Changchun Shrine (長春祠) and a hidden bell-tower, Wishes to the spirits
As the sun slowly set and the gorge and valley sunk into gentle twilight, we made our last stop of the trip at Changchun Shrine close to the eastern end of the park. The shrine thrones on top of a broad waterfall on one of the widest areas of the river. At this cinematic location, it looked like a whole Tibetan monastery when we quickly drove by earlier that day. Later, in the dim evening light and after stopping the car, we were able to see it for what it was, two small roofs ducking under the heavy mountain flanks raising behind it. With the tourist buses slowly leaving and the air cooling down, the pulse of the valley became much slower, giving the place a serene spiritual weight.
The path to the shrine lead to old caves that looked like beaten out of the rocks centuries ago but were actually just 60 years old. The shrine itself and even the river were much more humble than they appeared from afar. It is a small area, the few flights of stairs were quickly made, but the place invited us to linger a bit.
Back in the car, our guide Danny surprised us with another stop before heading home. Turning away from the main road he stopped at another very shaky bridge, mysteriously asking us about our deepest wish. We were to cross the bridge and follow the steps of a narrow path up the hills to an old bell tower. “Hit the bell three times, and your wish will become true. But don’t tell anyone of it.” Indeed, the path was long considering the long day behind us, but hidden in the jungle, we finally found the old tower, with a heavy bell certainly half a meter thick and one meter tall hanging from the top. Its dark, crushing sound echoed in the valley below as we sunk our wishes once more into our hearts to sent them up towards the evening sky. It was a magical place and moment, of a gravity that asked to be remembered, not photographed.
Once back at the car, the sun-lit sky quickly lost its last color as the scenery around us shifted first into grey and then black. With the cliffs falling to our right towards the sea and the mountains flanks rising to our left, sinking into the night clouds from underneath, it was easy to imagine how people used to believe in ghosts and spirits in this area, how missionaries and adventurers feared the skull collectors living in the mountains.
The single street trailing up the coast was still full of cars, a metal snake curling up the hills in the slow speed of the construction sites’ traffic lights. While his wife called from time to time to ask for him, Danny told us stories from his former life as a sailor traveling the world’s oceans. Of buying his life’s most amazing sunsets with two straight years away from home. Then, he suddenly steered the car off the main road onto its older sibling. Passing Su’ao Township (蘇澳鎮), he stopped at a cliff towering over the harbor where Taiwan’s (actual) Pacific fishing fleet was getting prepared to leave the harbor for its nightly trawling. Again the old gentleman has surprised us, proving once more that it often needs the right moment and story to make a place truly beautiful.