A Hidden Gem of a Mountain: The Highest Peak in Taiwan and North-East Asia
Recently, for the first time since I relocated to Taiwan in 2001, I traveled as a “not quite” tourist with an adventure travel group. Most of my travels in Taiwan have not been very noteworthy; they have consisted of local day trips, occasional short weekend trips and my regular jaunts to Taipei (to visit friends) and Kenting (to practice scuba diving). Sad to say, but I haven’t really explored much new territory in Taiwan since moving here.
Oddly enough, most of us think that we’ll get around to visiting the local sights or discovering our country of residence some day, but never do- Instead traveling to more far flung, exotic locales or putting it off. We all too often overlook the very things in our own backyard.
One thing that I definitely want to do before I leave Taiwan, is to travel to the various parts of Taiwan, including its neighboring islands. Since Taiwan is two-thirds mountainous; one of best ways to enjoy Taiwan’s great outdoors is to go hiking or on active, adventure trips.
So, when I heard about an adventure travel company in Taiwan called Fresh Treks
, I decided to do a two-day trek up the highest peak in North-East Asia, Yu Shan (also known as Jade mountain), which also happens to be located in central Taiwan. I was inspired by a group of friends who had made the trek last year.
Yu Shan, which stands at 3952m, is indeed the highest peak in North-East Asia, not the highest in South-East Asia though- as is commonly thought and as so many people joyously hailed upon reaching the peak. It was only later, when I returned from my trip to verify the facts, that I discovered that Yu Shan is the highest peak in North-East Asia, not South-East Asia. Mount Kinbalu in Borneo is widely reported to be the highest peak in South-East Asia at 4101m, but northern Myanmar boasts Mount Hkakabo Razi at 5889m. The world’s highest peak, Mount Everest measures 8848m. Yu Shan is “outfamed” by its more famous neighboring peak, Mount Fuji which is 3776m tall. I was surprised to discover that many Taiwanese, including my own parents didn’t know that their very own less acclaimed Yu Shan is actually higher than Mount Fuji.
Fresh Treks is run by a Frenchman, Jean Marc, who speaks Mandarin Chinese quite proficiently and very impressively, I might add. His clients are Taiwanese and foreign, but I think that Fresh Treks has a tendency to attract English speaking foreigners (those especially of the non-Chinese speaking variety) because there are very few travel companies in Taiwan specifically aimed at foreigners or run by foreigners. Jean Marc was a one-man show- our trekking guide, friend, cook, motivating factor, photographer, and medic. And on top of balancing all of this, Jean Marc was an extremely gracious person who never seemed to loose his cool and had a disarming way with others.
The group I trekked with consisted entirely of foreigners, or more accurately, people bearing foreign passports. Among us were: two Canadian couples (one from Calgary, the other from Montreal, all of them were working as English teachers), three Englishmen (who didn’t know each other before the trip- two were coincidentally working on the high speed rail project but in different capacities, and the third was a Chinese language student), three Australians (who were in Taiwan working on the high speed rail project together), two Taiwanese Americans (a brother and sister- he worked in high tech sales, and she had come back to Taiwan for a prolonged stay, studying and visiting with family), a Philippine woman (who was married to one of the Englishman), a Finnish man (also working on the high speed rail project) and me, a Taiwanese American (back for some soul searching and working as an English teacher). The odd thing is that, as the backgrounds of the foreigners in this group attest, most foreigners traveling around Taiwan are most likely “not really tourists.” In other words, most foreigners traveling in Taiwan couldn’t be classified as standard tourists who have specifically traveled to Taiwan for a holiday vacation. It seems like most of the foreigners who travel around Taiwan are probably already living and working in Taiwan. This is a quirk that some of my foreign, Taiwanese American friends and I have noticed.
Taiwan is Just Not Seen as a Major Tourist Destination
Time and time again, when I was in traveling in various parts of South-East Asia- Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia, and introduced myself to other foreigners as a Taiwanese American who was raised in Canada, now living in Taiwan- the responses I received ranged from indifference to insulting. “Why would I want to visit Taiwan? What is there to see there? I’ve never thought of visiting Taiwan. When I think of Taiwan, I think about drugs…” I wondered, just what is Taiwan’s international image? Taiwan is probably best known for being an economic miracle. Unfortunately its focus on economic and industrial development has been at the cost of its environment. Pollution from industrial waste and the high concentration of motor vehicle due to Taiwan’s dense population have damaged the natural environment and caused air pollution. Tourism has never been developed since it wasn’t seen as a necessary source of revenue and besides, much of Taiwan’s natural beauty and landscape has been spoiled by pollution and the manmade eye sores of poor urban planning. In recent years, awareness and efforts to promote recycling, the preservation and cleaning of the environment have improved.
