The rain came down with such force that it stung my eyes. Daylight was quickly disappearing. I was only able to open them for seconds at a time to reveal of blur of a steep, narrow road carving its way through lush green landscape.
I struggled to stay focused so that I could keep my tires from being swept out from underneath me, which had happened only minutes before. My hands now ached from squeezing the brakes, which now seemed to be in contact with more water than rim. My thoughts drifted to a few hours earlier sitting in an air conditioned Seven Eleven, eating a tasty $3 microwaved lunch and wasting time on the internet. Now, on this empty,jungly backroad with no vehicles or a town in sight I felt like I had been transported to another world.
I was in Taiwan, a modern country with many of the Western style comforts I had grown up with. But there, caught in a torrential downpour, life went back to basics. It was getting dark, I was shivering in drenched clothing and there was no shelter in sight. My only priority now was to get down this increasing deep descent and find a dry place for the night. When I was seriously beginning to worry, I spotted some houses in the distance – the sleepy village of Yongle. Many of the homes were dark with the odd faint light and the movement of shadows. Cold and feeling desperate I came close to knocking on one of the doors to ask for a dry place to sleep. I decided to push on a bit further and I came across a temple aglow with red light.
There was a housing unit beside and I looked around to find someone to ask permission to stay in the temple. The rain was still falling heavily and I soon gave up looking. I pulled my bike inside.
I quickly changed into dry clothes and then cooked dinner on my stove, which I inhaled in a few breaths. Surrounded by mythical statues bathed in a sultry red glow I stared out into the stormy night. I suddenly felt intense satisfaction.
Tucked into this small sanctuary it seemed like I was existing on the fringe of a strange wilderness and civilization. I thought of a piece written by one of my favourite travel writers, Kate Harris (www.kateharris.ca) Her interpretation of cycling across the USA reminded me of my experience in Taiwan:
As a cross-country cyclist, I constantly dance between two worlds. On a daily basis I share the road with air-conditioned gas-guzzling monster vehicles. I ride through towns with stores and newspapers and internet access and gourmet restaurants. But while I’m exposed to all these modern frills and ameneties, I’m just a vagabond who sleeps in a tent, doesn’t shower, and spends most of her waking hours pedaling a bike. It’s a weird, hybrid sort of existence, where I’m neither isolated nor immersed in society or the wilderness. Instead I’m a perpetual fencesitter with one leg touching on the cultivated field of civilization and the other leg dangling in wild, overgrown, wonderfully neglected weeds.
Cycling culture is thriving in Taiwan. Almost everyday I saw large groups of recreational road cyclists, who joined drivers in encouraging shouts of “Jai-oh! Jai-oh!” (“Keep going!”). Police stations throughout the country also have mini service stations with tools and fresh water available to cyclists.
In Taiwan, I also experienced urban camping at its finest. Schools offered places to wash, wifi was available anywhere – everything I needed in the land of convenience. Several cycle tourists had told me that it is one of the easiest places to camp. In the two weeks I spent on the island, I pitched my tent in the most varied and bizarre locations of the whole trip. Some of these were…
the odd “wild” spot…
along with a few temples, a parking lot…
and the best of all…
a wheelchair accessible washroom (It was really clean!).
There is a funny story behind that one. That day I completed the biggest ascent of my trip in Taiwan – a very scenic 61km towards Alishan, gaining 2100m in altitude. It was a peaceful, almost euphoric climb and it remains one of the highlights of my trip on the island. The weather was pleasant and cool – a much needed escape from the high humidity I was experiencing at lower altitudes.
As I neared the top, the overcast skies began to grow darker. Rain started to fall and became heavier and heavier. Soon I could hear the rumbling of thunder and the 50km descent ahead seemed like quite the daunting prospect. I started to scan the sides of the road for a place to camp. I came across a lonely visitors centre. The main building was shut, but the bathrooms were unlocked. Desperate for shelter, I ran inside. I knew at this point that there was no way I would attempt the descent. I looked around the premises for a sheltered area to pitch my tent – nothing looked promising. I waited inside awkwardly with my gear while a few others came and went in the neighbouring stalls. Eventually it got dark and with no other vehicles stopping I decided to bring everything inside the wheelchair accessible stall and locked myself in there. I even cooked inside with my camp stove. I rolled out my mat and curled inside of my sleeping bag. The rhythmic pounding of the rain and howling wind became a strange lullaby that eventually put me to sleep.
