11/5 Closing in on that Asian Rush(-hour)

11/5 Closing in on that Asian Rush(-hour)

The motel in Sandimen acted as the perfect launch pad on Tuesday morning, the 5th. We gathered early for a photo op

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and rode to a local eatery for breakfast L1290471

and then on to a 7-11 for coffee.

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Afterwards we set off briskly for Tainan, over sixty miles north. Along the way lay some interesting stops.

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A mid-morning flat tire caused some delay. The temperature had soared to well into the 90s so we stopped to wait for stragglers at a famous ice cream store nearby. It was owned by a family from the Hakka tribe, a Taiwanese aboriginal tribe with original roots in China. The owners were the third generation of the family that had started the store; the site, house and grounds were beautiful, and the town, also Hakka, was clean and tidy.

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We pressed on to see some examples of Hakka homes.

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We had hoped to reach Tainan, our destination for the day, by 4:00, but the approach was via a busy main road, and by now we were in the thick of rush hour traffic. We stopped to view a noble temple, then made our way into Tainan proper.

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Along the roadside we came upon a truck with a stage outfitted onto its side, blaring loud music and what sounded like speeches. We thought that perhaps it was something political, but when we stopped to investigate it turned out to be a puppet show, with a fight going on between warrior gods. There was thrashing about, lots of waving of swords, and heavy-handed declamations. On a nearby table was a great feast laid out, paid for, we learned, by the patron of the puppet show.

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Perhaps, then, it was about politics.

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In any case, we traveled on for miles into Tainan — the original capital of Taiwan — negotiating frantic rush hour traffic as the light faded and the streets filled, finally reaching our resting spot in the center of the city. It was a fine, fancy hotel that buffered us from the teeming street life, and we settled in. We recovered in time to head back out into the busy streets and find a delightful place that offered hot pot cooking at its best, with Taiwan beer offering true hydration. A record was set.

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We finally returned to our rooms and sank into deeply-hydrated slumber for tomorrow’s business.

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11/3-11/4 Northwards Ho!

11/3-11/4 Northwards Ho!

The rain continued to attack us through the day on Saturday the 2nd on into the night. Heavy, unrelenting Tropical rain, no mistake about it. We began to fear that our riding days were numbered. Our trip might die along with Kroosa the Typhoon, which the media promised was petering out. Riding was impossible, so we did what we could on Saturday to mitigate the weather. First we went out to eat, and then, following tradition, went out to eat. For dinner we ended up at a restaurant a couple towns away, and then we repaired to a tiny place off the main busy street, one that specialized in real shaved ice: a six-inch cube spun at incredible speed while a blade below directed ice shavings into a bowl. Your choice of toppings, including beans:

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Back outside we stumbled into some kind of a loud folk-arts festival/contest that dominated the town square and we enjoyed that, counting our blessings that it wasn’t karaoke.

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Then it was back to Kenting to see what Sunday morning would bring. The town is actually quite a small place, a double-lane highway along the beach, lined with lots of businesses catering to the beach crowd — bars, t-shirt shops, souvenir places, cafes and guest houses. Lots of crowds, but move along folks, nothing to see here.

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But Sunday morning, the 3rd, actually brought a reprieve from weather gods — and the promise of a break from storms for several days. Immediately a plan was hatched to go for a short scenic ride out and up over the blade of land that constitutes the southernmost tip of Taiwan. On this ride we got to see the Pacific Ocean, the Straights of Taiwan, and the South China Sea.

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We stopped for a moment to admire a piece of rock that the locals have named after a U.S. president. Look and see if you could guess which one:

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Yes, you are right: it’s Nixon’s head!

After a tough climb inland we returned and congratulated ourselves at Howards Beach Resort, eating Buddha fruit and beer on the deck.

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A group favorite before dinner.

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The following day, Monday the 4th, we bid farewell to Kenting, pedaling North now under mixed clouds and high cross winds.

L1290300 L1290319 L1290310 L1290306 L1290302 L1290326 L1290329 L1290365Thirty miles or so into the ride we began to run into more and more traffic, and we stopped for lunch at a dandy artist community about halfway to Sandimen, our destination for the evening.

