First Day of 2020 Lunar New Year: Trip To Nantou County

Yesterday. A day trip to Nantou looks like this: get up at just after 4am, drink coffee, read, get the dogs out for a walk (two trips, because there are seven of them), get all the kit together, jump in the shower, get dressed and race to the train station to catch the 6am train north to Ershui. (For some unknown reason, the train always stops in Xingying and Chiayi city for five minutes, and thereby delaying the 8.12am arrival in Ershui by another ten minutes).

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Dawn over the Bazhang river as the train leaves Tainan behind.

Arrive in Ershui, take the motorbike to the garage for an oil change first and then drive east to Mingjian township, grab a five minute eat in the McDonald’s and then onto the 16 east to Shuili. Stop for gas and then switch over to the 131 north to Yuchi, stop for a drink (buy the smallest carton of milk, not water as I don’t need much and can’t afford the space on this motorbike’s tiny rear rack – I should buy a box or build a new rack).

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Morning market activity outside the Family Mart convenience store in Yuchi.

Yuchi to Puli on the 131 (avoid the 69 because although far more beautiful, it takes too long) and switch to the 72 east up the mountain as quick as I can and through the long tunnel.

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The “long tunnel” – almost a full kilometer in length and always freezing cold.

Was lucky to encounter sparse traffic and all vehicles easily and safely overtaken both on this road and on the 131 previously. Bomb through Wujie and through the tunnel to emerge on the 83. Stop for drone pictures of the twin dams at Wujie (at about 10.45am).

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The twin dams at Wujie – technically, they are barrages, not dams as such and both were built by the Japanese in 1934 or 1936. The one to the west (left) has six tainter gates and entrains water to the original tunnel feeding water from the Zhuoshui river into Sun Moon Lake. The one to the east and set further back, takes water to a small hydroelectric plant within the mountainside. Behind the hill between them, there is a suspension bridge across the river where tourists can reach a steep path up to the hill above and downstream from the eastern dam. I was there with my girlfriend recently.

The thing about these two dams is that you’re already quite close to them from the road with the view only partially obscured by trees and the lack of elevation. The drone shots were low altitude (about 20 or 30 meters) because that’s all that was needed to get them both in frame and also because a higher altitude would necessitate flying backwards into the tree-clad mountain where I’d lose sight of the drone and likely crash.

Quickly done with a loss of only about 20% of first battery life. Back on the bike and bombing along up to Wan-Da reservoir. Stop for a drink at the little “Appalachian” store, but find it closed for the holidays.

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Local store selling drinks – I usually stop here on trips along the 83.

Back up around the signpost for Aowanda forest and across the bridge… follow the road up the switchbacks keeping an eye out for the unmarked road which I had previously inferred must be around here somewhere. Find the road that leads down to the hydroelectric power plant.

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In this image, you can see that although the main road bends off to the right next to the circular mirror, there is a small trail heading off up the mountainside straight ahead beneath the tree with the red flowers. That trail leads eventually down to the hydroelectric plant.

That’s not the one I want. But nearby is, miraculously, a vending machine from which I get a Mr Brown coffee can! Marvelous. Back on the road around a couple of more bends and I find it. The unmarked road.

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The road going uphill is marked on google maps, but the one to the left of it going straight is the unmarked road – it is quite dangerous, unpaved, and rough as a badger’s arse. But it’s the one that takes you to the terraced farms southeast of the dam.

Check map. There are actually two roads here with only one of them marked on Google maps. The other is dark. Very narrow, rough and broken surface with a precipitous drop of several hundred meters to one side. That’s my road.

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Don’t allow the railing to fool you – there are only two short areas with railings along the entire length of the road. The rest of the time it’s a steep fall into game-over territory.

Follow it slowly with increasing conviction that it’s going to lead me to where I want to go. Finally, turn a corner and look down on the hydroelectric power plant! Yes!

But up ahead the road is gated shut… Except it isn’t. The gate houses a pulley station and the road continues at a sharp, right angle switchback. Follow it. Further and further eastward. This is what I want. Eventually, the road forks up to the right and down to the left, and knowing the location of the new terraced farms (i.e. from 2016 onwards), I chose left. Correctly. Downhill leads to another switchback where I park, and, spying the dam off in the distance to the north about a kilometer away or less, I make the first flight with the drone out of concern that I won’t get permission from the farmers to enter their land. 

