A Trip Back in Time on Taiwan’s Historic Trails

Trail Restoration. Photo: TMI Trail

A local NGO is working to restore an island-wide network of hiking trails and walking paths that offer visitors a peek into Taiwan’s past.

We would have walked straight past without noticing them but for the hiker just ahead who had stopped to take a closer look. There, tucked away under a rocky overhang, just a few minutes from the trailhead, were dozens of giant earthenware jars, stacked in disarray. Each about knee-high, they were blotched, mottled with age, and laced with cracks. Some jars were broken, others tilted on their sides. They looked like old wine vessels, but they turned out to be something quite different.

These jars were made for storing human bones.

Giant earthenware jars along the Nuandong Historic Trail near Keelung once contained the bones of dead settlers from the 19th century. Photo: Sergio Palma

In Taiwanese folk religion, dead bodies are a dangerous source of malicious spirits if they are not given a proper burial along with the attendant worship of the right deities. When waves of new settlers arrived from China in the 19th century, many died in skirmishes, others from disease, and they had no family or friends to conduct the proper rites. When locals stumbled across their remains, they would store the bones in jars and place them in stone shrines built for a family of gods called Youyinggong (有應公). Worshipping these gods kept the hungry ghosts in check.

These mortuary jars, now well over 100 years old, are just one example of the many historical and cultural artefacts that can be found along a network of old trails – some dating back to the 18th century. Called national greenways, they are gradually being restored across the island. The project is the brainchild of Taipei-based NGO Taiwan Thousand Miles Trail Association (TMI Trail), which is working with local governments in each area to carry out its work. The long-term plan is to complete the restoration of seven trails – composed of many linked, long-distance hiking paths and bikeways – stretching a total 3,000 kilometers.

The objective is to help bring people closer to the past. “We want these seven greenways not only to get more people hiking but also to get them more involved in history,” TMI Trail Executive Director Chou Sheng-hsin told Taiwan Business TOPICS. “We want to preserve these old trails and help people understand their homeland stories by walking them.”

Seven National Greenways

The idea is to create something like the UNESCO-listed Camino de Santiago in Europe, a massive network of routes across the continent that leads pilgrims to the shrine of Saint James in northwestern Spain. Alternatively, it can be viewed as a walking version of the round-the-island cycle trip (huandao, 環島) popular with domestic and international tourists here in Taiwan.

Visitors to the trails are treated to sights of natural beauty such as rice terraces, tea plantations, ocean coastline, rivers, lakes, and forest. In addition, paths are dotted with historical landmarks, such as Qing Dynasty steles (stone tablets carved with calligraphy), Japanese-era homes and dormitories, old stone bridges, temples, scores of shrines to the earth god (Tudigong), disused train tracks, and canals.

The organization began researching and planning possible trails back in 2006. So far, three greenways are more or less complete, with the other four still being rehabilitated.

The first to be finished was the green-way made up of the Tamsui-Kavalan Historical and Cultural Trails, which cover 274 kilometers running from southern Taipei, Keelung, and eastern New Taipei City to various locations along the coast of Yilan County. They originally went all the way from Tamsui to Yilan (linking the Western Pacific Ocean and Taiwan Strait) and so are sometimes referred to as the Danlan Old Trails (淡蘭古道).

The second greenway, which Chou says is “pretty much” completed, is the Raknus Selu Trail. A shade shorter at 270 kilometers, it snakes southwards from Taoyuan through Hsinchu and Miaoli before ending at Taichung. The bulk of the work is also complete on the Mountains to Sea National Greenway, a combination of walkways and bikeways that runs 177 kilometers from Taijiang National Park (sometimes called “Taiwan’s Little Amazon”) in Tai-nan all the way to Yushan National Park, the country’s highest peak at just under 4,000 meters. TMI Trail is still working with local authorities to put up trail signs and finish some minor restoration work and other trekking facilities. While the focus is on walking trails, bikeways are being created in places where urbanization has interrupted the integrity of the old paths with asphalt roads.

TMI Trail has devised a unique logo for each of the greenways. The Tamsui-Kavalan Trails are marked by an eight-pointed, fan-shaped leaf. It represents the coupled dipteris – a flamboyant fern that has existed for more than 200 million years, all the way back to the time of the dinosaurs. That’s about as historical as you can get! The fern itself is common in this part of northern Taiwan. The Raknus Selu logo is the leaf of a camphor tree (Raknus means camphor in the language of the Atayal indigenous group), while the Mountains to Sea graphic has a silhouette of a mountain that morphs into a river.

For Taipei dwellers, the Tamsui-Kavalan greenway is the most accessible, and one of its trails could easily be tackled in a half-day or full-day trip. There are three main routes – northern, middle, and southern. The northern trails, made in the 18th century to transport official documents and government officers, are the oldest. The paths are generally a bit wider than the other trails in this region in order to accommodate the sedan chairs used to transport local dignitaries.

Source: TMI Trail

The middle trails were forged by ordinary folk for everyday travel between settlements, while the southern trails wind through tea plantations. In former times, this latter journey was used to transport tea to the Tamsui River port at Dadaocheng for export overseas. Pinglin, a famous tea-growing district even today, lies along the route.

The bone jars that intrigued us that day were on the first stretch of the middle path that begins from Nuannuan in Keelung. You can find them along the Nuandong Valley Trail, a beautiful loop that takes in chuckling streams, mountain forests, ribbons of waterfalls, sheer-sided orange-and-gray cliffs, and riverbeds eroded to a breathtaking smoothness.

