Taiwan Stories – Escaping the Summer Heat in Taiwan’s High Mountains

19 Aug
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View From Yushan Peak at Sunrise

View From Yushan Peak at Sunrise

Growing up in the North of England every summer was eagerly anticipated, especially because I lived by the coast and loved going to the beach, when summer did come around I would even pray that it would get hotter.  Wishing that just for a few days of the summer the thermometer would creep past 25 degrees and the long-abandoned shorts and sunglasses could come out of hibernation.  Nowadays in Taiwan, I still love the summer for all the same reasons I did when I was younger – beaches, swimming outdoors, picnics etc. – but there is also a sense of dread that comes each year with the final days of spring.

This is because summers in Taipei are just too hot and far, far too humid.  So in June this year as I sat at my computer one afternoon with beads of sweat rolling off my forehead and dropping to seek sanctuary on the cool tiled floor, I began to plan an escape.  One of the many blessings of living in Taiwan is that although it may be insanely hot at sea-level, much of the island is covered in high mountains where the temperature rarely gets above 20 degrees even at the peak of summer.

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Mountains of Xueba National Park

I have been hiking for about 3 years and almost every weekend I will be out hiking somewhere.  But I have never had a chance to make it to the most well-known mountains and this has been a great thorn in my side for a long time now.  I think most people would agree the three most famous mountains in Taiwan are Yushan (Jade Mountain), Xueshan (Snow Mountain) – these are the two tallest – and Daba Jianshan – perhaps the most spectacular and famously featured on the back of a $500nt note.

Whenever I meet someone for the first time and they hear that I am a keen hiker the conversation is always something like this…

Them:     “So, you must have hiked Yushan, then?”

Me:    “Er…No…”

Them:    (Slightly puzzled look) “Then Xueshan…?”

Me:    “Er…No again…there was this one time…”

Them:    “How about Daba then?”  (clearly looking like my interest in hiking was a feigned one)

Me:    “No, but I have been to the Four Shows and and Nenggao and I have hiked all over Northern Taiwan.  Really!  I’m not lying.  I have evidence! I can show you pictures.”

Ok, I never quite say that last sentence out loud and usually just end up looking sheepish and the interrogator looks on contently having unmasked my lie about being an avid hiker.

But not anymore.

I set the dates in the diary.  Three weekends, three huge mountains to climb.  Now I just had to pray that the weather would be kind to me and the summer typhoon season wouldn’t blow my plans off course.

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Sunset at the Paiyun Lodge on the way to Yushan

As it happens, we hit a stroke of luck there as the warming of the Pacific Ocean caused by El Nino, has severely reduced the chances of a major typhoon hitting Taiwan this year.  However the downside of that is that El Nino is also responsible for the above-average temperatures we have been suffering.  However even without typhoons there are other dangers particular to hiking in the summer that should be noted by anyone wishing to venture into the high mountains in the summer season.  Firstly, late spring/summer is the rainy season in Taiwan (known as plum rain in Chinese as this season coincides with the ripening of plums) and you can expect severe thunderstorms most afternoons.  It is not unusual for these rains to cause landslides or damage to roads in mountainous areas.  Take heed of heavy rain warnings and don’t risk a trip in these conditions.  Secondly, although the temperature is a great deal lower than that at sea level that doesn’t mean that the sun’s rays are any less strong.  In fact, at higher altitudes the sun rays are not filtered as well by the atmosphere and as a result it appears cooler but your skin will burn much quicker.  Make sure to apply sun screen regularly and wear a hat whenever exposed to avert the risk of sunstroke.

Yushan – Jade Mountain (3952 metres)

The first of our trips was to Yushan.  It is by far the most popular mountain in Taiwan to climb and getting a permit on a weekend is like winning the lottery (we finally got ours on the 15th attempt!).  Not only did we get a permit on a weekend, we got a permit on a weekend with incredible weather – barely a cloud in the sky.  The hike up to Paiyun Lodge (where hikers spend the night before making the final ascent to Yushan’s peak) is relatively straight-forward and only took us about five hours.  The lodge is, well basic, but is going to be completely rebuilt in the near future and the facilities (finally) upgraded.  As is standard for a Yushan trip our group decided to try to make it to the peak by sunrise.  After talking to some other groups the consensus was to leave at about 2:30am for our assault on Taiwan’s highest peak.  We obviously had too much coffee/sugar for breakfast because we bounded up the mountain in record time, reaching the summit a full two hours before sunrise!  It was also quite amazing to be standing by ourselves at the highest point in all of Taiwan and being able to enjoy the tranquility of it all, just watching the stars fade out of view as the sun grew brighter.  The views were stunning and with a bit of hot tea to warm us up (the temperature was around 5 degrees) the time flew by and we were soon standing amongst a huge crowd (in stark contrast to when we first arrived at the peak) marvelling at one of natures truly great scenes.

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Yushan (Jade Mountain) casts a shadow in the early morning sun.

