If you visit Hualien and want to see the Chingshui cliffs, a gorgeous waterfall and Chihsingtan Beach, you’re going to have drive along Taiwan’s Suhua Highway, one of the world’s most dangerous roads.
I had to give more information to the woman at the Clinique counter this morning in order to buy face cream than I had to give a car rental company in Taiwan to rent a car. I had to give the Clinique assistant my email, my home address, phone number, bank details, skin type, purchase history, all information she assured me would never be used to spam me within an inch of my life and convince me that I MUST buy the new £30 eye cream immediately unless I want to make people physically ill at the sight of my crow’s feet wrinkles and under-eye bags.
By comparison renting a car in Taiwan was an anonymous transaction. Nick, the enterprising teenager looking after the apartment were renting for a few days in Hualien, assured us that it was cool to rent a car in Taiwan without an international license and even gave us directions to get to a rental place he recommended.
We turned up, as bold and clueless as always and explained in English to Chinese-speaking people that we’d like to drive away in one of their cars, thank you very much. After a fairly shouty phone call from Nick they handed us a rental form, in Chinese, which we randomly populated with bits of information we thought might be relevant, in English. I had my driving license and credit card ready, expecting the rental company to take a copy of my license and a deposit from my credit card, but instead they handed me the keys to a brand new Toyota and showed me the door.
None of us had ever driven an automatic car before and it was years since I had driven on the right side of the road. In Taiwan the traffic rules seem more like friendly suggestions than laws, there are no stop signs and the traffic lights seem to flash on and off in about twenty different baffling combinations.
With all this running through my mind I was more than relieved when my brother agreed to drive and I got into the back seat of our new car, given to us for free at this point with no guarantee from us that we were even going to return it. Every employee of the rental company came outside to watch the show as we screeched and jerked our way down the street, through a red light and around the corner.
Su Hua Highway
There is nothing like the freedom of having your own wheels and being slave to no one’s time table but your own. I looked out of the window like a kid on a family holiday as we sped away from the Hualien City and towards Provincial Highway 9, part of Taiwan’s East Coast National Scenic Area.
All we really knew about this drive was that it was scenic, the highlight being the beautiful, white Chingshui Cliffs. Now, more than ever before, I’m embracing a low-research approach to travel. There’s a balance to be struck when it comes to forward-planning. I want to know what’s what in each place I go to make sure I don’t miss out on something amazing but also I don’t want to spend hours with my head in a guide book or on the internet, planning everything to the nth degree.
Thanks to this low-research approach we had no idea that the road we were driving on is considered one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the world. Until 1990, the Suhua Highway, which is a 118 kilometre section of Taiwan’s Provincial Highway No.9 was only one lane wide with a number of ‘passing loops’, no guard rail separating traffic from the insanely close cliff edge and a constant danger of falling rocks. Even since the improvements made in the 1980s, this stretch of road is considered incredibly hazardous for drivers and although I knew nothing of the road’s notoriety I did feel slightly anxious about all the blind bends and the crumbling cliff edge that dropped off to nothingness sometimes less than a foot from our car.
This anxiety didn’t stop us from regularly pulling over to take photos of course.
We found our way to the famous Chingshui Cliffs. The view of the cliffs as we approached them, even from the backseat of the car, was stunning. It’s easy to find the optimum place for viewing the cliffs, just follow the parade of Chinese tour buses being driven by betel leaf chewing lunatics who have a timetable to keep and couldn’t care less about creating an avalanche just to make good time.
Viewing platforms are terrible places, they really are, and now with the invention of selfie sticks they’ve actually become quite dangerous. Has anyone ever been knocked unconscious by a Chinese grandmother inexplicably swinging a selfie stick like a badminton racket?
The view of the Chingshui Cliffs from the viewing platform is stunning and this is where both my photography skills and descriptive powers fail me.
There was a cool breeze up there on the cliff side and strands of hair kept slapping across my head and tickling my neck. It was fairly overcast, the bruised clouds slouched overhead, menacing with the threat of rain but I still struggled to see without my sunglasses because the light reflected from the blue sea was so bright, so dazzling, it seemed to shine up from some mysterious source under the water.
Su Hua Waterfall
After a while we wandered away from the crowds as still more people arrived and rushed off their tour bus, determined to make the most of their ten minute allocation of ‘cliff viewing’. We drove for a while back in the direction of Hualien but pulled over when we saw a waterfall.
There was a huge sign at the approach to the waterfall with a list of don’ts. I wish I had taken a photo. It said things like ‘No eating and drinking’, ‘No fires’, ‘No littering’, ‘No climbing’ and another hundred or so forbidden activities all with huge fines attached. We took off our shoes and cautiously climbed up the waterfall. It took us a few minutes of splashing about and taking photographs to notice that at the bottom of the waterfall at the river’s edge there was a family sitting around a fire eating a picnic.
Eventually a girl from the family spoke to us and explained that they were local, aboriginal people and this land belonged to them. They even invited us to eat with them, a kind invitation I wish now I had taken them up on but at the time I felt like we were intruding and we shuffled off a few minutes later to let them enjoy their meal in peace. The sign seemed so funny as we left, a feeble attempt to exert control over a people who couldn’t care less about what a government sign forbids them from doing on their own land.
Almost back in Hualien now we made one last stop at Chishingtan beach. I don’t think I had ever seen a real pebble beach before that day. The storm clouds were starting to announce themselves, whipping up the wind and darkening the sky and the whole crescent bay looked ominous. Peebles where there should be sand, black where there should be white and huge, crashing waves that would surely claim anybody who dared step into the water.
We didn’t know it at the time but this unusual wind was a distant whisper of Typhoon Koppu that was at that minute battering the Philippines. When we arrived back in Hualien the typhoon was all over the news and if its trajectory continued as predicted it could have hit the east coast of Taiwan in the next few days. Hualien is just above sea level and backed by mountains. A terrible place to be in a typhoon.
‘Someone would tell us what to do if it hit here though, right?’ I said. The consensus between my brother and boyfriend was yes, everything would be fine, and more importantly, where were we going to eat tonight?