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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

shitoushan, an accidental discovery

I have been all about local adventures and explorations lately. This year, I may get on a plane or two, but I have set my sights on Taiwan and seeing more and more of it. Recently, my heart became set on going to Shitoushan, a place one county over from Hsinchu that I read about in Lonely Planet. The description sounded purely magical:
Shitoushan (Shītóushān) is a foothill on the border of Miaoli and Hsinchu Counties. Beautiful dense forests and rugged rock faces define the topography, but if you ask anyone it is the temples tucked into sandstone caves and hugging the slopes that have given the place its fame. Shitoushan is sacred ground for the island's Buddhists and draws big weekend crowds, with people coming to worship or simply enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the mountain.
Go to the Futian Temple for an overview of the temple rooftop, a dazzling landscape of soaring swallowtail ridgelines and vivid decorative dragons, carps and phoenixes. At the top of the stairs is Quanhua Tang (勸化堂, Quànhuà Táng), built from 1900 to 1915. Dedicated to the Jade Emperor, it is the only Taoist temple on the mountain. Altogether there are 11 temples, five on the front side of the mountain, six on the back, as well as numerous smaller shrines, arches and pagodas. 
I was beside myself with glee when a friend asked me to go on a scoot adventure with her. This was it! The time to finally visit this rugged place. The only problem? By the time Sunday rolled around, which was the day of my scoot date, I had come no closer to actually locating Shitoushan on a map. It was not for a lack of effort, though. As it turned out, much to my dismay, trying to locate a foothill on google maps when most everything is in Mandarin was just not going to happen.
I imagine my friend was none too pleased when she pulled up to my apartment. She asked: so, do you know where we are going? And I just laughed nervously and admitted: no. And I had been the crazy person raving about Shitoushan and how we should go there. Luckily, my friend is just as flexible as me and we decided to cling to the one piece of information we did know, once again thanks to Lonely Planet:
On the other side of the mountain, connected by a walking path/paved road, is the Lion's Head Mountain Visitor Centre. The centre is a pleasant place to grab a meal (set meals NT$180) or a map. There are several good short hikes starting from the centre.
So, it wasn't much to go off of, but my friend did know where the visitor center for Lion's Head Mountain was. So we figured we would, you know, just go to the other side of the mountain. Because that seemed pretty straight forward. So off we went. I took us along some back roads, scooting high into the mountains of northern & central Taiwan, and then my friend took over to get us to Lion's Head (confession: I am still not sure why it is called this because I did not see a lion's head, but whatever).

When we got to the center, we pulled over to regroup and assess our options. As it was a Sunday, the visitor's center was swarming with people. While I am not a hermit, walking with a hoard of people did not sound appealing to me. Plus, I am stupid and wore a black sun dress and Toms, so hiking was kind of out of the question. Plus, I had my heart set on finding this mystical, magical place called Shitoushan.
Once again, cue massive amounts of appreciation for friends who say yes when I shrug my shoulders and say: so, wanna keep going??

(even though it was understood were venturing way beyond the limits of what was familiar, we could not speak Mandarin to ask for help/directions, we had no idea where we were trying to get to other than it was found in some foothill, her cell phone was practically dead, and I am a self-confessed loser when it comes to navigation/directions)

But say yes she did, and it immediately paid off. We scooted upward and onward and almost instantly found a goodie: a narrow river-canyon place and a cave with giant, cool statues. Pleased with our immediate luck and success, we just kept going further and further into the mountains. We pulled over to take photos on the side of the road, and then very quickly got back on our scooters when we encountered some stray mountain dogs of Taiwan. While I am a total dog person, I had heard way too many stories from friends of dog chases to not get back on my scooter and very quickly scoot away, all the while looking in my mirrors to see if I was being engaged in a high speed chase.

Eventually, after scooting down the narrow winding & twisting road, we came to a fork and had to make a decision. I vaguely recognized the name of a town on a sign, so we decided to go there. It was this old, crumbing mountain village called Nanzhuang, and it was perfect. It had a big tunnel to scoot through and a cute red bridge to scoot across. We made it to another fork and decided to turn back because there was a real possibility of getting mixed up and confused about how to get back home if we made any more turns.
But then, for the heck of it, we decided to follow another random sign to a temple. Up and up we went, the scent of incense all around, and we were greeted by the weirdest/most beautiful temple I have seen so far in Taiwan. It was literally built into the mountain. The best part? The car show going on in front of it. Oh Taiwan. We bought carved walking sticks from an old man and walked through really creepy caves that would have been the perfect setting for a horror film. Then, we decided to actually head back home while we still remembered (hopefully) how to get back to Hsinchu City.

When I got home, I pulled up the picture I took of a sign at the temple. I wanted to know where we ventured to, and what that temple was all about. Imagine my surprise when low and behold it turned out that we made it to Shitoushan after all, and we had no idea! The temple we made it to was the Quanhua Tang temple Lonely Planet had been raving about. I had no idea because the sign I saw said Chuanhuatang. Oh Taiwan and your multiple spellings for the same exact thing!

I guess that is the problem with not knowing where you are going; you have no clue when you actually make it there.

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Add your comment

  1. Haha, this sure sounds like an adventure! Beautiful photographs :)

  2. You must be a very brave person. Asia seems like a very strange place to me even in the more civilized parts, but going to such a remote area... Well, you did it! Good for you.

    1. Brave? I'm not sure. This is my new normal, so it doesn't seem strange at all. I think that is the beauty of being an expat.

  3. What a great story! Sounds a lot like our adventures when traveling.

    1. Scoot adventures just for the sake of exploring is the best kind of adventure!