Typhoon Morakot: (nearly) four years on

On the typhoon-damaged road to Ali village

On the typhoon-damaged road to Ali village

Just over three-and-a-half years ago Typhoon Morakot swept through southern Taiwan, causing catastrophic damage and killing over 600 people. Today a memorial park stands on the site of Xiaolin (小林) village, which was completely buried by a landslide that day, while the devastation also remains obvious in many other places in southern Taiwan.

A particularly dramatic example of the terrific destruction wrought by the astonishing 2.7 meters of rain that fell on that single day can be seen in Pingtung County, at the abandoned Rukai aboriginal villages of Ali (阿禮) and Jilu (吉露).  These two neighbouring settlements were evacuated following massive damage due to subsidence caused by the typhoon floods. Luckily no-one there was killed, I was told.  The two settlements lie in a magnificent setting, clinging to the steep sides of a huge valley high above Pingtung city, and hikers heading to the remote but once popular Little Ghost Lake (小鬼湖) would have once gone right through both on the long drive up to the trailhead. The once motorable track beyond Ali (nearly 40 kilometers long) to that apparently very beautiful place was destroyed during Morakot, and the lake is now effectively inaccessible.

The village church at Ali

The village church at Ali

Ali and Jilu on the other hand can still be easily reached, and for northern Taipei dwellers, who escaped Morakot’s wrath, a visit is to this scenically magnificent area puts into dramatic focus just how terrible the destruction visited on the area by the typhoon really was. Continue reading

Ethiopia’s extraordinary Rock-hewn Churches: Abuma Yemata Geh and the Tigray Churches

Outside Abuma Yemata Geh rock-hewn church

Outside Abuma Yemata Geh rock-hewn Church

Climbing up to the church

Climbing up to the church

Abuma Yemata Geh church is cut into the pillar on the right

Abuma Yehmata Geh church is cut into the pillar on the right

The final approach to the church

The final approach to the church

It’s less than an hour from the end of the 4-wheel-drive track to the fabulous rock-hewn church of Abuma Yemata Geh in Ethiopia, but what an hour! This incredibly perched place, carved into the side of a huge, vertical pillar of rock, would be a wonder in any country (although tourists would never be allowed to make the dodgy climb up there in many), but in Ethiopia, where the jaw-dropping physical location is complemented by a fairly remote and utterly spectacular setting, fascinating people, and a way of life (and worship) that feels as though it belongs to a time in the far distant past, the trip to Abuma Yemata Geh is probably one of the most extraordinary, fascinating, and occasionally terrifying couple of hours I’ve spent in my life! Continue reading

Matsu Fields and the Monkey Cave

The gate below Puan Temple at the start of the hike

The gate below Puan Temple at the start of the hike

Yuanheng Temple

Yuanheng Temple

It turns out there’s a good reason that I don’t go hiking in the Tucheng area (just west of Taipei City) so often. It’s not that there aren’t lots of trails there, or that there isn’t so much to see, but simply because the meddling local authorities have ‘improved’ so many of the area’s trails, which are now under wide bands of stone (well at least it’s not cement for the most part). Local residents have added their own deft touches – makeshift shelters of iron, tarpaulin and other fine materials, which become an impromptu karaoke parlour on fine weekends, a series of kitchen gardens (which seem to be multiplying) stocked with cabbages, onions and the like, and rustic outdoor ‘gyms’ with bars, swings and (of course) giant hula hoops for getting that waist in trim! Walking along the once lovely wooded ridge between Zhonghe and Sanxia  is these days best considered an interesting introduction to Taiwanese culture rather than a walk in the bosom of nature. Continue reading

The Wonderful Mount Nanzihlin Ridge Walk

On the path near Mount Nanzihlin; it gets a lot rougher after the summit, but the views are just as wonderful …

I dunno if it’s because I’m possibly getting fitter, or if ‘strenuous’ hiking routes nearly always seem a bit easier after doing them a couple of times, but several times recently I’ve been in the slightly embarrassing position of harping on to other hikers about how ‘difficult’ the hike we’re going to do is, and then finding that in reality it’s really not that hard at all. The Huangdidian Bat Cave is one such paper tiger, and now I can add the beautiful (and not so difficult) Shitikeng (it’s pronounced Shr-tee-keng!) Old Trail to the growing list.

