Archive for the ‘MTB Touring Taiwan 2012’ Category

Friday March 9, 2012

Maybe I should just say a word of thanks for the blue sky and blue ocean days we had in the previous days. All 22 of us should. 23 including the driver. Having rain in the mountains would be more depressing than in the big city where many Plan B’s can be activated. These other plans encompass what tourists do when there’s no cycling to be done, the twin horrors of eating and shopping. While one’s gotta eat, in Taiwan eating is a national pastime and boy did we partake.
I for one am not against shopping, but back home I absolutely abhor it. Maybe because it’s a time waster and maybe because I’d go into a store looking for what I want and get it instantly. Shopping for stuff that I haven’t seen on the screen or in the newspapers isn’t shopping, it’s searching for stuff that might exist in a particular shop but probably doesn’t, so that will involve more walking. But here in Taiwan as a tourist and with my lovely wife by my side, I guess one has to be less anal about one’s once highly held principles and just go with the flow of things.
I even bought 2 bike magazines, something I’ve not done in years, and I swear the bikini clad cyclists on the cover did not influence me one bit.Taiwan does still make about 5 million bikes per year down from 10 million in the past, but the good thing is that Taiwanese are discovering bike touring in their own homeland and some of those 5 million bikes are being used in their country of birth. This accounts for a good number of bike shops in town, and in those shops I will out shop my wife, tremendously.
P1280452

the Taipei 101 building in another weather zone

P1280394

the ‘Golden Riverside’ bike paths with nary a bicycle on it

P1280348

the wet weather is making me crabby

P1280197

We visit Jioufen, a former gold mining town in the hills. It’s touristy, it’s crowded, it’s wet and cold but it has a 7-11. What I would give to ride up that hill in drier weather

Jioufen was a sleepy fishing village until the early 1900′s when gold was discovered in its hills. It reached its peak of mining activity during the Japanese occupation around the time of WWII and actually had captured Allied soldiers working its mines.

Influenced by the Japanese, many tea houses and inns sprang up and flourished in the town until the closure of the mines in the early 70′s.

Jioufen received a new wave of attention after a few popular movies were filmed there in the early 1990′s. The tea houses were then restored and tourism has reinvigorated the local economy with hundreds of tourist shops, handicrafts, and artists’ studios. A number of pricey guest houses dot the ‘village’ for those into sunrises and sunsets, and maybe a bike ride into the hills.

P1280201

You will never go hungry in the back streets of Jioufen or for that matter, most of Taiwan

P1280220

She’s shaving a block of hardened palm sugar and peanuts. It’s generously sprinkled into a spring roll topped with 2 scoops of vanilla ice cream. The queue was long…

P1280237

‘Without 5 Chinese grams of gold, don’t think about marriage’ …… Sage advice

P1280258

Rain soaked suburbs of Jioufen

P1280323

At the Orbea concept shop

With the wet weather and heavy traffic, our side trip extended into the night where we drowned our sorrows in some big bike shops and more eating. I had spoken with that cyclist in the yellow rain jacket as he was scoffing his 3rd bowl of noodles in Jioufen. What do you know, hours later, in Taipei he’s browsing in a bike shop. He said the ride up and down the hills was horrific, fogged out and wet, but as a tourist from Hong Kong, he made the most of it and was glad to be back in town without any mishap.

He wasn’t in a hurry to look for a place to stay yet. I like his priorities.

P1280398

they’re still around but this time in 3 D

P1280430

a shoe shop with more than shoes

P1280453

and from Korea, vertical dumb bells are the rage

P1280607

Danshui’s ‘old streets’ are the real deal if like me, one is averse to multi floored malls

It seems that staying 3 nights in Danshui proved to be a stellar choice. A nice riverside setting, in a quieter northern suburb of Taipei that was easily accessible by train to everywhere else. Like Jioufen, the older parts of Tamshui have been gentrified into closed streets on the weekend, where even local Taiwanese find it an attraction to be here. Then there are the bike paths on both banks of the river, which some brave souls decided to ride in the rain. These extend into the hills too, but given the slippery conditions and bleak skies, I decided to pass. Nothing could compare with the almost perfect weather just days ago. That and the Green Power Cycle Shop.

P1280684
 The Green Power Cycle shop in Tanshui, by the riverside, it’s only security guard out for a stroll. It has since closed down, (in 2014) partly due to the city’s bike share scheme…..sobs…
P1280715
15 customers, 1 sales ‘kid/mechanic’

While casually walking back to our hotel from the subway station, we (me and wifey only) noticed a bike rental place among a row of drab shop houses. Everything looked drab and cold in this perpetual drizzle. I guess 10 deg C would look much better in bright sunshine but alas, that’s meant for another time.

A cursory glance indoors revealed, hmm, take a wild guess, not too many bicycles and lots of accessories. I seriously don’t need another bike, but looking through the small stuff revealed 2 price tags each. Aha, sale ! and a pretty good one. 30 to 50 to 70 % off on some tags.

I had to do a double, double take on the Ortliebs, down from NT$4100 to just NT$1100. US$35.00 for my new Classic Handlebar bag, amongst other stuff. The large back rollers were priced at an incredible NT$2200 or US$75.00. Thinking that these were fakes from China, I checked the accompanying hardware, the much maligned wire attachment system, printouts and small catalogue. They were too real to be copies.

After the news spread that very night, everyone’s last day plans changed and guess where they went bright and early the next morning?

P1280726

 Luckily for him some others are in the Giant shop 2 minutes away

P1280748

Yes it’s big enough for your precious bike too

P1280751

You’ve been warned

P1280768

Time to check out and I see 3 brand new boxes here

P1280653

encouraging

P1280796

The rain lets up during our final 6 hours in Taipei

It’s time too wrap up this journal, with apologies for the long delay. I guess the hallmark of a good trip is when 6 people gather for lunch at 11.30 am and finish off at 4 pm just talking about it and the gathering was supposed to be about the next trip. While there’s some doubt as to who reached the Wuling summit first, maybe just maybe we might add some wives to the discussion, so as to diffuse any male egos claiming to be the first!

