You can see it from the summit,
or so I read in a book I obtained the day before I set out on an exploration of some of Taipei County’s lesser known areas. I was told years ago that it is “out of the way, hard to find,” and not really resembling anything the Egyptians built; but more of a grassy cone, tucked behind a brilliant display of flora. However, the day I set out in an attempt to find this queer structure, the clouds descended upon the swaying silver grass of Seven Star Mountain in Yangmingshan National Park, and there was no way in hell I was going to see anything from the summit, let alone an ancient pyramid lost beneath a vast expanse of arrow bamboo. That being said, don’t be discouraged dear reader. You are in fact only one hundred and fifty two words into this writing, and by the time you finish this sentence I’d wager you’ll be somewhere around one-seventy. And as all readers can judge by the following words, sentences and paragraphs, perhaps your pilgrim did in fact find what it was he was looking for, but more on that later.
It’s a Question of Signage
Before I continue relaying the Indiana Jonesing that one can do in any and all parts of this grand country, I must first say a few words to those living in the Taipei area. To you northerners, to you so many, who dwell in and around the capital, a question, and a word of friendly advice from your central island foreigner: What is with the signage? Now this is mostly centered on the freeway exits, but I wish to direct your attention to the area as a whole.
When traveling north by car, one has to take these swirls of concrete in order to get spit in the direction one wishes, (and avoid the city center at all costs) and these exits are marked only by the street names that they turn into. To the out-of-towner, they’re completely useless. This may be a reasonable thing for you elite Taipeiers, but for those of us coming from the southern, more gentle and relaxed parts of the country, a sign or two with the standard Chinese/pinyin, reading Beitou this way, Shilin that way, sure would be swell. A nice brown sign saying National Park would be a real treat. And what is with the airport turn off? One has not a clue one is approaching it until upon the exit itself. The signs marking the tiny domestic airport in Taichung are so precise and well placed that one would indeed have to be either blind or illiterate to miss them. And I know you northerners don’t want to be shown up by Taichung now do you? In your county, as it stands now, one has little to go on besides the natural sense of direction, that one (your pilgrim included) has residing within; that unnameable voice of instinct swinging the needles of our internal compasses (that often spin wildly) within the cerebral cortex. What signage does exist is so small that anyone short of being able to say “go go gadget binoculars” and have a large pair of field glasses magically appear in front of one’s eyes, is, and pardon the expression, shit out of luck.
Now, of course you as citizens of this fine land have no control over this, but it is tourism that I want us to keep in mind. I for one enjoy being lost; one will happen upon things and get drenched in experiences that couldn’t be if one were “following a plan.” But I assure you dear Taipeites, I am not the norm. And it is to those who truly have the power that this little critique is for. So, as we say in the country of my ancestors, and in all constitutional monarchies of the occidental: write to your Member of Parliament, or in your case, the Executive Yuan, and see what can be done. Now enough of that, on toward adventure.
A Musing of this Land
By now, having learned my lesson a few times over, the drive to Taipei comes naturally. Now it is like I’m driven, instead of the one driving.
My dog of course held his post next to me the whole way up. Licking my face as I sang along with the music I had playing.
We made the swing northbound, and crossed the Chung-de bridge, past that three dimensional sculpture with the horse from Guernica poking its head up; those wild gums framing those wild teeth, that tongue shooting out like someone had shoved an ice-cream cone down the poor beast’s throat. I wonder if Senor Picasso ever thought his horse would be on the north corner of a busy Taipei intersection, fitting in so well with the other non-Asian themed facades that the Taiwanese are so prompt to erect: hotels fashioned like the castles of Tutor England, windmills like they’ve been taken right from a grassy knoll in the Netherlands and plopped on the Formosan mountainside—where an imported Kiwi herds sheep through a load speaker? The owners of these establishments smitten, I suppose, by the cultures from abroad, adding in crude form to the cultural identity crisis Taiwan most certainly has. This nation’s past— as an empirical and colonial settlement, the amalgam of aborigines, authoritarian politics with barely two decades worth of dust, and the overall and incomplete efforts for true independence lurks behind the eyes of everyone you pass on the street. The sense of belonging it seeks seeps out of this unique form of multiculturalism, a pluralism that exists nowhere else in the world, only here, from within the confines of this narrow, leaf-shaped island, that floats on the immensity of the pacific .
With the horrors of the Spanish civil war bringing me back to that art appreciation class I took in high school, I pushed the car up to eighty as the road widened into a five-lane boulevard, and sped my Taiwanese Ford up the incline, and into the mountainous suburbs of northern Taipei.
