As summer and months of preparation drew to a close, I spread my relief maps of Taiwan out across the floor one last time. The contour lines of the central ranges were so closely packed they merged into a single dark foreboding mass running the length of my room. This shadow marked the route of my intended journey from the northernmost point in Taiwan, along the mountainous spine, to the southernmost point. I would travel entirely on foot, a two-month solo trek that my Taiwanese friends said was “impossible.”

At first glance Taiwan seems an unlikely place for outdoor adventure. It is after all a polluted, crowded little island full of factories churning out electronics and consumer goods, a country where environmental consciousness is so low that not until 1984 was the first national park established (and even that has a nuclear reactor in it). As well, the Chinese belief in eating anything that moves has ensured that most of the nation’s wildlife has long since been ground up into aphrodisiac potions or stir-fried into oblivion. All depressingly true, yet Taiwan has some surprisingly majestic landscapes. Over half of the country is made up of rugged mountain ranges, with more than two hundred peaks rising above three thousand metres. Mount Jade (Yu Shan) at 3,952 metres, is higher than any peaks in Japan, Korea, eastern China, or the Philippines.

After years of living in a small town in the crowded lowlands I was eager to get away from the horrible traffic, pollution and heat, to escape the landscape of factories and concrete-box architecture, and travel alone through the parallel world of the high mountains — so close, yet so often hidden behind smog.

I had one last drinking session with my good friend Conn and went to bed contemplating my trip. At 1:47 a.m. on the twenty-first of September, central Taiwan was hit by a massive earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale. By the time the last bodies were dragged from the rubble the death toll would be well over two thousand, but when it first struck I, like many others, didn’t realize the magnitude of the disaster. Woken by the rocking motion and the clang of metal windows, my initial reaction was just annoyance. “Bloody earthquake,” I thought, rolled over and tried to get back to sleep. Earthquakes are common in Taiwan and I figured the shaking would pass. The summer before I had experienced what seemed like a worse one — at that time I’d been awake and sober on the seventh floor of a building with things crashing down around me and had feared for my life.

This time the shaking was violent enough but nothing was falling off desks and bookshelves, and I was only on the third floor of a four-storey building. My room was in a private cram school, and I shared the building with Miss Su, an eccentric old cleaning lady, and Conn, an English teacher from Ireland. I could hear excited voices gathering in the street outside, Miss Su bellowing, and Conn walking up the stairs, “You alright, John?”

“Yeah. Earthquake — all I need!” The aftershocks kept hitting, shaking me fully awake, and I had to give up trying to sleep through it. I usually have a hellish time getting back to sleep, so I decided to go and get some beer, drink for a while then hit the sack. I got dressed and went outside. All the neighbours were out in the street, some in bedclothes. I walked past them zombie-like to a nearby 7-Eleven. The 24-hour convenience store, amazingly still open, stank of whisky and the floor was strewn with broken glass and pools of liquid. The shell-shocked young clerk who served me was certainly earning his money that night.

Aftershocks were announced a second before they hit by an ominous metallic roar. They kept rolling in one after another, sometimes so strongly that they had the ground waving for several seconds. The realization was starting to dawn on us that this was something out of the ordinary, and as details came through on the radio — reports of mass destruction, bridges and roads torn up, high-rise apartments collapsing — our worst fears were realized. Taiwan was suffering a terrible disaster. Standing out on the street with my neighbours, as most Taiwanese were doing at that moment, there was a strange mixture of feelings, both individual and collective, of fear, shock, sorrow, and thankfulness at being safe. And increasingly, weariness, for there would be no sleep for the next two days — the ground had seemingly turned to liquid, and aftershocks were only minutes apart.

One saving grace was that the epicentre was beneath Jiji, a small town 12.5 kilometres west of Sun-Moon Lake in Nantou County, central Taiwan. If it had hit a major city like Taipei or Kaohsiung, instead of the relatively sparsely populated rural area around Jiji, the damage would have been catastrophic. Even though the quake’s strength in Taipei was only four on the Richter scale, it was not spared; a twelve-storey building collapsed on itself, floor after floor driven into the basement, leaving 87 dead.

