The Yangmingshan Project IV: Jiaokeng Old Trail

Slipping around on the Mudbath Trail

The route is described on pages 265-267, but take care as several new trails have sprung up here, making route finding more tricky in a few places.

The route is described on pages 265-267, but take care as several new trails have sprung up here, making route finding more tricky in a few places.

I used to consider it a good rule of thumb that even if the weather on the high tops of Yangmingshan National Park was horrible, the Pingdengli (平等里) area in the southeast corner of the National Park was nearly certain to be a good, relatively dry stand-by.  Not true, it seems, this winter; the cold season is only just getting started, but (aside from our amazing good luck on Mount Nanhuda, way down south, a month ago) our last dry hike is fast becoming a dim memory – somewhere back at the end of summer, I think. Even this favorite old YMS standby gave us its worst on a hike the Monday before Christmas. The hills around Pingdengli are probably the most sheltered, least rainy part of the National Park, and – even better news – there are a proliferation of (mostly dirt) trails to explore. The majority of visitors to the area seem to stick to the (very popular) Pingdengli Old Water Channel hike, probably because it’s not only attractive and easy to follow, but also follows clear stone paths all the way. That walk is really just the tip of the iceberg in this area, and there’s great scope for exploring in this beautiful corner of Yangmingshan.

   For our fourth hike in an ongoing attempt to climb all the summits of Yangmingshan, I came up with a route combining two trails that climb from Pingdengli to the high tops with the glorious and much-loved ridge walk over Shitiling and Mount Ding, and – on paper at least – it’s a great day out.

One of the gentler stretches of the Jiaokeng Old Trail

On the day it didn’t actually rain very much, at least until the wrath of Mother Nature was predictably revealed in all its glory upon emerged onto the high and exposed grasslands Chingtiangang . But the MUD!  I can confidently say I’ve never had a muddier walk in all my years in Taiwan, and stomping through the sticky, slidey morass that was once a trail bought back vivid memories of winter squelches over the clay soil of the North Downs, near my other home, in England.Yep, there are two unfortunate disadvantages to walking in the hills above Pingdengli: a. the clay soil, which can get really, really messy after prolonged rain (the land is much better drained in most other parts of Yangmingshan) and b. the damn buffalo… .      Perhaps it’s pure luck but in my many past hikes in this area I’ve only had to deal with one of those two obstacles at a time, but several weeks of almost continuous rain and marauding, half-wild cattle came together this time to create a perfect storm of conditions that made at least some of our little group really suffer!

Of the (at least five) routes from Pingdengli up onto the Chingtiangang (Buffalo Meadow) area of Yangmingshan we chose to follow Jiao Keng Old Trail to kick the hike off, because it’s one of the shorter yet most attractive routes up onto the ridge. It’s also among the easier ones to find, beginning at the end of the route of the S19 bus (which itself begins at Jiantan MRT station).

     It was already raining lightly as we stepped off the minibus, and we accidentally started out by following the wrong trail (I could swear that trail wasn’t there last time!), but, realizing my mistake, we soon got on the right track (simply follow the road to the very end – ignoring trails leaving the road on the left – and keep going).
    It was soon clear that it was going to be a muddy hike, but conditions weren’t too bad. Then my memory failed us again, and when the trail meets the stream for the first time we made the fatal decision to take the left fork and ended up on a very steep and treacherously slick  hillside (which I christened the ‘mudbath trail’), fighting to make it up the steep and very slippery slope. Worse was to come half an hour later as, finally at the top, the trail (and helpful trail-marking plastic ribbons) both suddenly evaporated into thin air. After trying out the various buffalo-churned trails heading off in various directions into the silver grass, it became clear the only safe, sane choice was the unpopular one – to abandon the trail and retrace our steps. Continuing into the grasslands we’d have probably got lost for hours in the bitterly cold wind, rain and thick mist – not my idea of a welcome Christmas present.
   In the event getting back down the mudbath trail wasn’t the  ordeal I was expecting, and we all made it back to the junction in one piece; caked in mud and wet through, but limbs and sense of humor both basically intact.

