More travel tales from Taiwan!
At the last entry, I had met with 4 others from North America to travel to Taiwan to experience the Taiwan Cycling Festival 2010. We flew to Taipei, then transferred to Taitung county on the southeast coast of the island. After seeing the festival kick-off and triathlon there, our guide leads us off to a series of hotels and adventures north along the coastal mountain ridge to Hualien county, where we will spend a couple days in the epic Taroko Gorge.
Our group consists of designer Beverly Garrity of SLaB, cycling advocate Mark Blacknell (nicknamed “Wireless”), travel manager Niamh Kavanagh of Vancouver BC (but with Irish passport), Kate LaCroix of Global Soul Adventures, our erstwhile Taiwanese guide John (* he chose his English name because he was a fan of John Wayne), and yours truly Mark V, although I quickly was dubbed “Cola Mark” based on my diet cola addiction. At this point in the story, I should probably introduce another, and that would be Typhoon Megi, who would soon become the most influential character in this story. In this segment, Megi brings torrential rains and inescapable humidity that will plague our personal electronics but fail to dampen our fun.
When the fourth day of my Taiwan trip began, my group of four fellow North Americans and I found ourselves waking up to rain in the river valley surrounding the Papago Resort. Some big storm far off to the east was bringing in buckets of rain, but we were going to do a 60km ride along Route 9 despite that. Wait, did I say 60km? Well, the night before our guide had informed us that it would actually be 80km….which would finally prove 98km. Counting our guide, six riders rolled out into wet.
I’ve got this disposition that wants to charge into a difficult physical task, and at about 6km into the ride I just had to GO! As the only rider with a real road bike, that meant I was alone way off the front within moments. The road rolled on and on past small towns and clusters of housing above storefronts. The bike /motorscooter lanes were very generously wide, and I never once felt crowded by trucks or buses. Elsewhere you may have read my words hating the rain, but rain here in Taiwan is more like Florida than Seattle: big, fat droplets but moderate temperature, almost warm. In fact, I really enjoyed this ride. If I had to pick a place in eastern Taiwan to train with a group of fast cyclists, this would be it. You could roll a rotating paceline all-out for miles and the lanes were big enough for a 3 to 4-abreast sprint.
The turn-around point for the ride would be the Tropic of Cancer monument, but this caused me some confusion because I didn’t realize that there were multiple monuments in different parts of Taiwan. Kate and I had visited one last year near the coast, whereas the one on Route 9 was actually on a mountain. That was the other part of my confusion, since I had assumed that I’d find the monument around 40-44km into the ride through the valley. What I found instead was a steepish mountain climb and additional 6km to the monument, and my earlier tempo hadn’t really left me with a lot of reserves. With no camera (still hadn’t recovered my iphone yet), I only stayed at the monument long enough to use the public restrooms. And with no tools nor spares on hand, I took the wet descent with an extra care.
Past the little town at the foot of the climb, I saw three from the group still riding towards the monument. Knowing that Niamh, the novice rider in the group, had decided to stick to the bike trail adjacent to the resort, that meant that there was one other rider who probably had turned around already well before the monument. Powering through the rain, I finally spotted Beverly’s figure ahead of me, climbing a slight rise in the road. I silently slid up on her left.
Startled, she asked,”Did you just catch me talking to myself? “
“Um, maybe. But if it makes you feel any better, the fact that you’d be talking to yourself doesn’t particularly surprise me.”
I throttled down to ride with Bev back to the resort, using the opportunity to appear socially inclined to disguise the fact that my left hamstring was threatening to seize. The frequent inclines in the road were unkind to Bev’s reconstructed and still recovering knee, so I goaded her over the hills and gave her my wheel on the flats. We got back to the hotel quite a bit before the others. I had plenty of time to shower and sit around to talk with Niamh. The other Mark (Blacknell, or “Wireless Mark” as Bev took to calling him) had a lot of trouble with a too-small bike, making the ride in something of a death march, and leggy Kate wasn’t much better off.
The group would be renting bikes from another place once we got to Hualien, and hopefully the shop ahead would have a better selection. As for the bikes my group had so far, the vendor from yesterday came to collect them from us at the resort. To our chagrin, he did not come with a pedal wrench to remove Beverly and Wireless Mark’s clipless pedals. I travel with a thin cone wrench for working on my own bike since I know that little force is actually needed to make a pedal stay put, but their pedals had been installed with a full shop wrench. The pedals eventually came off, but my cone wrench kinda came out the loser.
Once we were clean and boarding the Purple Pony (our lavender-coloured tour van provided by a company called Pony Express), our Taiwan guide John had us brought to a locally famous eatery along the road north to Hualien. This restaurant seemed to be constructed from an old train station; you could get you hot meal boxes, in form sorta like a Japanese bento, from the order window and eat them in either of the two passenger train cars in front of the building or on the covered boarding platform. The restaurant’s upstairs had a tiny museum documenting rice production in east Taiwan in photos. Kate and I had been to this same eatery last year too, and we were happy to revisit with the new group.
