集集大山 Jijidashan

Hiking Taiwan

Our initial plan is to hike Shuishedashan, the highest peak in the Sun Moon Lake area. We arrive Friday night for an early start the following morning. Our goal is to avoid the rain forecasted for the afternoon. To our dismay, it already rains at 6 a.m.

Not keen on spending multiple hours getting soaked on a trail none of us has done before, we contemplate our options. Laziness prevails, and we head for a more leisurely hike. Little do we know just how short it’s going to be.

Jiji village is a 25-kilometer drive West of Sun Moon Lake on the Zhuoshui River. Famous for its bananas, apparently a favourite of the Japanese Emperor, it’s also home to Taiwan’s “first mountain-banana-themed tourist factory”, a claim we find hilariously specific.

Overseeing the river valley is a peak called Jijidashan, a category 2 (out of 5) Xiaobaiyue. It’s an excellent example to highlight the subjectivity of such categorization. There’s no trail for most of the way; instead, hikers walk on the road, covering 1000 meters of elevation change over 14.5 kilometres. While not technically challenging, I can’t blame anyone for feeling they’ve done more than an easy hike completing this endeavour.

Continuing an emerging theme of laziness, we opt to drive as far as we can (which turns out to be all the way to the top). In our case, only the car might have reason to “complain”, muscling up windy and ever narrower mountain roads. We negotiate potholes, tree branches and steep turns, hoping there won’t be any oncoming traffic. We’re lucky because the few cars we encounter meet us where the road is wide enough to pass.

I ask myself whether the road is a suitable place to cycle? The moss its covered in would make some of the turns pretty sketchy on the ride down, especially on road bikes with their narrow tubes. To my surprise, we soon pass a handful of cyclists pedalling up the mountain. I’m impressed.

Sure enough, once we reach the top, a signboard introduces us to the Jiji Mountain Bicycle Route. One of the cyclists we overtook earlier arrives soon after us. Otherwise, we have the top of the mountain to ourselves.

The rain has stopped, and occasionally, the sun’s been peaking through the trees. It’s still foggy and cloudy, and we stare into a white wall from the viewing point. Looking at photos from other visitors later, the views of the surrounding mountains would’ve been quite pretty. I motivate myself to cycle up the mountain another day when the sky is clear.

There’s a radio tower on top, and we explore its surroundings. A few meters down an overgrown path lies an abandoned building. It’s open on two sides with a wooden floor and ceramic tiles. My best guess is that it’s been some form of resting or lunch area.

The other two buildings appear to be used for radio transmission. They’re fenced up and closed to visitors. No one is up here, and we assume the systems can be operated remotely.

A few meters next to one of the buildings, we find the triangulation marker indicating the highest point. We take a few pictures and soon make our way back down. Giving up on hiking for the day, we treat ourselves to lunch at a local hotpot restaurant. The portions would’ve been large even if we had done multiple hours of hiking. After our morning car ride, however, it felt like a giant cheat day.

My friend suggests to visit 鹿港 Lukang in 彰化 Changhua County on our way back to Taichung. The official Romanization is spelled with a ‘k’. The alternative “Lugang” gives you a better idea of how it is pronounced (lu4-gang3). After living in Taiwan for three years (and travelling extensively), this is the first I’ve heard of this place. I’m equally embarrassed and intrigued.

Lukang was an important port in the 18th and 19th centuries and was once the second-largest city in Taiwan (after Tainan). Its later economic downturn was partly caused by a refusal to connect to the railroad. This led to a loss in trade, but interestingly, it also had the effect that, unlike other cities in Taiwan, many traditional buildings remain intact to this day, making Lukang Old Town a popular tourist destination.

The streets are packed with visitors today, and the smell of food stalls fills the air. The hotpot meal still lies heavily in our stomachs, so we have to pass on most of the temptations served in front of us. Instead, we simply stroll through the Old Town and visit the famous Matzu temple. Later, we seek refuge from the heat in a comfy coffee shop.

What started as a plan to hike turned out to be a very different but still exciting and fulfilling day. As so often when travelling, I leave with many reasons to come back, both to introduce Lukang to some of my friends and to introduce my legs and bicycle to Jiji Mountain.