Plan for plum rain

Always have a Plan B ready if you plan to visit Taiwan during the "plum rain" season in May and June. Or, for that matter, the typhoon season between August and October.

This I learned the hard way. Last week, I had to scramble to rejig holiday plans after days of heavy rains cut off road access and electricity supply to the hotel I'd booked in the scenic county of Hualien.

The hotel, Bulowan, is set beside a mountain in the Taroko Gorge, one of the most beautiful places in Taiwan. Watching mist descend the hills down to the log houses that serve as accommodation would have been a real treat for my mother and aunt, who were visiting for a week.

So I thought. We never even make it to the train bound for Hualien from Taipei, as the hotel was obliged to cancel all reservations since May 10.

If it was any consolation, we were in good company. Two major arteries linking Hualien to the rest of Taiwan, the Central Cross-Island Highway and the Suhua Highway, were both closed to traffic in the Taroko area for a few days as a result of land slides which crashed bridges and bore holes into roads. More than 10,000 tourists from mainland China and elsewhere had to abandon plans for Taroko too.

The culprit? A persistent watery onslaught called plum rain, or mei yu. The plum rain season, so named for coinciding with the ripening of the fruit, is an annual dampener for Taiwan, south-eastern China, Japan and Korea caused by the collision of a cool air current from the north and a warm air current from the south. In Taiwan, plum rain season occurs between May and June. A record 900mm of rainfall was recorded around the island last year.

This time round, besides Hualien, Alishan is also getting a good hose-down. Some 406mm of rain descended on the popular tourist destination in the three days until May 21. The authorities counted under 2,000 visitors to the mountain resort in south-western Taiwan each of those days, 60 per cent less than normal.

After the plum rain come the typhoons, which typically hit between August and October but are also known to arrive as early as June.

Two years ago, in October, my friends from Singapore and I spent what should have been an outdoor adventure holiday stuck inside a minsu, or family-run inn, in Hualien while it poured outside.

Forget about whale-watching, white water rafting or visiting dairy farms -- all part of a programme which had taken me hours to plan for our group. We had to be content with a brief, rain-soaked hike in Taroko, before beating a reluctant retreat back to Taipei.

Blame it on geography. Taiwan, which sits on two tectonic plates, teems with mountains in its middle and in the east. The eastern coast is famous for spectacular steep rock faces overlooking the sea. But there is a price to pay for such natural beauty, and that is landslides, never ending road repairs, and loss of lives when the skies open up or, less frequently, when a serious tremblor strikes.

A little rejig of holiday plans, it would seem, is the least of the problems then. My plan B this time was Kaohsiung, the port city in the west. Which was just as well, since my mum and aunt had been eager to see Taiwan's second-largest city. Hualien will have to wait.

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