I’ve got a huge backlog of things that I want to post on, and top of list is to finish out the Taiwan travel tales. And besides…looking out the window at cold, damp Seattle, why wouldn’t I want to relive Taiwan where it was warm and…well, rain was definitely a character in the story. Read on.
Hualien county, eastern Taiwan (from wiki)
It’s been a full week in Taiwan for the five of us. For Beverly, the other Mark (“Wireless Mark”), and Niamh (pronounced “Neev”, Irish-born, Canada residing) are visiting Taiwan for the first time, but Kate and I did this Taiwan Cycling Festival last year. However, there are so many big differences between last year’s events and now. Last year the events seemed to be structured around enthusiasts’ participation and there were rides in both east and west Taiwan. This year the eastern coastal counties of Taitung and Hualien would host all the rides and the focus was much more on high-profile competitions, namely the Taitung Triathlon and the inaugural Taiwan Cup, an international UCI road race. The shifting emphasis is a long term strategy of bringing more attention on cycling in Taiwan.
While in America new cycling infrastructure seems perpetually mired in partisan or regional politics, Taiwan approaches cycling with a single-minded enthusiasm that gets shit DONE. A few influential leaders pointed out how other countries take advantage of cycling’s health benefits for the population, how it alleviates the need for motorcar infrastructure, and how it can also be a source of tourism income, and the government is working hard to make these ideas a reality. The Taiwan Cup will be a stage to display all the strides that the government had made to improve bicycle provision on interregional passenger trains and facilities throughout eastern Taiwan. Professional racers participating in the Cup would arrive in Taipei for tomorrow’s press conference. And we will be there for it, but first the guide that the Taiwan Tourism Bureau assigned us will have to drag me out of my uber-posh room at Silks Place Taroko Resort, nestled in the mountains in Hualien, a 40min flight from Taipei.
What sucks is that I have to disassemble my travel bike and put it into the S&S case for the flight. I get up super early, which is still easy since I haven’t totally adjusted to local time. After packing, I decide to go visit the Buddhist temple across the bridge from the hotel. The steep stairs seem like a perfect way to get some hyper activity out of my system, and eventually I am just hopping up and down the stairs like a frog. For better or worse, this probably only reinforces my reputation as a nutjob among my travel companions, but hey…we’re an odd bunch anyways. Breakfast involves another round of kickass buffet, and the cutie who had been cooking steaks the night before is now making omelets. Turns out she’s not Taiwanese at all (hah! I guessed as much!), but actually Thai. She went to high school and college in Chicago, then culinary school in Switzerland. Now she’s interning here at the hotel. I think maybe she is just enjoying the chance to chat in English, since she doesn’t speak Mandarin. Coincidentally she has plans to party in Taipei, but unfortunately our paths will not cross…. Alas, fair omelet chef, it is not meant to be.
Now that the weather is sunny here, we say goodbye to the Purple Pony (and our friendly driver) at the rather nice Hualien airport, and our flight to Taipei is uneventful…not even a prisoner in chains (see Day 2). Back in the now rain-drenched big city, I cajoled our guide John into taking us to a trio of bicycle shops that Kate and I had seen last year. On a street in downtown Taipei there is block full of high-end bike shops, and actually there is a fourth shop there now. The most interesting of them all was the Merida Flagship store. Merida as a brand is unknown the states but they have a presence in Europe. What you need to know is that Merida owns a just short of a majority share of Specialized Bicycles and historically has produced their bikes since long ago. It is the 15th largest company in all of Taiwan, and is one of the biggest players in the bicycle industry.
We have lunch at a sushi place restaurant around the corner, another great find by John. I’m especially happy since Beverly is gonna buy me sake as a favour for pacing her back to Papago Resort (Day 6). And this leads me to commentary on a weird quirk of Taiwan’s commercial hospitality: it is difficult to get a drink at your hotel. I mean, we were staying at some sick hotels….just disgustingly posh…and depending on the hotel and time of day it was impossible to get a beer, let alone a cocktail. Strange.
After lunch and visiting the last bike shop on the block, our guide John arranges for us to have a foot massage. I’m not exactly sure what was going on there…whether foot massages are normally that luny or if we just bring it with us wherever we go
Afterwards we finally make our way to the hotel, the Victoria. Whoops! A little confusion; apparently we are staying at the Palais de Chine instead. Shit, Bev and Niamh were all excited for the Victoria’s interior dÃ©cor, and now we have to leave. As it turns out, the Palais is a bit more plush in a European traditional flavour. And more importantly, that’s where many of the professional racers are staying. We run into some of the Giant Asia cycling team. Seeing a Caucasian in the mix, we try to start a conversation. This guy from New Zealand seems a little less than warm. Niamh is always game to interact, but on hearing that she was from Canada, he remarked that the only thing he thought of when hearing about Canada was maple syrup. Niamh patiently explained that maple syrup was more about Quebec than Britsh Columbia, and his comment was something about “rivers of maple syrup flowing thorugh the land”. Yeah, jackass, like New Zealand stands out among the Commonwealth for something more than a flightless bird and a fuzzy fruit.
Later that night, John leads us through a small night market to a teppanyaki restaurant, ie a Japanese style grill. The food is okay but throws me a little off since the spices are more influenced by local tastes than traditional Japanese . When I get back to the Palais de Chine hotel, I reflect on my room’s ergonomic oddness. The bed is large and comfortable, but the toilet and shower are separated from the room by glass doors, and the unobscured bath tub is adjacent to the door. I can only guess that businessmen visting here expect to conduct all business and social activities somewhere else other than their room.
