25 Dec - 8 Jan
Taiwan, 826 km
This is my 10th 'epic' expedition, all 826km of it. Ok that doesn't sound like a lot, still, it's:
a. the highest I've ever cycled up; 2,600m, in Yushan Park
b. the coldest I've been; 5 degrees Celsius (feels like less, because of wind and rain. I wear five layers of (thin) clothing and a shower cap)
c. my first tour: on knobby tyres; on a mountain road at night; and sometimes in slippers
d. the most equipment damaged or lost (two lights, 1 camera, 1 t-shirt, 1 jersey)
But I didn't lose any blood and I met just about the warmest people in the world - kind words, gifts and other acts of kindness wherever we went :)
Day 1: Sun 25 Dec, Singapore to Kaohsiung, non-cycling day. We arrive with our bicycle boxes and baggage past midnight. It's a struggle to fit our bicycle boxes into the taxis. We pay NT$200 per person to get to the hotel, which is just minutes away from the airport. The meter fare is just over NT$100 ... take it or leave it ... This is extreme - the extreme opposite of other locals that we meet in the next two weeks.
Night stop: Golf Hotel
Bad start, good finish
Nightstop: Range BnB
Day 3: 27 Dec Meinong to Dongshan, 102 km. The art teacher takes us on a morning ride, visiting farms (tobacco anyone?) and an elementary school. After breakfast, we're given souvenir keychains then we set off. Later in the day, half of us overshoot a turn. A truck driver overtakes me. "Turn back, turn back," he yells. I wonder why; was it because I'd passed a cycling track and he thought I wanted to go there? Turn back I did, and I find a couple of cyclists from our group who say they were told to go back too. A phone call confirms the message to head back. But one of us doen't get the message and his phone is turned off.
I set off solo to look for him. A lady on a scooter rides near me with the "turn back" message. I explain the missing person doesn't speaks local languages. I scribble a note for the lady and stop to wait. If he doesn't show up within half an hour, I'll continue cycling. He shows up, I explain the situation to him and I head back to the main group at my own pace. After another long wait for him, I go search again. It's uphill, dark and going to Baihe, our original destination, is out of the question.
The nearest place has only two rooms left. The restaurant is about to close too, but the workers are kind enough to work overtime for more than an hour. After dinner, we're given postcards as sourvenirs, because we cycled up the mountain.
Nightstop: Sunwu Resort
Day 4: 28 Dec Dongshan to Fanlu Village, 60 km. My head is warm because of my headwear but I shiver elsewhere. It's our good fortune to come across a Giant bikeshop where a customer tells us to avoid our original route; she says there's high traffic and advises us to take a scenic route.
At a rest stop, a man tells us to buy dried longans as it goes well with water - chew, drink and get longan juice. He turns out to be a tourist from Taiwan. He says the world is divided between the haves and have-nots, so ordinary folk have to look out for each other. Guidebooks such as Rough Guide write about the friendliness of Taiwanese. It's true. At a restaurant, someone helps us order food and makes helpful suggestions (we have different dietary requirements and preferences, some locals look at us and say "United Nations"); turns out she's another customer.
We're short of 30 km today and we stop at a place not marked on our map. The receptionist, who's just inside the gate, doubles as security guard. It's close to my idea of a cyclist's dream hotel - double story, room for four persons and a living room.
A solo cyclist eats alone and has perhaps 1-2 dishes. In a group, there's company and food variety. Speed would be at that of the slowest cyclist. Our routine for tomorrow is the usual 6-7-8: rise at 6, breakfast at 7, cycle at 8 am.
Nightstop: Childhood Resort
Smoke and mirrors
An insect buzzes around me. I decide to burn some calories to wave it away, to show I'm not a carcass ripe for its eggs.
The hotel has many rooms, mostly with indoor bathrooms. Our (cheap?) room is at the top, with toilet and bathroom outside. Hence the saying, "out in the cold". It is 16 degrees Celsius. The water pump heaves mightily in spurts and the water heater sputters hot and cold water alternatively.
Nightstop: Chuyuan Mountain Resort
Stone cold crazy (part 1)
|The famous "sea of clouds"|
To break the monotony of the climb, I learn to buckle my helmet and backpack straps with one hand while on the move. I also eat on the move, careful not to spill food on myself or spill myself on the road. Unlike gels, cereal bars are harder to unwrap with one hand on the handlebar while going uphill.