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Here we enjoyed the strange nuts that Stephen and David had bought from a roadside stand along the way. We called them “mustache nuts” because of their shape; their taste and texture are kind of a cross between chestnuts and water chestnuts. The rest of the meal was a set menu, superb and strange.

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Afterwards, we pressed on to Sandimen, washed the grit off our bikes and went out to dinner at an aboriginal site belonging to the Paiwan tribe up in the hills, sitting on a promontory at about 1500 feet and looking West at the most fantastic views out to the ocean. We sat at tables outside under cloudy skies with the moon glowing through, gazing off as the evening cooled and our dinners arrived.

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Everyone remarked on the sign with directions to the washrooms at the bottom of the stairs.

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And so it was that the day ended. We were on the downhill run of the ride, and sightseeing was taking over the biking exercises.

11/1-11/2 Over the Mountains and through the Fog

11/1-11/2 Over the Mountains and through the Fog

When we arrived at the Formosan Naruwan Hotel in Taitung the evening before, the sky was active — high clouds moving quickly across the striking landscape. Indeed, the town itself is charming, cradled between the end of the coast range and the sea.

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But further south across the China Sea, the Typhoon named Krossa was brewing, its progress charted on local weather stations and satellite maps. It was moving westward towards Vietnam, and its long spinning tendrils stretched out North and South, and they were touching the southern part of Taiwan where we were heading.

In Taitung the morning dawned cloudy with occasional spitting rain, but we gathered outside the hotel in our motley riding outfits and decided to go for it despite the weather. It was to be another long day, out of the Rift Valley now and down south along the coast for about forty-five miles on route 9, then turning inland, west up over the central mountains to a pass, and finally descending southwest on a small one-and-a-half lane road, route 99, for about twenty miles to the town of Sichongxi. There we had reservations at a quiet little inn at the edge of town called the South Wind Resort. We were there when the storm caught up with us.

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Partway down the coast we stopped at one of the ubiquitous 7-11 stores in Dafu, where our guide David produced and entire bag of sugar canes.

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Full of fruit and coffee we wandered up the street to a curious Catholic church originally established by the Spanish for the local aboriginals and dedicated to St. Joseph. All the decorations, art and carving, and the architecture of the building itself was based upon local religious figures and habits.

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On we traveled to another seaside town, Daren, where we stopped at a local eatery for lunch. It included the usual avalanche of food, mainly seafood. Afterwards the owner brought out a beautiful tea set and served us some delicious Oolong tea.

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We pressed on, up and over the headlands before turning inland.

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Then came the steep climb up to the pass.

L1290135 L1290164 When we reached the top of the pass the weather was changing. Dense fog engulfed the little station there, so we put on our jackets and headed downhill carefully.

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About halfway down we came across a whimsical roadside shelter, right across from the entrance to a national park, where we posed with some tourists. L1290182  L1290186

It was nearly dark, and it had already been raining when we arrived at Sichongxi. The inn was comfortable, and we celebrated the end of this long day before going out to dinner.

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We retired to rest up for the next day’s adventure, but sometime after midnight we all awoke to the sound of rain pouring down outside our doors and windows. The typhoon further south had spun off some very serious rain; it didn’t simply pelt down, in came down in sheets, pounding on the buildings, trees, and an impossibly sodden lawn.

The rain had not let up by morning, but we had breakfast and packed up as though we were going to ride. It was supposed to be a short day, with a simple ten or fifteen mile ride down into Kenting, at the very southern tip of Taiwan. But this was not a day for riding.

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Michael provided us another tasty tea tea service; then we packed our bags, put them into the van, and, except for Rich and some of the crew, simply drove the short distance into Kenting.

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By days end we had moved ourselves and our bikes down to our new hotel, where we would be for two nights. We were certain that things would get better, that the Typhoon would blow itself out and that we could again pick up our adventure where we had left off.

10/31 From Tofu to Taitung

10/31  From Tofu to Taitung

From where the Papago Resort Hotel is located in Cheshang, on route 9 that runs through the Rift Valley, it’s a straight shot south down the highway to Taitung, which was our next destination. Dawn at the Papago was gorgeous.

