With my editors’ forbearance, I am going to step away from today’s messy politics and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Instead I would like to share some personal reflections on some of Taiwan’s perhaps less appreciated wonders: its marvelous mountains. The island is graced with a chain of peaks stretching north to south, with some 100+ rising above 3,000 meters (roughly 10,000 feet). The crown jewel is Jade Mountain (Yu Shan, 玉山), that tops out at just under 4,000 meters (roughly 13,000 feet). A little known fact: the Japanese code name for their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, was the Japanese name for Yu Shan, then the highest point in the Japanese Empire.
Roughly two-thirds of the island is mountainous, home to rare plant and animal species, along with numerous aboriginal villages that reflect the ancient roots of Taiwanese culture. I first encountered these beautiful peaks as a teenager living in Taiwan in the early sixties. My Boy Scout troop did the cross-island hike from near Chiayi to Hualien in the summer of 1964, a rugged multiday affair that took us up over ten thousand feet, where we could look both East and West and see the entire width of the island. We stayed in primitive Taipower shelters, and encountered few other hikers at the time. It was a marvelous adventure for me and my young friends.
That December, our Boy Scout troop teamed up with scouts from Taichung and Taipei to climb Yu Shan. I remember we stayed at the weather station on the north peak, one of the roughest nights I can remember. I was cold, suffering from the altitude, and nervous about the next day. We then hiked south to Yu Shan’s main peak, enjoying bright morning sunshine on a gloriously clear day. Looking back I am now doubly impressed that my then 41-year-old father joined us for that adventure.
When I returned to Taipei as a young diplomat in 1981, I resumed my love affair with the mountains. Living in the northern capital, I enjoyed hiking up scenic Chi Shing Shan (Seven Star Mountain, 七星山), the highest point above the city. I climbed that peak multiple times, always hoping for the rare clear day when one could look down over 3,500 feet to the city in the basin in one direction, and to the shimmering waters of the Pacific Ocean in the other.
I also tackled Taiwan’s second-highest mountain, appropriately called Snow Mountain (Shue Shan, 雪山), but was turned back just shy of the summit by three-foot snow drifts (hence the mountain’s name). My American colleague and I retreated to the high hut below Snow Mountain, and made a great bargain with some Keelung dock workers we had met along the trail. We shared the bottle of red wine we had brought, and they chopped up a fresh ginger root and made tangy delicious thick broth (it instantly clears up the sinuses and prevents colds)!
My now bride of 37 years, Barbara Finamore, came out to visit me in 1981, and together we climbed Yu Shan. In those days, you had to start out in Alishan and hike about 12 miles along an old Japanese railroad bed just to get to the starting point of the actual climb. On the long drive back to Taipei I asked Barbara to marry me, and to this day she believes this happened only after she had passed my mountain climbing test. Good story; not true. I was just looking for the right moment.
When I was next posted to Taipei in 1989, I returned to Shue Shan. This time I made it to the top in gloriously clear weather. I also climbed Yu Shan again, taking advantage of the now open road to begin the ascent much closer.
Back in Taipei, I lived near Cultural College on Yang Ming Shan (陽明山), and used to regularly run up to the top of Chi Shing Shan and Ta Tun Shan (大屯山), a truly vigorous workout. Running back down seemed effortless at the time, but probably contributed to my current knee problems! I was training to run the Taipei Marathon, but to my surprise, it was replaced by a 10K race instead. Having run nine marathons in my younger days, including Boston three times, it was a disappointment not to be able to run one in Taiwan. But that’s the breaks!
My following tour in Taipei, from 1998 to 2001, I had three active children to join me on hikes. My oldest son, then a teenager, and I climbed Shue Shan together, despite losing the trail and having to scramble up the rocky slope the last several hundred feet. By my experience, Shue Shan was a far tougher climb than Yu Shan.
Now grown and successful, my kids still like to go out hiking when they visit me, and are active outdoors lovers in their own right. As I like to tell people, start them out hiking when they are young, and they’ll love it forever.
During my last tour in Taipei, from 2006-9, I climbed Yu Shan a sixth time, joined by my college-aged son Michael and my wife Barbara (so glad she had accepted my marriage proposal 25 years earlier after our first time climbing it!) We also did the southern cross-island hike with local friends from AIT’s vigorous hiking club. Some of the best hikers were women, which impressed Barbara. For my part, hiking with members of my AIT local team was a nice way to develop a less formal relationship with my employees. There is something about being up in the hills — particularly when it rained — that encourages everyone to just become companions in nature.
That fifth tour in Taiwan, I climbed Shan Cha Shan (三叉山) in southern Taiwan, a tough 3,500m peak with a beautiful alpine lake (Jia Ming Lake, 嘉明湖) near the summit. It is located just north of the southern cross-island highway. My 19-year-old daughter Rebecca joined me, for the three-day, 31 kilometer round trip, along with a couple of my loyal AIT locals, Ah-Kun and Ah-Huei.
Between the beckoning hills surrounding the Taipei basin and the taller summits along the spine of Taiwan, I gained a deep loving affection for this beautiful island’s heights. I still harbor hope that in the future I can return to the top of Yu Shan once more, for a total of seven climbs. In the meantime, I feel graced to have had the opportunity to enjoy Taiwan’s gorgeous mountainous spaces with friends and family. Yet another fond memory of the place early Portuguese explorers fittingly called Formosa, “the beautiful island”!
Ambassador Stephen M. Young (ret.) lived in Kaohsiung as a boy over 50 years ago, and served in AIT four times: as a young consular officer (1981-’82), as a language student (1989-’90), as Deputy Director (1998-2001) and as Director (2006-’9). He visits often and writes regularly about Taiwan matters. Young was also US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Consul General to Hong Kong during his 33-year career as a foreign service officer. He has a BA from Wesleyan University and a PhD from the University of Chicago.
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