Sat, Feb 10, 2001 - Page 11 News List

Crazy for snow

Anyone hoping for an idyllic romp through quiet, alpine pastures at Hohuan Mountain should think again


Thousands flock to Hohuan Mountain in Nantou County during January and February to see snow and stunning views of some of Taiwan's highest peaks.


The late-night news last Saturday reporting snow on Hohuan Mountain (合歡山) was enough to get me heading south in the middle of the night toward Nantou County, eager to make snowmen and throw snowballs. Apparently, the news had the same effect on thousands of others as well.

Snow at elevations over 3000m is common in January and February, but most reliable snowfields lie on the highest mountain peaks, well out of reach of the average weekender. Hohuan Mountain, however, is an exception, lying on the Central Cross-island Highway within easy access of millions of people who generally prefer to experience the outdoors from the comfort of their cars.

Traffic hell

The rarity of snow means that when it falls, Hohuan Mountain is hotter than a McDonald's Hello Kitty Happy Meal. Everyone wants some, and driving through the night to avoid the throngs is futile.

The trip from Taipei to Hohuan Mountain, under normal circumstances, requires about six hours. The closure of sections of the Central Cross-island Highway (中部橫貫公路) due to the 921 earthquake last year means that the main route to Hohuan mountain is out of commission -- but there are three other routes.

Travelers can take Route 14 from Puli, the only road from the West, Route 8 up the Taroko Gorge (太魯閣) from Hualien in the east, and Route 7 through a narrow, hazardous valley from Ilan in the north. With most people coming from Taichung, Taipei and other west coast areas, Route 14 is the most traveled and arguably the easiest road to drive, though after the snow report, this route presented considerable challenges.

The first hint of trouble came in the village of Wushe (霧社), which has cleverly set up a makeshift toll booth to collect NT$50 from every motorist who passes through the town. The charge was nominally for access to the local park, which presumably no one had driven to Wushe to see.

To be fair, Wushe does enjoy dramatic views of a stunning valley that drops about 1000m to the Wanta Reservoir (萬大水庫) and of the majestic Wanta (萬大山) and Nengao Mountain (能高山) ridges. But Wushe did not have snow, so the perceptibly growing number of cars simply pressed on through the village.

Two minutes beyond Wushe at Chingjing Farm (清境農場), the traffic came to a halt. It was 9am, the altitude approximately 1700m. Hohuan Mountain was 10km away and at 3400m. Instead of throwing snowballs, people were now stepping out of their cars in T-shirts to feel the first warm rays of sun through the clouds. The prospect of snow at this point seemed slim.

Going nowhere fast

The road up the mountain was lined with stationary cars, mostly family sedans and jeeps, disappearing into the fog. Every 20 minutes or so, the line lurched 100m, tantalizing with the illusion that the traffic jam was caused by a broken-down car just out of sight around the bend. But round the next hairpin turn, the line of cars extended, unmoving further into the clouds.

The excitement of seeing snow was already enormous. Children whined loudly and some people, unable to wait, simply got out and began walking uphill. Unscrupulous drivers braved the left lane to zoom ahead of the crowds, very nearly opening the flood gates to an all-out, chaotic assault up the mountain. The timely appearance of police was all that prevented a complete degeneration of the traffic situation as they swiftly handed out fines to those cars busted in the left lane, to heartfelt cheers from more law abiding drivers.

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