It was nice to relax after the ride, but we were running a little behind schedule, I guess. Next we went to Wu-he, which was in the mountains near the Tropic of Cancer monument. There we visited a small shop that prepared a tea-tasting party for us; that part of Taitung is famous tea-growing region. I’ll confess that I’m not much of tea drinker. I just wanted a big-ass iced cola and to finally get my iphone back (see Day 3). And I did finally recover it, as an associate of our guide had left it at the police the next town along the road. By the time I had the iPhone back, it was almost dark and we still had to get to dinner and our hotel in Hualien county.
We drove in the darkness, apparently lost on the mountain roads in search of the Moon House Restaurant. Our bus driver and tour guide had to stop several times to get directions but lucked out when they found a chef on his way there. I was never really sure where anything was, partially because of the darkness and partially because I kept falling asleep, but finally we got to a parking lot. From there, we had to walk up a steep but paved and well-lit footpath to this amazing restaurant overlooking the valley. I mean, on this dark mountain was a hidden courtyard of fountains and koi ponds in front of a rustic yet elegant wooden building. Despite the seemingly remote location and high-quality food, our guide said that the restaurant wasn’t particularly exclusive. Indeed, there were several casually dressed, young families present, so it didn’t seem too expensive.
When we finally arrived at the Hotel Bayview, it was late and we were tired. As typical for me on this trip, I nodded off frequently on the way, but I was ready to be not-on-a-bus. The Hotel Bayview had a sort of Grecian/Mediterranean theme, which seemed a little odd to me, but it was less than 100M from the seawall. And tonight the ocean wind whipped through my room like a wind tunnel. After a walk along the seawall, I set my wet riding clothes and shoes on the balcony to dry in the breeze and fell asleep.
Setting my clothes out to dry on the balcony was a mistake.
At around 5am, the rains returned, and driven by the wind they totally soaked my riding gear and partially flooded my hotel room. Since we were going to ride about 40km today in the rain, I just put the wet clothes on and stepped out into the ill weather, which I was informed was actually Typhoon Megi. Ah! So that explains the gusts and pounding surf!
The six of us set off into the face of the storm, and as much as I tried to be stay patient, I had the bit in my teeth and ran off the front. The turn-around point was a little vague to me, so I just kept an eye on the clock to make sure I’d make it back to the hotel in time to bathe. Hell, I don’t know where the group eventually rode, but I kept going from the coast to an industrial area, then to some city parks, then I hiked down from the seawall to ride a path that followed a river and its dykes inland. No idea where I was but had so much fun. I had to portage several times past flood controls, rode though puddles that were 100M meters long, a perfect rainy day adventure. Of course if I had punctured or otherwise suffered a mechanical here in this foreign town with no tools or phone, I would have been so screwed. When I got back to the hotel, I had ridden almost half again more than the others and was covered in mud. I washed my riding gear in the shower and packed it wet in a plastic bag for a second day.
The Purple Pony bus took us further into Hualien, to the dramatic Taroko Gorge. Decades ago Chiang Kai-shek sent 40,000 troops into the gorge to build a road among thousand foot marble cliffs swathed in lush green vegetation. The road past the ornate gates isn’t terribly steep, but nearly every meter of it must’ve been hewn from the cliff face. The road lurched around the rock walls, sometimes sorta two-lanes wide and other times definitely NOT wide enough a full-size tour bus and a bike. A river grey with silt cut like a knife far below and the peaks stood so high up as to catch wisps of clouds with their tips. The road snaked through dark tunnels up to 2km long. Through the pass, there was not much beyond a couple hotels and a Buddhist temple. We would be staying at the hotel at lower elevation, and the side road leading to it was distinctly steeper, more than 18% at the end.
I had not expected to stay at a place like this Leader Village Taroko Resort. The establishment is staffed exclusively by members of the Taroko aboriginal tribe, and the buildings reflect elements of the their culture. A ring of bungalows sits behind a communal dining and reception area. The duplex bungalows were a little rustic, a little modern amenity, and a lot comfortable. What with a flat-screen tv, private bath, wireless connection, and a mini-bar, what more could you want? Nestled in the cool mountains, the lack of air conditioner was irrelevant. Being pampered so much, I can’t really say I’m having an authentic aboriginal experience, but I’m really enjoying this. Though owned by a larger hotel company, Leader Village Taroko combines a professional level of hospitality with some local flare. After a really tasty dinner, I would sleep better here than anywhere else on this trip.