Water vapour forms as I exhale, as if I'm smoking. It is 9 degrees Celsius. As I climb towards 2,200m, I'm too tired to play Foreigner's "Star Rider" in my head. I focus on pedaling circles then on breathing. I think about what kind of breathing is more effective: forceful exhale, forceful inhale, or both?
At the Alishan National Forest Recreation Area, I wait. And wait. Sitting there instead of generating heat, I am still, silent and frozen despite wearing four layers of (tropical) clothes now. I sit on a rock. Now I know what stone cold means. An hour passes before I see cyclist #2. To while the time away, I take photos, write notes for this blog, do some simple repairs (with some tape from some people putting up election posters). By the time the last cyclist appears, I've waited 1 hour 45 minutes in total.
I go into a sorry excuse of a shop for a sorry excuse of a hot soup; piss would've been warmer than what was served. How cold is 9 degrees? Well, enough to turn liquid shampoo into semi-frozen gel.
The highpoint of today is having wild boar meat and an mattress with electric warmer. The low point is when my seat post rack is twisted by heavy steel steeds leaning against it. I struggle to fix it in the evening instead of the next day, to avoid the morning rush.
I fall into a troubled sleep, with several weird dreams about people. Some people don't recall, or perhaps take for granted what's been done for them, given up for them.
Nightstop: Hotel Xin Shunli
Stone cold crazy (part 2)
Day 7: 31 Dec, Forest Railway Alishan Station to Shuili. 98 km. We do the 6-7-8 routine but when 8 am rolls by, we're not rolling. It's raining. Not a piddling drizzle, but cold, miserable, you'll-get-wet-and-catch-cold rain. We wait till 9 in vain for it to stop. What's worse than sitting on stone cold rock in 9 degrees Celsius cold for almost two hours yesterday? It's cycling for hours in wind and incessant rain at 5 degrees today.
To prevent another chilly fiasco like yesterday, I stop more often so I don't have to wait so long for the last rider. I stop several times under bits of shelter like under eaves to take photos and put on more clothes. Though I'm going uphill, I don't sweat like before. So, "no sweat" isn't necessarily a good thing. A man looks at me wearing shorts and asks me in wonder, "Do you have warm clothing?" The lady beside him asks, "Do you have a raincoat?" I reply, "I'm wearing it." She looks at my translucent, rain-soaked raincoat and says, "It's really thin." He chips in, "Weather man says it's going to be almost zero."
Well, no point sticking around. "I'm off," I wave to the strangers. My fingers in my half-finger gloves are numb with cold, but I still have to operate my shifters and brake levers. This is what it feels like, to plunge bare hand into a bucket of ice water - and keep it there. My front derailleur acts up. Is it because it's so cold, the cable has contracted? I fiddle with the barrel adjuster but fail to budge it.
In the mist and rain, visibility is barely 100m. That's ok, there are blind corners anyway. My glasses fog up, so I peer over them like a granny as I grind uphill in my granny gear.
Lunch is at a restaurant - the busiest restaurant I've seen that sells no food. It's standing room only. Tourists from other parts of Taiwan are ready with the pots, pans and stoves. One of us goes out to buy cup noodles, cooked in freely-available, 98-degree hot water. My hand shakes so violently, I spill water on it - and it feels good. I cup my hands around the cup before drinking it.
After lunch, I streak 2,600m downhill. I have cold feet, I can feel rain water sloshing about in my shoes. And the wind is up to 59 km/h, which is my speed as I go downhill. Cold pierces like needles of ice.
Visibility remains poor. Safety means keeping the orange line on the left and the white line on the right. Hence the saying: "Don't cross the line!" It gets darker, in tunnels. Steer towards the light!
The road gets rough. some arising from reconstruction work dating back to Typhoon Morakot's aftermath. My wheel gets caught in a concrete rut. My knobbies scrabble for traction, bite and I don't bite the dust.
In dry weather and steep gradient, I push myself backwards when I brake so i don't go head over heels over the handlebar. Now, I do the same with wet rims and brake pads. As I go way over 30 km/h, my rear brakes feel spongy. A sponge would be useful right now, to dry them. Peer through the fog, avoid stones on the road, squeeze the brakes, go round the bends, repeat.
We cycle over a bridge through the clouds. Cars emerge wraith-like from the fog barely 50m away. I look past the sides of the bridge and see cold grey sky. Just as well I didn't bother to wear sunglasses today; there's no sun to be seen or felt. The song in my head is Journey's "Wheel in the Sky". The further down we go, the higher the mercury climbs. Warmth!
