The cherry on top

My back was drenched with sweat, and cold. The long yellow and green grass on either side of the path rustled as the wind swept waves of mist across the hillside. One moment the top was visible; the next, it vanished in the fog. I climbed another few dozen stone stairs and looked up. There, like some ghostly apparition in the middle of the Anbu Trail, which cut upward through the grassy expanse like a shave line on a shaggy buzz cut, was a lone dog. Fur raven black, ears on point, it stood utterly still at attention, staring down at me.

I saw no owner, nor would one appear. Stray dogs abound in Taiwan; apparently, neutering is not in fashion here, and a pair of hairy balls dangles from the nether regions of every male dog, from the tiniest manicured schnauzer being pushed about in a pram to the scruffy brak living on the banks of the Tamsui River. I’ve yet to be threatened by one, but it was a momentarily unnerving moment – me and this lone Hound of the Taiwanese Baskervilles, alone on the slopes of Mt Datun in the fog and icy breeze at dusk. What was I doing up here?

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Truth be told, I was afraid to go down. I’d injured my foot playing basketball earlier in the week, and it was less painful walking uphill than down. So up I’d climbed, all the way from Yangminshan National Park, through the tiny farming village of Zhuzihu, with its calla lily farms swarming with visitors picking floral souvenirs, its grass-choked river being cleaned by workmen in black rubber boots, and narrow streets flanked by rosebushes and the occasional abandoned terracotta building, up a long stone staircase where the air was still and hot and humid, to the start of the Abnu Trail.

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This wasn’t part of the plan. I’d made my way out to the outskirts of Taipei for the cherry blossoms.

Cherry blossoms – humble little pink, white and magenta flowers that adorn the branches of cherry (and plum) trees from late February to early April in northern-hemisphere cities across the world – are big business. Go wander around Kyoto in Honschu, Japan, or Alishan in Chiayi County, Taiwan, and you’ll get an idea of the sort of crowds, both local and foreign, that these iconic blossoms can draw.

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Kyoto and Alishan are a little far from Taipei for a Sunday-morning jaunt, at least until my Gulfstream arrives in the mail, but the city is rife with places to see blossoms in bloom. One such spot is Yangmingshan Park in Beitou District, on the north-eastern edge of Taipei, which this year hosts a flower festival from February 10th to March 19th.

This means two things. First is, predictably, that it’s a great time to see flowers. The second is that it’s a great time to see humans. Crowds and crowds of humans in bloom, great drifts of them gathering in gutters and adorning every surface, stirred about by the breeze into noisy, messy, scattered piles. It’s true of any tourist attraction around Taipei, on any weekend, and particularly when there’s a festival on.

So it was at Yangmingshan. Inevitable rambling hordes aside, it’s a beautifully kept park, with a stream cutting down towards the parking lot where the little, bright yellow bus deposited us a little before midday. There was a light breeze and the sun made a valiant effort to cut through the omnipresent haze that hangs perpetually over the city. The breeze carried with it too the acrid scent of rotten eggs – located as it is on the slopes of a dormant volcano, Beitou is rich in sulphur deposits, and is popular for its abundance of public and resort hot springs. Walk over any sewer grate and you’ll feel a draft of hot, sulphurous air rush up at you. The local school where Jen teaches blames the sulphur gremlins for any and all computer and internet connectivity-related problems.

My camera seemed to work just fine, though and, keen to point it at subjects other than food stalls and vendors dangerously demonstrating training tennis balls on long elasticated cords, I ventured into the upper reaches of the park, up stone staircases and along shady paths flanked by vast patches of furry moss.

We saw a pair of stray pups gallivanting flirtatiously in the bushes and over the green carpet, which shone in the dappled sunlight. it was a beautiful scene, like a canine Adam and Eve – or, more aptly, Adam and Adam, the one unfailingly persistent hound seemingly unperturbed by the swinging member betwixt his intended’s legs.

Leaving the Garden of Canine Creation behind, we journeyed higher, along quiet pathways that eventually led us to up onto Zhongxing Road. Being wiser than I, Jen turned back, leaving me to limp ever upwards, past Zhongxing Guesthouse, constructed at the end of the 60s as a reception for foreign guests and a summer residence by Chiang Kai-shek. Tours were only offered in Chinese and I could not take photographs, which was off-putting, but by then I was too far gone to turn back. The road and the mountains beckoned.

Back on the Anbu Trail, the hound and I gave up our stand-off and continued in our respective directions, me ascending, it descending, lowering its head and quickening its pace as it trotted past me, its expression surely more wary and suspicious than mine.

I pressed on, seeking a picturesque place to drink my flask of coffee, by now more concerned about the encroaching gloom and my prospects for making it back to a running bus station. I was rewarded, ultimately, at the top of the trail by coming to … a road, which had essentially followed the trail all the way up, and led to the summit of Mt Datun and the start of what I assume was a rather wilder section of the multi-peak trail. There were hikers coming up off the trail, but none descending; the fog was impenetrable, much to the chagrin of the duo of photographers who stood determined with their SLRs perched atop tripods, waiting for a second’s gap in the haze to snap the spines of the hills or the sinking sun over New Taipei City to the west.

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I had not the patience to wait too long. The back of my shirt was soaking, I was frozen, and my coffee was tepid. I knocked it back, ate all my snacks at once, then set off back downhill to thumb a ride back to a functioning bus station before the misty mountain swallowed me whole.

Cherry on top? That was a bit of a misnomer, I suppose. There weren’t any cherry blossoms at the top of Datun. Still, I’ll climb any mountain any time, if it’s to run from an injury, search for blossoms, or just to drink cold coffee in the mist.

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