The alternative title to this post was “This is the hike that never ends”, and the lyrics of the theme song would have gone as follows:
This is the hike that never ends Yes, it goes on and on my friend Some people started hiking it not knowing what it was And they’ll continue hiking it forever just because…
I have experienced this hike, and lucky for me and the three people I took on it, it did eventually end. However, I would like to insert here that “forever is a feeling.” When you feel something, good or bad, is going to last forever, you do not see the end. And that is where my story begins.
If I were to write my mother a post card about the hike I just went on, it would have this picture on one side, and these words on the other side:
I took my two new roommates (brand new to Taiwan!) and my friend Michael on a hike the other day. I told them we would hike to this wonderful place in the mountains called Wulai, where we would swim in the river and eat mountain vegetables and wild mountain boar.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
And then the letter would have to stop there, because the truth is, there isn’t enough room on the back of a post card to tell this story. In fact, it’s one of those stories that can never be completely told in full. The full version was experienced by myself and my friends; the story is told at a person’s level of verbal interpretation and is based on how many events they remember in sequence, and that’s also the entertaining level of all this. There’s nothing super entertaining about experiencing complete lack of provisions and clothing and knowledge of the trail.
So in retrospect, here’s what I would write to my mother on that postcard:
THE TOP 3 LESSONS I LEARNED FROM THIS HIKE:
3) Always bring more than enough if terms of water and food, especially if you’ve never been on the trail before.
2) When in doubt, turning around is not the worst decision, especially if you’ve been going in one direction for 3-4 hours already, don’t have any more water or food, and you’re not sure when it’s going to end!
3) Always, always, ALWAYS, research a trail before taking it. Details and information are a source of survival out in nature.
I commence my tale.
The first deception came in a Line message:
Sounds like a reasonably fun, well-thought out plan, right? We adjusted the time a bit, so we ended up leaving at 10:00 instead of 8:30; but after we got off the bus in Chenggong, everything about that plan shifted dramatically. However, we didn’t realize this right away. Things took a dramatic turn when, after 3 hours of hiking, we weren’t where I had expected us to be.
It was an absolutely beautiful hiking trail. Butterflies everywhere. The sound of the river. Green, green, and green. I was especially fascinating by the “leaf” that landed on the sides of trees and other plants, completely disguised as a dead, brown leaf, but when in flight showed bright shades of blue and orange. We encountered millipedes, frogs, snakes, huge grasshoppers and noisy crickets (Michael silenced one by flicking it off its leaf). We cooled our selves in the river and let ourselves exist in the scenery. Everyone was having a great time.
And I was SO EXCITED about hiking to Wulai. In fact I even made this bold declaration on the trail that I have already happily and quickly denounced: “I’M NEVER TAKING THE BUS TO WULAI AGAIN!”
Now let me share with you a few honest words about this hiking trail (this whole post is honest, I promise). I had never been on this hike before. We normally always take a bus out to Wulai, but a couple weeks ago while I was taking some friends on a hike from Chenggong to Sanxia (that trail was almost 30k of AWESOME) , we stopped at this resting hut. There were these locals who pointed to this other path, telling us that was the way to Wulai. We hiked on to our destination that day, but I kept in mind that I wanted to try that “hike to Wulai.”
So the other day was the day to try that unknown trail! In the words of Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth
I wanted to take that “road” to Wulai. I wanted to travel BOTH! So I went back to where those two trails divided and started up the other one. A completely unknown trail that DID NOT take us to Wulai. This is how unknown that trail was: I hadn’t bothered researching it since the day the locals pointed it out to me. I had no idea or PROOF or blog that could tell you that this trail ends in Wulai. I didn’t even know the distance or estimated time. Does it go in the general direction of Wulai? Yes, but then it does all kinds of other things that keep you from getting there. Did I know this? No. Did I go ahead and try with three other people, none of us having enough provision for the unknown journey ahead? Yes.
I’m an optimist when it comes to hiking trails. Because of my own insatiable curiosity of where it goes, I don’t ever want to turn around. I’m convinced it will eventually take me to where I need to go. I don’t want to miss out. About 4 hours into our hike, while we were still having a pretty good time, the trail had not ended nor given us any signs that we were almost to Wulai. Michael even put the GPS on his phone to use; the results weren’t actually very hopeful, but we kept on going. At one point, he asked me if we should turn around or keep going. And that is where my optimism drove us forward into adventure.
People always talks about how they want to go an adventures. Adventures, by definition, are NOT planned outings. They are exciting, but there is always risk involved. A scary ride at the amusement at least assures you a safe return; it’s more about that moment of exhilaration, the adrenaline pumping through your body – you know it will end in a few minutes. You don’t know when an adventure will end.
After our little stop where we played in the water, enjoyed the beauty all around us, and then embarked on the part of the trail I was so unfamiliar with, I had announced to everyone, “THIS is where the real adventure begins!” Our adventure didn’t end until 5:00 the next morning.
The trail went up and up and up. It was marked by flags in the trees. Never once were we lost, but never did we reach Wulai. When we finally reached our first sign post, we were excited about the possibility of ending up at a temple, where there would be people and water (we were all practically out of water) and a way to get to Wulai. At this point in the game, we were hungry and ready to be off the trail, as none of us had been prepared to be on an all-day hike.
