As a Boy Scout in Taiwan, my most significant accomplishment was to hike the Silver Trail across the mountains of Taiwan.  The Silver Trail was a rugged foot path, constructed by Taiwan Power. It crossed the island near its center from west to east. The trail reached altitudes of  nearly 9,000', and at times was a very narrow path blasted into vertical, granite face with sheer drops of over 1,000 feet.  No roads crossed the center of Taiwan in 1959 when I did this hike.  For 100 boys and the U.S. Air Force volunteer scout masters, we were committed and exposed once we started the four day hike. At one point, I watched a boy scout lean on a rail, which gave way, and he fell 20 feet onto a boulder and rolled another 40 feet into some saw grass and was held there. Fortunately, he landed on his pack, and the saw grass kept him from rolling a great deal farther.  We used ropes to get him back up, and he was able to continue the hike with others carrying his pack and supplies.  

Taiwan is a very mountainous island.  In its 260 mile length, it has over 100 mountains exceeding 3,000 meters (9,700') in height.  Many are higher.  The highest mountain, variously called Mt. Morrison, Jade Mountain, or Yu Shan, rises to 3952 meters (12,844').  The mountains, called the Spine of Taiwan, run north and south, covering the central and eastern thirds of the island.  The western third of Taiwan is flat and holds most of the population and industry.  

Soon after my Boy Scout hike in 1959, the government completed the Cross Island Highway, which ran somewhat north of the trail I had taken.  It was a viciously difficult construction project, with 450 construction workers giving up their lives in the process. 




So, on my recent visit to Taiwan to visit my brother Sam, his wife, Debryn and their four year old son, Kaizen, I asked if we might drive Hwy 21 across the island so that I might revisit the mountains I had hiked years ago.  They were more than agreeable as Sam wanted to visit some tea plantations in the area.  

Sam and Deb live against the foothills east of Taichung, so as we started out we were immediately climbing into low mountains, rising to perhaps 1,500 meters.  We came to an area of banana plantations and mushroom farms, the latter looking like chicken ranches covered in black plastic sheeting.  We paused at a roadside stand to eat a variety of fresh mushrooms, some grilled with teriyaki, and some fried in a spicy batter. This we washed down with Taiwan's unique milk tea.

Above Wu Sheh, looking down to a cloud shrouded valley.

Eventually, we passed through Pu Li, the gateway to the high mountains, and the epicenter of a huge earthquake which devastated the area five years ago.  From here we traveled Highway 9, climbing steeply into the mountains.  We came to the high altitude town of Wu Sheh and site of the Wu Sheh Dam and its deep lake.  I remember as a boy coming here on a family trip to watch the construction of the huge dam.

As we continued to climb up Hwy 9, we passed in and out of wispy clouds as they were blown up the mountainside and jetted into space.  We came to a small imitation Swiss village, with alpine hostels made of concrete, and a cobblestone street setting lined with authentic Swiss shops  including Starbucks and 7 eleven. 

A vendor sold grilled knockwurst and bratwurst which  looked good.  She said that the bratwurst were vegetarian, stuffed with rice, and since I am a haphazard vegan, I decided to try one.  I put the hot sausage into my mouth and sucked in air to cool it off.  As I bit into it, the snap was familiar and satisfying.  I paused another second to let it cool, and then chewed the first bite, sorting through the complex array of flavors.  It was then that I realized that it was completely devoid of taste.  Not a single spice had been squandered while preserving the natural banality of the rice.  This was a sausage suitable only as a gag gift for a German BBQ. 

Highway 9

Swiss Hostel.

Faux Swiss Village.  Notice the 7 Eleven sign.

Our drive continued over the first high pass and down towards the second.  We went through occasional small aborigine villages, the dominant group in this area.  There are actually 14 aborigine tribes in Taiwan, and they were the first inhabitants of Taiwan dating back thousands of years.  The Bishop Museum of Polynesian Culture in Honolulu now states that language and archaeological studies confirm that the inhabitants of Polynesia and Hawaii were originally aborigines from Taiwan.  These were the people who first explored the vast Pacific.  

Much later, occupiers from southern China came to Taiwan and became the people we now call "Taiwanese."  After them, the Portuguese and Japanese came for brief periods.  In the process, the aborigines were forced off the flat western plains and into the mountains and the mostly inaccessible East Coast.  When I grew up, we knew the aborigines as Mountain People. Many were recognizable by their simple facial tattoos.  Now, as in many other parts of the world, the aborigines are finding their voice and are starting to recover their interesting history.

Sorting onions in an aborigine village.

The sun was getting low, and Sam was anxious to show me the Da Yue 'Ling 105 Tea Plantation before dark.  We detoured through a tunnel and about 20 kilometers later, at the 105 marker, we parked and walked up the steep service road into the plantation.

Most of the world's best tea comes from Mainland China, with a few exceptions.  One exception is that the best Oolong Tea comes from Taiwan.  

Fine tea is grown at high altitude where the cold temperatures cause the leaves to grow slowly, trapping the oils and concentrating the flavor.  Fine tea is picked early.  An early pick reduces the yield, but the small, tender leaves have complex flavors without the harshness that comes later.

Da Yue 'Ling 105 is the highest plantation in Taiwan and they pick early.  They indisputably produce the most coveted Oolong Tea in the world.  Their small crop is sold to only a few select merchants and favored individuals at a wholesale price of $600/pound (U.S. dollars).   

Da Yue 'Ling 105 Tea Plantation.  

A couple of years ago, Sam studied pottery making under Taiwan's most famous tea pot carver.  They became friends and Sam decided to drive this artist up to Da Yue 'Ling 105 to meet Taiwan's most famous plantation owner.  Although the two knew each other by reputation, they had never met.  In honor of this introduction, the plantation owner allowed Sam to buy a small amount of his tea.  Sam has returned every year to cement the relationship, and of course, to buy a bit more tea.

We visited for awhile with the father of the plantation owner, and as it was getting dark, we continued on our way.  We had a simple three course Chinese dinner in the only restaurant in the very remote town of Li Shan ( Pear Mountain,) and then drove higher to the Li Shan Retired Serviceman's Farm, a large estate of apple and pear orchards and a tea plantation.  They had a comfortable hostel where we stayed the night in lodging comparable to any  Best Western.  In the morning, after a complimentary Chinese breakfast of glutinous rice, peanuts, pickles, salt duck eggs, tofu and steamed rice-flour buns, we toured their orchard consisting of 20 varieties of apples and pears and the tea plantation. We then backtracked for our descent on the Cross Island Highway into the Toroko Gorge.

Picked early and tender.  In the background, Chi Lai N. Peak rises to an elevation of 3601 meters (11,703').  

Apple orchard at Li Shan Serviceman's Farm.  A collection of these farms is located at picturesque spots around Taiwan. They  provide comfortable lodging much like the Paradores do in Spain.  A room with two king beds runs about $65/night.

Looking down on the Servicemen's Farm.

Fine tea is picked with either two or three leaves, and, importantly, an unopened bud, seen pointing downward in this picture.  The tea is first poured into the tall snifter glass for about 30 seconds, and then from there into the drinking cup.  The snifter glass is then used like a brandy snifter, to sample the complex aromas of the tea.  The tea is often sucked into the mouth with considerable air, which provides an explosion of flavor to the palate.  Hopefully, this tells you more about drinking tea than you ever cared to know.

The van, passing on a double yellow, while running a red light, and being watched by two men riding unprotected on a stack of cargo, conveys the somewhat more relaxed driving standards.  Many intersections and highways now have cameras, which photograph violators and speeders, resulting in tickets arriving by mail.


PAGE 2: Toroko Gorge

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