The Island in Microcosm - Ever-Changing Caoling

Water Curtain Cave (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)

Water Curtain Cave (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)

Have you ever seen a mountain fly? In the early hours of September 21, 1999, when the huge Jiji Earthquake caused roughly 3.5 kilometers of the south face of Mt. Jue­duo in Cao­ling, Yun­lin County, to break loose in a landslide, an estimated 120 million cubic meters of earth and rock “flew” for about three seconds. The landslide formed a dam across the Qing­shui River, creating a barrier lake that became known as New Cao­ling Lake. The Cao­ling landscape has continued to transform in the years since the quake, with one of those changes being the draining of the lake when the dam collapsed.

The Great Steep Wall may look like a hill, but it is actually a huge fractured stone.
The Great Steep Wall may look like a hill, but it is actually a huge fractured stone.

Caoling’s landscape features extend beyond its flying mountain and barrier lake to hanging valley waterfalls, canyons, moulin potholes, “beehive” cliff faces, and stalactites. Formed through orogeny, sedimentary processes, erosion, and landslides, the area’s strange terrain is a microcosm of Taiwan’s geological landscape.

To raise public awareness of the area, community residents pushed the government to establish the Cao­ling Geopark, Taiwan’s first community-promoted, government-created geopark, in 2004.

Community protected

When a tropical depression inundated central and southern Taiwan with several days of heavy rains in late August 2018, Cao­ling Geopark didn’t suffer as much flooding as lower elevations, but the wind and rain did knock down trees and boulders. The day before we arrived, a team of community residents reopened the road themselves by clearing the rocks and trees.

The Cao­ling Geopark has been a grassroots effort from the start.

Caoling was a major scenic destination in the 1980s, but in the immediate aftermath of 1999’s Jiji Earthquake, tourism to the area declined sharply, and the local economy with it. Fortunately, the earthquake-­created “flying mountain” and barrier lake attracted the attention of geologists and the general public, sparking a new wave of tourism.

With geoparks becoming something of an international trend in the early 2000s, and residents recognizing that their area’s diverse landscape met the criteria for such a park, the community petitioned the government to create Taiwan’s first “citizen-proposed, government-­approved” geopark.

Geoparks have four core values: landscape conservation, environmental education, geo­tour­ism, and community participation. Wang Wen-­cheng, a professor in the Department of Geography at National Taiwan Normal University, says that geoparks really stress local participation. “Community participation and conservation are the keys to success.”


Jason Cheng leads us up the 45-degree slope of the Great Steep Wall to see fractures in the rock.
Jason Cheng leads us up the 45-degree slope of the Great Steep Wall to see fractures in the rock.

Caoling residents’ active part­ici­pation in the conservation of Cao­ling’s geology and topography, and their education of their children and grandchildren about the environment, have created a thriving symbiosis with the park.

In-depth tours with local guides

★Orogeny and landslides: A Jiji Earthquake memorial

Most community residents live in the Shang­ping, Zhong­ping and Xia­ping commercial districts, each of which stands on an area of flat ground. “The three flat areas were formed when orogenic processes lifted a fluvial terrace,” says Wang. Taiwan’s landscapes were created in a process that began roughly 6 million years ago with the convergence of the Eurasian Plate and the Philippine Sea Plate. The resultant squeezing of the Earth’s crust created Cao­ling’s irregularly folded mountains.

We set out from the Flying Mountain observation deck led by Liao Wei­zhi, the director-general of the Cao­ling Community Development Association. The landslide brought on by the 1999 quake created a barrier lake called New Cao­ling Lake in the Qing­shui River, but flooding caused by Typhoon Min­dulle reopened the river channel just five years later.

Liao points out that the 1999 landslide wasn’t Mt. Jue­duo’s first. Historical documents show that the barrier lake that formed in 1999 was the fourth in recorded history. The forces pushing the mountain do so unevenly, and periodically shove its flank into the river’s channel. Over long periods of time, the earth supporting that flank washes away, leading to landslides. Though Cao­ling is always changing, these changes have a detectable rhythm that has enabled residents to develop their own special relationship to the Earth.

★Erosion: Water Curtain Cave, Frog Rock, Youqing Valley

Caoling Village secretary Chen Ying­yun is a young person who moved back to the village last year. Subscribing to the idea that “our hometown depends on us,” he became active in local affairs soon after. Today, he is both showing us around and checking on the condition of roads.