Would I do anything differently the next time round ? That’s a question that cannot be answered, mostly because as I am a Taiwan virgin / newbie, all the planning was done by selfless Goerge and his wife plus a handful of others. It would be much better to spend more nights in the mountains, that’s for sure.

Now that we’ve gone up that high road and massive downhill credit card style, what else is there to top that ? Doing it with luggage ? That will hurt. Going the reverse way ? That will hurt big time.

Rumour has it that we’ll head south to the beaches and face the headwinds, languish in their delectable seafood, fruit orchards and hospitality of the southerners.

Thank you friends and fellow cyclists. Thank you Taiwan, it was a very nice mishap free ‘deflowering’ for me and Coleen.

“JIA YOU !!!” X 1000 !

P1280829

There’s always another time……….like next year !

Thursday March 8, 2012

The Taipei bike show is something else. For one, there are no motorcycles and two, it’s a show. We got in on the 2nd day reserved for trade visitors. Trade visitors trade, make contacts, exchange name cards and order in bulk. Then they go out to dinner and drinks and make more deals.

We are tourists. How we got in as trade visitors is another story. If you turn up with wads of cash, most things are not for sale, but for show. Of course I was aware of that fact, and also that if you’re there on the last and closing day, you may be able to buy something, and score some good deals, as not all exhibitors will want to cart back to whatever they’ve brought back home.

Having seen some mega bike shops in town, I knew there were better deals and finds to be had in those places.

My dilemma for now, was not that we were on a spending spree of what we’ve not seen, but after 3 to 4 hours of trolling the booths and halls, you wonder if a better time can be had elsewhere, outside of the show. The short answer to that question, is yes. However if you like to see, hear, smell and touch, the latest in bicycledom, 2 days on the exhibition floors should do it. Just be sure to satiate youself and have good walking shoes, and not think too much on seeing the sights of Taipei. It got quite mind numbing for me just to take 300 photos of all things related to two wheeled pedalling.

While we were blessed with perfect summertime weather during the cycling days, the final 72 hours in Taipei were wet and miserable, so being indoors was OK, but there’s always hope of semi dry roads for us to put in some distances, even though they were just riverside bike paths. That wish turned out to be, Fat Hope.

P1280467 P1280475 P1280476 P1280513P1280481P1280482P1280487P1280494P1280495P1280505P1280511P1280533P1280561P1280563P1280566P1280568P1280569P1280583

Wednesday March 7, 2012, 40 km (25 miles) – Total so far: 208 km (129 miles)

P1270845

That’s a weird tandem, but this nice mural keeps prying eyes off the military air base behind it

I think we are in for another treat today. Looking at our print outs, it’s 90 kms to the outskirts of Taipei. Looking at our progress and reality on the road, one half of that will do, seeking consolation in the fact that the 2nd half of the ride would not be much fun, ie inland, more traffic, inclement weather. So much for well made plans, hopes and dreams.

There’s always Plan B and that turned out to be interesting, a cold mineral water spring and bath in the town of Suao. And I haven’t ridden tne mothership bus yet, not while there’s cycling to do. There are 5 smug fellows in that exclusive club and maybe 2 ladies who almost qualify if not for sheep appreciation moments.

P1270893

Things get goofy when a crimson sunrise does not materialise….

P1270896

the Pacific Ocean, it’s Bob’s favourite

If you check out the website of the Bayview, there’s a link to a roof top web cam showing a live feed of the weather. Most times there’s a stark contrast to the blue sky and sea panoramas on the website itself. Maybe it’s a hint to stay another day, on another trip with another bike.

parafoilhualien_copy

* Getting my kite fix before the man arrived, 2 of them

You can sense the trip is winding down when I have to seek entertainment from a parafoil in the early hours of a gloomy morning. The winds are high and temperatures low as it flutters 200 m into the air above our hotel. Not more than 10 minutes of cheap thrills before I see 2 figures in orange overalls making a bee line for me.

Drats is there an asylum nearby? Nope , it was the marine police, coast guard or some other authority who rather nicely told me that there was an airport nearby and to bring down what looked like a giant flying sperm. I thanked them for their niceties. I too wouldn’t want to get my nice toy all incinerated in the engine of an F 18. Game over, but due to the strength of the winds, it was going to take some time, a long time as I hid behind a wooden shelter, out of sight.

P1270930

Mediterranean inspired dining room at the Bayview Hotel

P1270940

Ravages of sun, salt, rain and time…….

P1270955

Our morning ritual

P1270967

“There’s going to be more tunnels, only this time with much more traffic on the Suhua coastal highway”

Today, being the 5h day of cycling, I think even the newbies/irregular as opposed to regular cyclists found the going easy. Muscles are conditioned, everyone’s used to the routine of wake up, pack up, load up and go. That and hundreds of photographs, each. And the day had to end too soon, for reasons stated above. We made it to Xincheng town in double quick time. That’s the entrance to the gorge. A single stop at 7-11 went by pretty quick too. Once across the Liwu river an all too familiar sight greeted us, a single line cut into towering cliffs that meant only one thing, lowering of gears and huffing and puffing uphill. Oh that’s two things.

We were getting our money’s worth as it’s also better heading north, cycling on the right with the Pacific just a cliff side drop away. Too bad for the two blonds we saw cycling on the other side. Why didn’t they stop ? You can’t take the fear of falling rocks too seriously. That happens only in rainy weather. Look at the bluest of blue skies.

TW5_ECP_copy

* Somebody, or their water bottle is leaking big time

HualienPath

* On the line of least rolling resistance

HUalien

* Making up for lost suspension

P1270991

Look familiar ?

