An Easy Walk Through the Historic City of Hengchun

When people think of visiting Pingtung County, the majority will picture the beaches and old street of perennial favourite, Kenting. The resort town can get a bit crowded though, and luckily southern Taiwan has more to offer, so even tourist-shy travellers can take advantage of the mild winters. The old town of Hengchun is one great alternative to Kenting, and the historic city walls provide visitors with the perfect ‘no plan’ day out. Just lace up your shoes and start walking, letting your interest and stomach divert you as necessary.

Built in 1879 by Qing dynasty authorities keen on strengthening city defences against local indigenous tribes, the walls themselves have been damaged multiple times, and now very little of those ancient walls remain. At the time it wasn’t uncommon for the authorities to protect urban centres with walls and gates (other places like Taipei and Changhua also have historic gates and place names derived from long demolished structures), but Hengchun’s are unique. Due to their distance from the power centres of successive governing regimes, they were spared damage from fighting or from authorities wanting to impose their image of an ideal city, and all four original gates have been left intact.

Distance: The walls themselves are 2.6km, but we probably ended up walking almost three times that because of diversions and whatnot.

Time: We spent a leisurely four hours to wander around, stopping for coffee, visiting a temple of two, talking to dogs, and just generally exploring anything which caught our interest.

Difficulty (regular Taiwan hiker): 0.5/10 – not difficult in any way.

Difficulty (new Taiwan hiker): 1/10 – walking in the heat may be tiring if you’re not used to Taiwan’s climate.

Total ascent: Very little, a few metres here and there.

Water: It’s a good idea to take your water bottle with you, but you’re never too far from refreshments. We included a couple of stops for coffee and snacks along the way.

Shade: Not too much, I used my umbrella the whole way.

Mobile network: Clear throughout.

Enjoyment: I would thoroughly recommend this as a way to explore the little southern town of Hengchun. It may not take you on a tour of all of the sights and scenic spots, but it is a wonderful way to get a good feel for the place.

Route type: Loop

Permit: None required.

Jump to the bottom of this post for a trail map and GPX file.

We started our walk from the south gate after an alfresco breakfast in front of the post office. This seems to be by far the busiest of the four gates – as would be expected but it’s still a popular photo spot. Later on during our visit we witnessed whole tour buses being coralled into photo formations by flag-waving tour guides. Heading right, we began our clockwise journey.

It wasn’t long before we encountered our first section of the old walls, and naturally we climbed it.

These days, however, there is little need to protect Hengchun City from marauding bandits and so there are multiple roads which just cut straight through the wall. This means that only kids and the city cats could climb down the straight drop at the far side. We meekly retraced our steps and instead followed the narrow alley which runs alongside the wall.

After crossing over Hengxi Road we found ourselves in front of Hengchun Jun Fude Temple (恆春郡福德宮).

The rather plain looking red metal entrance belies a much more dramatic interior, and it’s worth going in – if only to check out the life-sized dragon and tiger deities. Actually I guess only the tiger one is life-sized, I have no idea how big or small a dragon would be. Like the next temple we passed, this one seems to have been build around a natural cave, and the back wall of the altar is bare rock.

Most of the walls’ span is far newer than the original construction. This section running beside the temple’s carpark seems to have been rebuilt at some point with a couple of buildings worked into the structure of the wall itself.

It offers several neatly placed orifices which are perfect for the type of photography that my mum absolutely loves.

The day we arrived, we parked our car right next to this spot and watched a group of junior high school kids try to smash plaster off the building’s internal walls.

Before following the walls on to the western gate we stopped to take a quick diversion up to the one ‘hill’ contained within the walls.

Rather grandly called Mount Houdong (猴洞山 or Monkey Cave Mountain), it is in fact little more than 20 metres above sea level, and just a few metres higher than the surrounding land. In the early days of Hengchun’s settlement, the hill was a place of worship for the aborigines who lived in the area, and during the Qing dynasty, it was included as one of the “Eight Scenic Spots of Hengchun.” The people on the selection committee must have been rather strapped for ideas, because (aside from its jagged coral reef rocks) the hill is really quite unremarkable. In the intervening years however, the hill and the park around it (now known as Shipai Park, or Monument Park) has played host to Japanese forces and KMT soldiers, with each successive group leaving marks of their presence. There are two remaining Japanese steles, the highest up the hill is called the Loyal Souls Stele (忠魂碑), and the lower one is translated to the Weapons Maintenance Monument (兵器整備碑). Both were defaced at some point following Japan’s withdrawal from Taiwan. It is simultaneously understandable and sad that this type of relic would become a target for vandalism – there must be many such sites.

On the inner edge of the mound there is a trip hazard map indicating some of the features of the historic settlement.

After coming down from Mt. Houdong, we found our first section of wall to climb. (Or at least the first section with proper steps.)

