My friend and I are on a train to Dali on a sunny Saturday morning. The train has slowly emptied out on its journey through North Eastern Taiwan, and only a few travellers are left in our car when we arrive. We don't expect the scene we face on arrival, with a queue of hikers filling the entire station. We climb the overhead bridge to cross the tracks getting the first glance of green Turtle Island peaking out of a perfectly blue ocean. This landmark will follow us throughout the day.
How do you avoid congestion on the mountain? Watch where everyone else is going, then go in the opposite direction. Luckily, this is where my planned route leads us anyway. While the majority of visitors come to hike the famous Caoling Historic Trail, I have found a shorter path cutting through the forest and reaching 灣坑頭山 Wankengtoushan from the opposite side. It's a sweat-drenching climb, but it's an enjoyable hike with fewer people on the trail. This is the advantage of trying the shortest route found by my navigation app.
A few minutes into the hike, we must take off our shoes to cross a small stream. It's a manageable trail from here, conveniently shaded from the midday sun but also relentlessly upslope. Now and then, the trees open up views of the ocean. It's as if they want to remind our legs of the reward for our efforts.
Near the top of the hill, we spot the intersection with the main trail watching people swarming to the peak. The views are magnificent. Green hills flow in multiple directions, only “disturbed” by the Caoling Trail gently cutting over their ridge line. Turtle Island sits on top of the blue waters 616 meters below. In the distance, we can spot Longmen plant, Taiwan's fourth and unfinished nuclear power station.
Darker and darker clouds begin forming on the horizon, so we keep moving. I plan to follow the trail before climbing down towards Gongliao station. We soon realize this trail doesn't exist or at least doesn't exist anymore. The area is also one of the remaining water buffalo habitats, so wandering off-trail trying to find the trail further down is out of the question. This is the disadvantage of trying the shortest route found by my navigation app. We have no choice but to climb back to the top and descend on Caoling Historic Trail back to Dali. At least there is no way of getting lost. Hundreds of other hikers will lead our way. The trail is also rewarding as it offers more breathtaking views and allows us to watch many water buffalo up close.
I take off my shoes to receive a free foot massage from the rocks that create this conveniently wide trail. The looks of disbelief of some of the local hikers come for free too, but I don't mind. The way back is long and uneventful, and I try to fall into a meditative state, but both of us can't help but think about what meal we'll treat ourselves to at the end of the trip.
We reach Dali just in time to catch a train back. We stop at Sandiaoling to have an early dinner in a coffee shop overlooking the Keelung river. As the sun sets, tiredness sets in too, and we take our train back home to Taipei to rest.