I woke up early the next morning, relieved to have had no visitors in the night. I packed up my things quickly and was just about to head down the mountain, when a man came out of the vistor’s centre. Worried about his reaction when he’d found out where I’d slept I uttered a nervous and enthusiastic nihao!
He responded to me in English “Good morning! I hope you weren’t too cold last night!” Then he invited me in for breakfast.
My party hosts with my “one day boyfriend” on the left
Brushes with the people of Taiwan brought me daily amusement. My second day cycling I had just turned off of the Northern Cross Island highway onto the wonderfully quiet and scenic Route 60. I passed a small shop and stopped to find a large group of fairly drunk people seated around a table outside. After a few exchanges of broken English, bottles of beer were being pushed in my direction. I had to be a bit of stiff and only accept one because it was around 11am and I still had quite few kilometres to cover. Soon a young guy came stumbling out from the back of the shop with a stupidly large grin. He moved in quickly beside me and put an arm around my shoulder. “Hello!!!” he beamed, “where are you from? Today, you be my..one day girlfriend!!” Everyone laughed and then he grabbed my hand to take me around to the back where the real festivities were taking place. I was sat down at an even larger table with twice the amount of alcohol and an enormous spread of food in involving fried rice, noodles and some unknown animal organs stir-fried.
My “one day boyfriend” did most of the talking to loosely translate some of the other friendly and abrupt drunken questioning. Eventually I had to politely excuse myself while the party raged on. Time to head off into the hills. “Goodbye one day girlfriend!” yelled my new chum.
“More like one hour!” I joked.
“One hour!” he yelled back, laughing.
The road continued to climb with a vengeance. While I tend to overplan – collecting details about the terrain, mileage and scenic points ahead, I did virtually none of this for Taiwan. This just didn’t make it into the schedule on a lazy few weeks off in Northern Thailand. So this time, I had no idea what lay ahead and just how much climbing and descending I would be doing. And it was a lot – almost all day, every day. I was just moving forward, following a GPS track into the unknown.
I was very fortunate to get in contact with Andrew Kerslake, a local cycling expert that seemed to have knowledge of every minor road on that island. He offered to design me a route with the few things I had in mind: scenic, hilly, no traffic. And he definitely delivered. This was the counterclockwise route I would take around Taiwan – beginning in Taoyuan in the Northeast and ending in Taipei. I would avoid the West coast altogether and head into the mountains in the centre, finishing on the East Coast.
For a country with the 6th highest population population density in the world, Taiwan has a surprising number of empty backroads. With most of the population concentrated along the West Coast, the mountainous interior and East coast offer many opportunities for excellent, traffic free riding. As I seem to have a thing for tight contour lines, most of the days on the bike were a sweaty, lush rollercoaster ride. At times the humidity became very uncomfortable, but that was easily remedied by an air conditioned 7/11 or a small afternoon monsoon.
Also, I have to talk about the food in this country as it was amongst the highlights for me.
Being a huge fan of Chinese cuisine I thoroughly enjoyed what Taiwan had on offer. In the small village of Wuije I had some of the best. I was invited to try some local cuisine by two young school teachers from Fuli who spoke good English. They ordered many dishes for me, refusing to let me pay. We had crispy pork, cabbage, fresh caught fish, sitr fried noodles and a particular type of deer that only the indigenous people in the region were allowed to hunt.
Passing through the Hakka region I was also taken out to lunch by a local man who shared a love for cycling. He took out his phone and showed me a photo of him and his loaded bicycle which he took around the island 40 years ago.
I tried delicious stewed bamboo, seaweed and mushrooms and a type of cold cooked chicken prepared “Hakka style.”