P1280015

A last look at the coastal entrance to Taroko. We’ve just crossed the bridge across the Liwu and are heading up the road for more cliff side cycling, north to Taipei

ChenWarning

Single file only cycling in the tunnels please

P1280032

Now you know where I get my info from………

P1280035

They are spectacular

P1280055

Shoulders are non existent and photos must be quick

P1280058

The weather is gorgeous, again and again

end_of_ride

* I’m just hiding in the shade and others have to surmise that I am grief stricken at the end of 40 kms

P1280081

Well this was inevitable as I felt a tear coming on…..

Today, being the 5h day of cycling, I think even the newbies/irregular as opposed to regular cyclists found the going easy. Muscles are conditioned, everyone’s used to the routine of wake up, pack up, load up and go. That and hundreds of photographs, each. And the day had to end too soon, for reasons stated above. We made it to Xincheng town in double quick time. That’s the entrance to the gorge. A single stop at 7-11 went by pretty quick too. Once across the Liwu river an all too familiar sight greeted us, a single line cut into towering cliffs that meant only one thing, lowering of gears and huffing and puffing uphill. Oh that’s two things.

We were getting our money’s worth as it’s also better heading north, cycling on the right with the Pacific just a cliff side drop away. Too bad for the two blonds we saw cycling on the other side. Why didn’t they stop ? You can’t take the fear of falling rocks too seriously. That happens only in rainy weather. Look at the bluest of blue skies.

P1280089

Japanese inspired bento cuisine at a highway rest stop

P1280118

the cold springs at Suao

P1280131

It was a brief goodbye to our second in command, Ying Chang, (in sandals) off to his sister’s place in Taipei. Till we meet again.

P1280132

No bikes allowed in the rooms at this place in Taipei. Would a messy lobby be better ? We’re good at that you know

We got into Taipei pretty late in to the night, held up by slow moving traffic during rush hour on a weekday night. For those like me who are out on a bike even in peak hours, it must be the ability to move and not stand still, that makes this entry into Taipei with a growling stomach, all that more excruciating. Plus we were headed to Thamshui, Tamsui or Danshuei in New Taipei City, a northern suburb by a river with those 3 names (pick one) meaning more cross town traffic to negotiate.

Scenic bike paths abound on both sides of the river, we were told. Somehow I felt that the best part of the trip cycling wise was over, when it rained from 9 in the night to 9 in the morning the next day…..

P1280140

Yeah, this biking vacation is getting tougher by the day,http://www.happy800.com.tw/about_us.php

The ‘Double Content’ ads drew us in. Anything for more food

Tuesday March 6, 2012, 102 km (63 miles) – Total so far: 168 km (104 miles)

Elevation lost : 3150 m

Last night’s sleep was fitful and segmented. Waking up every hour on the hour like Big Ben in London. A small symptom of altitude sickness, I hear. Well, that beats having headaches while cycling up a mountain. Apparently I was not alone on this as some others were tossing and turning too. One of the girl’s solution was to get up and make a bowl of cup noodles at 4 am. Bowl and cup are at odds with each other here, but you get the picture.

I had left both the double glazed windows to our room slightly ajar and the chilly wind was a nice complement to our rooms heater set at 25 deg C. Those felt like blasts of oven air. The bikes slept out on the balcony, water bottles filled to see if they would freeze, just for the novelty of it.

During one of the intermissions in my so called sleep, I got outside to see how cold it was. In the highest point of this trip I am dressed in a Maui T shirt and board shorts.

This Song Syue Lodge is something else. It belongs to the Forestry Department. It’s one of 2 lodges sanctioned by the government to operate this high up in Taiwan. It’s luxurious and flashy for a government run place. It’s apparently hard to make and confirm reservations, and is most likely almost full at other times, to a 100% full in the high season. Throughout yesterday, George kept calling them informing of our progress and definite arrival in the evening. The nice ladies at reception kept their word, photocopied my passport as George added a cool NT$30,000 on his Mastercard for our 10 rooms.

We were told that there would be no staff on the premises after 8 pm and before 7 am. There were emergency numbers to call only if someone is seriously ill. All others may go to a designated room on each of the 3 floors where an oxygen tank is kept.

P1270601

“What time is it ? What time …… is it ?”
Take a wild guess dear !

P1270613

Breakfast was uppity and civilised. I’m talking tablecloths and napkins at 3150 m

P1270630

A different warning today, “If you have to fly over the rails into a 1000 m gorge, please do not take me with you”

P1270638

The Song Syue Lodge is built on a slope in a highly earthquake prone country

P1270636

The trick question for today is, “How do you cover 100 kms by pedaling only about 30 kms of it?”

P1270645

After 5 kms of the steepest descents, we are entertained with water hissing off some of the disc brakes and a flat from a blown tube on a Bike Friday tikit

P1270652

A crash barrier protected by old tyres, protected by yellow paint, protected by my bike

P1270672

French words, with a hint of locomotives and Vietnam adorn a plaque on a bridge in Taiwan. Go figure

P1270680

One of the shorter and brighter tunnels

The terrain in these mountains are very steep and if not for tunneling, a cross island highway would not have been possible. The size of some tunnels are just big enough for a 20 seater bus orl truck to pass through with just enough gaps for light I suppose. Bicycles are fine, but everyone must share the road no matter how miniscule that road is. What a nice thought.

Coleen and I had just cleared this small tunnel when seconds later a truck and trailer barreled it’s way through. What is it with big truck drivers? This one was positively accelerating. I thought to myself and hoped those behind us were still playing with their cameras long enough to see the behemoth exit the tunnel on their side. Most of us are lighted up like a Christmas tree with two lights each front and back but are still no match for any vehicle taking up every inch of road in a dark tunnel.

P1270681

Mr Director of HD Videography

P1270691

Highway 14 morphs into highway 8 after the Dayuling T junction/Pass at 2565 m. There are some small shops here. We’ve dropped 700 m/2300ft in 8 kms/5 miles and there’s more to come !

