Traversing Taiwan's Mountains in the Typhoon Season

We arrived in Taiwan nearly an hour late for our rental car connection because, as usual, Shanghai airport's traffic controllers told the China Eastern jet it couldn't get clearance to leave for another 45 minutes after departure time. This is nothing however by comparison with Shanghai Honqiao airport, where heaps of flights were delayed for up to 24 hours because of an unannounced military air operation. causing outrage in the media. Then immigration had a snaking line of tourists about four hundred or so deep, taking nearly another hour.

Altar of a Chinese temple on the first evening as we ascended the hill country.

Nevertheless our VIP Car Rental ( [email protected]) man was there waving a sign for Chris King and after filling in a single form and signing away twice the value of the rental as a bond on VISA we took possession. Then I had to run back in to get money from the ATM and when I came out I had completely forgotten to figure where Christine and the car were parked in the multiple three storey parking lot. After some careful mulling we found on another but by this time the plastic coin the rental car drive had given us to get out and I had a lot of explaining to do to the man at the ticket office.

Close to dusk we were finally out on the road and rapidly found our way careening along at 110 kph towards the mountains to the west of Taipei. On the way we stopped in at a 7-11 to try to get some sustenance. The store chains 7-11 Family Mart and Hi-life have a new twist over their Japanese versions. Although their toilets don't have splash clean and heated bidets, they offer microwave tray dinners which you can get heated and eat right there, so we managed to have dinner of salad and rice curry on the fly for something like $3 US and pick up some milk, bread and bananas for the morning.

Christine did a very successful job of navigating and we drove very smoothly to the road leading up into the mountains that becomes the tortuous northern cross route across the central mountains. Just as we were about swooning out, we turned off on a side road to the Dongyan National Forest. We wound up the road for about 14 kms and stopped in at a grassy patch beside the road on the way to Mt. Manyueyuan.

The view from our first campsite in the morning with the urban plain in the far distance

In the morning, we had panoramic views from the mountains out over the urban plain. The day was shining bright for the first time after a stunning weather report on the internet for Taipei of five days of sunshine. despite it being the wet season. We first headed back to Fushing to go to the 7-11 to restock and go to the toilet, before heading off on the North Cross Road.

A deep river ravine on the North Cross Road

This is a small winding road with precipitous drops off the winding trail up the side of a very long valley that leads inexorably up into the mountains, It is very hard to give justice in a photograph to the enormous spaces you see tumbling away from the edge of the road. What appears to be a forested green hill at the end of the valley proves to be quite a high mountain which you keep driving towards, but don't seem to be getting closer to.

The corners are all dressed with convex mirrors which are essential to see if anyone is coming as the road is often too narrow for two vehicles to pass.

These valleys are too steep for a road to ascend except where it is possible to build a series of hairpins so there are giant swich-backs where the road has to travel on a precipitous contour right round the periphery of a valley for up to 20 kilometers to reach a point where you are gazing across at the town you came from. When there are hairpins you will sweep back to see the town you came from far below as in an aerial photograph.

North Cross via Lishan to Taroko Gorge.

Eventually the road wound up into the high forest where the mountains merged into the mist and then began to wind down into a rift valley that runs north south through the island descending in wide sweeps. The valley proved to be an odd affair. A flat stony river basin with orderly arrays of rectangular strips which on inspection proved to be a huge watermelon agriculture operation operating on a seasonal basis. The little towns along the valley were completely remote. No gas stations - no shops just agricultural workers settlements with streets so narrow we nearly scraped both sides of the car when we ended up down a cul de sac and had to reverse.

Further on we did come to a town big enough to finally get a fill of gas and a carton of papaya milk which was quite delicious. Then the road would up through a pass which was full of rather scrappy horticulture and orcharding operations producing peaches and naxi pears.

Just when we thought we had got to the summit of the pass, the road wound up again and we could see the town of Lishan above us on the crest of a high ridge that ran through the whole mountain valley. The closest terrain I have seen to this was the coca growing town of Coroico perched half way up the Andes. There were even mechanized flying foxes to get materials down to settlements below the road similar to the cable flyers of the Andes.

Individual water pipes entering a town. Mechanized flying fox on the way to Lishan.

The two most outstanding things about the difference between Taiwan and China as you drive through the countryside are firstly the evidence of private enterprise farming with roads out of farming towns littered with a spaghetti work of individual irrigation pipes set up by each farmer to secure a piece of the mountain water supply, reticulated from the same sources in the hills, so the road into a town was snaked with whole festoons of individual pipes seemingly a prohibitively costly operation, many of them with taps askew, some leaking at high pressure spraying the road.


The second factor is the ubiquitous nature of Chinese temples and shrines to the traditional family and martial deities, as well as Confucius. It is a very natural form of regional worship akin to the role of Shinto in Japan as a manifestation of founding myths and the spirits of the ancestors. This kind of worship which is endemic in Taiwan seems to have become dissipated in China although there are still some large Buddhist temples and an occasional Confucian landmark building.

