Text: Richard Saunders
Photos: Tri-Mountain National Scenic Area Administration, Vision
Changhua, the smallest county on the main island of Taiwan, has a rich history, boasting two of the island’s oldest urban settlements, Changhua and Lugang. The low-lying, sun-baked plains around the history-deep town of Lugang, once one of Taiwan’s most important ports, feature a mosaic of large man-made salt-extraction pools, reminders of an industry that once flourished here. Some of Taiwan’s finest Qing- and Japanese-era buildings can be found in the town.
Changhua City and its surrounding area are easily accessible from other parts of Taiwan by the conventional railway and intercity bus services. A Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) station is a few miles to the south of the city, near the town of Tianzhong. Getting around this largely flat county by bike is a pleasure, thanks to an excellent network of bike routes, and scooters can be hired from opposite Changhua Railway Station.
Though it may at first seem a flat, scenically uneventful region, there’s some fine hiking here, courtesy of an interesting anomaly: a narrow 32km-long ridge, known as Baguashan (Mt. Bagua), that stretches the length of the county from Changhua City in the north to the border with neighboring Nantou and Yunlin counties in the south. The ridge forms one-third of the Tri-Mountain National Scenic Area (www.trimt-nsa.gov.tw), established in 2001 to protect the cultural, scenic, and ecological assets of three regions in central Taiwan: Baguashan in Changhua County, Lion’s Head Mountain in Miaoli County, and the rural Lishan and Guguan areas in eastern Taichung City.
It’s just a 20-minute walk from central Changhua City to the northernmost point of the ridge, where you can visit one of the region’s most famous tourist sights: the Great Buddha, an enormous, gleaming-black, sitting Shakyamuni Buddha, which can be seen from miles away and announces the city long before you reach its streets.
Start at the Changhua Confucius Temple in the center of the city (the second-oldest temple dedicated to the Great Sage in Taiwan), head east, walk through a large ornamental gate beside the city library into Dongmin Street, and then turn left onto Guashan Road, which climbs uphill. Take the steps on the left at the first bend, passing the exit of the air-raid shelter complex housing the fascinating 1895 Baguashan Anti-Japanese Martyrs’ Museum, which documents the biggest battle fought during the 1895 Japanese occupation of Taiwan. Stone paths climb through the woods past the attractive arched, stone-built Silver Bridge and an artificial waterfall to join a road beside a large installation artwork made of metal called the Poetry Wall, just below the Great Buddha.
Standing 22m tall from the base of the lotus throne to the top of the head, the Great Buddha is Changhua’s most famous tourist draw. Finished in 1962 (after nearly a decade of work), it’s made of reinforced concrete and is hollow, with six floors inside, the first three containing exhibits detailing the life and work of the Buddha. Guarding the enormous statue is a pair of huge stone lions, and in front of them is a wide staircase that leads down to the attractive Nine Dragon Fountain and to an elevated walkway that traces a semi-circle and offers commanding 180-degree views over Changhua City and beyond.
For a closer view over Baguashan itself, try Changhua’s newest attraction, the Baguashan Skywalk, which opened in July. It starts near the Great Buddha and winds eastwards for a kilometer, first over parkland and buildings, then over natural woodland beyond, to finish at the National Changhua Living Art Center.
Gray-faced buzzards stop in this area for a few days every spring (around the spring equinox in March), at which time a large birdwatching event is held. There’s a visitor center on Guashan Road, a 10-minute walk east of the Great Buddha, located just after the plaque announcing the humble Mt. Bagua summit (97m). The center has a section with info (in English) on the buzzards and their annual migration through the area, along with a couple of impressive overhead models of the beautiful birds.
Next to the Mt. Bagua summit plaque, an ornamental white gate marks the entrance to the 1895 Anti-Japanese Martyrs’ Memorial Park. Inside are two Qing-dynasty cannons, the only remaining elements from a fort that once stood here. The biggest battle during the 1895 Japanese occupation of Taiwan – and the biggest battle ever fought on Taiwanese soil – took place here in August 1895, when the Japanese attacked local forces dug in on the slopes of the ridge, killing over a thousand defenders. In 1965 a total of 679 human skeletons were unearthed nearby, believed to be the remains of locals who died here during the fierce battle against the occupying army.
The battle is recounted in the earlier-mentioned 1895 Baguashan Anti-Japanese Martyrs’ Museum, passed on the left during the stroll up to the Great Buddha. The museum (free admission; closed Mondays) provides an introduction to the event, and although in Chinese only, there are lots of photos and audio-visuals which make it a vivid experience even for non-Chinese-speakers. The museum is laid out in part of the network of air-raid shelters and tunnels that riddle the hillside; the museum exit is beside the start of the steps up to the Great Buddha.
Tea plantation/Qingshan Temple/Mt. Heng trail
From the Great Buddha, the narrow, wooded Baguashan ridge stretches south for about 30km, and is best explored on a bike, along one of the excellent bike routes that crisscross the low-lying hills and total about 100km in length. Public bikes (from Changhua’s YouBike system) can be rented in several places around Changhua City, and at numerous spots around the national scenic area southeast of the city.
While cyclists could cover almost the entire ridge in a day’s peddling, visitors preferring to explore its gentle beauty on foot should head to the area around Mt. Heng. About 20km south of the Great Buddha, Mt. Heng (442m) is the highest point of the Baguashan ridge. It’s just a short walk to the summit from County Road 139 (the road that runs along the entire length of the ridge), but that walk can be extended to a pleasant ramble of several hours by connecting together several other trails that also lead onto the ridge from Qingshuiyan Temple, a kilometer or two to the west at the foot of the hills.
One path climbs up through the woods to the summit of Mt. Heng directly, while another, the Shibawan Historic Trail, takes a different route up onto the ridge further to the south. From the top, return along the Zhongyangling Trail to complete an attractive and easy loop hike of about 4km.
Mt. Heng is one of two summits along the Baguashan ridge included on Taiwan’s “Little Hundred Peaks” list. This humbler counterpart to the more famous Hundred Peaks (which include Yushan or Mt. Jade, the highest peak in northeast Asia; all of these are over 3,000m) was drawn up by the Executive Yuan Sports Commission in 2003, listing a hundred distinctive summits that are climbable in a day. The second peak on the list, Mt. Songbokeng, at the southern tip of the Baguashan ridge, stands above an important tea-growing area famous for its Oolong tea. A network of signposted paths can be explored here, including the short, easy walk to the 430m-high summit itself, or past rows of neatly clipped camellia bushes along the quiet roads of the Fragrant Tea Trail.
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