Day 19 (October 31, 2016 – Shanlinhsi, Taiwan): “The Call Of Buddha”
At 5am, Mom and I both awoke to my alarm. It was one of the few times that neither of us had woken up prior to the alarm so I guess our body clocks are becoming more and more adjusted to this time zone. And that might not be a good thing considering that when I return home on Sunday, I’ll have to work the very next day!
We took some time to do some planning for the day and possibly the next day. Our original plan was to visit the Fenghuang Waterfall and then maybe both the Rainbow Falls and Yunlong Falls before spending the night at the Sun Moon Lake. But with the uncertainty in the weather and the uncertainty in the road and trail conditions, we decided to do something easier and more conservative since we were headed to the mountains near Nantou. Perhaps once we were in the vicinity, we could then ask locals about the current conditions.
So now the plan was to do the Fenghuang Waterfall and the Shanlinhsi area. And perhaps we could find accommodations in either the Shanlinhsi area or Shitou (Xitou). Once again, we were doing things last minute in terms of bookings so that bought us some flexibility. We also stood a pretty good chance of scoring last-minute accommodations, we thought, since we’ve been having success doing things this way all throughout the Taiwan part of the trip.
It wasn’t until about 6:30am that we went downstairs for breakfast. The brekkie fare was pretty good. Mom was conversing with some folks from the tour group that was also having breakfast with us, and it turned out that they were visiting from Keelung, which was Mom’s home town.
Eventually, after the pretty diverse and decent breakfast, we made it back to our room at 7:25am, where we once again finalized our last-minute plans for what we were going to do on this day and possibly the next day or two. And then at 7:55am, we regained our car.
At this point, we drove off through the Tainan city streets before making it to the Expressway 1. It was then pretty smooth going along this expressway as we would drive for over the next hour until I realized that we didn’t set the waypoint for Fenghuang Waterfall (we had it set to go straight to the Songlong Rock Waterfall in the Shanlinhsi Scenic Area).
So we had slightly overshot the city of Chiayi before we exited the expressway and then backtracked around Chiayi before finally picking up the Route 159 heading east of the city. We’d eventually get past some villages as well as some buddhist temple called Ban Tian Yan (where we could see a giant Buddhist statue along the way), and then after that temple, the road narrowed a bit more and became more windy.
We’d eventually get to the trailhead for the Fenghuang Waterfall, which thanks to Kirk Beiser’s website, we had known and gotten accurate GPS locations for. At 9:50am, we parked our rental car next to some shack, which I believe was legal and out of the way of traffic. Then, after getting our gear ready, we walked back towards the signpost for Fenghuang Waterfall (there was no sign prior to this) and saw the series of concrete steps leading down the mountainside.
As we were about to start the hike, there were a pair of elderly men who wondered about what we were doing. Mom talked to them and mentioned that there was a waterfall down the steps. The men were used to hiking the mountains here, but apparently, they were never aware of this waterfall existing here. They took a mental note of it, but they opted to continue their hike down the road while Mom and I would carry on with the hike.
It felt noticeably a bit cooler up here, but I had a feeling that the lower we’d go, the warmer it would become. And sure enough, as Mom and I went downstairs amongst the beetlenut trees and overgrown steps, we were already starting to sweat beads. Not helping matters were striped mosquitos hovering around us waiting to get their shots in whenever we weren’t moving.
Going down the steps was slower going than I thought. The steps weren’t even as some were short and others were steeper. Then, there were some that had broken concrete, and the overgrowth within the beetlenut plantation didn’t help matters. At first, we thought the trail might not be usable, but when we saw railings further below, we were a little more assured that we could keep going.
Indeed, the further down the steps we went, the muggier it became. Even the sun came out for a brief moment. Not only that, but the more steps we went down, the more we’d have to get all of it back on the way up! So we were totally not looking forward to the sweatfest that we were in for later on.
Speaking of the steps, this was one of the few instances where having these steps made this trail possible. Had it been natural dirt, I doubt that the trail would have lasted given how steep the mountainsides were. It would have eventually become a muddy and dangerous mess, especially given how frequently Taiwan gets hit with typhoons.
More than halfway down to the bottom, there was one faded sign where there was a false trail behind it. We stayed with the steps and we were fine. I suspected that the false trail somehow accessed the stream responsible for the falls, and it might even get to the top though we couldn’t say for sure. Then, there was one more sign about not swimming. I wonder how well-heeded it was considering most people going down here would probably want to be going for a swim.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, we reached the base of the descent. After a short rock scramble, we were right on the edge of the wide plunge pool. The waterfall itself might have been around 20m or so. It had good volume, but it was totally secluded.
