Together with the magnificent area around Pingxi on the headwaters of the Keelung River, and the ‘forgotten’ far northern limits of Yangmingshan National Park (especially around Mt Zhuzi), the Keelung Mountain group (looming over the wildly popular twin mining/tourist towns of Jiufen and Jinguashi) offers some of the most spectacular hiking in Taipei County. Aside from the rather monotonous, stepped climb to the summit of Mt Keelung itself (great view at the top though!), the remaining five main peaks of this miniature ‘range’ (the result of ancient volcanic activity) make for some fabulous hiking amid surprisingly rugged countryside, with barely a view-blocking tree in sight. Add to this several other marvelous routes (including a pair of little-known old trails) and the mysterious Banping Waterfall (one of the highest in the Taipei area, yet almost inaccessible) and the only thing stopping me from heading out there more regularly is the lousy weather that tends to hang over the area for the majority of the year.
Seeing a rare spell of fine weather in the area last Saturday five of us changed our original plans for a hike close to Taipei, crowded into jeep-driving hiker Axel’s vehicle, and made a beeline for the Northeast Coast: a doddle now that expressway 62 connects Freeway One directly with the coast road at Ruibing.
The weather was holding (there was even a little blue sky to be glimpsed behind the thin, wispy clouds), but high spirits were pounded by a ghastly incident as we motored up the snaking road that connects the coast road at the Yin-Yang Sea with Jinguashi and the trailhead for the day’s hike. Climbing towards the day’s first sight, the unique Golden Waterfall, a small van coming the opposite way ran (deliberately, it looked) straight into a pair of stray dogs walking on the road. One managed to jump out of the way in time, but, right in front of our eyes, the other poor thing went right under the tires. As the cruel buggers in the van continued downhill without even stopping, the poor, mangled dog tried to get up, slumped back down, and immediately expired in the middle of the road, as we looked back at it. It’s hard to imagine what makes someone do something like that: they must be wired differently to the rest of us to do something so nasty. Perhaps it’s a good thing they didn’t stop, I was so consumed by anger I’m convinced I’d have committed GBH myself if I’d got hold of the driver.
This horrible incident naturally cast a shadow over the day, and the Golden Waterfall (a must-see whenever I come this way) failed to delight as it usually does. A little further up the hill, however, as we entered Jinguashi, we got lucky and found that rare thing here, a free parking place, and tried to put what had just happened out of our minds and concentrate on the upcoming hike.
Certainly Jinguashi is a magic place, built onto steep, grassy slopes beneath the craggy, crumbling rock faces of Keelung Mountain, Mt Banping and the extraordinary rocky flourish of Teapot Mountain, and at 8:30 on a Saturday morning we had the place almost to ourselves.
Following the wooden tracks of an abandoned mineral line into the main area of mines (now dolled up and rejoicing by the grand title Gold Ecological Park), we turned right, and began the long, hot, and sweaty climb into the hills high above town. The sun’s rays were already beating powerfully down on us, and we’d have been grateful, after fifteen minutes’ climb, to stop at the slightest excuse, so the chance of a break at Jinguashi’s atmospherically ruined Shinto shrine, perched on the steep hillside at the foot of a craggy cliff, was eagerly grabbed. The temple’s remaining columns, made of stone rather than the usual hard wood of Japanese shrines, give the place something of the appearance of a Greek temple, and for some reason it brings to mind, in a very vague sort of way, the similarly sited Temple of Apollo at Delphi.
After a short stop to enjoy the view (alas no breeze…), we tried to ignore the ever-increasing heat, put best feet forward and face the remainder of the long, monotonous climb that’s still to be tackled before the hike really becomes interesting.
Some time later we jump at the chance of breaking the climb again, and make a short detour to Jinguashi Geological Park, a series of information boards (in English and Chinese) set up in and around an impressive abandoned open cast mine. As expected at this kind of place, most of the boards give dry and boring information on types of rocks to be found in the area, but a couple come up with some more lively information, including the ways that miners used to try to hide gold they’d found by secreting it in various clever ways on their body, or stuffing the stuff into various bodily orifices. The great man-made gash in the mountainside was impressive as well: a large open-air amphitheater. The acoustic was good too, as one of our members, a trained opera singer, proved when she warbled a few lines.
