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Relaxation and family fun is a given at Chihpen hot springs.
Southwest of Taitung is the small settlement of Chihpen. The village itself is unremarkable, featuring the usual gaggle of restaurants and convenience stores lining each side of the main road that runs through it. Heading out of the village towards the mountains, though, the road leads to one of the most popular tourist destinations in southeastern Taiwan: Chihpen's hot springs and resort.
Hot springs are extremely popular in Taiwan because of their reputed benefits to the skin and to general health. The novelty of naturally occurring hot water never seems to wear off for tourists. Cooking eggs and instant noodles in the water is one of the most favored pastimes in Chihpen itself, with one of the resort's most popular stores consisting simply of trays of thousands of eggs and a large stone trough into which boiling spring water is piped.

Chihpen was first developed as a resort around the turn of the century by the Japanese who ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. The area became a prime rest and relaxation venue for the elite of Japan's occupying forces. Now, domestic tourists flock to the area during holidays, making summer weekends a fairly bad time to visit.

Chihpen is about relaxation. Certainly, the area is infested with karaoke bars and disco pubs, but these are peripheral to the main raison d'etre of the resort: soaking in the hot spring pools that are a standard feature of every hotel in the village.

Soak those aches away
For those who have never sampled a hot spring, it may seem a little pointless to spend several days in a place the chief attraction of which is hot water. Once sampled, though, hot spring bathing can become an addiction. The sheer decadence of lazing outdoors in bath-temperature water, while gazing at spectacular scenery, has to be experienced to be appreciated. Aches, pains, and tensions dissolve away with the action of the hot water, while watching the clouds roll over the mountains on the opposite side of the valley can induce an almost meditational state. Local lore also suggests that "taking the waters" can cure rheumatism, arthritis, skin diseases, sciatica, and even problems with digestion.
But pure relaxation in hot water isn't good enough for health-conscious visitors. Bathers at most hot springs can be seen leaping vigorously between the hot pool and an adjacent pool of cold water. This rapid change in temperature is said to open the pores and hasten the replacement of old skin with new cells, as well as promote the rejuvenation of internal organs. The validity of this theory remains a matter for debate, and the practice seems more likely to hasten the onset of pneumonia rather than beautiful skin. Whatever the health benefits (or otherwise), though, once over the initial trepidation, hot pool/cold pool jumping is actually a real buzz, leaving the body with a delicious tingle at each change of temperature. The experience gets easier the more often it's done, but is still not recommended for those with weak hearts.

Not just a hot spring center
Although the resort of Chihpen exists almost purely as a place to use the hot springs, the area itself is one of outstanding natural beauty and deserves to be explored. The multi-story hotels which proliferate here are dwarfed by the towering mountains forming the valley that contains the Chihpen River. In these mountains, hundreds of small farms grow fruit as well as one of Taiwan's largest cash crops-the betel nut. As betel nut (also known somewhat ironically as "Chinese chewing gum") is a premium-priced product in Taiwan, many of these farms boast residences rather grander than the average Taiwan smallholder's house. Despite their relative affluence, the residents seem happy to wave and even stop for a chat (usually in Taiwanese) if visitors should inadvertently venture onto their land.
The whole area is veined through with tiny roads that are ideal for hiking or exploring by rented scooter or on foot. One of the best of these runs past the entrance to the Hong Chuan Hotel and leads to a strangely remote junior high school in the mountains. Although the roads are tortuous and the quality of their surfacing varies, the rewards for following them include secluded waterfalls and spectacular views across the Taitung plain to the sea.

More organized hiking trails are available in the Chihpen Forest Park, accessed via a suspension bridge which crosses the river and which sways disconcertingly when walked over. It costs NT$50 to cross. The park itself has a picnic area and a well-marked hiking trail which takes about three hours to walk. Visitors bringing their own equipment can camp free in the park, and tents and sleeping bags can be rented fairly cheaply. The bridge closes at 4:30 p.m. and doesn't reopen until 7 a.m., which precludes evening trips to the hotel karaoke bars. Those desperate to get to the resort's attractions could possibly wade across the river; but the water is fairly fast-flowing and several people have been drowned in the area, so this is not recommended.

The forest park's motto roughly translates as "Leave only footprints and take only photographs," showing an admirable respect for the ecology of the area. Indeed, the whole of Chihpen seems remarkably free of the litter that pollutes so many other Taiwan resorts. This sense of civic pride can also be seen in a newly built flood barrier-cum-promenade which runs along part of the river. Instead of the usual rough, gray cement, this structure is finished with attractive tiling and has aborigine murals painted on it.

