Actually, hiking at 3:30 in the morning wasn’t as bad as I expected, and it meant that we got out of the forest right around sunrise, which was nice, and that we had plenty of daylight in the part of the trail with the best views.
We hiked up Xiangyangshan and then … well, there are two trails to Xiangyangshan. The recommended route is the western trail for both the ascent and descent, so I assumed that we would only use the western trail. Well, they headed off onto the eastern trail, and I figured that joining them on the worse trail would still be safer than going alone on the better trail.
In fact the eastern trail was … not as bad as I expected. Sure, it’s in worse condition than the western trail, but it has different views, and actually isn’t any worse than some of the trails around Taipei. In fact, I’m grateful that they decided to do the eastern trail, because I probably would not have dared on my own.
While on the eastern trail we encountered an animal which was more startled by us than we were by him. This animal, of course, was a homo sapiens, specifically the caretaker of Jiaming Cabin. Being the caretaker of a high mountain cabin can be pretty boring, so he had been out for a stroll. Since almost nobody uses the eastern Xiangyangshan trail, he was astonished by our appearance. I later learned that his name is Ah Wei.
Anyway, [after we left the eastern trail and rejoined the main trail] along the hike to Sanchashan, we encountered another hiking group, so the [main] trail was not completely devoid of other people.
[UPDATE: ‘Shan’ is the Mandarin word for ‘hill/mountain’ hence the names ‘Guanshan’ ‘Xiangyangshan’ and ‘Sanchashan’. ‘San’ means ‘three’ and ‘cha’ means ‘fork/intersection’. The mountain has that name because it is at the border of three counties in Taiwan – Hualien County, Taitung County, and Kaohsiung City/County.]
The two weaker members (reasonably) left Jiaming Lake after a short time – in fact, they never even went all the way to the lake itself. The stronger member and myself, however, decided to actually walk around the lake. After going through all of this effort to get to this lake, I definitely wanted to spend some time with it!
[UPDATE 2020: I vaguely remember seeing a tent at Jiaming Lake, and I see the tent in the photos. Apparently someone was camping there either the previous night or the following night.]
The weather was really good until about 2pm. Even then, the weather wasn’t too bad (and was still decent by high mountain standards), but I was so tired from having been hiking since 3:30 am that having less-than-nice weather was enough to dispirit me. I was not looking forward to slogging it all the way back to Xiangyang Cabin.
Even though we (the stronger member and myself) left Jiaming Lake about 40 minutes after the weaker hikers left, we caught up with the weaker hikers much faster than I or they expected.
We stopped at Jiaming Cabin at around 3:30pm, where we met Ah Wei again. Ah Wei strongly urged us not to proceed, pointing out that the weather was not favorable and that we had been hiking for over 10 hours. He told us that he had extra sleeping bags, which mean we could spend the night at Jiaming Cabin even though our sleeping bags were at Xiangyang Cabin. I personally felt very happy when I heard this, since I didn’t want to do any more hiking that day.
[UPDATE: It was lucky for us that sleeping bags were available at Jiaming Cabin. But what if they weren’t? Sometimes Jiaming Cabin is closed, and maybe they don’t always have spare sleeping bags. Then we either would have had to press on to Xiangyang Cabin when we were exhausted in bad weather, or we would have had to spend a night on the mountain WITHOUT sleeping bags – we would have probably survived, but we could have gotten into worse shape, which would have made proceeding the next day even more dangerous. Furthermore, we were lucky that Jiaming Cabin had water due to the recent storms – Jiaming Cabin’s sole water source is a rain harvester connected to a tank, and I know that the tank sometimes runs dry. This is why, in retrospect, I think it would have been safer to go alone and stick to my original plan rather than join this group with their dodgy plan. Alternatively, I could have brought my sleeping bag with me AND joined this group, and thus not rely on making it back to Xiangyang Cabin or having sleeping bags available in Jiaming Cabin. Now that I use a 19 oz. / 540 g quilt, I now on principle take it with me on any hike which is more than a casual day hike near an urban center. But the sleeping bags I used in Taiwan were much heavier, and were more of an impediment to moving quickly, especially on an ambitious hiking schedule.]
