Sunday, January 31, 2010

Alishan - before Lunar New Year

Is the road to Alishan open?
Yes. No problems unless you are driving a large bus. Explore around.

Should I go?
Yes - especially now when few other are, and before the summer rains cause problems. See the blue truck below? Looks worse than it is...
Any other good suggestions?
Go (if you have your own transport that is) hike the various scenic trails around Tataka (Tatajia/Tatachia), 20km beyond the developed forest recreation area (FRA). Suitable for a few hours or 1-2 days. Quiet. Very quiet from mid afternoon. One of the views of Yushan from Tataka.

And the train?
The famous forest train line from Chaiyi to Alishan is in a bad way. Locals say if the government spent enough money on the best experts and technology it could be running again within a year. Short routes in the FRA fine I think.

Anything else?
The Danayigu fish place is gone.

The Southern Cross before Lunar New Year.

The Southern Cross-island Highway (Number 20) is very unwell - will it be fatal?

Difficult to give an answer to the question 'Is the Southern Cross open?'. The eastern section in Taidong County is largely fine, with only a couple of problem spots. The western section in Kaohsiung County is in a more serious condition and should be considered closed. It is still too early to say what will happen here in the long term - it may still be 'early days' in a couple years time.

The section from Jiasian (Jiaxian) to Meishan is not as scenic as before. The dust, landslide scars, and general feeling of destruction has left it looking a bit depressed. From Meishan upwards the scenery, as ever, is stunning.

The town of Jiasien (Taro Central) is dusty due to the frantic bridge reconstruction going on. Until Taoyuan village the current road (all asphalt surfaced) follows the original no 20 route. In numerous places areas where streams became raging torrents, the road and bridges have been thoroughly washed away - all well patched up now - until the summer rains...

The hot-spring town of Baolai is a mess and not very appealing. Some businesses (of course 7-11 !) are operating, some not. The bridges at either end have survived.
After Taoyuan the road travels along the riverbed rejoining the original highway at Fushing Village. This rough, bone-jarring section is unsurfaced (rumors it will get asphalt soon) and may be unsuitable for those not used to driving on such surfaces. Is inconceivable that this will survive the rainy summer.
A section of river bed cordoned of. Explosives to be used in the much discussed water diversification tunnel went missing around here.
Meishan residents are eager to prove their home village is still viable, many are moving back at Chinese New Year. The CYC Hostel is open, the Bunun and Yushan National Park visitor centers are reopening this month. Expect the checkpoint after Meishan to be stopping all traffic during Chinese New Year. They should be! Update - this section is officially closed for CNY, see

Tienchr. Still no electricity here. Note the missing bit of forrest.

From Meishan to Yakao the road follows the original route and for 99% of it is great driving. The problems of course lies in the other 1%. In numerous places the road is barely passable (high wheel base needed, 4WD recommended); dangerous (people have died in the last couple weeks as cars went over the edge), and very vulnerable to further damage. A lot of work is going into repairing the road - but only to keep it open, not final repairs. When discussing the future of this section, staggering budgets are mentioned and a timescale of many years. This would still leave many places very prone to damage. The idea of abandoning it as a highway, and converting it to a hiking trail is being quietly discussed. As I have mentioned, it is still very early days, but considering (1) no one lives beyond Meishan, (2) the cost of repairing other roads elsewhere, (3) and the scale of the damage, I suspect this could be the final outcome.

The Jungjrguan trail is broken in the middle by a landslide - do not expect it to be passable soon. The trailhead for Guanshan (139.5km) is indiscernible.

Yakao tunnel, west side.

The tunnel is fine, but both sides at Yakao have been thrashed - no way to get onto the old Yakao trail (doubt much of it still exists now), most of the carpark on the east side has disappeared (the trucks selling sausages and coffee were buried/washed away). No Pagoda and sign of the trail to Guanshan Ling (apparently someone has made it up there, by skirting around the tunnel landslide). Do not try to climb any of the peaks on the Southern Cross, you risk the lives of others as well as yourself.

Experts conclude Yakao hostel has only another 10 years of life (with 'normal' weather/earthquakes) before the hillside it sits on erodes away. The helipad/car park has ominous cracks in it. It will be semi-closed for the next year with only a skeleton staff on duty.

More serious damage from Yakao to Siangyang (Xiangyang). The forest area is still closed may open in "3 months or 3 years". Some of the easy forest trails have been badly damaged, but reports say the hiking trail to the high mountains and Jiaming Lake is now passable (physically, not legally - no permits being issued). Visitor center will be closed until repairs done to hillside right behind it.

After Siangyang the one section with problems should be repaired within a month. After that the road is in very good shape except for the temporary bridge near Lidao Tunnel (pictured in a previous post), and work going on to replace the crash barriers.

Checkpoint at Wulu (just above the Big Chief Hotel) stopping most vehicles.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas good news.

It is coming close to Christmas, and for many mountain communities a very important time - possibly more important than the Lunar New Year festival.