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This shot taken directly from the mountainside trail is actually superior to the drone shot I’d managed on my previous visit several weeks earlier, where I had attempted to fly the drone from three separate locations to the west and each time lost the signal most likely due to electrical interference from the switchyard. 

Photography of the dam is a partial success but very difficult as I ended up flying beyond visual range among trees. The best I manage is a shot looking down at an angle…

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The angle for this shot is actually quite similar to the one used in the 2006 book, although that one was partially cloaked in shadow.

I bring the drone back and head down into the farm. Follow the trail eastward until I reach a fork next to a shipping container farm house. Park the bike and follow the remaining, unpaved trail eastward until reaching a switchback very close to the dam. Unfortunately the view is obscured by trees. No matter. Fly over and into the valley below carefully moving the drone as close to the northern mountainside as possible without crashing. Descend. Very risky because I am flying beyond visual range and can’t see what is there, but I want the camera to capture the entire dam and spillway including the hydraulic jump at the base.

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I am very pleased with this, even though it’s slightly overexposed with the sun way too far to my left and the resulting shadow covering the bottom third of the spillway. I would also have liked to have pulled the drone backward a little to show the little pool of water in the afterbay and the natural bend in the river around the hill to the left. The problem was that I was flying some 20m below homepoint and beyond visual range so the risk of crashing was very high.

Having succeeded, I returned the drone to my station at the elbow in the trail and then walk back to the bike. Follow the trail back to the main road and then stop at a roadside shack for a beer. Let the dogs sniff me and talk to the old man. Sit back and reflect; job done, no more need to ever go back there.

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A moment or two of quiet satisfaction tinged with sadness.

Drive back to the 83, the 72,  and the 131 stopping in Yuchi for something to eat and drink and a bathroom break. Fill up with gas afterwards and then back on the 131 to Shuili.

On reaching Shuili,  I stopped at the second bend on Erping road and unpacked the drone for the first attempt to photograph the Tonguay dam. Achieve partial success.

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In this shot, the trail leading to the security building is just visible in the bottom right, though the gate preventing public access is a little out of frame. To the left of the dam you can see the old trail/viewing platform carved into the side of the northern mountain spur.

It’s risky because again I can’t really see what I’m doing and how close the drone is to trees, so I kept my distance. I was able to tell, however, that the dam is set in a very narrow gorge and can only be viewed from a lower elevation very close to the north mountainside. I brought the drone back and drove uphill to the trail leading to the security gate. This time, approximately level with the dam crest but a couple of hundred yards away with the dam itself outside of visual range due to the interceding hillside and trees to the south, I flew the drone sideways to get as close as possible to a head-on view of the dam.

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This was the best shot I could manage, given the risks of crashing. Without improving position, I perhaps could have waited for slightly better light just before sunset as the dam is oriented northwestward.

For the remainder of the Lunar New Year, I have a few more trips I’d like to take. One or two are return trips to Nantou to take aerial photography of Sun Moon Lake and its three neighbouring reservoirs (Toushe, Mingtan and Minghu). One is a trip south of Ershui to Yunlin county to fly the drone over Hushan reservoir and the Linnei Octagon and there are also several trips down south I’d like to take which all involve early morning shots but the two I will prioritize are the trips south to Pingtung county’s Mudan reservoir and the groundwater feed reservoirs just outside of Chaozhou.

Feminist Irritant

So earlier today I got irritated by a woman on Twitter. I don’t follow her but she said something which was retweeted by someone I do follow. I’m going to write my reaction here rather than on Twitter because I need a slightly longer form. Here’s what she wrote:

Sending a request for a language exchange partner in those FB groups (as a young woman, ahem) is asking for a bombardment of messages and friend requests from questionably intentioned men.🤨

A bunch of things irritated me about that. First why is she whinging about this on Twitter? If I were in her shoes I’d have written the request in such a way as to make it clear and unambiguous that I was not interested in any flirtatious advances or time wasters if you will – or alternatively, I might have written it with a “women only” stipulation. Writing requests in such a way as to avoid unwanted responses is not hard. She could have solved the problem before it arose by simply adding two or three words.

But she didn’t. She took to Twitter to whinge about making a request and – shock, horror – *other people* responding to her.

The second thing that annoyed me was her statement that the men responding to her had “questionable intentions”. Did they, or did she just assume so? The trouble with this is that intentions may be both several and contingent. Example: you’re a young man, you want a language exchange partner too and maybe you’d also prefer that partner to be an attractive young woman, but that would be a bonus; if it was a plain or ugly woman or another man, maybe that would be acceptable too. Intentions can be both several and contingent.