The situation was bleak. We had filled up our water bottles at a mountain stream we went by and the steepness of the trail was not letting up. I knew things weren’t ideal, but I wasn’t quite sure what should be done. I just felt like we needed to keep going. It’s what I love about hiking anyway. It’s a commitment, once you start, you have to keep going. There is no choice. I had given my cliff bar to my roommates. Rest breaks were becoming more frequent.
Then at the top of one of the peaks we had scaled, there were more signs. This time, we had to choose: the temple (which theoretically was in Wulai, as I later affirmed with research) or Chenggong, the very place we had started hiking hours earlier. This trail wasn’t taking us to Wulai any time soon. According to the GPS on Michael’s phone, the trail was definitely near Wulai and we were “headed” in that direction, but it didn’t go there. The hike was never going to end.
After a quick evaluation from the ridge, Michael said the trail to the temple was steep and went straight down the mountain. We opted for the one (which ended up being probably just as steep). At least we knew we were headed back. We just had absolutely no idea how long it was going to take.
Evening began drawing near. We had absolutely no idea when or how this hike was going to end. For a few moments, however, before the sun went down, we got to see just how high we were. We could see Taipei 101, and the rest of Taipei for that matter, on the other side of the mountains next to the mountain we were on. It was a breath-taking view, and the trail was so forested that it was actually rare to get such a clear viewing point.
The nature around us didn’t end, but the sun did go down and that changed our situation drastically.
And here, I will comment on the resilience of the group of the people I was with. I couldn’t have been more grateful for the general attitude that was being generated during the whole thing. Everyone was such a trooper. It was one of those situations where the wrong person would have just made everything miserable. We’ve all been there; we’re human. Those times when you think, “It is such a good thing so-and-so isn’t here right now…” This was one of those times! I definitely challenged my credibility as a hiking leader with my roommates, this being their FIRST HIKE EVER in Taiwan, but I was also definitely grateful to have a friend there who had known me in the good and bad for more than just 2 weeks. I would have died or come out of the forest an emotional wreck if i had gotten myself in that mess all alone.
It was BAD. When you go camping or hiking all day, you pack accordingly. We were completely unprepared in terms of everything: clothing, food, water. After sitting a bit near cave that we found, we prayed and then continued. At this point, I was in need of all emotional assurance and even went over to my friend Michael for some. We also kept up conversations of what we were going to do as soon as we got off the trail, which was excellent for morale upkeep.
We were using our phone flashlights, keeping them on airplane mode to conserve as much battery as possible. And then the trail just got crappy. There’s no other word for it. It was completely dark, and the trail simply insisted on being relentlessly stupid.
Pathways marked by flags had given way to steep, steep downward slopes of gravel and loose dirt and mossy rock through trees and along ridges, which required you to step carefully and walk sideways to keep from slipping down the mountain headfirst. There were some areas that had rope to help you down. We tried to use trees for support as much as possible, and in some places you had no choice but to get on your rear end and scoot down. AND IT WAS DARK. At one point, all four of us were holding hands, carefully walking sideways down mud and gravel as we ascended the mountain.
For the sake of morale and survival, we made a goal: the river. It was past 10 o’clock at night already; we didn’t have any water or food. But thankfully, Britta, one of my roommates, found an apple in her backpack! We took a rest break and partook of the apple she so generously shared with us. And after that, we didn’t stop until we suddenly found ourselves on a very familiar looking path. The insanely steep and stupid trail spilled us out on to an actual path. That we had been on before! The end was actually in sight. The signs on the tree confirmed this.
It was past midnight. We found a stream of water, filled up our water bottles, and washed our faces. And then we quite literally camped out for the night, crickets singing in our ears, creatures glowing in the dark, the stars above our heads. We had a view of the valley in front of us. It was beautiful. All the cellphones had died, so we had no more light. We would go home in the morning. And that’s exactly what we did.
After a spending a cold and sleepless night with the bugs, we watched daylight creep over the mountains again and walked on familiar trails back to the Red Bridge, back to Chenggong, back on the bus, and back to Xindian where we ate the biggest breakfast of our lives. At least, it felt like the biggest breakfast of our lives. At the breakfast shop, I also charged my phone (I HAD brought along my phone charger!!!) and assured all of our friends who had lost track of us the night before that we were indeed alive. Alive, tired, and sore. Fortunately, not hungry anymore and thanks to the river, not dehydrated either. After refueling our bodies, we rode the MRT to Ximen, where we all live, and went home.
I took a shower and slept from 9am to 4pm. I still have bites and itchy spots all over my body from those forest bugs. Who knew my “hike to Wulai” would have ended this way? But how many things in life would we have NOT chosen, had we been able to know the end result?
(On a more informative note, after some research I found the map of the trail we were theoretically on and actual blogs and pictures of the trail and a map of how it can indeed take you into Wulai. Not in 3 or 4 hours, though! The two mountains we hiked were 拔刀爾山 [Badao Er Mountain] – which literally means SWORD – explains the crazy steepness! – and 高腰山 [Gaoyao Mountain]. Well, there you go, you live and learn; and the more you know, the more you know. In the meantime, there’s adventure. And a lot more trails to hike!)