-By Dr. Anjan K Nath
Taiwan is characterized by its central mountain range that runs right through the island from north to south and we had always wanted to cross over from the west in Taichung, where we live, across the mountain ranges to Hualien in the east coast. Easier said than done, but it seems that a sort of nostalgia had overtaken us especially so since I was brought up and lived most of my life in the Khasi Hills at the foothills of the great Himalaya mountains. It was the last day of school before we closed for the Chinese New Year vacation and as we picked up the children from school the bug had bitten hard. We got home, rushed to put away our books, a hurried bite to eat, back into the car, on to the new Highway no. 3 intersection near Tunghai University, and off to Tainan in the south of Taiwan on to the first leg of our adventure around the highest peaks of Yushan and Hehuanshan.
The new highway was inaugurated just the day before on January 15 2004 and it is an engineering marvel with six lanes most of the way on elevated ramps and with a speed limit of 110 km/h. Needless to mention that we made it to Tainan, a distance of about 160 km in about one and a half hours. Tainan is noted for its places of cultural interest and its special cuisine; popular amongst many are the “coffins” – a special sandwich in the shape of a coffin. If one is not put off by the name and appearance, the treat is delicious! We were stopping the night at Tainan in order to get off to an early morning start before embarking on the south cross-island highway.
The morning saw us up early and we were thankful that it was bright and sunny as we crept out of the city and on to the outskirts where we were to join the cross-island highway, some 30 km away at a place called Jiasian. We reached Jiasian around 8:30 am and noted two things: (1) The distance to the east coast was 252 km; (2) that there were no gas stations along the way and that we needed to fill up our petrol tanks here. A thoughtful reminder for the unwary traveler.
The road from Jiasian onwards was mostly up-hill through beautiful hills and dales – a sort of Wordsworthian landscape – as we wandered amongst the clouds. Most of these roads are at the foothills of Mt. Yushan (Jade Mountain) and the Yushan National Park. One of the amazing wonders of Taiwan is that there are so many National Parks in this small island and each one is preserved and maintained so well in its pristine state as to give one the glory of the island at a glance. Although human habitations do exist along the mountain route, there are very strict zoning regulations and one hardly sees any encroachment of the forest lands or deforestations of any sort. The inhabitants here are mostly the aboriginal people who by vocation are farmers. The orchards extend for acres on end and we caught the plum orchards in full blossom. The plum and peach blossoms against a background of the rising mountains were spectacular and we just had to stop to take some pictures. The children were simply ecstatic: “I’m sure we can do the same in our hills back home,” they repeated over and over again. The similarities were hard to ignore as we longed to be lost to wander lonely as a cloud; but we had to move on.
Mei-Shan, the entrance to the Yu-Shan National Park was our next stop. Mummy was at the wheel and she had to drive very carefully as this was the first time that she was driving on mountainous roads; moreover, one has to be careful on these roads and watch out for frequent landslides as the geological/geographical topography of the island is relatively new (some 30,000 years since it was formed after its separation from the mainland) and the strata is relatively loose, consisting of small rocks and shale somewhat like the roads on the way from Medziphema to Kohima in Nagaland. In fact, for most of the trip we had to watch out for falling rocks. We didn’t stop here for long as we had to cross the mountains before three o’clock in the afternoon as visibility would be reduced to almost zero after then. We drove further up till we reached Tien-shr at around noon where we stopped a short while, ate lunch and was grateful to stretch our cramped legs. High up on these mountains we had literally lost touch with the outside world as our mobile phones could not make contact. This was to be a regular occurrence throughout the trip and we were getting used to it by now. Was there any real need to contact the outside world when we were in one of our own in full conspiracy with nature? Coleridge himself couldn’t have imagined a pleasure dome more paradoxically savage and enchantingly holy as these dark, snowy mountains “enfolding sunny spots of greenery.”
