Our taxi driver's patience begins to wane as he tortures his car up ever-narrowing turns above the Datong township in Yilan. Finally, with cars crammed to each side of the road, we reach the parking space a few minutes below the trailhead. We pay our driver more than the taximeter and apologize for the trouble we have caused. Then, we heave our heavy backpacks out of the trunk and start walking. It's a bright sunny day, and we are on our way to Songluo Lake.
The trail starts easy enough, a joyous stroll through a picturesque forest. Some giant trees have fallen or been cut down, leaving enormous trunks overgrown with shiny green moss glistening in the midday sun. Sometimes, we can catch a glimpse of the tea fields below. After 2.5 kilometres, a little short of the halfway mark, the trail begins to show its true face. It's getting steep and tiring, including a few short scrambles and rope sections. Sweat keeps pouring, but the beauty of the forest makes us forget to complain too much. A few rays of sunshine permeate the tree cover, creating a magical atmosphere as we keep climbing higher, wandering deeper into the wilderness.
Finally, we reach the final tree-covered ridgeline and the highest point of our hike at about 1350 metres. From here, we hike another 15 minutes downhill until we spot the lake sitting in a basin between the mountain, already covered in fog.
We set up our tent on the opposite side of the lake, far enough from the water if it rains overnight and cook some food on our camping stove. After a strenuous climb, even the simplest meal tastes delicious. Later, we have a conversation with a couple from Hsinchu who invite us to share dinner, drinks, and cigars. Suddenly, our own meal pales compared to the delicious beef and vegetable dish they conjure up. I still wonder how they fit a full-sized frying pan into their backpacks.
As the fog clears, we gaze at the stars and an almost full moon. We climb back into our tent a bit later and fall into a deep slumber.
The following morning, we wake up to a clear sky as the sun slowly creeps up behind the ridgeline we hiked down from the previous day. Golden morning light enfolds the lake in bright colours, the grass around its shore shining in a vivid green. We watch this spectacle of lights for some time, before we finally take down our tents and embark on the journey back.
There are 55 yellow markers along the Song Luo Hu trail, each marking its distance from the trailhead, one every 100 metres. More often than not, we carefully climb for a felt eternity only to find another marker telling us that it's barely been a hundred metres. When we reach the halfway mark, the trail finally gets easier. We speed up and march out of the forest. From the trailhead, we still need to walk down to our accommodation for the night, a grande, old-fashioned teahouse another hour down the road.
We enjoy soaking in the outdoor bathtub on our balcony, relaxing our tired muscles and cleaning the mud and dirt off our skin. We count down the minutes until dinner time. A simple but delicious assortment of local foods is on the menu, and we hungrily finish all of it to the very last grain of rice.