Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Xiaotzukeng Old Trail: Houtong to Jioufen

Recently, I've been hiking a bit more than usual and for the sake of my health and probably my sanity I want to keep it up. Nankan – the town that I live in – is starting to bore me a little bit. I guess for the Monday to Friday 9-5 routine it's okay but otherwise there isn't much here to really keep me entertained. Walking to work is becoming a chore with the intense heat that is arriving. My aircon is set as low as it can go and I'm still sweating like Rick Walla trying to break into a padlocked biscuit tin. There are some pretty girls that sell betel nuts to local drivers. They wear skimpy outfits and are usually quite pleasant to look at, although slightly resemble prostitutes. They are not without an aesthetic charm however and are a welcome sight juxtaposed against the ugliness of the highrise grey tower blocks that surround you on all sides and trap the tropical heat, dirt and smog from the factories.

A couple of days ago I was in the neighbourhood restaurant with my colleague Mike and we were offered some betel nut – locally known as bin lang. I received a lesson in chewing it from the chef but can't say that I really enjoyed it. Betel nuts are chewed by locals and are addictive. They turn your teeth red and cause you to salivate profusely while giving a mild stimulating buzz. They are popular with Taiwanese truck drivers and I guess chewing betel nut here is seen as a somewhat masculine past time. Well, I don't like it – so I'm a big fairy. This particular restaurant is very popular with some very friendly working class Taiwanese fellas who are pretty boisterous and enjoy chatting to us in their alcohol-fueled happiness. Which is a welcome change from the behaviour during traffic and queue jumping that accurately represents the compassion most Nankan residents show towards one another on a daily basis – “ME FIRST!!!!” usually being the order of the day. I did manage to leave the restaurant with a bag full of betel nuts as a gift from some of the locals and only accepted them on the grounds of being polite and to not offend anyone. The bin lang girls aside, Nankan is a pretty dull, industrious, grey coloured snoozefest. I guess the best thing about living in Nankan itself is that it's really easy to leave for the day and has pretty good transport connections...

Anyway getting around a bit of Taiwan before I leave is definitely a priority for me at the moment. So I did a bit of reading during last week and decided that a walk along the Xiaotzukeng Old Trail sounded like a nice idea. In contrast to the choked streets of Nankan; the trail head starts at the mountain village of Houtong which is accessible by train from Taipei. We caught the train there and it was nice to actually find a settlement in Taiwan that didn't have an obviously placed 7-11. 7-11s are convenience stores that are quite popular and seem to be everywhere, and the fact that I didn't see one in Houtong was quite an endearing experience for me. It elicited a feeling of escape from urban development. We quickly left Houtong though, after finding the start of the trail just beyond the elementary school in the village. Xiaotzukeng is an abandoned, Japanese era mining village and pre-WWII, coal and gold were mined there. It was pretty cool to see some abandoned buildings and ruins of early twentieth century homes built from rocks and a really quaint hiking trail. The trail leads up a small but rather steep mountain, through a forest to the village where there are a couple of shrines and some ruins. Apparently the Japanese left a golden Buddha in one of the shrines but that has long been stolen. The views from the side of the mountain had a pretty good view over towards the sea.

After resting at the village – the heat was getting to be a real hindrance by this point – we pushed on for the top of the mountain. I was knackered and after about 2 hours of walking up a fairly steep path, having already consumed a river's worth of energy drinks – I was bitten by some sort of insect. I had that feeling you get when you hike in a tropical environment sometimes where you feel hot, bothered and irritated and you are just sort of riding on adrenalin. The bite was nothing but it did draw blood. Whatever it was it was too big to be a mosquito. With the sound of cicadas and other insects we continued to push on – me lagging a reasonable distance behind but eventually we got to the top and were rewarded with excellent views of Jioufen and Teapot Mountain backed by the ocean. Another rest, and the feeling of joy arose in me. For about forty minutes or so we descended from the mountain down towards the town of Jioufen with a nice breeze at our backs cutting out some of the energy draining effects caused by the zapping heat of the sun.

The hike was concluded with an iced coffee and some local beef jerky and salted, shredded squid in a cafe on the outskirts of the town. The setting was very atmospheric and a nice way to unwind after the hike. What wasn't relaxing however was the crowd that had descended upon Jioufen. Jioufen is undoubtedly a nice town with cobbled streets built into the side of a mountain overlooking the sea. However the hordes of local tourists jamming themselves into the narrow alleys that lie in immediate proximity to the bus stop are not all that pleasant. The heave-ho of pushing and squabbling to be in front of people – the very thing I'd left Nankan to escape for the day – was back. Never mind, we saw only two other hikers on the hiking path and had had the entire trail to ourselves for the most part.So with that we pushed on towards to Taipei and eventually home...