The summit of Mount Nanzihlin

This particular trail has had a colorful history in my experience. Several partial attempts at the trail met with failure for a variety of reasons:  after getting lost, after getting stung by a tiger’s head hornet (excruciating!), and once after (rather stupidly) bringing the dog along. The first succesful complete loop was on a boiling hot June day two years ago,  and I already wrote about the experience in an early blog (here), so I can keep it short this time. Continue reading

Taiwan’s Offshore Islands: an Introduction

Wangankou Beach, Wangan Island, Penghu

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My new book, The Islands of Taiwan is currently in layout and should be out in December; while choosing the (twenty) color photo pages of the book this week I thought it would be fun (and also a bit of useful  pre-advertising perhaps!)  to make a short comparison of the main island groups. Writing the book has been an amazing and educational project (although there’s still lots to learn and experience – for instance I STILL haven’t seen one of those elusive Tao boat launching ceremonies on Lanyu!), and I’ve learnt to appreciate and even love a few places (Kinmen especially) that I once wasn’t too keen on. However although I’ve tried to be as objective as possible I can’t help but love some places more than others (I’ve already got in trouble with certain people for my critical views on the present state of Penghu…). The best way to see if you agree with me or not is simply to get out there and see some of the islands for yourself. All of them have their own cultural, natural, historical or military interest (and usually a combination of several) and each makes for a richly rewarding visit. Please feel free to let me know what you feel, or share any useful tips you may have after a trip, on the book’s website, which is up-and-running (although still being constructed) at http://taiwanislands.wordpress.com/

Happy island hopping!

The beautiful cliffs along the eastern peninsula of Dongyin island, Matsu

Everyone assumes that Taiwan’s an island, but sorry: this is well wide of the mark: it’s over a hundred islands! Even if we insist on getting pedantic and leave out Matsu and Kinmen (which, by one of world’s more bizarre examples of politics are part of the ROC but NOT part of Taiwan!) there’s still nearly ten-score islands and islets surrounding that big and very beautiful one in the middle which most of us residents live on. Continue reading

Mount Wudang (武当山): Taiqiquan, Daoist Temples, and Magnificent Scenery

A foggy day near the summit

For some reason Mount Wudang (武當山), a couple of hundred kilometers northwest of Wuhan in China’s Hubei Province, doesn’t make it into the list of five sacred Daoist mountains, and yet it’s sometimes regarded as the most important Daoist Mountain in the kingdom. Figure that one out.

The ‘Hanging’ Monastery at South Cliff

Mt Wudang owes its historic significance to the fact that it was here that Taiqiquan  was ‘invented’ around a thousand years ago: the familiar story – a monk being inspired by a battle between a bird and a snake – happened right here, in this deliriously lovely spot that now attracts fit hikers and lazy tourists alike with its winning combination of ancient and very atmospheric temple architecture and magnificent natural beauty. Continue reading

Beautiful Dehang (得夯): the perfect antedote to travelling in China

Following the river to Xinzhai

Three peaks and just over a week into our Chinese hiking trip this summer, our energy levels were getting low, plus there was a definite need to slow down and relax for a day or two. According to the original plan, the next destination was Wuhan, in transit to Mount Wudang. Now Wuhan must be one of the least relaxed, least relaxing destinations in China, if not on the planet, so we suddenly had an urgent need to revise our plans or run the very real risk of driving each other crazy.

The Tienwen Platform

For all the adjectives that immediately spring to mind when discussing China, ‘relaxing’ isn’t one that comes up often, so leaving Zhangjiajie after an intense two-days’ hiking, it was pure luck that the enchanted Miao minority settlement of Dehang (得夯) was just a few hours away by bus. Continue reading

Mount Heng (衡山): The Softer Side of China

The temple on top of Mount Heng, at dawn

Of all the six mountains and scenic areas we visited on our summer hiking trip around China this year, Mount Heng (衡山; the southern peak of China’s five sacred Daoist mountains, and not to be confused with the other Mount Heng, near Datong in Shanxi Province) gave us perhaps the biggest surprise.

The summit of Mount Heng

Continue reading

Lanyu and Green Island: a return visit

Youzihu, Green Island

Pekingese Dog and Sleeping Beauty Rocks, Green Island

A violin made completely by hand by an inmate at Green Island’s notorious New Life Correction Center (the first of two penal colonies on the island)

I’ll keep this short.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Lanyu (Orchid Island) and Green Island are  fabulous! Getting to either involves nabbing a notoriously hard-to-get plane ticket (and they’re much harder to obtain for Lanyu than for Green Island) or putting up with an often rough boat ride. But its well, well worth it! Continue reading

Hua Shan and Huangshan: China’s Mystical Mountain Scenery at its Best

On Hua Shan South Peak, just above the notorious Plank Path (sometimes dubbed ‘the World’s Most Dangerous Trail’!)

I’m off to China this summer for the first time in four years to pay a return visit to a few of my (many, many) favorite destinations in this vast, vastly frustrating, but incomparably wondrous country, and planning for the trip has led me to think about the many fantastic hiking spots that I’ve explored in the country. I thought I’d briefly describe the peaks and other hiking destinations I’ve visited so far in the hope that it convinces someone to look further than the standard tourist sites and explore more of the riches that China has to offer the active tourist.  I’ll write in more detail about the main peaks I plan to revisit after my return, but in the meantime, here’s an appetizer of what you’re missing out on if you’ve never hiked in China beyond the tourist stretches of the Great Wall. And there’s so much more out there as well….  Continue reading