DRIVING FROM WEST TO EAST:The Southern Cross-Island Highway
More so than almost any other road in Taiwan, the Southern Cross-Island Highway is a route where the journey matters more than destination.
Though sometimes blocked by landslides, or closed when post-typhoon floods topple a bridge, this 169.5-kilometer-long road provides a marvelous cross-section of Taiwan. From west to east, it goes through densely populated industrial suburbs, prime fruit-farming land, and Aboriginal districts, before carving a way through the imposing Central Mountain Range. On the eastern stretch, there are precipitous gorges and--as soon as you leave the mountains, well before reaching the Pacific Ocean--some of the best rice-growing land on the island.
If you're heading from Kaohsiung to Taidong City, driving along Provincial Road No. 9 is certainly quicker and perhaps safer. The views are pleasant--but in terms of scenery, this road cannot hold a candle to the Southern Cross-Island Highway.
TWO DAYS ARE BETTER THAN ONE
Provincial Road No. 20, as the Cross-Island Highway is officially designated, is popular with groups in tour buses, couples in cars, motorcyclists, and even--despite the dramatic topography--cyclists and walkers. It is possible to drive from one end to the other in eight hours, but it's preferable to take a slower journey, ideally with an overnight stop.
Inland of Jiashian, a small town renowned for its taro products that is an hour's drive from Tainan, Taiwan's mountainous character becomes apparent. From here on in, traffic becomes much lighter, and the road less user-friendly. The "highway" is at best one lane in either direction; sensible drivers approach each corner ready to brake hard.
This is the Laonung Valley--the waters here end up in the Kaoping River, which divides Kaohsiung from Pingdong. The river is too violent to swim in, its tributaries too shallow. But commercial rafting expeditions set out from Baolai.
The valley seethes with geothermal energy. Baolai is well known as a hot springs resort, and in the hills above there are other places where one can soak. If you prefer less developed hot springs, stop at Taoyuan.
As one moves inland, the road's white safety wall takes on a battered appearance. Falling rocks, not crashing vehicles, are responsible. Concrete overhangs protect road users from landslides. Substantial collapses are rare, especially in the dry months between November and April.
THE HIGH GROUND
Meishan is the final settlement on the western side. From there it's a slow, winding climb: The road gains around 1,500 meters in altitude in less than 30 kilometers.
Before reaching Tianchr, where a police station guards a small but ecologically interesting pond (Tianchr means "heaven's pool"), you'll see a sign for the Jongziguan Old Trail. An eight-kilometer stretch of the original path has been renovated and is open to tourists. This is an enjoyable hike, suitable even for the less adventurous.
Motorists and motorcyclists should stop twice at Yakou--on the west, to stroll down a disused logging road, then again after passing through the tunnel. The Yakou Forestry Road (clearly visible to the left as you approach the tunnel from the west) is closed to cars and motorcycles but open to walkers. It is an excellent place to spot some of the creatures that inhabit Yushan National Park.
On the eastern side, the crumbling ramparts of Shiangyangshan soon come into view. Don't be surprised if the weather conditions change suddenly when you get on the other side of the Central Mountain Range; Taidong County is wetter than Taiwan's Southwest.
Yakou Country Inn, a government-run hotel, is the only accommodation option (aside from camping) between Meishan and Lidao, an Aboriginal village thirty kilometers east of Yakou.
Many motorists stop at Lidao to eat (there are a number of restaurants here; most serve vegetables grown on the surrounding hills), sleep, or simply admire the views. Located on a vantage point high above the confluence of three streams, the scenery here is superb, but often hidden by cloud.
Nice though Lidao is, even better scenery lurks just down the road. The nine-kilometer-long Wulu Canyon is hundreds of meters deep, and forces the road to twist and turn. In recent years, a series of tunnels have been bored through the hillsides, making the road straighter and safer--less spectacular, perhaps, but a relief for drivers.
Soon after Wulu, the road splits: northeast toward Hualien, southeast toward Taidong. The third option is to turn around and head back along the Southern Cross-Island Highway. The views change with the weather and the season; there are countless hiking trails and vantage points to explore. This road deserves repeat visits.
GETTING TO THE ROAD
Residents of the Kaohsiung area may want to take Freeway No. 10 to Chishan, and then Provincial Road No. 21 northward to Jiashian. Those living in Tainan should follow No. 20 through Yungkang and Sinhua. Motorists approaching from Chiayi or further north are advised to get on Freeway No. 3 (the South Second Freeway), then drive eastward along Freeway No. 8 until it meets Provincial Road No. 20.
The final gas station on the western side is near Baolai. On the eastern side, there are no gas stations inland of Guanshan.
ALTERNATIVES TO DRIVING
It is possible to travel the entire length of the Southern Cross-Island Highway by public transportation. Road conditions permitting, one bus each morning goes from Tainan to Tianchr. An hour or so after it arrives. another bus leaves Tianchr for Taidong City. Call the Hsingnan Bus Company at (06) 265-3121 for information.