I never imagined those two would meet in the same sentence. But put in the right context, I was surprised to discover it could make sense. For starters, both represent otherworldly notions, whether it is in the cosmic or spiritual sense of the word. They also feature prominently in Chinese mythology. One popular folk story chronicles a forbidden romance between the Weaver Girl (believed to be the star Vega) and Cowherd (the star Altair) who are banished to the opposite ends of a galactic river (Milky Way) while biding their yearly reunion on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month. Known as Qixi Festival, this is the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day when singles visit local temples to pray for luck in their love lives. As fate would have it, my partner and I crossed paths with these two entities while hiking along a certain jungle route near Xindian, the southernmost suburb of Taipei city.
On day eight of our travels in this island nation, or what K quite aptly summed up as “Eat Sleep Hike Taiwan”, we sat shoulder-to-awkward-shoulder with four strangers in a gondola as it floated up the mountain towards Maokong. Most tourists go there to savour Tie Guan Yin tea or to visit the nearby Taipei Zoo, but the area is also home to a network of hiking trails. We were headed for a certain Yinhe Cave, but the significance of its name only dawned on me later.
The trail started off as a series of steps behind a teahouse, but the path gradually faded as it merged into dense wilderness. Our battle with overgrown knee-high jungle grass and feisty blood-sucking mosquitoes was, as K joked, not unlike the dreaded outfield expeditions during his national service. If not for a thoughtful someone who had spray painted the directions on rocks, we might have completely bypassed the Yinhe Cave Waterfall.
Yinhe actually translates directly to “silver stream”, referring to the slim waterfall that lopes gracefully over the cliff face. It could also mean “milky way”, the silverish band in the sky formed by billions of stars. From a certain angle, I imagine the spray of water droplets could resemble the scattering of stars in a galaxy. I was told the falls were more impressive after a heavy rainfall, but it was what laid beyond the falling stars that I was more curious about.
Built in 1914, Yinhe Cave temple has only been renovated once in the 1950s but has stood the test of time for more than a century. I have been to many temples, but this setting is most unique. Carved into a sheer rock face, the narrow cave-like interior housed a small prayer hall where an altar with many figurines stood. K recognised them to be different manifestations of Guan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion who is revered by Buddhists in this part of the world as the Goddess of Mercy. A signboard above the altar bore the Chinese idiom “别有洞天” which plays on the Chinese character of “cave” and is used to describe a place of extraordinary beauty. Indeed an apt expression.
At the far end of the cave, we found a large statue of Lü Dong Bin, the most prominent of eight immortals from a popular Chinese legend and worshipped by Taoists. Apparently it was not unusual for most places of worship in Taiwan to combine the major religions of Buddhism, Taoism and folk religion under the same roof. I was not a pious person, and neither did I typically linger long at religious sites on my travels, but this quiet and peaceful shrine made me feel almost zen-like.
In another forty-eight hours, I would be at my desk replying week-old emails and wishing I was back in this spiritual space. As if reading my thoughts, K leaned in slowly and half-whispered ‘Time to go.’ He too, it seemed, was afraid to break the sacred silence and stillness around us.