By now half our thoroughly muddy group had (understandably) already had enough and decided to retrace the route back to the bus, but it was still only 10 am or so, and the remaining three of us decided to continue, and took the right fork, crossing the stream, at the fateful junction.   Of course within a few minutes I recognised this was the route we should have taken all along, following the picturesque wooded stream for quite a distance, fording it another three times, and passed the ruins of an old stone farmhouse. The trail itself was both a lot wider and much less muddy, and we made good progress all the way to the edge of Chingtiangang grasslands.   At this point though we left the shelter of the mountainside and the woodland, and the full force of the nasty weather on the high tops hit us with bone-chilling winds blowing the rain straight into our faces, quickly chilling us. The buffalo had also been working diligently again, and the trail was churned into an absolute quagmire. I cursed my decision this morning to wear trainers rather than walking boots as my feet sank into the mud, several times up to the ankle.At one point Chris, walking up front, came face-to-horns with one of the creatures, standing right in the trail, blocking the way. Retreating a few steps, after a short conference we advanced once again to try to scare the big brute off (there was no way of stepping off the trail or otherwise by-passing the beast – it’s an impenetrable  jungle up there!) and the animal had magically disappeared – goodness knows where.       The one thing we could be grateful for was the procession of trail-marking ribbons, just enough of them to keep us on the right way through the labyrinth of buffalo trails crossing the sea of neck-high silver grass. Without those we would probably have been wandering around the fog-shrouded mountainside for hours.   The way through the giant grass was a lot longer than I remembered from earlier visits – over 15 minutes – before the maze of trails through the featureless landscape led us out onto the safety of the stone path leading to the summit of Mount Jhugao on the edge of Buffalo Meadow.    Steeping with relief onto the stone, the original plan was already long abandoned in favor of a quite different priority: to head home for a hot shower and some dry clothes!    I realized back in early November, when hatching this mad idea of revisiting the many corners of Yangmingshan and its twenty-something peaks  that this wasn’t a great idea at this time of year, when the northeast monsoon rains hold sway, but I really can’t remember ever having such a lousy run of bad luck in winter hikes in the past. Even the incurable optimist in me is beginning to tell me to give up the project until the drier weather comes after May, but then summer will be here …  !!!

The final struggle: finding a way through the silver grass on Buffalo Meadow in bad weather

HIKING AROUND THE PINGDENGLI AREAAssuming your luck is better than ours this time, sheltered, relatively dry Pingdengli is a great area for hiking when the high summits around Seven Star and Datun are buffeted by wintry gales and freezing rain (which basically means most of the winter and spring). The area is easily reached from the MRT, plus there are six main trails to choose from: Pingdeng Old Water Channel (坪頂古圳), the Ma Jiao (瑪礁) Jhugao Ling (竹篙嶺), Jiao Keng (礁坑) and Waishuangxi (外雙溪) Old Trails (古道), and the  Mount Gaoding Trail (an old trail used centuries ago by the Dutch). Both connecting them and veering off into the unknown are a maze of other trails, and (following the attractive Jing Xue Stream and connecting with trails all the way down to the National Palace Museum) there’s the amusingly named Lazy Dog  Old Trail (狗殷勤古道). String a couple together and its easy to create loads of  interesting loop or one-way hikes of all lengths.       Buses  S19 and 303 all give quick access from outside Jiantan MRT to the village, while bus S18 (also from Jiantan MRT station) terminates near the lower trailhead of Pingdeng Old Water Channel Trail. This very popular walk is the easiest of the routes to find, and Waishuangxi and Ma Jiao Old Trail, which branch off it, are also fairly simple to locate. The remainder of the trails are tricky to find without detailed instructions, and take a bit more searching out (even Chinese-language hiking maps of the area unfortunately don’t show all the trails).   They are, of course, all described in Yangmingshan: the Guide!    A warning though: all the higher trails end on Yangmingshan’s exposed eastern ridge at over 800 meters, where the weather is often extremely wild and bleak. Wear proper clothing, including rain gear, and take great care to keep to the marked trail through the tall grass; there’s a real danger of getting lost up there, especially in misty weather.

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