Lodgings close to Dayuling. Most cyclists seem to overnight here if going in the opposite direction, uphill

P1270708

It was not all downhill, there’s a 4 km flat-ish climb with stupendous views in front………

P1270712

…..and back…..

It actually makes sense to go slow on a down hill, so as to savour the unbearable lightness of not pedaling and take in the views. Given that the pull of gravity and temptation to speed is ever present, it’s also good to remind oneself that the nearest and best hospital is quite a ways away.

And then there’s pain, more than a grim reminder of past exploits and not always a good friend, though George has a Nike T that reads SWEAT IS JUST PAIN LEAVING THE BODY

Ah what the heck, who am I kidding, let’s beat that last recorded number 59.9 kmp/h. Well that didn’t happen as we’ve passed the steepest sections before Dayuling. 30 to 40 into a blind corner will have to do.

TW4_TW_handlebar

* one of the vogue’ bikes at speed

P1270713

It’s so far down, you can’t see the bottom

P1270729

A long coffee stop, at Pilu, (Bilu) 2150 m, now we can afford the time

P1270749

Then it’s off to more cornering and braking and cornering

P1270767

Occasionally we need to look up….

P1270769

………and down again for lunch at Tiensiang, just maybe a thousand feet below

P1270781

It was rough riding in that tunnel, totally cut off during a massive rock fall, courtesy of Typhoon Morakot
in 2009

P1270783

GIOS Blue ! Not one of ours but obviously touring light

P1270784

These are ours after a slight mishap. Owners much too busy ingesting lunch somewhere

P1270795

My first virgin glimpse of gorge-ous Taroko Gorge

Originally a 70 km walking trail from the mountains to the sea, Taroko Gorge winds it’s way up the entire Liwu river basin that flows through it. The trail’s former name literally meant ‘repressing the barbarians’ a reference to Japanese campaign against the native peoples of the gorge, who were here for more than 200 years. The building of this cross island highway started in 1956, but was only passable to traffic on it’s entire length in the mid 1980s.

The 20 kms or so route through the gorge proper before Tiensiang was completed earlier in 1960, but not before 450 workers lost their lives in the process. A temple at the foot of the red pagoda at Tiensiang pays tribute to them.

Parts of the older road that hug the steep cliff walls, or rather are remnants of tunnels that have collapsed leaving overhangs are now designated walking trails. Cycling is possible when not too many pedestrians are around. Many newer and wider two lane tunnels blasted through solid marbled rock now handle heavier traffic of mostly tourist buses.

We had planned to walk part of the trail that’s most scenic for the bus tourist, but upon seeing the numbers of people here from mainland China, some already groping and taking photos of our bikes, an easy decision was made to literally flee the scene. After all we’ve seen greater heights and vistas higher above Taroko, and at this point, we actually need to pedal to have the bikes move. 30 or so kms to a nice bed in Hualien.

P1270813

Invasion of the blue helmets

P1270814

Rock wall in a steel mesh, could be an art installation in itself

P1270817

Didn’t expect this invasion of tour buses on a late Tuesday afternoon. And there are warning signs not to linger too long below those overhanging rocks !

Confronted with heavy traffic was what we least expected after the blissful quiet of whirring hubs and the wind in the trees when we were higher above. Once past Tiensiang, it felt like the CBD of today’s ride. There’s even a grand hotel at the Tiensiang cul de sac, parking lots and much lesser food stalls catering to the masses, like us.

I can’t deny that the Liwu River that has cut through the mountains for eons is spectacular, we were blessed with perfect weather, and had no mishaps to speak off, and though not everyone arrives on a bicycle, the sudden appearance of buses upon buses caught us off guard.

At times it was too narrow even for a bike wheel to get pass a bus, that is if you don’t mind that wheel getting squashed against a rock wall. Apparently there were signs for a staggered one way system up and down the gorge, at different hours which was totally ignored. Road works did not help one bit. Nor did the obnoxious fumes. I can’t imagine this place during the peak seasons.

Finally after straggling and tip toeing our bikes around a line of cars, who could not go any further, we found a break to squeeze through. Like an imprisoned dog that has dug a hole under a fence, we got out and picked up speed through the Tunnel of 9 Turns. What an apt escape through a gauntlet of rock wall on the right and maybe 20 to 30 buses on the other side, with no traffic behind us. You’re on your own, people.

P1270803

Tunneling is fun for us first timers

P1270831

Almost at sea level at the red gate entrance to Taroko

P1270835

We picked up a nice tailwind all the way to Hualien…….

P1270850

…..and had to wait 30 mins for the mothership bus (and luggage) stuck in tourist traffic at the gorge

TW4_garage

* The bikes get to rest like a flock of herded sheep in the basement of the
Bayview Hotel at Chisingtan Beach ? on the outskirts of Hualien

P1270866

After too many sit down dinners, it was nice to walk, eat, walk and eat again

P1270873

An old school Cinelli in old town Hualien

Monday March 5, 2012, 30 km (19 miles) – Total so far: 66 km (41 miles)
Elevation gained : 1575 m or so. It was all a blur after 3000m asl. Ave speed : 6.0 kmp/h
P1270335
 0657 hrs : Cherry blossoms at ‘Vienna Pleasance Cottage’

http://www.vienna.com.tw/en/profile/index.php

The road right out from our lodge was an indication of what was to come today. A 180 degree switchback that climbed in to the shade of pine trees, momentarily hiding it’s gradient. We had walked along it last night to a small mall that had the 4th and 5th 7-11s and a Starbucks outlet next to it. Two 7-11s within 5 minutes walk of each other. Imagine that.

Starbucks wasn’t worth it as their coffees are priced 3 times what the better tasting, gourmet coffee chain City Cafe had at 7-11. And I keep hearing that it’s just an evil corporation on some journals.

