I have vivid memories of the September 21 earthquake of 1999, a disaster which Taiwanese refer to as '921', because it occurred at 1.47am on the 21st day of the ninth month. At the time I was working for a newspaper in Taipei. I had been in bed for less than 10 minutes when our apartment (the top floor of an eight-storey building) started shaking. I turned to my girlfriend (now my wife) and said: 'Don't worry, it's just an earthquake.' Having lived in Taiwan for about seven years at that point, I was used to feeling the occasional tremor.
The shaking got much worse and the power went out, so we got up sharpish. Before leaving the building, I quickly phoned a friend in south Taiwan. He agreed it was the strongest and most terrifying quake we'd experienced in our years in Taiwan.
There was no damage in our neighbourhood but elsewhere in Taipei scores were dead. In central Taiwan, tens of thousands of buildings had collapsed or were damaged beyond repair. Islandwide, the death toll exceeded 2,400.
The disaster hasn't been forgotten. A school campus wrecked by the quake has been turned into a very worthwhile museum which makes for a good stop if you're driving between Taichung and Sun Moon Lake.
The ridges left by the quake in the school's running track made for one of the disaster's most enduring images (see below). These, together with several wrecked classrooms (see above and bottom right), have been preserved as part of the 921 Earthquake Museum. The entire site is engrossing yet sobering. There's a great deal of information about why and how earthquakes occur as well as specific details of the 1999 disaster. Kids enjoy thumbing a panel linked to a seismograph and the regular 3D film presentations.
The museum is open from 9am to 5pm but closed Mondays. Admission is NTD50 for adults, NTD30 for children. The museum's Chinese name is 九二一地震教育園區.
Drivers using the freeway should proceed to Wufeng at km211 on Freeway 3, then turn right onto Highway 3. At km197 they'll see signs pointing to the museum. From Taichung TRA Station, bus #6100 departs every 10—20 minutes throughout the day. Journey time is 40 minutes and one-way fare costs NTD36. Bus passengers should get off at km197 on Highway 3 and walk for 10 minutes.
If you want to see more evidence of the quake's power, visit this ruined temple.