Remembering Jiaming Lake and the Southern Cross-Island Highway (Part 4)

This is a photo taken on the Southern Cross-Island Highway – I’m guessing that’s the Xinwulu river

Continued from Part 3.

When I wrote the emails in 2013 about my trip on the Southern Cross-Island Highway, I promised at the end that I would an email about Wulu Gorge, which I never did. Thus, unlike the previous parts of this blog post series, this entire post was written in 2020. And instead of being able to copy and paste a bunch of text I wrote shortly after the trip, all I have to rely on are a few photos and memories which are more than six years old.
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Remembering Jiaming Lake and the Southern Cross-Island Highway (Part 3)

A little after sunrise, with one of my companions in the lower left part of the picture.

Continued from Part 2

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.

There are two of my hiking companions

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Remembering Jiaming Lake and the Southern Cross-Island Highway (Part 2)

This is continued from Part 1.

I should note that the eastern section of the Southern Cross follows the Xinwulu river. The river originates from Guanshan, Xiangyangshan, and Sanchashan i.e. the mountains I summitted during this trip (except Guanshan, which I didn’t summit). The Xinwulu river flows down into the east rift valley, where it flows into the Beinan river, which eventually flows into the Pacific Ocean at Taidong city.

I started this trip by taking a train to Guanshan (the town, not the mountain), and spent the first night there. Guanshan is a town in Taiwan’s east rift valley, at the southern end of Taiwan’s ‘rice bowl’ (i.e. prime rice-growing region), and relies on the Xinwulu river for much of its water. The next morning, I got on a bus, which went up to the Southern Cross-Island Highway. The bus passed through Chulai, about 300m above sea level, which is where the mountains meet the valley and is the last place along the highway where rice-farming is feasible. After going through Chulai, the next settlement was Xiama, then Wulu, and then Lidao, where I had breakfast.

Most of the road was in good shape, though there were a few rough patchs, and a flooded tunnel where the bus literally had to drive through the water. [UPDATE 2020: A year later, in 2014, bus service to Lidao was cancelled, which does not completely surprise me given road conditions and lack of population. I don’t know whether bus service was ever restored, or if there is currently bus service to Lidao].

Lidao is a Bunun village (every settlement past Chulai is a Bunun village) about 1000m above sea level, and is the last place with flat land. The people there apparently feel they don’t have enough farmland, so many of the mountains around Lidao have terraced fields. The Boss (I explain who he is in Part 3) claims that the people have taken the terracing too far. Continue reading

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 travelling 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 who knows how accurate this is) “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 understanding hunting, put a building in a place which belongs to deer … this place has changed, there are more and more thing 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. Continue reading

Sauntering to and down from Muir Pass

In the Evolution Basin

John Muir preferred the word ‘saunter’ over the word ‘hike’. Among long distance hikers, there is also a saying ‘it’s about the smiles, not the miles’. It is about a difference in focus – focusing on distance covered and speed vs. focus on the immediate environment.

I think this is Helen Lake, at the top of LeConte Canyon

When I hike, most of the time I combine both focuses. I keep track to some extent of how much distance I’ve covered and how much time I’ve spent, and how far I have left to go to the destination and how long it may take, but I also try to let in the environment around me (after all, that is the point of why I am out there, right?) I rarely go for speed, and almost never try to be faster than anyone else (I’m not good at racing).

Sometimes I tip more towards one side of the spectrum than the other.

Evolution Lake in the evening

Last month (September), I hiked the section of the Pacific Crest Trail / John Muir Trail running from Red’s Meadow to the junction of the Bubbs Creek Trail (about 120 miles / 190 km), and then hiked the Bubbs Creek Trail (about 13 miles / 20 km) to reach a road, for a total of about 133 miles / 210 km. I did not resupply. I also used a bear can (required) which limited how much food I could carry. Covering 133 miles / 210 km of John Muir Trail on a single bear can of food is tough, and requires maintaining a certain pace (lest one runs out of food). Continue reading

Caught by Alaska Politics, Part 6 (Final)

The ferry strike which inspired the beginning of this series ended in early August. You can read about the end of the strike here and here.

I recall reading in a newspaper article in Ketchikan (which is paywalled) that a union member mentioned that the union had learned to take any statements made by the state negotiators with a grain of salt. At the time, I nodded my head and thought ‘yep, the state PR people are saying they are doing a lot to help the stranded passengers, but aside from the captain and officers of the M/V Columbia, all the state is doing is refunding tickets’.

I know that I do not understand all of the finer points of demands / contract provisions, so I will not discuss those.

Throughout my trip in Alaska, I kept on hearing about the major budget cuts to the ferry system, and how there will be less of a ferry system in Alaska next year than this year. ‘It’s a good thing you’re taking the ferry to Dutch Harbor this year’ I would hear people say ‘because who knows if that ferry route will exist next year’.

I know that the looming budget cuts had a bad effect on the morale of the ferry workers – I could feel it on the ships (the workers were professional about it, and some of them deliberately tried to avoid expressing too much, but one could feel the elephant in the room). Heck, how could it not have a bad effect on morale?

I’ve read that, though the contract-related grievances were sufficient to prompt the strike, an additional factor which encouraged the workers to vote for a strike was the fear inspired by the threat of budget cuts to the ferry system. It was their way of protesting the deep cuts. Continue reading

Caught by Alaska Politics, Part 5

Continued from Caught by Alaska Politics, Part 4

Unbelievably, I have managed to get this far in the series without mentioning one of the most politically powerful people in Alaska right now: Donna Arduin. She has been featured in multiple articles in Alaskan newspapers, including this one and this one. I highly recommend at least skimming those articles. In short, she has a history of being hired by a state government, slashing the budget – except for private prisons, she tends to increase spending on private prisons, and contracts tend to be awarded to the private prison companies she has a relationship with – and is gone in a year, so that she does not deal with the political fallout of the budget cuts.

I was in California when she was working for Governor Schwarzenegger, and I had never heard of heard, though I heard of some of the drastic budget cuts proposed. By contrast, she is a household name in Alaska. Almost every Alaskan I met had heard of her. A lot of them blamed Governor Dunleavy’s policies on her, and some even said that she is now the real governor and that Dunleavy is just her tool. Likewise, some of the Alaskans I talked to said that Arduin herself is also a puppet, and the puppetmasters are the Koch brothers (I have not independently confirmed this; it’s just something multiple people have told me; whatever Arduin’s relationship with the Koch family is, the fact that so many Alaskans believe that there is a connection is noteworthy).

I think Alaskans are doing all Americans a service by drawing attention to figures such as Arduin. Considering how much power people like her wield, they deserve public attention.

Now let’s get back to the ferries. Continue reading