Nightstop: Moon Garden Hotel
Day 8: 1 Jan, Shuili to Douliu City, 79 km. On new year's eve, I remove batteries after my lights short-circuited in the rain. This morning, the borrowed red light works fine (whew). But the super-bright white light (a gift) has sprung a spring. My room mates help me look for the missing spring, but it gone for good. I rig a repair with a paper clip, which survives an "impact test" but when I put the light back together, it is short-lived.
At breakfast, plans change after discussion. First a quick excursion to Sun Moon Lake for those who want to; ride as far as you can in the time available, return to hotel then catch a train. I rush and leave phone in the hotel.
The first day of the year. Is this a harbinger of things to come? My light and repairs fail, I leave stuff behind, am almost hit by a car (my bad), fall down some stairs and land on my back, am separated from my friends and get lost - the first morning of 2012.
But good things happen too. I got to see the lake. After waiting 30 minutes for my friends, I make it back to the hotel safely, barely 10 minutes after the rest returned. My back doesn't really hurt, and I course-correct in time at a busy road junction. To paraphrase Regina Brett, a bad moment doesn't necessarily mean a bad day, and a bad day doesn't necessarily mean a bad life.
We cycle to Douliu City to spend a night there to catch a train the next day. Along the way, I play with my feet. In the absence of scientific measurement, with an eye on the speedometer, gradient and "feel", it seems pedaling circles is more efficient than a "two-stroke" up and down pedaling. Merely pulling back with my heel yields a power stroke that lazily leads to 35 km/h - with knobbies and on a fully-loaded bicycle.
At the hotel, the washing machine and dryer are heavily used by us eight cyclists. We manage to get train tickets. Good! I find out I've lost a t-shirt, must've left it behind at the hotel this morning (bad). But I brought that t-shirt along because it was ugly, just in case I lose it (no real loss, good).
Nightstop: Zhenkang Hotel
Back on track
Day 9: 2 Jan, Douliu City to Pingdong to Fangliao, 45 km. As we're behind schedule, and for change of scenery, we take a train to Pingdong to bypass roads with heavy vehicles and heavy traffic. The train leaving from Pingdong is cyclist friendly. At the end of our 3-hour train ride, we cycle to Fangliao. We are back on schedule after losing time from previous days.
As it is a relatively short ride, I cycle in my slippers. We stop at a hotel which has a bicycle on the roof and a mural of cyclists on the wall. The receptionist greets us with bicycle stands in his hand. A platter of fruits is served with free flow of coffee. There's a clothes line and ample hangers, a washing machine, washing powder and a dryer. Apart from the communal toilets (and kitchen) this is close to my idea of a cyclist dream hotel.
Nightstop: Tieji Rest Stop
Ride like the wind
We meander through country lanes, exploring. At Maobitou, I see a nuclear power plant and a wind farm - all for the first time. A signboard comfortingly announces we are within the 5 km radius and tells us where to flee if things go up in radioactive smoke.
It is now hot, as if we're in a different country: 24 degrees Celsius. As I pedal up rolling hills, I feel power loss. Then it hits me in the head: I'm up against headwinds.
We meet a hotel tout as we enter Kenting. Our scouts like the place, so we're in. Some of us choose to cycle to the southernmost point of Taiwan, but bicycles aren't welcome there. So close and yet so far. It is gets dark. I ride like the wind to get back to the hotel to shower, to avoid the congestion when the people-toilet ratio is 4:1. I nearly didn't make it back in one piece; a driver presents me with a "door gift" as I speed downhill. I see door. I yell. I brake. Rear wheel skids. He's startled and pulls the door shut. Whew. HItting the edge of the door at that speed would've closed the door on my adventure.
For dinner, we "walk the streets", savouring the "little eats" of Taiwan.
Nightstop: Kenting Hotel
Blown off course
There is a strong cross wind that pushes me as much as 1 m sideways. Buffeted by the wind, I lean into it one moment to stay on course, then course correct the next moment. As I go round bends on the winding road, It's hard to tell if it's a headwind, cross-wind or tailwind. I just know it is a strong wind: going downhills clocks me a paltry 15 km/h.
Our "lunch" at noon is a roadside provision shop that sells cup noodles. The next stop for a decent meal is an hour away - by car.
The weather changes in minutes. When the wind stops blowing and the sun shines, it is hot. When winds blow and clouds blanket the sky, it is cold. The wind gets stronger. On a flat road, I go at barely 8 km/h. The wind conspires with the foaming, crashing sea to get me wet as I round a corner. I struggle with the handlebars but am unable to turn the corner. Emergency brake to avoid a watery downhill ride.
