guishan mountain top loop (龜山山頂小O型縱走)

distance: 2.75km

time: 1½ hours – walked at a very leisurely, dachshund-friendly pace.

difficulty: 2/10 – this is a really easy little loop walk, the path isn’t paved and there are a few ups and downs, but it’s mostly smooth going. There aren’t any signs which would make it harder if you were walking without knowing where you’re going, but also there aren’t many places where you can get lost.

total ascent: 114m from a low of 120m to a maximum of 202m.

water: 0.5L was adequate for a warm spring afternoon – there is a Family Mart not far from the start of the walk so you can stock up en-route if necessary.

shade: not too much – if the weather had been any sunnier, I would have needed to shelter under an umbrella.

mobile network: clear throughout for me.

enjoyment: 8/10 – I went with no expectations about this, so discover a cute little loop with a few views, a dash of local village life and which is just right for a gentle dog walk made me really happy. This isn’t going to feature on any lists of Taiwan’s top scenic spots, but in the corner of taiwan that I live in, it might well join Hutoushan park and Yangchou forest trail as one of my favourite dog walking spots.

other: if you plan on doing this walk with a Taiwanese friend, you might want to check how strongly they adhere to traditional cultural beliefs – the loop passes through a graveyard and this might not be totally cool with everyone here.

map:

Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 5.06.51 PM

GPX file available here.

We parked our scooter in a not-too-sweet-smelling corner of the road and made straight for the steps leading up. There was absolutely no signage to suggest that the steps led anywhere walkable, so I wouldn’t have known about it if I’d just passed by. (Although given where it started, it wouldn’t have been likely that I’d have just passed by either.)

After a small flight of stairs, the path levels out and leads towards a pavilion which looks like it must be used by pensioners in the early morning hours. With the pensioners banished by the midday sun, the area was being occupied by a group of (presumably) Instragramming youth surrounded by their tripods and cameras.

We didn’t wish to interfere with their photography session, so we took the right-hand path which leads towards the buildings of Ming Chuan University. This type of path is something of an oddity in Taiwan – both narrow and very flat, on almost sandy soil. I really don’t think I’ve encountered too many like this around this part of the country – maybe they can be found elsewhere though.

As we drew close to the university campus, we passed a small betel nut plantation on our right, a path just beyond this dog-legs back to the right, but we wanted to do the full loop, so we kept going straight.

This rather magnificent shrub caught my attention – the photo doesn’t really show the full might of it’s flowery splendour. I think this is probably a Chinese Fringe Tree – in full bloom they are mighty impressive.

The trail curves around the university campus until it starts to head downhill and south.

This section was the steepest of the whole route and ‘Princess’ Xiaopang stopped walking in efforts to convey that she wished to be carried down. Of course we acquiesced to her demands, but I imagine that she could have done it by herself as long as she’d taken it slowly.

After the path levels out and until it starts to turn northwest is the most scenic part of the walk. The trees on the left drop away and you can see out over Yingge towards Sanxia.

The path climbs to a high point through a tree tunnel which is bookended at both sides by what is marked as being a sea mango tree – the signs also indicate that the tree is extremely poisonous and shouldn’t be touched. A quick google confirms this to be very true – the plant sometimes goes by the name ‘suicide apple’ in Hawaii, even the formal Latin name is taken from the name of Cerebus, the hound which guards Hades in Greek mythology.

I was really pleasantly surprised to be able to make out the mountainous ridges to the south of Sanxia – I had not expected to get any views from this little walk.

Another smaller-scale sight which I appreciated was this ground-growing plant which had leaves perfectly suited to decorating a Christmas wreath. I haven’t been able to identify it, so please let me know if you have encountered this decorative shrub before.

Through a more covered section, we encountered another pensioner exercise hangout – but again, since this was after 9am, we didn’t spot any exercising pensioners, but we did spot their extensive collection of umbrellas which had been hung under a specially constructed umbrella shelter.

The path heads down through a bamboo farm and then bends sharply to the right at the southernmost tip of the loop. Whilst we were here we encountered a squirrel – we knew it was there because it was making an unholy screeching sound.

It was around here that we saw the first other person we’d seen since the Instagrammers, at the junction we took the path right. This area was definitely more farmed than everywhere we’d already passed, and as we continued walking, we saw a few old men out tending to their land.

They all seemed to be hard at work, however, the award for greatest effort shown goes to this guy who had secured a bundle of 4-metre bamboo poles to the back of his scooter, which he then rode over the narrow and winding dirt track. The effect was that of a drab but speedy peacock.

