This article first appeared in Rickshaw.
I first heard the term "Island Fever" when I lived on Maui in Hawaii. I first experienced it living on a different island, Taiwan. Like most foreigners teaching English here, there's a lot I like, especially the friendly locals. But as a nature lover, the congested streets and polluted air in the cities get to me. Recently I found the perfect antidote for Island Fever: climbing to the highest point on the island.
At 3952 meters (12,962 feet), Yushan, or "Jade Mountain," is the highest point in Taiwan, and even taller than Japan's Mt. Fuji. In fact, rumor has it that Yushan is actually taller since the Sept. 21, 1999 earthquake that wreaked havoc island-wide. At any rate, climbing to its summit is an awesome experience.
Unfortunately, to climb Yushan a Class A Mountain Permit is required (steep fines are imposed if you're caught without one past the park's check-point.) The easiest way to get one is to organize a group and hire a "guide" to cut through the red tape. Unlike national parks in the United States, in Taiwan individuals are not permitted entry; only groups of 3 or more may gain admittance. Luckily, a group of co-workers at my bushiban decided to go, and we applied for permits and an entrance date months in advance. Then a typhoon caused landslides and closed Yushan National Park until two days before our scheduled hike.
After extremely hurried preparations, we left Tainan at 4 a.m. and drove for four hours to Tatachia. We walked up a paved road to the permit checkpoint, then another 3 km along the same road to Yushan's trailhead at 3000 meters. A large group of lottery businessmen from Taipei were stuffing boxed lunches into oversized packs, so we hurried to get a jumpstart on the 8.5 km hike to our campsite by the Paiyun Hut (3402 meters).
It was a clear morning, and our spirits were buoyant since we couldn't see the air. The higher we climbed, the more beautiful our surroundings became. The blue-tinged mountains that rose around us, the towering trees bleached white from the sun, and the plethora of blue-spotted butterflies moved me to irritate my companions by singing "The Sound of Music."
After lunch, we caught a glimpse of Yushan, and it looked very tall and very far away. But our trepidation soon stalled as we rounded a corner and saw mist racing into the mountains, engulfing the beautiful hemlocks around us. We continued to climb, often shouting "jai yo!" (literally "Fuel up-go!") at the grinning Taipei businessmen with whom we continued to cross paths. When we reached Paiyun Hut, we found that the mist we'd seen earlier had formed a blanket of billowy clouds that extended to the horizon. My camera took an excessive amount of pictures as the sun dropped glowing red into that gorgeous mass of clouds.
After a brief nap in our tents, we got up at 3 a.m. the next "morning" to climb the last 2.4 km (and over 500 meters) to the top of Yushan. The crescent moon had set, leaving the stars brilliant and breathtaking. In fact, their beauty provided a perfect excuse whenever I needed to catch my breath, and I saw several shooting stars as we trudged up the steep incline. Our guide, eager to watch the sunrise from the summit, led us up several "short-cuts" to circumvent the Taipei crew.
With 0.4 km left, a metal chain appeared, and our guide warned that we had reached the most dangerous part of the hike. A short time later, as I scrambled on all fours over very unstable footing while trying to hold onto a flashlight, I understood his warning. The typhoon had ripped away the support chain, and the trail was hard to discern in places. It took a huge surge of adrenaline to push me up Jade Mountain, but as I reached the summit, the darkness dropped away and a fiery sunrise shocked into view. Then my heart skipped a beat as my exhilarated boyfriend screamed "Mountain!" at the top of his lungs.
Our group was the first to reach the top, so after the requisite triumphant photo session, we sat close together for body heat and waited for the sun to fully rise and warm us. Other charged hikers began streaming into the small area, and we were entertained by cell-phone contests (who can get a signal from here?) and graduates donning caps and gowns for photos. Our aboriginal guide even told us that many brides tote their wedding dresses up Yushan for wedding pictures!
As expected, the sun did fully rise and reveal the beautiful environment through which we'd hiked in the dark. The trees were vibrant. A waterfall sparkled. The shadow of Yushan's peak, where we stood, projected onto a backdrop of mountains. And my island fever was cured.