Cycle touring in Taiwan
Second visit, August 2011
Now i am sure you remember my favourable comments about my cycle tour of Taiwan back in May. But even i did not expect to return so soon. However, i heard about an Asian geology conference in Taipei in August, which was all the excuse i needed to return to enjoy more of the mountains in Taiwan. The geology conference was actually of only marginal interest to me as it lacked much economic geology and focused, as might be expected, on geological hazard mitigation, such as typhoons and earthquakes. With considerable galactic geology of Mars and Venus and the sun also.
Upon arrival at Taipei airport i had a very warm welcome, but not quite as comforting as my previous arrival. After assembling my bike it was nearly 10pm as i rode out of the terminal to my hotel some 3 km away. In the darkness i could see someone standing on the road and i could hear a whistle. So i swerved and rode past what i presumed to be a parking inspector. Soon i was being chased by a police car. Ah, that person must have been a policeman and now he had called for backup. It seems they were upset about me cycling on the airport entrance road, which they considered to be a freeway. But the 2 policemen could not speak english, and could not explain where or if there was a bicycle route to the terminal, so i rode off and left them. This resulted in them calling for more backup, so now i had 2 police cars and 5 officers trying to deal with the mega-bicycle terrorist from down-under. I was already some 2 km down the freeway, so they could not tell me to turn back. They could not point me to a bicycle route as there wasn't one, and they chose not to put my bike in their car to take me off the freeway. So they gave me a police escort to the hotel where i carefully thanked them for their "help". They did take a copy of my passport, so i am surely now listed in the bicycle-terrorist database. Will i be allowed to leave Taiwan in 2 weeks time or am i now trapped here in the Taiwanese version of Guantanamo bay for enemy bicycle aliens??
Next day i called by the Pacific Cycles factory to say hello and
they kindly checked my bike for me, after which i went south to
Hsinchu. This was not far, but the hot day meant i was happy to
stop early. The plan was to ride a 140km loop up into the hills
next day. Fleur had described this route for me as a tough one
with 1500 m of climb. It was a long day and made 25km longer by my
taking some wrong turns. At Lohfu, i found a street-side stall
selling peaches, which are now in season, and rested briefly
before the serious climbing. The climb certainly was tough as it
was very steep but the real fun was the lack of english on several
critical corners, so i am now learning to read chinese. At one
point on the road i saw some excited cyclists traveling the other
way, and we stopped to meet. It was amazing that this was Frank,
with whom i had been in email contact previously, but had never
met, nor did i know where in Taiwan he lived! Here
the challenging day ride route map!
Now it was time to head to Taipei for my conference and Fleur accompanied me most of the way and made sure i did not get lost as is my habit. I easily found my hotel in downtown Taipei, despite the traffic and maze of roads and then all i had to do was fight for survival amidst the beehive of scooter traffic each morning rush-hour as i rode the 3km to the convention centre. An exciting adrenaline rush to start each day. Now i know what kamikaze means!
A week at the conference was enough, and on saturday i was glad to depart southwards again. As usual i had planned a devious route through the mountain foothills. This took me back through Loufu village where i again stopped for a peach, and the lady there recognized me and welcomed me back. Perhaps my bright red and yellow cycling clothes make me a little obvious! There were many sport cyclists out for a saturday ride and it was nice to briefly speak with some of them at occasional rest stops. My plan had been to find a hotel near the foothills, but i was unable to find one and had to detour some 25km in central Hsinchu to find a hotel. And all the hotel prices had increased because it was a summer holiday weekend. I was glad to leave the suburban jungle next morning and am now desperately trying to avoid big cities completely.
At last i found a devious route up into the rainforest covered mountains and enjoyed a strenuous journey southwards. It was not easy to find a hotel in the small town i reached that evening and i needed help from the police to locate it. The owner was away from the desk when i arrived and a passerby tried to help me, eventually getting her teenage daughter to assist as she could speak some english. As i roamed the village i noticed everyone had tables of food displayed and were burning wads of papers and letting off loud fireworks. It was the night of the ghosts, apparently the chinese equivalent of halloween. The loud fireworks was enough to make me jump, so i hope the ghosts were also scared off.
Now it is time to head towards the main island crossing highway and i have found a very impressive valley with astonishingly steep and high cliffs as well as impressive hydro-electric facilities in which to rest overnight.
On sunday there is an event in which 6000 cyclists have registered to ride up Wu-ling summit, the highest paved road crossing in Taiwan. Will i try to join in, or will it just be a monster traffic jam?
After a pleasant stay in a resort hotel in the deep valley where english was hardly understood, i could not proceed further into the mountains as the road was closed due to earthquake damage, and other roads to park areas required payment even for bicycles. So i retraced part of my route and proceeded southwards in other valleys towards the major city of Puli, which is located in the geographic centre of Taiwan.
I arrived at 2pm and decided i needed some western food, braised cabbage and mushy rice just does not appeal to me. Perhaps this town was large enough to justify a McDonalds. No, i am not proud of eating there, but at least i can read the menu!
