There was something very eerie about the country road 179. The forests were drenched in thick mist, the light dim and the road had virtually no traffic on it. Dogs with missing paws or muscle wasted rear legs roamed the verges. The forest was alive with unfamiliar sounds as these wild animals started to bed down for the night. We had left it too late to camp so ended up cycling in the dark hoping to find some flat land as the road climbed and dipped in a fashion, not good for cycling. “Why did we choose this route? There was a reason, “maps.me” directed us on another busier road!”, I cried aloud.
Finally we found a clearing next to a turn off to a lane. “This will have to do”, we said to each other as something rustled in the long grass. The night was disturbing as soon we found out that next to the lane there was a shack made of tin and a cage with a rather distressed dog inside. He whimpered and licked his empty bowl all night. I certainly couldn’t rest as I could only worry about the dog and wondered why do people treat animals this way. I was also still so upset from the night before when we camped in the ‘Baisha Paradise Forest’ where we discovered to our horror that this amusement park housed caged animals. All in small unsuitable cages, barely room to move and the lack of any natural environment; it was upsetting. I think my eyes were still sore from crying.
The next morning we woke and gave the dog some breakfast biscuits but he certainly wasn’t in great shape. Back on the mist covered hilly country road we were glad to be moving but the eerie sense of place was still with us. Maybe it was the weather, the tropical landscape or our sensitivity.
Since we left the warmth of the south coast we were in hilly terrain and this brought rainfall and damp conditions. For over a week we seemed to constantly go up and down without making much progress. It was tough cycling with loaded bikes. Previous cyclists we had met had warned us about the west route and said to avoid it as it is busy and polluted. So we aimed to hug the lower hills and head north that way. One day we were cycling the base of the hills and the next we were in the middle of lower mountains. It felt as if we’d gone to bed, woke up and the mountains had moved in around us. Consulting paper maps (given free at the tourist offices but so very misleading) and “maps.me” we had worked out it would be 2-3 days of hilly terrain until we could escape to more bearable roads. During our journey zig zagging east, west, south and north directions, we had seen some great scenery and continued to watch the monkeys manoeuvre the dense forests, listen to the frogs croak. One occasion we watched a guy feed the monkeys bananas and corn on the cob!
Passing plantations of pineapples, cactus and palm trees we began to wonder what the palms were for. Oil was our first though but after some research B found out some strange goings on. Things started to fall into place. We began to understand a little of Taiwans darker side (like every country has).
Red/orange stains dot the road sides. Small plastic bags with green prints of palms are discarded on the verge. Young women sit in small shop fronts with fridges and snacks as camouflage, working from a bowl. Flashing strobes lights highlight the store. Red mouth Taiwanese chew the prepared nut. The Betal nut, grown from the palm tree we had seen for a long time is big business here. It is a stimulant causing (can cause mouth cancer) and you see many men and women chewing it from the evidence of their stained mouths. As we cycled many days through the hills and perfect palm country we saw trucks full of the nut branches, which then went to processing work stations, were we passed many people cutting the branches from the nuts. Then the young women in the shops prepared and sold the nuts. We have seen the strobe lite shops all over Taiwan, from small towns to big cities. Thinking back we saw many red stained mouths in parts of china too. I had a slightly odd experience with a shop keeper while buying 4 eggs. As I tried to pay, she began to play hide and seek with me and then started laughing strangely; she had a very red stained mouth and virtually no teeth left. Perhaps the betal nut had played a part in that scenario.
This section of our cycling journey has not all been eerie, we have camped in great places, met some warm and welcoming people, sampled more 7-eleven stores and been free to travel through this diverse country. The route we cycled weaved through 3 numbered roads and as a warning, most roads with 3 numbers will be challenging and hilly!
