Guizikeng Water and Soil Conservation Education Park (貴子坑水土保持教學園區)

         

Wuzhishan (Five Finger Mountain) presides over the pond at the cumbrously-named Guizikeng Water and Soil Conservation Education Park

 From my sulphur-mottled balcony, I scan the mountains for familiar points of reference. At irregular intervals I’ve been picking these markers off piecemeal, as what spare time I have permits. With my family now away for a protracted while, a good deal more delving is in order.                                                        

Directly east, the painted white characters for “red” and “phoenix” on the rock at Danfengshan (丹鳳山) are symmetrically obscured, the outside edges  peeping from either side of a cluster of straggly branches.*                                                        

Overlooking the rock, a tall, landmark pylon stands rigid like an upturned syringe, its barber shop red and white indistinguishable on as typically hazy a day as this.                                                        

But most noticeable are the scattered sombreros of pale orange tiles that glint softly through the hillside scrub: Temples galore, embedded in the mountainside like pale gold nuggets in a treasure chest lined with thick green felt.                                                        

Several weekends now I have tilted at the same distant curved roof, a slanted parallelogram of processed cheese, as snug in its hillside cove as a Tetris piece just snapped into place. I trace a route along Zhongyang South Road (中央南路), up Guangming (光明路) to Xinbeitou (新北投), over to Zhonghe Road (中和路), then – in my mind’s eye – take to the foothills somewhere around Xiushan (秀山), weaving my way up to my destination.                                                        

With each attempt, I get closer. At least I think I do. But once I arrive at where I think my ascent should begin, I can’t get my bearings for the life of me. I’m stuck at the foot of the mountain, too close to my target for the perspective needed to proceed.                                                        

I’m pretty sure I have it locked down this time. But then I was last time. Perhaps the frequent beer stops haven’t helped.                                                        

In the end, though, my  ineptitude yields something much more rewarding: accidental treasure.                                                         

So many of my discoveries in Taiwan happen this way and there’s something paradoxically satisfying about setting off in pursuit of one thing and ending up with something completely unexpected.                                                        

That’s how I stumbled upon the Guizikeng Water and Soil Conservation Education Park (貴子坑水土保持教學園區). Despite its rather uninspiring name, this three-tiered recreational area set in the shadow of Wuzhishan (五指山), Taipei’s oldest geological formation, is a bona fide gem of a find.                     

                  

                     

                  

                  

                  

                  

                  

                 

                

                

                

                

                

                

                

                

From Xinbeitou, you walk all the way down Zhonghe Rd until you hit Xiushan, then turn right and start walking up the hill. The nearest MRT is actually probably Fuxinggang (復興崗) from where you take Zhongyang North (中央北路), then turn left up Daoxiang Rd (稻香路) past the library and onto Xiushan.                                     

You can’t miss the road as things suddenly get interesting, with an aqueduct running right down the middle and staggered baffles (appropriate, as I had not a clue what to call them until a colleague took a look at my snaps and told me) all the way up. I’m not sure why, as these concrete slabs are stationed in a perfectly orderly fashion, but they brought to mind the higgledy-piggledy headstones of the Jewish Cemetery at Josefov.                

               

               

               

               

               

               

               

               

               

The park is on the right hand side, less than 10 minutes at up the hill at a brisk trot. The bottom level consists of a sizable green with an ampitheatre that could seat a couple of hundred at a stretch. This area would be perfect for a live music event, the park’s slightly inconvenient location notwithstanding. A sign indicates such an undertaking would be possible as long as the authorities are notified. Food for thought.                       

A local tabla group was beating out rhythms in the ampitheatre the last time I was there.

               

               

               

               

               

               

               

              

          

   At the shady fringes of the lawn, there are benches and picnic tables, while at the far end, where two sets of steep steps take you up to the next tier, there’s a concrete building with gas outlets for barbecues. With nature slowly encroaching, the facility is looking a little run down and the outlets don’t seem to have been operational for some time.                