Preparing for Yu Shan
Previous to the Yu Shan trek, I’d only done day hikes and treks. The challenge of climbing Jade Mountain would be carrying up to 15-20kg of gear on my back for an average of six hours during the main trek up to the base lodge (Paiyun Lodge), where we’d be staying overnight after the first day of trekking. The next day would call for an early start from the lodge, in the wee hours of the morning- 3am to be exact- with just enough time to reach the peak just before sunrise. Fortunately we’d be leaving our backpacks behind, trading them in for a small daypack for water and essentials during the final 3 hour hike to the summit. I wasn’t really concerned about the physical challenge of the trek since I workout regularly. I was pretty smugly about the whole thing- I had faithfully followed Fresh Trek’s recommended packing list- I was all set. Little did I know just how unprepared I was for what laid ahead.
I didn’t want to invest in a lot of trekking gear since I don’t know if I’d be doing this sort of thing regularly. Hiking/trekking can actually be very expensive at the outset because of all the gear required- proper boots, backpack, lightweight sleeping bag, and high tech clothing i.e. water/wind resistant, heat-insulating, quick dry fabrics. I didn’t have much gear so I had arranged to borrow an inflatable mattress, mini super insulated sleeping bag and raincoat from friends in Taipei. With all of the specialized equipment available these days, more and more people of a reasonable fitness level can accomplish longer overnight treks like Jade Mountain.
When I think of all the technological aids that we have today, it gives me a new respect for those first early mountain climbers. How did people ever manage without all of this “technology” and innovation? Or perhaps we are just victims of the mass marketing and consumerism of athletic wear. Doing sports is not cheap these days- we are convinced that we need suitable hi-tech apparel to protect us from the elements (water proof, wind proof, fire proof, fool proof), to do things in comfort (dri-fit clothes wick away excess moisture which allows us to move in comfort and is a good preventative measure in variable weather conditions), to do things in style (the proper gear and clothing always makes us look and feel like we know what we are doing) and proper equipment which supposedly enhances performance, and prevents injury.
A Reality Check in Taipei
I arrived in Taipei on the Friday night before the Saturday afternoon departure. I was there to visit my ever-obliging friend “B”, who always puts me up when I’m in Taipei. “B” has become quite the experienced trekker, having done several treks, including Jade Mountain the previous year. In fact, it was “B”’s climb up Jade Mountain with mutual friends that inspired me to take on the challenge myself.
After a lovely dinner and lengthy conversation with “B”, it was time to get down to the business of what gear I’d come to borrow for the trek. I took one look at the sleeping bag and inflatable mattress, both neatly rolled up and I knew that once I put them in my backpack, that I wouldn’t have much room for much else. Then began the assessment of what I’d packed- too many changes of clothes, too many layers of clothes, the wrong kinds of clothes, unnecessary items... in short too much weight. “B” told me to imagine myself trekking for hours, with nowhere to go, and my backpack feeling heavier and heavier with each step, even slightest bit of extra weight would quickly become a burden.
And I thought I had done my part in minimizing the weight and volume of things by simply packing mini sample-sized toiletries!
Out went the cotton t-shirts, extra changes of clothes, knit sweater, fleece vest, umbrella, and book. They were replaced by “B”’s water/windproof jacket, long-sleeved fleece jacket, quick dry fabric shirts, a hydration pack (for easier access to water) and I even borrowed her backpack (which was much more expandable and flexible than mine; it better accommodated the air mattress, sleeping bag and other necessities). The only items of clothing of mine that I brought were of course my “unmentionables”, a pair of dry-fit pants, and socks. Fortunate for me, “B” is a much more experienced hiker than me and she graciously shared the experience and hiking gear that she’s acquired along the way.
Departing for Yu Shan
On Saturday afternoon I left “B”’s apartment humbler and lighter in step to start my Fresh Treks experience. 95% of what I’d packed initially was left behind, intact in my backpack in “B”’s apartment when I departed for Jade Mountain.
The group met near Taipei City Hall and took we a five hour bus ride to our first stop, Dong Pu, a busy little village that is a popular overnight stopping point for people planning hikes and treks directly to Ali Shan (another famous and frequently visited mountain in Taiwan) or for the super-zealous, the double challenge of Ali Shan followed by Yu Shan. Dong Pu was basically a paved two lane, sloping road of a few kilometers long, lined with restaurants, small hotels, guesthouses and “souvenir shops”- which sold local food specialties such as dried, preserved fruit and liquor. Dong Pu certainly received a lot of thoroughfare, and I had the impression that the local businesses had sprung up to take advantage of business generated by local Taiwanese tourists making stops en route to their hiking destination. We spent a relaxing night in a simple hotel with a hot springs bath on the balcony, complete with a view of the stars in the clear night sky.
