As summer and months of preparation drew to a close I spread my relief maps of Taiwan out across the floor one last time. The contour lines of the central ranges were so closely packed they merged into a single dark foreboding mass running the length of my room. This shadow marked the route of my intended journey from the northernmost point in Taiwan, along the mountainous spine, to the southernmost point. I would travel entirely on foot, a two-month solo trek that my Taiwanese friends said was "impossible."
At first glance Taiwan seems an unlikely place for outdoor adventure. It is after all a polluted, crowded little island full of factories churning out computers and pirated CDs, a country where environmental consciousness is so low that the first national park was established only in 1984 (and even that has a nuclear reactor in it!). As well, the Chinese belief in eating anything that moves has ensured that most of the nation's wildlife has long since been ground up into aphrodisiac potions or stir-fried into oblivion. All depressingly true, yet Taiwan has some surprisingly majestic landscapes. Over half of the country is made up of rugged mountain ranges, with more than two hundred peaks rising above 3,000 metres. Yushan (Jade Mountain), at 3,952 metres, is the highest mountain in East Asia.
After years of living in a small town in the crowded lowlands I was eager to get away from the horrible traffic, pollution and heat, to escape the landscape of factories and concrete-box architecture, and travel alone through the parallel world of the high mountains -- so close, yet so often hidden behind smog.
But at the very moment I was packing my equipment a strange exodus was underway high up in the mountains. The last great stands of forest that cover the mountain slopes of Yushan National Park were falling strangely silent as the animals fled south-east. Formosan black bears led the migration, followed by deer and wild boars. Then came the smaller animals: squirrels, birds, and finally mice. By the evening of September 20 vast areas of mountain were virtually empty. Scaly anteaters were seen by aboriginal villagers scurrying around in broad daylight but these warning signs went unheeded. I had one last drinking session with my good friend Conn and went to bed contemplating my trip.
At 1:47 in the morning on the twenty-first of September, central Taiwan was hit by a massive earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale. By the time the last bodies were dragged from the rubble the death toll would be 2,291, but when it first struck I, like many others, didn't realize the magnitude of the disaster. ...