The second level is where the park comes into its own. On a clear summer day it’s gorgeous. The centrepiece is a small pond with water sprinklers, where the prerequisite turtles and koi glide through the sun-flecked green murk. People picnic, play cards and snooze at the benches and tables in the shade.          

         

At a couple of places on either side of the pond,  a trickle of water breaches the cobbled path, with a set of stepping stones in place for fording the hazard. There’s about as much point to these as throwing water over taps to “clean” them after use, riding your scooter through a heaving nightmarket, and clothing for dogs; but they prove a hit with gamboling youngsters, drawing them in with the magnetism of a sofa in front of a Sponge Bob double header.         

         

Scenic spots in Taiwan are often passed off as having some kind of cultural or educational value in a contrived, half-arsed way, a bunch of useless signs imparting sod all of any worth in either Chinese or English.         

I’m not saying you’ll leave this place incredibly enlightened but the stab that is made at explaining the geology, demography and history of the area is reasonable. Aside from having a great time scampering around, the school kids brought on outings here might actually learn something.                  

The first character of the park’s name is the fourth tone “Gui” (貴), meaning expensive. It was originally the third tone “gui” for “ghost” (鬼), which, according to a sign referred to the evil visited upon locals during the 60-plus years that the area was mercilessly mined for clay and landslides were a frequent and serious menace.**         

         

   Clay pits opened under the Japanese and were a major source of ceramics for the country at one point. Mining for various other minerals like quartz continued until 1979, when the instability of the land became too serious to ignore. An edict prohibiting drilling couldn’t have been much consolation to Beitou’s farmers, who two years earlier lost a reported 80 percent of their crop when a major typhoon wreaked havoc on the denuded slopes. Flooding across the district was another result of official slackness in dealing with the problem. 

Walking round the far end of the pond you get to steps leading to a third layer with a wooden walkway that takes you to the base of the mountainhead. A rabble of aggro dogs that seem to have something to do with one of the groundsmen lurk on the dilapidated slats but they beat a hasty retreat when you approach, content to continue their bluster from the slopes.  

 At the end of the short path you’ll see several tiers of eco-friendly buttressing stacked up to keep the elements in check. In fact the whole of the area, down to the baffles in the aqueduct is one big land and water management system.

Further on, cut into the face of the sandstone rockface itself, are a couple of gullies for drainage. I’m not sure what the stones attached to the surface of these are for. They look a bit too small to be baffles and give me the impression that they are there as footholds, perhaps for the people involved in the conservation and maintenance efforts. I haven’t checked whether one can climb to the top of the mountain. If it’s possible, I’ll slog up there next time.          

I can’t speak highly enough of this place. For committed urbanites, it’s a little out of the way but you can be in Beitou in less than 25 minutes from main station and from there it’s less than an hour’s walk at a decent pace. True to form, having found the place by fluke, I noticed a big sign for it opposite Xinbeitou MRT the other day. It’s never been close to crowded when I’ve been there, though, at least not in the Taipei sense of the word. 

If you’ve got kids take a ball along for a kickabout on the grass and a picnic for the nice cool rest areas up top. Or just have fun exploring the nooks and crannies of this lovely little retreat.  

I still haven’t found that temple.

  

*Out on a morning stroll, I approach a trio of local lads chuffing Mild Seven Ice Blues next to the local tennis court. One of them kindly scribbles the obscured characters onto a namecard for me. “Dan” and “feng.”   

“‘Dan’ as in ‘Danshui’ [the place] ‘dan’?”

“No.”

“‘Dan’ as in ‘dandian’ [a la carte] ‘dan’?”

“Uh uh.”

“Which ‘dan,’ then?”

“‘Dan’ as in ‘dan ni’ [Danny] ‘Dan’” 

Ah. 

 **The Taiwanese being a notoriously superstitious bunch, this unpropitious character was apparently changed not long after mining was outlawed. Several other explanations for the nomenclature have been suggested on this handy page, which also has some good background on the history and geology of the place.

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