Apart from some magnificent temples, the occasional fine old town, and a scattering of miscellaneous minor sights, the flat plains and rolling foothills that run down Taiwan’s western coastal strip is generally a zone to pass through quickly, rather than stop and explore, but in northern Kaohsiung and southern Tainan counties, the otherwise monotonous and unremarkable landscape is punctuated by a quite remarkable series of bizarre landforms, known collectively by the Taiwanese as ‘moon world’ (月世界).
Better known by the American term ‘badlands,’ these strange landscapes of barren, crumbly soil have been eroded by the elements into bizarre and often extremely photogenic knife-edge ridges, sharp pinnacles and graceful, curved arcs, forming a strangely beautiful and quite surreal sight. Although the best-known badlands are in the USA, there are several fine examples in Taiwan as well: anyone who’s motored along freeway one between Miaoli and Taichung cities will have passed and probably admired the strange moonscape of Fire Mountain (火炎山), just south of the town of Sanyi (三義), while there are several examples in the east-coast county of Taidong. However, for Taiwan’s most impressive, photogenic and extensive ‘moon world’ landscape, look no further than the borders of Kaohsiung and Tainan.
Perhaps the best-known of these, the area called Tianliao Moon World (田寮月世界), which lies beside busy route 184 three kilometers east of Tianliao village, has been horribly disfigured by ugly ‘improvements,’ such as wide, elevated concrete walkways and a heinous ‘ornamental’ concrete pavilion crowned with a gaudily colored crescent moon, which together succeed in ruining the natural beauty of the place, turning it instead into a monstrous children’s playground.
Giving Tianliao a wide berth, head instead for Caoshan (草山), fifteen kilometers north, and Taiwan’s largest and arguably most impressive expanse of badlands. Caoshan is a small settlement at the northern end of an isolated, five kilometer-long ridge rising out of the otherwise featureless lowlands of southern Tainan County. The area is very popular with tourists, most of whom head for the 308 Viewpoint (308高地, named after its height, in meters, above sea level). Despite its humble elevation, this place is the highest point for many miles in any direction (the foothills of the Central Mountain Range don’t begin until many kilometers further east) and is as good a place as any to begin an exploration of the bizarre landscape that lies just to the north. Local authorities have started to ruin this area as well, building a supremely ugly viewpoint (a two-story monstrosity of exposed metal girders) at the edge of the escarpment, but ignore this travesty and enjoy the magnificent panorama it commands over the deeply wrinkled landscape of ochre-brown soil, eroded into countless mini gullies, ravines and peaks. Vegetation hangs on in places, softening the harshness a little, but still, it looks like nowhere else in Taiwan, except perhaps other areas of badlands.
Arrive at 308 Viewpoint on a weekend, and the chances are you’ll want to leave again as quickly as possible, as it’s often overrun on sunny Sundays, but take care as you drop down the northern face of the steep escarpment into the badlands, as the road which fearlessly plunges into the badlands below is not only very steep in places, but also narrow and constantly winding, and it’s common to run into other vehicles on blind bends.
In a couple of kilometers, the road thankfully takes a breather as it levels out for a spell. At this point look out for a sign (in Chinese only) to the so-called ‘Grand Canyon’ (大峽谷’). Turn right and follow the dusty lane for a couple of hundred meters until photogenic pinnacles of earth loom above the road on either side, for all the world like miniature mountain ranges. Just a few meters beyond the small car park at the end of road, the ground falls suddenly away and the ‘Grand Canyon’ is abruptly revealed, the countless formations of the rain- and wind-carved ravine walls – impressive, exquisite, delicate, often appearing to defy gravity – make a wondrous sight. This place is especially magical come late afternoon as the sun sinks low in the sky, casting a rich orange light over the cliffs.
The formations of the ‘Grand Canyon’ of Caoshan make for some great photo ops, but don’t leave the area without exploring the unspoilt, little-visited ‘moon world’ formations of an unmanned area lying off route 39-1, about midway between Tianliao and Caoshan. Motor along this quiet, winding road for a spell, and once again thick undergrowth and trees make way for those strange pinnacles of crumbling earth. The landscape here looks no more like the surface of the moon, for all I know, than the nearby ‘Grand Canyon’ resembles its namesake in the USA, but one thing is for certain. This is the closest thing we have in Taiwan to a lunar landscape, and it’s a breathtaking sight.