Lishan proved to have a visitor centre enabling us to briefly e-mail NZ and recommended we go to the adjoining mountain farms for camping. We tried to do this driving steeply up the ridge from the town entering a strange conglomerate of farming operations that seemed an independent cooperative but was knitted together into one gigantic private enterprise operation which a huge visitor centre with an entry fee and busloads of Taiwanese tourists. Instead we drove a little way out of town at dusk and stopped in a vacant lot used to store unused power poles."  " 


This proved a good move because we had an okay night and it meant that we could see the wild terrain in the morning when we woke up at dawn. The road would through the valley in a 20 km long contour as I mentioned before with the road falling away n several places and two vast slips in the precipitous sections in the midst of repairs. After about an hour we had managed to worm our way to a point where we were overlooking Lishan from directly across the valley, where a short tunnel took us out to the Eastern side of the range.

View of Lishan from 20 kms out on the road to Taroko still in the same valley around a precipitous slip-scarred road you can see

This is where the fabulous Taroko gorge road began. We began to follow this road down winding the side of the Eastern valley with rally craggy mountain surrounding us and sections with vertical drops into the abyss of the valley below. The day was superb. Crystal clear and shining. So I stopped at some of the most nail biting points to point the camera off the edge and take in the majesty of the surroundings, with Christine who suffers panic spells of altiphobia trying to avoid the car being parked near the edge, anywhere a vehicle might bump it off or let it fall into the hideous deep drains that line every road in Taiwan to take away the torrential tropical rainfall in the wet season.

taroko1s.jpgUpper Taroko gorge

Gradually the road wound down until the craggy mountains gave way to green hills, but the precipitous drops and vast scale remained just as graphic. Finally we came to the town of Tianxian were there was a spate of activities for tourists up from the cities of the eastern coast and the place was inundated with day travelers coming to hiking trails and other nature sports.

A section of the old road into Taroko. You can just see a yellow taxi passing through the portal in the cliff!

We then set out to complete the last bit of the gorge to the sea down this road packed with buses and taxis and found the gorge hadn't given up its bite, for the road wound deep into a cleft with the river below and sheer rock walls on either side with the road in a series of tunnels, overhung cuttings out of the rock and those arcade barriers they build to stop avalanches and rock falls. Right in the middle was an old section of road now used for sight seeing full of trampers, taxis with grottoes made to get the older road through the solid rock walls of the gorge. Finally around the last bend the gorge arrived at the ocean as if in a collision course and we had reached the Eastern coast. From there we traveled south and stopped and set up camp at a bike park at Jici to the south of Hualien City.

On the way south down the east coast, we had stopped in at a visitor centre and asked them if the south cross road, which had been closed for five years after a typhoon in 2009 was open and they phoned on ahead and told us yes. So we headed south as fast as we could to make the connection.

An Amis harvest festival at Yuli

In the process we turned in from the coast and wound over the coastal mountains into the east rift valley, where we stumbled upon a really neat aboriginal harvest festival with the women making offerings of grain and wine in traditional costumes the men making speeches and then by degrees young and old women and men all dancing round together in a spiral circle dance to whoops and cries.

Everyone was very friendly and delighted to be photographed in their ceremonial finery.


We then traveled south until we turned up the south cross highway valley, rising up a river gorge, not as extreme as Taroko, but still very powerful, then climbing in hairpins up the valley mountainside until we passed tea plantations and eventually alpine forest finally entering the fog-bound highlands.

Then we ran into a road block right in the spirit of "The Amazing Race". All the traffic turned off at a national forest park entrance and the way was barred by a locked gate. The road was still broken! So we had to drive back down for a couple of hours to the coast again, then heading south because the only way back to the west coast was right down to the tip of Taiwan are around.

Tea plantations in the high country on the South Cross Road

We had intended to stop off somewhere on the shore thing there would be beach stops, but as we hit the coastline we realized we were on a heavy traffic dual carriageway with a rough coast full of concrete pylons and no beach stops at all. As dusk set in dark clouds came in and a heavy downpour which left the whole region saturated, and we were locked into a fast moving chain of traffic that eventually turned inland up an arterial highway connecting the two sides of the country.

This became a helter-skelter exercise, sandwiched between heavy trucks with cars overtaking in insane corners across no-passing lines, with the rain driving down hard and the windscreen so greasy that neither of us could really see the road ahead. I was dog tired but we had to keep moving because thee was nowhere to stop and the land was saturated.

Finally, when we came down to the western coast we found ourselves on a multi-lane highway and the rain hadn't fallen here and there was just some static lightning over the sea, so we made a meal on the alcohol stove and turned off the highway stopping in a side street of a town in the bushes beside the sea wall with Hawaiian size ocean swells crashing just on the other side shaking the ground on which we tried to sleep, woken at dawn by a dog barking close by and people coming to work. Fortunately however we were not rained out!

This left us pretty exhausted, but we had conquered the road block and were in striking distance of the western mountain roads so we spent the next day driving north on the mountainous edge of the western plain through small towns and over quite high passes.

The "Old Street" in Qishan

We stopped in the town of Qishan where it was market day and there was a street of old Chinese buildings.

