Mountain Hiking as Taiwan’s New National Pastime

Written by Ming-sho Ho.

Image credit: 玉山 by 欣盈/Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0

Sitting right at the fracture zone between Eurasian Plate and Philippine Sea Plate, Taiwan is an outgrowth of their incessant continental collision, thus making this island mountainous and ecologically rich. The Japanese archipelago shares a similar geological location. Still, Taiwan has ten times more peaks over 3,000 meters above sea level (268) than Japan, although the land size is only the latter’s one-tenth. From the tropical fluvial plain, one can drive through the temperate-zone mountain and reach the highest point of Taiwan’s highway (3,275 meters) in few hours, where flora and fauna are analogous to that in the frigid zone. Yet, until recently, most of the island residents did not have the opportunity to enjoy this natural heritage.

Home to Austronesian indigenous peoples, Taiwan’s high mountain has long been beyond the reach of plain-based political regimes from the seventeenth-century Dutch colonizers onward to Chinese Mandarins at the end of the nineteenth century. Beginning in 1910, Japanese rulers used artillery, machine guns, and electric fence to subdue the indigenous resistance. The campaign brought about the assimilation of indigenous peoples and made possible exploitation of mountain resources on an industrial scale, such as timber. The Kuomintang government inherited the same control policy from the colonial predecessor for the fear that communist insurgents might establish their guerrilla bases up in the hills. As such, citizens needed a special permit issued by local police to enter the designated mountain area, and this regulation continued well into the 1990s. Motivated by the same economic concern, the postwar regime built three cross-island highways with U.S aid in the 1950s. Large dams and farming that specialized in temperate fruit (apple, pear, and peach) followed the construction of all-weather roads, planting the seeds of soil erosion, silting, and other environmental headaches.

Overshadowed by political and economic considerations, hiking in the high-altitude mountain was not encouraged. Early climbers usually hired indigenous hunters as guides and carriers to explore these uncharted areas. Later, interested people had to join the activities organized by local alpine associations or mountain-climbing clubs in the universities. When I was a student at National Taiwan University in the early-1990s, the school club required prospective participants to demonstrate their physical readiness by running 5,000 meters within 30 minutes.

For several reasons, mountaineering above 3,000 meters has been an elite activity. And this stood in stark contrast to hiking in low-altitude hills on the city’s edge, or “suburban hills” (郊山), which has always been popular among Taiwanese. Anyone who been to Four Animal Mountain (四獸山) in Taipei or Firewood Mountain (柴山) in Kaohsiung knew these suburban hills have evolved into a spontaneously made ecosystem composed of trails, shrines, rest stations, tea-serving stops (奉茶站), and fitness grounds. They were all constructed and managed by veteran hikers themselves long before the intervention of municipal authorities. All these artificial changes amounted to the encroachment of mundane leisure activities into the hill land. By contrast, hiking in the high mountain is arduous and austere because one must leave the urban comfort to enjoy the experience of the pristine environment.

The recent social changes have torn down this dualism of high mountains and suburban hills. Since the 1980s, national park administrations publicized the natural beauty of Taiwan’s high mountains, such as Mount Jade (玉山), Mount Sylvia (雪山), and Nanhu Dashan (南湖大山). After 2000, the government began to promote tourism to meet the growing post-industrial trend. There emerged a plan to build an alpine cable system that could lift visitors directly to the peak of Mount Jade, which was subsequently abandoned due to the ecological concerns of engineering over the fragile landscape. Nevertheless, the discussion indicated the heightened interest in mountain hiking among citizens.

Democratization also helped increase the political symbolism of Taiwan’s high mountains. In 1998, Taiwan Provincial Governor James Soong (宋楚瑜) made the record by visiting the Mountain Jade peak, albeit with the help of a helicopter. Subsequently, politicians of all stripes made the pilgrimage to demonstrate their dedication to the land. Unfortunately, both Chen Shui-bian and Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) planned to climb Mountain Jade on foot during their presidency without success due to weather and security concerns. In retrospect, politicians’ decisions both reflected and intensified the growing widespread enthusiasm.

In addition, walking into the highland woods emerged as a preferred recreational option for the growing white-collar labour force, who longed for outdoor activities in their spare time. There was also a significant change in values about a healthy lifestyle immersion in natural surroundings. Moreover, physical fitness options were now preferred over consumerism, exemplified by spending one’s weekend in an air-conditioned and well-lighted megamall with boutique shops, fancy restaurants, cinema theatres, and entertainment facilities like a Ferris wheel. In short, mountain hiking became more attractive in the same way more and more Taiwanese joined road running and cycling events. Needless to say, the outbreak of the COVID pandemic in 2020 further gave an impetus to the trend of mass mountaineering as gathering in the crowded environment increased the contagion risk. An official statistic suffices here to indicate this phenomenon. In 2020, Taiwan’ Shei-Pa National Park (雪霸國家公園) experienced a growth of 40 per cent visitors from the previous year, and many of them intended to climb Taiwan’s second-highest Mount Sylvia.

It certainly represents a positive development that more Taiwanese are willing to take strenuous efforts to experience the high-altitude scenery. It contributes to a holistic concept of health for both mind and body and promotes ecological consciousness. Yet, there are undeniable downsides. The natural environment has a carrying limit capacity, and overburdening typically leads to destruction. In response to the growing demand, the government has upgraded and enlarged the accommodation facilities in the high mountain. And there emerges a discussion whether a daily quota restriction should be adopted in some hot destinations for ecological reasons. Moreover, as more inexperienced amateurs or first-timers took part, some of them were obviously ill-prepared. In 2020, more than 400 incidents took place in the high mountain, an alarming 100 per cent growth from the previous year.

In sum, Taiwan’s growing enthusiasm for mountaineering represents both a challenge and an opportunity for this dynamic island; if managed well, it can serve as a locomotive to bring this nation into the next stage of development.

Ming-sho Ho is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at National Taiwan University. He is the author of Working-Class Formation in Taiwan: Fractured Solidarity in State-Owned Enterprises, 1945-2012 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and Challenging Beijing’s Mandate of Heaven: Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong’s Umbrella Movement (Temple University Press, 2019).

This article was published as part of a July 2021 special issue on Pandemic, Tourism & Environment. All articles in the special issue can be found here.

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