Monday, 25 July 2016

Second Trip To Feitsui Reservoir (翡翠水庫)

(First trip blog post here).

Last Friday night I took the HSR train up to Banqiao in what used to be called "Taipei County", but has for several years now been referred to either as "Xinbei" ( 新北), or rather more farcically in English as "New Taipei City". The Friday night trip allows me the early start necessary to shoot throughout the morning before taking a lunch time HSR train back to Tainan. There were a couple of issues this time however*. Setting out on the motorbike from the final MRT stop on the Xindian line at sometime after 5 a.m., I followed provincial highway nine eastward, where I was overtaken repeatedly by touring bike groups on their Triumphs and BMWs as well as a number of rich playboys in Ferraris, Lamborghinis and 911s. Along every other curve and bend in the road, several members of these groups had positioned themselves to photograph their mates accelerating through the apexes. Somewhat surprisingly, they even photographed me on my rusty old SYM "wolf", with bulky camera bag and tripod strapped to the rear rack whilst studiously avoiding the tilt-inducing apexes and snailing past them at speeds of just over 40 kph. I suppose I would have been the "variety" item on their image reel. I also stopped once to take in the sunrise over the hills behind and to the north of the reservoir...

Sunrise overlooking Erge Park in Shihding district on provincial highway nine behind Feitsui reservoir.
My first objective was to drive east to Pingling where the basin of the Beishi river (北勢溪) begins to deepen, widen and form the tail end of Feitsui reservoir. Thereafter I wanted to explore the little farm roads alongside the reservoir further and further upstream and to take as many westward-facing photographs as I could to get the best out of the morning light. My first stop was next to the Pingling sewage treatment works which lies beside a stretch of the Beishi river at which point it is still recognizable as a typically shallow, fast moving Taiwanese river, rather than the beginning of a reservoir per se...

Welcoming sign for the Pingling sewage treatment plant. It was actually something of a relief to pull over and get off the vicious twists and turns and narrow straights of provincial highway nine - populated as it was at that early hour by Taipei's "princelings" in their Lamborghini Aventadors and Porsche 911s roaring past at frightening speeds.
Panorama shot of the Beishi river (北勢溪) as it meanders past the Pingling sewage treatment plant.
Having reached this point, I then returned westward to explore the farmers' roads running down to the reservoir itself. The first one I came across gave me a few over the Beishi river just as it begins to deepen and widen out to form the back of the reservoir...

It was still too early in the morning, and so although the sun was just beginning to cast light upon the lower hillsides here, the mist and low-lying cloud had yet to evaporate.
I followed this road down to the bottom of the hill and took an east-facing shot of the river's first large meander as it moves slowly toward the reservoir...

Panorama shot of the first major bend in the Beishi river; two more to follow before the river turns into the reservoir.
That road led around another bend to a cul-de-sac and a further bend in the river. The cul-de-sac is one of those little farming villages with a temple. There was also a surveillance CCTV camera installed by the Taipei Feitsui Reservoir Administration to monitor that next bend in the river. Feitsui reservoir has probably the most comprehensive surveillance and strictest public access restrictions of any reservoir in Taiwan. Just a short distance upstream from that camera there was an old steel cable trolley system for crossing over the river, though there were also a number of Taiwanese pipe-rafts lying around on either side of the shore beneath the cabling. Why this trolley exists is a minor mystery I'll have to solve next time. Judging from the aged appearance of the concrete housing structure on my side of the river, my guess is that it was built prior to or during construction of the reservoir in order to serve existing farmers (or perhaps more probably, their visitors) who had small tea plantations on the other side of the river. Whilst a lot of farmers out in the sticks who live alongside major rivers or reservoirs are very adept with their pipe-rafts, it's perfectly possible that there were also those who were terrified of the water - just as even now, most Taiwanese are uncertain of themselves swimming in anything other than a heated swimming pool...