I soon found a McDonalds and while there Stuart arrived and said "hello". He was british and had lived in Puli for several years teaching english, and kindly invited me to stay with him in his house located in a nearby agricultural village, overlooking Puli and the golden domed buddhist temple. He was just returning from a trek in the mountains of western china and his fridge was empty, so i located a supermarket to try to buy some food i could understand, particularly muesli for breakfast.
Reading the labels on the packages was impossible and my attempt to buy cereal was a complete failure, so i bought a large bottle of sports drink instead. While drinking this outside the store a fellow who spoke very little english tried to be friendly, but all i could understand was the word "beer", to which i said no, as i don't drink beer. He left, but soon returned with an open bottle of beer for me. He, his brother and i then drank beer together while communicating in little more than sign language. It was a remarkably cordial meeting and i appreciated their great kindness and friendship. And i have to admit that the local Taiwan beer tasted ok, though i will stick to sports drinks for my cycling re-hydration.
At a village some 10km from Puli, i waited for Stuart to arrive and lead me to his house about 3km away, hidden amongst intensely cultivated fields of fruit and vegetables, the main produce being passion fruit at present. Next day i rode a loop around the fabled Sun-Moon lake, sharing the road with too many motorised tourists before finding a devious and pleasant route back to Puli. During my return to Stuart's house, i took a detour to view the enormous and impressive buddhist temple. Sadly, the karma of the temple had not made the motorists on the access road any less unfriendly. Trying to find my way to Stuart's house was slightly exciting as i missed one of the several turns, but found my way there on the second attempt.
Now it was time to head up into the mountains for 2 days of exploration before the big sunday event. I found a hot-springs resort town to become my temporary home and it was very peaceful upon my mid-week arrival, with few people around, but on saturday 18 buses of tourists arrived and the whole resort was buzzing. On a local ride winding through the mountains and around a reservoir, i stopped in a remote village at a tiny street-side stall and was able to get a big bowl of mango with shaved ice, which i consumed on the adjacent riverbank. While doing this a car with 3 nurses from a local hospital arrived and they were curious about me and my cycling in such a remote place. They all wanted pictures taken with me to put on their facebook pages, and were disappointed that i did not also have a facebook page. I was elated that these cute young ladies wanted to be photographed with this grey-bearded idiosyncratic cyclist. That evening i started planning for the sunday event by trying to organize accommodation for a single night in 4 days time. This was far more difficult to arrange than my usual request for "accommodation tonight" as i did not want accommodation for the intervening 3 nights. Just try doing that using sign language and gestures, it is not simple, but eventually we managed to understand.
After a saturday riding on farm access roads to villages hidden deep in the mountain valleys well off the tourist track, it was time to gatecrash the cycling event from Puli (altitude 450m) eastwards to the Wu-ling pass at 3275m altitude. Although i started some 12km from the start line at about 800m altitude, this was still a seriously challenging ride, far more-so than the events i have ridden near Adelaide, S.Aust. In addition to the sheer magnitude of the climb, there was the effect of the thinner air at such an altitude, and severe traffic congestion caused when 7000 cyclists try to squeeze onto an often 1 lane road which was still open to 2 way car traffic! But to add to the congestion, there was no organized way for cyclists to get off the mountain after completing their ride. So those who finished early turned around and proceeded to ride back down westwards while others were still trying to ride eastwards to reach the finish. It was barely less than an absolute riot, and apparently some 2000 cyclists were unable to finish because of the traffic snarls.
But i had anticipated a problem and had planned to ride eastwards from the summit instead of returning westwards. This led to my descending Taroko gorge down to an altitude of 418m to a place to stay for the night. You will recall that i rode up Taroko gorge back in May, but this impressive gorge is well worth a second visit. On this beautiful and long descent i met 4 other wise cyclists from Hsinchu who had also chosen to descend eastwards to avoid the congestion on the western slope. They helped me arrange the accommodation and we shared stories and a pleasant evening together at Tienxiang, a popular place to overnight within Taroko gorge. But they were surprised at my plan to ride back up and over the same summit next day. Surely trying to climb this summit twice in 2 days was madness. They were wisely planning to ride the coastal road northwards before a train connection back to their hometown, a much more rational plan.
Crazy plans notwithstanding, next morning i set off upwards
again. It was much harder climbing the east face as there were
several undulations and very steep sections, whereas the west face
had a mostly steady gradient to the top. My hopes for an
exhilarating descent were dashed by light, cold rain near the
summit, so much of my descent was cautious to allow for the wet
roads. Even so, i was still descending faster than the cars. It
had been an exciting 2 days of serious riding and i had met so
many friendly cyclists along the way. And also enjoyed amazing
mountain scenery, from both directions.
Had i worn myself out? Did i have any strength left for the next 5 days before the end of this adventure?
