Fri, Apr 19, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Highways and Byways: A modest achievement in Nantou

Rural Nantou’s spectacular scenery is undermined by the numerous gravel-extraction operations that scar the landscape

By Steven Crook  /  Contributing reporter

A promontory around which the Jhuoshuei River is forced to weave.

Photo: Steven Crook

Failure and concrete aren’t words likely to encourage people to read this article. Well, failure might — disastrous expeditions have resulted in some excellent travel writing. But it’s hard to make concrete sound attractive, so I’m not even going to try.

My failure wasn’t in the least bit hilarious. But like all failures, it was educational. I now have a much better idea what I need to do if I’m to achieve what I hope to. And, as I’ll explain, concrete played a major part in that failure.

Back when the weather was a bit cooler, I traveled by train from my home to Shueili (水里) in the very center of Taiwan. My bicycle was already there, and as soon as I’d bought a few snacks to keep me going until dusk, I started pedaling. My first objective was a corner of the township I’d never previously visited.

From Shueili, it’s possible to go north to Sun Moon Lake, east to the end of Highway 16, or south along Highway 21 (also known as the New Central Cross Island Highway, 新中橫) to Tataka (塔塔加) and Alishan. There’s also County Road 61 (投61), which runs due south from the town center, crosses the Jhuoshuei River (濁水溪), and then soon peters out.

Much of the land between the town center and the river is devoted to mushroom farming. Shueili lies between 243 and 1,266m above sea level, sufficiently elevated for the cultivation of edible fungi without the need for artificial (and expensive) cooling of growing sheds.

Each mushroom operation is draped with black canvas to keep out sunlight. But after harvesting, some of the fungus crop is sun- and air-dried next to the road. Between the early 1960s and the late 1970s, Taiwan was the world’s no. 1 source of canned and bottled mushrooms. These days, most of the mushrooms grown in Taiwan are eaten in the country.

As soon as I was on the southside of the river, I turned onto County Road 58 (投58) to look for a couple of unusual natural features. The spread-out village here is called Yongsing (永興) and consists of perhaps 30 households.

My first stop was Yongsing Giant Camphor Tree (永興神木), a 26m-tall sacred tree just past Yongsing Elementary School (永興國小). The tree is said to be more than 300 years old, and two of its descendants grow on the same site. Like sacred trees throughout Taiwan, they wear red sashes. A shrine to the land god completes a very pretty scene.

The road got steeper and rougher as I approached the second attraction. Yongsing Water and Fire (永興水火同源), 1.15km further along the same road at the 3.5km marker, is one of several places in Taiwan where natural gas seeps to the surface and burns, even when a puddle of water covers the ground. Or so it’s said. When I visited, neither flames nor water were visible. Not a failure, but certainly a disappointment.

Freewheeling back down the hill, past the old camphor trees, I took the designated bike trail that leads to Yongsing Suspension Bridge (永興吊橋). This hillside trail looks over the Jhuoshuei River as it makes an abrupt 90-degree turn, but the number of freshly-fallen rocks littering the path encouraged me to push on, rather than linger and enjoy the view.

What I saw when I reached the bridge confirmed what Google Maps had already told me. The other side was dominated by a gravel-extraction operation. The river here is more than 100m across, and crossing the bridge wasn’t a pleasant experience. I always feel nervous when faced with heights, a raging torrent and dangerous rocks. The poor state of the bridge made things worse. The cables holding it in place appeared to be intact, but the wooden planking didn’t inspire confidence. If I said some of the holes were big enough for skateboards to fall through, I’d hardly be exaggerating.

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