Those of us ahead stop at a police station to wait for the rest. A non-uniformed person who sounds authoritative tells us there is food if we go right, but "no entry" if we turn left ("road" is passable for pedestrians, but dangerous). I turn right to scout. In a village, I see only one place to eat, in a converted container. Bike leader is surprised: "How did you find this place?" The eight of us use up practically all the stools available. I'm glad to get out of the wind. Now I know why this place is called "Breezy Peninsula".
This one-street village is so remote, there's no 7-Eleven. There are 2-3 places to spend the night; we're in the cheapest - and the most basic of the entire ride. There are two showers, but only one can be used at any one time (water heater can't take the heat). The room doors have no keys. "At least there are doors," I proclaim cheerfully. "Where's the TV remote control?" asks a room mate. Another replies: "Use a stick."
Back at the hotel, there's a song some of us hum, with percussion. I add the words and we have a revue - a thumping, rhyming cycling song.
Nightstop: Meixin Homestay
Rhythm and blues
|At an aborigine village|
At a junction, we wait for the rest to catch up (usually, someone waits at the junction for the last man, so no one makes a wrong turn). Three of the guys turn street signs into percussion instruments. There's a drum, cymbals and a gong.
We stop by a police station to sort out a problem - tyre deflation. Giant, the bicycle company, has set up "Bike Stage" in these stations, equipped with a good quality bicycle floor pump and tools. Merida sponsors similar items in some 7-Elevens. These convenience stores come with wifi and toilets, and some have power sockets for users to recharge items.
On a good tarred road, I hear my knobby tyres sing. At slow speed, they purr; at high speed, they whir with delight. On the narrow mountain road, a car comes round the bend the same time I do. I startle, wobble then recover.
At the aptly named Fenggang (Wind Harbour), wind pushes me towards the traffic side. I cycle, practically leaning into the wind. When the wind suddenly dies down, I end up over-correcting. Occasionally, the wind pushes me towards the kerb. In Dapeng, I see a kid with his IV drip on a stand out in the streets. My biggest problem so far is a damaged LCD camera screen.
Our hotel has no washing machine but has wash basins, washing powder and a spin dryer. We lock our bicycles in an open garage for passers-by to see. But nothing is touched before the shutters come down at 11 pm. Still, I'm glad I don't have a titanium bicycle - how would I sleep in peace?
Nightstop: Huan Ann Hotel
Liuqiu Island is a small beautiful island, with sun, sea, sand and coral thrust above sea level in interesting shapes. This little island has more climbs than the little red dot I hail from; as we leave the harbour, the climb starts.
At the roadside on the bigger island of Taiwan, I see a lady with a kid back out her scooter as traffic rushes past from behind her. "Car coming, car coming, car coming," I exclaim, each warning more high pitched than the last. A black car approaches and swerves away. Not a honk. The lady smiles and thanks me, then scoots off. Not once did she look behind her. It's taken for granted, with good reason, that people give way and are gracious in Taiwan. When we ask where we can find certain food, a passer-by tells us "follow me" and she leads us. A cyclist and a family stops to talk to us. We hit one bike joint after another: Specialized, Merida and hit the mother lode at Giant.
We cycle at night to our hotel, along a motorbike lane where scooters stream past constantly. I don't know how our bike leader does it; he confidently and unerringly leads us to the hotel, where we congratulate each other. We've come full circle: gone up the mountain, down to the sea and back to flatland.
Nightstop: Golf Hotel
I buy a bottle cage for my 1-litre Sigg bottle (which I didn't bring along) but later find out it doesn't fit. I return to the shop, explain the situation and am cheerily offered a refund without even asking for it. We go to Hanshin department store which has a splendid Giant section, then to more bicycle shops. At the smallest, the owner is so happy to see us when he hears where we're from, he leaves us strangers alone his shop, then reappears with t-shirts (designed by his daughter) for each of us. And that's before we even buy anything from him.
Day 15: Kaohsiung to Singapore, non-cycling day. I'm relieved to take a break from the 6-7-8 routine. During breakfast, I read Taipei Times Sunday paper, then go for a walk, avoiding dog poo. There are many dogs in Taiwan, some chained (they lunge so hard, the chain jerks their entire body back) and some unchained (though they should be as some of them chase cyclists too).
I drop by a Kuomingtang political rally, then reflect. After a ride like this, where I climb mountains, ride through and above the clouds and then along a Pacific Ocean coast, how will I cycle at home with its "my car is bigger than your bicycle", "you don't pay road tax and I don't care if you pay income and goods and services tax" drivers, and a urban landscape strewn with traffic lights?