Time was short at 12:30 pm and we had to end our romantic tryst with nature as we had to get to the bottom of the mountains by 3 pm; so we set out again. The road wound itself up as we reached the highest peak of this mountain range at a place called Kuan-Shan where the mountains are in constant dialogue with the rivers through the medium of the ephemeral mists. Of course, we had to stop: “… just like on the way to Dawki or Nongstoin!” These were meaningless names to those around us as they have never been there, but Cherrapunjee, yes, one has heard of the rainiest place on earth. And yes, we were at Mawsmai Falls when the mists suddenly lifted for our benefit for a few seconds and we could get a rare glimpse of the famous falls. We could see the similarity and the beauty of the places, the only difference, perhaps, being that scenic and tourist attractions in Taiwan are quite well developed and managed. Here in the middle of apparent nowhere we found a few vendors selling barbecued sausages, corn on the cob, and coffee or tea. Ah, and tea never tasted so good as up here in freezing temperatures and clean rarified air!
We wound our way down hill from here on. The fog and mist had begun to increase in density till visibility was reduced to only a few feet and as compared to when we had set out, we were now reduced to a crawl. Luckily, Wulu, our next stop was not too far away – perhaps, an hour or so at a snail’s pace. Wulu is a one horse village along the lower reaches of the south-east cross-island highway, with a police station, one restaurant-cum-provision store, and, very surprisingly, a fancy hotel run by an aboriginal tribe. We had earlier booked a room in this hotel, but had not expected such luxury. Having checked in on arrival a little after 3 pm, we walked around the surrounding hills working up an appetite for dinner. Dinner was going to be early as we intended to soak in the natural hot-springs later. Taiwan abounds in the number of hot-springs and we love to luxuriate in their warmth and enjoy the therapeutic benefits whenever we can. The hot-springs at Wulu are of the calcine type, unlike the sulphur hot-springs of other areas and this is a popular get-away for people from the cities along the east coast. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves at the spring and totally relaxed our sore muscles in readiness for the next phase of our trip.
We left the hills of Wulu early on the third morning as we got ready for a drive of another three hundred kilometers to Hualien on the east coast; our intention was to be there before nightfall. The rising sun greeted us as we coursed along and took in the beauty of the agri-horticultural farms that dot the countryside. The ever expanding rose and flower gardens and orchid green-houses were a treat and we stopped at several to see what we could learn and, perhaps, pass on to our countrymen back home. One of the interesting aspects of these farms, as well as tea gardens, is that nearly all of them cater to tourists. There are elaborate rest areas and places where one can buy snacks and enjoy a cup of tea or coffee. One of the farms that we particularly liked was the Reishei Farm where we stopped for a while to enjoy the fresh atmosphere and refresh ourselves. Not soon after, we left the hills and descended to the foot-hills towards Chi-Shan and onwards to the south-east highway to Hualien.
On reaching Chi-Shan we re-fuelled as this was the first gas station we came across since Jiasian. They were true to their word after all. As we left the rest area, I couldn’t help but recite Wordsworth: “Ten thousand saw I at a glance/Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.” Not knowing the reason for this outburst, the family followed my gaze and there, “When all at once [we] saw a crowd/A host, of [multi-coloured cosmos]/Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” The euphoria was spontaneous as we beheld them as “They stretched in never-ending line/Along the margin of [the highway].” Of course, we had to stop and take a few pictures.
The stretch of road between Chi-Shan and Kuangfu was quite uneventful, except for the unusual practice of driving with the headlights on even in bright sunlight. We say this is unusual as we have not seen this enforced in other parts of Taiwan. At Kuangfu we made a diversion due east and headed over the hills to the east coastal highway which we joined at Feng-Pin, a little village at the crossroads. We shall always remember this place for the delicious chicken-burgers and fried chicken we bought at a small nondescript food stall – KFC should hide their heads in shame! We were now on to our way north to Hualien which lay another 65 kms with the Pacific Ocean accompanying us on our right. The sheer majesty of the Ocean left us with a feeling of insignificance as our senses tuned in sympathy to the symphony in blue. The beaches along the Pacific coast are simply beautiful; we stopped at Ji-Ji beach and collected a few stones that had been polished by the buffeting of the waves and sand to a brilliance resembling jade. This part of the island is noted for its brilliant and multifarious ornamental rocks and forms part of a lucrative industry.
