Mountain memories

Very many years ago I lived here. I was a student then -- the Normal University gave me a scholarship to study Chinese -- but as that was not enough, and as I was eager to get ahead, I also worked. I woke up at 4 a.m. and studied; at 7 a.m. I taught an English class to bankers; at 8 I went to my Chinese class; at 10 I taught my favorite class -- a group of "retired" housewives (there is a sweet spot in a traditional housewife's life, when the children have grown up and gone to work; but the husband still works; his hours are still long and his income has reached its peak; as a result she has both free time and money to burn); at twelve I lunched with my students and went home to take a nap; then at 5 p.m. I began to teach again and taught till 10; and some days till midnight. It was a pretty busy life.

Taipei was then a sick city -- nightmarish traffic, horrible air. It has since de-congested (much business has left the city for China); and built the subway; yet, even today it smells of gasoline early in the morning; back then it seemed to me the seventh ring of hell. So, on weekends, I fled to the country. Usually, I got up at 5, took the first bus out of Tapei to Keelung and from there I hitched whatever ride I could. (I once even rode in a garbage truck). There were hardly any white dudes in Taiwan then, and in the countryside none at all. All I had to do is stand by the road side and wave: every car stopped to see what was going on. "Can I ride with you?" I would ask and the drivers would always be surprised ("what a weird idea!") and would always say "qing ni" ("I invite you"). We'd ride some distance and chat. "What on earth are you doing here?" they wanted to know. But often they were far more interesting than me. (Read on).

My direction was east. The island's west has wide, fertile plains, large successful cities, factories, dense population, and a few monuments of traditional Chinese life, such as is no longer to be found in China proper where the cultural revolution has destroyed much of it. But the east, separated from the west by the central north-south spine of high mountains -- 4 thousand meters high -- is a wild country, hard to reach, rough, and incredibly beautiful. It's hard to reach by air since there are few places where planes can land; and it is hard to reach by land because the rough mountains make access difficult; and regular mighty earthquakes keep dropping tunnels, ripping down bridges and tumbling down whole sections of tarmac.

In many places in the east, the mountains come all the way to the sea. In several places, where five- or six-hundred meter sheer rock drops into the ocean, the coastal road bores into the mountain side; cars travel in a kind of intestine, some 200 or 300 meters above the sea level: rock above, rock below, rock to the right, and to the left the intense blue of the glittering sea. A section of that road (Su-Ao) is time-wise one-way. By which I mean that 9 am to 12 pm cars travel south. A check point at the northern end of the section counts them then radioes their number south to the final check point there. That check point then counts them on their way out before the road is closed north-south and opened south-north and cars are let into the opposite direction.

I once traveled on the Su-Ao section with three civil engineers, who, being engaged in the road's maintenance, had a permit to travel up it in the wrong direction. You'd think they'd go slow: no such luck. We barreled north like madmen; blasting the horn at every turn was our only security precaution; otherwise traffic was the usual Taiwanese: we talked dirty, listened to Taiwanese songs, sang along, ate binglang (betel nuts), pitched out favorite stock picks, discussed the best kinds of moonshine and where to pick it up, and the most reliable aphrodisiacs; every now and then the driver cast a passing glance at the road; once in a blue moon he suddenly swerved to avoid a head on collision.

About half way down the coast is the Taroko Gorge: a narrow pass turns left, inland, and leads up the main range.

Yes, that crack in the sheer rock below: that is the road leading up the gorge.

Eventually, that road takes you to the top:

Photography does not do justice to the view: on the horizon there is a feature barely perceptible in photography but clear as the palm of your hand to the naked eye: the horizon: the line where the sea (visible from the top of the road) meets the sky. Looking from the height of the Li-shan tunnel (about 2.500 meters above sea level), you can just make out that the earth is round: the horizon curves ever so slightly. (The effect is very obvious from the top of mount Fuji, in Japan, which, being 4000 meters high and right at the sea-shore, offers an even better vantage point).

Here, in the rare air of the high mountains, I have had other memorable encounters -- with the old man who ran the Li-Shan youth hostel, a former soldier of Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang, the nationalist army which, having lost the war in China, evacuated to the recently seized Taiwan. He was, he said, twenty when, drafted into the army, he had to bid good bye to his just married wife; by the time I met him, it had been forty years since he'd last seen her. She'd remarried, had children and grandchildren, and was, somewhere in Hunan, a matron to three generations of her new husband's descendants. But he still loved her. He had remained faithful. His voice broke and his eyes welled up with tears when he spoke.

Then, there were the gold prospectors. Gold, it turns out, can be found in small quantities anywhere. Life in the mountains is cheap: one lives in a tent, shoots most of his food. To live well all one needs if 10 or 20 ounces of gold a year. That, it seems, can be found almost anywhere. Not economic for commercial production but to keep the soul and body of a lazy bone -- easy enough to find and extract. And your wives? I asked. Guan tamen, was the answer: the devil may care.

And then there was the Bunun headman's son on the other side of the Li-shan tunnel, in Nantou County. The Bunun are a mountain folk -- or, as the polite language has it -- the aborigines. Some twenty tribes once lived on the island, before the coming of the Chinese. Some of them took a few Polish heads when Beniowski arrived here in 1771, touching land somewhere near Keelung. ("Hey, look at this white head I took", said one to another presenting his catch. "A nice addition to my collection, don't you think?" "That's nothing, old man", said the other, "check this out: I got a red-head!") Today at least nine tribes remain -- some 300,000 people -- depending on how you count them. (There are still places -- like Ba Du ("eighth bump") and Qi Du ("seventh bump") near Taipei -- and others, like Jiu Fen ("Seventh Division"), near Keelung which record the successive steps by which the aborigines had been driven out of the flatlands and up into the hills).

Well, this Bunun fellow had, at the entrance to his house (otherwise perfectly normal Taiwanese farm house) a rack and in it some dozen or dozen and a half-heads. Seeing me pale, he rushed to explain: "Oh, these are my grandpa's. We don't do that anymore."

My favorite memory remains that of the Taiwanese truck driver on the Gong-Heng Gong-lu (Central East-west highway which eventually connects into the Taroko gorge) who, at every dangerous turn, took his hands off the wheel, and his eyes off the road, in order to burn paper money and throw it out the window to propitiate the hungry ghosts of the drivers who had fallen to their deaths on all those dangerous pin turns. For safety's sake, of course.

And the snow-white-headed white-dude, professor of Chinese from Oxford, who once picked me up somewhere on the Nantou County side of the Li-shan pass; and, impressed by my Chinese complained about his students; (it is easy to be impressed by my Chinese, most western students never learn to speak the language at all). It was great fun speaking to him: I was at the time bedding one of his students in Taipei and she thought he was the worst language teacher she had ever had.


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