Walking past more farms, we ended up down at a narrow road next to a rather neglected-looking sports ground.

We turned right upon reaching the road, and then it curves round almost immediately to the left – the steps in the above picture lead up to a small pond but you can’t walk anywhere from there.

A little beyond the sports field, the path passes a small temple (鎮東祠). Teresa paused to say hi to the resident Gods whilst I sat on the very hard chairs.

The next stretch passes through a collection of allotments – some seem to be used as housing too. Despite looking like it would blow over in the next gust of wind, the one on the left had what seemed to be a recently slept-in bed. Among the plants being grown, I spotted cabbages (which were being besieged by large numbers of white butterflies), onions and spring onions as well as taro plants and some kind of beans.

Through the allotments, we reached a T-junction with a small road, we bore left and stayed on the road as it passed a pond on the left, then a road on the right, (we mistakenly took the road for a short way before realising the mistake).

At the start of the graveyard we kept an eye out for a path which would take us through the graves.

As it turned out, it was very easy to spot the path, it was just by the edge, right next to the grave of a man from China who was buried next to at least two of his three wives. As we walked through the graveyard, Teresa became increasingly unhappy. Unlike back home, where most people I know would feel nothing except for maybe curiosity at walking through a graveyard, (indeed, my mum actively enjoys a wander amongst old graves), here in Taiwan, not everyone is comfortable passing through such places. There have been people in Teresa’s family, (most recently her grandfather) who believe that they have the ability to serve as an intermediary between ghosts and still living humans. Her grandfather used this skill to help soothe the pain of both deceased spirits and their families, but despite being told that she has this ability too, Teresa does not wish to have the responsibility. Teresa feels that in places like this, spirits who are unhappy will attach themselves to her in the hope that she can somehow help, but given that she doesn’t wish to exercise this ability, the best she feels she can do is to occasionally attend a larger temple where the spirits can detach themselves and hopefully find someone who is more able to help them. The downside is that being a vessel for the deceased can have a negative impact on most areas of your life – health, luck and mood.

Since my culture doesn’t follow these beliefs, I really enjoyed walking though the graveyard – aside from the shocking number of dug up graves with open (and thankfully empty) caskets. I love the style of the graveyards here, I think the haphazard nature of them is really cute, (each grave is aligned to achieve the best possible fengshui for the occupant). From my perspective it seemed that Teresa was just sulking – I had to remind myself not to be a culturally insensitive muppet, just because I put no stock in it, doesn’t mean that I have any right to tell her that the beliefs she’s had etched into her worldview since childhood are wrong.

As we neared the top of the graveyard, the path kind of petered out, (prompting further unhappiness), it’s possible to walk up the last 20m or so by treading on the gaps between the graves. We went on the weekend before Qingming festival so there were already several families out cleaning their family plots and the small patches of dampened, ash-covered earth attested to the fact that there had been many more earlier in the day, (the smart Taiwanese have worked out that if they get all the actual tomb sweeping done early, then the national holiday set aside for tending to the graves of ancestors can be used instead for rest and recreation). There were two firefighters stationed at the exit with lots of bottles of water, presumably the nation’s fire service is keen to prevent the kind of hill fires which seem to inevitably break out during the Qingming festival every year in Hong Kong. They saw me carrying Xiaopang first since Teresa was bringing up the rear and blocked from view by a small structure – they were evidently somewhat confused to see a foreigner carrying a dog (I would assume that most people entered and exited the same way, so they hadn’t seen us go in), but one of them recovered quick enough to offer me some water – this entertained Teresa enough for her to momentarily forget about her unhappiness.

We took the steps down from the graveyard then turned right and walked uphill until we arrived back at the scooter.

 


 

How to get there

google maps address: Xing Fu Er Shi San Jie, 333 – there’s space for a couple of cars and scooters near the trailhead.

GPS location: N24 59.120 E121 20.315

public transport: you can get a bus from Taoyuan Station but it doesn’t take you the whole way.

further reading: A map can be found here which details all the currently known locations of Chinese Fringe Trees in Taipei, it seems that this is one of the species that the locals like to go and photograph in the spring. Also, if you’re interested in learning more about some of the ghost-based beliefs in Taiwan, you might find this article interesting.

 

My new words learnt on this hike:

  1. 跑一趟 / pǎo yī tàng / make a trip
  2. 鋪床 / pūchuáng / make a bed
  3. 墳墓 / fénmù / grave
  4. 觀察 / guānchá / observe or observant
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