To continue the hypothetical further…  perhaps you’re in the dating market, but you’d prefer to vet women first before you get involved with them. Why not start out on a language exchange? It’s a safe and comfortable context to get to know her first and you can withdraw with a suitable face-saving excuse without causing any damage if you find she’s not compatible.

None of those possibilities are very, very ordinary.

But this woman took to Twitter to whinge about men with “questionable intentions”, a dark euphemism suggesting that men who respond online to attractive women they don’t know are duplicitous sexual predators. Perhaps some are, but I was irritated by the blithe manner in which she did it, without any quotes or specific examples of what she was talking about. Is this episode indicative of the growth of nasty, man-hating third-wave feminism online? I don’t know.

Weekend trip to the site of the cancelled Majia Reservoir (瑪家水庫) project in Pingtung county.

Having just recovered from a debilitating illness the previous week (which, annoyingly, happened to coincide with a five-day national holiday), I took last Saturday afternoon off to drive south down to a location in Pingtung county I had last visited about ten years ago with my then-girlfriend. I had driven my old, blue motorbike along the top of the south levee alongside the Ailiao river (隘寮溪) to the aboriginal township of Sandimen and from there up into the mountains. What I went to revisit last Saturday however, was just the point at which the Ailiao river leaves the mountains on its’ way to joining the Kaoping river.

I have considered adding an additional chapter to my book concerning Taiwan’s cancelled reservoir projects. This location was where the dam would have been built for Majia reservoir some fifteen years ago had it not been cancelled due to public protests. The protests are another subject for my research, but one thing I have discovered is that there was a concern about a “tea village” further upstream that would have been flooded by the reservoir; this village was later evacuated and destroyed by river flooding anyway. The propensity of the Ailiao river to flooding raises the interesting question of what methods the engineering and design team had conceived for dealing with sedimentation, given that Majia would have been an on-stream design.

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The footbridge over the valley is, I had guessed from looking at maps, where the dam for Majia reservoir would have been built. This bridge is fairly recent as it was not here when I first visited the site ten years ago.
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I was surprised to find that the few local aboriginal people I spoke to were vague about the proposed dam, as if they had only heard about it from their grandparents. The first person to give me a definite answer from memory expressed with eye-locking certainty was a woman who owned a local bakery just around the corner from this bridge. She confirmed everything I had previously guessed about this being the site of the proposed reservoir and that the footbridge was exactly where the dam would have been built. She was busy shutting up shop at the time, so I didn’t stay to ask her more about the public protests, though I may revisit the area soon and stop by again.
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From the mountains on the south side of the river some several hundred feet above the site. This is where the first half of the body of the reservoir would have formed; you can see the footbridge where the dam would have went to the left of the image. The people living on the peninsula would have had to have been compensated and moved and the trees on the peninsula all cut down before the reservoir could have been filled. Taking shots like this is a little risky as it involves standing on the roadside barrier.

I might return for more photographs of the site at some point, but in the meantime I am busying myself with the long slog of writing and rewriting book chapters. If the book is to read well, I have to write well and that means no sentence can be written off the top of my head – everything has to be carefully considered and simplified where necessary. It is more difficult than you might imagine.

Air Pollution In Taiwan

This is a late reaction to something I noticed up on Taiwan News last month; an opinion piece by one David Spencer in Kaohsiung asserting that Taiwan’s air pollution is largely homegrown and consequent to the government not enforcing anti-pollution laws.

The objection to this claim is simple: it was based on no other evidence than that one morning during Chinese New Year he woke up and the sky was relatively clear. Mr Spencer claimed that this clearer air was because Chinese New Year was the only time of year when “factories” were closed.

Indeed many factories were closed during Chinese New Year, but that just means that lots of heavy duty electrical equipment was shut down – and electrical machines do not pollute the air. Traffic was still as busy on the public roads as ever, if not more so, and the coal-burning power plants were still operating during Chinese New Year so those sources of air pollution remained.

Meanwhile, of course, the skies only cleared up farther north in Tainan during the late afternoon.  I record this here only as an example of the kind of thing likely to be printed by Taiwan’s mainstream online media.

My own view remains that most of the air pollution we see here in Taiwan is transported across the Strait from China and that the variability of atmospheric haze and air pollution measurements is attributable to meteorological phenomena. The hysteria about air pollution which marked the closing months of 2017 and the opening months of 2018 is nonetheless cause for concern.

