January 20, 2005 was a very slow day for tourism when I made my way from Hualian (花蓮), a coastal city in eastern Taiwan, to Tiansiang (天祥), a small village located in the scenic Taroko Gorge National Park (太魯閣國家公園). While waiting for my bus at the sleepy bus station, I chatted briefly with a French Canadian fellow who was making his way to a teaching job in a nearby village. I also made small talk with three different taxi drivers who desperately wanted to drive me up to Tiansiang for 3 times the price of the bus. It would have been a good deal if I was traveling with one or two friends but because I was solo I choose to wait an hour for the next bus.
My bus ride up into the mountains was itself a thrilling experience. The highway is cut into the rocky gorge with many sharp turns. I was amazed at the driver's ability to keep this massive bus from falling into the gorge, especially with all of the cars and scooters speeding along the narrow highway!
Tiansiang is located where two rivers come together. In the main part of town there is a Buddhist monastery, a resort hotel, and a few small restaurants and gift shops. I walked a short distance along the river and up a small hill to the Catholic hostel and made arrangements to stay in the "dorms."
People come to Taroko Gorge for the fresh air, beautiful scenery, awesome hiking trails and spectacular hotsprings. In particular Wenshan Hotspring (文山溫泉) which is about 2 kilometers further down the highway. After I had stowed my backpack, grabbed my swimsuit and changed into some hiking clothes, I headed out to find the hotspring.
Along the way I met two very cool Swedish travelers named Mats and Ann. We chatted briefly about the beautiful scenery before continuing on our individual hikes. Coincidentally I met up with the same couple in Alishan three days later. In Alishan we became good friends and they even visited me in Seattle a couple years ago.
Further along the trail I came across a new trail that started with a long dark tunnel that went deep into a mountain. It was such a long and intriguing tunnel that I decided to make a detour and find out what was on the other end. In the middle of the tunnel it was pitch black; only a faint dot of light could be seen at the far end. Several other hikers were also in the tunnel and we called out echos for fun. It took about 15 minutes to walk through the tunnel. At the other side there was a mountain vista and several trailheads for more advanced mountain trails. I choose to go back to my old route and continue my trek to the Wenshan Hotspring. A Korean tourist, who spoke good English, waited for me. We chatted as we walked back though the tunnel. At one point he said "I didn't want to be in this tunnel alone."
Because it was now mid afternoon and I had lost an hour with my tunnel detour, I decided to hitch the remaining 1.5 kilometers to the hotspring. The first car stopped for me. It was two college girls on a camping trip. They were pleasant company and dropped me off right at the entrance trail leading down to the hotspring.
The Wenshan Hotspring is a very special place. First you hike down to a wooden changing station with bathrooms, then you hike further down into the gorge along beautiful old stairs.
The hotspring itself consists of a hot pool, a warm pool, and a "cool pool" formed where the spring water mingles with the river. I spent the rest of the day enjoying the relaxing water and chatting with the other folks who had made their way to this heavenly place. I even received a lift back to Tiansiang from a very nice family!
Back in town I enjoyed a simple and inexpensive dinner of fried rice, wild mountain greens and soup, then I headed back to the hostel to relax with some delicious Shanlinxi high mountain oolong that I had purchased earlier in my travels. I brewed the tea using several Western-style mugs that I found in the hostel's main room. The proprietress of the hostel was making a basket out of candy wrappers and watching a "kung fu soap opera." I offered her tea several times but she politely declined. On the bookshelf of the main room there were many Catholic books in Chinese and several crucifixes. Also, there was a soda bottle full of giant, scary bugs! Which I thought was weird and cool. A little while later another American came in to hang out. It turns out that she and I were the only guests at the hostel that evening. She was a teacher from Vermont who was also traveling in Taiwan for the first time. We became friends while we chatted about Taiwan, traveling, and tea. She was excited to drink fresh Taiwanese tea (her first) and to learn a little bit about it.
I loved my time in Tiansiang and can't wait to go back to this beautiful place!