Where do I begin, to describe a country that’s changed me so much in two short trips? Perhaps a single day on a weekend will be a start.
Last week, I frantically threw together a plan for Saturday: go north from Tainan into Chiayi county to visit a few interesting sites. We only have eight weeks in Taiwan, and many of the weekends are already filled with activity. I don’t want to waste a single one sitting idly in my dorm. This program forces a participant to live intensely, every moment thinking a step ahead, every day packed with activity, trying to squeeze out one more hour of sleep, one more bit of practice, one more adventure. Only some of our Saturdays are free, and Sundays are usually needed to prepare for the week ahead.
Late Friday night, my plan finally crystallizes. We will go with our resident director, Jerry, to a famous hot spring resort in the mountains. From there, two classmates and I will split off from the main group to go for a hike. I went to the hot spring last year but had no time for hiking – so this year I and some interested students will climb Da Dong Shan – literally, Great Frozen Mountain, since the temperature there is usually well below Taiwan’s average.
Taiwan is such a compact, diverse island that one can start in the city center and be in rugged mountains in under two hours. Starting from Tainan, we take a train to Chiayi, then a taxi to the spa.
From there, Jerry and the other students head for the hot springs, while Charlie, Liam and I buy gigantic bottles of water and set out for the trailhead two kilometers away. Once there, it’s a little over three kilometers to the peak. Starting at about half past eleven, we plan to be back at the spa by 2pm.
We turn a corner and a gigantic slab of rock on a dark green pedestal looms over the road. This, I think, is not Da Dong Shan, but a neighboring peak, too difficult and high to climb. I worry a little about our timetable – weather reports say rain is possible in the mid afternoon. At the trail-head, a sign says we will need five to six hours to complete the round trip. Seeing that we’ve already gone two kilometers in half an hour, we think this grossly overestimates the time needed, so we proceed up the paved road.
For a while, the trail remains a paved road, rolling up and down as it swerves to the right of that big slab of rock. Occasionally a breach opens in the jungle, and we can see breathtaking views to the slopes of other hills. Strange butterflies the size of my face, all black with bright red and white polka dots or tiger striped gold and white, flutter and glide around the path. A deafening grinding sound, like a saw blade cutting steel, emanates from the tree branches – some kind of tree frog or lizard. But besides that buzz, the forest is nearly silent, a welcome change from Tainan’s constant traffic.
The weather alternates between clear skies and quick rain showers. In no time at all we are mostly soaked, but we continue and the clouds break. At a tiny rest stop we get a glimpse once more of the great slab-sided peak, which we are heading around. I try my best to dry off in the sunshine, but before long we are back under the canopy.
We continue to think that this will be a short hike. As we rise up the side of the ridge, we ascend into the clouds we saw coming from the rest stop. They are so thick that we cannot see more than ten meters away. To one side is a rocky face, at our feet a layer of smooth stones, and on the other side a blank, dizzying, nauseatingly empty white.
The mist condenses on hair and skin, soaking us completely. It flows and pulses like the moist cloud from a spritzer bottle, individual droplets visible, floating along with us. Thunder rumbles close by, though we cannot see any lightning. The thin air begins to make its mark – we need to rest after every fifty meters or so of climbing the slick, muddy path. Everything is covered with moss and algae – the signs are unreadable.
The last kilometer takes an eternity to finish. But up one switchback the mist falls away, and we are in much dryer, cooler, clearer air. Then we see a set of wooden stairs; I am the first to step on them, though I don’t dare look up and see how much further we have.
At the landing is an open campsite, with picnic tables and two pavilions. Many elderly backpackers are already here; in an example of typical Taiwanese hospitality, one group offers us tea and cookies. We stay and chat for a little while, but it’s still 140 meters to the top. Up the last flight of stairs, there’s a satellite control station and a fire watchtower. The mist is thickening again and there’s no view to speak of. Looking at one of the tourist signs, I suddenly realize that in the mist, we have climbed that imposing green peak, the highest in the county. Over three kilometers of horizontal trail, we have ascended over a kilometer. We reached the peak at 2:40 pm.
Though we are completely soaked before we arrive back at the spa (at around 5 pm, three hours behind schedule), none of us regret going all the way to the top. We look back on the pictures of Da Dong Shan, the mountain that looked so imposing before, now behind us. Back in Tainan, we eat a massive dinner of soup dumplings, mini pork pies, scallion pancakes, and ramen, and then we start to prepare for the next week ahead. Midterms will be here shortly and there is no time to waste.
By: Greg Laslo
Term: Summer 2018