Photo of the week #52 – The Drought Ends

Water is becoming an increasingly critical resource in various parts of the world.  A strange thing happened this winter in Taiwan though.  Almost the entire country of Taiwan faced water shortages.  This is almost inconceivable in a country that gets 1500-2000 mm’s (60-80 inches) of rain in almost every part of the country every year.  There is a seasonal drought in southern Taiwan where it rarely rains between November and April every year but it still seems impossible to run out of water.  It reached a point where the government was implementing a 5 days of water and 2 days of no water policy to reduce usage.   This lead to many class jokes about stinky students (and stinky teachers).  By May many reservoirs were down to 15% of their capacity.

A picture from Dadi Gorge in April.  Every year the reservoir empties enough that you can cross the inlet river to a small gorge.

Outside my apartment a couple of weeks ago.

In late April the seasonal monsoon (The Plum Rains) usually relieves 6 months of drought.  This year however the rains didn’t come in late April for southern Taiwan.  Northern Taiwan received some relief but southern Taiwan went as far as planning but never implementing the 5/2 water outage schedule.  Finally in late May the rains came in southern Taiwan.  When it rains in Taiwan it really rains.  Many of the mountainous areas in southern Taiwan received 1000 mm’s of rain in a week.  Now most of the reservoirs are at 50+% capacity (link).  It will take a couple more storms to completely fill up the reservoirs to avoid this situation next year.

But why did this even occur?  Michael Turton covered part of this on his blog earlier this spring.  One of his main takeaways is that water is really, really cheap in Taiwan.  This brings us to one of the great ironies in Taiwan.  Taiwanese individuals are amazing at recycling, reuse and are usually very conservative with resource usage.  Yes, there are some instances like plastic bag usage where there is excessive waste but overall individual Taiwanese do very well at conservation.  One area where they don’t even try is water consumption though.  One of the frustrating things that we saw when the 5 on/2 off water outage was scheduled was the mad dash to buy 100 liter tubs to store water that they would likely never use.  Maybe it’s just my camping background that didn’t cause me to panic at the thought of being without tap water for 2 days (less because of storage tanks) though.  Another issue is that Taiwan has an aging infrastructure and loses 18% through pipeline leakage (link).

I have heard many talk about building new reservoirs or using state of the art technology (desalination for example) to solve Taiwan’s water problem but that is just silly in my opinion.  Those are very expensive options and much easier solutions in a country that receives ample rain even during dryer years.  This will be an interesting situation to monitor over the next decade for Taiwan since shortages in the future are expected to continue.

Beidawushan

Somehow I live only a couple of hours away from Beidawushan but I have never hiked it yet.  I guess I still officially haven’t but that’s another story for later in this blog.  Beidawushan is the southernmost of Taiwan’s Baiyue (top 100 peaks) and it is spectacular.  Overall there are 358 peaks taller than 3000 meters (9850 feet) but 40-50 years ago a group selected the top 100 mountains (several criteria) from that list and called them the Baiyue.  Some of the Baiyue are easy hikes (like Hehuanshan) and some are grueling 3-5 day treks (possibly even longer).  Beidawushan is a reasonably difficult 3 day (or very difficult 2 day) trip and is only a few hours drive from Kaohsiung.  I have wanted to hike Beidawushan for a long time but I always put it off.  Had I known how spectacular the trail was I wouldn’t have waited so long.

My hiking guide for Beidawushan

Despite Taiwan being in a 7+ month long drought (seasonal but worse this year) and the reservoirs emptying to the point that rolling water outages were happening it was raining on our trip.  This was almost the only place in Taiwan that got any rain that weekend.  It is inconvenient to hike in the rain but it is awesome to take photos in between rain showers.

Beidawushan was another casualty of the much written about Typhoon Morakot.  I moved to Taiwan shortly after one of the worst typhoons in Taiwan history and during the last 5 years I have seen all kinds of damage that in some cases still isn’t repaired.  At Beidawushan the typhoon caused a massive landslide that will never be repaired across the access road.  They have built a new trail to the old trailhead and the hike is now 2.8kms longer.  This really isn’t a bad thing since the new trail is spectacular and the first day was already a short hike to the Kauigu Cabin.  Unfortunately they haven’t built a new parking lot yet and it might not be possible given the geography.  Cars now parallel park along a narrow mountain road at the trailhead and it isn’t rare that a car will have to back down the road 50 meters because there isn’t any room to turn around on a weekend.

The rest of Taiwan might have been bone dry from the drought but Taiwan’s mountains have different micro climates and stay lush year round.  Our trip alternated between light rain, no rain and heavy rain.  It didn’t really affect my trip but it is obvious that I need to upgrade my rain protection system.  I’m currently considering adding a Packa rainponcho that doubles as a packcover and in theory ventilates better while keeping your pack really dry.

5 of us left Kaohsiung early Saturday morning.  Alastair, Wolfgang and Joshua were photobombed by a ghostly Taiwanese hiker coming out of the mist.

Nick walks into the abyss.