The 9-21 earthquake (as it became known) was the island’s strongest of the century, and one of the world’s biggest of the 1990s. It left 2,444 dead, over 11,000 injured, and more than 100,000 homeless. Considering Taiwan’s history of quakes, the authorities were not particularly well prepared but the immediate response was quick.

The rescue teams, soldiers, medical teams, and volunteers who rushed into the area worked around the clock looking for trapped survivors and pulling out dead bodies in the face of great danger from the endless aftershocks. There were hundreds of aftershocks every day, some of them over six on the Richter scale.

Meanwhile the country watched the drama on television. The disaster brought a sense of warmth and unity to communities across the nation. Almost everyone had been woken by it, could imagine the worst, were thankful to be alive, and many people knew someone affected. People pulled together — there was no chaos, no looting, little panic — and throughout the island neighbours and strangers alike were out in the streets talking to each other in a way they had never done before.

Even during Taiwan’s darkest hour, China could not refrain from playing politics. As news of the earthquake broke, condolences and offers of assistance poured in from world leaders, among them President Clinton. Foreign rescue teams were dispatched, but there were several notable exceptions. The United Nations could not send any immediate assistance because it considers Taiwan a province of China and needed the Beijing government to request help on behalf of Taiwan. In fact, Beijing insisted that foreign countries seek its permission before sending emergency relief supplies. The United Nations eventually sent an embarrassingly small six-man team. That was in stark contrast to Taiwan’s generous donation of US$300 million to the organization, made just months previously, for humanitarian work in Kosovo.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin sent condolences and offers of assistance. This opportunity for a thawing of relations was spoiled by political bigotry: the statements of sympathy were soured by nationalist slogans reasserting the fiction of Taiwan being part of China and constant references to bonds between the two, reminders that “blood is thicker than water,” and that the people across the Taiwan Strait were “as closely linked as flesh and blood.” China’s state television fabricated news reports to suggest that Chinese rescue workers and supplies were on their way.

For the Communist leaders the quake was a good opportunity to push their “One China” policy — the idea that Taiwan is an inseparable part of Chinese territory rather than a sovereign nation — but in trying to make political capital of the disaster they went too far. In the words of an old proverb that was much on people’s lips, China was “stealing from a house on fire.”

In a statement that caused great offence, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan sent his sympathies to the people of the “Taiwan Province of China.” A province? Even worse, the Chinese Foreign Minister, speaking at the United Nations as if he could speak on behalf of the Taiwanese, thanked the international community for its assistance.

Although a little disorganized and uncoordinated, Taiwan’s rescue and relief effort generally earned high praise, making up for a lack of professionalism with human effort. The public joined in with a flood of donated money, supplies, and helping hands. So many blood donors came forward there weren’t enough places to store blood. And amid the tragic stream of news stories there were heart-warming scenes of rescues, such as when a six-year-old boy was pulled from a wrecked apartment building where he and his family had been buried for eighty-eight hours. Once he had been located, Korean and Japanese rescue workers had toiled for six hours to reach the boy.

For a country that is so often politically isolated and has few diplomatic friends, the international help — over 750 foreigners from 21 countries from as far afield as Mexico, Austria, Spain, Israel, and the Czech Republic — made a deep impression on the Taiwanese. And made China look all the worse. While the earthquakes in Turkey and Greece in 1999 allowed an improvement in relations between those two ancient foes, the 9-21 quake widened the rift, leaving people in Taiwan angry, hurt, and evermore distrustful. It strengthened the Taiwanese sense of identity and unity, and highlighted the chasm between democratic island and authoritarian state.

China was not the only villain of the drama. As the pattern of damage emerged and crews worked their way through buildings, it became obvious that countless lives had been lost because of shoddy construction. In the small city of Douliu, just eight kilometres from where I lived, three new apartment buildings, all built by the same company, had collapsed. In the debris, cooking-oil cans were found in the structural supports. Elsewhere similar cost-saving shortcuts in construction such as watered-down cement and sub-standard materials were uncovered.