The stable (meaning dry - a drought is predicted) weather means recovery work has proceeded quicker than predicted, and all major roads damaged by Morakot are now open to traffic. This does not mean all roads are perfect, far from it. Several are still unsurfaced in sections, some are considered dangerous and tourists are strongly discouraged from using them (No 20 between Taoyuan and Lidao, No 24 to Wutai/Ali). Almost all are temporary fixes, at times following new routes along river beds and are very unlikely to survive the next rainy season.

Of course there is lots of argument about the designations being given certain roads, or sections of of roads: 'Category A' (甲) means the target it to have the road properly reconstructed along the original route with a stated timescale of 1 to 2 years. 'Category B' (乙) roads are pending further research on possible routes and will soon be given a target date for reconstruction. The 'Category C' (丙) roads may not be worked on for years, and will probably be very prone to damage for a long time.

The Southern Link rail line from Kaohsiung to Taidung is back to normal. Still no good news on the Alishan Forest Railway.

The main peak of Yushan is 'temporarily' open, but will probably be closed during February. We hope to have Main Peak hikes running as normal from March onwards. No predictions yet on remoter trails in the park.

If planning trips in affected areas this holiday season, phone ahead first for up to date information, and drive with extra caution - there are lots of extra reasons not to drive recklessly.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Kenting and Jhihben

What's with the butterflies and no landslides or mud you ask. That's because the only disaster that befell Kenting (墾丁) and Jhihben (知本, Zhiben, Chipen) was that of news reporting. It is just about possible to visit both these places and not notice Typhoon Morakot came near. There are no crowds, hotels are cheap.
I feel particularly sorry for Jhihben. In some ways it was the one place that was actually improved by the typhoon. The loss of that aging hotel and neighboring ramshackle buildings should have been a blessing. Instead the world had this great video footage of a hotel falling over.

Maolin 50 days on.

Should you start thinking about visiting Maolin (茂林) again. Yes.
Is everything as it was before Morakot? No.

A few things will be 'different'. For a start, the large Maolin Scenic Area administration/visitor center building formerly at the entrance of the valley has completely disappeared (Don't forget, they have not been charging people to enter the valley for years).

The butterflies are as good as ever. Electricity supplies are stable, kids are going to school, and the people welcome you. Travel in the valley involves some diversions and sections of rough road (usually fine in a regular car).

Some of you may have stayed at the De-en Valley Guesthouse (得恩谷的民宿) near the actual Maolin Valley. There is now a basic bridge (do not cross unless confident your vehicle is suitable and the weather forecast is good) across the river to Mr Chen's guesthouse and he hopes to be available to take guests by the end of October. The valley mouth is filled with lots of rocks, but the I suspect the valley and waterfall are still worth investigating.

This is not his guesthouse!

Help the residents get on their feet again. Go there, take a few pics, stay at their guesthouses, spend a little money buying their trinkets and barbecued boar.

Follow the usual directions there, the bridge just before the entrance of the valley has a quality replacement.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Namasia six weeks on.

Return to Namasia - a different Namsia. Here's the new view from Lief's land.I've been occasionally visiting Namasia over the last two decades, in recent years more regularly to see Lief's building projects and to guide people up its mountains and rivers. I was last in Namasia Township (Namaxia, Namasya, 那瑪夏鄉) in July. Then, it was still a bit strange to refer to this township by this name, the one it officially adopted almost 2 years ago. Most people that had any knowledge of this beautiful township still called it Sanming (三民鄉). Now everyone has heard of Namasia by its new, and more traditional name - is this the only good thing to come out of the last 6 weeks? The view up the Nantze River (楠梓仙溪) eventually leading to Yushan.
One of the reasons for this trip was to check on Lief's in-laws and his land. He reports the last few weeks well on his blog. We drove as far as we could, and then hiked the rest of the way in to his land. We were much relieved to discover it had not been buried, all looked well - and then we had a look at its northern edge... Here, looking west, the road and Lief's land end at the landslide at the end of his tripod.
My gut feeling is that Long-fong Waterfall (龍鳯瀑布) no longer exists. We didn't have the time to climb down and hike over to check, but I doubt very much there is anything familiar left. There is an enormous (high and wide) debris flow visible in the area the carpark used to be. It would seem likely that the valley the waterfall walk used to be in has been filled up. I hope you visited when you had the chance. The roof in the distance is the Falas campground.
Again, looking southwest to the end of highway 20 and the edge of Lief's land. I cannot imagine the road will be rebuilt. If anything is constructed, it will be a rough track following a new route on the riverbed towards the Longfong waterfall valley and Falas.
When visiting friends at Mingsheng Elementary School military personnel popped by. In classic Taiwan fashion a couple hungry dogs ran out to nip with the wheel-less undercarriage of the chopper.
The (rather intact looking) intersection for the now probably non-existent Longfong Waterfall. Note the new fall visible in the top left - '88 Waterfall'!
Travelling regularly on Taiwan's mountain roads, I am used to encountering landslides that in most countries would be a once in a lifetime's big story. Taiwanese road workers are expert at hacking roads through the most terrifyingly steep and loose slopes. The usual timescale: Day 1 massive landslide covers or removes section of road; Day 2 or 3, a passage is broken through by seemingly fearless excavator drivers; day 7 the road is now somewhat reasonably surfaced; 1 month you almost forget there ever had been any damage done. Travelling through Namasia six weeks on, it seems recovery is still on Day 2.
Landslide expert David Petley tells us 'For landslide scientists Taiwan has an almost mythical status'. The mythical status, in my mind, of Taiwan's excavator drivers being able to fix any road damage instantly has taken a hit. This is the only bridge connecting Minsheng Village (Takanua, 民生, 達卡努瓦村). This rickety suspension bridge can accommodate a small blue truck and nothing more. The concrete pipes are for the temporary bridge being built right on the riverbed.
The two routes in to Namasia are both in an appalling condition. Both are long, rough, and liable to be impassable with even moderate rainfall. Really is shocking that a whole township in modern Taiwan can be as isolated as this. Then you need to move around in the valley...

