Mark V in Taiwan 2010: Days 1-3

mark taiwan banner.jpg It’s been a couple weeks of backlogged tasks since I got back from Taiwan, and it’s been hard trying to articulate the adventure in words…..but here goes!

This trip fell into my lap at the last moment. It was the second week of October when I got a call from one of the other Hugga staff explaining that he had injured his back and probably wouldn’t be able to attend this trip to Taiwan Cycling Festival 2010. Would I and could I go in his stead? My expletive laden responsive roughly correlated with an affirmative. If you ever have the opportunity to travel to and explore cycling within Taiwan, I strongly suggest you do the same.

What’s so great about Taiwan? Surely you would have heard by now that a lot of cycling products come from Taiwan, but perhaps you would have assumed that the Taiwanese only look at cycling as a consumer base for export products. And that might have been a fair statement 10-15 years ago. Like many Asian societies, growing affluence had led many of the common citizens to abandon their bicycles in favour of motorscooters for daily transportation, and Taiwan doesn’t have a long history of cycle sport like some European countries. Yet Taiwanese government planners have begun to seriously pursue cycling infrastructure as a way to encourage cycling as transportation, healthy recreation, and to attract tourism. The Taiwan Cycling Festival 2010 is a continuation of a yearly concerted celebration of cycling, and the crown jewel of this year’s event would be the inaugural Taiwan Cup, a professional cycling competition attracting teams from around the Pacific rim as well as athletes from the Pro Tour division, the pinnacle of the sport.

This trip was designed to give members of the media and tourism industry a chance to experience these events as well as enjoy some of Taiwan’s best offerings for visitors….well, that was the idea. You see, there was little storm named Megi off the coast that literally rained all over our parade (not to mention the wind). What happened after that was so awesome for my group and me that I’m not sure we could have had a better time than if things had gone to plan. And it was in no small part thanks to our guide and the resourcefulness of the Taiwanese tourism bureau.

Twelve days plus one. Five North Americans and a local guide in the Taiwan, Republic of China. Thirteen days of riding, eating superb food, tragedies with personal electronics, inside jokes, bike factories, and a lot of wet, smelly laundry. I’ll try to break this story up into a few manageable chunks. 1-3 free bike parking

Day ONE

We gathered at the international terminal at LAX. Kate LaCroix of Global Soul Adventures, cycling advocate Mark Blacknell, travel company manager Niamh (say that as “Neev”) Kavanagh, and Beverly Garrity of SLaB (Strong, Light and Beautiful) were already at the cheesy bar near our China Airlines gate. Kate and I had attended last year’s Taiwan Cycling Festival together, but the rest were new faces. As luck would have it, this group would prove to be kickass travel companions.

We boarded the China Airlines for Taipei. Every time I fly United to Asia, it’s usually a 777, but China Airlines flies the classic 747 jumbo. Still, aircraft size and legroom allowance are two different things, but at 5’3” I don’t normally have an issue. However, I famously have a diet soft drink addiction. Four hours into a thirteen hour flight, the plane ran out of Diet Coke. Oh the humanity! Taipei county.jpg

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p>Taipei county in northern Taiwan (from wiki)

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We landed in TPE, a relatively small international airport, at least compared to LAX or even Sea-Tac, yet my experiences lead me to believe an airport needs to be a large size to really f*** up. TPE is painless, even in immigration control. On the other side, our guide John (* his chosen English name) met us. I was a little skeptical at first, since Kate and my guide from last year was so much fun, but this man would later prove to be more capable, more surprising, and bless him, more patient than I could have imagined.

Day TWO

We stayed at the Howard Hotel in Taipei, a competent business traveler’s hotel if lacking in character. In the morning John informed us that the hotel served a chinese style breakfast on the ground floor expanse and a western style breakfast that was better on the 2nd floor. Well, I didn’t fly 14hrs (10 without diet cola!) to have a ham&cheese omelet! As far as I was concerned, that Chinese breakfast buffet was awesome. Besides, I found out later that there would be better places to order omelets on this trip.

1-3 CKS walk up stairs

The bus (definitely a “short bus”, but without the negative connotations) picked us up and drove us on a quick tour of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall before taking us to Taipei International Airport…which is not TPE. Never understood the difference nor why they both appeared to have the same name. What my group and I learned was that even if your guide offers to buy you lunch for the trip from 7-11 (and 7-11’s in Asia rule when it comes to prepared food!), make sure you get something that resembles a sandwich rather than a plate of noodles and sauce that could leak on your lap while transferring from bus to ticketing to terminal to plane. The second thing we learned is that it is ok to bring liquids through security for domestic flights in Taiwan (I think I had more diet cola on this flight than the entire trans-Pacific journey). The third thing we found out is that prisoners in wrist and ankle chains are sometimes transferred by commercial plane in Taiwan. But the guy with the funny stainless steel accessories sitting behind Bev, Niamh, and Mark didn’t seem too dangerous, and I even saw him smiling over some chitchat with the two guards that flanked him. But it was a little weird….