One of the most shocking things about the damage was the proportionally high rate of damage suffered by public buildings. They are, in theory anyway, subject to a stricter building code than private buildings and so should have been the last to collapse. Much the reverse — 120 schools were destroyed or severely damaged in the earthquake and another 700 suffered slight damage. The engineers’ verdict was that the blame lay with basic flaws in the standard school design and the unsupervised contract system, which led to cost-cutting, corruption and shoddy work. A lot of parents and teachers were wondering what would have happened if the earthquake had struck during school hours.

Modern buildings, especially high ones, are supposed to be built to strict Japanese standards but the regulations are not strictly followed or policed, so once again, the pattern of damage one would have expected — old buildings collapsing whereas newer, safer ones stood — didn’t occur.

The ruins and buried corpses were a ghastly monument to the ugly side of Taiwanese society: carelessness (best expressed in a common expression, chabuduo, meaning “close enough”), corruption, and greed. But in the mood emerging after the initial shock and anger there was optimism for the future, people re-evaluating life’s priorities and expressing hopes of rebuilding a better society from the rubble. Materialism and consumerism had gone wild. What had seemed important before the quake, such as collecting Hello Kitty dolls (a Japanese cartoon character) and having the latest-model cell phone, now seemed trivial, almost grotesque.

My hiking trip, of course, was over before it had begun. The central ranges had been ripped apart, whole mountains disappearing, rivers blocked and lakes formed. In an instant my maps had become historical documents. Rock falls and landslides had obliterated trails. Bridges were destroyed and roads made impassable. The greater part of my intended route lay in an emergency zone — unreachable by land and officially closed.

Seismologists had been warning that Taiwan was overdue for a big earthquake for years because of a build-up of pressure along the tectonic plates that converge under the island, but had been unable, however, to give any specific warning of the 9-21 quake. The bad news was that they were unsure whether it was in fact “the big one,” and weren’t ruling out another massive jolt.

Rumours of impending disaster — quakes even stronger than the first — spread around the island by word-of-mouth, radio phone-ins, and internet bulletin boards. Sometimes the rumours gave exact places, dates and times. The source of many of these rumours and apocalyptic predictions were temples. There was a story circulating, which many people believed, that a temple had actually warned of the earthquake. The omen supposedly took place at the Taoist Taichi Kung temple in Taoyuan on the night of June 23. The temple worshippers were using divining blocks, small wooden boards shaped like crescent moons. After asking a question, these boards are dropped on the floor three times, the answer determined by whether they land with the flat or rounded side up.

But that night in Taoyuan the laws of physics took a time out — the boards stood on end, balancing on their tips, (and remained like that for two months until two young girls picked them up). The surprised worshippers consulted the heavens. The answer, channelled through one of the worshippers, was the usual vague stuff of prophesies — stop sinning or face destruction. God gave another, more specific, message in August: “You do not fulfil your obligations to lead a virtuous life. This is not allowed. This earthquake is just a small sample of the bad luck to come. You must listen to me. Because of God’s will Formosa will suffer many disasters this year.” The story was obviously the work of opportunists trying to get a little publicity for their temple, and with it money, but Taiwanese people are very superstitious and many believed it.

Considering the thousands of fortune-tellers there are throughout Taiwan, their pre-quake silence was rather poor. Now with the benefit of hindsight, people started uncovering all sorts of strange omens that had passed unnoticed; from the story of a giant white fish — a warning of disaster — said to have been caught off the southwestern coast just days before the quake, to the story of a winning lottery ticket with the numbers 94445421 (in Chinese the numbers sound like “9-death-death-death-definitely-death-2-1”).

Temples rushed to make predictions of further calamity. It was a low-risk gamble; if the predictions didn’t come true no one would bother, or remember, but if something happened then it would mean an immense boost to the temple’s reputation and, with that, donations. Police brought charges against the Taoyuan temple for inciting public disorder when it started handing out thousands of fliers warning people that another huge quake would hit on October 4.