Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Cave Temples of Lion's Head Mountain

The dense foliage and sandstone caves of Lion's Head Mountain has long provided a place of retreat from the everyday world.  Over the years it has been adopted as a sacred site for Buddhists in Taiwan.  The mountain is dotted with assorted temples and pagodas from miniatures to grand edifices, many of which are sheltered by a cave.  A network of trails, some rugged and others paved, links them all. 

It was a genuine retreat for me, as inclement weather deterred all others.  I didn't encountered another soul on the trails or at any of the edifices during my two-hour meander. The solitude emphasized the mystical nature of the setting, but at a certain point I was hoping someone might come along when I wasn't certain which fork to take in the trail.  I'd gone astray often enough on the bike, I didn't need it to happen when I was expending much more energy picking up one foot after another and with the threat of the rain resuming at any moment.  

I felt lucky to being able to hike at all, as when I arrived at the Visitor Center at the trail head it had been raining for half an hour and looked as if it could continue all day. While waiting to see if the rain would abate, I was able to have a prolonged conversation with the English-speaker of the two people on duty--an enthusiastic young man who seemed to be fresh out of college.  Most of the Visitor Centers are staffed by women in their thirties or forties who don't often speak English, but there has been an occasional young man such as this one.  It was nice to see the profession attracting such competent, eager fresh blood.

After about half an hour when the conversation had turned to sports, he asked me if the shirt he was wearing meant anything to me.  It was a tan official shirt such as Park Service Rangers wear back home, unlike the casual attire of his woman colleague.  "It indicates I'm in the military," he explained.  "This is my military service.  I was lucky to get this position."  Every young man is obligated to enlist when he finishes school, whether it be high school or college or beyond.  Up until a couple years ago, one served for a year.  Now it is four months.  When the law was changed it applied to anyone born after 1994.  This young man was born in1992, so he had to do a twelve-month stint, one of the reasons he was granted such pleasant duty.

His English was impeccable, as he had spent seven years going to school in Australia.  His parents thought he could get a better education there than in Taiwan.  When he came home during summer break he couldn't stay more than two months, otherwise he would have lost his student deferment and been immediately conscripted.

He is an ardent basketball fan and envied me that I was from Chicago and was old enough to have seen Michael Jordan play.  Baseball used to be the most popular sport in Taiwan, especially since teams from the island once dominated the Little League World Series, winning the title seventeen times beginning in 1969.  Eleven Taiwanese have made it to the Bigs in the US, the first in 2002.  But basketball has overtaken baseball as the most popular sport in Taiwan, largely due to chronic and pervasive mob-related game-fixing and betting scandals.  

One can place a bet legally in Taiwan on any sporting event, including the NBA and MLB.  The public lost all interest in Taiwanese baseball when it became clear that the fixing of games was so deeply rooted that not a single action on the field could be trusted. As it is, any player with talent goes to play in Japan, and if he is truly talented, to the US.  The only time the Taiwanese can trust their players to be giving it their all is in international tournaments.  Those games the players truly care about, especially when Taiwan is playing Japan.

As we talked, the rain miraculously abated. Clouds still hung heavy and low, but I couldn't resist the lure of the temples.  There were a couple within a ten minute stroll.  I could always turn back if the rain resumed rather than making any of the several loops.  Just below the Visitor Center was a temple alongside a stream with several illuminated glassed-in Buddhas under a large overhang.

The first temple on the trail to the mountain top was much more rustic and basic, more a simple shrine than a temple.

As at most of the temples I have visited here, there were offerings of food.

There were more pavilions than temples along the trail, offering shelter for rest and reflection.

A jolly over-sized Buddha peered down upon the trail from another of the temples.

Some of the temples started out small, then grew and grew, completely camouflaging the cave that was there origin.

The trail was paved and wide enough for a car to reach these larger temples.  A spur led off to a sacred seven-trunked 400-year old camphor tree that had a 100-year old companion.  It is known as the Mother-and-Child Tree.

If this had been one of my sunny days, I would have continued my hike to the summit of the mountain and its weather station and on to the point where the trail had been blocked by a landslide, a common feature of Taiwan.  I saw many on the roads with large teams of workers dangling from ropes on cliff sides mounting metal netting trying to contain the cliff from sliding any more.  One road through the middle of the country has been closed for several years from a severe landslide.  

One has to be continually wary in the mountains when it is raining that rocks could come atumbling.  The threat of rain held off until late in the afternoon.  I was within forty miles of Taipei and just enduring its sprawl when the rain recommended.  I immediately began looking for a place to camp.  There was too much light to take advantage of several potential sites past fields into forested mountainsides.  With the rain came a strong north wind, so I wanted a site protected from the wind.  I at last found one in a field of high reeds.  I was fortunate to find it before I was too wet.  With the temperature plummeting I needed to add some layers and use my sleeping bag as a quilt while I had another wonderful night of eating and reading in my tent, the last one of these travels before a final two days in Taipei.

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