Welcome to the wilds of the Taiwanese alps. Regular visitors have long bemoaned the excesses of development here, in Chingjing, followed by the tourist hordes in their motorcades and big buses. And now they have to deal with peletons of cyclists, an estimated 6000 on the last annual ‘Climb to Wuling’

I’ve never understood ‘mass’ cycling events. To me, mess would be more appropriate. Bicycles, cars, support crew, sponsors, vendors, gawkers clogging up an already narrow mountain road ? Maybe it’s just me, I like to suffer alone and not having to dodge others on a crowded road.

To rub salt on to the wound, I’ve seen videos of many a ‘Wuling Challenge’ where the 60 km downhill, yes 60, back to Puli cannot be ridden in parts because of congestion, people, cyclists, bikes and cars moving in both directions. Walking my bike downhill ? That’s against some religions !

Back to mass tourism. I don’t think that the local populace are complaining one bit. The receipts from tourism have led to a lot of prosperity for the people here, cashing in on what was once the original blueprint for this area, a retirement village for war veterans. You see signs for Veteran’s ‘farm, ‘hotel or restaurants’ everywhere.

Today being Monday, we lucked out as we we’re the only cyclists going up and traffic was very minimal. Of course we had to have our one crazy trucker hurtling down a narrow mountain road at us, experience.

Coleen elected not to ride up the steeper first half for today, so did some other wives. It was her strategic move as it’s better to attain cycling glory at the peak, rather than pass out before the peak from overdoing it all day.

Besides in Chingjing or Cingjing, there are sheep, lots of them. Sheep in this part of the world are the luckiest. Those that we passed by seem to be perpetually grazing and smiling for the cameras of the tourists. There’s even a replica castle for them to take shelter in and perform the oldest trick in sheepdom. Letting themselves being shaved silly in front of a crowd like their cousins in New Zealand. It’s safe to assume that their not being bred for food accounts for their longevity here.

I, on the other hand will be testing my longevity in trying to pace myself up 1525 m in 28 kms. It’s quite a scary thought, as unlike yesterday, there will be only one 7-11 to delay us. That’s in 5 kms up when breakfast, as predicted will disappear as fast as it was consumed.

P1270388

0900 hrs : I think the weather will be perfect today

P1270406

0930 hrs : Progress is slow as there are many Taiwan virgins, and views to behold.
So are the wide shoulders on the lower slopes

P1270407

P1270415

P1270429

sheepThe other thing to do when not cycling

P1270437

1032 hrs : True to form we stop at a 7-11, clogging up space, coveting shade and forcing a yellow cab to park in the sun. Even the smokers couldn’t stand us and leftP1270448

TW3_stock_up

* 1042 hrs : Apparently this is the final convenience store for the next desolate 20 kms and everyone has their hands full

7-112050m

I make it to the island’s highest 7-11 in good time, if an hour to cover 5 kms is good. I take comfort in the fact that I might have stopped to take a few dozen photos along that 5 kms. That and most of the crowd were behind me taking more dozens of photos.

This morning’s briefing had just one important condition. We have the whole day to make the 28 kms. About 8 hours till the light fails or bad weather sets in, so pacing one self is critical. 6 kmp/h is just about right. It was the stopping times that were going to get some of us in trouble. Tick tock tick tock.

And in my case, going light and thus incurring impurity points from the purity police, my lone pannier rode in the bus, with the all important, all weather wind and water resistant Marmot jacket. It would be missed after 3000 m. No matter, my body fats did their part valiantly, until the brain decided to get all doomsday like and tell other body parts, that it was 5 deg C.

The haul from this 7-11 was good and done in two stages. First, the fear of running out food. 2 bottles of Pocari Sweat, 1 pack of energy ‘gel’, 3 packs of local beef and pork jerky and a rice roll again pork laced. Now where do I put all these on the bike?

Stage 2 was while waiting for some others who didn’t miss a blink plonking down on rice and beef stews and oden (slow food on a not so slow day)

I joined in the feasting with a pepperoni and cheese pizza and 2 cappuccinos. The views of the mountains from where I sat were stunning. If I never have to cycle again, I will always remember this view, and not so much the scent of microwaved cheese.

At this point I see our timekeeper George, gesturing me to get a move on, which led to my tongue getting slightly scorched by the molten lava like cheese. What’s the rush bro ? You know I’m going to pick up everyone on the road, like I’m picking out the scant scraps of pepperoni in this pizza.

The total damage came up to just NT$250 or US$7.50. That seemed very right, price and ingestion wise. Now back to the grind, slowly meeting up (much nicer than saying overtaking the gluttons) with those who had overestimated themselves and/or over indulged at 7-11.

wulingPuke*I simulate vomiting the 7-11 pizza I had 30 minutes ago.

P12704651108 hrs : My packing of supplies is a bit off the mark today, but look at that view

P12704771159 hrs : Photography is a good excuse for catching your breath at 2309 m

P12704991231 hrs : We go around a 180 degree bend and there are more mountains

Take note of these yellow rails as I did. They sort of signify the start of the ‘highway to heaven’ From here on it’s just wind swept desolation. It was like entering another world of scrawny stunted trees and alpine meadows, that is if the steep slopes allowed any growth and were not ravaged by the last rainy season or typhoons or frequent landslides.

We had just left the relaltive comfort of a very shady hillock, overlooking a hamlet that I cannot remember. Some food stalls and a police station that kindly let us use their toilets, refill our water and had like 7-11 a puncture repair kit and floor pump. Two gates that could cover the width of the road remained opened and will probably close in the event of bad weather or a landslide.

Even the police on patrol in their 4WDs slowed to a stop just to say hello and encourage us on. This ride was getting better by the minute, until we got some wrong info to go back down that Coleen and Celia had started cycling. Down we went for about 1 km to the utter horror of those still climbing. What on earth …….

P1270513

1238 hrs : I think there 10 kms left but it might as well be 100. I’m kidding as I’m loving my progress until GL ahead in blue tells me to turn back and accompany Coleen up. I lose 90 minutes while he got to the summit first. Cunning !

