Remembering Jiaming Lake and the Southern Cross-Island Highway (Part 1)

A view seen near Yakou on the Southern Cross-Island Highway in Taiwan

I recently read the novel Yushan Spirits (玉山魂) by Husluman Vava. In the preface, he describes the incident which inspired the novel. He was traveling on the Southern Cross-Island Highway in Taiwan. At Yakou, the highest elevation point on the road, he was feeling the effects of the altitude change, so he decided to take a break at a parking lot, where there were two multi-story buildings. This is at the border of Kaohsiung and Taitung counties, so passengers going between Kaoshiung’s bus system and Taitung’s bus system would transfer there. Husluman Vava saw an old man waiting with other bus passengers who seemed to be looking at the mountains in a particular way. He addressed him in the Bunun language, asking him if it was going to Taitung. The old man answered that yes, he was going to Taitung to visit his daughter.

They got into a conversation, and eventually, the old man said (note: I’m translating this from Chinese, which was translated from Bunun, and I’m also abridging this, so the accuracy is questionable) “When I was young, I often went hunting here with my elders.”

“Here, in this parking lot?” Husluman Vava replied.

“The mountain forest here was originally our village’s hunting ground … I once shot and killed a deer in this area – just about there! There was originally a giant rock there, the smart deer would duck behind there to get out of our sight … it was rare that we hunted down such a big deer,” the old man continued as he basked in his old sense of glory.

“What? Inside that multi-story building?”

“Yes! But someone who doesn’t understand mountain forests, who doesn’t understand hunting, put a building in a place which belongs to deer … this place has changed, there are more and more things which don’t belong in the mountains. Sometimes when I pass by here, I wonder whether the things I remember actually existed.”

Husluman Vava was really struck by this comment. He pondered what would drive someone to stop believing their own memories were true, and what it meant when it happened to a whole culture. That was the starting point for the novel.

I myself have been to Yakou, in 2013, and I recall looking at the buildings mentioned in the preface. However, at the time I was there, there was no bus service; I had to hitchhike to get up there. The buildings were closed and not in use. When I was looking down at that, I also felt like they looked really out of place in their setting.

Husluman Vava died in 2007 before Typhoon Morakot did epic damage to the Southern Cross-Island Highway (and other parts of Taiwan). I first arrived in Taiwan after Typhoon Morakot.

I used to write emails to various people about my travels in Taiwan, and by far the most popular set of emails I ever sent out were the ones about my journey to Jiaming Lake and on the Southern Cross-Island Highway. Since the preface of the novel brought this back to my mind, I decided to revise those emails and convert them into a series of blog posts. So now, I’m turning back to what I wrote in 2013…


Guanshan at sunrise, with a sea of clouds

[Guanshan] is one of the ‘Southern Three Stars’, and the highest mountain in southern Taiwan. You will notice Guanshan (and the other Southern Three Stars) in many of the pictures. I also got to see the Guanshan tunnel and the Yakou hostel, but the light was too poor for me to take pictures.

Guanshan again, later in the day

For those who don’t know, the central South-Cross-Island Highway has been closed since 2009, and it is the only road that crosses this section of Taiwan. The Guanshan tunnel – which is the highest altitude tunnel in Taiwan – is considered unstable, and it’s expected that the land that the Yakou Hostel sits on will collapse in ten years. I had heard that authorities are planning to permanently abandon the central section of the highway, which means it would no longer be a “cross-island” highway. However, I observed repair workers and supplies going all the way to Yakou, which means the authorities are carrying out some kind of repair work there. Perhaps they intend to make the central section a pedestrian/biker route only (another rumor I’ve heard).

[UPDATE 2020: After I wrote this email, part of the Yakou Hostel was dismantled. The parking lot where Husluman Vava met the old man had all of the asphalt ripped up and removed. The part which is still standing is only to be used as a shelter for workers responding to emergencies. I also learned, while researching this update, that the Yakou Hostel was originally built as a workers’ camp when the highway was first constructed. As of 2020, the Guanshan tunnel is ~still~ closed, had never reopened to vehicles since 2009, though apparently there are still plans to repair it somehow, and there are construction crews active there. My feeling is that, if they ever fully reopen the highway, a few months later a typhoon or earthquake is going to close down again. If it takes 10+ years to fix a road, and a natural disaster can wipe it out again at any time, then maybe that road isn’t worth maintaining.]

Most of the route of the Southern-Cross is very close to the Guanshan Cross-Ridge Old Trail, established by the Japanese to control the indigenous Bunun people. My map includes the route of the Guanshan Cross-Ridge trail, though it notes that most sections are ‘hard to find’. I imagine they are, since as far as I know nobody is maintaining the trail (aside from a few short sections), and I’m sure very few people use it these days.

The hike starts at Xiangyang Forest Recreation Area and passes through a really nice forest on the way up. My favorite part of the forest was right around Xiangyang Cabin (which is about 4km away from and 500m above the trail entrance).

[UPDATE: You can tell that I first took up hiking as a hobby while living in a non-English-speaking country by the fact that I wrote ‘trail entrance’ rather than ‘trailhead’ here. ‘Trail entrance’ was my translation of the Mandarin term. There are various hiking/backpacking/camping terms which I first learned to use in Mandarin, and only later learned to express in English.]

I hiked up there right after there had been heavy rain, but not during the heavy rain itself. This is actually for the best since the recent rain means that many of the little ponds actually have water and more animals are running around, the Jiaming Lake cabin has water (it often is dry), but one doesn’t have to deal with the danger/inconvenience of the heavy rain itself.

There were a lot fewer people on the trail than I expected, which is why I changed my plans and stayed in the cabins (Xiangyang cabin was almost empty the night I stayed there) instead of camping outside. Camping outside when there is nobody else around for kilometers is not so safe. Alas, this means I didn’t get to see the deer at night.

[UPDATE: My views on camping kilometers/miles away from anyone else have really changed since I lived in Taiwan.]

I did see a Reeves’ muntjac deer in the daytime, and I got to see (from a great distance) a larger species of deer.

I climbed two ‘bai yue’ mountains – Xiangyangshan (3602 m) and Sanchashan (3495 m). Sanchashan happens to be the border of Hualien, Taidong, and Kaohsiung counties.

Jiaming Lake – IIRC, this is the second-highest-elevation permanent body of water in Taiwan.

Oh, and I went to Jiaming Lake itself. Jiaming Lake is the highest-altitude lake in Taiwan, and an important source of water for all of the local mammals and birds. And I drank some water from the lake too (though only after treating it).

The day I descended there was a gorgeous morning, with a wonderful ‘cloud-sea’.

Cloud sea in the early morning

So that’s the Jiaming Lake Trail. I hope I’ll soon be able to write an e-mail about the other things I did along the Southern-Cross-Island Highway as well as the interesting people I encountered.

2 thoughts on “Remembering Jiaming Lake and the Southern Cross-Island Highway (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Remembering Jiaming Lake and the Southern Cross-Island Highway (Part 2) | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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