So here I am, after a long hiatus, writing another travel blog out of boredom. Its been a year since I last wrote a blog, in between, got busy with my studies in Hong Kong, travelling around East Asia, scratching the surface of South East Asia, sheer procrastination and yeah, going back to the grind of work life.
One such exploit from my travel experience of 2013 is that of Taiwan. A tiny nation (though Mainland China and much of world doesn’t openly recognize the sovereignty of Taiwan) situated in the South China Sea just 300 km from Fuji an province of Mainland China (PRC or People’s Republic of China from now on).
The idea of going to Taiwan came to my mind while searching for some exciting hiking routes outside Hong Kong. Over the past 1 year, I had done quit a lot of hiking in Hong Kong. So, Hong Kong was becoming a little boring or should I say monotonous. Same scenery, same topography. I needed a change and something new to challenge my limit.
There are 3 hikeable peaks in East Asia, which don’t require much technical climbing experience, notably Yushan or Jade mountain in Taiwan, Mt. Fuji in japan and Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo Malaysia. All three of them are highest peaks of there respective country. A trio to be bagged if you are serious hiker in this part of the world. Yushan is the second highest among the trio (only a notch below Mt. kinabalu) and also considered the most difficult climb. So, selecting Taiwan wasn’t a difficult choice for me.
Indian passport holders need visa to enter Taiwan. If you have a valid US,UK or European visa, there is no requirement for further Taiwanese Visa. unfortunately I had none, so had to shell out 400 HKD to get one. Booking flights to Taiwan is easy as there are several daily flights from Hong kong to Taipei. So is Hostel. One search on google reveals hundreds of cheap accommodation throughout Taiwan.
If you think the difficult part of getting Visa and booking ticket is done, lo and behold, here comes the most difficult part. To climb Yushan you need a permit. A permit to enter Yushan national park (in which Yushan peak is located) and to climb the peak. And let me tell you, they are pretty strict about it. Even though they have a online permit system, there is lot of bureaucracy involved. Yushan National park authority holds the authority to give or deny you the permission to enter the park without any reason. There is a online way which is far easier. The method for applying is quit strange too. Since Yushan is almost 4000 m high, you need to give the authority some proof that you are fit enough to climb the Yushan. And what better proof can be then a photograph of yours in some random 3000 m peak (I still cant figure out how they are going to know if the photograph is indeed taken at above 3000 m). Luckily, having recently done Roopkund trek (situated over 5000 m) in the Indian Himalayas, I had some photograph with me. So a photograph with mountains behind and lot of snow around was enough to convince them. I got my permit.
So the departure day arrived. I had booked a late night flight to Taipei. It made sure I don’t sleep for the whole night. Hong kong-Taipei flight take a little more then an hour, means the moment you are settling down on your seat and just start to watch some in-flight movie, the captain announces that the flight is going to land in Taipei. Hong Kong Airline flight was really smooth with some really pretty cabin crew. I believe that cabin crew plays a really important role in your flight experience, something there Indian counterpart always misses. Well, we landed in Taipei or Taoyuan International Airport.
Next destination was Chiayi, some 280 km from Taipei. Chiayi is the nearest major town to Yushan National park, hence starting point for most of the hikers. I was not sure how I am going to make my way in Taiwan since my Mandarin skill was very rudimentary and there was no foreigner in sight at the Airport. Not many people in Taiwan speak English, they are pretty much content speaking one language, so I was worried. Surviving in a country where not many speak your language is a daunting task. But as they say, most unexpected thing happen in foreign places, a local girl, named Snow, a scriptwriter based in Taipei, who was coming from Mainland China after spending 9 months there, came to my rescue. She just introduced herself to me and gave all the information I wanted. Luckily she was going to Chiayi as well, so I was relieved that atleast someone is going to accompany me in my first stage of travel.
There are regular bus service from Taipei to Chiayi and to almost all major towns in taiwan. There is High speed train as well, but that is pretty expensive although quick. Since I had all the time with me, I chose the former one. As I was expecting, the roads were excellent. Pretty smooth and in no time I fell asleep only to wake up at Chiayi Bus Stop.