P12705161255 hrs : The Joker from Batman is laughing at us

Something did not feel right when the blue mothership bus passed us by uphill without stopping till it could find a wider spot. The road to heaven isn’t always the same width, one half lane, one lane, or two lanes are dictated by the terrain that does not always give what man wants. Yet it’s still a treacherous 2 way road that accomodates all manner of vehicles that have to jostle for space and rights when they can get it.

Turns out they were still on board and Alvin and I, crawled back uphill to meet it. The girls were fresh as daisies, ready to ride while we tried our level best not to choke on whatever thin air that we inhaled. Time check was exactly 1300 hrs. The 4 of us plodded on at 6 kmp/h for the next 2 hours or so. If I had not brought 2 cameras, that may well increase to a massive 9 kmp/h.

P1270529

1347 hrs : A couple of curves to break the monotony on the highway to heaven
P12705361358 hrs : Burst water pipes make for a convenient but icy shower
IMG_0028

Unknown to us still on the road between 4 and 5 pm, a sudden change in the weather below us had our leaders panicking and ordering everyone that the bus could pick up, to get on board. No protests, (there were some I heard) as a storm at this altitude was going to be too much a risk to take. The dark clouds and howling wind did eventually catch up with us, and I took the chance to video some of it.

Then as quickly as it came, it died down, the skies cleared up, the sun came out again to lead us up the final km or so. Brilliant !

My ‘business’ with Wuling pass was over and finished.

Some of those in the bus are actually planning a return trip, after the phrase ‘unfinished business’ was coined, and widely used in the next few days, rubbing salt into the wound, referring to the final 2 kms that was not cycled.

Ah well, Coleen and I don’t have that malady. We were even having too much of a good time to let altitude sickness descend upon us. Thankfully those amongst us who had breathlessness and headaches suffered very mild symptoms only.

IMG_0047

1647 hrs : The mothership bus in blue passes us, 500 m from the summit

3275m*Happiness and relief written all over on reaching the island’s highest road marker

The ride wasn’t really over yet. We really had to hustle with the celebrations and photo taking, another change in the weather again from sunny to downright cold at 5 deg C plus wind chill. Ying Chang who had powered his way up had a whole hour of sunshine and freezing winds, waiting for the bus to appear.

There’s a hiking trail up to 3416 m to the very summit of the mountain and a road another 1 km down hill to the forestry department’s lodge at 3150 m, where we were staying. Our choice was obvious, the coldest 1000 metres of freewheeling ever !

There were ‘No Bicycles’ signs on the double glazed glass doors of the plush lobby. Right.

What a day it’s been.

IMG_00541752 hrs : We’re going down this, right to the Pacific Ocean, tomorrow

IMG_0064Our dinner and lodgings were quite decadent !

IMG_00701948 hrs : Post dinner walk was all of 10 minutes in these temps

IMG_6178.JPG

*Thanks but no thanks !

Today’s ride from a more challenging perspective.

Sunday March 4, 2012, 36 km (22 miles) – Total so far: 36 km (22 miles)

Elevation gained : 1350 mI woke up fresher than fresh this morning wondering where I was. This always happens at the start of a trip, some lost seconds before the eyes and the brain get back into sync. A faint glimmer of pink light cast upon the very whitewashed walls of our Room 707, indicated that sunrise was about to happen. I dragged myself out from under the covers, and grabbed both cameras to the usual whimperish refrain of, “What time is it? What time……. is it?” eminating from under a pile of white sheets.

Now there is a list of answers to that usual question, the longest being,

Me : “I am going to get you one of those backlighted Casios or Timexes that will forever quell your curiousity as to the time” No? Wrong answer.

Her : “Those watches are too chunky”.

Me “Where’s your watch?” This still doesn’t work, as it’s too dainty and lost on the desk, out numbered by bottles upon bottles of creams and toiletries.

“Moooorning” still works. Especially effective when communicated directly into an ear inches away.

“Time to get up” a little sacarstic.

For today, it’s “Red sunrise, God’s creation”

Sometimes, all she wants to hear is, “Early, you have lots of time…….and you’re on vacation….”

I hear a soft whimper, ‘How much time?” as I gently close the door on my way out….

For utter panic, I usually add an hour or two to the present time, in this case 6.06 am.

PuliSunrise

As per my usual routine, I try to get onto the roof of our hotel, any hotel for the highest unobstructed views. Up the 8th floor staircase, dodging drying bedsheets and up a fire escape ladder. The town of Puli seemed larger than last night.

Densely packed apartment blocks and low rise shophouses ringed by mountains all around. Surprisingly there were lots of bird song, magnified by a quietness that can only be due this being Sunday. 30 minutes of solitude and chilled air before I go down to check on madame’s progress.

With an hour to go before checking out, I added another 6 kms to today’s total, wandering the back streets of Puli, and chancing upon a huge brewery the town’s famous for, apart from the fact that closeby, a park and stone marker indicates this to be the geographical center of Taiwan.

For cyclists on the island, Puli is also the usual start for mass rides and races that end up 55 kms later near the peak of Hehuanshan and it’s National Park, an ascent of 3275 m from sea level or discounting Puli’s height of 400 m, 2875 m. We will taking it much easier in 2 stages and with a nice blue bus to carry our gear. It is after all, our virgin trip up Highway 14.

P1270091

PuliBriefing

puliBF

outofPuli2

puliTrees

In the previous months building up to March the 3rd, many of us tried to keep up some sort of training regime for these mountains. With other commitments, this was easier said than done. The longest constant climb in Singapore was a puny 300 m (length not elevation!) up ‘Mount’ Faber’s 100 m summit. I was tying to imagine those 300 m multiplied a hundred times but gave up. It was just putting in more distances on our flatter than flat roads that mattered.

So here we are finally in Taiwan, where among 17 other like minded people, in much, much cooler weather, throwing caution to the wind, I was pleasantly surprised that the climbs didn’t seem that bad at all. Though I was in the middle ring all day, my ancient Syncros 34 T seemed sufficient except for a couple of switch backs. Tomorrow would be a different story altogether, and deep inside I knew that, well pacing oneself meant calling upon the granny gear, sooner or later.