On Sunday morning we woke for breakfast and boarded the bus again for an hour plus ride to the entrance of Yu Shan national park, which was at an elevation of approximately 2600m. Our guide, Jean Marc promptly divided up the supplies- various cooking implements, supplies and food- amongst us, each member of the group taking what they could and loading it into their backpack. We set off around 10 am and planned to hike most of the day (for about 5-6 hours in total), with a stop for lunch, and ending up at the Paiyun base lodge at 3402m by late afternoon, where we would spend the night.
During the 15-20 minute walk on an incline to the visitor’s center, I soon began to feel breathless and weighted down. This was not a good sign since the path we were walking on was in fact a fully paved road leading to the mountain! We hadn’t even actually gotten to the trails on Jade Mountain but all I could think about were the heavy bags of bagels that I had offered to carry in my backpack. As we waited for Jean Marc to register and present our group park permit, I surrendered my pride and found a fellow backpacker who was kind enough to lighten my load and relieve me of a bag of bagels.
Though it was December, the weather was much like autumns of the East Coast of the United States. Once we got moving and felt the sun shining down on us, we quickly peeled off the layers of clothing as our body temperatures rose- but they would later be essential during the following day’s early morning final climb to the summit.
Trekking is not a meant to be a competitive sport or race. In fact it’s somewhat of a solitary sport. To me it’s just you and the mountain; it’s about knowing your limits, setting your pace and pacing yourself. Besides, half of the experience is enjoying the beauty of nature all around you. The hiking trails were quite narrow, which meant walking in single file and yielding to others who were plowing ahead or those who were traveling in the opposite direction. Everyone in the group seemed to be aware of their limits; no one pushed themselves beyond their limits, and as we trekked, the group broke up into three subgroups each going at different speeds. Within each subgroup, people fell into an unspoken pecking order. People maintained an even pace and had the humility to let others go ahead of them if the pecking order got disrupted, or if it became evident that someone behind them was going at a comparatively faster pace.
The trail was like our life support system, taking us to new heights and through various terrains- at first a simple dirt trail wrapped along the rugged barren mountainside, then our guide through lightly wooded areas, then an open path covered in shards of fallen rock. It was our eternally steadfast companion enabling us to cross wide gaps bridged by metal and wooden boardwalks; chain links bolted in the wall of rock provided extra support along steeper, narrower sections.
I was surprised to see that Jade Mountain seemed to be quite regularly frequented by many visitors, though I’m not sure what percentage actually completes the entire climb to its peak. In general, climbing Jade Mountain is very doable if you have the stamina to hike for an entire day, know your limits, and go at your own pace. What made it extra challenging was the fact that I was carrying almost 20 kg of things on my back. Its trails are well marked and established, but it you accidentally stepped off the trail, like I did, you’ll quickly realize just how close to the edge of the mountain you are; dense, dry brush and grass grows along the edge, concealing how close to the edge the narrow trail actually is. But perhaps it’s just as well because this “natural barrier” and “camouflage” helps to sort of manage the trek psychologically - whatever you do, just don’t look down. On another clumsy occasion, I accidentally put my foot through a boarded walkway... confirming that there’s nothing but space underneath and more space underneath there and that it’s a long, long way down. That realization certainly sobered me up.
Arrival At Base Lodge
Finally, between 4:00 and 5:00pm various members of my fellow trekkers started trickling in at their own pace, at the Paiyun Base Lodge (3402m). The Paiyun lodge was a very basic stone structure that didn’t offer many comforts inside. In fact, I don’t even think that there were bathrooms in the lodge itself. On the lodge grounds, was a separate structure that housed very basic public restroom facilities for men and women, it consisted of toilet stalls; there were no shower facilities there or anywhere on the grounds. There was a communal “sink” outside - it was a long tiled “trough” that stretched the length of the building’s front wall, with several faucets providing running water. A step inside the lodge revealed an entrance area that could barely be considered a lobby. There were no chairs or furniture there- it was standing room only. To the left and right of the entrance were two designated indoor sleeping areas. A walk straight through the lobby and down the short hall led straight back to a dimly lit, dingy kitchen with wooden tables, two basic stainless steel sinks and two stand alone counter top gas range units. The dingy little kitchen quickly transformed into bustling, warm, cheery atmosphere, as several groups went to task, merrily preparing meals for their respective trekking groups. Outside was a flurry of activity as many of us pitched in to prepare the meal, drawing water from the faucet outside for cooking, washing and chopping vegetables, etc. A sense of communal camaraderie pervaded the Paiyun lodge, our oasis in the mountains.