We wake up at the Palais de Chine to really varied breakfast buffet, but I don’t feel as comfortable as I did in Silks Place Taroko, and it’s not just the absence of beautiful omelet chefs. This hotel just seems a little too stuffy for my tastes, but I guess that’s appropriate since it’s more of a business hotel than a resort. But while I may mourn the change in venue, it is an exciting morning of watching all the pro racers gather and eat. What do they eat? A fucking mountain of fried bacon, judging by the team from Ukraine. Knowing that Rabobank was staying at the hotel, we keep looking around for Oscar Friere, but no such luck.
Soon we need to check out and meet downstairs with our luggage. It is a mad cluster-fuck as a hundred or so riders and team staff (and us!) all at the same time try to make it downstairs with baggage and bikes via six none too big nor too fast elevators. As we somehow negotiate the bedlam, I manage to spot former Rabobank pro rider and current director sportif Erik Dekker in the downstairs lobby. Outside we see Giant Asia’s rider Dario. He seems like a fun and friendly guy, and Kate and Bev are already best buddies with him. He clowns around with us until our bus picks us up.
Though our hotel is above an underground train station, the press conference and team presentation are being held in different station further down the line. Apparently the plan is to attend the presentation, then board the train with the riders and ride with them back to the station below the Palais de Chine.
During the presentation, many of the same dignitaries from Taitung’s ceremony are present. There is an MC who alternates announcing in Mandarin and unintentionally funny English. One way or another, they explain to us all the strides Taiwan has made in making the island nation cycling friendly…like showers and other amenities at train stations for touring cyclists and the cycling paths like we had seen already in eastern Taiwan. After a long sit and then a photo session, the bulk of the crowd makes its way downstairs to the train platform. We decide to follow Rabobank into car #6, where we’re just standing next to the four riders and Dekker the DS.
Original Mark V: So Erik, I’ve always wondered…when you do these races on outside of Europe, where do get the team cars with all the racks? Do you bring them or do you rent them?
Erik: Oh, we rent them from a place each year when we come, and put temporary team logos on them. Too much money and trouble to bring the our own cars.
Original Mark V: So, when you rent the cars…there’s a reputation for teams to be abusive with team cars…do the rental people make you walk with them around each car, lookin’ at the fenders and bumpers, checkin’ them off for damage on a clipboard?
Erik: (laughs) oh yeah, just like that! We have to take care of them. But in Taiwan, Rabobank just uses cars from Giant. (Giant supplies bikes to Rabobank)
Original Mark V: Oh, that’s convenient. Speaking of Giant, how do you like the bikes? Does the team have much input on the designs?
Erik: Well, when we began our sponsorship with Giant (after switching from Colnago), the bikes we have now had already completed development (with Team High Road). But Giant gives us good bikes and we’ve had no problem with the equipment.
Original Mark V: So I’ve been wondering if the ISP (Giant’s name for their integrated seatpost design) poses any problems for transporting bikes, since individual racers often have to fly with their own bikes.
Erik: No, not really. We don’t do anything special when the riders fly with their bikes.
Erik is a lot of fun to talk to, perfectly approachable and engaging. Oscar Friere is a bit more quiet, but as a 3time world champ I can forgive the star for just wanting to remain rested and focused. I did manage to get a photo with him, and for one of the fastest men in the world, he not a big rider. I’ve met Mario Cipollini and Alessandro Petacchi in person, and both are big, tall dudes.
After hanging out with Rabobank for about 25min, the train drops us off at the next station and continues on towards Hualien with all the riders. They never made it there….but more on that later, because we first have to see more of Taipei and switch hotels.
In the miserable rain, we decide to go to Taipei 101, the one time tallest building in the world. Compared to the rest of the buildings in Taipei, it’s just ridiculously tall. We go as high as we can, since the weather has closed down the upper, exposed observation deck.
Tonight we are staying at the Victoria Hotel, the one we had thought we stay at the night before. Beverly is excited because she like the lobby’s dÃ©cor so much, but I am still comparing the hotel to the ones in Taroko. Super guide John surprises us with another fantastic choice of restaurants. The Five Dime Driftwood has great food, but what will blow your mind is that the whole five-story building is like one giant modern art interpretation of a treehouse. The owner Hsieh Li-shiang designed the interior and exterior with inspiration from the shapes and forms found in nature. It’s just unique and utterly amazing. The deviant in me keeps imaging what it would be like to hold a rave in this space…it would be the most ever! It’s a slow night, so the top 2 floors aren’t in use, so Beverly and I sneak around in the darkness and explore. I want to spend the night here! I bet I could hide in a corner of the top floor, and the staff wouldn’t even notice me.
We walk back towards the hotel in the pouring rain but some of us want to get some beverages to cap off the night. So we stop at the 7-11 and load up, while Kate and John go ahead to the hotel. We’re almost back when Bev insists that we go see if the ferris wheel at the Miramar Mall across the street is still operating. I should stop here and explain that there is this trend in Asia to have BIG-ASS ferris wheels in the city centers or malls. I’ve seen them all over Japan, and Taipei apparently has embraced the idea as well. The ferris wheel is on top of the mall, and the wait platform is mainly exposed to the rain. I have to say I’m pretty miserable by now, and I kinda just want to go to my room and sleep if Bev and company weren’t so gungho. We wait forever for a gondola with a transparent floor, but I have to say that experience is worth it. We managed to bring some beverages with us for the almost 20min ride either by foresight, luck, or cunning (I smuggled my sake in my cargo pants pocket…heheheh).
Another exciting, fun-filled adventure for me and my band of fellow visitors despite the rain. Tomorrow we had planned travel by bus all the way back to Hualien county to watch the pro riders compete in the Taiwan Cup, but another visitor to Taiwan will change all of that….a little thing called Typhoon Megi. Our guide John has told us that the typhoon has caused such problems that the Taiwan Cup will assuredly be canceled.
What will tomorrow bring us?