I go to the airport prayer room to thank God that despite the coldest I've been (5 degrees Celsius, with rain plus wind chill) I didn't fall sick. Two failed lights, a damaged camera and buffeted by the wind but not a scratch on me. I lose an old t-shirt and get two new ones in return.
As the aircraft taxis for take off, the ground crew line up at the side, wave goodbye and bow. When the aircraft is airborne, I take one more look at the beautiful country with its beautiful people.
People I meet
1. Former teacher who runs an art school (20 years) and a bed-and-breakfast (10 years). He agrees that in Taiwan, people mostly want to be their own boss. He spends part of the morning showing us around the country-side and even a quick tour of an elementary school, where the principal readily agrees to us cycling around his school compound.
2. Hawker staff owner who has a US Green Card and grew up in Los Angeles. He says he was with a factory there but returned to Taiwan because his drinking buddies and family are here.
3. Owner of cyclist hotel, Mr Lui, who says I look like a journalist. There, I meet Jerry, a solo cyclist going around Taiwan (over 1,000 km). I ask him why Taiwanese are such a warm people. He says Taiwanese are open to foreign influences, giving its history with Europeans, Japanese and later the Kuomintang. It isn't till he talks about how Taiwanese like to make money that I hear a plausible explanation. There are five determinants of ability to make money, including fate, fengshui, education and doing good deeds. Good deeds isn't confined to work for charities; it includes moving a rock from a road so no one will trip over it. Taiwanese are kind in word and deed. But when they do it, it isn't in a mercenary, "I make money" kind of way. At a shop, a waitress asks: "Are those your friends outside? Ask them in, it's ok." There's no obligation to order anything and it's ok even if they munch on snacks brought from elsewhere.
4. Volunteers from Taipei, who usually serve a three-week stint in Shih Hai to teach and play with aborigine kids. One of the volunteers has already spent two months. The other volunteer passed me the cafe menu and offered to take my order, as if she was the waitress.
5. Fellow diner in Shih Hai container cafe, who had travelled to the area, liked it so much and chose to work here. He says there are Taiwanese who walk around Taiwan - over 1,000 km of it. I ask how long that takes, he says it depends how fast they walk. They have to quit their jobs to do this. I ask if it's easy for them to rejoin the workforce after that lengthy absence, if job interviewers will ask about being bored easily and needing adventure. He replies: "The world is such a mess, who cares about these things, it's a once in a lifetime experience." Before we leave, he writes down the sights we should see in the area.
At first, I am in two minds whether to go for the trip. It's not about trading familiar creature comforts for the unknown. There are different kinds of unknowns (Donald Rumsfeld). Preparation, even over-preparation, can give a sense of comfort and confidence.
Packing and equipment checking take time. Is my equipment able to do the job? I deflate my front tyre, squeeze it and see the tyre belt. I check the spare and find a tear. On Christmas eve, the eve of the trip, I have little choice. There are no semi slicks so I tour on knobbies, which works out well indeed. No punctures, though I do check tyres whenever they roll over broken glass.
Murphy's Law. Things will go wrong, but what exactly will go wrong? I test my blinker at home and it works fine, but fails from the start upon arrival.
How good is the packing? Was anything left behind or dropped off? That happens to someone's headset - a wedge dropped off, good thing it remained in the box. There's some damage to my box, no thanks to the baggage baboons. I make make-shift repairs with tape from the hotel receptionist. A rag-and-bone lady almost makes off with another cyclist's bicycle box; good thing the former was polite enough to ask first as we unpack our babies.
Cycling - and rooming as a group means being in close proximity all day. Who snores? That's where ear plugs (and eye shade) come in handy. One night, all eight of us sleep in a room and those without ear protection "enjoy" the night "choir".
Tropical Malaysia may seem more humid, but clothes become (as a room mate put it) "crispy" dry after a night in air-conditioning. But handwashed clothes don't dry overnight in Taiwan - and seem to get wetter in mountain air.
The diurnal temperature range is wide. In the morning, I stand in the sun to warm up and in the afternoon I stand in the shade to cool off. Going uphill I sweat and downhill I chill. I also never knew what it's like to be buffeted by wind and pierced by cold.
Taiwan grows tea by the mountain but there's no free flow of tea at diners, not even poor quality floor sweepings. Whereas, free tea is available in Cambodia and Laos.
PS: Elton John sings that sorry seems to be the hardest word. Perhaps goodbye is harder?
PPS: Thank you for reading the end of this post. In appreciation, here are some bicycle touring tips for you :)