Thu, Dec 09, 2004 - Page 16 News List

A highway less traveled

The Southern Cross-Island Highway is ideal for excursions at all times of the year. Hit the road

By Derek Lee  /  STAFF REPORTER

The Bunun tribe is famed for its singing.

PHOTO: DEREK LEE, TAIPEI TIMES

The scenic Southern Cross-Island Highway (南橫公路), or Provincial Highway No. 20, chisels its way through Tainan (台南), Kaohsiung (高雄) and Taitung (台東) counties and connects southern Taiwan's eastern and western regions.

Since the highway zigzags through a wide area of the Yushan National Park (玉山國家公園),which possesses the precious ecological resources of the forests and mountains of Taiwan, any trip along the highway is more like a fascinating sightseeing tour than a tiresome cross-country journey.

Highway No. 20 was completed in 1973 but was opened to the public in 1993, because of the dangers inherent in its treacherous terrain and the frequent landslides.

The highway rises from a few hundred meters above sea-level at Tainan to 2,731m at Yakou (土亞口), the highest point on the route. It therefore has great climatic variation and gorgeous, ever-changing landscapes. Compared to the busy Northern and Central Cross-Island highways, Highway No. 20's traffic is light and one may, like Robert Frost, call it a road "less traveled."

More importantly, this spectacular route, stretching 209km from Tainan to Taitung, passes by the southwest entrance of the Yushan National Park, at the route's 109.5km mark and extends to the 147km mark, at the west end of Yakou Tunnel. The terrain of the park rises from Lakulaku Stream Valley (拉庫拉庫溪谷) at 300m above sea level to Yushan's main peak at 3,952m, the highest point in Northeast Asia.

Such a topographically varied territory with a mild temperature gives birth to dramatic natural scenery: steep river valleys, breathtaking gorges and giant Taiwan red cypress or Morrison spruce forests.

The area's temperature is generally cool, though there is great variation between day and night and between seasons. Temperatures go as high as 30?C in the summer and drop below-zero in the winter. Best of all, snow is rarely seen on the route, mainly due to a lack of moisture in the air.

From January to March, as soon as spring touches the ground, the area is decorated with numerous flowers such as Taiwan cherries, azaleas and plum blossoms. The Taiwan lily, Formosan raspberry and glandular rosa (高山薔薇) can also be seen at various spots on hills or by trails from June to August.

Since different animals live in different floral zones, the rich variety of vegetation in Yushan National Park breeds a wide range of fauna, such as Formosan macaque, wild boar, black bear and numerous bird species, both endemic and migratory.

Across these vast mountains and green valleys, a ferociously brave tribe, whose members proclaim themselves "the sons of Yushan," has resided for many centuries.

The present-day Bunun tribe (布農族) has a population of about 33,000 which spreads mostly around the Yushan Mountain Range. They are the best hiking guides for Yushan, which is visited by thousands of local and foreign mountaineers and tourists almost all year long. They also love baseball and have a good sense of humor.

The Bunun are an internationally renowned group of people who are blessed with an amazing talent of choral singing. Every year, between the months of April and July, the Bunun tribesmen hold two traditional festivals.

At the height of each ceremony, a team of eight or more adult men (no women are allowed) form a small, close circle and sing praise songs such as Pasi But But (Praying for a Rich Millet Harvest, 祈禱小米豐收歌) or Manandi, (Chief Ritual Song, 首祭之歌) to worship their gods in eight vocal parts (a choir normally sings four vocal parts in the West).

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