Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Coldest Day: Sunday Trip To Nantou

Last Sunday I went back up to Nantou intending to return to the Wuchieh area on the Zhuoshui river. The top news story throughout all the newspapers and TV stations on the preceding Friday had been the extremely low temperatures forecasted for the weekend by the central weather bureau. Anticipating both the rain and the low temperatures, I had washed and dried my outdoor gear, purchased new waterproof boots and new leather gloves, borrowed a snood, bought a mouth-and-nose mask and I had also packed spare shirts, a spare sweater and a spare waterproof jacket in a backpack.

However, none of that was sufficient preparation. By the time I reached the little town of Shuili on my motorbike, I was starting to feel the bite - my hands were freezing, despite the protection they were getting from my (expensive) new gloves. My other problem was that, although my mouth and nose were protected from the freezing wind, my eyes were not - the cold air was whipping through the crevices on either side of my helmet visor and into the whites of my eyes, causing them to water.

At the 7-11 outside Shuili train station; I stopped to get a hot drink and check my gear. The mask was absolutely necessary, but not sufficient; I really needed my orange-tinted cycling glasses as well to protect my eyes from the biting cold air.
My new gloves, darkened by rainwater. Although there was no water seeping through, the low temperature exacerbated by the airflow over my hands whilst driving meant that my fingers were still freezing cold. Had I not had those gloves, I might not even have got as far as Shuili.
The realization finally dawned on me; this was not ordinary Taiwanese winter weather I was dealing with. This was actually comparable to many a winter day I remember from England. Biting wind, hands red-raw from the cold, multiple layers of clothes under a heavy jacket... yes, this was exactly the same - except I was now on a motorbike, bombing along in the foothills at fifty to sixty miles an hour! There was nothing for it - there was no way I was going to make it all the way up to Wuchieh, which would likely be under snow in any case - and so I stopped at Minghu reservoir with the idea of spending some time in the reception hall I had briefly visited once before.

Overlooking Minghu reservoir, downhill to the west of Sun Moon Lake. Trails of advection fog were rising from the surface of the water as cold air from the mountains fell upon the reservoir. It was an amazing sight; it was like the visual equivalent of David Gilmour's opening guitar parts to "Sorrow".
Along with the numbing sensation in my hands, the dense, low-lying clouds already monstering the mountainsides convinced me that continuing further and further uphill to the Wuchieh area would give me a world of problems I could do without.
The downstream face of the gravity dam at Minghu reservoir, with the approach road overlooking the massive spillway.
On the east side of the spillway lies the powerhouse fed by gigantic water pipes draped over the mountainside. During the day, water from Sun Moon Lake passes downhill through the pipes and into the turbines to generate electrical power, whilst during the night, when the price of electricity falls, the turbines spin the other way to pump the water back uphill through the pipes and into Sun Moon Lake. Note also the switchyard to the right of the powerhouse.
Inside the reception room, there was a large diagram illuminated by a light-box showing a simplified map of the Zhuoshui river, the various hydroelectric plants and associated works. There were three things of particular interest to me. First,  the positioning and layout of the 2006 replacement tunnel to divert water to Sun Moon Lake. It does not proceed from Wuchieh reservoir, but directly from the southern tributary which I had taken pains to visit a month ago. Instead there is a new pipe delivering some water away from Wuchieh. This makes much more sense. Second, the pipelines feeding the hydroelectric power plant at Shuili do not come from the Lake, but from Minghu reservoir. Third, there appears to be an additional powerhouse at the back of Minghu reservoir which I don't recall seeing - and I have driven past that area numerous times. So all of that gives me more work to do on my next trip, which will be interesting.
Throughout the reception room there were a large number of black and white (and some colour) photographs displayed to illustrate the construction history of the various hydroelectric plants and associated engineering works. I photographed every single one on my phone camera, but there were far too many to show on my blog. These first few show the early stages of construction at Wuchieh (note the alternative spelling: Wujie) in the 1920s. 
This one shows the larger of the two dams at Wuchieh; the rocky outcrop on which those wooden huts are built is the same place I was standing on just a few weeks ago when I was last there.
"Arduous" is no exaggeration; that dam is located in a very tight, steep cleft between two hillsides that is difficult to reach. There would have been a lot of difficult climbing involved at the outset just to set up the winch system and prepare the area for moving materials back and forth.
The downstream face of the dam once finally complete.
A brilliant photograph, taken either from an aerial position or from an elevated position along the opposing mountainside; it shows the upstream faces of the two dams at Wuchieh and the new reservoir behind them on the Zhuoshui river.
A colour photograph showing the then newly completed Minghu gravity dam in either 1984 or 1985. I always like to see the greyish-white of freshly constructed concrete. Today it is stained black by weather-wear.
After taking all the photos I possibly could inside the reception room, and after talking to a tourist group guide while her charges were watching the video presentation (which I had been treated to earlier on my own), I decided to head back to Shuili and thereafter to Ershui and the train back to Tainan. When I got back to Shuili, I had to stop at a red light before leaving the 131 for provincial highway 16. It was there that I noticed a Starfighter and an F-5 Tiger on display along a concourse overlooking the river. I like the fact that Taiwan has these old aircraft put on display in unmarked public locations throughout the country - wherever they could find a bit of open space on the cheap, stick an old aircraft there on display, rather than scrap them. I think this is a brilliant alternative to stacking them all together in a single museum somewhere in Taipei.

With my motorbike next to an old Northrop F-5 in camouflage, and an old F-104 Starfighter in the background just outside Shuili. This was, without any doubt, the coldest day I've ever experienced in Taiwan; absolutely brass.

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