2020 / January
Esther Tseng /photos courtesy of Kent Chuang /tr. by Phil Newell
Cycling along Provincial Highway 7A from Datong to Lishan, after topping Siyuan Pass we cross from Yilan County into Taichung City. At the 46 kilometer mark it is raining heavily, and cold. But by the time we pedal to the 49 km mark, the skies are sunny and clear as far as the eye can see. In less than ten minutes, we transition from bone-chilling cold to warm sunshine, showing that a bike ride can be as volatile as life itself!
For this part of our occasional series on cycling in Taiwan, we ride Provincial Highway 7A—also known as the Yilan Branch of the Central Cross-Island Highway—from its starting point, where it branches off from the main Provincial Highway 7 at Baitao Bridge in Yilan County’s Datong Township, to its end point at Lishan in Taichung City’s Heping District.
Setting off in the weak winter sunshine, after riding a couple of kilometers alongside the broad Lanyang River amid the verdant mountains we are just beginning to feel warmed up. Then we arrive at the Cilan (Qilan) Forest Recreation Area, home to the largest concentration of giant ancient trees in all of Asia.
The mighty trees of Qilan
The Mt. Qilan Forest Area, located at the northern end of the Xueshan Mountain Range, includes more than 15,000 hectares of primeval forest of Taiwan cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa var. formosana), and is listed by the Ministry of Culture as one of Taiwan’s potential World Heritage Sites. It is a must-see sight along Highway 7A. To give the public better access to the mountain forests, the Veterans Affairs Council has turned former skidways for transporting lumber into hiking trails, and it has imaginatively named the nearly 100 giant Taiwan cypress trees and Taiwan red cypress (Chamaecyparis formosensis) here that are more than 1000 years old after ancient sages and historical figures, according to the time when they began growing.
After ascending some steps, we arrive at the oldest tree in the so-called “Divine Tree Garden,” a giant red cypress over 2500 years old. It is named “Confucius,” because it began growing around the time of Confucius’ birth (551 BCE). The long, thin, upright stem of a vine known as “entire-leaf hydrangea” (Hydrangea integrifolia), which is climbing up the front of this ancient tree, serves as “the Master’s cane.” There is also a red cypress 20 meters in circumference, which, as a result of a burl growing on the tree, appears to have two legs spread apart. It began its life during the reign of Emperor Jing (ruled 157‡141 BCE) of the Han Dynasty, and has therefore been named “Sima Qian” after the great Han-Dynasty historian, who was born around 145 BCE.
This place also lies in Taiwan’s most humid fog belt, and the ancient trees are covered with all kinds of moss and lichen. Their minute beauty offers a feast for the eyes. Animal droppings of different shapes and sizes on the trail show that these are paths used by Formosan Reeves’s muntjac and Formosan serow. The rare Taiwan sassafras (Sassafras randaiense) provides the favorite food source for the broad-tailed swallowtail butterfly (Papilio maraho), a species found only in Taiwan. Passing through this ancient woodland with its mix of broadleaved and coniferous trees, within a comprehensive plant community that offers a diverse range of habitats, the short two-hour itinerary leaves one wanting more.
Every cloud has a silver lining
Rising early the next day, we pedal to the 23 kilometer mark, where a light rain begins to fall. We start to ride up through a series of hairpin turns, and must also avoid the cabbage trucks heading down to the lowlands, testing our endurance and our courage.
Stopping for a short rest in the Atayal indigenous village of Qalang Skikun (Chinese name Siji), we meet Eddie Chen, author of the book Taiwan: At Its Most Beautiful from a Bicycle. Chen, who serves as a cycling tour leader, is currently guiding three people—Ciprut Ethan and Edo Ganot from Israel, and Atsushi Haruta from Japan—on a cycling and hiking trip. They have set out from Taipei and are headed for Wuling in Taichung. Their three-day trip includes mountain hiking side trips to Cuifeng Lake on Mt. Taiping and to the east peak of Mt. Hehuan, a true insider’s itinerary. Eddie Chen points out that foreigners who make special trips to Taiwan for cycling can take in beautiful mountain and ocean scenery by riding the coastal routes, but riding high mountain routes is a greater personal challenge and enables one to experience Taiwan at its most beautiful.
Seeing these expert bicycle travelers riding Highway 7A gives us the inspiration to keep pedaling uphill. When we reach the 29 km mark and the Atayal community of Pyanan (Nanshan) at 9 a.m., the place is shrouded in mist. The large expanse of cabbage fields along the roadside identifies this as Taiwan’s biggest temperate-zone vegetable producing area.
As we proceed along the road, the combination of turns and upslopes inevitably slows us down. It is in a breathless condition that we finally reach the 46 km mark of Highway 7A, at Siyuan Pass, which marks the watershed that separates the Lanyang and Dajia river systems. The northeasterly monsoon winds that carry moisture from the sea up the Lanyang River valley turn Siyuan Pass into a wind tunnel with chilling breezes; when our bikes gather speed on brief downhill stretches, we can’t help but shudder repeatedly in the misty rain.
After crossing Siyuan Pass, we enter Taichung and the Dajia River Basin. At the 48.5 km mark it is still pouring rain, but when we reach 49 km the fog disperses, the pavement is dry, and the sun emerges as we freewheel along a road that runs between verdant mountain peaks and is lined with Formosan sweetgum and Taiwan cherry trees. The rush of joy that we feel at this transformation echoes Eddie Chen’s idea that Taiwan really is at its most beautiful when seen from a bicycle.