Is it possible to “solve” Taiwan’s traffic problems?

The short answer is “no”. They can no more be “solved” than the existence of human error can be “solved”. The second shortest answer is that Taiwan’s traffic problems can be ameliorated to some degree. The questions of how such amelioration is to be achieved and by whom are formidable, and are sure to provoke disagreement.

Last Wednesday (January 17th) there was an editorial published in the Taipei Times entitled “Solving Taiwan’s traffic problems”  by  Lee Ker-tsung (李克聰). It was either poorly written or poorly translated (I suspect the former), and although I agreed with one or two points that Lee makes, I found it vague, sloppy and lacking in substance.

First, Lee suggests that one particular problem deserving of attention is that most reported minor traffic offenses are dealt with by fines rather than the National Police Agency’s preferred policy of “persuasion”.  He doesn’t support this claim with data and it jars with my personal experience. What I suspect is closer to the truth is that the police do indeed use persuasion most of the time in minor cases where someone has violated a traffic regulation without anyone getting hurt, but that they don’t bother to write up these minor cases.

Second, Lee claims that the three most common traffic violations are illegal parking, ignoring road markings and running red lights. I would suggest speeding is a more common violation – one so common that it is almost a universal outside of Taipei city. Be that as it may, perhaps Lee is mistaken in thinking that better forms of traffic law enforcement are needed to deal with these violations. In many cases, illegal parking is the result of what should be correctly identified as a government “aesthetic policy”; where the government has purposefully reduced the number of public parking spaces for “aesthetic” reasons and to allow towing companies to make money. One could also make an argument that certain types of road markings in Taiwan probably should be ignored for reasons of personal safety as well as reasons of brute practicality. For instance, motorcycle lanes are frequently hidden beneath parked cars, and are frequently too narrow to allow safe overtaking. Although running red lights was once an unthinkable possibility to me back in England, I have now seen it (and done it) so many times that I now have a more sophisticated view. There are some red lights that should never be run, and there are some where it doesn’t really matter and this should really be common sense, for instance red light intersections where there can only be traffic oncoming from one side and not the other and where there clearly is no traffic whatsoever (this is a frequent occurrence out in the countryside).

Lee also argues, correctly in my view, that the previous policy of encouraging members of the public to inform on each other’s traffic violations is stupid. He claims that it has become an administrative burden on the courts, and is in some cases sparking bad blood between people. Any idiot could have seen that this is what would have happened, and Lee really should have made the point explicit that the policy should be scrapped.

Finally, Lee makes some vague suggestion about “traffic planning” and “community instruction” as means to ameliorate the traffic problems. The problem is that there are no specifics to these suggestions, and so it is not clear what exactly is meant.

To add a couple of specifics of my own, I’d say that speed cameras should be relocated away from large, wide busy thoroughfares devoid of residential buildings and instead should be sited on smaller, busy roads in residential and commercial areas where speeding is most dangerous. For instance, I am constantly in fear of speeding vehicles at night when I take my dogs for a walk in the park as I have to walk them briefly along a narrow residential street on which horrendous speeding is common. Taiwanese cities are also generally lacking in underground parking facilities other than at the odd department store. More underground parking facilities would not only help to alleviate parking issues on the city’s streets, but it would allow for more green spaces within the city. As things stand, the limited number of parking facilities in the cities are typically on the surface of the streets between buildings and in my own district of Tainan, the park where I walk my dogs is apparently under threat of being converted into yet another concrete car park.

Beyond that, I think Taiwan’s traffic problems are largely psychological and cultural in root, and the question of how these might be ameliorated is one I leave for another time.

A Brief Post On The Poor State Of Journalism And Environmentalism Regarding Taiwan’s Water Resources

This article on river dust in the Taipei Times caught my eye this afternoon while I had a spare moment. It’s worth going through as it illuminates a few interesting points.

The Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) has budgeted NT$500 million (US$16.9 million) to mitigate dust pollution in the Jhuoshuei River (濁水溪) in Yunlin County.

This appears to be a result of recent political hysteria about air pollution, with protests demanding that both the central government in Taipei and local municipal governments act so as to be seen to be doing something about air pollution. The problem of course, is that there is very little constructive that could be done (largely because most of the constructive measures that could have been taken, already have been, and now there are only stupid options left, like shutting down power plants). This would seem to be one such small constructive measure, although there is the obvious doubt of whether that NT$500 million is going to buy much in the way of clean air (it won’t).