Dusk saw us into Hualien which had become overcast and threatened to rain and cast a damper on our plans. We, however, were prepared as Hualien without rain is unthinkable; it is said that it rains nearly 300 days in a year. The next morning as we set out for the Taroko National Park it really began to pour. We were quite upset initially as we had to be confined to the car and not be able to get out as and when we wished. Rain or no rain, the Taroko gorges stand gigantic in its own majesty. We were treated to some of the most awesome views in our trip, the fog and the mist adding to the mystery of the sheer marble cliffs. Here we experienced another marvel of highway engineering as we snaked up the mountains along a two-lane motorway punctuated with numerous cantilever and suspension bridges and tunnels bored right through the solid rocks. Some of the tunnels were quite long and reminded us of the ocean tunnel in Hong Kong under Victoria Bay. The scenery all along the Taroko Park was spectacular and had it not been for the rain we might have taken a few more pictures; this, however, has to wait till another time and better luck.
The rain increased in intensity as we reached Tienshr; we drove on and were lucky once in a while as the rain abated when we could get out of the car and stretch out. The drive along this route was quite pleasant actually as the roads were in excellent condition; sakuras (cherry blossoms) were in full bloom and their strewn petals on the roads were spread in an endless red carpet as if to welcome us. As we arrived at Dayulin, at a height of 2565 metres, we heard with some excitement that it was snowing in Mt. Hehuanshan (over 3,000 metres), our next scheduled destination. Our excitement, however, was short-lived as when we arrived at the check-gates we were told that the roads had been closed due to the heavy snowfall and were asked to make a detour to Lishan and then make a further detour to Puli and then to Taichung as the Lishan—Taichung section of the road was still not operational. This section of the road was severely damaged during the massive earthquake that hit Taiwan on September 21, 1999 and it is said that it cannot be rebuilt till the ground settles down in perhaps a decade or so. We had not planned for this contingency, but took it in our stride as part of our adventure.
It was freezing cold as we approached Lishan (Pear Mountain). Truly amazing that when we set out from Taichung three days ago we had left behind almost Summer temperatures of 28o C, drove through plum blossoms of Spring along the south-east cross island highway, and now we were experiencing below zero cold winter temperatures. Wasn’t it John Keats who surmised: “Oh for a life of sensations….” The hillsides around Lishan, as its name suggests, are dotted with pear orchards and tea plantations extending for miles on end. The characteristic of these orchards is that the fruit trees are not allowed to grow to their full height, but pruned and trimmed to a manageable height and the branches spread out like an umbrella. When the fruits are formed, they are individually enclosed in paper bags so as to prevent infestation by insects, damage by birds, and during harvest, contamination from human hands. What a marvelous idea! This made us reflect on our many trips to the North-East of India – we have not seen any fruit orchards of this type anywhere and yet, we are sure, it could be a very fruitful industry. As we climbed our way to the top of Lishan, on our left we could see the snow falling and blanketing the mountain tops. Although it was early afternoon, it seemed as though night was descending and we had to make haste or be trapped in some mountain village for the night, a thought that we didn’t quite cherish.
The descent from Lishan was at times, precipitous and at other times, endless meandering along country roads. It was taking us longer than the one hour that the policeman had anticipated when he asked us to make the detour. We were beginning to get bored with the monotony of the winding road, the drizzle, and farms lying in fallow. Wushe was miles away and Puli, the last hill station on this leg of the journey, still a further forty kilometers or so and Taichung, another forty. About a hundred kilometers! Luckily the rain had eased somewhat and showed signs of stopping altogether in an overcast sky. The descent to Wushe was rather steep and at places acute hair-pin bends. Just as we were negotiating one of these tortuous descending hair-pin bends, my daughter called out to stop as she had seen something we had not and obviously was very excited.
There in front of us at the entrance of a village was a sign that read, BIHU, in bold letters. Their mother explained that “bihu” in Chinese means a serene green lake and the village takes its name from the lake in this village. “A damsel with a dhol/In a vision once I saw/It was an Assamese maid/And on her dhol she played/Singing of the joy of Spring/And BIHU….” Here was a different Bihu; a farming hamlet tucked away amongst the hills and mountains of Nantou County in the middle of Taiwan, but the emotions evoked could, perhaps, have been the same as we took in the beauty, the serenity, and joy of this little place before continuing our drive back to Taichung. The mind, Milton tells us, is in its own right and can make a hell out of heaven or a heaven out of hell. Heaven, we realize, is definitely a place on earth.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org