Local government officials have gone with a very interesting form of path work here. Rather than erecting fences (presumably because they would have detracted from the structure’s aesthetic appeal), they have instead constructed a two-person wide channel demarcated by a low curb. It seems almost designed to trip up unwary walkers. (I guess this hasn’t actually happened though, otherwise you’d have to think that they would have beefed up the safety features).

Right by the western gate there is a section of the original walls. It’s encased in a protective box to keep it out of the elements and away from fiddling fingers.

We climbed down from the walls here to take a look at Guangning Temple (廣寧宮). Like the temple we’d passed earlier, this one too is built right onto the rock face. There’s something particularly charming about the colours of this one, at a distance that bright blue with the multicoloured detailing reminds me of narrowboat artwork from back home.

We climbed down from the walls here to take a look at Guangning Temple (廣寧宮). Like the temple we’d passed earlier, this one too is built right onto the rock face. There’s something particularly charming about the colours of this one, at a distance that bright blue with the multicoloured detailing reminds me of narrowboat artwork from back home.

We took a break here and wandered away from the walls for a bit to find a coffee shop despite having not long finished breakfast (we were ok holiday, why not).

There was some kind of straw sculpture festival going on when we visited. Frogs and snails seemed to make up the bulk of the creatures represented, although there was also this eagle and a deer.

It was about here that Teresa cracked open a can of beer – not our usual choice of hydration on a hike, but she felt like getting into the holiday spirit.

Proof of beer can be seen to her right here.

The view looking into Hengchun from outside the northern gate.

The outer edge of the northern gate has a couple of portholes in it which Teresa naturally made good use of.

The stretch of wall leading away from the northern gate is actually a dead end, but it might still be worth a wander if you’re interested in folk culture and history. The first structure of note is this tall and spindly chimney, part of what looks like an old brick kiln. I imagine there must have been a fair few such kilns in the past given that all of the walls and gates were built using red bricks. The land around it looks to have been cleared and flattened, perhaps in preparation for some building work, but perhaps the kiln will escape unscathed, it has been left untouched so far.

A little further on this bizarre looking skeleton of a temple came into view. I asked Teresa what it was and she knew instantly, this is the site of Hengchun’s annual ghost grappling festival.

Also known as the Qianggu Competition, this event was first held during the Qing dynasty and then reinstated in 1981 after being banned to prevent injury by a Qing official and prohibited during the period of Japanese occupation. Held on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month (during ghost month), the rituals that form the celebration are meant to help townspeople chase away the souls of hungry ghosts which might otherwise cause mischief. The highlight of the event is the evening pole scramble during which teams compete to climb greased up 23m-high poles in order to capture the flag and secure their victory. These days the competition is a friendly and social event (although not without risk), but in the past it was aggressively competitive and teams vied violently to secure their portion of the food prizes.

After making it as far as the ghost grappling tower we walked all the way back to the north gate and then walked back along the road to the eastern gate. This gate was my least favourite. I’m not sure why, maybe just less character, but on claim to fame that it has is that if you walk out of here for 15 minutes or so you can visit Hengchun’s eternal flame (a spot where there is a continuous outpouring of flaming natural gases from somewhere below the earth).

We climbed back up onto the final walkable stretch of wall by the eastern gate and made our way back to where we’d begun.

Close to a baseball field, the brickwork becomes a wooden walkway, and we paused to watch a couple of teams have a practise match.

We stayed up on the walls for as long as possible, until they eventually ended and we had to take the steps back to road level.

Soon we were back where we had started: at the southern gate.

How to get to Hengchun

Google maps address: We started and finished out walk from Hengchun’s southern gate, but you could just as easily start from wherever you find yourself.

Public transport: The easiest way to get to Hengchun is to take the THSR as far south as you can, getting off at it’s final destination: Zuoying Station. From in front of the station you can board the 9189 Taiwan Tourist Shuttle service to Kenting, alighting when you arrive at Hengchun Transfer Station. The journey to Hengchun will likely cost you a day’s travel if you’re coming from the north, so it’s well worth staying several nights. We spent three there, and I left feeling like I would have been happy to stay another two at least, I’m not sure why, but I really liked this place.

Further reading:

Hengchun City Walls Trail Map

GPX file available here on Outdoor Active. (Account needed, but the free one works just fine.)

Come and say hi on social media:

This is the bit where I come to you cap in hand. If you’ve got all the way down this page, then I can only assume that you’re actually interested in the stuff I write about. If this is the case and you feel inclined to chip in a few dollars for transport and time then I would appreciate it immensely. You can find me on either Ko-fi or Buy Me a Coffee.

2 thoughts on “HENGCHUN CITY WALLS (恆春縣城)

  1. I’d say 恆春 is right up there with 鹿港 in the quaintest south Taiwan coastal village contest. Do hope your mother ets to spend plenty of time w. the two of you taking in Taiwanese stone windows.

    Liked by 1 person

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