Just past the Dong Tair Hotel is the nominal center of the resort, where a group of small stores and restaurants surround a parking area. These stores sell mostly souvenirs such as rocks and driftwood sculptures as well as swimsuits for visitors who have strangely arrived at this hot spring resort without one. Outside almost every store, instead of Taiwan's ubiquitous video games or gambling machines, stand rows of coin-operated electric massage chairs, in keeping with Chihpen's health-conscious image.

Here also is the home of one of Chihpen's premier tourist attractions-proudly advertised as "The 100-Year-Old Fish." After paying the NT$30 entry fee, the expectant visitor may be disappointed: The fish is dead.

Stuffed it may be, but the fish (actually an eel) must have been a pretty formidable creature when it was alive. At 21 feet long and with an evil-looking head as big as a basketball, it is no wonder that local residents took it as a mystical sign when the giant eel was found floating on the surface of the river after a lightning storm. The current owner, a Mr. Wang, claims that he paid NT$1 million for the eel, so lucky a religious icon does he consider it.

One of the many waterfalls to discover when visiting Chihpen's surrounding areas.
Of meditation and waterfalls
Just south of the valley center is the Ching Chueh (Clear Realization) Monastery. Here, monks and nuns pursue their meditations in an atmosphere of pious tranquillity, while next door, in the upmarket Chihpen Royal Hotel, tour busses disgorge streams of tourists to giggle and scream in the hotel's hot pools.
Despite the intimate proximity of the massive hotel, the monastery has miraculously retained its peaceful atmosphere. The main temple contains two magnificent statues of the Buddha--one of bronze from Thailand and the other a gorgeous white jade likeness from Burma. These statues were donated by their respective countries Buddhist communities to acknowledge links with the influential masters that reside at the monastery.

Another peaceful Chihpen attraction is the White Jade Waterfall. Here, water from the mountains tumbles its way through the rocks, forming pools and natural showers as it goes. Some overgrown steps follow the course of the stream, leading to idyllic, hidden bathing spots that offer a welcome respite from the summer heat.

Accessibility and accommodations
With the increase in availability of low-cost domestic air travel in Taiwan, the whole of the island's southeast has become accessible to tourists from the affluent north.

As a place to experience both hot springs and the largely undeveloped charm of Taiwan's southeast coast, Chihpen is ideal and in the off-season or during the week the resort retains more than enough of its peaceful mountain character to make a stay there a wonderfully relaxing experience.

Copyright 1995 Vision International Publishing Co.

Hualien Taroko Gorge and more East Coast Tours

East Coast National Scenic Area
The East Coast National Scenic Area stretches in a strip along the coast of Hualien and Taitung counties, between the Coastal Mountain Range and the Pacific Ocean. It reaches from the mouth of the Hualien River in the north to the Little Yeliou Scenic area in the south, a total distance of more than 170 kilometers, and covers the largest amount of land of any national scenic area on the island. The most unique landforms in the area can be seen at Shihtiping, Sansiantai and Little Yeliou. The section of the Siougulian River below Rueisuei is the most popular site for white-water rafting in Taiwan. In addition to rafting, activities offered withing the national scenic area include whale-watching, snorkling, deep-sea fishing and soaking in hot-springs. The East Coast's unique topography and ecology, and its rich indigenous cultures, weave an enchanting web of attractions here.

East Rift Valley National Scenic Area
Traveling down provincial highway No.9, all you see on both sides are green farm feilds stretching to the mountains. The national scenic are stretches from Mugua River in Hualien to the north to Taitung City and covers a total of 138,386 hectares encompasses mountains, valleys, and hot springs, together with feilds of rice, daylilies, pomelos, tea, and sugar apples in rich abundance. Berms crisscross the land, dividing it into feilds; waves of rice billow as cows graze in organic pastures and fish and shrimp cavort in the streams. The contentment-filled local inhabitants are warmly hospitable in their rustic way, and the stream beds are littered with precious stones. Truly, this is a paradise on earth. The valley is home to four of Taiwan's indigenous tribes: the Amis, Taroko, Bunun, and Puyuma. Aboriginal culture is among the most important and most representative of the East Rift Valley's precious resources.

