At 1:47 am on September 21st, 1999, the most powerful earthquake to hit Taiwan in over a century (measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale) struck the center of the island, killing 2,415 people. Over 11,000 were seriously injured, and damage to property (many of the buildings that fell were shoddily constructed or designed to inadequate safety standards) was estimated at NT$300 billion.
The quake has become part of the national conscience (most people still usually refer to it as simply “921”, after the date on which it struck) and although the island has well and truly moved on, plenty of memories of that awful night remain to this day. Like Jiufenershan, a place guaranteed to bring home the primeval power of the catastrophe.
Turn south off the main Caotun to Puli Road in Nantou into county route 147 following a stream through an attractive valley between the foothills of the island’s central mountain range and after a few kilometers, a signpost (with the intriguing English translations “Explosion Site” and “Sloping House”) points up an even smaller, bumpier road climbing up the hillside to Jiufenershan, close to the epicenter of Taiwan’s great 921 earthquake. A huge landslide, triggered by the quake dislodged an estimated 3.5 million cubic tons of the hillside, which tumbled into the valley below, killing many people, and creating two new lakes by damming a pair of streams.
Roads in the area, many wiped out by the huge landslide triggered here by the quake, have been rebuilt and now form a long loop passing through this extraordinary open air museum to Nature’s awesome power. The first place on the route is the famous Sloping House, a one-story structure that survived almost completely intact, although it now stands at a crazy tilt, several meters higher than its position before 921, and walking inside this giant optical illusion is guaranteed to play strange tricks on your sense of balance.
A little further along the road is another house which is badly damaged but still standing, only apparently it’s now 150 meters downhill from its position prior to 921. Amazingly the inhabitants all survived, because the house and the entire chunk of land it stands on slipped bodily downhill, like a carpet down stairs. Many of the betel nut trees that that grow nearby here have oddly distorted trunks because they once grew on a different gradient than that on which they now find themselves.
Beyond the second house the entire hillside has been scoured flat to the bedrock, and it’s still desolate and largely bare of greenery, despite Nature’s best efforts to repair her damage during the intervening years. Nearby is the area known as the “Explosion Position” (爆發點). Many years after the event, the devastation here remains shockingly clear. The area looks like a bomb hit it, with jagged cliffs of dirt skirting an ugly crater. An iron-roofed house, completely demolished, hangs clinging to the top of a great cliff of dirt, and huge boulders of earth and rock pepper the site, almost as if thrown there by some huge volcanic eruption.
Beyond the Explosion Position the narrow lane crosses the huge, sloping expanse of hillside, ground flat by the landslide, before being swallowed at the far side by the returning betelnut palm plantations that once covered much of the surrounding hills, then finally descends to a small car park above one of the two large and rather beautiful lakes formed when the 921-triggered landslide dammed a stream flowing through the area. The steep slopes that surround both lakes are naturally extremely unstable, so there’s been no attempt to develop these lovely expanses of water with unwanted improvements such as paths and rest pavilions, and they’re both remarkably pristine and beautiful spots. Above the lake stands the marble 921 Earthquake National Memorial, engraved with the names of people killed in the disaster, and just below it stands the Shimen Observatory, built to monitor the highly unstable land around the lakes and give early warning of any possible breach of the earth banks below the lakes due to further earthquake activity or flooding.
A visit to Jiufenershan provides an immediate and powerful sense of the magnitude of the disaster, but to learn more facts about the Big One, pay a visit to the 921 Earthquake Museum of Taiwan, housed in the remains of Guangfu Junior High School in Wufeng, just south of Taichung.
The school lies directly on the Chelongpu Fault line, which ruptured during the quake, and the museum consists of several sections housed in impressively designed new structures grouped around the ruins of the school buildings and its now famous playing field and sports track. One of the most popular attractions at the museum is the Earthquake Experience Theater, a room decked with cardboard bookshelves and furniture, polystyrene books, and padded floor and walls, in which visitors can experience the sensation of being in an earthquake. It’s interesting for short-term visitors to Taiwan who may not get to experience the real thing, but hardly more intense than the tremblors we experience on an annual basis here, and unlikely to be anywhere near the 7.3 intensity of 921 itself. Performances run at regular intervals, but arrive a bit early, as there’s space for only 25 people each time.
Other Earthquake Relics
There are loads more memorials around central Taiwan, both natural and man-made, to the events of that night. Two of the most impressive lie near the northern end end of the ruptured Chenlongpu Fault. The quake created deep cracks in the mudstone of the Da An River, just east of Zhuolan on the Taichung/ Miaoli border, which were later opened up by floods caused by succeeding typhoons to create the spectacular chasm known as the Grand Canyon. I haven’t been there for many years (although friends who tried to go a year or two back said the whole area is fenced off now). This being Taiwan, there’s almost certainly some way in, although it’s probably a lot more eroded than when I took these pics 6 or 7 years ago, and it might be less spectacular than it once was.
A few kilometres southwest of Zhuolan, the Shigang Dam (on the Dajia River) lies directly on the fault line, and was severely damaged during the quake – one end of the dam has been thrust upwards 9 meters above the rest! – while a few hundred meters below, the rupturing fault line also pushed up the bed of the river, creating the seven meter-high Pifeng Waterfall.
Perhaps the most famous symbol of 921, however, is found, fittingly, at Jiji, the nearest town to the epicentre. On the edge of town the first floor of Wuchang Temple (武昌宮) neatly buckled under the weight of the remainder of the building during the quake, leaving the upper half of the building and the ornate roof resting on the ground, while an incense burner, ornate stone boundary wall, and lion figure stand, undamaged, just a few meters away. It’s an almost surreal sight, which makes for a great photo.