Monday, February 25, 2008
Not many people have heard of Rueifong瑞峰, and even less have ever been there. The tiny Chiayi settlement, so small that it could barely even be called a town, has long been overshadowed by its better developed and far more tourist-centered neighbor, Rueili.
Until a few weeks ago I had only ever heard mention of the place once while a friend was giving me directions to Rueili. He put his hand on my shoulder and looked at me in a rather stern and almost fatherly manner, “You’ll come to a fork in the road,” he said, “if you go downhill you’ll get to Rueili, uphill goes to Rueifong. Make sure you don’t go to Rueifong.”
For years, his words held a great power over me, and though I went back to Rueili again and again, I never even thought of taking that other, uphill road. A few weeks ago however, something happened. Maybe it was recklessness, or maybe it was a brochure that proclaimed Rueifong, “The home of the waterfall”, but I decided it was time to go and see for myself what was there. I’m glad I made the decision because the scenery is spectacular and must rank amongst the best that Taiwan has to offer.
One of the town’s main attractions is the Jhukeng River Trail竹坑溪步道. At just under 2km, the trail is not very long, but what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in interest. You descend into, and are quickly enveloped by dense, oversized plant life. Greens of every shade and tone surround you, while shafts of sunlight strike through the foliage over your head. The trees and bushes around you pulse and throb with the movement of animals. Mostly you see birds, some of them wonderfully colored, some of them no bigger than your thumb, they fly and hop from branch to branch, or just hover in front of you. There are also insects, strange looking reptiles, squirrels, and other little furry animals. Walk the path slowly, keep your eyes open and your voice down, and who knows what you’ll see?
Just as quickly as you were enclosed by trees, you find yourself once again out in the open. A few turns of the trail later and you are met by a massive chasm. Rock hangs over your head, and below you it falls away for well over a hundred meters. The semi-circular back wall must measure more than 150m across, and the gorge stretches out far in front of you. The path takes you on behind Longgong Waterfall龍宮瀑布, and squeezes you under the overhanging rock.
Standing here, especially after just emerging from the dense undergrowth, you feel completely closed off from the outside world. On an island where any and every tourist destination is crawling with people, this, one of the most spectacular, has no one. The lack of people however only adds the scene’s “Lost World” feeling, and though I do think it’s a shame that more people haven’t been here, I also hope that it never becomes truly popular.
Another feature of the Jhukeng River Trail are its suspension bridges. There are 10 them in total, and they’re all made to a different design. There’s something about a suspension bridge, the way they wobble and bounce under your step, they make you feel strangely adventurous, and add to that outdoors feeling. Some of the bridges on the trail bounce more than others, and none more so than the precariously hand-rail free, “Soft Bridge”.
To get to the trail, follow Chiayi County highway 162 to the 36.5km mark. Turn off onto a small side road, and almost as soon as you do, you’ll see a wooden signpost pointing you down a pathway. It’s a pretty inauspicious start to such a wonderful pathway, so make sure that you don’t pass it by.
The road to Rueifong is long and varied, and you pass by a number of great tourist destinations, and some fantastic sights before you even reach Jhukeng. If you leave from Meishan梅山, take the 162 road towards Taiping. This will take you on an incredibly twisting and turning ride. Locals call it the road of 36 hairpins, and each one is marked with a roadside sign so can count them as you ascend. Taiping太平 is a great place to stop and stretch your legs. If you’re interested in seeing the sights, then there’s an old shopping street and an interesting temple that are worth a visit. After Taiping you’ll arrive at that, now infamous, fork in the road, take the uphill route. It quietly leads you through green corridors of trees and bamboo, and from there onto some of the most amazing mountain scenery you will ever see. Another 10km later, you’ll arrive at the tea plantations of Rueifong, and after that, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to Jhukeng River Trail.