After a tiring hike back down the mountain we began making our way back to Taipei in the car.  As we hit the plains in Jiayi, we made a rest stop at a 7-11 and as I opened the doors of the air-conditioned minibus the heat hit me like a punch from Mike Tyson.  It was hard to believe that anyone could survive in such heat – we had only been away from it for two days and already my body had forgotten how unforgiving it can be.

Xueshan – Snow Mountain (3886 metres)

Fortunately we didn’t have to wait long for our next excursion into the cool mountains.  Two weeks after we conquered Taiwan’s tallest mountain, we set out to tackle the second tallest.  We had tried to climb Xueshan before, but the day before we arrived there was an enormous blizzard and there was several feet of freshly fallen soft snow to navigate through.  We fell about 500 metres short that time, but this time things were much smoother.  We made it up and down in a little under seventeen hours (including a brief, five hour sleep at the 369 lodge) much to the amazement of the park official who signed off our permit in disbelief as we crawled off the trail and back to our car.  Again we had beautiful weather, but this time we knew there would be heavy thunderstorms in the afternoon (hence the Usain Bolt-esque pace).  After the bad luck we had on our last visit, we were due some good luck for this attempt and we got it in droves.  We made it to the peak by 9am and just as we got there the clouds came in and the marvellous 360 views that we were able to experience were now replaced by a surrounding of thick grey cloud.  Perhaps the most spectacular thing about this trip was how the scenery was so different, yet eerily familiar to our last trip.  It was almost as though we climbed two different mountains.

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The Holy Ridge - taken from Xueshan (Snow Mountain) Peak

Two down, one to go.  Our luck with the weather had to run out sooner or later and the week after our trip to Xueshan, Taipei had been experiencing some of the wettest weather of the entire summer.  We were fully prepared to get very wet at some point as we completed our Taiwan version of the ‘three peaks’.

Dabajianshan – Daba Mountain (3490 metres)

The trail to Dabajian shan used to be a fairly straight forward affair, a short 20km drive along an old forestry road from the National Forest Recreation Area at Guanwu and then a three hour hike up to the 99 lodge.  Then, as is often the case in these mountainous areas, a typhoon caused some severe landslides along the forestry road putting it out of action.  This means that hikers must now walk the 20km forestry road in and out, in addition to the already demanding trail to Dabajian shan.  The road is actually really scenic and is a pleasure to walk along.  At least the first few kilometres are, then after 4 hours it becomes…well, let’s just say it was probably more pleasant driving along it.  By far the toughest of the three hikes (Dabajian shan requires three days of about twenty-four hours of hiking in total) but the unique nature of one of Taiwan’s most memorable sights still attracts a lot of hikers.  Incredibly we managed to avoid the rain, yet again, this time by cowering in an abandoned work station for several hours as the afternoon thunderstorm passed.  Despite our fatigue from a lot of hard hiking, our spirits couldn’t have been higher as we reached the ridge and caught sight of dabajian shan and it’s smaller sister mountain xiaobajian shan.  We made it to the top before the clouds came rolling in again in the early afternoon and though the temperature rarely troubled the 20 degree mark on my thermometer the strength of the sun as we sat on the top of xiaobajian shan was remarkable.  I could feel the suns rays piercing through my factor 50 sunscreen and burning into my skin.  Fortunately it didn’t last long as the clouds and rain closed in on us as we began to head back to the 99 lodge.  Once again, we found ourselves racing to get back before the heavens opened upon us.  And once again, we got lucky and arrived back at 99 lodge just as the rain began to envelop us.

Dabajianshan from Yizeshan

Dabajianshan from Yizeshan

After 3 days of hiking, a total of about 70 km walked in distance and 2000m in terms of height we were shattered.  As we got out of the car in Taipei in the early afternoon we felt the full force of the heat (this was the hottest day of the year with Taipei soaring over 38 degrees) and as tired as I was there was a great temptation to just get back in the car and head back to the mountain!

I got home later that day and got out my phone book.

“Hi, do you remember we once had a conversation about hiking?”

So now the question won’t be have you ever been to any of the three famous mountains, but will be which is your favourite of them?

And the answer…well, they say a picture speaks a thousand words….

Snow Mountain Peak

Snow Mountain Peak

If you would like more practical information on hiking the mountains mentioned in this post (or any mountains in Taiwan) then please visit Hiking Taiwan.

If you are looking for an English speaking guide to organize your trip in Taiwan, I can highly recommend Barking Deer Adventures.

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3 Responses to “Taiwan Stories – Escaping the Summer Heat in Taiwan’s High Mountains”

  1. June August 19, 2010 at 2:03 pm #

    我喜歡你的文章~ 讓我更覺得臺灣真美!! ^ ^

  2. Mark Casey September 22, 2010 at 10:18 am #

    Hello,

    Just found your blog and feel I must congratulate you on such a well written and informative resource. I’ve been away from Taiwan for far too long (plannig my return) and miss the people, the culture, the mountains, just about everything really.

    I will continue to follow your blog.

    Mark.

    • Phil September 24, 2010 at 5:10 am #

      Thanks for the comment Mark. I really should have started doing this earlier. Good luck planning your return, maybe see you here sometime in the future.

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