The spray from the falls was very refreshing as Mom and I were very hot and sticky. We took our shots and videos and then tried to savor the occasion though the darkening skies from the fast moving clouds above us wasn’t exactly reassuring. We definitely wouldn’t want to be down here if there was a flash flood.
Anyways, by about 11:25am, we finished the arduous climb back up to the trailhead. It was a brutally long climb and Mom had lost count of how many steps there were. I think she stopped at around 200, but we’ve read in the literature that it could be around 1500 steps. Regardless, we were a very hot and sweaty mess once again, and gladly took the AC from the car.
Next, we headed back down the hill in the direction of Chiayi. Along the way at 11:40am, we met up with the two guys who were talking with us earlier on. Mom offered them a ride to save their legs a bit (one of the guys was 80 years old).
During the ride down, we learned that these men were from Chiayi. One was a teacher (of Buddhism I think), and Mom was pretty convinced that we were going to somehow be talked about in one of his sermons or lectures or whatever. We dropped them off at the temple called Ban Tian Yan at 11:45am, and Mom picked up some fruits whilst there as well.
Then, we continued heading down the hill until Mom suggested that since it was lunch time and we probably wouldn’t get a chance to eat until much later, that we should at least have a meal at the Ban Tian Yan Temple. The elderly gents whom we kept running into mentioned that the food was vegetarian at the temple, which sounded fine for Mom and I. Plus, it was an opportunity to take some photos of this national historic site so that sealed the deal in terms of going back to Ban Tian Yan.
So at 11:55am, we were back at the Ban Tian Yan. It was very busy here, which really surprised Mom and I as we thought people were supposed to be at work or something. But the scene here was reminiscent of something we’d expect to see on a weekend! Indeed, there were hundreds of people chilling out around the temple as well as many others inside the incense-smoke-filled room doing a bai bai (prayer bows with incense sticks).
Upon checking out the temple, Mom and I then went upstairs where there was a vegetarian restaurant where they served sour vegetables (suan cai), some kind of tofu skin, rice, noodles, and some local potatos. At first, they were making another batch of food and they told Mom to wait.
So during this time, I went back outside and checked out the big gold Buddha statue as well as other parts of the temple that I hadn’t seen yet. It turned out that the Big Buddha was somewhat hidden as it was tucked behind and to the right of the main temple.
So I got my snaps and tried to soak in the atmosphere as much as I could. But with Mom waiting for me back at the eating area, I cut my visit short, and joined her. Once I rejoined her, we quickly scarfed down the food before returning to our parked car at 12:40pm.
Along the way, we encountered the same pair of guys that we had given a ride to here. Apparently, they waited for us to finish eating before giving us an offering of some pastries. Indeed, there was some straight Buddha happenings going on here. In fact, Mom was telling me that it was Buddha that made the call to bring us back to Ban Tian Yan. Regardless of superstitions, it did feel like there was some strange mystic stuff going on given how we kept bumping into the same two elderly men.
They invited us to Chiayi where they could wine and dine us, but we were short on time as we needed to see the Songlong Rock Waterfall at Shanlinhsi. We politely declined since we had a bunch of more things to do for the remaining days of our trip, and we simply didn’t have the time for any more unexpected stops.
So it was definitely a bit later than we were hoping for when we regained the car, especially since we might not have much daylight left to do the Songlong Rock Waterfall on this day.
And so began the drive as we followed the Expressway 3 for a good distance before taking the exit leading us towards Shitou (Xitou). We passed by a couple of main towns (filling up gas in one of them), and then after a little bit of confusion in the Shitou area, we were then on the final 17km drive up to Shanlinhsi (Shanlinxi). That said, while we were in Shitou briefly, we saw there were lots of people near and inside Shitou, and once again, it made Mom and I wonder why there were so many people on a weekday! Could it be because there was a holiday (unbeknownst to us) on this day?
Once we were on the road to Shitou, it was climbing quite extensively for a fairly well-conditioned road that was wide enough for 1.5 lanes or so. They had signs along the way where an animal from the Chinese zodiac was telling us how many more kilometers to go before reaching Shanlinhsi. As we made the drive, we could see clouds moving fast creating fog in some spots while there were spots of sun in others.
It wasn’t until about 2:40pm when we finally reached the first main parking area for Shanlinhsi (which was also referred to as Sun link Sea though the Chinese characters had nothing to do with that romanization of this area. So Mom promptly went to the visitor center to get a map and ask about the Songlong Rock Waterfall. It turned out that we had long hike ahead of us to even get there, and with limited daylight left, it was now a race against the clock before it would get dark.