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We thought we’d be heading South, so it seemed odd that when our group left the hotel the next morning we headed north, traveling into the wind and between rice paddies that seemed to stretch to infinity.

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We noodled through some side roads, impressed by the endless rice fields — some ready for harvest, and a few of them actually being harvested.

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We studied the basic system of irrigation that uses tiny dams and water channels, a system developed over centuries, and we stopped to find out more, and to watch the harvesting take place.

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Nowadays, rice paddies are harvested by a machine that resembles a combination of motorized hedge shear and miniature combine; the threshed rice is blown into a waiting truck to take to the rice factory. A local farmer explained the operation.

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After some time we rode off, still heading mysteriously north, into the wind.

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Soon we arrived at a curious place, a local history museum that explained the story of rice and the history of the Rift Valley we were passing through.

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Here our crew posed for pictures, near strange aboriginal carvings:

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Nearby were tours for tourists that ranged through the paddies and the town. New bikes anyone?

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We now discovered that our first real destination was actually a farm that manufactured tofu up in the mountains. So now we ascended a steep thousand or fifteen hundred feet up a deserted road to reach the farm where we might learn more.

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Already we could see that this place was special, run by delightful people, and we hurried inside to find out what we could. Stephen had bought a couple farmers hats for us, and we had a cheerful moment with the owners.

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Then we proceeded inside, where the tofu was actually made, and we learned about its production by actually making it. First we took soybeans and ground them up by hand in a stone mill — very old school. Then we stirred it and helped press it. P1000616L1280941It took awhile.

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Then we ate it. L1280982

Afterwards the old farmer who owned the property took us on a tour of the fields above, with terraced rice paddies and room for other plantings. L1280999 L1290003 L1290008
But it was time to press on, so we thanked the owners and headed down the mountainside to make our way down to the end of the Rift Valley at Taitung.

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We were running a little late, but the wind was pushing at our backs. We stopped momentarily at a local bicycle trail park, where Rich tried to ride a bigger bike than he was used to.

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Leaving there, we proceeded at speed and could really make good time. arriving in Taitung before 5:00pm. We checked into our rooms, cleaned up, and headed out to dinner, lead by Stephen.

But for now we could rest on our small glory. We had covered another 68 miles, right out of the Rift Valley  to Taitung which was on the coast. We welcomed the scent of the sea and the quite luxurious accommodations. One more day and we’d be done with the East Coast altogether. There was a sense of accomplishment in the air. There was also a Typhoon stirring far to the south and east, approaching Taiwan even as we slept soundly in our comfortable beds.

10/30 Up the Secret Highway

10/30 Up the Secret Highway

And now, before traveling any further down this blog highway, our readers should meet the team that is shepherding us around Taiwan. You’ve seen Stephen Chen, but here are the rest, in at least one characteristic pose:

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The crew, from left to right in the picture are:  Michael Chen, David Chen, Tai Ming Chen, FeFe, and Jimmy Huang. Our thanks to them all.

For our day’s ride this time, we followed a route that our guides had ridden in the past:  the old cross-mountain highway that once connected the East and the West sides of Taiwan through the middle of the island. What with earthquakes and washouts, this road became impassable years ago, but it is still paved and now leads only upwards towards a dead end at the ridge of the mountain range separating the Rift Valley from the West side (where Taipei lies). At the end of the day, after riding, we were booked into a quite luxurious hotel, the Papago International Resort in Chishang.

In the morning we tuned our bikes for a short while, bade a fond farewell to the New Life Hot Springs, and headed down the hill to the central plain below.

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Along the roads we passed rice paddies everywhere. This is the rice basket of Taiwan, and extensive fields surround rural communities for whom rice is the main business.

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The road we wanted lead across the valley, crossed a substantial bridge, and began to climb the West side.

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At first the gradient was gradual.

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But the road soon became a relentless grade. We continued to spin our way upwardsL1280807.

High up here in the hills live aboriginal communities with curious statuary and murals.

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DSCN2063Still the road lead on, and eventually a breakaway group reached the high point of the ride, marked by a great aboriginal statue overlooking lush and wonderful views.

