Saturday 24 December. Christmas Eve. This evening will be our first proper event. Even as we set off in an 8-seater minibus after breakfast we didn’t know where it was to be, except “in the mountains”: a voyage of discovery. Travelling with us were Jimmy, our guide; Yuki, his girlfriend; Michelle, the event announcer/commere, or “toastmaster” as Jimmy said; and our driver (we’ll find out his name and tell you tomorrow).
The first bit of the route was the same as yesterday, but from Puli (coffee stop) we headed east along the Highway 14. This was a normal single-lane-each-way road until Chingjing Farm, a popular service area with good views of the foothills, where we had a spaghetti lunch. Thereafter the road was narrow and winding, with many squeeze points. We never exceeded about 40 km/h and we had 94km each way to cover on mountain roads. But the driver was excellent, and the scenery became ever more spectacular, with tall hills and deep gorges – all heavily vegetated, as you would expect this close to the tropics, apart from some landslips scarring the hillsides.
Pockets of habitation here and there, isolated farms growing mostly fruit: here we learned the source of an extraordinary gift we had received at the press call. We had been given a very large box, and told it contained ‘mountain pears’. Slightly puzzled as to why we should be given such a big box of pears, we asked how many, and were told 6. Intriguing. We carried the box carefully back to the hotel, and indeed, there were 6 golden pears – each the size of a grapefruit! Delicious. The trees apppeared to be producing crops of silver plastic bags – in fact every pear has a bag placed round it, presumably, as with the bananas, to protect them from the birds.
Highway 14 took us into Taroko National Park. We stopped twice for view-and-loo. The first was a little windy (I mean the viewpoint) but had excellent views of neighbouring mountains, which reach over 12,000 ft. Then as we climbed to our highest pass, we saw white stuff on the distant trees. Trickles down grassy rock faces had become icicles and closer inspection showed the white stuff to be rime frost, collected as low cloud had blown across. Not snow, which is rare in Taiwan.
We got out at the top of the pass and soon wished we had put more layers on as there was a biting wind through the col. Not surprising: although we were nearly at tropical latitude, we had ascended to 10,744 ft. That’s the highest road we’ve ever been on.
Turning on to the Central Cross-island Highway for the last 30 ever more twisting kilometres, we slowly descended to the next major village, Lishan. This turned out to be our destination, at the heart of the area known as Little Switzerland. At the end of the houses the street was lined with stalls selling mountain pears, very big apples, persimmon (also delicious) and various other things we’ve never seen before. Extraordinary, for the end of December! At a bend in the road was a large chinese-looking building, a summer residence of a former president. At the bottom of its steps a stage was set out, between two tall fir trees bedecked with fairy lights, mountains behind, hot food stalls, all ready for the evening’s entertainment.
Besides us, there was a lovely display of aboriginal dancing – we were cold, but they danced in bare feet! There was also a cheery local brass quintet playing Christmas carol arrangements and a Latin American group made up of players all now resident in Taiwan. Michelle’s compering was very lively and all groups including us were enthusiastically applauded. We spoke our first Chinese in front of the microphone – although everyone seemed to understand ‘merry Christmas’ , we thanked them for their hospitality with ‘Xie Xie’. This time, besides Swiss music, we did play them their national anthem and they all joined in, and of course, we had to play Jingle Bells to close.
We spent the night in the little village and probably the most memorable Christmas morning ever, being driven back for 4 1/2 hours through the amazing mountain scenery once more.
Christmas afternoon was spent exploring a remarkable traditional covered market, with hundreds of stalls selling figures, objects, jewellery, inlay, things carved from jade, stone, wood, the smell of jossticks, very atmospheric.
Our evening meal cooked in front of us: