Tucked away in a corner of Nantou County well away from Sun Moon Lake, Sitou and the other major tourist attractions of the area, Zhongliao (中寮) village receives few outsiders, except those passing through on the way to the nearby resort town of Jiji. Hidden in the steep valleys to the east of town, however, are a number of interesting natural curiosities that make this an excellent half-day stop on any tour of Nantou. The individual sights may be interesting rather than spectacular, but they are unusual, and exploring the area of small, narrow roads which cross this rural, quiet part of Taiwan’s center is a joy in itself.
Start a tour of the area with a walk along the ‘Old Street’ of Zhongliao itself. A quick look reveals that it’s not actually very old at all, but the nicely restored stores on either side of the road, which is attractively paved with natural stone makes it a pleasant place to wander for a while. To move on to the first of the natural attractions nearby, head east out of town and immediately after crossing the little Pinglin Stream, turn right into local route 26, accompanying the river east into the increasingly scenic hills. In about a kilometer look out for a large old Autumn Maple tree of enormous girth, with a red ribbon round its thick trunk and a small Earth God shrine standing next to it.
In about 2.5 kilometers, the road splits. Take the turning on the left here and in about a kilometer (just after passing through a large temple gate) a road on the right leads up to the imposing Tian En Temple. Follow the road ahead and just after passing through the gate keep left at the fork along a narrow road downhill, soon crossing the stream again and climbing up its opposite bank. At first this road is narrow and rather rough, but it soon improves and it’s a straightforward two-kilometer drive until a large signpost points the way to the extraordinary Chessboard Rock (棋盤石), just a few hundred meters down a narrow lane on the right.
A plaque beside the road recounts the history of the area: Chinese settlers first arrived here in 1759, building a path (turned into the present-day road) which became an important trade route, and also, it says, an escape route from hoards of aggressive aborigines which lived further up in the mountains. The road was only surfaced in 2004. Park in the large car park and walk down the steps leading from the road down onto the bed of a tiny tributary of the Pinglin Stream, which at this point flows over a very wide, sloping bed of dark rock naturally eroded by a checker-board pattern of deep cracks, hence the name.
Climb back up to the road, walk back along it for a few meters, and follow another set of wide steps down to a viewing platform beside the deeply fissured rocks. The trail continues down, through a grove of betal nut palms, to the foot of pretty Xiandong (‘fairy cave’) Waterfall, where the stream drops over a rock face fifteen meters high just below the Chessboard Rock.
The barbecue place once set up for a trickle of visiting locals at weekends is now a derelict mess, but there are several spots on the flat (and usually dry) rock beside the stream that would make a good site for a picnic.
It takes a fairly long drive to reach the Chessboard Rock from just about any large road in the area, so while here, it’s worth checking out one or two of the other minor natural wonders nearby. The easiest to find and perhaps the most impressive is the great sheet of smooth, sloping sandstone known as the Thousand Meter Rock (千丈岩).
Retrace steps from the Chessboard Rock to the bridge near Tian En Temple, and turn left along route 26-1, following the south bank of the Dzu Kang Stream. Turn left across Dzu Kang Bridge in two kilometers to follow the opposite bank. Take time here to enjoy some particularly fine countryside. Especially impressive is the area known as Tumbling Jade Gorge (玉瀧谷) a little further upstream, where two streams converge at a wide, low waterfall and tumble into a huge pool. Above the gorge, follow the narrow, winding road for another kilometer or so and the Thousand Meter Rock suddenly emerges from the trees on the left.
It’s an amazing sight: a vast, smooth sheet of richly orange-colored rock, tilted at an angle of about 45 degrees. For the best view, follow the road ahead for about fifty meters and turn right, across a bridge and uphill a little on the other side to see the great rockface in its entirety.
Getting There: Your own transport is essential as this is quite a remote area
Difficulty: Very easy. Both sights are beside the road, or a very short walk off the road
Date of Trip: September 2007