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May 29, 2017

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Nature at its most awesome in Fengshan

Emerging from the long tunnel through which the main road to the mountain resort of Caoling (草嶺) in Yunlin County (雲林縣) passes, we brake sharply. The road immediately beyond the tunnel mouth is blocked by heavy concrete barriers. Beyond the obstruction the tarmac road has disappeared completely. A truly vast landslide has wiped out a section of the zigzagging road several kilometers long.

With no signs anywhere advising either of the road closure or of an alternative route, we resort to a quick glance at our map, which happily shows that a narrow road climbing high up the mountainside above looks like a doable diversion.

Twenty minutes and several hundred meters of vertical ascent later however, this road also abruptly ends at a sheer drop of fifteen meters to an awe-inspiring wasteland of mud, tree branches and boulders stretching into the distance, with nothing but a row of large rocks to mark the drop-off. We stand at the edge of the same huge landslide, and there's obviously no way ahead. This autumn's three back-to-back typhoons hit Taiwan hard, and as we have just found out, Yunlin and Chiayi counties seem to have been especially badly affected.

Typhoon damage is of course an annual menace in many parts of Taiwan, but few parts of the island have had such dramatic first-hand experience with the catastrophic damage that the torrential rain brought by these extreme weather systems can cause than the remote mountain village of Fengshan (豐山), nestling in a corner of Chiayi County (嘉義縣). Fengshan is surrounded on three sides by steep mountain buttresses, and this beautiful setting, plus the area's many waterfalls (including Taiwan's highest), hiking trails and fantastic panoramas have made the village a favorite destination among hikers for years.

Then, on July 31st 1996, super Typhoon Herb made landfall on Taiwan, and during its devastating sweep over the island it dropped a vast amount of rain over the mountains, including a staggering 1.73 meters (the highest recorded rainfall of any typhoon in recent memory), in the vicinity of Fengshan, causing a catastrophic landslide that brought vast amounts of stone, including several boulders the size of a truck, down the valley towards the village below. A bridge along the solitary road connecting the settlement with the outside world was destroyed, cutting it off for a month, during which time food had to be airlifted in by helicopter.

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