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Now came the delightful descent, fast and furious, down the mountain and across the bridge, ending at the luxury Papago hotel, where our rooms looked out onto a landscape of mountains we had just biked up and down, and, down below, to a series of swimming pools waiting for those who still had energy left.

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DSCN2077DSCN2078We had covered close to 48 miles and gained about 3200 feet of elevation, and we celebrated happily with toasts and cheer. Tomorrow would lead us far from here and we wanted to remember the Rift Valley and the mountains that define it.

10/29 Hot Springs Tonite!!

10/29  Hot Springs Tonite!!

It started innocently enough, with the group heading out of Hualien in the same direction as our ride the day before, but then veering off on Coastal Highway 30 going South. We knew we were in for a treat at our next night’s rest, the New Life Hot Springs, just over the coastal range at the end of the central Rift Valley. Soon we were rolling swiftly past the spectacular blue of the Pacific Ocean on our left and sheer mountains and dry river beds on our right. We passed mile after mile of winding road along high headlands, wheeling through long tunnels, gaping at the glorious scenery

The road south

The road south

The road south

The road south

We climbed a big hill to arrive at the “Best Overlook” and stop for a little rest.

At the "Best Look Out"

At the “Best Look Out”

And gathered for a photo op

At the "Best Look Out"

At the “Best Look Out”

Was the view really better with us in the way?

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We descended that snaky road quickly and continued South to reach the Tropic of Cancer, where a tall white monument split down the middle of the meridian.

Tropic of Cancer marker

Tropic of Cancer marker

We of course fell for the temptation of dividing ourselves between the two sections of the earth. Well, in pictures at least.

Between tropical worlds

Between tropical worlds

Rivers on the way

We pressed forward with a purpose now, heading towards a small fishing cove where our lunch spot awaited. From its windows we could see the margins of the sea the sandy shore.

Lunch

Lunch

Fresh fish dish

Fresh fish dish

View from lunch site

View from lunch site

More lunch views

More lunch views

Down the coast

Down the coast

We had covered well over fifty miles now and were ready to turn inland, climbing up steep and winding route 30 over the coastal range. The views were tremendous, though most of us had our heads down, pedaling for all we were worth to get up over the pass. One  tunnel we churned through was 1.8 miles long and continued the uphill grade.

Up route 30

Up route 30

Passing coastal headlands

Passing coastal headlands

At last we reached the pass and began a long sweeping descent through a forest towards the Rift Valley. We turned off just at the bottom of a stream bed, and then a final groaning climb led to the Taiwanese version of Valhalla:  the rustic, beautifully situated New Life Hot Springs resort. It was spartan and calm, and they served cold beer at a wooden table on the veranda.

New Life Hot Springs

New Life Hot Springs

New Life Hot Springs sign

New Life Hot Springs sign

At the hot springs

At the hot springs

We took it easy until dinner, then had a really fine soak in the pungent springs (separated into male and female pools — no suits — and public, for families, with suits) before making our way to our beds. It was our longest day so far: almost 72 miles and 4400 feet of elevation gain. We were cooked, and whether we deserved it or not slept the sleep of the just.

Hot springs dinner

Hot springs dinner

Simple comforts

Simple comforts

10/28 Let the Circle Be Unbroken

10/28 Let the Circle Be Unbroken

Today brought a simple, satisfying circle route, a meander through beautiful back roads and secret bike paths as we made our way up to and around a large lake.

Richard and his Bike Friday

Richard and his Bike Friday

Rich's rocket

Rich’s rocket

We stopped at a remote temple mid-morning to share some packed snacks, then sped on to our lunch, a traditional Taiwanese meal at a small restaurant near the water. The scenery was breathtaking, with misty mountains delicately shrouded in soft clouds.

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After about 45 miles of riding or so, we returned to our comfortable hotel and rested for dinner in “downtown Hualien.”

The food just keeps coming

The food just keeps coming

Table two was no slouch either

Table two was no slouch either

Later in the evening one of our hosts, Michael, gave the first demonstration on how to make and drink the lovely local Oolong tea.

Michael serves up Oolong t

Michael serves up Oolong tea

With that the day came to a close and we headed for bed — to be truthful, still a little jet-lagged. And it was a good thing we did, for the next day promised to be long and gorgeous with a sting in its tail.