Mom wound up booking a room behind the visitor center at the last minute. It only costed her around $70 USD and it included all the parking and visitor entrance fees. Because we couldn’t do both the Chinglong Waterfall and the Songlong Rock Waterfall on the same day, we committed to doing the longer Songlong Rock Waterfall hike on this day and punt the Chinglong Waterfall for first thing tomorrow morning. Thus, it made sense to spend the night here.
When we realized that the trailhead actually started another kilometer further (closer to the Sun link Sea Resort’s more sportier area), we got back in the car and drove closer to the trailhead. And then at 2:55pm, we finally started hiking.
The weather felt noticeably cooler and drier here. Even though Mom and I were moving quickly on the wooded trail, we were still sweating, but at least we weren’t as sticky and miserable as all the other Taiwan hikes to this point.
We passed by several little landmarks like the so-called Immortal Platform, the Three Layer Ridge, and other such things on the wooded side of the trail alongside the right side of the river or stream. There were also many hikers going the other way as it seemed like we were the only ones still headed further upstream. At 3:35pm, we’d eventually reach some village, where we found ourselves walking through a greenhouse after having crossed a red bridge.
Once we regained the trail, there were lots of people here that were apparently dropped off by a bus. I think these were the shuttle buses that were included in our ticket prices, and little did we realize that we probably could have used their services to speed up the time spent on this 5-6km round trip trail.
As we were continuing on with our hike, we encountered some American Taiwanese from Texas who pointed out to us that there were monkeys on the hillside. And indeed, we saw them, conversed with these folks for a bit, and then we were on our way.
At 3:55pm, we reached another little landmark at something called the Flowing Bull Market or something like that. As we were hiking, we saw the bus actually was able to drive further on the other side of the river, and we wondered if it went all the way to the end.
At about 4:10pm, we finally arrived at a suspension bridge in close proximity to the Songlong Rock Waterfall. The pool downstream from the falls was calm so it produced nice reflections. Mom and I opted to walk the loop going counterclockwise around the plunge pool area and into an alcove or recess almost behind the waterfall.
The acoustics of this alcove made it sound like water was rushing from different parts of the alcove when in fact the water was only coming down the waterfall itself though its sounds were somehow projecting into the alcove.
Mom and I took a bit of time to experience this falls along with a handful of other people. However, we were still curious about the Eye of Heaven Rock or something like that, and so we kept going up the trail past the waterfall. We actually wound up taking a trail that went through a tunnel then approached an ancient red cypress tree that was apparently felled or broke off by typhoon or lightning.
We got there at about 4:35pm. What was left standing of the cypress tree was its trunk, and even that part was being held up by black wires.
At 4:45pm, we finally made it up to the Eye of Heaven and Earth Rock. I had thought that this was supposed to be some natural arch. But instead, it was nothing more than merely a pair of alcoves or depressions in the rock resembling an eye. Truth be told, this extra excursion wasn’t worth it, and now Mom and I were quickly making our way back as the sun was very close to setting, and we had to make it back before it got dark and before dinner would close.
We’d eventually make it back at the Songlong Rock Waterfall, but as I was trying to wrap up taking a movie, Mom told me that the last shuttle had left at 5pm, and the time when I was done and we talked was around 5:01pm. So we just missed the last shuttle by a minute or so. The driver cited something like he had to meet a schedule or something like that. And I guess he couldn’t spare one minute for us.
And so Mom and I promptly walked back along the road as quickly as possible. We wouldn’t see another soul until we got to the village where surprisingly there was a couple taking photos from here. So that covered the first kilometer of the return hike.
Next, we continued following the bus route back, and along the way, we encountered a Chinese couple where Mom asked them if they had eaten dinner already. They said that they didn’t and after talking a bit more, they decided to keep us company while hiking back in the twilight.
Mom was telling them about my website, the discounts she had been getting (by going it alone and booking at the last minute), and where we had been on our trip so far. Indeed, Mom was very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish so far on this trip.
When we got back towards the hotel, we kept walking on the paved road, but then when we got near the familiar visitor center area, we couldn’t find our car! After a brief moment of panic, we decided to walk the way we drove back towards the more expensive hotel. Surely we wouldn’t miss the car going in this direction since we had driven it earlier.
Well, sure enough, at 5:55pm, we finally regained the car. And five minutes later, we had driven back to the visitor center parking lot. We decided that we wouldn’t do anything with our luggages until we had dinner first. And so we promptly went upstairs for dinner, and then we had ourselves a pretty inexpensive but filling Taiwanese dinner consisting of pig feet, wild chicken, bamboo, stir-fried greens, and spicy pickled veggies.
The dinner was simple and yet it hit the spot after going four straight nights of night market food.
It wasn’t until about 6:55pm that we finally got into our pretty basic room, but it was good enough for us, and then we called it a day…