Rider on Mount Hehuanshan
There’s a road on the lush and rugged eastern coast of Taiwan that climbs for 87 kilometres. It begins by the sea and rises into a gorge, where it swirls against the current of the frothy boulder-strewn rapids that crash down the valley far below it, an asphalt stream made small by the canyon’s crumbling limestone walls. It swirls up and is swallowed by dark concrete tunnels and overhanging marble, emerging ever higher. Hewn into the cliffs, it fades into thick, warm fog.
It passes rocky villages and soars over modern bridges. The river below roars and echoes and roars, as it’s always roared and echoed and roared. An ancient red-and-gold temple is perched atop, then beneath, the watery scree. There’s no breeze.
The bush beyond is rotting. Moisture drips from the trees and runs down dark cracks, pooling in potholes flecked with petals and brown leaves. Silvery webs span from branch to mossy branch. There are snakes… potholes and cracks. The road heaves and fragments and heaves.
Dark green ferns and boughs close in all around, as a hundred thousand invisible cicadas chainsaw the cloud. Higher, the hotter, wet air is made sweet in patches of hot, wet shade. It’s hard to breathe.
Sun glitters over the still-damp pavement, as it flickers up through the oven-like thickets. Once in a while, a motorbike or pick-up splutters past spewing fumes. Crowds of butterfly collectors wander by. Canyoneers march down towards the gulley, all wearing the same cyan helmets. School kids in uniforms file out of buses. A silky brook cascades into the jungle. All across the valley, the treetops steam.
The steam unfurls and billows and curls, feathering up onto alpine meadowland torn by rock gardens and craggy weather-beaten peaks. There, untempered heat and light hammers down, till the fumes wither and sink back into the vaporous avalanche that’s spilling out the canyon and piling up over the Pacific.
The pavement drops. It falls and whirls in an exhilarating barrage of turns—each merciful corner careening over the mountain’s contours, lurching down a zigzag couloir, through a narrow stone tunnel back into the bush, where it again pitches up. That first ramp is dizzying. Its sheer facade reveals just a glimpse of the switchback to come. Another follows. Then, another. And another.
There are no more trees. A cool breeze blows through the hot thin air. Flashes of pure white light shatter swells of rusty, wavering grass. An asphalt path wobbles ahead along the uppermost ridge. Wisps of cloud dissolve in the tropical blue sky. Bursts of light, blackness…rasping, a switchback, the next pitch… the next pitch… the next pitch.
The top of the ridge.
A bituminous squiggle trickles ahead into nothingness; stone-riddled grassland collapsing away to either side. Over the horizon, the road pours onto a saddle, overshadowed by two gigantic spires. In the parking lot above, tiny tourists peer over the last ragged rampart.
The summit is a heaving sea of gravel. A cloud of dust hangs overhead. There’s the start of an engine, the crunch of tires, exhaust fumes and a soupy aroma. A hawk soars. There’s a light hand on my shoulder, a shy smile, hovering over.