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Friday, May 7, 2010

Jiu Fen Er Shan/九份二山 in Nantou

A House in Dong Shih, 1999

Although we did this ride a little while ago, I thought I would do a post on it to add to the list of Notable Rides. This ride was also a very meaningful ride for a number of reasons as it traverses the epicenter of what has become known as the 921 Earthquake-- a shallow 7.6 magnitude quake that killed 2416 people, injured 11,000, and left permanent scars in the landscape. The 921 Earthquake of 1999 also had a lasting impact on my life and altered my own perception of my motivations, outlook and goals. This social ride with friends brought back a flood of memories that had remained buried for over a decade.

The Da Keng Scenic Area 3 weeks after the earthquake

In early September of 1999, as a cocky young buck fresh out of school, I was beginning to make peace with my environment and settle into some form of routine after almost a year of living as an expat in Taiwan. The first 9 months are often the hardest as you have to go through the humbling and often humiliating experience of relearning everything you used to know about how to negotiate life. You relearn how to use the post office, go to the bank, order food, pick up girls, shop for groceries... everything! Most expats go through an oscillation between euphoria and depression that mellows out over time, but is never easy. I remember going off on several arrogant tirades about how "they have it all screwed up" and how it would be so easy to solve every stupid problem with this society. I particularly remember being in a snit over the fact that postage envelopes didn't have adhesive on them and you have to apply your own rubber cement. I thought it was the most inconvenient thing EVER! I was working for a marketing/advertising company and we were sending out our catalog to, like, 800 addresses. It was a total pain in the ass. I just thought it was so, "backward". Only much later did it dawn on me that the humidity would probably activate the adhesive and ruin a stack of envelopes if it had been pre-applied. Whoops! My bad.

Todd and Myself

By September of 1999 I had finally avoided several disasters and was finally stable enough to start exploring on my motorcycle. I realized for the first time how close the mountains were to my house and was awestruck by the rural beauty of the foothills of Taichung. On one of my first real forays into the countryside I intentionally got myself lost around Dong Shih Township. I remember my feeling of surprise as if I had landed on a new planet. There was life outside Taichung and I found it by myself. There were children on the basketball courts singing and practicing a choreographed routine for the coming Double Ten Day or ROC National Day (Taiwan is still waiting to realize a new date for its national day). Birds were chirping, the sun was shining... a real happy scene. I then got lost along the winding roads that wrap through the orchards near the Dong Shih Forest Park and I had a real nice day. I was buzzing with excitement over this trip for a couple days. It was the first time I could really see through the grubby urban landscape of rotting concrete and see Taiwan for its natural beauty. Until then I had really been negative toward Taiwan's environment. I thought it was all flat industrial wasteland and I was so very wrong. I still feel twinges of remorse for some of the shit I probably told people back then. The arrogance of youth.

On September 21, 1999 at 1:47am, I was in my underpants getting ready for bed on the 7th floor of a 17 story building. I was on the phone with my then girlfriend and suddenly the building started to roll, twist and sway. I hung up and after about 30 second the power went out. I stood there in the dark, in my underpants, debating whether the danger was great enough to warrant running out in only my underpants or not. I didn't smell smoke, so I found my clothes in the dark and went outside. Pieces of building rained down on us from above as the building shook some more. I'll never forget the menacing sound of the metal security doors that covered the storefronts below. We had a few more aftershocks just under magnitude 7.0 and I brushed it all off as no big deal seeing as I had no real experience with earthquakes to know a big one from a little one. I went to the 7-11, which was sold out of water and I bought a giant Kirin beer to help me better surf the aftershocks.

A Dead Area

After a couple days I got antsy and wanted to see if there was any damage. I took my motorcycle out to explore and maybe see some wrecked stuff. I went through the city and saw some telephone poles on cars and the old Taichung bus station was in ruins. I then headed out to the only road I knew of that led out of the city. I took one of the small roads out and saw a house scattered down the side of a hill. The Army was out and conscripts were helping with a block of apartments that had collapsed. For the first time it was clear that there was a human cost to all this adventure and excitement. I turned a corner behind a car from the city government and watched as the representatives from the coroner's office chased a pack of feral dogs away from the corpse of a man at the side of the road.

I looked around and the steep hillsides that were normally covered in green jungle were completely bare. The roads had breaks and gaps. I then took off up the hill to Hsin She and came upon a family sifting through the rubble of their former home. Three houses at the top of the hill were in ruins. Entire blocks of Hsin She were gone. I had a camera, but I could not bring myself to become a disaster tourist and take pictures of these people's misery.

The next shock came as I turned the corner to the hill that leads down to Dong Shih. The town looked like every building was askew. The buildings looked like a mouthful of broken teeth coming up out of the riverbed. Helicopters were circling above and landing near the river. The "thwack, thwack!!" of the rotor blades really intensified the stress level. The buildings near the bottom of the hill before the bridge to Hsin She were caving toward the road making it almost like entering a tunnel. The township was completely destroyed. Several floors compacted into one. I remember seeing a family sitting on the fourth floor of their house when the entire front wall had fallen off. I saw and smelled death. There was lots of it and for the first time it really hit home for me. I thought about those children I saw in the schoolyard and wondered how many would be coming back to school. The entire ride home was filled with these images. 17 story buildings were lying on their sides. It was complete and total destruction and these images come back to me every time I take those roads.

