it would have been easier to just go up the four beasts and soak in the view of glittering taipei at sunset, but the descriptions of the trail didn't appeal to me: paved, well-lit, accessible. i wanted something raw, savage, difficult. so i read with interest two accounts by foreigners working in taiwan on what they described as their favorite hiking destination, and although it was unclear how exactly i would possibly find the jump-off, i cast my faith on my traveller's instincts and my nose for adventure to bring me to the trailhead outside sanxia, which itself is already an hour from taipei.
early in the morning i left meander hostel to take the train to yongning station on the southwestern edge of taipei. from there, i hopped on a bus which i thought would bring me to the jump off. it didn't. instead, it meandered through narrow streets choked by traffic gridlocks, until i had no other choice but to get off. i had bits and pieces of information, and a general idea where it was, but my mandarin was not enough to get me there. alas, technology stepped in, and very soon, i was there on a steep and narrow road, trying to figure out where the trail would start. i knew somehow that i was on the right path when i met trekkers on their way down. it was already close to 11am.
someone pointed to me a sign, and apart from the numbers and lines printed on it, i didn't really know what it meant. but i did spot a trail behind it, and i followed it as it entered a grove of whispering bamboo. i was alone on the trail, but i heard voices from far away. i decided on this trail despite the logistical challenges because it was supposed to be very rewarding, with several rope sections along the trail. although the blogs i read had pictures of the trail, none of them prepared me for what lay ahead.
the first rope section appeared early on, and i arrived at a junction where some hikers were resting. no one could speak english enough to tell me where i was, but someone was kind enough to explain to me what the map meant. apparently, i began my trek at station 3 instead of station 1 along the highway where most people start the slow ascent. i was at station 4, and it was still a long way to station 8, the peak. i had a choice of crossing to station 11, but based on the old man's hand movements, it seemed like such a trek would require too much time, as well probably as too much effort. there were dotted lines that suggested exit points, and alternate paths that would take me back to where i began the trek.
i soldiered on and found the trail very interesting. the forest was thick, and the boulders that randomly jutted out of the foliage were immense. the local government has made the path more accessible by fixing ropes and carving footholds into rock faces. it was a delightful change to the trails i'm used to, although i did read a comment somewhere that said wuliaojian hadn't yet been made too safe by the authorities. i'm just thankful that i didn't have acrophobia or vertigo, since many times the boulders narrowed into spines, with sheer falls on either side. at one point i stood on a round rock and looked into the distance where i saw hikers tottering along a path carved on the edge of a knife. it was a dizzying sight.
at station 5 i decided to put my pack down and chew on the piece of bread i took off a shelf in family mart. it didn't taste good, but i needed the calories. later, i found myself at a crowded station where everyone was speaking in mandarin, and i was looking away, not realizing that they were apparently offering me lunch. after taking a gulp of water, i decided that i was not fit enough to continue. i quickly remembered the dotted line leading away from station 6, back down to station 3. i would exit there, i told myself. i was too weak to continue, had little to eat for both breakfast and lunch, and had nothing to prove anyway.
i pushed on and reached what seemed like the enormous back of a mythological lizard, long and narrow. i could fall to my death on either side of this wedge of rock, or i could turn back, crying in defeat. a handrail was fixed on top of the ridge, and two ropes disappeared into an unseen trail below. this was the only way to go down. the wall was smooth, and i wondered whether the soles of my shoes had enough traction to stay on the wall, rather than assist me on the way down. the first few steps down were tentative, and i had to gulp in as much air as i could to muster the courage required to get down. the thick rope had plastic plugs to prevent accidental slips. as i rappelled down to the flat trail, i told myself this had to be recorded. but how? i argued with myself: litrato o buhay, litrato o buhay? and very quickly i took out my camera and snapped my hand holding on to the rope, even as i dangled about 40 feet down, and 30 feet from the ground.
