I had three books with me, about fourteen pairs of underwear and a compass, but only one pair of socks. The friendly convenience store attached to the temple interestingly sold beers, but no socks. The one pair I did have was mismatched, polka dot, and dangerously close to becoming a pair of little waft bombs.
Sleeping in a monastery is right up there with Mongolian yurt lounging and befriending older ladies who sell street-market treats on my list of highly romanticized Asian travel experiences. I suppose that’s how I ended up at a Buddhist centre in the lush mountains of Maoli County on my second day in Taiwan.
I’ll save my misadventures in actually getting from Taipei to Shihtoushan for another post. I will say though that the sock situation arose because I (really) hastily ditched the majority of my belongings in the left-baggage room of the Hsinchu Train Station. I stuffed what I thought I’d need for a few days into my daypack, and was off. There was some room for improvement.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t sure if I’d get a room, I wasn’t sure how long I’d stay, and I was really, really hoping that century eggs were not on the menu. Here are a few highlights of my time in Shihtoushan.
SLEEPING AT CHUAN HUA HALL
Having a private room, any private room, can feel like a luxury for a budget traveler. Having your own balcony? Oh sure, spoil me. When I walked down the steps to find room 306, I certainly wasn’t expecting to find this perfect portal. This balcony had it all. Gilded, painted and perched over the green canopy, it was the perfect size to drag a chair out and share many a contemplative moment with my socks. Har har. In all seriousness though, it was a really special place to watch the world go by.
Chuan Hua Hall faces west, prime for sunset gazing, but also staring out onto the towns that line an alluvial plain with concerningly large boulders (geologist concerns). Stacked hills as far as the eye could see, each one a slightly different shade of grey-green. It wasn’t just the sights, though. One of my favourite parts about working hard at doin’ nothing on the balcony, was the sounds. Birds, monks chanting, and the occasional and unexpected firecracker explosion, the sounds were dreamy.
Generally speaking, as long as a room has a sturdy lock and is reasonably bug free, I’m content. As it happened however, I spent lots of time inside during the three days I stayed here, so I appreciated the surplus of space and the private bathroom. I was a big fan of the animal print blankets, and commandered a second one from the other bed each night. It gets chilly up here in the evenings. The room was austere, it’s the Buddhist way, but really it’s just another reason to spend more time outside exploring the temples, pagodas and walking trails.
There were two main reasons that I cozied up in my room for much of the time. The first was that I had just flew in from Vancouver, and was working through my jetlag. The second reason is that Shihtoushan is not for the night owl. The folks here are on an early to bed, early to rise schedule. The day’s obligations start before 6 AM, and that was just fine with me. Getting up early always makes me feel accomplished and productive, even if I didn’t actually do much that day.
Oh, did I mention that this is Chuan Hua Hall, where you stay? Breathtaking! I couldn’t believe it.
History? Check. Nature? Check. Slope Stability? I guess, looked passable…
Shihtoushan is a mix of jungle, buildings of worship, and various other items of religious and/or historical interest, in different states of decay. There’s the beautiful and there’s also the kind-of-bizarre. The whole melting pot is built into both sides of the mountain and woven together by walking trails and stone steps. Excepting a nunnery, most of the temples are actually hewn into the mountain, or built into natural caves. Today’s Shihtoushan is the result of over one hundred years of effort on the part of Japanese colonizers, and also Chinese and Taiwanese influences.
Let me assure you, unless it’s really raining, the trails are totally okay for worn-in Keds sneakers and jeans (my hiking boots didn’t survive the Hsinchu Train Station cull). I traipsed around in the afternoons at a pace that would probably be considered a half-baked, but well-intentioned training effort for my upcoming hike up Snow Mountain. Sometimes it’s rainy, sometimes it’s foggy, sometimes it’s sunny, but all times it’s an interesting spot for a walk in the woods. Here’s a few of my favourite photos.
This week I’ve been throwing myself to the winds of Taiwanese hospitality, which I had heard so much about. Both my journey to, and time in Shihtoushan largely consisted of me being stoked on how kind and helpful people were to me.
The language barrier was significant, but I like to think I still managed to learn a few things about the men and women who live and volunteer at the temples here, albeit in an oblique way. Although I couldn’t do my usual rapid-fire question routine, having the opportunity to watch a sliver of their everyday lives (one of my main reasons for visiting) was interesting. To me they appeared to be a pretty relaxed and jovial group. A thank you goes out to all of them for not letting on that they noticed my sock issue.
Without a doubt, I was most smitten with a 74-year old man who volunteers at the temple just up the trail from Chuan Hua Hall. We had some chats and laughs each day, his English being about 190 times better than my Mandarin. He’s only left Taiwan once, to volunteer in South Africa of all places. I’m not sure which was more unexpected, that tidbit or him gifting me a recorder. Both were however extremely endearing.
Spoiler: No century eggs.
If you’re just visiting for the day, you can stop in for lunch for 100NT (it’s about 25NT to the Canadian Dollar at time of writing). If you stay overnight, it’s room and board for 1000NT. Three square vegetarian meals a day, served at fixed times, in a communal dining area.
Rice and several variations of tofu are prominently featured, joined by the day’s selection of interesting and varied vegetables and pickled things. In the mornings, you could guess what the meal accompaniments would be based on what was being being sliced, peeled and washed nearby. Served piping hot by the cute ladies in the kitchen. It was a solid introduction to congee for breakfast, and Taiwanese vegetarian eats.
SO, BACK TO NOT KNOWING WHAT TO EXPECT…
I could only find basic information, via blogs and an old LP book, about staying at Shihtoushan. To me that was a big part of the appeal. Part of me is hesitant to write too much about the area, for fear of ruining the surprise for others. The flip side of that coin is without the blogs and photos I had found, I probably wouldn’t have decided to visit here at all. So, let me just suggest that if you’re in the area I think you should consider going, and discovering Shihtoushan for yourself!