Once we started to get news, the reports started coming in. Dong Shih alone had lost over 500 people. In Nantou entire villages had been wiped off the map as mudslides buried them in seconds. The thought of people sleeping and then drowning in mud filled my imagination and we all did what we could to help. That's about all I want to say about that. I just really felt for those people and my imagination didn't help things.

When I finally was able to contact people in the United States, I realized they really had not idea what was going on with us and it became apparent to me that everyone in Taiwan at that time had experienced the same event and could relate to each other about it. No matter where we came from we were sharing an experience and could relate. I was becoming a part of Taiwan. This huge event (for me) had hardly registered to my friends back "home".

Why did I write so much about this? Because when I did the ride over Jiu Fen Er Shan, I was again confronted with all the thoughts and imagined horrors of the 921 quake and I have to admit I felt a heightened level of anxiety that I didn't share with the other guys. It reminded me of the frailty of life and how easy it can be snuffed out. Not the kind of thing you like to think about when bombing hills and dodging cars.

The Ride:

For this ride I went with Michael T. and Todd A. on his behemoth mountain bike. We started in Jhongsing Village and headed towards Jhongliao in Nantou County and followed Longnan Road 龍南路 in Shuangwen and passed Shuangwen Elementary School 爽文國小. It is an easy climb that fails to allude to the coming tortures.

The road heads out toward the Longfeng Waterfall 龍鳳瀑布

After a short climb there is a sign pointing left toward Jiufen Ershan right after the Xinfo Temple 心佛寺. This is the way to 18% grades. We stayed on this road and kept climbing. At some points I was way out of the saddle over my handlebars just to keep my front tire on the ground. It is a grueling assault on the quads.

The earthquake park is about 400 meters downhill from the crest. After a rest at the top we blasted down on a forearm bursting descent.

Traversing The Slide Zone

One of the strangest stretches of roads is the tooth-rattling descent across a debris field leftover from the earthquake. The road looks level, but it is an optical illusion and soon gravity takes over and you find yourself riding your brakes to retain control of the bike over the choppy pavement. It starts to dawn on you that you are rolling across a giant mudslide that could easily take off again at any time. Below there is a new lake that was formed after the quake. The geologic power of the earth is truly amazing.

Scars On The Earth

There is a small market at the bottom where you can pick up bananas and fuel for the ride back. Just behind the market is a house that is now sitting diagonally due to the tectonic forces of the earthquake. It brought back a lot of memories. There is one more hill climb up to a restaurant and a vantage point over the epicenter of the 921 earthquake. The entire landscape is turned ever which way. The striations of the earth point in all directions.
The House Is Gone

In the distance you can see a wrecked structure and check out the natural recovery of the local plant life. We hung out for a while and had some lunch amid locals who were making the most of the disaster by selling souvenir picture books and postcards. There is a desolate quiet about the whole area and the proximity to the center of such a powerful event was making me a bit nervous. I guess I am chickening out on discussing the impact of this ride, but I was really feeling unsettled by it.
Looking Back at 921

A Type of Orb Spider

The idea of going back up the mountain and, even worse, coming down the other side, made us reconsider our exit. We headed down the back side to the Nantou County Road #147. This road can go to the Highway 14 or out to Shui li. We decided to go to Shui li and took a right at the base.
A Formosan Deer Farm

Shui Gang's Ship... far from the sea.

After taking it easy on a long, flat road, we were soon climbing again. The climbs were shady and beautiful along gurgling creeks and through quiet valleys. Eventually we hit a fantastic descent to the Nantou Local Road # 131. I love the 131. The 131 makes me feel fast. It is wide, smooth... and mostly downhill. It empties out into Shui li, where we refreshed ourselves with passion fruit slushies before beating it back along the Highways 16 and 3 to Ming jian.

Kayaking in Shui Li


Thanks to Jason W. and Todd A. for the pictures and details for this post.

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  1. Exceptional post, Andrew. You took us through an historic and emotional journey. My b-i-law drove us from WuFeng towards Puli about a year after the quake and the denuded hills shocked me ... that's gotta be a lot of shaking. My then-70 year old parents in WuFeng made it through without any house damage, but were too scared to sleep inside. So, for 3 months, they joined the party over at the WuFeng provincial assembly grounds where hundreds of locals set up camp and made the best of it in true resilient Taiwanese fashion.

    Can't wait to pedal that route.

  2. Quite an intense route, I'm glad you and Michael could join me for it. I've seen people cringe at the suggestion of this route because of the memories it conjures up mixed in with its unforgiving climb.

    Thanks for sharing your emotional experience. We're all really no match against nature.

    I guess the only correction is that we started in Jhongsing Village and headed towards (bei)Jhongliao. We didn't go though Mingjian until the way back right before Nantou City.

  3. That's right. I couldn't remember how we started out. Thanks for the route. It is really a great one. I would like to do it again.