accounts one of the deepest known caves in Taiwan (a local tale, which we heard several times while trying to find out its location, says the cave extends all the way to Keelung!), the Quhu Immortals Cave (堀湖仙洞) is almost unknown to outsiders, and proved tricky to find. The cave lies just off local route 50, near the tiny settlement of Quhu, up on Guanyin’s northern slopes, just above the old and very fine Xilung Temple (西龍岩). Directly opposite the entrance drive to the temple take a steep, narrow lane uphill (signposted ‘neighborhood 8′ (八鄰)) and in a minute or two, just before a garage with an iron pull-down door, take a trail on the right, which soon becomes concrete steps.
The trailhead for Quhu Immortals Cave (above) and the locked entrance to the cavern
On our visit we first walked right past the trailhead, which doubles as the access to a house on the hillside above, and only found out this was the way up the cave when we returned and asked directions from an old couple who were busy erecting a series of concrete posts across the mouth of the trail in an attempt to stop cars blocking the entrance. After initially seeming unwilling to tell us the way, the old man (who must have been in his seventies) got friendly with David and was soon telling us all about the cave, and how the year before it he’d tried to explore it, taking a long rope (part of the cave is a vertical shaft) and finally gave up his exploration when he came to the end of the rope.
The steps climb steeply to a small house perched on the wooded hillside, then continue to climb for another minute or two to reach a small, level area surfaced in concrete. The cave mouth in the rock face in front is now covered by an aluminium door which is locked for safety reasons, but it proved easy enough to waggle the mechanism and open the door! The first chamber inside contains a small statue of Guanyin and, behind it a chamber big enough for, say, twenty people to stand. The entrance to the main part of the cave is reached by clambering up into a passage about three feet above the floor of the first chamber, immediately behind the statue. Without a flashlight there was no way I was going to climb into the dark hole and risk falling into the depths, but by reaching in with my camera and taking a few photos, it was clear the chamber opened out inside. It’s intriguing to guess just how deep the cave is: no one seems to know.
Xilung Temple, on the ‘main’ road just a few minutes’ walk below the cave is itself well worth a look. This place has quite a long history: look for the tiny, original structure to the left of the colorful newer building and large, gleaming white statue of Guanyin. In front of it a hexagonal capstone covers an old well, and nearby, surrounded by metal railings, is a rock which is worshipped by visitors.
In front of Xilung Temple, a narrow lane descends the lower slopes of Mt Guanyin’s northern side, and emerges onto the main coast road at Bali. Take one of the tiny lanes on the left near the bottom (you’ll need a good map) and this leads to Dapenkeng archeological excavation area (大坌坑遺址). To the average person the area is an utterly commonplace wasteland of untidy scrub and stunted woodland, with a large cemetery of rather opulent tombs invading the lower slopes, but several small information plaques inscribed with a basic map of the area and a lists of Do’s and (mainly) Don’ts gives a hint of the importance of this place (one of Taiwan’s few Grade One historic monuments) as the site of one of Taiwan’s earliest known human settlements, the Dabenkeng Culture (around 4,500 B.C, which makes this about the same age as the far better known settlement at Beinan in Taitung, of which much more evidence survives).
There’s really nothing to see here except for a nice view and the most extravagant tomb I’ve ever seen, complete with a long winding watercourse (the water is kept flowing 24/7 by a powerful pump) , into which our dog Gem immediately jumped before we could prevent him! It’s interesting though just being here, enjoying the loneliness of the place (it’s impossible to find without a good local map) and reflect on the people that might have lived here over four millennia ago.
Surprisingly, neither Dabenkeng or Xilung Temple make it on the list of Bali’s eight sights, but one other elusive natural curiosity, Shibi Waterfall (石壁垂簾) does. Apart from the tiny cascade at the head of Chauyin Cave, this is the only waterfall on Mt Guanyin, pouring into a secretive little gorge below the summit of Mt Jhan on Mt Guanyin’s western slopes. It’s only a short scramble to the base of the fall from the nearest road, but getting there, we found, is a bit complicated. The waterfall is generally only a trickle unless it’s been raining hard, but finding the place is a fun short adventure. The approach is from local route 54, which leaves the main Taipei to Bali road a kilometer or so north of Guandu Bridge. The little road climbs towards Shibijiao (石壁腳, ‘foot of the cliff’). Look out, in about 3 kilometers for a boulder beside the road with the characters 三清宮 engraved on its face in red, and turn left off the main road here, towards the temple. The narrow lane passes a few houses, heading towards the long rocky bluff looming above. Just as the road finally veers right very steeply uphill to arrive at the temple (where there’s space to park a car), take a dirt trail which goes straight ahead, downhill into a small allotment. Climb over the fence on the left at the bottom, join the tarmac drive going downhill into the valley, and at the first bend, continue straight ahead, scrambling down the steep, crumbly bank into the gorge at the foot of the waterfall.
The visible part of the fall is only about 20 meters high, and is well hidden by the tall, winding banks of the valley below, but a further fall lying just upstream from it can be seen snaking down the mountainside from far away after heavy rain. And yes, when in flood it can even just be made out from my bedroom window.