Those Green Hills Beyond the Zoo

On a crisp clear sunny day like today you can see forever. That is, if you are standing on the highest point on the southeast side of Taipei City, Èrgé Mountain, 680 meters elevation, you can gaze all the way across the Taipei Basin to Yangmingshan, Guānyīn Mountain, and even the mouth of the Danshui River flowing out into the blue Pacific. You feel like one of the eagles floating lazily in the updraft from the sharp ridge of Bǐjiǎ Mountain, stretched out east to west below with rock outcroppings jutting skyward through the green. You can see the deep blue of the Fěicuì Reservoir to the south. And somewhat later you can rinse off the sweat from the climb in a cold mountain stream pool deep up to your neck.

Now let me tell you how to get there, and you will forget you live among one of the densest populations on the planet.

First a general orientation. The mountains that begin behind Chengchi University and run nine kilometers to Shídìng District in Xinbei City, are a favorite of local hikers. They are more accessible by quick public transport, namely the Muzha Line MRT to the Taipei Zoo, than is Yangmingshan, where on the weekend you are likely to find yourself in a traffic jam on the long road winding up the mountain. Finally, the Maokong cable car that starts at the Taipei Zoo Station and lifts visitors to Zhinan Temple and across the deep valley to Maokong provides fast access. Èrgé Mountain is at the apex of the valley. Because the ridge above Zhinan Temple, from Hóu Shān Yuè (Monkey Peak) to Shiding, is so steep that it is crossed by only one road, and the area is showered by the moist breezes from Keelung, a short hike brings you into jungle like in the center of Taiwan.

9 x 2 km. x 500+ meters elevation may not seem a great distance, but the terrain is so rugged, with cliffs and waterfalls and drops of 200 meters, that an experienced hiker may be challenged, and one kilometer on the map may take over two hours to cover. But there are also some relatively easy hikes on well-marked trails, and I will here suggest a route that should be okay for the occasional walker, but also provide a portal to future adventures: Linda Road, a two-three hour stroll down a shaded valley to the water hole and then to Shenkeng, the tourist town famous for doufu, or a more energetic Erge Mountain climb and then Linda Road.

First, meet up with your buddies at the Zoo MRT or the gate of Chengchi University. Necessary packing is three bottles of water per person, munchies and fruit, a cheap plastic raincoat, swim shorts, small towel, bug spray, and a backpack to carry it all. Plus a cheap folding saw, NT$60 at any hardware store, to cut nose-high bamboo staffs. This is a must, and you will understand why when you are going down those mossy stone stairs.

Take a taxi up the valley, under the freeway, past the turnoff to the back parking lot of Zhinan Temple, and past the right-side turnoff to Maokong (there is a bus stop there for buses returning down from the teashop area), to a few farmhouses called Cao Nan Village; and then keep going straight along the stream for two turns in the road, to where the road turns sharply left at a grassy space, the trail entrance. Pay the taxi the meter fare, NT$130-150, plus NT$50 standard extra for mountain destinations. On a weekend you will see a lot of hikers. You are starting at a cool elevation of 380 m, and it is well worth the taxi. The road itself continues steeply up to loop over the ridge at 450 m elevation here, with a temple-being-built called Tiannan Gong at the top, and a restaurant and parking, and then 7 winding km down to Shenkeng Old Street.

The trail starts with new granite stairs, and a few blocks in you can cut your bamboo from wild clumps; find half-green ones a little thicker than a broom stick. But the rest will be uneven stone stairs on paths over a hundred years old. You should start here by 10-11 am if you are also doing Erge Shan, but 2 pm is okay if just Linda Road. After ten minutes you come to a choice of [right], Erge, or [left], Tiannan Gong and down to Linda Road. If [left], again bear to the left, and you reach the road a little above the temple in 20 min, with a beautiful view of the Bijia Mountain ridge above on the way.

If [right], the 300 m climb to Erge’s 680 m elevation is beautiful, mostly shaded and will give you a preview of many future hikes. At 550 m there is the “green bean soup shop” run by Mr. & Mrs. Li for thirty years; they carry up coolers of Taiwan beer, too. Here in the niche of intersecting trails to two mountains (plus the beginning of a country road that connects south to Beiyi Road and Xindian), you can finally see a new stairway going up to the top of Erge to the right, and to the left you can embark some day on the rigorous 5-6 hour hike atop Bijia Mountain ridge.

Finally down from Erge, you can take an earlier right turn to cut to Tiannan Gong on a level path. There are some shortcuts, including a rough descent from 500 m, but save that for later. For those who discovered they are wiped out after Erge, you can call the Da Feng Taxi Company (02) 2918-3000 to send a taxi up from Shenkeng within 15 min. to get you at the temple, about NT$240 to get back to the Taipei Zoo.

Now the fun, Linda Road. In Chinese the name is Nan Bang Liao Old Road, named for the abandoned village; I found the connecting paths five years ago based on 1904 Japanese maps and cleared out some overgrowth. Now it is marked by many hiking clubs.

Simply, across from the temple are some rough public toilets, and on the other side of those is a parking lot for the restaurant. I recently repainted the arrows to the trailhead with orange spray paint on the ground. From the parking lot, walk down to the left and cross the cement courtyard of Mr. Li’s farmhouse. Go down past the chicken yard. The trail is mostly level or gently sloping down, looping around the hills past two pristine streams; it rises to go over a side ridge, and then descends down towards a valley tucked alongside the Bijia ridge, where 50 years ago a dozen scattered families farmed rice and taro and bamboo shoots on steep hills. You can explore the old hewn-stone farmhouses. Turn right when you come out of jungle to a still-cultivated bamboo shoot field. The farmer has used a female mannequin bust as a scarecrow. Then about 80 min. from Tiannan Gong and after many flights of huge stone slab stairs, testimony to the ingenuity of pre-industrial labor, you will find a newly-roofed earth god shrine. Fifteen feet below the shrine, there is a big white plastic water pipe exposed in the ground, and a very small side path to the stream, which in five minutes (tread carefully) will take you to a pool 5-feet deep in the middle, hulking rock face above, jungle close about, and butterflies flitting in the canopy with birds’ nest ferns.

At 3:30-4:00 in the afternoon the sun shines in directly. 15 minutes in the chill water will make you welcome the heat of summer. 20 minutes more walk down the path from the earth god shrine takes you out to the lower reaches of the same road (trailhead again marked with orange paint on a wall, ignore the metal fence), and then 35 minutes easy walk down to the old street of Shenkeng and a well-deserved dinner.

This article first appeared in Taiwanease magazine in September 2006