The steel trolley cables; due to the density of the trees and foliage on the other side, it was impossible to tell what might be there, though I suspect there may be a small house or hut. Note also the distance between the waterline for the exposed bedrock and the lowest point of the cables; with the river full, the trolley may reach the middle of its' journey and only be as much as a couple of meters above the water.
Another shot but slightly further to the right, revealing the next large bend in the river. The placing of the surveillance camera makes me think that this bend serves as the "start" of the reservoir proper, although the Taipei Feitsui Reservoir Administration have responsibility for Feitsui's entire watershed.
Just a little way back upstream from the next bend, and directly in front of the CCTV camera was this collection of driftwood encircled by a floating plastic debris line towed by another pipe-raft.
Panorama shot of the whole scene; disappointingly I had to rely on the automatic google panorama service to stitch this shot together as the freeware program I use couldn't handle the stictching properly. It's disappointing because the google service insists on bleaching the edges of the image with no way of removing the bleached areas.
I returned the way I had came and paused before re-joining highway nine to take another shot overlooking the Beishi river. There was another photographer there by this time too; a young man on a scooter who was using the Taiwanese "black card" technique to try to get a better contrast between the sky and the landscape. As I was putting my kit back on the motorbike, a door opened in the small house by the side of the road, and a dog walked out - literally a foot or two away from the screaming stream of Lambos, Ferraris and touring bikes running down provincial highway nine. I know dogs are intelligent, having six of my own, but I don't think I could even think about exposing them to traffic like that.

By now, the sun had risen high enough to chase off the early morning mists; it was going to be another beautiful day.
My next left turn off of provincial highway nine took me down to the first of two straight sections of the reservoir, this one immediately after the large bend with the surveillance camera I had previously stopped at. This straight section is still relatively narrow however and has the appearance of a large, slow-moving river and this is typical of Feitsui. Due to the narrowness and meandering length of the underlying Beishi river valley impounded by the dam, much of the reservoir looks more like the ribbon shape we associate with large, slow moving rivers than the expansive lake shape that we associate with reservoirs.

The first of Feitsui's two straights culminating in the large bend surrounded by farms which I visited two weeks previously and which is a popular tourist site.
Rather than return to the cluster of options at the site I found two weeks ago, I drove further back westward to the tiny police station which sits just off highway nine about halfway along the length of the reservoir. From there a small road runs gently down into the surrounding hills and forks into "Zhukeng" road and "Tanyao" road which themselves each branch off into several other smaller farmers' roads. I took the latter road first, rolling down it in neutral to see what views, if any, it would afford me. A short distance downhill I rounded a bend and came across a pair of wild foals - young deer the size of my dogs at home. They quickly scampered off the road and there was no chance of taking any pictures. Tanyao road led me downhill all the way to a small farm from which it was possible to catch only partial glimpses of the reservoir, along with another surveillance camera...

Partially obscured view out toward the northernmost reach of Feitsui reservoir.
Fenced off surveillance camera, identical to the one I found earlier in the morning.
Although the farm did have a makeshift wharf and several pipe-rafts available to them, there were no really good views available which was a disappointment because the middle of the reservoir is where it begins to swell out somewhat. However, the crucial requirement to capture this was height and I was too close to the water's edge to see anything even if the views had not been blocked by trees. With that in mind, I headed back up Tanyao road in search of one of its' branches, hoping it might lead me to somewhere with a reasonably good view. Fortunately, the next branch of Tanyao road led me directly and steeply uphill to a little overlook which I later learned is referred to on google maps as "石碇鱷魚島" ("stone anchor crocodile island"), which I surmise is actually a name not for the overlook itself or its' position, but for a broken peninsula that can be seen from the overlook. It is however, but a detail amidst what is a truly astonishing view...

"Crocodile Island": a broken peninsula, though the break between it and the main spit of land cannot be seen from this angle.
Possibly the single most impressive non-aerial view overlooking any reservoir in Taiwan. As I hadn't known of this view previously, finding it on my own was such a pleasant surprise that it felt like something bordering on the sublime.

  Wider panorama of the same view.

The necessary "I was here" image.

The first of two images from which the panorama shots above were created. This one shows the southern part of the central corridor through which Feitsui reservoir lies.

The second shot for those panoramas; this one showing the larger, northern part into which the reservoir begins to expand and in which sits "crocodile island".
A panorama of the lower reaches of the central spit taken using the 300mm lens.
A TFRA police boat speeding upstream; he stopped at a couple of places, possibly as part of a routine check, though the areas he stopped in were without survei
It was now around mid-morning, and I was very pleased at having found this spectacular overlook of the reservoir's central corridor. There was only one way I could improve upon this, but that depended on one of the hiking trails being sufficiently long to lead me several kilometers westward and afford me an unobstructed view toward the upstream face of the dam. However, this would be a gamble as the more likely alternative was that the trails would encircle back on themselves and lead nowhere in particular, and at 10.30 a.m., there wasn't much morning time left - it would become unbearably hot, and I still had to return to Xindian to catch the metro. I didn't have any water either and was getting thirsty, so I decided to keep that idea for another time.

