Writer’s Retreat on Lion’s Head Mountain

Quan Hua Temple on Lion’s Head Mountain in Miaoli is the perfect place for a solo writer’s retreat–but you won’t find peace and quiet there over a busy holiday weekend 

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Red temples ornate with aggressively colorful dragons, phoenixes, and other members of Chinese pantheon are as ubiquitous in Taiwan as convenience stores, but Quan Hua Temple on Lion’s Head Mountain in Miaoli County still manages to awe. It’s not just that it’s one of the biggest temples I’ve ever seen. The way that it’s nestled against the mountain’s dense green growth, a sacred human space in a natural sanctuary, makes for a breathtaking impression. The temple is not competing for attention against neon signs or tall buildings. The red roof and the rainbow parade of mythical creatures and gods dominates your visual field as well as your imagination.

 Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas
Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

There’s a hotel here, a place for hikers to rest before or after a long day of hiking the local trails. It’s my favorite space, one of my favorite places in the world. The rooms are simple and comfortable, with ceramic-tiled floors, wood-paneled walls, and a balcony looking out over the forest. If you ignore the parking lot to the left, or focus on the mountains looming in shades of gray beyond it, the view is spectacular. It’s just the view to distract and inspire a writer.

I stayed at the temple hotel for the first time in 2009, during the long Dragon Boat Festival weekend in June. I spent four days reading, writing, and hiking the way I imagined a real writer would. The isolation made for quiet and early nights, and early mornings. I took it as an affirmation of my calling that I enjoyed myself so completely with only books and notebooks for company.

I finally made it back over the 2017 Tomb-Sweeping Day weekend. It’s only two hours away by scooter from where I live in Taoyuan City, via the Provincial Highway Number 1 or the Number 3. The drive itself was therapeutic, particularly the part where I missed a turn and the GPS directed me along windy country roads past the Yongheshan Reservoir and up and down the nearby mountains. There’s nothing like swooping through the forest on these roads on a scooter, your whole mind trained on taking the curves. I wish getting in the zone came that automatically to me any other time.

When I checked in this time, the manager showed me to a room that had a double bed, but was against the back wall of the hotel, the side that literally faces the foundation of the temple itself. (Because all of this is built into the side of a mountain, the top floor of the hotel extends below the first floor of the temple.) I asked to switch to a room with the beautiful view that I remembered, but was told they were all booked. It was too late to do anything about it then, so I resolved to make the best of it. A real writer doesn’t need a view!

I fell asleep early—there are no restaurants or bars here, nothing to distract you from feeling tired. But I was awakened—everybody for a mile was awakened—at five a.m. by a ten-minute long round of bell ringing. I concentrated on taking deep breaths and listening to how the reverberations of the bell differed slightly after each clang, but in other little crevices of my brain, I was wondering why we humans can’t just appreciate the sounds of birds in the morning, or the wind in the trees. After a few minutes, I felt like I was seeing sound waves. When the bell ringing stopped, my blood pressure finally dropped. Then the drums started up. By now, of course, everyone in the hotel was awake, so the hallways were alive with the sounds of stomping and screeching didis and meimeis, and parents trying to get them ready for a day of hiking or travelling after what could not have felt like enough sleep.

I couldn’t get back to sleep. At seven, the hills were alive with the sounds of angry car horns and the frantic whistles of someone trying very hard to herd traffic. I definitely picked the wrong weekend to reject civilization and look for solitude in the mountains. Children raced back and forth over a metal grate above my window, bridging the gap between the wall of the hotel and the foundation of the temple. There I was, fuming like a bridge troll.

I tried to write when I got out of bed at 9 a.m., but I was using all my energy telling myself that I should be able to concentrate anywhere. Finally, I just found the manager and asked her if I couldn’t change rooms for the next two nights. It was no problem. I got my view and a balcony. However, the new room had two twin beds instead of a double, and no bathtub–but I am willing to make sacrifices for my art.

I switched rooms just in time to hear the chanting start at the pagoda across the way. The sound traveled through the hotel, the temple and the trails throughout the mountains. It went on for about two hours while I tried to write, tried to convince myself there must be some spiritual benefit in it. The benefit only came when it stopped and I felt incredibly relieved.

Chanting in the mountains.