Further south, in Kaohsiung County, the town of Yanchiao (燕巢), just off freeway one in Kaohsiung County is (apart from its curious Chinese name, which means ‘swallow’s nest’) a thoroughly unremarkable southern Taiwanese town: a series of narrow streets crowded with scooters and parked cars, old concrete-box apartment blocks and a lively morning market; there’s little reason to linger here. Yanchiao however is a destination for countless local tourists, plus the occasional curious foreigner, owing to the nearby mud volcanoes (described in the last blog, below), and for its situation on the edge of a major area of ‘badlands’. The arid, infertile wastelands of clay soil here have (as at Caoshan and Tianliao) been eroded by wind and rain into a remarkable landscape of pinnacles, knife-edge ridges and crumbling cliffs. Erosion, in league with some serious geological upthrusting, has also created one of the area’s most arresting sights, the Cock’s Comb Mountain (雞冠山), a narrow blade of golden-colored rock rising sheer out of the area’s rolling, thickly wooded hills.
Yanchiao is easy to reach, as it lies between national freeways one (leave by the 349 km exit) and three. Leaving the town, head east on local route 38 as it winds through the lowlands of central Kaohsiung County. The countryside is at first rather dull, but in a few kilometers, the sharp outlines of several small but distinctive peaks add interest, rising out of the green plains. About five kilometers east of Yanchiao Cock’s Comb Mountain becomes conspicuous, as its impressive golden cliffs suddenly rear up high above the road. On a map it’s an insignificant rise, managing only a little over two hundred meters in height, but from below it presents quite an impressive outline, especially when seen from tiny Jinshan Elementary School, which stands at its foot, beside route 38. The school is dwarfed by several huge, chunky pillars of rock carved by the elements from the eroded eastern edge of the Cock’s Comb.
Cock’s Comb Mountain looks quite unassailable from this angle, but an exciting yet safe trail clambers up to the summit of the rock. Turn right into a side road (Chilin Xiang, 麒麟巷) across from the elementary school, and in a couple of hundred meters turn into the large car park at the base of the cliffs. A wide and rather ugly concrete-stepped path beginning beside the car park clings to the base of the sheer cliff face, thankfully giving way eventually to a far more natural-looking (but steep!) dirt trail. The final fifty meters or so of the climb to the very top are a scramble, although easy enough with the aid of permanently fixed ropes. The woods at the foot of the mountain are haunted by the Taiwan Macaque, Taiwan’s only species of primate; it’s been a protected animal since 1989, after the population was almost wiped out due to hunting. Thankfully protected status has agreed with the animals, which stood at around 250,000 heads in 2004.
A visit to the area wouldn’t be complete without a look at the area’s amazing ‘badlands’ themselves. The most impressive area, known as Sun Valley (太陽谷) is a short drive away, although the poor condition of the very narrow roads means few people go this way nowadays. To get there from the car park below Cock’s Comb Mountain return to route 38 and turn right. Keep to the right at a fork in about 600 meters down a road signposted (in English) ‘Pidi Lane,’ and you’ll see the Sun Valley badlands on the left in a few hundred meters. There are some great photo ops here, but take great care near the edge, as the sheer drop below is unfenced and the ground is very unstable.
These days, a more popular route through Yanchiao’s badlands follows Chilin Xiang south (away from the elementary school) for a kilometer or so. On the right lies New Sun Valley (新太陽谷), a small but beautiful area of eroded ‘badlands,’ with a pond lying at the foot of the weirdly eroded cliffs.
The Badlands of Taidong are perhaps less impressive than those on the opposite side of the island, but are well worth a visit if in the area. Take the coastal road north of Taidong (台東) City for just a kilometer or two, and it is carried aloft over the wide, silted estuary of the Beinan River, while the impressive southernmost peaks of the East Coast Mountain Range loom impressively above. Turn inland on national route 11 toward Beinan a kilometer or two later, and in a minute or two, a brown sign points to the Liji Badlands (利吉月世界), in one of Taidong’s most fascinating yet rarely visited regions.
Although almost all Taiwan’s major badlands are in the south of the island, at least two can be found further north. In a rather secluded corner of Nantou County, between Jiji and Lugu, much of the fun of visiting Wild Dove Valley (野鴿谷), hidden down a maze of back-roads, is trying to find it. I only made it once, and the ones further south are more impressive, but it’s a good exercise seeking it out if you’re in the area (take a good map!).
Further north, in Miaoli County, a couple of kilometers south of Sanyi, Freeway One passes the extraordinary badlands landscape that forms the southern face of Fire Mountain (火炎山). Here the long, wooded ridge meets the valley of the Da-an River and disintegrates into an intricate labyrinth of razor-sharp ridges, pinnacles and scree, forming a unique landscape that is also an important nature reserve. Permits are needed to enter, but these can be obtained in a couple of minutes at the trailhead; this might however change, so it’s worth checking first at the Huoyanshan Forest Ecological Education Center on the main road through Sanyi. Fire Mountain is described in more detail in Taipei Escapes book 2, on page 80.
IMPORTANT NOTE: This blog was cobbled together from various trips made between 2007 and 2011. The Kaohsiung-Tainan badlands areas were all visited in 2007 – that it before Morakot caused so much destruction in the area. Chances are most places described are still accessible, but I haven’t any recent info.