By CNA staff writers Elizabeth Hsu and Chang Shu-ling
Experienced mountaineer Lin Yi-hua (???) has traveled to distant parts of the globe to explore some of the world's best known mountain ranges. But even after hiking and climbing in India, the Caucasus region, Kyrgyzstan, Argentina, and South Korea, nothing mesmerizes her more than the peaks seen in her homeland of Taiwan. "When you're on the top of a mountain (in Taiwan), what hits your eyes instantly are layers and layers of volatile clouds," Lin says. "The spectacle sticks in your mind and lingers there even when you're scaling mountains overseas." That sentiment has many in Taiwan hopeful that the island's mountains will emerge in the future as a more popular draw for nature lovers and mountaineers from overseas. Those who have already enjoyed higher altitude journeys have been impressed, says Lin, who runs a nature exploration company called "Base Camp" that provides professional guiding services to amateur mountain climbers and hikers in Taiwan. A mountain guide for 10 years, Lin says the most common response to mountaintop views she gets from foreign clients is an emphatic "wow!" There are plenty of vistas to choose from. Hills and mountains account for two-thirds of Taiwan's terrain, and the island has 200 mountains of over 3,000 meters high. Many of the country's forests are pristine and have barely been explored.
Packed with ecological and biological diversity, Taiwan's mountain ranges offer visitors different landscapes and climates within short distances when hiking from altitudes of 1,000 meters up to 3,000 meters or higher. This incredible beauty and diversity may be a well-kept secret outside the country, but it actually offers a unique experience that should be attractive to foreign visitors, according to Pascale Schmied from Switzerland, who lived in Taiwan for seven years before returning home in 2014. A hiking enthusiast, Schmied climbed 53 mountains over 3,000 meters high during her stay here. In an interview with CNA last year, she said she found the "primitive state" of Taiwan's mountain ranges and forests "alluring," especially in contrast with her home country. Thanks to Switzerland's well-developed public transportation network and mountain infrastructure, it is easy for hikers there to locate villages offering cozy shelters and warm meals in mountainous terrains, according to Schmied. Not so in Taiwan, Schmied said, which is part of its appeal.
Robert Song (???), the secretary-general of the Chinese Taipei Alpine Association (CTAA), cites other factors that attract outdoor enthusiasts from nearby countries, especially Japan, to Taiwan's mountains: Taiwan has more tall mountains than Japan and its mountain ecology is more diversified. There are also better and more challenging mountain hiking and river trekking opportunities available here, Song says. Lin adds another factor: colorful culture that adds zest to the diverse natural settings.
Signs of human heritage, including indigenous tribes scattered through the mountains and relics and ancient trails, some of which originated during the Japanese colonial period, bring the terrain to life, Lin says. No statistics are available on the number of people who come from abroad to explore Taiwan's mountains, but Song puts it a few thousand, including about 300 Japanese and South Korean nationals who apply to the CTAA for mountain hiking tour services annually. He believes there is considerable potential for the numbers to go higher, because most people from abroad have only experienced developed national parks or the most popular mountain trails. "There are vast mountain resources in Taiwan that have yet to be developed or considered for tourism," he says. But several barriers exist to turning Taiwan's majestic peaks into draws. The permit system for access to protected areas of national parks is complicated at times and can make it difficult for people to make plans in advance. There is also a lack of mountain huts in most mountain areas outside the well-managed national parks to provide shelter to hikers from physical fatigue or sudden weather changes, Lin says, and the few that exist are mostly simple sheds without even toilet facilities. Language can be a barrier affecting foreign nationals because there is little English-language information on most of Taiwan's mountain trails, the 41-year-old Lin says. "There is no Lonely Planet for foreigners wanting to climb mountains in Taiwan," Lin says. For those wanting to trek deep into Taiwanese mountain ranges, Lin suggests that people start planning a trip at least one month in advance and look for a local travel agency with links to professional tour companies or mountaineering clubs that provide such tour services. "You need a guide who knows all safe trails toward the summit of a mountain range and how the weather there will change," Lin says. Both Lin and Song agree that Taiwan's mountains have not been systematically managed since Japanese colonial rule ended in 1945, but they also believe that mountains and forests are unpolished gems with plenty of potential in the tourism market.
What makes mountains and forests valuable are their primitive state, Lin says. "The era of geographic exploration may have passed, but the exploration of nature's face will never end," she says. "Exploration is the biggest attraction of Taiwanese mountains and forests."