As it turns out, I had a pretty good time at Jiaming Cabin that evening. Ah Wei started hiking mountains when he was in college about ten years ago [UPDATE: I wrote this is 2013, so Ah Wei was in college around the year 2003], and became so passionate about mountains that he became a professional mountaineer. He had been assigned to take care of Jiaming Cabin for five days, after which he would ‘go down the mountain’ (taking the trash with him) and another person would replace him as caretaker. The caretakers are also responsible for bringing supplies ‘up the mountain’. When he’s not taking care of mountain cabins, he also works as a mountain porter and trail guide. He personally likes going to obscure places in the mountains where almost nobody else goes to (i.e. places which are only visited by one person a year).
He asked me why I hadn’t done much hiking in California. I said that in California I was too busy with studies. He said that when he was in college, he spent all of his time hiking and very little time studying. Considering his current profession, that was not such a bad choice.
In addition to Ah Wei, there was also a Bunun porter at the cabin that night. He was born in Lidao village, but he later moved to Guanshan (the village in the rift valley where I got off the train). He told us that every time he returns to Lidao, he’s required to drink all of the millet wine the villagers offer him, and that if he refuses he will greatly offend them. Therefore, returning to his home village means getting really drunk.
I commented that I had met some Bunun women before, and that they were married to Rukai men. The porter was extremely surprised, saying that this sort of thing almost never happens. According to the porter, the Bunun and Rukai people are enemies. The porter claimed that the Bunun people were one of the first aboriginal tribes to adopt the Roman alphabet, and that the Rukai people were one of the last to adopt any form of writing, and the porter doesn’t understand why the Rukai people waited so long to start using written language.
The Bunun porter also said that he had seen a bear near Xiangyang cabin once. Very few people ever get to spot Formosan bears – even Ah Wei had never seen one in his ten years of hiking – mainly because there are only about 1000 wild Formosan bears in all of Taiwan and they prefer to avoid humans. We did see very clear bear scratches on a tree next to Xiangyang Cabin.
Speaking of critters, Ah Wei had seen a yellow weasel that very day inside the cabin, and showed us all a picture. He says it’s very hard to spot them since they, like the bears, try to stay away from humans.
There was also a group of firefighters from Miaoli at the cabin. They were going ‘up the mountain’ i.e. their plan was to get to Jiaming Lake the next day. They were trying to complete the entire trail in two days and one night. I was a bit concerned that they were ascending too fast, but none of them seemed to have altitude sickness, so I suppose they managed.
The next day we got to enjoy a gorgeous morning (another reason to spend the night at Jiaming Cabin – we would not have had such spectacular views at Xiangyang Cabin), and the Hsinchu group, the other hiking group, Ah Wei, and I all went down the mountain together. At Xiangyang police station, I got to meet Ah Wei’s boss – henceforth called The Boss. He was there to receive the trash and take it out of the mountains. I’m not sure whether he’s in charge of maintaining the entire Jiaming Lake trail, or just the two cabins, but I think he is The Trail Boss.
Going down the highway with them was interesting. The road was in better shape than when I ascended, but the road repair crew was still busy. The Boss gave them a bag full of betel nuts.
The Boss seems to know everyone who lives along the eastern section of the Southern Cross, which is possible since the total population is probably less than 2000 people. He was giving me lots of travel advice for the area, saying ‘Well, I’m friends with the people…’ We passed by a guy on the road, and the The Boss commented that he was friends with the guy, and that he ran a homestay in Motian, but as he always told the guy, the problem with his homestay is that… (yeah, The Boss likes talking).
We stopped at the Liukou hot spring, which is right next to the road. Apparently, the people who built the Southern Cross encountered the hot spring source during excavation work. They turned it into their own hot spring, where they could soak during break time. Now, it’s free to everyone. Ah Wei commented that in the daytime there are too many people (indeed, we were not the only people at the hot spring – I talked to a woman who had been planning to hike to Jiaming Lake, but she got altitude sickness so she had to drive back down, and her son lives in San Jose). Ah Wei says that, at night, nobody goes there, which means he can get naked and immerse his whole body in the hot spring (officially, we’re only allowed to put our legs into the hot spring).
Near Wulu village, The Boss stopped to take a look at a sharp-nosed viper, the most dangerous snake in Taiwan. If you get bitten by a sharp-nosed viper and don’t get antivenom within 24 hours, you are basically dead. This sharp-nosed viper, however, couldn’t bite us because it was dead. I had never seen a sharp-nosed viper before, and I hope I will never encounter a living one. [UPDATE: I never encountered a live sharp-nosed viper, and it’s been years since I’ve been in Taiwan.]
At Wulu, I split ways with Ah Wei and The Boss. I will talk about Wulu Gorge in the next post.
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