Market day in Qishan.

We were aiming for another very high mountain road through Alishan which ascends more than twice as high as the others we had travelled, rising to 2600 metres or around up to 8400 feet at the saddle. For an island much smaller and narrower than NZ that's high for a road!

Interspersed through Taiwan are some really gross temples and monasteries. We stopped at the gates of the "Holy Glory Temple" a gigantic edifice set up on a mountainside to look particularly imposing. We also passed a particularly gross Buddhist Chung Tai Chan monastery set up like a gigantic concrete Lotus of huge proportions gleaming with spiritual materialism. Sxuality is the basis of all life so consecrating a huge gross concrete structure to monasticism is unbelievably depraved.

Two gross manifestations of spiritual materialism - Holy Glory Temple and Chung Tai Chan monastery

As we descended the last of the passes on the way before the turn off to Alishan the weather turned from sweltering humid sunshine in the nineties to a torrential cloudburst, so that we had to shelter in the empty market building at Jhongpu to be able to get out of the car and make some food.

At this point we nearly headed for the coast, but had the good sense to see if we could get up the mountain road and stopped at the visitor centre where we found a yound Taiwanese guy who had just graduated university in California and was able to do his military service as a national park advisor as he spoke excellent English. He phoned and checked that the road was open all the way through and we took off up the mountain valley. There was a bumper to bumper stream of traffic with large buses streaming out non-stop as the weekend rush came to an end. Just as the road began to ascend steeply we spied a deserted cafe and parked around the back where there was a little covered place for people to have drinks in case the rain washed us out in the night. Christine got us up in the morning at dawn just in time to pack before the caretakers arrived.

Alishan the mountain from Alishan the town

The next morning, rather than stormy or foggy was crystal clear and we spent the day winding higher and higher up the ridge which ran all the way to the final summit of Alishan where the is a big recreational park for hikers from the cities. The views were as sweeping and precipitous as those of Taroko. It is almost impossible for photographs to do them any justice at all but I've done my best to get some images together which I can process in New Zealand.

The Alishan range from behind after Dongpo

From Alishan, the road wound on upward to the eventual saddle after Dongpu. At Dongpu I stood on the foyer of a little three storey building with a sweeping view of the abyss and the mountains until I realized it was leaning giddily out and got off quickly to discover I was almost standing in empty space as the place was severely undercut by a huge slip and uninhabitable. It then wound down again in an equally breathtaking set of hairpins with views over the towns in the valleys far below.

The beginning of the final descent with the road down etched into the side of the ranges

A precipitous view of the road further down from a little further on

We then pressed on to Sun Moon Lake, an avowedly popular tourist destination with a cool clement climate which is blessed with exceptionally good weather. This was rather fun as it had a bunch of temples and a pagoda all of which were free to visit as well as a parking lot in the trees between settlements where we were able to camp discretely for the night without being disturbed. The lake boasts aboriginal settlements, and a Formosan aboriginal culture village but the one we did visit was very depressed looking and when we arrived at the culture village in the morning, it turned out to be a theme amusement park. So much for real cultural respect!

Sun Moon Lake and the pagoda

Last night we stopped off early at 2.30 pm pretty exhausted after visiting a temple just below the summit of a mountain loop road and are camped in a little rest stop with shelters just above another aboriginal settlement Baguali, further north in the mountains at the Mt. Lion's Head national scenic area. Several of the locals eyed us curiously, but we waited until dusk before setting up the tent under a little marquee with a wooden floor to keep out the impending clouds and rain.

View from Mt. Lions Head out to the coast

This proved fortuitous as the rain fell all night with gusts of wind on and off and we only got slightly wet in a couple of places. In the morning the roads down towards the plain were all littered with broken branches so there had been a real storm. When I stopped in for gas on the freeway the girl said there is a typhoon, Matso, arriving in Taiwan today so we are still not sure we will be able to catch our flight to Singapore for a one night stopover on the way back to Bali.

The urban face of Taiwan as we approach the airport

As things turned out many flights out of Taipei were cancelled and ours was postponed from 17.55 to 00.25. This was hideous because we had to wait at the airport from 16:00 when we dropped the VIP Car Rental car off to the relieved man after mistaking the departure gate for 15 minutes to a departure time of in the end around 1:30 am trying to fitfully sleep in the lobby, followed by a very cramped Jetstar flight arriving at 6 am and then another four and a half hours in Singapore airport waiting for our ongoing Jetstar flight to Bali. But at the same time another trans-Asia flight from Taiwan crashed after being delayed and suffering an aborted landing with the lose of 40 odd and 11 injured surviving so the typhoon season has certainly had it's toll as I write. And another piece of good luck was to get through Alishan the day before two sections were closed due to the typhoon as well as whole areas of the east coast we had traversed a couple of days before.

Finally now we are feeling a bit more chirpy on our return descent into Bali after getting coffee and cup noodles as a consolation prize for lobbying the air hostesses after Jetstar failed to serve the meals we had ordered and paid for on the first leg after the flight was delayed.