These pleasant encounters with Taiwan’s locals helped to ease my feeling of struggle with the constant climbing and humidity. Sometimes I would be so overcome with fatigue that the surroundings would blur into one. Instead of allowing my thoughts to drift into the distance, to follow the graceful contours through the hills I would sometimes feel trapped by the humidty, hanging on me like a heavy coat.
And of course, it also rained. A lot. I was constantly riding in a combination of rain and sweat soaked clothing which refused to dry even on a day in the hot sun. Of course it didn’t always feel like a struggle. Many of the climbs along the country’s mountainous backroads revealed spectacular scenery and the descents were sublime.
When I reached Fangliao in the South I began to realize that I was running out of time and needed a day’s rest from cycling after 10 days of “rough” camping. I took a train to Taitung city on the East Coast and decided to splurge on a hotel room to dry out my life. Air conditioning did the job in about half an hour. Venturing out into the city, I walked beneath the rows of neon signs in Mandarin, eventually wandering into the night market. Here, I gorged on same tasty treats, with the highlight being fresh seafood. I enjoyed this small shift to the vibrant, urban Taiwan seen dimly through grey skies.
That night I was put in touch with Rodin, a Couchsurfing host in Fuli, a small town along the stunning Route 23 which veered inland away from the coast. This would be the next day’s destination. I rode up in the fog through lush hills cradling small villages. The mist thickened and eventually I found myself riding into a heavy downpour (yet again!). On the way up I passed a busload of tourists that were stopping at a rest area. A large group of curious monkeys lined the road as the visitors ran over to take photos. At one point it was unclear exactly who was the playing the tourist – the people or the monkeys.
Completely drenched, I met Rodin at the local Seven Eleven after another wet and precarious descent. Rodin took me out to taste a unique Taiwanese delicacy – stinky tofu. The stench, to put it mildly, is a turn off. I could smell the restaurant from a few blocks away and immediately recognized the previously unknown aroma because it made me sick a few days earlier. But, holding my breath, I bit into this crispy, flavour rich dish and immediately warmed up to it. My host, Rodin, was especially pleased to see a Westerner enjoy it. In fact, I liked it so much that ended up eating half of his portion. We also went into Hualien to see a Cantonese singer perform. His songs were mainly love ballads accompanied by piano. Seeing me with my host and his friends he asked where I was from. He spoke a little bit of English. He then asked me if I knew the song “Fresh Right”
“Fl..esh… right?” I repeated. “No I don’t think so.”
Then, when he started to sing, and he sang beautifully, I realized with embarrassment that he was singing “Flashlight.”
Stuck in the dark but you’re my fresh right (flashlight)
You’re getting me, getting me, through the night
‘Cause you’re my flashlight
You’re my flashlight, you’re my flashlight
In less than a week, I would reach Taipei – my end destination completing my circle around Taiwan. Next, I had planned to visit one of Taiwan’s “scenic wonders”, Taroko Gorge.
Not surprisingly, the weather once again decided not to cooperate and rain began to fall as I began the 80km round trip ride from Hualien through the gorge.
The towering walls cradled the heavy mist which made me feel very closed in.
Despite the slightly foul weather, it was a very enjoyable ride.
I arrived in Taipei via a slow train from Hualien. There, I met up with my awesome host Tzuhsin. She took me to a spot in the city renowned for firefly watching – Hemeishan (shan in Mandarin means a mountain or hill). In the darkness, hundreds of tiny specs of light danced in and out of view. It was mesmerizing – I had never seen so many in my life! It was a walk through a fairytale woodland inside of a bustling, modern city.
Taiwan was a great place to ride and in this land of modern conveniences I felt more like a vagabond than anywhere else I have cycled. I especially experienced this that one night camping in the abandoned marketplace. My tent was pitched awkwardly in a corner of this large concrete space, barely obscured in shadow while the city lights flickered all around. A highway bridge was lit in a gaudy shifting display of colour that danced on my tent. From the inside it had the appearance of stained glass. Here I was, on the edge of the neon light, caught between worlds. A wilderness shelter in a modern jungle.