We reached Chiayi at around 11 am. I just missed a bus to Alishan, from where I had to board a bus to Tataka recreational area, base camp for Yushan hike. Snow helped me from Taipei to Chiayi, now I was on my own. Luckily bus service is plentiful between Alishan and Chiayi, so in no time I boarded another bus and said goodbye to Snow.
It takes around 2.5 hrs from Chiayi to Alishan, ticket priced around 200 NTD (400 INR). Chiayi is an entry to Taiwan’s mountain country. From here the elevation begins to increase, the scene is similar to any himalayan road journey you have made with some really scenic tea gardens around.
Reaching Alishan, it was already raining and I was worried if that is going to be the case throughout the hike. Hiking in the rain is an unpleasurable experience, and I was really not prepared to do that. It gets really cold at yushan, since it is located at a very high altitude, and add rain to that, it can be disastrous. Anyways, keeping my fingers crossed, I took a mini bus from Alishan to Tataka (7 NTD). I reached Tataka in half an hour and guess what, it was raining even heavier.
I straight went to Yushan National park Tataka office to show them my permit, my passport and other papers. The office was mended by a local aboriginal lady. Yes, taiwan has its own aboriginal population who are believed to be the oldest natives of this Island. They dont look like chinese at all, no mongoloid features, but some of them distinctly resemble Polynesian people. Han Chinese came later on. And like every other place, the new guys replaced the old guys to such an extent that the old guys are now a minority in there native land. Anyways, the lady was quit friendly and spoke a little English, but that was enough for me. After all the formalities, we both went to the park ranger office for final permit check. There I got the shock of my life. The park Ranger told me, in his 30 year of experience as the park ranger, I was the first Indian Passport Holder to attempt the Yushan summit. Now this was going to be some achievement, and I became even more excited to climb the yushan.
I booked my place in dongpu lodge, a place run by the National park authority and is relatively cheap, only 30 NTD for a night with all the basic amenities. While driving towards the lodge, me and that aboriginal park ranger discussed about the climb. Normally, it takes 12 hours from Tataka to Yushan and back. But she could do the same in less then 7 hrs. Some guts I would say. I had done some high altitude treks before, so I thought this is going to be cakewalk for me, but it was not and you will come to know about it later on.
At the lodge, there were several other hikers. One was a group from a nearby town who, despite not knowing a single word of English (except yes and no), they invited me to join them for the food, though I didn’t wanted to but I accepted the offer. While having some Taiwanese tea and some fruits, I came to know that they were going to attempt the climb early next morning. They looked experience, with one of them did the yushan hike 11 times before. So I decided to stick with them.
One thing I noticed about Taiwanese people, is there hospitality towards foreigners. Coming from Hong Kong, I wasn’t expecting anything like that from them towards someone with brown skin, but to my surprise, they were just way too happy to help me out with everything. I was really impressed and really touched. Even though they hardly spoke any English, we managed to strike some conversation with there broken English and my rudimentary Mandarin. Anyways it was time to sleep since I had to get up early next morning to start the hike. I hit the sack at around 7 pm.
All of us woke up at around 2.30 am next morning. It was pitch dark outside and little cold. Luckily there were no rain clouds and sky looked clear. It was a good sign for the impending hike. After packing some snacks and having some Lemon tea, we started the sojourn. The trail head is some 2.8 kms from the lodge and there is a paved way which takes you to the gate. There is a shuttle bus service from the lodge to the trailhead, but it starts running from 6 am. So we had no choice but to walk. The total distance from the trilhead to the yushan main peak is 11 km, so its 22 km of rough hiking and you have to complete it in a day. There is a rule, if you cant reach paiyun lodge (a lodge located at some 7.5 km from the trail head) before 10 am, you are not allowed to move ahead and you have to stay at paiyun for the night. We didnt had that option because at that time, paiyun lodge was under renovation and no one was allowed to stay there. Hence, we had to complete whole hike in under 12 hrs so that we can come back to dongpu lodge before 3 pm.
Hiking in the dark has its disadvantages, you can not see any thing and admire the place, but once the sun came out, the scenery was amazing. Lofty mountains with dense pine forest. It is the true wild land of Taiwan. Some of the last remaining stands of pine forest of Taiwan can be found here. It is also the last stronghold of Taiwanese or Formosan Black bear and other magnificent wildlife. the trail too was well maintained with proper signage and directions for the hikers.
