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Updated: May 31, 2020

It feels a little strange to call it a road trip since my whole life is kind of one long trip at this point but a road trip is what it was in the truest sense of the word. A group of friends piled into two cars with bags and even bigger bags of snacks, heading down the coast for a two-day trip into the mountains to find Li-song hot spring.

In true roadtrip style, we also had to make a few stops along the way. The first stop was an abandoned military base just outside of Hualien City. Abandoned buildings practically scream at me to enter them so while everyone else headed off the take in the ocean view at the top of the hill, I couldn’t help but climb down into one of the old bunkers to see what was left. The answer was not much, a few left over bits of furniture, remnants of previous squatters, some cool old signage and a curious little praying mantis. When I met up with the rest of the group, I found them all standing on the roof of another old building, taking in a full 360 view of the ocean, mountains and all of Hualien city below.

The second stop was Jiqi beach. Because Taiwan is on the edge of the Ring of Fire, the beaches on the east coast of the country are black with volcanic sand, which makes the already dramatic landscape of mountains meeting the sea, all that much more beautiful.

The final extra stop was the Dashibishan trail and lookout. It’s a short climb up to check out another great view of the coastline and city below.

Photo: Aga Syu

Our final destination for the day was the town of Chishang. The town is quiet but is known for it’s bento boxes, traditional lunch box meals passengers would pick up in train stations for long journeys. It even has a bento box museum. Most of the town shuts down by 8pm. We arrived after that but luckily weren’t there to sightsee. Chishang was our rest stop before our real destination.

The next morning, we were all in the car by 6am and driving into the mountains, heading to Li-song hot spring. A rainy and cloudy drive took us up winding mountain roads and finally to a small side road where we got out of the car and started walking. The mountain roads there are constantly under construction due to rock falls and typhoon damage so we had to walk down the small road to get to the trail head. From the trail head, we started the real descent. The trail was pretty well maintained but rocky, muddy and steep. Halfway down and my thighs were already feeling it.

The last bit of the trail was the most challenging. The descent steepens to around 45 - 50 degrees and the only way down is to turn around and go down backwards, using the ropes to rappel down to the bottom. This was the most fun and most challenging part of the trail. The reward was the beautiful, clear mountain river at the bottom and knowing that the hot spring is just upstream.

Almost at the bottom.

The first river crossing to get to the hot spring. Two more to go.

There isn’t a clear path along the shore to get to the hot spring so the trek wasn’t over just yet. We started by crossing the river, which was a shock to the system after sweating for the last hour and a half coming down the trail. The water flowing through this mountain river was freezing! This spot was only about knee deep so it was unpleasant but a short crossing. Once across the river, the next obstacles were some large boulders blocking any easy path around them. So it was back into the water, up a few pieces of submerged log and scaling around another rock face. Once on top of those rocks, the full hot spring came into view.

I’d seen pictures and heard that this hot spring is considered the most beautiful in Taiwan. It definitely lived up to its reputation. The only thing left between me and the hot spring was one more climb down the big boulder I was standing on and a drop into that cold, cold water. I could tell it was deeper here but was not sure if that meant waist deep or shoulder deep. At the bottom of the rope coming off the boulder, I just let myself drop in. I ended up up to my neck and that is probably the closest I’ll ever come to doing a polar bear plunge. The river wasn’t too wide so we all crossed quickly, removed boots and got right into the hot water. Compared to the river, it burned! Once our skin got used to the drastic temperature change, we all eased in for a very well deserved soak.

The springs comes up from the ground in a lot of different spots so there is water falling down a waterfall as well as bubbling up from the ground. The springs are so mineral rich that the rock face behind the waterfall is stained orange, white and bright green.

Burning my feet off in the mouth of the hot spring.

After lounging for awhile, taking some photos and exploring a bit of the immediate area, I spent another 15 minutes back in the spring, staring down the very beautiful but very cold river we had to cross again. Going back, I made a point of keeping as much of my upper body out of the water as possible and used the rope to pull myself out of the water as quickly as I could. It worked well until I ended up in the next spot where we had to get in the water again. At that point, I just decided to embrace it and swim the next length, using the current to get me back down much faster than the time it would take to climb around the rocks again.

After dumping the water out of our shoes and a quick snack, we started back up the trail. This time, the toughest part came first. My legs were already tired from the descent so I was really starting to feel it as I pulled and pushed myself up the steep, rocky trail.

The only way back is up. We made good time though and were back at the trail head in about an hour and a half.

Scaling the steepest part seemed to go quickly this time and we were back on the only slightly less steep trail soon enough. This trail pushed me more than any other hike that I’ve done this year, including hiking through the Jordanian desert. When we finally made it back to the top, it felt like a serious accomplishment. I grumbled about the sore muscles on the way up a bit but still managed to make a continuous ascent without too much struggle. I honestly don’t think I would have been able to say the same thing a year ago when I was still sitting behind desk regularly. It was a small, personal accomplishment to realize how much I’ve been able to change and grow stronger physically and mentally since then.

When we finally reached the car, we all scrambled to shed our wet clothes. I can’t remember a time in my life when I have been happier to put on dry clothes. Taiwan’s winter is not too cold compared to a Canadian one but it is winter in Taiwan just the same. After a good 6-7 hours of clothes soaked by rain, sweat, and river water, putting on dry, warm clothes was an amazing feeling.

So close to the top. We finished the trail and just had to make it up to the top of the road.

Our day wasn’t over just yet though. As mentioned, the mountain roads are damaged by the elements consistently and because of that, often closed for construction. After misreading some of the signage, we arrived at the mountain pass to go down thinking we’d made it for the afternoon opening. We hadn’t. So we had another 2.5 hours to kill before the only road out of the mountains opened again. After a few stares around the car at each other and a quick check on Google maps, we realized there was a small village not too far from where we had just come from.

Driving into the village, it seemed exceptionally quiet. No cars, no people and no open windows. The one restaurant listed on the map was called Shop and Eat. The name was accurate. It was essentially a convenience store with a few plastic tables set up in the corner. It was cozy though and it served hot food so all of us were happy to be there. We enjoyed a meal of fried rice, stewed cabbage and lily flower soup which was something new for me and really quite delicious. After we finished eating, we sat around the table and joined the shop owner in watching that Catherine Zeta-Jones movie, No Reservations.

Feeling sufficiently warmed and fed, we piled back into the car and back down to the roadblock. We still had another hour left before the road opened so most of us took it as a good opportunity for a nap. 5 o’clock finally rolled around, the road opened and we were on our way back home from a very successful roadtrip.

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