The first stop on this adventure
was the library. Not exactly an adventurous stop, but this library is rather special. A beautifully built eco-friendly structure of wood, the New Beitou Library lay at the base of a warm-water stream where whiffs of sulphur waft pleasantly through the air, and the abundant flora are home to the summer cicada who instinctively tries to get laid by singing their serenades full of mirth.
In the decades of the past, when the Rising Sun flew on the flagpoles, the steam from the geothermal valley and the hot springs were not the only thing keeping the temperature high. Beitou was once a notorious red light district. And long after the retrocession of 1945, the call girls meandered around, servicing the servicemen, and with their beckoning index finger curling toward themselves, they gestured to lonely businessmen swilling their drinks in seedy dives, until off they crept together through the shadows.
This didn’t last though. The area was dramatically transformed when the hideous cement buildings were smashed with the booming industrial/commercial economy of the eighties and nineties. New, luxurious spas and bathhouses sprung up, using the same hot spring sources the Japanese had apparently discovered while hunting out la résistance. Along with these modern facades, trendy apartments meant to attract young urban professionals, (I call them yuppies) where built. The spa-hotels (I call them spa-hotels) continued tapping into the same eighteen natural hot spring sources that form a straight line from Beitou, to the other nearby hot-spring destination of Jingshan. This line of boiling water that continuously gurgles to the surface is 18km as the crow flies. From one tourist bath to the next, crossing right though the middle of Yangmingshan National Park. A straight, perfect line, resembling without question, the fault line that is located deep below the region— A part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, that burns away under our feet, warming the soothing mineral water we wade in on weekends. And this boiling water gurgling to the surface is only some of the evidence proving the volcanic activity grumbling below.
In the library I reviewed my maps of the area, both topographical and otherwise. I researched extensively, uncovering any information I could with regard to “the pyramid.”
Word of a pyramid in Taipei County had first tickled the hairs of my ears a few years previous, when a rather famous Taiwanese documentary filmmaker and former news reporter had spoke of it. “Yes”, he had said, answering a question from the audience, (a group of us had gathered to watch some of his archival footage during a music festival in Long Tan,) “I’ve been to the pyramid.” But with hoards of questions and a barrage of others trying to speak with the man following the Q&A, I left, never finding out where exactly the pyramid is located. But it left some lasting impression on me. A pyramid in Taiwan? How peculiar. A year or so later, when perusing some old newspaper articles in the midst of research on some other topic, I found a Taipei Times article about the release of a book published by the TUFOA. Yes, the UFO sandwiched in that acronym stands for Unidentified Flying Object. The T stands for Taiwan and the A for Association. What I could be using my time for instead of reading about a book published by Taiwan’s extra-terrestrial watching wack-jobs crossed my mind. But halfway into the article I saw the subheading Yangmingshan Pyramid, and suddenly my attention returned.
Now, did the article divulge the exact location of the pyramid? No. What it did inform the reader of was its approximate location; just below the summit of Seven Star Mountain, one of Taipei’s most popular hikes. Could it be true, a pyramid sitting right under the noses of so many hikers?
Amidst further research at the Yangmingshan Visitor Center, I came across a single copy of a book written by Englishman, Richard Saunders, whose writings the reader may have seen in the China Post from time to time. It is in Saunders’ book, Yangmingshan, the Guide, and the article in the Taipei Times, where I learned of the rumours that currently circulate regarding the pyramid. One is that it is believed to be a place where aliens have visited, perhaps in order to communicate with those “privileged few” residing on earth. The TUFOA are certainly the ones entertaining this hypothesis. And it is true; Yangmingshan has a peculiar aura, a feeling of uncertainty. And I have to be frank and say that I felt a similar sense of peculiarity when peregrinating the State of Nevada, where America keeps its many secrets buried in the sand, and is of course, the capital of UFO speculation for North America entire. It is even rumoured that America’s dark shadow was cast near the pyramid in Yangmingshan. Their (far from discrete) intelligence community set up shop in Taiwan years ago, with a CIA sponsored, ROC operated listening post, used to catch bits of conversation from mainland China.
One can speculate the day away and follow one's thoughts into the depths of conspiracy theories, but as Hollywood has shown us again and again, those are the kind of people who disappear or windup dying in a dreadful accident. And it is true. In both places, Nevada and the pyramid of Yangmingshan, I had knowledge of the extra-terrestrial campfire stories prior to my arrival, and am a person rather susceptible to the mental stimuli of such stories. Because it is within such tales where a truth actually lays, the metaphor behind the well told tale, the placebo of fiction, the right and will they tell us we have to seek our own treasures, no matter how trivial.