Both routes available now come from the eastern side of the township, across the tail end of the Alishan Range. Neither are ready for casual visitors, and certainly not visitors without the right vehicles and experience. This sign points the way along the river to Chashan ('tea mountain') from Dapu (大埔) Chaiyi County. The original road was on the opposite bank of the now small river, it was washed away and then the riverbed rose many meters.
In the midst of the disaster it was interesting watching how nature was taking over again in the absence of humans, their weed-whackers, their pesticides. It is mango season, orchards were littered with unpicked fruit. Here, the landslide to the immediate east of Lief's land a tributary of the big one.

The main street through Mintsu (Nangisalu, 民族, 南沙魯村) looking northwards.
Words I wish were not used:
Mudflow, Rocks, Landslip, Landslide - these imply a soft chocolate soup with lumps. When you actually are somewhere like this you need words more violent, more awful.
The consensus seems to be that Mintsu will not rebuilt in the valley, and certainly not in its current location.
Looking north from the deck with the best views.

Mintsu the township's southernmost village, and until now the administrative center is a scene of utter devastation. Much worse than we ever imagined.

The village has been completly evacuated, and out of bounds without special permission. One of the many vehicles trapped here. This is belongs to World Vision, a Christian charity that has a long-term excellent record assisting disadvantaged communities.
A Kaohsiung County bus missing its front end -due to rocks. Also missing was the main part of a President Ma election poster (to the left of this frame). Freshly torn off, maybe someone thought it would be better to remove his presence from this embarrassing part of his country...

Various sturdy buildings stayed together long enough to come to rest in the riverbed

Aerial pictures do no justice to the reality on the ground. Walking around boulders twice as high as me that have jammed in the frame of a surviving building, realizing that hundreds like it had flowed by.

The only sign of life in Mintzu was of feral dogs and cats. We had been warned about them, all were very thin, disheveled and confused. Matched the village.

Minchuan Elementary classroom.

Most familiar markers are gone, whether they were natural, or man-made. Even Lief who has traveled the valley several hundred times sometimes had to pause to get his bearings. This is the playground of Michuan Elementary. Hundreds of villagers took refuge here on August 7th not knowing that it was vulnerable too. They were glad that the school is now only a graveyard for their cars not them. This landslide could very easily have reached their 3rd floor escape.

The generator in Minchuan supplies power for 2 hours each evening. There are questions about the village's long-term viability, some suggest moving it to a much higher terrace.
Casting the typhoon spirits away...well maybe.

The cleared up section of Minchuan (Mangchu, 民權, 瑪雅村) main street. next to the police station.
The villages, and township in general, have a ghost town feel about them. The few people that are still living in Mingsheng and Minchuan have little to do. There is an eerie quietness, no children, no TV, few vehicles - fuel is at a premium, in some cases bicycles have been rediscovered. The main Minchuan thoroughfare, looking south.
Sanming High School. Some had hoped it would have been cleared in time for classes.
Minchuan visitor center. Will the Christmas tree be lit up this year?
Both Lief and I agreed, any goverment official trying to show how he understands the peoples' needs must be forced to take the road in like this family. No helicopters!

Once over the ridge the road gets better.

Those knobbly tires we didn't have.

Getting towed. Glad to be towed.
A convoy of weekend volunteers delivering supplies to the few remaining residents.

A traffic jam in the jungle!
Often I've found it hard to fully comprehend aboriginal ways.
Now even more so, their seemigly happy resilience is hard for me to properly take in. Overnight many not only lost their homes and propery, but a culture that is closely connected to the land all around them. Most of the people and all of the children now live as refugees far from their homes. It will be several years before there will be a signifigant road back in. What will Namasia mean to these children that have settled into a more urban enviroment? How can Bunun culture adapt to the loss of this lifestyle?
Checking out the road ahead. Very very slippery - and can it be slippery and sticky at the same time? Discuss.
The worst road I've been on in Taiwan. This on a dry day. Mud glorious mud.
This acess road was cut through on the route of a long abandoned forest trail. Much steeper than it looks here.
This family heading back in to the valley were a typical jolly lot. They were smart enough to change their truck tires to a knobbly sort - Lief wasn't. Did you know blue trucks all have four-wheel drive? Did you know how to say 'knobbly tires' in Bunun?
Note the red spray-painted sign for Namasia at the intersection on highway 20 near the border of Tainan and Kaohsiung.