I awoke to the sound of rain on the wooden roof and I didn’t want to get up. Much more because I was so comfortable and less because I didn’t want to ride in the rain anymore. Today’s riding plan has us renting bikes from the town, then riding to the top of the pass and then descending again. The Purple Pony would run us to the bike store (another Giant store) to rent the bikes and then pick us up to return us to Leader Village for lunch. Glutton for punishment that I am, I inform our guide John that I’m riding my bike (remember I brought my own) down to the Giant store , riding to the top of the pass, and then returning directly to Leader Village. After pulling on my wet clothing from the previous 2 days on again, I leave ahead of the bus, and the road from Leader Village to the main road of Taroko Gorge has some fierce descents….this will be a nasty little bit coming back under my own power.
Eventually the bus catches me near where I had pulled off at the shrine honouring Chiang Kai-shek’s soldiers who had perished in the roads construction. To put the realities of this land’s dangers into a little perspective, earthquakes had destroyed 2 previous shrines and the current one was closed because of falling rock activity. Two tourists had disappeared in the mountains the day before. The Purple Pony set off again with me doggedly chasing them down wet descents and dark tunnels. Kate and I did this descent last year, but that was a bad day for me on a bike not meant for fast descents. Even with my faithful Sycip travel bike beneath me now, this is not a relaxing descent. There’s no shoulder, the guard rail is low, and the tour bus traffic is nothing short of terrifying. Exhilarating though.
From the Giant store to a little past the Taroko road gate, we keep in a loose group, but soon I just have to kick it up the ascent, quickly leaving my companions behind. But such spectacular riding! I could literally go an hour describing Taroko Gorge and still not do it justice. I mean, every two minutes there’s another waterfall dropping a white ribbon of water from a thousand feet up and your sense of scale is totally thrown. Strange how the water in the roaring river below is so grey opaque while the water spilling onto the road beside you is so clear and pure. Deep drainage gutters between the road and rock face gurgle with water so clean I would have loved to stop and just soak my feet in it. The tunnels were so long they seemed otherworldly, my imagination drifting between dreams of underground sorcerers and the unnerving sound of overtaking buses and trucks reverberating through the concrete caves. Eventually I found the Buddhist temple and hotel at the top of the pass, got a coke from the cluster of shops across the parking lot, and waited for my companions to reach the top. Actually, Niamh, the neophyte cyclist, and Bev of the Reconstructed Knee had the cunning to convince the bus driver to bring them and their bikes to the top so they could enjoy the descent without imposing climb. I kill some time chatting with them and taking pictures near the hotel where we will spend tonight. To put it mildly, it looks pretty posh.
Once John our guide, Kate, and Wireless Mark reach the top, the group is united again. But I quickly drop them on the descent. Apparently my narcissistic desire to be featured in as many of my companions’ photos as possible falls second to my self-centered pleasure of going as fast as possible on the descent. Besides, I’ve got that wicked, switchbacked climb back to Leader Village awaiting me, and I’m shelled by the time I finish turning the pedals. Once we are all showered, we meet again for another deeply satisfying meal at Leader Village’s communal room. I would have loved to take more pictures with my digital slr, but the merciless humidity seems to have killed it.
The Purple Pony shuttles us up the mountain once more to the next hotel at the top of the pass, Silks Place Taroko Resort. Oh god, now THIS is decadence. Somehow John got our rooms upgraded, and the rooms are huge. Hell, the room’s bathroom was bigger than my living room at home. So it was with some trepidation that I arranged the hair dryer and other various room accessories into a drying station for my 3-days wet riding clothes and shoes. Tomorrow we will fly from Hualien’s airport back to Taipei, and I don’t want to do that with damp, festering laundry.
Later tonight I will chuckle when I discover that the hotel has a turn down service (“oh, what the staff must’ve thought”).
Silks Place Taroko had once been Chiang Kai-shek’s hotel, but while the hotel tries to maintain the historical connection, the buildings and amenities seem far from outdated. Standing at the railing on the roof, it is easy to see why the former leader preferred this site, as the views are spectacular. The river slices through this small cradle of land nestled within the gorge, and across the chasm’s grey waters from our hotel stands the Buddhist monastery, accessible by a small golden yellow bridge. Further up the mountain is a pagoda from which the absolute best views can be had. Yet high above all are the vertical faces of the gorge: wet with mists, verdant, and beyond the human realm. Beside this godly beauty, we sit ensconced in an elegant hotel replete with the more sophisticated of earthly pleasures. After relaxing in the one of the hot tubs beside the rooftop pool, we enjoyed some wine in the elite lounge, chatting with the hotel manager. Then a sumptuous buffet awaits us for dinner.
Tonight I will fall asleep in a luxurious room in a bed only slightly smaller than a navy aircraft carrier. God help me if I get to acclimated to this shit.