Because i had had a tyre blowout, i had used the spare tyre i always carry and i wanted to buy a new one to carry as a spare. I had also burnt through most of my cash and needed to get some fresh money. So it was appropriate to spend some time in Puli to get organized. Getting there was an easy 20km downhill ride, passing some slower cars and scooters on the way. I soon found a bicycle shop which, fortunately, had the unusual size tyre used on my bike. The price was just $500 (A$17) which was very reasonable, but it could not be folded for use as a spare in my toolbag. The solution was to install it on the bike and return my folding spare to the toolbag, and the shop attendant happily changed the tyres over for me. The new tyre was thinner than my previous one and the old tube did not fit, so he provided a new tube as well. After the extra work and additional tube, there was no additional charge, and my offer of a tip for the good service was politely refused. I was impressed with and grateful for the good service.
The next problem was to turn some green Australian money into red Taiwan money. Surely this would be easy, just find a bank. Finding a bank was easy, but of the 4 people in the foreign exchange section, the only one who was apparently allowed to change money was on the phone and kept chattering for ages and ages and .... Eventually i gave up and left to find another bank. Here, the staff person had apparently never seen money before and could not deal with changing currencies. She said that such a conversion could only be done at the airport. What!!! The airport concerned was half a country away! It was a stupid answer and i left in disgust. I know there are stupid people in every country, but why do they have to employ them in banks! So i went and found bank 3. Here, they had a big display of current exchange rates, including $AUD. But they could not actually perform currency exchanges. Weird! However this person did direct me to another bank nearby which could exchange money. At last, at bank #4, i was able to get some fresh money.
Now it was time to head south to the mountains near Chiayi that i had not finished exploring during my visit in May. I avoided the main highways and found some pleasant secondary roads through small villages and extensive agricultural farmlands. Eventually i reached Checheng, a touristic village near a hydroelectric dam. Here i found a tourist information centre, but once again they did not speak english or have brochures in english. Tourists are expected to speak and read chinese! I could not find accommodation here and proceeded to the nearby town of Shuili where i did find a hotel, but not one i would recommend to anyone. Just go right past this town to anywhere else, you don't want to stop here!
My plan was to reach the village of Caoling, hidden high up in the mountains, because my map showed there was a geology park there. Of course i was curious to see what would feature in such a park. It was a seriously long climb up into the mountains and it started to rain. But the rain was pleasant and served to cool me down, and the gentle mountain streams were now all raging torrents with waterfalls everywhere. It was an interesting variation on the mountain scenery.
At Caoling there were signs indicating some 10 hotels, but it was soon apparent that few of these were operational. This was a town that had tried hard to become a tourist attraction, but had failed and was now in severe decline. I eventually found an operating hotel, but the lady there said there was no accommodation for single people. In Taiwan you are supposed to be part of a big group or family, something also apparent when trying to order a meal for one person, as all meals are group sized. I searched for another hotel, but could not find one and tried to ask the hotel person for directions. She then gave a price of $1200 for a room, which i decided was ok. But to conserve my cash, i dug out my credit card which was not acceptable to her. So we settled on $1000 cash. I was lucky this bluff worked as i later discovered that there was only one other hotel operating, and it had a tour bus parked outside and may well have been full. That night the owner's nephew arrived and he spoke very good english, so we compared internet and facebook pages and i shared in the serious ritual of tea drinking with the family.
As i prepared the bike next morning, a lady from a nearby house watched on with interest. Using sign language, i invited her to ride the bike, which amused her and we shared a smile. She left but soon returned and gave me a nice fresh dumpling, perfect for breakfast. The near disaster of arriving in a town in decay had actually become a pleasant visit. I rode off to find the geology park, following some old signposts. But there was no further indication of a geology park and all I could find was a small memorial to victims of a 1991 earthquake. Perhaps I was the only tourist who ever really wanted to see a geology park!
The next destination, Fenchihu, was not far away, but i could
tell the road there was going to be hilly, and it certainly was.
There were many landslides in this area with roadworks repairing
the damage and in one place, an almost complete house which had
slid down the mountainside and now reclined at a crazy angle in a
creek beside the road. I arrived at Fenchihu in time to meet
Martin, who had rescued me back in may, and we shared a pleasant
lunch together. He also made sure i was well accommodated for my
night here, and i am yet again very grateful to Martin for his
great kindness and generosity.
Near Fenchihu on the Mt Alishan road.
Martin warned me that there was an imminent typhoon threat, so next day i avoided riding deeper into the mountains and instead rode some local areas before going west to Chiayi. Rather than use the main highway down to the plains, i used an alternative route on small farm roads and this was much more peaceful and scenic than dealing with the traffic and tour buses on the main highway to Alishan that i had ridden in may. In Chiayi I went to the same hotel that I had used back in may and the lady there immediately recognized me. Perhaps she was even surprised at my return, but without speaking chinese I will never know.
Saturday was the last day of my tour and i rode around the flatlands out to the coast through numerous uninspiring towns with little scenic interest before catching the high speed train to the airport. As i sat in the speeding train, it just did not seem right that the world should go past me without me spinning my legs. Perhaps i was suffering from bicycle withdrawal already?
My second visit to Taiwan was
just as interesting as the first, and i found many new mountains
to climb and more friendly and kind people. I have traveled
another 1900 bicycle kilometers, but now it is time to return
home with another head-full of pleasant Taiwanese mountain
memories. Enjoy your mountains.