from there, i felt suddenly weak, and as i waited for my turn to get down another obstacle, i gave up. station 6 was a minute away. i sat down there and looked around me, listening to people but not understanding them, noticing that all of them were visibly older than me, and ill-equipped. they wore cotton shirts, rain boots, running flats, office pants, strange hats, school bags. and yet they managed to get there, with no hint that they were giving up. i looked down at the exit route, and up at the trail to station 7, and after a few moments, like a zombie following the stench of life, i went up the trail, not minding that rainclouds started to brew overhead.
i don't know how you could possibly explain the geology of wuliaojian. it is both very rocky, but also covered in primary growth trees. most of the difficult stations have been made safer by ropes, although there are also parts where alternate routes are offered for those who wish to make things more difficult. at one point i reached a clearing at the end of a wall of rock, and i could see the mythological lizard's back, with rows of people waiting for their turn to get down that rope, or debating perhaps whether to continue or turn back. i heard voices up ahead, and continued to find station 7, where this grand old tree stood, and below it a table where 3 men were preparing soup. someone took a small plastic cooler from his bag then offered me a slice of watermelon. i didn't hesitate. i ate it wholeheartedly and hoped he'd offer me another one. when i noticed he had stuffed his cooler back into his bag, i went on. there are 2 routes to station 8, the peak. one is steep, while the other is gradual. no one told me which i should take, so i just walked up the path, was confused briefly by the junction leading to station 9 and 11, and then suddenly found myself on top of the wujiaolian hiking trail.
it was a fantastic feeling, blighted only by the view of dark clouds. there were mountains around me, and a city scorched by fog in the distance. i wondered if it was taipei, but someone who arrived a few minutes after me said it was sanxia, which i thought would be closer by. i soaked in the view on the small plot that was the summit, and then followed other hikers into the steep trail which many preferred to take on the way up. there were ropes along the trail, but i refused to hold on to any of them, preferring roots and slender trunks instead. in no time at all i was back at station 7, and i pointed to the trail that went down. the others there gave me a thumbs up sign, so i went on, not bothering to pause, as the forest grew and shrank behind me, as shallow brooks emerged, trickling over rocks before being sucked into hoses. as swaying bamboo sprouted, and houses appeared.
just like that, i was back on the narrow asphalt road. i was hoping someone would offer me a lift down to the road, which turned out to be quite a distance from the first house. suddenly, just a hundred meters from the highway, the zippers to the heavens were pulled open, and the sky fell in giant drops. i ran to a nearby temple and wondered how it would be possible for me to get home. the highway was filled with cars, but none of them seemed to be public transportation. i spent about half an hour at the temple, and finally decided to walk to the bus station, nearly getting mauled by dogs when i asked for directions. i found the bus station not far from the temple, and was shocked to find out that buses are dispatched 3 hours apart. so i could spend the entire afternoon waiting there.
suddenly, one of the hikers who accompanied me from the peak to station 7 approached me and appeared to be waiting for something. he signalled me to stay put, so i did, and after a while, he flagged a passing truck and asked the drivers if i could hitch a ride to sanxia. it was still raining very hard, but i took the generous offer anyway, repeating xie xie as much as i could, and smiling at people riding motorcycles as they passed by. traffic was extremely bad, and i was soaked. the men inside the truck passed me a vest, but i was already dripping, so it didn't matter. they deposited me at the bus depot where i took a cab to the nearest MRT station. i didn't even bother to change. no one prevented me from boarding the train just because i left wet footprints behind me. it was amazing i didn't get chills being so wet for so long.
wuliaojian was a rewarding journey where i encountered everything i did not expect from a trek: kind strangers who know that small gestures, like pointing the way, offering a piece of fruit, or worrying about one's wellbeing, will be long remembered, more than the view, or the near-harrowing feeling of standing on a ledge not even a foot across. with my scraps of mandarin and their morsels of english, we proved that the language of the world is spoken not through words coming out of one's mouth, but through the goodness of one's heart.