The access road might have been destroyed but overall the trail is in really good shape.  It is a natural dirt and rock trail and there are many sections where hikers need to scramble up or down rocks but the provided ropes make it relatively easy.  I say relatively because the overall pace of the hike is between 1 and 1.5 kms/hr.  That is partly due to the 1900 meters of elevation gain over 12 kilometers and partly due to rock obstacles on trail.  It isn’t an easy hike but I love hiking these kind of trails because there is a trend in Taiwan to overbuild trails with boardwalks or concrete.

My hiking guide to Beidawushan

One of the best parts of the trail is a narrow ridgeline that is within a very cool part of the forest.  This area must be prone to some awful winds and weather.  The trees were rather short and crookedly bent.  In some places the ridge is less than a meter wide and sharply drops away on both sides.

Kuaigu Mountain Cabin is a basic bunkhouse that offers all of the amenities (but nothing extra) that a hiker could want.  There is only one room and just outside there is a long counter for cooking.  One unique thing about Taiwanese camping groups is that they like to cook up elaborate meals in the mountains even if they are carrying all of the food and gear for many hours.  On a different hike one group carried an entire chicken and went through the long rotisserie process over an open fire.  It was interesting to watch but it would frustrate me after a long day of hiking.  Most foreigners seem to prefer survival food consisting of packets of noodles.  I’m a little more ambitious with my cooking and volunteered to cook for the group.  We enjoyed pasta (gluten free for me), fresh mini corn, green beans and garlic with canned chicken (Costco), olive oil, basil and seasoned salt.  It’s pretty awesome and not that hard if you know how to boil water.

The cook station in the morning.

There is only room for 40-50 people in the cabin but there about 30 tent platforms that are available on a first come basis.  We arrived around 4pm on a Saturday and got some of the last tent platforms downwind of the bathrooms.  Ironically we were camped next to the other foreigner group that weekend.  A pair of fathers brought their teen/preteen sons on a 3 day trip.

My REI quarterdome tent still performs quite well after 6+ years and dozens of trips.

I ultimately chose not to hike to the summit the second day and instead stayed in camp.  I have described the hike options on my Beidawushan guide but the 2 day option that we did requires a 12-14 hour hiking day.  That might have been possible but I had a lot of work to do that week starting immediately on Monday and I really wanted to also go on the Alanyi/Qufengbi trip the next weekend.  Most likely I would have been completely exhausted and stayed home that weekend if I had hiked to the summit so I will have to return sometime for the rest of the hike.  Overall I loved the shortened version of my hike and don’t regret at all not hiking to the summit.  The trail is absolutely amazing and I missed the best part.

My hiking guide to Beidawushan

This is just the ascent to the camp.  The summit is another 1000 meters up in less than 5 kms of hiking.

An even better map than mine.  I still have a lot to learn about map making.

The Kaohsiung Skyline

The overwhelming reason that I chose my apartment was the view of Kaohsiung.  I am very happy with the rest of my apartment but I still love the view.  I have a completely unblocked 180 degree view with the Pingdong mountains to the east, the 85 building to the south and Monkey Mountain to the west.  During the summer the air pollution (it’s bad) blows away and there are spectacular views of the city.  The only bad thing is that I typically am teaching during the evening and miss the sunset.  Here are the views from various times during the summer.

Sunrise to the east

The eastern view in the late afternoon

The blue hour

A common view to the south

Another common view to the south.

Kaohsiung gets 2 meters of rain each year.  Almost all of the rain falls between May-September.  The remainder of the year is a drought.

I think this is the only rainbow that I remember during my 5 years in Taiwan

Sunset

Sadly summer is ending and the air pollution will return stealing the sunsets.

Lost in the rain in Majia ( 瑪家)

I have known about this waterfall for 2 years and lately a friend has been teasing me with pics from his frequent trips back there.  I decided that I was going for a long motorcycle ride and check this one off of my long to do list.  Majia is a stunningly beautiful and mostly unknown mountain village near Sandimen.  Despite its enormous size Shalawan Waterfall rarely shows up on maps and I didn’t notice any signs for it.  I was even looking for the Chinese but I could have missed one.  There were about a dozen roadside waterfalls that were the location of many Moon Festival barbeques.

Sometimes I have problems finding stuff in the mountains since the roads rarely have names or numbers and signs are rarely in English.  Sometimes they don’t even have signs in Chinese.   I’m also a man which prevents me from asking for directions.  I went to the end of the three main roads that I found past Majia and Shalawan Waterfall eluded me this time.  At the end of one of the roads I found an interesting aboriginal slate house.  At the end of another I found a great hiking trail and the other ended at a great mountaintop camping spot.  It turns out that the slate house was pretty much the trailhead for Shalawan Waterfall so at least I know where I need to return to next time.

The most impressive of the road side waterfalls.

One of the ends that I explored was the Zhenlishan trail.  It doesn’t summit a great peak but in the rain today it was a stunning trail to hike.

That dark cloud basically summarizes my day in the mountains.  It rained and then it stopped.  And then it rained and then it rained until I reached the sunny

parts of the flat plain.  This was quite refreshing after a hot, humid summer though.

The trail was a pleasure to hike even in the rain.

I have always enjoyed walking in clouds.

It really was an easy trail to walk.

It was just one of those days.

Looking north towards Wutai before more rain came down.

todays rainfallI’m pretty sure that I was inside of one of the those red dots in southern Taiwan this afternoon.