Taroko National Park (Taroko Gorge)
Taroko National Park, located in East Taiwan, is a world-renowned land of majestic beauty and marble-walled gorge scenery. Visitors sigh in wonder at the vertical walls, sheer precipices, gorges, and contorted tunnels along the route of the Liwu River. The marble has been cut and sculpted by the relentless erosion of the river as the land has been pushed upward over the millennia, leaving the nearly vertical U-shaped gorge we see today. The Taroko Gorge generally refers to the 20 kilometer section of the Central Cross-Island Highway that runs from Taroko to Tiansiang. As you travel west from the arched enterance at its eastern end, the gorge becomes narrower and narrower; the most spectacular scenery is from Swallows' Grottos to the Bridge of Motherly Devotion (Cihmu Bridge), where thwe highway runs mostly through tunnels or along grooves carved into the vertical side of the gorge. The narrowest part of the gorge are at Swallows'Grottos and the Tunnel of Nine Turns; and here, too, are its most enchanting vistas. A number of hiking trails have been developed along the two sides of the highway.

Cingshuei Cliff
Cingshuei Cliff, located on the section of the Suao-Hualien Highway that stretches between Heping and Chongde stations is one of the most spectacular sights on Taiwan's Pacific Coast. The cliff is more than 1,000 meters high and drops almost vertically into the sea. The highway snakes along its curving face for more than 20 kilometers, with the sheer cliff rising on one side, and a sheer drop to the ocean on the other.

This is the sight of an old Atayal village at the confluence of the Liwu and Dasha rivers. Its name commemorates Wen Tian-siang, who lived in the 13th century and was the last prime minister of the Song Dynasty. Scenic spots at Tiansiang include Siangde Temple, Tianfong Pagoda, a suspension bridge, the Wen Tian-siang Memorial Garden, the Plum Garden, and Tiansiang Church. In winter each year the Plum Garden blooms forth, forming a sea of white blossoms stretching from the highway to Siangde Temple. Shanyue Village at Bulowan, another old tribal settlement in the gorge, offers a new and unique type of accomodation for the area.

Swallows' Grottos
This part of Taroko Gorge is composed of marble cliff faces covered with small holes, the result of long-term erosion by rivers and ground water. House swifts and Pacific swallows often forage and nest here, giving the place its name.

Tunnel of Nine Turns
The tortuous course cut by the river has produced a gorge of many curves, and the path of the highway that has been carved out of the cliff face here seems to be an endless series of turns. Hence, the name. The gorge is so narrow that only a very narrow width is open to the heavens, in what the Chinese call "a thread of sky." The marble cliff face opposite the highway varies in color from deep gray to pure white in a multitude of changing designs. A walk through the Tunnel of Nine Turns takes about 30 minutes and gives access to enchanting scenes of the gorge, the river, stone strata, the tunnel itself, and the surrounding vegetation. This is one of the most scenic parts of the gorge, and the best place to observe the gorge's ecology.

Yushan National Park
The Yushan National Park is a subtropical alpine park that is situated in the Central Mountain Range ad covers an area of more than 100,000 hectares in Nantou, Chiayi, Kaohsiung and Hualien counties. It contains 30 of Taiwan's famed "100 Top Peaks," including those of Yushan (Jade Mountain) itself, Mt. Siouguluan, Mt. Mabolasih, Dafen Peak, Mt. Sinkang, and Mt. Guan. At 3,952 meters, Jade mountain is the tallest in Northeast Asia, and contains complete subtropical, temperate, and frigid ecological systems as well as a rich variety of plant life. The park is home to 34 species of mammals including the Formosan serow, Formosan Sambar, Formosan black bear, Formosan wild boar, Reeve's muntjac, and Formosan rock-monkey. The park contains almost all of the forest bird species to be found in Taiwan, including a number of endemics, as well as an abundance of butterflies, reptiles. amphibians, and rare fish.

Southern Cross-Island Highway
This highway (Provincial Highway No. 20) runs for 167 kilometers, from Tainan to Taitung. From its 110K marker at Meishan to its 146K at Yakou, it passes through the Yushan National Park. The road reaches an elevation of 2,700 meters, giving access to a rich variety of medium and high altitude forest vegetation as well as beautiful alpine vistas. The rugged mountains and valleys along the highway offer scenes of spectacular landscapes, including the Meishan Recreation Area, Jhongjhihguan, the Mt. Guan Trail, Tianchih (Sky Pond), and Kuaigu (Cypress Valley). Lidao, the biggest plateau on the highway, is a village inhabited by Bunun aborigines. The great Mt. Guan Tunnel marks the eastern portal of the Yushan National Park; the peaks of the east side of the tunnel are wreathed in seas of clouds all year round, and the layered ridges and peaks provide breathtaking vistas of majestic beauty.


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