1-3 best seats on the plane!(Don’t look behind you!)

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p> Taitung county.jpg

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p>Taitung County (from wiki)

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Why did we take a 50min flight? To get to Taitung County, on the southeast coast of Taiwan. Taipei is at the north end of the island of Taiwan, which is slightly elongated north-south with a extensive mountain ranges running the length. Taitung county, and Hualien just to its north, are the laid back rural and/or tourist destinations for the urban Taipei and industrial western Taiwan. You see a lot more of the aborginal culture in the east than you do in the other parts of Taiwan, which are heavily influenced by the Han Chinese of mainland descent. There’s a saying in Taiwan that the west is were you work and the east is where you vacation and retire.

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p>1-3 purple pony

We have a new driver and short bus meet us at the airport. The tour bus company is called Pony Express. Painted purple with silver pony silhouettes galloping across, the Purple Pony bus whisked us off to our first adventure. We were scheduled to participate in some rafting fresh off the plane, and I was a little apprehensive while thinking that we would be doing some sort of shoot-the-rapids. Not of fear so much as laziness. You see, white water rafting would mean getting soaked head to foot, ergo all my clothes would be wet. In a former life, I’ve lived out of a suitcase for up to two months stretches while I was a roadie to classical musicians, and loading up your suitcase with wet, dirty clothes is not what you want to do at the beginning of a tour. So I was much relieved to find out that the rafting excursion would involve gentling paddling up a stream on bundled bamboo and pvc tubes rafts. The launch point was in sight of the ocean, but while the stream had a current, it was a far cry from white water.

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p> 1-3 rafting (kate's).jpg

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p>(photo Kate LaCroix)

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I stopped short of bringing a camera with me, either my digital SLR or in the form of my brand-spanking new iPhone 4. I talked it over with Mark Blacknell (whom Beverly nicknamed “Wireless” because he served as the group’s divining rod for free wireless access), and his reasoning was that he could afford to risk his phone but not his SLR. But I felt I couldn’t afford to lose anything. As fate would have it, he accidentally slipped into the water with his phone in his pocket. You see, the short jaunt up the river led to these amazing marble formations carved by the stream, and Wireless had climbed up to get a better vantage point for a picture with Kate’s (waterproof) point-and-shoot camera. Remounting the raft proved deceptively difficult, leading to the most awkward slowspeed dunk as the raft slid out from under Wireless. To add insult to injury, he lost his sunglasses off his head in the process. The seemingly placid river would later take another victim as Beverly’s hat was blown off on the return leg, promptly dumping her respective eyewear into the water as well. The murky stream would give up no hostages that day, though later Wireless Mark was blessed with a minor miracle after packing his phone in a bag of rice for a day or so to desiccate the electronics.

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p> 1-3 rafting (kate's) 3.jpg(photo Kate LaCroix)

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After returning our rafts to the venders, we were treated to some complimentary snacks and a drink called shomijiu, a somewhat pulpy homebrewed rice wine. Then we piled into the van, and drove on to the Hotel Royal Chihpen. I don’t really remember the drive because it was dark and I’m seemingly afflicted with travel-induced narcolepsy. The hotel featured natural hot springs, and you enjoy the soothing waters in either the communal guest area or in the privacy of your suite. After assembling my travel bike, I made good use of that tub. This would be the first of the posh hotels that we would enjoy.

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p> 1-3 bike.jpg 1-3 Royal Chihpen bath

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Day THREE

1-3 stage.jpg The next day we arose at an early hour, an easy task for this crew of jetlagged foreigners. Today would be the beginning of the Taiwan Cycling Festival, kicking off in Taitung county. The festival coincided with the Taitung Triathlon series (whole Ironman, half, and sprint distances on the consecutive days), and the official kickoff took place on an outdoor stage near the triathlon’s swimming lake, transition, and finish area. The Taiwanese minister of transportation, the director general of tourism, the Taitung county magistrate, and Cycling Life-style Foundation President (and Giant Bicycles founder) King Liu. The organizers had some cheesy visual gimmicks to kick it off, but there was a lot of enthusiasm. We started to get a feel for just how much the Taiwan gov’t was getting behind cycling. After much fanfare, the dignitaries left the stage to mount bicycles for a ride around the local bike trail. Bikes were provided for our group as well, and we took up position as a row second only to the dignitaries. Three cheers for the foreign press corps!