Gushing waterfalls and caves formed over millennia by erosion are some of the sights available along the newly restored trails. Photo: Sergio Palma

This great half-day and fairly easy trek starts at Nuandong Canyon (暖東峽谷). Take the train to Nuannuan station and either wait for the 603 bus (you’ll be lucky if one comes every hour) or hop in an Uber (less than NT$200) to the canyon. After a 2-kilometer-walk through gorgeous forest, past the bone jars and a steppingstone crossing of an icy-cold river, you’ll reach sleepy Dajing Farm, picture perfect for a picnic. The trail then turns into a road that is thankfully quiet of traffic. It switchbacks up a hill for about 20 minutes until reaching the Nuandong Historic Trail (暖東舊道).

This stretch is tougher. It’s a steep climb up packed-earth steps, boarded with wood or cut stones, that ascend seemingly forever, but more like a sweaty 40 minutes. While there are no great views at the top, you’ll be rewarded with a rest stop that has been thoughtfully stocked with free bottled drinking water. The descent takes you by giant ferns as well as bamboo thickets that cause the wind to whistle, then over humped bridges before ending up by an abandoned railway track.

The day we went, a grassy opening bounded by a curve in the tracks seemed like an ideal place to rest before the final 10-minute stretch into the historic town of Shifen. Four Formosan Magpies, shimmering electric blue in the sunshine, swooped between trees, flouncing their lustrous tail feathers. At Shifen, avoid the temptation to launch a lantern that will only get stuck in a tree and litter the landscape, and catch the Pingxi tourist train back to Taipei.

There are dozens of other hikes that are also not too taxing but have great cultural significance. The Jinzibei Historical Trail on the Tamsui-Kavalan northern route, for example, is a fairytale walk through the woods that climb upwards to Jinzibei (金字碑, “Golden Character Tablet”). Its surface is inscribed with a poem on stone in wobbly calligraphy written by Qing Dynasty Garrison Commander Liu Ming-deng, describing how tortuous the path was back in the 1860s. The trail begins at the old mining town of Houtong – famous for its many cats – in New Taipei City (easily reached by train) and ends at Mudan, another charming little town that also has a train connection back to the capital.

Jinzibei Trail. Photo: TMI Trail

The Yangtingli Historical Trail from Jimuling to Datielao on the northern route rewards hikers with views of the Western Pacific Ocean, while the Paoma Historic Trail on the southern route is an easy stroll through woodland. It offers a view of Turtle Island in the distance and the promise of a soak in a hot spring at Jiaoxi at the end.

Jaunts along the Raknus Selu greenway, while still possible as a day trip from Taipei, are far away enough that they might warrant an overnight stay. The entrance to the Dunan Historical Trail (渡南古道) in Hsinchu County’s Guanxi Township was only just discovered recently. Left unused for more than 80 years. it was restored by volunteers. The trail, an easy one kilometer, goes deep in the forest, passing Tung trees that flower in soft white and ending at an old bridge that marks the spot where   a small wharf used to be. At the entrance to the trail stands Lo House (羅屋書院), an old gated Hakka schoolhouse that now operates as a guesthouse.

TMI Trail has an overview of the greenways and introductions to some of the hikes on its website, but more detailed information on these treks can be found on the (Chinese-language) site Hiking Notebook (健行筆記). Otherwise, you can contact TMI Trail by email to ask for advice (they have English-speaking staff). Most of the trails are not too arduous, but Chou Sheng-hsin advises carrying lots of water and wearing decent walking shoes and a hat to protect you from the sun.

Crafting the past

TMI Trail uses traditional restoration methods for as much of the trail network as possible. The organization seeks out skilled craftspeople to learn their techniques and passes them on via their own courses. TMI Trail also organizes volunteer programs to help rebuild some sections, using whatever materials are on hand locally. “If there’s stone around, we use stone. If trees have fallen nearby, we’ll use the wood or bamboo,” Chou says. Stones used to make border walls or steps are shaved down until they are the right shape – and that takes skill. “Every trail has come from people and connects with people,” she says.

The difference is obvious. The traditional paths blend in more smoothly with their surroundings and are actually more comfortable to hike. The final downhill section of the Nuandong Historic Trail was constructed in modern times but was not part of this restoration project. It’s composed of tiers of broad concrete steps. Not only are they ugly, they are actually harder to walk on as they jar the feet.

“It’s a slow process,” says Chou. One six-kilometer section on the Tamsui-Kavalan trail took the organization three years to finish with volunteers.

The bulk of the restoration work, however, is carried out by local governments in consultation with TMI Trail. With the help of the government’s greater resources, one 45-kilometer section of the Raknus Selu trail was completed in eight years.

TMI Trail are responsible for the concept, researching and surveying trails – trawling through historical records, conducting interviews, and even finding the treks themselves if they have become overgrown and disused. The final stage is lobbying local governments to take the work on board, including helping to restore, put up signage, and market the walks. “In the end it’s a partnership between government and local communities,” said Chou. But at the heart of the work is linking these trails into a whole – an extended cultural and historical journey.

And it is this concept that elevates these hikes into something much more than just a hike. The experience carries with it a taste of the past and raises questions too. Could those bone jars be a source of hungry ghosts today with no one to make offerings? Chou said they are most likely empty; the local government probably buried the bones in a public cemetery to dispel fears they’d be haunted and left the jars stacked there as a memory of former times.

But I for one am not brave enough to peek inside to check.

These feet were made for walking

If you’re more of an armchair hiker, perhaps a new book by longtime Canadian expat John Groot, Taiwanese Feet: My Walk Around Taiwan, is more your thing. Groot took eight years to walk around the island (from Tamsui to Tamsui) in bite-sized fragments during holidays and weekends, traveling clockwise.  A couple of his walks on the east coast are also historical, including the Alangyi Old Trail in southeastern Taiwan that was originally trodden by people from the Paiwan indigenous group many hundreds of years ago. The table of contents promises intense rambling, shipwrecks, swamps, gangsters, and pollution. And that’s all without leaving your living room.