10-Nov-2008 -- I had traveled to Taiwan for the Taiwan Geography Education Association conference, and had been eying this confluence as the only one that I could feasibly visit. Three days before, on my first day in Taiwan, which also happened to be the first day of my first trip to Asia, I had made an initial attempt on this spot. To do so, I had taken several modes of transportation, including subway, high speed rail, bus, and then had hiked 15 kilometers. I came away with some blisters that were still there three days later, but I also came away with wonderful memories. I had stood within 4200 meters at that time but I was now three days wiser, and armed with a new plan. I also had the benefit of having more closely examined the satellite image of the area. Now I knew which ridge to climb.
As it happened, on this, the last day of my trip to Taiwan, the geography conference organizer, Dr. Chen, was taking a few of our conference colleagues to Sun Moon Lake. He graciously offered to drop me off in Puli on the way. During that morning, we visited the delightful faculty and students of a large junior high school in Taipei, including the geography students, which were the highlight of the day for me. After the school visit, I accepted his offer, and by early afternoon we were zipping down the superhighway south toward Taichung.
With me were colleagues I had met at the conference, from China and Japan, and we spent an amiable few hours chatting in the vehicle. About 90 minutes into the trip, I experienced my first highway rest stop in Taiwan, which was comprised of a very large building filled with all sorts of different foods for sale. The weather had been rainy in Taipei, but as we drove south, the rain gave way to a steady wind but clearing skies. At Taichung, we turned east along Highway 6 toward Puli. The clouds returned as we made our way up the valley between the spectacular ridge crests. I was glad to return to the area, as the landscape was utterly fascinating. This time, I had the advantage of Dr. Chen's local knowledge. We skirted the northern part of Puli along the newly completed Highway 6 freeway. All the way there, I had been eying the sinking sun. The last bus from Puli to Taichung departed at 6:30pm. Would I have enough time to reach the confluence?
We drove east on Highway 14, after the freeway ended, and began the most important part. I scanned the terrain to the north, anxious to spot the small lane that would lead across the river. I rejoiced when I spotted the lane, expecting to be dropped off at the junction, but to my surprise, Dr. Chen not only drove down the lane, but up a few of the switchbacks that climbed the ridge on the other side. This saved me at least 25 minutes of walking. The road then became quite rough, forcing us to stop. Before I dashed off, all of us took a parting photographs, shook hands, hugged, and expressed sincere wishes that we would see each other again. These were such wonderful colleagues that I did not want to leave, but as time was drawing short, I took off at as fast a trot as I could up the steep road. One of my colleagues took my photograph, running into the forest. It was 4:45pm, with only a month until the winter solstice, meaning that the sun would set soon.
Quickly, the road became little more than a trail, but still a bit more substantial than it appeared on the satellite image. Just like three days ago, I again wished that I would have been on a motorcycle. It would have bought me precious time. With 850 meters to go, the road doubled back on itself in the first major switchback, veering away from the confluence. As I walked briskly, I marveled at how high I was above the valley floor. The weather was humid but not as hot as the other day when I had been wandering around the wrong ridge, about 10 km south of here. The road made another switchback along the western side of the valley. I eyed my watch, the gathering gloom, and had to concede to the fact that the sun would set soon, leaving me alone, wandering around on the mountain in the darkness. My colleague Dr. Chen had prepared a confluence survival kit for me, consisting of a cell phone, a flashlight, and a few other items. Still, I did not deem it wise to be thrashing through the underbrush in this steep terrain after nightfall. I took some video and a few photographs in the poor light conditions. At that point, I was about 1500 meters from the confluence, a bit farther than I was earlier, but closer in terms of elevation. Still, I was only halfway up the ridge. I realized that I very likely would never return here. But, on the other hand, I never dreamed that I would be able to visit Taiwan in the first place. We never know quite what the future holds. Who knows...I could return someday!
Now that I had decided to call simply another attempt, I focused on another mission: Not to be stranded in Puli. That meant reaching the last bus as it left Puli in only one hour from now. I could not really run, as the road was too steep, and it was a bit slick with either dew or recent rains. I did not want to twist an ankle, so I trotted as fast as I could, turning off the GPS to free my hands. As I crossed the 850 meters-to-go point, I looked up the gully. To reach the confluence, I still think it would be best to continue up the road. The gully that led to the confluence point was too choked with enormous boulders and vegetation, and probably spider webs. The only question was that farther up the road, the terrain looks even steeper on the satellite image, and the road may end here. There is another road or trail further up the hill. One might have to pick one's way up the mountain for about 200 meters at this point. Still, I do believe that with enough daylight, that this route would lead to the confluence point. The other day, I had been on the wrong ridge. Now I was on the correct ridge but had run out of time. It was now pitch dark, with clouds, so no moon or stars to guide me. I was in too much of a hurry to bring out the flashlight.
I heard a dog barking down below me in the valley. In other narratives I have shared that meeting dogs on these trips was one of the things I worried about. Three days ago, I was approached by numerous dogs while I was wandering in the valleys below. I reached the place where my colleagues had dropped me off sooner than I expected, passed a shrine, and then strode quickly past some houses. At one of them, a dog ran out to me in the road, barking furiously, followed by a concerned homeowner, no doubt wondering what a wandering stranger was doing here. I spoke some words to the dog, but the dog probably understood no English, and so my words were undoubtedly decidedly unreassuring. Fortunately, I was able to continue onward, unscathed. I was still wearing my raincoat and by now was quite hot.
Surprisingly, the most challenging part was yet to come, for as soon as I reached the highway, I had nowhere to walk. On each side of the road was a drainage ditch, about 3 meters deep, posing a very real hazard. Buses, motorcycles, and vehicles whizzed by me at close range as there was no shoulder. And, of course, it was pitch dark. I trotted as fast as I could. A few cabs passed but nobody stopped. It was probably the scariest time that I have ever had walking. I could see the headlines: "Geographer run over after trek to imaginary point." After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only 15 minutes, I stumbled across a small cafe. I asked the owner as best I could if she could call a taxi. She eyed me curiously, as I am sure I was all disheveled, but I was thankful to see through the window that she was making a call. I waited which seemed like another eternity, but was probably only 15 more minutes. I was tempted to remove my coat but knew that I would be going from hot to chilly soon during the night there. Sure enough, by the time the taxi arrived, I was a bit cold, but grateful to see the taxi. The taxi ride to Puli East station only took 15 minutes, and I made it with about 10 minutes to spare before the last bus!
I had one more interesting conversation, first, with the bus station worker. I showed them the directions as to where I wanted to go--Taichung Rail Station--and they told me, as best as I could understand, that there was no bus to that station. Yet, I had taken a bus from that very spot to the rail station just three days earlier. I would just have to hope that the bus that soon arrived would take me there. Once I purchased the ticket and boarded the bus, I took a nighttime video of Puli as we drove along. My driver seemed like about 19 years old, and he drove down the valley like it was the Daytona 500 race course. He seemed to enjoy it immensely and I had to trust that he knew what he was doing. He did, and we made it to -- hooray -- the rail station at Taichung, 70 minutes later. I then took a video of the high speed train, which arrived about 45 minutes after I reached the station. I took the rail back to Taipei, then the subway to the neighborhood near my hotel, finished packing my bag for the flight out the next morning to North America. It was an exhilarating finish to my first trip to Asia. I leave this confluence for the time being in someone else's capable hands--one who has a bit more sunlight than I did. Safe travels!