Coleen was doing very well too, with the usual warning for me not to ‘encourage’ her to pick up the pace, but let her ride at her own pace, what ever that may be to any others. (actually just me) Quite a few were struggling already, having not heeded prior advice to NOT buy new untested bikes, no matter how vogue (the bikes) they may be !

We ended the day with average speeds of 10.5 kmp/h and 9.5 kmp/h respectively, much of which was inspired by the stunning scenery around us.

Puli7-11

P1270208

P1270217

P1270228

ColeenSlopes

betelNutGirl

P1270251

P1270254

We were surprised to meet Ying Chang at this 7-11 wondering where he showed up from. The timing couldn’t be better. With his parents in Taiwan, his holidays coincided with our ride and he decided to join us ‘somewhere’ up the mountain. He had also rode right up to the peak last year and was thus our only ‘eyes’ who has done this before.

More amazingly, he took the bullet train from Taipei at dawn, started at 9 am from Taichung, city, adding another 40 kms to today’s 30 kms of climbing, on a Dahon Smoothhound with just 2 chainrings. It was a real delight to have such a selfless ride companion, shepherding those behind, whilst racing up to the front whenever necessary, and learn much more about his homeland from a cyclist’s perspective.

P1270267

P1270240

socksVienna

P1270280

Most of us reached our lodge, a very cosy but weirdly named Vienna Pleasance Cottage after 7 hours on the road. Though really far from Austria, B & B’s and hotels here try to emulate those in Europe, many in name and facades, replica log cabins and German castles looking out of place with much humbler farmers’ dwellings. One of them had a couple of BMW 740ii’s to complete the look.

I found out that most have dodgy operating licences, those on crowded and steep hill sides at least. I also credit the 7 hours on the road to the many 7-11s along the way. The final one for regrouping took almost an hour. Lots of time for 2 cappuccinos and perusing the shelves. When Ying Chang showed up, so did some celebratory cans of beer !

Like Thailand, they are oases of food and drink (well more drink) spick and span restrooms and shade under huge umbrellas for those pedaling up mountains. We developed some affinity with the scooter crowd, the big engined motorcycle crowd and even the roadies with roof racks crowd, locals who do the climb but drive downhill back home. I fleetingly formed another opinion on road cyclists as there was an especially sweet local lass riding a pink Independent Fabrication road bike. They’re not the snobs they’ve been made out to be.

And I haven’t even started on what the 7-11s contain.

In Taiwan at least there’s Oden, a Japanese influenced winter’s hot pot dish made up of many snack bite tit bits that you can take away. You need to as they’re boiling hot and need time to cool. And true to the chain store’s support of cyclists, there’s a NT$29 or just US$1.00 orange flavoured energy drink that comes in a bike bottle.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oden

Most 7-11s also have a free to use floor pump (unlocked) outside the store, if you ever need air and puncture repair kits from the cashiers. To top it all there are courier services where it’s possible to send your luggage, to any other 7-11 closest your destination thus eliminating the need for carrying panniers even.

While that will be at odds with maintaining the purity of a bike tour, and incurring the wrath of those into purity, 4 fully loaded panniers and all, let me add that at times I had one small 12 year old Ortieib (the preferred brand on this website) on my puny front rack.

I may be impure, but on this mountain climb, I will be light.

Saturday March 3, 2012

Taiwan had been off my travel radar for decades. It would take a lot of nudging even to even consider landing there, say when crossing the Pacific, which was an even rarer occurence. But my how times and things have changed. In a pinch, how does one resist a meticulously planned 5 day ride up and across the island’s highest road topping out at 3275 m? Followed by an almost 90 kms of downhilling right to sea level, the next day? Resistance was futile. Even my better half succumbed.A proposal one night by a cycling friend who frequents the island many times each year, sealed the deal. Before we knew it, and it was just in a matter of days, a handful of those who expressed interest in the trip soon snowballed into a group of 20 adults and 2 toddlers and 17 bikes of all shapes, sizes and persuasion. Air tickets were snapped up on JetStar, 20 kgs into Taiwan and 30 kgs and more on the return leg.

Sounds like fun ? It was. Waiting for the D date, that was excruciating, so much so that, even I had to be ‘sedated’ of sorts and orgainsed a short trip intoThailand as a precursor to this trip.

This much delayed write up can also be blamed on time, or a lack of it, being spent elsewhere, like rediscovering my road bike, and researching our next trip to Formosa in the coming months, but it’s going to be worth it.

P1260968

From the little I know, a none too hilly 1000 km circumnavigation of the island can be done in 10 – 14 days. Inter city buses and trains are quite bike friendly, if time is a constraint. If you like the mountains there are quite a few challenging ones in the very mountainous interior, and us Taiwan virgins are going up across it’s highest road, for starters.

As our group numbers swelled, we were also thinking ‘less panniers and trailers’ but more ‘tour bus, sightseeing and cosy Bavarian style lodges’ This invariably led to more devils in the details and totally at cross purposes compared to our usually fuss free, just stuff the panniers and hit the road style of touring.

A big hats off goes to our fearless leaders, on and off the road, constantly keeping an eye out for the ever hungry, oxygen depleted straggling sheep in lycra. Behind the scenes, were endless hours spent in communicado with hotel reservations, restaurant managers, bus drivers, etc.

3 wives and 2 toddlers would not be cycling, commandeering the bus, to chocolate factories and petting zoos and such. Hopefully the rest of the entourage would not be led like lambs to the slaughter on a cold, desolate wind swept mountain road with nary a 7-11 in sight.

P1260908

We land in Taipei nice and early at 11.30 hrs. I got some more segmented sleep on the 4 hr flight and I’m sure some more on the 3 hr drive to the town of Puli, not yet quite in the highlands but about 400 m asl.