The Jhuoshuei River — “muddy water river” in Chinese — is the nation’s longest. It springs from the mountains in Nantou County and runs westward through Changhua, Yunlin and Chiayi counties.

False. The Zhuoshui river does not go anywhere near Chiayi county. A Taiwanese journalist should know this, or could very easily check this online using google maps, but apparently couldn’t be arsed. The Zhuoshui runs from Nantou through between Yunlin county to the south and Changhua county to the north (forming a natural boundary between the two counties). Chiayi county is to the south of Yunlin county. One of the Zhuoshui’s tributaries does form in Chiayi county, but the Zhuoshui itself has nothing to do with Chiayi.

“The EPA is to work with the Water Resources Agency to reduce the dust pollution and the agencies’ starting point is increasing the naked river bed’s coverage by water or plants, EPA Minister Lee Ying-yuan (李應元) said on Monday.

It is possible that plant seeds will be blown away by the wind, but such attempts would be worthwhile even if only one in 10 succeeds in taking root, Lee said.”

And what are the chances that only one in ten seeds actually takes route? Probably not very great I would imagine as most of the vegetative cover to protect the seeds from wind is along the river banks, but during winter the river bed itself is largely exposed to the winds. You might say that the EPA is literally proposing to piss away NT$500 million into the wind.

“The EPA will also work with the Soil and Water Conservation Bureau to reduce the amount of sand carried from the mountains upstream, he said.”

Well good luck with that. Effectively reducing the amount of sediment carried downstream by the Zhuoshui river is an enormous task, orders of magnitude beyond a NT$500 million budget. At best, they might build a few concrete rills and jackets to help stabilize some mountain slopes.

“Meanwhile, the Water Resources Agency on Monday held a public meeting to explain its regulations concerning the Jiji Dam (集集攔河堰) in Nantou, but several environmentalists held a news conference before the meeting to demand that the agency demolish the dam.”

Why would they want to abolish the Jiji dam?

“Completed in 2001, the dam was built to serve Formosa Plastics Group’s (FPG) naphtha cracker in Yunlin’s Mailiao Township (麥寮), given that an exclusive water pipe extends from the dam to the complex, Taiwan Water Resources Protection Union director Jennifer Nien (粘麗玉) said.”

Oh, because corporations. These people never give a moment’s thought to the design and function of dams and reservoirs. I know from first hand observation having visited the area several times that this is bullshit. Most of the water from the Jiji dam actually goes into an aqueduct delivering it to the “octagon” in nearby Linnei township from where it is then divided between three supply routes, the largest of which is the irrigation trunk canal crossing the entire breadth of Yunlin county between Linnei township in the north and Yuanchang township in the south where it then terminates and empties out any potential flood water into the Beigang river. I’ve been to all the key locations there and have taken the photographs myself.

“After the dam’s completion, residents in downstream Yunlin and Changhua counties have had to grapple with water shortages and dust pollution from the river bed, Nien said.”

I suspect they always have had to deal with dust pollution and water shortages, even before the dam was built. Dust and water shortages in the winter dry season are a long term result of Taiwan’s climate and geography and have nothing to do with this or that dam.

“FPG has been reluctant to develop sea water desalination facilities because it thinks it can rely on clean water from the dam, Changhua County Green Resources and Culture Society chairperson Wu Li-hui (吳麗慧) said.

The company should invest in its own source of water instead of using clean water from the dam and forcing local residents to pump groundwater, Wu said.”

FPG doesn’t want to build desalination plants because they are expensive. Similarly, I haven’t yet bought my own helicopter – because it would be expensive. When nice things are expensive, people tend to look for cheaper alternatives first. This is neither interesting nor particularly outrageous.

In addition, nobody but nobody is forcing local residents to pump groundwater. The locals are pumping groundwater because there isn’t sufficient infrastructure to provide for them. Except that the Water Resources Bureau has just completed a brand new reservoir in Yunlin county for which the residential water treatment plant is currently under construction. So the problem is already being solved.

“Asked to comment on the environmentalists’ demand, Lee said that more professional evaluations would need to be collected before demolishing the dam.

About 70 percent of the dam’s water is used for agriculture, while 20 percent goes to industry and 10 percent is for residential use, Lee said.”

In other words the environmentalists are wrong and should be given dunce hats and told to go away and sit in the corner while the EPA pretends to solve an unsolvable problem by throwing money into the wind.