The hike was nothing extraordinary. We started the hike at 2600 m, and yushan is situated at 3950 m, so we had to climb some 1300 m in a day. In climbers terminology, it is doable by any fit person. I thought the same and since I have done several hikes in Hong kong and few high altitude ones in India, I didnt find any difficulty in the beginning, we reached paiyun lodge well before 10 am with out any major trouble.
Paiyun lodge is the only accommodation currently available inside yushan national park. It was under renovation and was bound to be open later that month. After resting for some moment, we continued the hike. Its just 4 km to the summit from here. Looks easy, but things are not always the same as you want them to be. Hike really became tough after that. Pine forest made way for the rocky terrain. The path became rough with gravels, it was becoming difficult to walk over them while carrying a 5 kg rucksack. Since we were already at over 3000 m, and chill setting in, it was becoming more difficult to breathe. I guess altitude sickness was kicking in. I consider myself tough hiker but this time situation was little different. I am used to hiking in the himalayas but those are spread over a period of 1 week or 2. You get ample rest before you move. But here, we need to cover 22 kms, situated well over 2600 m, in some 12 hours. It was really embarrassing for me since all from my group, including two 10 year old kids, were moving quit briskly and I was really struggling and delaying there speed. That was the moment, the moment which shudders even a well experienced hiker, the moment I thought to give up.
But giving up was not an option, atleast not for me, since I really wanted to be the first Indian to climb Yushan and put the Indian flag which I was carrying up there. So I moved on. I realized I was really ill prepared for the hike. I didn’t anticipated that the the climate will be so cold, as it was June, peak summer time. How wrong I was. I was not even carrying hand gloves, and was just wearing a thin jacket to keep myself warm. High altitude, heavy rucksack, cold and headache made the matter worse. I was just counting all the signage towards yushan main summit, 4 km, 3.5 km, 3 km, just wishing it ends quickly.
Final 1 km is the toughest. Its steep, rocky & almost vertical climb. Though the authority have provided steel guard rail for support, but it was difficult to hold them with bare hands since they were as cold as ice. Bad weather was setting in, typical of high altitude, visibility dropped, sun disappeared behind the clouds. God was making it even more tougher for me it seems. I had a spare pair of sock in my rucksack. I decided to cover my hands with them. They gave some relief but they soon became wet while coming in contact with ice cold guardrail.
It was becoming difficult to carry my rucksack any further. I was just 200 m from the summit. So I decided to put my rucksack there, and make the remaining distance without it. I found a secure place to put my rucksack and continued with the hike. Final 100 m is the most challenging, its similar to climbing a thin edge ladder with loose rock all over. With one hand holding the guardrail, you are only left with your another hand to negotiate the final climb. you have to be extremely careful while negotiating the final path, since visibility was pretty low and temperature was really freezing. Its easy to loose step and fall down.
After some excruciating final 30 minute of the hike, we reached the summit. There is something magical about about mountaineering, you keep on cursing yourself throughout the climb, why you came here, why you signed up, you think about giving up and also all the luxury you are missing. But the moment you reach the summit, the feeling is unmatched. Its feeling of achievement mixed with little relief that you finally did what you came for. You didn’t gave up, you didn’t turned back. So, to make the event more joyous, I pull out the Indian flag and the first thing I did was to get myself clicked on the summit with the tricolor. What a feeling it was. Finally did something to write home about. My headache, that altitude sickness just vanished. Yushan is no Mt. Everest or K2, probably its not a very technical and challenging climb, but being the first person from your country to reach the highest point in Taiwan is an achievement in itself. It is something which you can surely boast about with your friends and family.
After spending another 30 minutes on the summit, taking zillion of pictures, drinking freshly brewed tea and just admiring the beauty around, it was time to go back. Another 11 km of downhill hike. After some 3 hours, we managed to reach the trail head at around 3 pm. we took exact 12 hours to be precise to complete the hike. I was stinking, tired, starving but also relieved and happy that I did what I came here for. I made the plan to climb yushan in just one week. Booked every thing in a ziffy. But I am glad I did it. This hike, the friendly people, the beautiful country of Taiwan will always remain etched to my memory and this summit is already nudging me to go and find another adventure.