Three times is a charm. It's another early morning at Taipei Main Station as I catch the high-speed rail to Chiayi to make my way to Jade Mountain for the third time in 4 months.
In Chiayi, I buy breakfast at a convenience store before embarking on the 2.5 hour-long bus ride to Alishan Transport Station. I soon begin to feel unwell. Maybe motion sickness from the winding mountain road, I think. It's another 30-minute bus ride from Alishan to Dongpu, and my nausea begins to intensify. What have I gotten myself into, I mutter to myself, cursing the terrible choice of breakfast. The bus finally reaches Shandongpu, and the fresh air provides some relief.
I check into 東埔山莊 Dongpu Lodge around 3pm and head straight to bed. When I wake up a few hours later, I barely make it to the bathroom, getting rid of whatever the culprit of my discomfort. I long for the solace of my home, which feels a million miles away now. Instead, I curl under my blanket and gradually fall back asleep on another rainy and cold night in the mountains.
The upside of all this drama is that I've had a good eight hours of sleep when I wake up around midnight. I feel rested and strong. So, I pack my backpack and go. For a change, I decide to play music on my hike. Lemmino's Nova is the perfect soundtrack for another nighttime ascent.
I carry food and equipment for two days, planning to camp at Yuanfeng Cabin. My heavy backpack makes it a more strenuous climb than usual. However, sure enough, I reach 排雲山莊 Paiyun Lodge, still in a foggy darkness.
I leave some of my gear behind and, with the relief of a much lighter backpack, reach the summit around 7am. There aren't a lot of other hikers, and I have the top of Taiwan to myself for a few moments. It's too chilly to linger, so I soon begin my descent. I contemplate visiting North Peak too, but the trail looks sketchy: it's steep and icy, and the wind pushes down from behind, hurling down the mountain.
Instead, I descend back to Paiyun Lodge before continuing to 圓峰山屋 Yuanfeng Cabin, my shelter for the night on a rather straightforward trail towards the South of Yushan. With plenty of time left in the day, I continue hiking towards . The trail is, generally, easy to follow. However, having a map and GPS is definitely a good idea as the path isn't as apparent as the one up to the Main Peak. It's a beautiful hike on the lesser-visited side of Yushan. I have difficulties finding the trail for the final metres (initially climbing a different rock) and then some more heaving my body up to the top. I feel a good amount of accomplishment and enjoy a short, windy break on the peak.
It's been a long day, and my energy levels start to drop. It's time to make my way back to Yuanfeng Cabin and settle in for a breezy night. When I arrive, a group of hikers has already made themselves comfortable in the cabin. Ironically, just at the moment I settle in with them, the clouds lift, and we are treated with a beautiful evening sky at 3694 m.
After a rough night at altitude, I decide to have another shot at Main Peak before returning home. It's a clear, starry sky, and the opportunity to reach Yushan in good weather for once, feels to good to pass on.
There's a straight trail from Yuanfeng Cabin to the top, but I realize it might not be the ideal path to try on a windy night, not adequately rested. So instead, at 5:30am, I descend back towards Paiyun Lodge. 700 metres from the cabin, I retire my backpack under an overhanging rock and continue towards the summit among the other hikers coming up form the cabin. Without a backpack weighing down on my shoulders, I fly up the mountain, reaching the peak a few moments after sunrise. It's my third time here, and I can finally see the surrounding peaks in all their glory. I find a place out of the wind and take in the views, the morning sun in my face.
On my descent, I reach the infamous wind tunnel again where the trail branches off to North Peak. It's 2.2 kilometres one-way, 4.4 kilometres return, and after some deliberation I'm on my way. I carefully head down a few metres, the wind thrusting from behind with considerable force. At least the ice and most of the snow have melted since yesterday, making the path considerably less sketchy. I hold on to a metal chain guide rail, slowly inching down this 300-metre long section. Somewhere in the back of my head, I contemplate the struggle of having to clamber back up later - against the wind.
After this short section, it's a most enjoyable trail leading through the forest, protected from the wind, which also eases up the closer I get to the North. In perfect sunlight, it's an almost leisurely stroll, albeit still at roughly 3800 metres altitude. About an hour later, I climb the last steps to the Yushan Observatory, a weather station constructed in 1943. At its back, I reach the summit of Yushan North Peak.
The observatory offers one of the most captivating panoramas of the Yushan massif. It's featured on the back of Taiwan's 1000 dollar bill, so I take one out of my wallet and try to put it in my camera's frame. It turns out harder than I thought as the sun shines through the paper, making it almost impossible to see the image on the back.
I soon strike a conversation with one of the employees of the observatory. We share some stories, and I show him photos of my hometown and its mountains. I get treated with coffee from Cafe 3858, the workers’ makeshift cafeteria, built from discarded materials around the station. What a beautiful place to work, I think to myself. My new friend agrees. “But also very lonely”, he adds with a sentimental voice. I learn that the workers do 1-month shifts up here, with 1-month breaks in between. In the summer, they hike up while in winter, a helicopter brings them to their beautiful, lonely workplace. It's the end of January and time for the current staff to go home for the Lunar New Year.
I find it hard to leave this stunning place. Still, I have another 11 km to go, so after refilling my water bottle, I finally say goodbye and begin heading back. “You should also climb Yushan East Peak”, the observatory staffer declares. He's re-iterating a thought forming in my head that my third visit here might not be my last.
On my way back, there's one final challenge left: climbing back up to Fengkou. As soon as I reach the beginning of the slope, the wind picks up. The two sides of the mountain act as a wind tunnel, cold air thrusting down between them. It's also still in the shade in the morning making it cold and uncomfortable. I bear crawl up inch by inch until I reach the metal construction at Fengkou. From there I feel like in another world. The wind is gone, and the midday sun begings to warm me.
I reach Paiyun Lodge, enjoying lunch and coffee under the sun. It takes another 3 hours to descend down to the trailhead. The shuttle bus brings me back to Dongpu Lodge, where I stay for another night. The following day, it's a long way home by public transport. I make my favourite detour from Alishan Transport Station to Fenqihu to have fantastic coffee at 大姑媽阿里山咖啡. The Alishan Forest train then takes me down to Chiayi unhurriedly. I have dinner there before heading back to Taiwan, looking forward to a few more days off to celebrate the Lunar New Year and recover from my adventure.