Finally the steps gave out and we reached an unsurfaced road contouring the mountainside, commanding magnificent views over the two peaks (Banping and Teapot) we’ll be tackling later, both of which look splendid from up here. By contrast, Mt Caiguangliao, the highest peak of the Mt Keelung group looks a rather shapeless eminence, and we decided to bag this summit as well only because the day is still so young.
The steep, fifty-minute climb to the summit turns out to be a highlight of the hike. The trail is narrow and overgrown with a dense sea of head-tall silver grass, and sometimes the only evidence that my fellow hikers were still following was the sight of their hats bobbing out of the green wilderness. Emerging from the thick silver grass at one point, we surprise a soaring eagle and are treated to the closest view I’ve ever seen of one of these magnificent birds, a familiar sight while hiking in Taiwan. About half way, Mt Caiguangliao reveals to us its best profile, dropping precipitously on the west for many hundred meters into the valley below.
The summit is marked by some large boulders, a concrete trig point, and an awesome 360-degree view which includes all the other summits of the area laid out below, a couple of generous expanses of the pacific, Cape Sandiao, and Fulong Beach, its bluish lagoon clearly visible behind the crescent of golden sand.
The trail now makes a beeline for Mt Banping, and in another 20 minutes we’re at the trailhead, and with no time to rest as there’s a large and friendly but voluble group of local hikers ready to set out, and the peace and solitude of the hike so far has been a real bonus.
After the rough and steep trails of Mt Caiguangliao, we’re really back on the beaten track as we approach Mt Banping: the path is wide, and surfaced in part with steps made of hefty wooden sleepers. All this is soon left behind, as the route grows rockier, the steep, sloping bastion of Banping Cliff on the right forces the path onto the narrow ridge, and there’s little sign of human meddling apart from a few rather pointless fixed ropes. The scenery is exhilarating rocky, and quite unlike anywhere else in this part of Taiwan; views over an ever-increasing expanse of the Pacific Ocean just add to the beauty of the scene. The only thing missing here are trees, and with a punishing midday sun beating down on us, temperatures in the mid thirties, and barely a breath of cooling wind the whole way, the hike is becoming a sequence of short sprints alternating with grateful rests in occasional patches of rock-or-tree-produced shade.
Finally the twin peaks that form the summit of Mt Banping are behind us, and the route descends a long but easily negotiated rock face with some generously large footholds.
By now our little group of five is spread out over a distance of over 500 meters as quicker members head for the promised protection of Teapot Mountain’s many crevices and clefts. It’s a stiff scramble down the hillside below Mt Banping, and then a short but fun climb up the rocks below Teapot Mountain, and a final clamber to the base of the summit rock – and shade!
I find Axel and Wei Jun seeking refuge in a cleft and Lauren is eventually found sheltering in another, bigger and blissfully cool cave below, which funnels some of the only cool breezes we were to enjoy all day. No one seems keen to tackle the last very tough haul to the summit up a fixed rope clinging to vertical rock face (with no foot holds: one for daredevils only!), and we all converge in the cave to enjoy the natural air conditioning.
However the water is running out, and the promise of a cool shaved ice back in Jinguashi below lures us out for the final leg of the hike: a long descent, first down an endless flight of steps, then along a narrow, dead-end, pointlessly tarmaced road: presumably surfaced for the benefit of lazy scooter driver who want to cut short the long climb to the top of Teapot Mountain.
Jinguashi was heaving with visitors as we entered town, soaked to skin with sweat, but the food situation seems almost as dire as it has been on previous visits to this place. A large sign offering shaved ice tempted me, only they didn’t have any yet since it was too early in the season…. In the end I settled for an ice-cold bottle of unsweetened green tea and a mango-flavored ice cream which came out of a cardboard cup, was flipped into a machine, and came out again as a tall, swirly mass atop a biscuit cone. It looked good, but was quite the worst tasting ice-cream I’ve had in donkey’s years. The flavor was certainly not mango, although I could make out the clear taste of vegetable fat. Despite its cooling effect, the thing was quite inedible and ended up being tossed, after a few licks, into the undergrowth as we returned to the welcome shade of the car.
Date of Hike: May 22nd, 2010