The magnificent Wannian Canyon demonstrates how water cuts through rock over time. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)
The magnificent Wannian Canyon demonstrates how water cuts through rock over time. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)

After enjoying the varied landscapes for a time, we visit Water Curtain Cave, which reemerged once New Cao­ling Lake disappeared.

The large cave was eroded into the cliff behind a hanging valley waterfall by the flowing waters of the Qing­shui River. Visitors strolling through the cave feel the purifying spray coming off the water pouring down from above. They then climb a set of stairs to a frog-shaped rock “reclining” atop Beehive Cliff and another stalactite­-filled cave. The “beehive” holes are the result of erosion of the cliff’s sedimentary rock.

The clifftop offers panoramic views of rock strata built by ages of sedimentation, the distance between the layers approaching the mysterious golden ratio. You can also see the interlinked moulin potholes of the You­qing Valley. The product of dripping water, they are a testament to the power of perseverance.

★Fluvial terrace, biogenic deposits: Wannian Canyon

Prior to heading to the V-shaped Wan­nian Canyon, Liao mentions having discovered it with a friend. “It looked like it had been around for thousands and thousands of years, so I named it ‘Wan­nian [10,000-year] Canyon.’”

Created by the erosive force of the flowing river, the canyon is even older than its name suggests. Minerals color the layers of rock that make up the cliff faces on both sides of the canyon in whites, grays, yellows, and browns. It is gorgeous, with travertine seaming the rock, and fossilized shells waiting to be collected.

An elementary school classroom

Located within Cao­ling Geo­park, Cao­ling Eco-Geo Elementary School (CEES) is Cao­ling Village’s only school. Since all of its graduating students have to move away from the village to continue their educations, Jason ­Cheng, CEES’ director of general affairs, says that its curriculum aims to help them understand their hometown’s culture, industry, ­geology, and ecosystem. “At the least, it helps them understand that their roots are in Cao­ling,” says ­Cheng.


Liao Weizhi points out a new path opened up by a landslide resulting from 1999’s Jiji Earthquake. The river has already eroded new moulin potholes in its surface.
Liao Weizhi points out a new path opened up by a landslide resulting from 1999’s Jiji Earthquake. The river has already eroded new moulin potholes in its surface.

The school has since added tree-climbing and river-tracing classes to its curriculum. As Wang Wen-­cheng says, “Cao­ling shows all the typical characteristics of sedimentary landforms, including tectonic uplift and river incision, making it an outstanding geological classroom.” ­Cheng takes an active approach to education, introducing the kids to geology up close. “The layering in the rocks is like that of a layer cake, each stacked atop the other. The joints, which are fractures in the rocks, are like slices in the cake.” The school also teaches the children to identify sandstone and shale.

The classes are conducted both in the school and in natural settings. Local homes are sometimes drafted into use as well. The curriculum shows that geology isn’t difficult and alien, but rather something immediate and present in their lives. It teaches them that the land and its people are closely connected.

A renaissance

Caoling’s focus on tourism means that it has to continually upgrade its offerings.

To that end, Wang and community residents have recently developed a “Ten New Scenic Spots” walking tour that sets out from the Flying Mountain observation platform and visits Flying Mountain, Water Curtain Cave, Great Steep Wall, Qing­shui River Paradise, Peng­lai Waterfall, ­Shibi Valley, Yun­ling Hill, Tong­xin Falls, Wan­nian Canyon, and an area with fossilized shells. Their aim is to transform the geo-classroom tour into a more in-depth eco-tour.



The school has also played an important role in Cao­ling’s transformation. “The first step was to inventory the geo­park’s resources,” explains CEES principal Lin Ping Mao. “The second was to share our culture so that our local stories and our local character would have a context in which to move other people.” Meanwhile, ­Cheng and his colleagues are continuing to build on the school’s strengths, developing a comprehensive eco-experience course to provide the community with a reference it can use when planning package tours.

Wang says, “God casts down different materials at different times, forming different layers.” God spread a variety of materials at Cao­ling: ancient geology, local culture, and younger residents such as Chen Ying­yun. Surely people will soon begin visiting Cao­ling in greater numbers to take in the scenery, sample the region’s famous Gu­keng coffee, and come to know some of Taiwan’s most resilient people.