My initial view of Taipei or rather Taoyuan airport is best described as foggy. Remnants of trapped air and a cold front from big brother China white-ed out everything. It was just as well that we could land as a couple of friends on the same flight 2 days prior had to divert to Hong Kong. More like dumped there by a certain budget airline, to await the generosity of other airlines to pick up the slack. In his very words, my friend said, a riot is about to start, 2 check in staff up against 100 disgruntled passengers. We and they, were lucky. You don’t want to mess with 17 sleep deprived bike tourists, delaying their bike trip or worse, being disconnected with their precious cargo.

P1260951

418202_3368684733609_1163916970_3355130_325876206_n

I even have time to read trolley handles and visit the gents twice as the queue for sim cards was loooong. These days people rush to get a local number even before getting their luggage. 60 whole minutes eaten into today, as the sole high school girl working there, dissects your phone, installs your card, gets you registered, checks your passport, collects payment, reads out instructions x 100.

I don’t have that dilemma as I don’t have a phone and the person I talk to the most is on this bike trip. What could be better ?

Maybe it’s the need to tell the world, on Facebook, what you’re having for breakfast, and with whom, with blurry photos, surpasses the need for actually appreciating your present surroundings, that you woke up at 3 am for and flew 4.5 hours with the fear of being dropped off in Hong Kong. I dunno.

At this point 90 minutes after landing even our genial looking bus driver and a travel agency contact, were wondering about the delay. I should have known better and got out of the terminal on my own time, to get my first fill of a late winter’s chilled air.

419915_3368745095118_1163916970_3355152_425966857_n

431651_3368741495028_1163916970_3355151_1149679984_n

The next few hours were just a blur of buildings, some in dire need of paint, massive power lines, interspersed with very wet rice fields as the bus hurtled south along a highway. Layer upon layer of mostly elevated roads and railway, the highest and fanciest being the one on which the HSR (High Speed Railway) Bullet trains run. Heavy eyelids did not help, not until we got off the north south and onto a more scenic Route 14 the main road that cuts across the island via Puli town and the Taroko Gorge further east. It’s about 35 kms from sea level at Taichung, where the big bicycle factories are located, to Puli.

The driver kept dropping his gears as most vehicles seemed to be struggling up the winding road into the hills. ‘General George’ assured us that cycling would be much easier the next day. Somehow not everyone believed him.

430636_3368755415376_1163916970_3355154_813347478_n

418156_3368762095543_1163916970_3355156_298023439_n

P1270008

As a Taiwan virgin, or first time visitor, let’s get that cleared up, I can safely say that the island’s biggest lake is like Lake Tahoe, only with much more buildings like cramped hotels and pagodas along it’s shores and hillsides. Having surveyed Tahoe in 2001 with a Dodge Ram, in a rush to Yosemite, I much prefer Sun Moon Lake (hereafter SML) as my memory of it is much clearer.

By the time we reached SML in the late afternoon, the skies were grey and dreary, with a short cursory look at a fascinating Giant (as in Giant Bicycles) Concept Store with it’s own bicycle friendly Giant hotel above it. Bike paths abound along the shores of SML and if you don’t have your custom machine with you, there are many rentals to take along the 45 kms of manicured paths here. A repeat visit to SML in the brighter summer months will not hurt.

Reassembling 2 mountain bikes late into the night with segmented sleep hours before, will.

420891_372650899424689_100000393468743_1250488_691505213_n

Doing it by the road side, in semi darkness, outside a bank and ATMs was a novelty, as such activity, just attracts the local crowds. Even more so when Facebook (hereafter FB) is involved. FB-ing just slows down the whole process, as you really need two hands to build a bike.

Our General’s orders were to set up the bikes, and return our boxes to our boxed truck, which will store them, in Taipei, for our return trip home. Friends with Samsonites and non carton boxes had more to worry about, compared to my free, thrice flown cardboard boxes.

P1270027

Being a non virgin in bike assembly, I disgorged our bikes in the faded 70’s luxury of our hotel room/cubicle, as I love air conditioning when confronted with sweaty work. This also works up an appetite for dinner, but since we had a huge dinner and dessert already, bike assembly thereafter helps to digest everything.

If you like close quarters, jerky elevators and locked fire escapes, here it is. http://jinshan.okgo.tw/

427075_3368804256597_1163916970_3355199_557148179_n

Did we sleep really well. We must have. Out like a light. Seven blissful hours. As this is my virgin trip to Taiwan, I would like to be 110% fully charged for the mountains.

Photos marked with * are not from my camera, they are from about a dozen other cameras/phones that were near me. Oh my, FB has it’s uses.

Saturday March 3, 2012

Taiwan had been off my travel radar for decades. It would take a lot of nudging even to even consider landing there, say when crossing the Pacific, which was an even rarer occurence. But my how times and things have changed. In a pinch, how does one resist a meticulously planned 5 day ride up and across the island’s highest road topping out at 3275 m? Followed by an almost 90 kms of downhilling right to sea level, the next day? Resistance was futile. Even my better half succumbed.

A proposal one night by a cycling friend who frequents the island many times each year, sealed the deal. Before we knew it, and it was just in a matter of days, a handful of those who expressed interest in the trip soon snowballed into a group of 20 adults and 2 toddlers and 17 bikes of all shapes, sizes and persuasion. Air tickets were snapped up on JetStar, 20 kgs into Taiwan and 30 kgs and more on the return leg.

Sounds like fun ? It was. Waiting for the D date, that was excruciating, so much so that, even I had to be ‘sedated’ of sorts and orgainsed a short trip into Thailand as a precursor to this trip.

This much delayed write up can also be blamed on time, or a lack of it, being spent elsewhere, like rediscovering my road bike, and researching our next trip to Formosa in the coming months, but it’s going to be worth it.

A lot has happened since …..and with beautiful memories nicely captured by master videographer Joeel Lee and friends

936200_10200858146993662_552788916_n

A more complete analysis here,

http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/virgintaiwan