Camping spots have ranged from paid campsites, sleeping under pavilions, parks and even a free official campsite where we met Flora and Egg (from New Taipei). Who had a very tempting campfire by there tent. On our last couple of days of hilly roads we stumbled across a fantastic campsite ‘Roadhouse’ on road 136. It is run by a Taiwanese brother and sister and an American guy. Here we saw the most campers in one site. Taiwanese younger middle class seemed to have taken to the camping lifestyle as many were well equipped with the latest gear and even one family had a film projection unit for nighttime movies! The owners welcomed us and we very much enjoyed their hospitality and generosity.
Our route took us to the Sun and Moon lake which has been ranked as one of the top 10 cycle rides in the world! The visitors centre was a great sample of contemporary architecture designed by the Japanese firm Norihiko Dan. On our rest day we cycled the lakeside (approx 35km round) to sample such as claim. The start was on elevated paths around a section of lake which for 6-8km was great and suitable for kids and less confident riders but then the path broke off and the ride was not so considered. We certainly would not rank this a world cycling ride but maybe for some it gives them a small section of the lake to sample. We headed this way to visit the paper mill in Puli and the Paper Dome, which we will write about in the following post.
Due to the hilly terrain, wet, misty conditions our spirits were a bit dampened. Knees and legs muscles were aching and finally we had a treat, a bed in a hotel for 1 night. It was perfect. We had worked it out that this was the only hotel we had stayed in in Taiwan and after a nights sleep we woke commenting on how good that was for us. We were even told we could keep our bikes in our room!
Another issue with hills it takes a lot longer to get anywhere and our timings were a bit messed up so in fact we couldn’t make it back to Taipei by bike. We must be the slowest people to ever cycle the island. Nothing for it but we had to take a local train from Taichung (some 200km) to Taipei. Train travel is relaxed with bikes, there are carriages but you have to pay half price ticket for the bike.
We arrived in Taipei on 4th February to further rain. We have had more rain in our time in Taiwan than in the previous 9 months. So if anyone says in England it rains a lot, I will have a reply for them. We have had a great stay in the 3 Little Birds Hostel, met some friendly travellers and Toto and Polly have been more than helpful with our odd requests. However, we would have rather not sampled the experience of 2 earthquakes while here. The first one on our first night here came about 10pm measuring 6.1 magnitude. At first I thought B was moving around on the top bunk a bit too much and then with the swaying from side to side I realised that this was more than a twitchy sleeper. Almost at the same time we both got a Chinese text ‘Emergency Alert’ (the heading in English but text not). We went our from our basement room into the living room and asked the young guys from Taiwan what it said and what we should do. “Oh, it’s normal, don’t worry”. We tried not to but it left us with a very odd sensation. 2 nights later at midnight (still up watching a series) came another one and this time 2 messages, one a Presidential one! The guys this time had but the TV on and scenes of damage in Hualien where it happened. They didn’t say anything this time about not to worry! This earthquake was slightly larger measuring 6.4 magnitude.
During our 3 days/4 nights in Taipei it rained 80% of the time so our activities were more confined. We met Phil, Barbara’s college classmate from 14 years ago from LCC. Enjoyed coffee and chats. Our visit to Suho Paper Memorial Museum was inspiring and humbling (details in next post). We sampled a hot pot (cook your own restaurant), the night market and the usual tracking down bike packing boxes, dismantling bikes etc.
As our time in Taiwan draws to a close and we have had an amazing time. It has been full of great hospitality, generosity, beautiful nature, challenging hills, darker views, easy and an immersion into a country shaping itself away from China.
We will be in Okinawa, Japan tomorrow night (8.2.18) and we have a greedy 10 weeks in Japan. We wish there was a large no mans land to stop off, to digest what we have experienced to clear way for the next chapter. But we will be in a new land as the plane touches land ( no boats to Japan hence flying) in 30 hours time.
Facts: Cycled 1380 km in Taiwan
Spent 39 days in Taiwan
Average spend a day each £15 (cheapest day £5, most expensive £38)
Pic: left all places we stayed and right earthquake map!
All photography by Jack Blake & Barbara Salvadori 2018©