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Then it was time for lunch and hunger compelled me to face other humans. Goals aside, we were all united in trying to get that free lunch. I came out a winner: Unlike all the families, I had no trouble finding a place to sit at a thin table up smooshed against the wall. It was ideal for eating but not having to hazard any questions about why my husband wasn’t with me. The meal was surprisingly tasty. Of course, it was all vegetarian, which is fine by me, but if you struggle to enjoy seaweed, fried gluten, or meat-shaped chunks of vegetarian edibles, you might want to stick with the instant noodles and cereals available at the little shop on the temple grounds.

After lunch, more chanting. On a loop, I told myself it was good for me, wished it would stop soon, and berated myself for coming on a religious holiday weekend. But by the time it stopped at four o’clock, I had finished a first draft of one story. I spent the rest of the day reading and watching the parking lot clear out, drivers honking and car alarms sounding off until sunset.

As I was getting into bed around nine o’clock, I resolved to get myself upstairs when I heard the bell tolling to see if I could get any photos of the sunrise. Instead I woke up at 5:30 to the pleasant sound of chirping birds. Without the bell, getting out of bed seemed less urgent. I didn’t get upstairs until 6:15 and then I headed off to stretch my legs along the Lion’s Head Mountain Historic Trail. Before I got very far, an elderly monk wiping down a giant urn stopped me to find out where I was from. I must have been just the audience he was waiting for, because he launched into a long, fluid speech about all the foreign friends from different countries who come to visit little Taiwan, which is in fact a very wonderful place, and it’s very important for everyone in the whole world to get along. I only understood about half of what he was saying, but as long as I stood there smiling and nodding, the old monk kept talking. So I smiled and nodded and reflected on what kind of stereotype it was, talking to a monk in a temple on a mountain in Taiwan, the kind of experience that friends back home might imagine is available to me all the time. Then the monk’s phone rang very loudly, breaking the mythical spell. He pulled a slick red flip phone out of the pocket of his orange robe and I escaped up the trail.

There are loads of temples within walking distance from Quan Hua, and loads of mountain trails in this area, but I’m not an adventurer on my own. I worry too much about getting lost, getting bitten by snakes or dogs, getting assaulted, or some horrible combination of the three. So I stuck to the trails and the roads, and had a lovely walk through the still-quiet forest. I even saw four incredible Formosan blue magpies and a large hawk, none of whom would cooperate for a photo. When I got back to my room, it was just past eight o’clock. I had my coffee and a shower, and went over the draft of my story from the day before. The bells rang, briefly, and farther away, and I could hear the cars navigating the three-story parking lot, but overall, the second full day was much quieter. There was still a lot of chanting at lengthy intervals, but it stopped again after lunch and I took a nap with the door open and the room full of fresh air. The rest of the day I spent reading and writing, more motivated knowing I would leave the next day.

Even with the curtains open, I didn’t wake up until 6:30 the next morning. It was blissfully quiet outside except for bird songs. The light came in soft and quiet through the beveled glass. Taking another walk would have been healthy, but I had to check out at 11 and didn’t want to give up the last few hours of writing time. Of course, the writing was going very well, and I wanted to stay another day, but it only comes so easily when there’s a deadline coming at you with a gun to your head.

I confirmed with the woman at the front desk that it’s much quieter when it’s not a holiday weekend. I’ll come back again when everyone else is too busy, and I’ll leave my phone at home. The only thing to distract me will be the view of the trees that extend the mountains and the mountains that extend to the sky, as far as you can imagine.


Tips: If you plan on spending a chunk of time in your room, don’t bother coming unless you get one of the rooms with the balconies. The rooms on the other side of the hotel are fine and clean, but about as cheery as prison cells—not exactly an environment conducive to creativity.

If you don’t plan on eating the free vegetarian meal (served at 6:30 a.m., 12:00p.m., and 5:30 p.m.) and you don’t want to lose writing time driving around, bring your own (non-perishable) snacks and drinks. There is a small shop on the temple grounds, but the selection is very limited.

The cost of a room is NT$1000 for 1-2 people. Ask about charges for additional guests.

There is an air conditioner and a TV in each room, but you won’t need the TV because you’ll be writing.

There is a desk-like vanity in each room, with a stool, and also 1-2 beds, a nightstand, a small coffee table, and two wooden chairs. I pulled one of the chairs in front of the vanity to write, and when I got tired of sitting, I put the coffee table on the bed and wrote standing up. There is plenty of room for pacing and the balcony is an excellent place to stand and stare at the skyline.

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