I'd been traveling alone through Asia for the past 6 years, working as a teacher at International Schools and adventuring during time off. After almost a year in Taiwan, I was looking forward to my first real outing to the scenic central highlands and coastal cliffs to the north. One summer morning, I set out behind the wheel of the Nissan station wagon I'd purchased from a friend. Heading northeast up national Highway 3 toward the hills of central Alishan, I intended to cross the island on the infamous Provincial Road 14 over Hehuanshan Mountain through Tarako Gorge to Hualien.
For navigation, I'd decided against purchasing a separate GPS system and would rely on the Google Maps software on my smartphone. The system proved effective as I cruised into the rolling heights of Alishan where I camped overnight in a cozy campground nestled among fragrant tea fields.
Early next morning, I packed up, headed due northeast, and by the time I hit Highway 3 again my air conditioner began blowing hot, steamy air. After puttering with the buttons awhile, I faced the fact that the unit was dead. That could pose a problem in Taiwan's central lowlands, but I was heading up into the hills where I could expect much cooler weather. I could get a mechanic to check the vehicle at Hualien on the east coast. No problem, except that the situation forcefully brought to mind the unsettling realization that I was driving a 10-year-old vehicle into what I already knew could be treacherous conditions. A fellow teacher had driven Road 14 the previous winter, and he said the trip had been a "harrowing" adventure. Yet, his description of the region's beauty and the intensity of his experience had piqued my curiosity, and I determined to see for myself.
About an hour and a half down the road, at the hamlet of Zushin, I turned left onto Provincial Road 14. As I began the winding ascent in bright morning sunlight, the scene ahead reminded me of a Taiwanese myth that describes the island's creation by a troop of playful dragons. Undulating shades of gray and green rose up in progressively higher mountains ranging to heights of twelve thousand feet. I stopped briefly at a roadside viewpoint and a shrine festooned with phoenix-like birds sprouting fronds of fern and grass between multicolored, ceramic feathers. Fantastic carvings guarded the entrance doors: dragons and tigers, eyes bulging fiercely, fangs bared savagely. Across a steep-sided, verdant valley, an immense humpback peak loomed in the distance. The view was awe inspiring, and dizzying. I admit to a serious height phobia, a hair-raising fear of the depths below and open spaces above concurrent with a contradictory urge to leap out into free fall. I quickly took some pictures, clambered back into my car, gulped a deep, relaxing breath, and determined to carry on to the real climb.
Two hours passed as I drove through Shuli and the Sun-Moon Lake recreational area, a chain of westernized resort hotels set around the dazzling blue lake. One resort was a replica of a Tudor-style mansion, complete with gryphon statues and wrought iron gateway. Another replicated an immense alpine lodge – exotic for an Asian tourist; a little incongruous for a westerner. The town was packed with Taiwanese families escaping the lowland heat for the cool heights. I wanted to escape the overcrowded urban world, so without pausing I moved on.
By now I had the hang of using Google Maps. The glowing blue arrow showed my location accurately, usually within 3-6 meters. And anyway there was only one Provincial Road 14 – no turn-offs, no confusion. Very simple. Or so I thought.
After about two hours of a winding climb, I passed through Puli, the last small town on the map, and shortly came to a fork in the road. Google Maps indicated I had chosen the correct fork, so I continued until I came to another fork announcing the Lushan Hot Springs. I took the left fork. Soon I was on an increasingly steep, one-lane strip heading up into mist and clouds, and when the sky momentarily cleared, I looked out into an immense void. And still the track went higher. The narrow, crumbling road did nothing to disturb the reckless abandon of the occasional Taiwanese driver barreling past me regardless of hairpin curves.
Although the little blue arrow moved placidly down the line that marked my route, my thoughts began to coalesce into anxiety. Worries about the condition of the car – would it hold up in this thin atmosphere? What would it be like to change a tire on the edge of an abyss? Rounding one turn, I found the gravel road angling precariously, the guardrail in a twisted broken scrap left behind by a recent rockslide. My heart hung in my throat.
I made it through two similarly heart-stopping passes interspersed with fleeting images of scattered tea tree farms, tumbledown shacks, and one village made memorable by a youth on a motorcycle careening downhill, barely missing my front fender, and laughing as he howled off into the distance.
I checked my location. Right on track. The next turn went through a gate and then the road simply disappeared. Ahead was a gully about 7 feet deep. Beyond that a trail of tire ruts led over a stretch of hummocks and large puddles that clung to the side of a sheer drop. Here and there hung remnants of battered guardrails draped with tattered yellow, warning ribbons.
The little blue arrow continued pointing forward, a glowing path to nowhere. This predicament was too much. Craning to look back over my shoulder, I spotted a small hummock to where, if I was lucky, I could back up and just maybe turn the car around without sliding off the face of the earth. My hands, sweaty now, gripped the wheel shakily. With the incessant chirring of cicadas grating my nerves, I placed the car in reverse and edged my way backward. One slip, and at best I would be hanging suspended over the edge of a sheer drop. At worst, I would be plummeting to my death.
As I am still here to tell the tale, I can say that once I made up my mind, turning the car was easier than I expected. I reached the grassy hump, stopped to catch my breath, wheeled the car through a nice four-point turn, and headed back the way I had come, shaky but exhilarated. Actually, I felt a bit of a high. Alone, alive, and driving on down the winding road, I was struck by the realization that I'd just given myself a good lesson in defeating my fear of heights. Eventually, I would have to right my earlier course and head back up to the heights of Hehuanshan.