Nightfall seemed to be upon us suddenly. We sat on the picnic benches outside of the lodge in the darkness, eating by flashlight. By 10 or 11pm everyone began settling in for a night’s rest, with half of our group in the lodge’s dormitory, which was actually more like barracks and the other half of us slept three to a tent. I was among the half that volunteered to sleep out in a tent, so I got cozy in my sleeping bag, with three of us sleeping side by side in full “winter” wear. The temperature hovered slightly below freezing point. At times I felt a chill despite the wind proof shell, three layers of clothes, hat, and two pairs of socks that I was wearing. Anticipation, anxiety, excitement and an impending 3am wake up call hung in the air, conspiring against getting a good night’s sleep. Then the chorus of snores began. I tossed and turned for what seemed like hours and just when I had given up on getting any sleep- in a wink I was out and the next moment Jean Marc was frantically running around, calling us to grab a quick coffee; he was worried that we’d fall behind schedule. Time was of the essence to ensure that we’d be able to reach the peak in time to see the sunrise
Carefully we made our way up the trail in the darkness, aided by handheld flashlights and headlamps. The trail became steeper and gradually became rocky, icy and windy. The closer we edged towards the summit, the harsher the climate became; the cold wind cut through the fabric of our clothes, thwarting us. In silence we plodded on, with our cheeks and noses colored by the coldness, and our breath hanging in the air. The terrain became rocky, barren and icy. Our gloved hands grasped the metal chain links and posts for support along the steep ascent.
At the peak everyone high fived and congratulated each other- the shared sense of accomplishment bolstered our spirits as camera shutters clicked indiscriminately in anticipation of the main event. At first the sun which was initially obscured by clouds and the dense fog around the peak which mired visibility. Half an hour later the sun finally peaked out just enough to get a shot.
Now that the obligatory photos had been taken, we’d head back down to the lodge for a real breakfast, a quick pack up, and the final trek down to the park entrance- which would take the better half of the day.
The trek down offered a different vantage point which revealed just how close to the edge of the mountain we were; at times I could see straight down over the edge.
Finally, by late afternoon, we arrived at the bottom of Jade Mountain and had only one more mile of paved road to walk- out of Jade Mountain National Park to meet our vehicle. Admittedly, I was feeling pretty exhausted and burdened. I had begun to fall behind, dragging myself along behind everyone else. We were all quite weary, sleep deprived, knees aching and wishing for a shower. A minibus parked at the bottom looked inviting, but alas it was not waiting for us. As we trudged along the road out, vans and trucks drove past us. A couple in our group contemplated hitching a ride in a bus or truck going out of the park; a passing van stopped to offer us a lift out. It was tempting, but I resisted; four people out of our group of seven opted to take the ride.
I didn’t come this far just to throw in the towel in the last mile- on a paved road no less. I would make it completely out of the park on foot. I would walk out of the park just as I had walked in. No matter how long it took, how tired I was, I was not quitting now, it was just a few steps more. I know that I could make it. I’m strong enough and I’m no quitter. I would walk the whole way. There was no taking no shortcuts, I resolved. I would make it ALL the way back on my own two feet just as others in our group who (I knew had already made it down and) were waiting at our bus. No, anything short of _really_ completing the entire trek from beginning to end would compromise the satisfaction and sense of self-accomplishment I had.
No, I stubbornly refused, as Jean Marc persisted in encouraging me to accept the ride. I knew that I could do it. I willed myself to do it. Breaking through the past that I carried with me... the taunting... labels... weakling, laggard... resignation... lowered expectations… I am a woman and I am strong, I am no shrinking violet, not the delicate, weak, wheezing girl who throws like a girl sitting on the sidelines exempt from track and field, hopelessly uncoordinated and useless at team sports. I have found my own individual form of athletic challenge. I have strength of another measure, strength enough pull my own weight.
It was then that I realized- What was I trying to prove and who was I trying to prove it to? Why did I have to prove anything at all?
I tightened the hip belt and supporting straps of my backpack, and picked up my pace with silent dogged determination. Leaving me in my storm of stubbornness, the two other remaining trekkers- Jean Marc and “S” conversed with the familiarity of old friends and we continued on the path out of Jade Mountain National Park. The weight lifted from my shoulders and back. I'd made the same mistake many times before during this trek- an ill adjusted backpack had weighed heavy my shoulders and back quickly exhausting me. In a laconic state, I walked in step with Jean Marc and "S" consumed by my resolve.
Jean Marc took notice and said, “It looks like you've gotten your second wind.”
“Yes,” I beamed and in no time we were out of the park getting ready to board the bus back to Taipei.