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

Thu, Dec 09, 2004 - Page 16

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).

According to Wu Rung-shun (吳榮順), a scholar from the Music Department of the National Institute of Arts, the unique singing style and the complicated form and semi-tonal harmonic structure of the songs have aroused a sensational response from the ethno-musicological community since 1943 when the recording of Pasi But But was first made public.

The Bunun tribe's natural singing talent has been passed on to descendents such as Biung (王宏恩) and Kao Sheng-mei (高勝美), who are popular singers in Taiwan.

Due to an absence of snow and severe weather, the area is often crowded in winterwith people who visit to climb nearby mountains, hike trails or ride cross-country bikes.

The "three-stars (mountains) of the Southern Crossing" (南橫三星)" are Mount Guanshanling (關山嶺山) at 3,174m, Mount Taguan (塔關山) at 3,220m and Mount Kuhanuosin (庫哈諾辛山) at 3,114m. All are favorite mountaineering spots.

Hikers who have planned well may make their trip to and from the mountains in a day if they start their journey from Yakou. A nearby lodge (土亞口山莊) at 2,568m provides reasonably comfortable rooms and board and is managed by local Bunun youths.

On the road: Provincial Highway No. 20

1. Yujing (玉井) is nicknamed the "home of the mango" and is famous for producing the tasty fruit. Chopped mango cubes mixed with condensed milk and shaved ice is a knock-out summertime dessert.

2. Yushan Baoguang Sacred Temple (玉山寶光聖堂) lies on a hillside at Nanhua Township (南化鄉) and is a 15-minute drive from Yujing. A majestic group of temples stands out by the highway. It is the southern headquarters of a religious group called Yit Kuan Tao (一貫道), whose best-known adherent is Chang Jung-fa (張榮發), chairman of the Evergreen Group.

3. Baolai (寶來). Excited about riding rapids? White water rafting is available in this tiny mountain village, a 21km drive from Jiasian, from May to October. It's generally a 13km, eight to 10-person raft ride, on the Launong Stream (荖濃溪) and takes about two hours to complete. The cost is around NT$700 to NT$800 per person, above the age of 12. After all this excitement and long-distance driving, you might be ready to take a dip and relax in one of the village's hot springs. This amazing village is home to many hot spring hotels. Fun Chen Sawuna Resort Hotel (芳晨溫泉渡假村), located at the street end of Boalai village, is an ideal place to spend a night.

4. Meishan Youth Activity Center (梅山青年活動中心) is another 30km eastward from Baolai and is a modern building constructed by the Chinese Youth Corps, just like Yakou Lodge. It is a quiet, exclusive lodge for those who choose to be close to nature. Both the Meishan Visitor Center and Bunun Culture Exhibition Center are nearby. The Meishan Police Squad office next to them by the roadside looks like an owl, an auspicious animal in the Bunun tribe's customs. It has won a lot of praise from visitors for showing the Bunun people's sense of humor.

5. Jhongjhihguan (中之關) is about 22km away from the Meishan Youth Activity Center and the entrance to the Kuanshan Ridge trail, the longest trail in Taiwan. The Ridge trail was built by Japanese soldiers during the Japanese Colonial Period and was utilized to oppress the revolting Bunun warriors. A 3.5km-long trail between here to Tianchih (天池) is open to the public.

6. Tianchih is an important landmark on the highway and is named after the lake in the high mountains. The lake, a few kilometers away from Jhongjhihguan, is 2,200m above sea level.

7. Kuaiku (檜谷) is 11km from Tianchih and is an area of natural coniferous forests featuring towering evergreen trees. A variety of birds live in the forest. It's a great spot for bird-watchers.

8. Daguanshan Tunnel (大關山隧道), 11km from Kuaiku, is 2,722m above sea level and is 615m long. It divides Kaohsiung from Taitung. The weather and vegetation at the opposite ends of the tunnel vary tremendously. This tunnel draws curious crowds in winter when icicles form inside it and seas of clouds emerge around the area adjacent to Yakou.

For Sinying (新營) and areas northward, take National Highway No. 3 to get off at Sinying Exit. Change to Expressway No. 84 at the 334km marker and head for Yujing, where a connection to Provincial Highway No. 20 can be made.

From the Tainan area, take National Highway No. 8 to Sinhua (新化) and connect to Provincial Highway No. 20 at Tsochen (左鎮).

From the Kaohsiung area, take National Highway No. 10 to Cishan (旗山) and connect to Provincial Highway No. 21. Change to Provincial Highway No. 20 at Jiasian (甲仙).