Taiwanese mountain enthusiasts and hikers have long regarded their home as a paradise for short walks, long-distance treks and camping in the wilds. Forty-five percent of the island is 500 meters or more above sea level, while some 258 peaks exceed 3,000 meters.
Japanese hikers have known about the mountains of Taiwan since the years of Japan's 1895-1945 colonial occupation of the island. In 1900, Japanese anthropologists Torii Ryuzo and Mori Ushinosuke made the first confirmed ascent of Taiwan's tallest peak now known as Jade Mountain. With a height of 3,952 meters, the massif exceeds Japan's highest and most famous peak, the 3,776-meter Mount Fuji.
North American and British travelers have been publishing accounts of climbing and hiking in Taiwan since the 1930s, but even so the island's alpine treasures are not well known in the West. However, efforts to draw international visitors to Taiwan's mountains have received a boost from National Geographic Adventure, a monthly magazine published in nine languages by the U.S.-based National Geographic Society.
In its November 2008 issue, the magazine included Taiwan on a list of 25 Best New Adventure Travel Trips 2009. Describing the island as "standing shoulder to shoulder with the world's great trekking destinations," National Geographic Adventure also included Indonesia, Nepal and eastern Russia in its Asia section.
According to Pete Royall, a manager with UK-based firm KE Adventure Travel that set up the 15-day itinerary in Taiwan, the company is always on the lookout for new routes and destinations to offer its clients. "To many people in the West, Taiwan may not immediately present itself as a destination for adventure travel, but the scenery is superb with lots of hiking above the tree line," he said. "Taiwan's ranges are crisscrossed by established trails which give relatively easy access to wild and remote areas."
The Taiwan itinerary includes 12 days of what the company's brochure describes as "demanding trekking," and 11 nights spent under canvas or in mountain refuges. On most days, the trekkers will be walking for five to seven hours, but there will be some longer days of 11 hours or more.
For the main part, the trek follows a route that is well established but seldom used. This trail, which local hikers call "South Section Two," stretches from the Southern Cross-Island Highway - a mountain road that links the city of Tainan with the island's southeast - to Dongpu, a hot springs resort in central Taiwan's Nantou County. For its entire length it is within Yushan National Park, the nature reserve named for and centered around Northeast Asia's highest mountain.
One of the highlights of the hike comes on Day 4 of the trip, the first day of real trekking. Jiaming Lake, an elliptical body of water around 100 meters in diameter, is not only sublimely beautiful, but almost unique in terms of geology. It is one of just a hundred or so lakes around the world to have been created by a meteor strike, and possibly the youngest.
The following day, trekkers will ascend Sancha Mountain (3,496 meters) before crossing the Lakuyin River, a narrow stream where large, dark brown deer known as sambars can often be seen.
Yushan National Park is exceptionally rich in wildlife. In addition to sambars, some 130-bird species, 27 different mammals, 17 reptile species, 12 kinds of amphibians and 186 butterfly species have been recorded in the park. At many points along South Section Two, hikers have reported hearing sound of Reeves's muntjacs foraging during the night. The muntjac, an endemic mammal species that looks like a small deer, makes a sound so much like a dog's that it is often called a "barking deer."
In National Geographic Adventure, the tour's local representative Richard Foster explained that by walking along the spine, a trekker would experience different ecological zones and have a great view of other mountain ranges. "There, far from the crowds of Taipei, the chances of seeing bears, marmots, ferrets, and butterflies are better than seeing humans," he said.
"South Section Two is just one of many excellent long hikes in Taiwan," Foster said. "Hopefully, some of the people who join the 2009 treks will return to Taiwan in the future and tackle the Holy Ridge or South Section One."
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