That aside, the theory of the earth naturally creating this structure through the volcanic activity that birthed the rest of the peaks in the area seems unlikely, as the pyramid, is just that, a prism of surprisingly symmetrical shape. Another ledged, and your pilgrim favours this one, is that it is an ancient burial chamber or place of worship erected by the Ketagalan people, the original residents of the area.
Also within Saunders’ well written and rather complete guide on the park, are several hand drawn maps, one of which, marked by a little black triangle, shows the location of the pyramid, and explains in detail how one is to get there. It was from this map that I sketched my own.
The next day,
when my dog and I made the turn on to Yangjing highway, following the brown signs to Yangmingshan National Park, (finally, a sign) the air temperature dropped, and as I gained both altitude and excitement, the smell of sulphur rushed through the opened windows of the car.
The hike is known to many, but I had no idea that every Sunday morning a thousand people make the climb to the top. All types make the trek: From new parents holding the hand of their toddler taking his first steps, to elderly couples in their nineties nearing their last— the kind of steps that matter, outdoors, celebrating life with earth.
Between the happy calls of “Ji yo” from the people I passed, I observed the stunning variety of fauna that the area boasts. I counted twelve blue-tailed skinks—which my dog was sure to pounce on in an attempt of playful hunting— several stunning Formosan Blue Magpies, singing as they glided from bough to bough, the usual Nephila pilipes, a spider as big as your hand, resting in a web the size of the moon. When we stopped for a drink of water on an offshoot path, I nearly stepped on what I was told was a common, non-poisonous snake, about 100cm long. Although park authorities claim there are many types (dangerous to human and canine alike) in the area.
Besides starting from the visitor center and taking the superb forested (and more difficult) trail to the top, ascending Seven Star Mt. from XiaoYouKeng is equally exciting, and the route your pilgrim took on descent. Barren lands fit for science fiction movie sets sprawl over the mountainside in places and the pungent smell of sulphur engulfs all atmospheres. These moonscapes— where no plant or creature can exist and the yellow stained rock is brittle and crumbles underfoot— are fashioned by volcanic fumaroles steaming like eternal teapots of sulphuric acid. These super-heated discharges vent to atmosphere, mingle with the great sweeping dragon-clouds in mid-flight and disappear overhead.
When I reached the summit the ceiling dropped, and great wisps of ethereal clouds swept over the rolling grass and strewn rock of the peak. Engulfed in this dense fog, I refuelled by eating a few handfuls of gorp and an apple. I lay on my back and watched as the roaring wind carried the clouds overhead at fantastic speed.
Pulling the elastic band off my notebook, I consulted the map I had drawn and began to walk, following the direction of the little pen strokes I had made. I finally came across a narrow trail that is almost entirely hidden by arrow bamboo. A winding cave of leaves it is, and one has to crawl on hands and knees, creep through this dense brush until it opens up after a hundred meters. A few hikers know of this trail and a few faded hiking club ribbons can be seen tied to random branches and stocks along the way. After one rounds a large boulder of “peculiar properties,” one can see it, nestled in the natural depression of the mountain top. A rope is tied to the rocks at the top to aid the adventurer in his or her climb, and when sitting on top of the Ketalgalan Pyramid, I could clearly see the Danshui river, Taipei 101 and the sprawling expanse that the whole city is. In the other direction, the clouds whipped over the summit of the mountain, revealing at brief intervals, the rich blue of the sky.
As I underwent my exploration of the pyramid, I could make out the voices of resting hikers on the summit above; their conversations echoing off the rock, finding their way into my ears. “Jin zi ta” I made out. “Pyramid” in Chinese. And soon enough I could see the sea of arrow bamboo around me start to shake as the hikers made their way down, into the depression where the pyramid rests.
We spoke of the different theories. Aliens? Aborigines? Nature? And some questions were asked: Why, when the department of archaeology at National Taiwan University was questioned about the pyramid they remained mute? Why has research and plans to excavate not taken place when such a profound and possible history-making megalith sits in our midst? Money perhaps? “Fear of what they’ll find”, the TUFOA says. I learned then that the bowels of this structure extend far beyond the rumours I was aware of, and that the pyramid’s interior is said to lead to a series of underground tunnels that stretch as far as Ilan.
As the giggles of possibility surrounding this place died down, a brief silence fell over the group of hikers, and after that brief moment they parted, all smiles, filled with the satisfaction that existing in nature brings. I unfolded the cloth which my lunch was wrapped in, and in between bites of my sandwich, and bits for the dog, I looked up, through the clouds, and in my mind found that famous asterism that the mountain is named for. The Mountain of Seven Stars. The seven stars of the Big Dipper, casting their shimmering din upon the earth, illuminating all that we care to have illuminated, brightening those who care to look upon them.