On The Road: Taiwan's long and winding highway to the clouds and beyond
Saturday 15 October 2011
I'd struggled to believe Simon, my guide from Bamboo Trails, when he told me that Taiwan's cross-island highway was the most breathtaking drive in Asia. I had imagined factories, highways full of belching buses. But the road I was whizzing along on my scooter was almost deserted. The air was crisp and the views spectacular. The Tarmac snaked behind me down steep, mountain ridges swathed in rainforest to a turquoise lake below. It glistened as it caught the light of the morning sun. A red temple guarded by green swirling dragons flashed past to my right.
The scenery changed astonishingly quickly. In just an hour we'd climbed from sticky coast to cool cloud forest. An hour later and the forest was elfin, shrouded in mist and dripping with bromeliads. Then the air became rarefied and we emerged into high alpine grasslands.
"I've been stuck in heavy snow up here," Simon told me as we looked out over the jagged 3,000m peaks of Mount Hehuan. "There's even a ski resort."
From Hehuan the road dropped through hairpin bends to the east. We plunged into mist and all was opaque a few metres beyond the front wheel. Without warning, the road leapt into dark, dripping tunnels. When we stopped for water all I could here was eerie silence, broken by the trickle of a faraway stream.
Then the clouds parted as rapidly as they'd arrived and we were on a road gouged out of a vast, almost sheer-sided valley. We dropped 1,000m within half an hour and the valley narrowed into the Taroko gorge, cut by a brilliant blue river which rushed over jade-coloured boulders. Green mountains towered around us.
We stopped at the Eternal Spring Shrine – whose terracotta-tiled pavilions looked miniature against mile-high rock walls. And as the late afternoon sun turned gold we reached the end of the highway and the vast skies of the Pacific. It was from here, I reflected that the Portuguese had seen Taiwan, and given the country its first name – Ilha Formosa, the beautiful isle. They'd chosen well.
For information on Taiwan trips with Bamboo Trails, see bambootrails.com.
The new edition of Footprint's 'Southeast Asia Handbook' is available soon (£16.99).
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