I drove back downhill and retraced my way back up Tanyao road until I reached the fork, at which point I turned around and headed downhill on Zhukeng road. After some distance, Zhukeng road brought me to a cul-de-sac with a cut through the trees which was a narrow path composed of a rough mixture of pebbles and cement. As expected, this path brought me out to the water's edge, but surprisingly I couldn't find any surveillance cameras (this was also the first spot at which the TFRA police boat had stopped earlier). There were several Taiwanese pipe-rafts used for fishing, and whilst this didn't surprise me, it does make me wonder about their legal status given that the Taipei Feitsui Reservoir Administration are supposedly much stricter about controlling and limiting public access to the reservoir than the administrative bodies for other reservoirs elsewhere in Taiwan.

Wouldn't it be great to live here, and have this scene at the back of your house? Except you'd risk being arrested by the police whenever you went for a swim or venture our on the raft to catch fish.
A parting shot of "Crocodile Island"; the gap separating it from the main spit of land must have been caused either by an earthquake or by water erosion from a pre-existing streambed long before the valley was flooded to form the reservoir. I would think it likely that someone at the TFRA would know the answer to this.
Despite the uncomfortable start to this trip, it was all in all a very successful trip and sets me up nicely with possibilities to explore for several forthcoming trips. There are one or two hiking trails to explore which aren't marked on google maps, and there are still a number of farmer's roads that I haven't yet explored. The most important task however, is to arrange to be included in a tour of the dam and other reservoir facilities by the TFRA as soon as possible. For this I'm probably going to need the help of some friends in Taipei, though it's far from certain yet whether this will even be possible.

*After work on Fridays, I sometimes stay behind an extra hour to cook meat and potatoes for some of the kids (they're not always getting fed properly at home) which means I get back home after 7.30 p.m. and with the last HSR train to Banqiao leaving at 10.23 p.m., I have to rush to get the dogs fed and walked and all my other errands done in order to catch that train. When I arrived at the Tainan HSR station in Gueiren at 10.15 p.m., I found that new signs had been erected to warn motorcyclists that an area in which I used to regularly park without any problems had now been designated a tow-away zone so that meant looking for somewhere else to park. When I got into the building and began to use the ticket vending machine, I found that the machine would not allow me to purchase a non-reserved ticket and instead I was forced to wait in line in front of the service desk. This was very inconvenient as it meant there was no time to buy anything from the 7-11 before heading up to the platform.

Once seated on the train and going through my camera kit I noticed that one of my bungee cords must have fallen out of the side pocket, leaving me with only one left. A bungee cord is a NT$50 item, but it is crucial to making sure the camera kit and tripod is secured to the rear rack of the motorbike (and thereby ensuring I don't twist my back muscles by carrying the bag on my back instead). The need to get a new one meant looking for 24 hour "shao-bei" stores in both Xindian and Banqiao. My girlfriend found one for me in Banqiao but I made the stupid mistake of underestimating the distance and walking instead of taking a taxi there and back again. Consequently I missed the last metro train from Banqiao to Xindian, and had to end up taking a taxi. For some reason, I had always assumed that because people in south Taiwan talk about Taipei's metro system using the abbreviation "MRT", that people who actually live in Taipei would also use this term - turns out the taxi driver had no idea what an "MRT" was. So there was some confusion, and I ended up getting dropped off at Xindian district's "Dapingling" MRT station, which is a good few miles north of the final Xindian MRT station I wanted to go to. I then ended up underestimating distance yet again and walking all the way south to a 7-11 around the corner from my motorbike. Very tired, I had a quick beer and then tried (unsuccesfully) to sleep from about 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. Hopefully, I'll be able to avoid a repeat of this farce on the next trip.


  1. Yes it's so beautiful!! I love this place very much, what a pity indeed that we are not allowed to swim in the lac. Too many forbidden things in Taiwan!

  2. Aha - you just don't know where to go!


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