Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Lion's Head Mountain (獅頭山)

Quanhua Temple

Originally I was going to do this hike the day before, but slept through the two alarms I set. Today however I was going with a friend, so even if I couldn't fall asleep until three in the morning, I had to wake up on time. We took the 7:16am local train from Banqiao Station to Zhubei in Hsinchu County. The timetables (in English!) on the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) website make travel planning around the island easy enough, and the trains are incredibly punctual. The train was mostly empty so we were able to find seats for the little over an hour ride, chat and watch the uneventful scenery pass by. From Zhubei Station, after some searching, we found the bus stop for the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle. There we stood around talking about (among other things) the differences between  馬馬虎虎, 不錯, and 爛, comparing what our Mandarin teachers have taught us versus what other Taiwanese people have said. We both started studying about four months ago with different teachers, so often we compare notes and the awkward language-related interactions we've had with people.

Soon enough the bus arrived and we continued our journey for another hour and a half to Shitoushan (獅頭山), or Lion's Head Mountain. The shuttles are a great addition to Taiwan's ramping up of its tourist industry in the past few years, even if it's most all local Taiwanese people that use them. These inexpensive buses (often times more economical and far reaching than public buses) run directly from various train stations throughout the island to popular tourist destinations (historic areas, monuments, mountains, lakes, national parks, etc.). For day passes I've paid as little as 50NT and as much as 150NT (US$5).

Lion's Head Mountain Trailhead

From the Lion's Head Mountain Visitor Center, which we couldn't find as odd as that sounds, we took another shuttle to Quanhua Temple, which dropped us off in the parking lot below it. We climbed up the stairs to the temple, along with a number of locals and in a few minutes we were in awe of both the temple complex and the view. Early February is also the beginning of cherry blossom season, so our timing, despite the overcast weather for the day, seemed well suited. There are modest accommodations for local and foreign guests to stay overnight at the temple, which I debated doing when I originally planned the trip, as well as simple vegetarian meals available on the lower level, but we continued onward.

stairs up to Quanhua Temple 

Quanhua Temple

cherry blossom season at Quanhua Temple

Quanhua Temple

Quanhua Temple
overcast view from Quannhua Temple

view of neighboring temple from Quanhua Temple

Quanhua Temple

Along with Quanhua Temple, by far the biggest in the area, there are also numerous smaller temples along the mountain. I came here in anticipation of going on a three-to-four hour hike, more so than a temple tour, but the paths between temples were uneventful and the majority of the walking we did was along a small rural road between the lion's so-called head and tail areas. Still, the magnificent temples and views at the beginning of the walk, and the natural caves and gorge at the end made the nearly six hours of travel worth the less than three hours we spent there.

trail between temples

Kaishan Temple area

trail along cliff face

Taiwanese hikers, well Taiwanese people general, like to eat and eat often. As usual, there were numerous rest areas along the trail with small stone tables and chairs or covered pavilions where people would be congregated, relaxing. I'm always impressed with the spread of food that locals bring with them on hikes as I sadly nosh on some packed fruit or bread-like products (though this time I had Cliff Bars from my recent trip back to the States). Hiking, like many activities in Taiwan, tends to be a social experience and it's not uncommon for me to get a peculiar look when a group asks me if I'm by myself. Actually I prefer the solitude because being away from the city gives me the time and space to play with my camera and mull over my own thoughts.

roadside picnic

Lion's Head Trail

Without realizing it, we ended up back by the Lion's Head Mountain Visitor Center, where the first shuttle bus dropped us off. Again, we couldn't find the visitor's center (not that I was searching that hard at this point as the maps were no longer of importance to us). I misread my hiking book, so finding the Shuilian Trail took a little while and some unnecessary backtracking, but we found it soon enough. Though it's a short trail, there are some impressive natural caves and a small gorge that is nevertheless stunning to look down upon. (I'm hydrophobic so any body of water that makes me want to go swimming has to be amazing.) At the end is Shuilian Cave (水簾洞), or Water Curtain Cave, which has a temple built into it. Behind steamy panes of glass are three Buddhas (they may have been other gods or goddess as it was hard to see) that were a peculiar, yet familiar shade of yellow. We jested that these butter-colored Buddhas were actually statues made of butter encased in a giant glass refrigerator that once a year would be cracked open for some sort of elaborate Buddha butter festival, 很奇怪.

Sticky Rice Bridge on the Shuilian Bridge Trail

Shuilian Bridge Trail

A Thread of Sky (一線天), Shuilian Bridge Trail

Shuilian Bridge Trail

We both passed out on the bus ride back to Zhubei Station, as I knew it would be unlikely that we'd get seats on the train. Heading back to Taipei, periodically we would be able to sit down, but then an elderly couple would get on and we'd yield our seats to them. Most places have common courtesy policies on public transportation but I've never seen it so well observed as here. Craving shaved ice, we stopped at Shilin Night Market for some fried snack foods and dessert (yummy matcha flavored shaved ice topped with red beans). I've lived in Taipei for nearly a year now and have managed to avoid this place (the tourist night market in Taipei), so I was rather unimpressed with it at this point, having been to most all of the other popular ones already. The only thing comical was that the vendors on carts were on high alert that night (maybe they didn't have licenses and the police were out?). Seemingly randomly (even when in the midst of cooking up someone's order) they would all pack up in unison and roll their carts away, pushing through the dense crowds at an alarming speed. People were pushing one another to scurry out of the way, and I almost got taken out by a scarf vendor who showed little mercy to the hordes. After a few minutes, they would open back up, only to do the same routine again later.

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