瑪陵尖 Malingjian

Hiking Taiwan

The Xiaobaiyue list contains 100 small peaks across Taiwan. Each can be reached as part of a day hike, some in as little as half an hour. Others will require a full-day commitment, especially considering transportation from and to the trailhead. While the popularity of each hike differs, none of them is obscure by any means. Plenty of people try bagging all 100 ensuring a steady stream of hikers on the trails.

However, the Xiaobaiyue list has evolved over time. Most use the latest version from 2017 as their bucket list. This leaves 16 peaks removed from the previous versions for one reason or another. They get far less attention and make for attractive alternatives.

One of these hidden gems (秘寶, “secret treasure”) is 瑪陵尖 Malingjian in Qidu (not to be confused with a hill of the same name near Taoyuan).

I take a local train from Taipei to Qidu, arriving late afternoon. Behind the train station, the view is the same as in many Taiwanese cities. Small shops and residential houses sit side-by-side along a narrow street shared by cars, scooters and pedestrians. I’m the only visitor, and I have my eyes set on a patch of green slowly materializing behind the concrete jungle of Qidu. Houses get fewer and further apart, and the road begins to weave its way upward to a small settlement.

Dogs are barking in the distance, which always makes me feel uneasy.

You might come across different types of dogs while hiking in the lower mountains of Taiwan. The first group are on someone’s land. They will usually bark the loudest as they protect their owner’s property. If the house is fenced in, you won’t encounter them up close. If it’s not, most of the time, the owners tie them to a leash. This can lead to scary situations because a dog might notice you much sooner than you see it and then leap towards you unexpectedly, only to be held back by its chain at the last moment.

I feel bad for these animals who often have to endure the heat and humidity of Taiwan in a small shelter next to a busy road all day. Therefore, some owners, especially in more rural areas, don’t leash their dogs. This, however, can be highly unnerving when your only trail is a narrow road leading past the house the dog is protecting.

The other group of dogs are strays. They are usually tame and avoid or ignore humans as long as they mind their business. However, if your hike runs through what they consider their territory, you still need to be somewhat careful.

The fun (or not so fun) part about hiking in Taiwan is that you usually don’t know what kind of dogs you’ll run into. You just hear them barking in the distance, hoping for the best.

There are two (only loosely marked) trails leading up to Malingjian. While I pass the entrance to the first one, a group of strays comes jogging down the forest road. I let them pass and begin following the yellow plastic markers hanging from tree branches, indicating the path.

The trail is beautiful. Gently climbing through the forest, I gain altitude quickly and soon reach a small ridge. I navigate overgrown trail patches from here while the late afternoon sun creeps through the trees. The North of Taiwan is known to receive lots of rainfall, and I have a small umbrella in my backpack just in case. Today, I’m lucky. Rain clouds begin to fade, and I prepare myself for a gorgeous and unexpected sunset. It’s been a wet couple of weeks recently, so I excitedly keep pushing towards the top, my heart pumping heavily from the intense workout.

The peak is a small rocky platform standing a few meters above the trail, which opens views in all directions. The total hike is only 1.9 kilometres, with an elevation difference of fewer than 200 meters. However, the terrain still made me earn today’s summit. My reward is a 360-degree view over Qidu, Keelung, the Northern coast of Taiwan and even all the way to Taipei.

In the distance, Taipei 101 is clearly visible. There’s green all around, except for an industrial area which my brain can easily disregard. Instead, I focus on the sun’s warmth and the gentle breeze beginning to blow over the hilltop. I ponder how amazing it is to reach this gem of a mountain under an hour from Qidu’s train station.

It’s tempting to wait for the sun to fully set, but I didn’t bring a headlamp. Even if I had, I’m not sure I want to be on a mountain with so many stray dogs after dark.

After a few minutes of descent, I choose the second, slightly shorter route. The return is much faster, and 30 minutes and a brief interaction with the local dog gang later, I’m back in Qidu.

I’ve done nearly a hundred hikes in Taiwan, and it’s hard to name favourites. Whenever I begin to think I’ve seen it all (which I try not to), the next trail turns out even more beautiful, exciting, demanding or, in another form, more interesting than the previous ones. My bottom line is that they are all unique in their own ways.

That said, hiking in the hills in the North of Taiwan has a special place in my heart. There’s something about the dense vegetation, lush greens, ocean views and coastal climate that makes them unique. Of course, the weather can be a factor. When it rains, you might find yourself amid an adventure. The trails turn into streams, streams into rivers and yourself into a muddy, wet puddle of misery longing for a hot meal and shower.

If you come back often enough, you’ll get lucky, though, and the rewards are sweet, like the sunset views from Malingjian.