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p> 1-3 taitung triathlon

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p> 1-3 dignitaries and press

We took the Purple Pony to the next little town, stopping for a snack; I had to replenish my internal levels of diet cola. John set us loose unsupervised to see the town, and we meandered through the streets and into a market. It was more like a warehouse full of open bins of food and spices, and dismembered animals everywhere. This kind of thing is fascinating to some travelers, mind blowing to the uninitiated, and doubtlessly traumatic to the germ-phobic. We are kinda out in the sticks, so maybe the locals don’t see many westerners, but they were really cheerful interacting with us.

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p> 1-3 market butcher

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p> 1-3 kate and a local

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The morning had been overcast and muggy, so we weren’t sure that the afternoon’s pre-arranged adventure would pan out. We were to do paragliding off a mountain in Lu-yeh. Well, the sun did burn through the clouds, but the wind was weak and from the wrong side of the mountain for this activity. This weather problem would pale to what Typhoon Megi would do later to our group’s plans as well as those of the Taiwan Cycling Festival as a whole. 1-3 green mtn

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p>1-3 wireless spreads his wings

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So the five of us basically played around on a large grassy hill, riding grass sleds, and then took pictures at the paraglide launch point. We talked with the guy assigned to meet us in Lu-yeh, who was serving his mandatory military service as something like a park ranger in this eastern town. Being from the big city of Taipei, he said that the laidback feel of Taitung definitely had its appeal but that staying there post-enlistment would depend on job opportunities.

We drove down to the local town for lunch when I discovered that I had left my new iPhone 4 someplace on the mountain. Our guide John made some calls, and miraculously discovered at the tourist stop where we changed into riding clothes. I couldn’t help but think that my phone would have been long gone in most other places, including the states. Thank you, Taiwan!

Anyways, after lunch we went to a bicycle rental area. I think there were at least 3 vendors arranged at the same isolated intersection overlooking the valley’s lush green fields. I chuckled to see that our chosen vendor actually had a cobbled tall-bike as his personal steed, and he even gave our group a chance to ride it while we got our bikes adjusted. Lest you fear my description of Taiwan is too perfect, it would be fair to say that the rental bikes themselves were entirely mundane, just your typical entry-level mtb’s with front suspension fork. Ah, but savvy world cyclist that I am, I had come with my own S&S road bike.

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p> 1-3 thumbs up (Blacknell's).jpg(photo Mark Blacknell)

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We rolled out onto the local bike path, the first of its kind in Taiwan. The government has been funding paths such as this to encourage cycling throughout the nation. Closed to automobiles, they provide a stress-free environment to enjoy a bike outdoors. By this time the wind had picked up, and the mature rice stalks rippled in the breeze. We followed the path through the valley till it led us into rice paddies and farm roads, eventually getting a tiny bit lost. After a little pseudo-cyclocross portaging, we made it to the road to our next hotel, Papago Resort.

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p>1-3 papago pools (kate's).jpg

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Like the Howard Hotel in Taipei, Kate and I had stayed at Papago during last year’s Taiwan Cycling Festival. It was an odd sensation to be back, because last time I was here it came at almost the end of the trip…after many adventures and bonding with that group. Now with this new group plus me and Kate, I was excited to be there with new friends but I also sorely missed my old travel companions. As far as the hotel is concerned, I hate marble floors in the rooms…maybe because I like to go barefoot indoors and use the floor for sitting. As long as I’m bitching, I never could get the AC to be a comfortable temperature. But what Papago does have are luxurious outdoor pools and a superb buffet style restaurant. Yeah, I coulda stayed there longer….

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p>1-3 papago beer (kate's).jpg

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p>(photo Kate LaCroix)

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p> Next time: Here comes the rain! Check back on Monday



1 Comments

Enjoyed the write up (and the trip).  I’ll add - and really, this is one of the very few negative things I have to say about Taiwan - that the rental bikes, in addition to being pretty much crap, are not sized for people over 5’9”.  I’d advise anyone 1) thinking about going and 2) taller than that, to either take their own* or make extra double triple sure that they can rent a properly-sized bike in Taipei and keep it with them the whole time.  Typhoon Megi’s wrecking of the last half of our ride schedule (which would have put us into 100k day days) made it less important, but the undersized bikes could really ruin a trip for someone looking forward to it.


*And your S&S-enabled bike has me looking at a Surly Traveler’s Check now.

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