The Effects of Altitude

Taiwan’s mountains are huge! Seeing the peaks poke through the clouds flying in and out of Taipei gives you a little taste of their size, but even more impressive is their highest mountain pass. The highest mountain in Taiwan is Yushan (玉山) at 3952 m, and the highest mountain pass crosses Hehuanshan (合歡山) at 3275 m. In contrast, while Mt. Logan, the highest mountain in Canada, tops out at 5959 m, the highest mountain pass (Highwood) is at a measly 2206 m.

Mike and I enjoy a good hike up a mountain, and tackle them whenever we can.  Sadly, we were too early in the season to attempt Mt. Fuji, but we did summit Hallasan on Jeju Island, South Korea. Check out the graphic to compare some of the peaks we’ve summited, and the highest peaks in Canada and Taiwan.

Comparing the heights of various mountains we've summitted, and the highest peaks in Taiwan and Canada.

Comparing the heights of various mountains we've summitted, and the highest peaks in Taiwan and Canada.

As part of our time resting and exploring Hualien, we rented scooters and drove up to Wuling and the Hehuashan pass. The drive from Hualien to the top is about 100 km of engaging driving and stunning scenery. The marble canyons and gushing river at the foot of the mountains give way to precarious and seemingly never ending winding roads and tunnels further up. Finally, the forest gives way, and scrub takes over. The last 10 km of driving or so looks like it could be Wales or somewhere in Newfoundland.  It is interesting to note that despite the altitude, the peaks are not perennially snow-capped.  Still, anyone curious about the white fluffy stuff can visit in the winter months and hope for a heavy snow fall.

At such a high elevation, the reduced amount of oxygen in the air noticeably affects the performance of your scooter. So much so that you nearly have to push it up some of the inclines! I didn’t notice the effects on my breathing while I was driving, but I felt light headed and winded the moment I parked and started walking. At the mountain top resorts, there were plenty of signs indicating medication for acute altitude sickness was available, and I can see why. Altitude effects are quite common over 3000 m, and Mike felt it too. I still can’t believe Mike cycled to the summit the very next day – a physical challenge even without the thin air!

Our time on Hehuanshan is the only time I have ever felt the effects of altitude, and it stands out as an amazing experience in Taiwan.  I certainly have a newfound respect for mountaineers!

Rainy Days, the Monsoon and Taiwan

The word ‘monsoon’ may conujure up images of warm tropical rains, however the term monsoon refers to a seasonal wind that reverses direction during the year. The summer monsoon is typically a rainy season, whereas the the winter monsoon is typically dry. This is because during the summer, the Asian landmass gets heated by the Sun. This creates a low pressure zone over the land that draws in wet oceanic air which results in heavy rainfall and potential flooding. In the winter, the system reverses itself. As the land cool down, a high pressure system develops and cold dry air is pushed out toward the ocean.

Seasonal changes in the East Asian monsoon area, from Yi, 2011

Seasonal changes in the East Asian monsoon area, from Yi, 2011

In Taiwan, this story is complicated by the Central and Xueshan mountain ranges. The winter monsoon is blocked by these mountains, resulting in cloudy weather and orographic precipitation over northern Taiwan during the winter months, while southern Taiwan stays dry. The summer monsoon is rainy throughought Taiwan, and can be divided into three components. First, there is a rainy period in May called 梅雨 (Meiyu = Plum Rain). This is followed by a break in the rain, and then another rainy period that extends from July to September.

The winds were a big player in our decision to travel clockwise around the island when we went on our cycling trip – depending on the season, it can be better to go one way or the other. The rains that come with the summer monsoon were also pretty neat. Every afternoon you could count on a downpour (better keep a poncho in the scooter boot)! Hsinchu is in the north, so we also experienced winter monsoon rains. These were a little less enjoyable since getting wet in the 10 degree weather would sometimes get a little chilly. I worked out early on that flip-flops were a great alternative to dealing with wet running shoes during the winter rains. Here’s a chart showing average monthly precipitation in Hsinchu, prepared using data from 1992-2010 from the Central Weather Bureau:

Average Monthly Precipitation for Hsinchu from 1992-2010.  Data from the Central Weather Bureau.

Average Monthly Precipitation for Hsinchu from 1992-2010. Data from the Central Weather Bureau.

Extra reading: some neat papers about precipitation in Taiwan