Blue skies, green mountains, red leaves
At the 52.5 km mark we turn onto District Road 124 and arrive at Wuling Veterans Farm. Here we see glistening yellow Lemmon’s marigolds (Tagetes lemmonii), purple Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) and flourishing fields of flowering rapeseed. In the camera viewfinder, the background is a mighty ridgeline with a golden row of bald cypress trees (Taxodium distichum), and with the added embellishment of the brick-red A-frame chalets in the campground, the scene is like a painting. Here one gets a sense of the enchantment felt by the “fisherman of Wuling,” portrayed by Jin-Dynasty poet Tao Yuanming (c. 365‡427), when he stumbled on the idyllic “peach-blossom spring.” We can’t help but stop here and enjoy this paradise of (in Tao’s words) “fragrant and brilliant flowers blossoming in a riot of color.”
Wuling Farm, which started out as a cabbage farm, was originally founded by order of the late President Chiang Ching-kuo to supply food to the military veterans who were building the Central Cross-Island Highway. The farm’s deputy director, Hu Fa-tao, explains that following the establishment of Shei-Pa National Park in 1992, Wuling adopted a conservation policy of returning farmland to forest. Under this policy they stopped planting temperate-zone vegetables, though they still cultivate high-mountain tea, apples, and peaches, to carry on the legacy of the past.
Tango with monkeys
In the past few years, wild Formosan macaques have begun to reproduce in large numbers at Wuling Farm. They steal from the peach and apple trees that the farm has worked so hard to cultivate, and they even ripped up and ate 9600 planted tulip bulbs, bringing the farm workers near to tears. In 2016 the macaques caused over NT$6 million in crop damage here.
To strike a balance between conservation and crop production, Wuling Farm’s director, Yuan Tu-chiang, adopted a “tango with monkeys” strategy: “You advance, I retreat.” They stopped cultivating crops that macaques love to eat and began planting things they don’t consume. In 2014 they first tried growing chrysanthemums, and discovered that the macaques were put off by their scent. From there they began gradually transitioning to chrysanthemums and reached a production volume of 500 kilograms in 2019.
Wang Ran-juh, chief of the farm’s Agricultural Division, says that their chrysanthemums have large petals and a bright yellow color because of the wide differences between daytime and nighttime temperatures in the mountains, the powerful ultraviolet rays of the sunshine, and the irrigation water from Mt. Xue. A rumor even started at an agricultural show that Wuling’s chrysanthemums must have been sprayed with growth hormones and dye to be so brilliantly yellow and luxuriant. Workers wryly remark, “If we were spraying them with chemicals, the protected Formosan landlocked salmon living in the Qijiawan River would all be dead by now.”
Speaking of the Formosan landlocked salmon (Oncorhynchus masou), a national treasure that lives in Shei-Pa National Park, after 20 years of conservation work their numbers have recovered far enough that scientists stopped releasing them into the Qijiawan River seven years ago. The population has remained stable, with 5800 salmon counted in 2019. There are, however, still concerns about the threat of climate change, so the Taiwan Salmon Eco Center is currently continuing its conservation work by releasing the salmon into the Luoyewei and Hehuan Rivers, to extend their habitat beyond the Qijiawan River alone.
Under the azure skies just after sunrise, we ride to the trailhead for hiking up Mt. Xue, from where we have a clear view of the ridgeline from the main peak of Mt. Xue to Mt. Dabajian and Mt. Nanhu. This vista is, as Wang Ran-juh reminds us, reproduced on Taiwan’s NT$2000 bill, along with the river valley and its Formosan landlocked salmon. Wang doesn’t forget to add that the Tourism Bureau is promoting travel to Taiwan’s mountain ranges under the theme “2020, Year of Mountain Tourism,” and that Wuling Farm offers an all-round mountain experience.
Old Atayal hunting trails
As we head to Lishan, we pass through the Atayal communities of Sqoyaw and Slamaw (Huanshan and Jiayang in Chinese), where the roadside scenery is now dominated by Oriental pear and persimmon trees. We make a special visit to Buyang Mekax, an Atayal elder who has been recommended to us by the Tri-Mountain National Scenic Area Administration, to ask him to act as our guide for a visit to the Soulu Trail and the basalt rock formations around another Atayal community, Tabuk (Songmao).
The 70-year-old Buyang Mekax rides a motorcycle as he leads us to explore the Soulu Trail, a hunting path for indigenous peoples in days gone by. We turn in at the trailhead for Mt. Dajian at the 66.5 km mark of Highway 7A, where the gravel road makes for excellent mountain biking, and there is even a stretch of road where we feel a soft yet firm carpet of fallen pine needles under our tires. Our guide recounts that this trail was the site of massacres of Aboriginal people by the Japanese around 1920. And looking down into the Dajia River valley along the way, we see a hidden world of basalt formations.
As we press on to the end of Provincial Highway 7A, at the Lishan Guesthouse, we feel that our journey is not over. For we have imbibed the spirit of the ancient trees and embraced the beauty of the mountain mists, so that, filled with positive energy, we are already thinking about our next cycling adventure.