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Taiwan

 

 (1 261km-33days - 25 December 2013–26 January 2014)

 

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25–27 December – Manila, Philippines - Taipei, Taiwan

The flight from Manila arrived in Taipei at around two o’clock in the morning. Everything went smoothly and all the luggage came out on the belt, bike and all. With it being that early, it was better to wait for daylight before taking a taxi into town. The hostel booked wasn’t open at night, and the reception desk only opened at 9h00. I also wanted to drop my bike at the bike shop for reassembling, which was right next door to the hostel, but they only opened at 10h00.

 

I slept soundly on the soft airport couches and, by morning, was ready to venture into town.

 

Taipei was a different cup of tea. It was a large, busy and modern city with highways, freeways, flyovers, fast-moving cars and even faster-moving trains, all situated amongst lush green hills. Capitalism and consumerism were alive and well, and the streets packed with people and vehicles. Unable to read or speak a single word, I felt as out of place as stinky tofu would be at a barbeque in Cape Town, and getting out of town was going to be interesting. It rained steadily from the time of my arrival and I wondered if it was a mistake in coming this far north.

 

The following day was off into the streets to find a much needed new Ortlieb handlebar bag as I was convinced if one couldn’t find it in Taipei, then it didn’t exist. Warmer clothing was also required for the freezing weather.

 

The remainder of the day was spent exploring the alleys and wandering around the markets, sometimes getting completely lost and strangely landing up exactly where I started. What an amazing place Taipei was! In between its busy alleys, shopping malls, markets and crowded streets one could stumble upon a temple dating back to the Qing dynasty. In these peaceful places, the smell of incense mixed with the chanting of devotees and the koi was king.

 

I moved to Ximending, another part of the city, which was the ultra-consumerist heart of Taipei. It was young and trendy, and if any part of the body could be inked or pierced, it could be done in Ximending.

 

After finding a hostel, it was straight to the night market and, as usual, it was fascinating and the food tasty and plentiful. In the morning, a long walk made for visiting all the well-known city temples and I finished off my spiritual tour with a visit to the remarkable Longshan Temple.

 

28 December - Taipei – Shimen - 50km

 

Although not raining, it was bitterly cold and I dressed as warm as possible. A very scenic bicycle path along the river led out the city. It was a fascinating ride past many colourful temples, and the city slowly disappeared behind me. The trail was a popular one filled with friendly cyclists, all interested in my doings. For a while, I cycled with William who treated me to coffee before he had to head back.

 

Outside the city limits, cycling was straight into an icy wind accompanied by a slight drizzle, no fun at all. On reaching Shimen, it was a blessing to find both room and food and to settle in under a thick duvet.

 

 

29 December - Shimen – Keelung - 40 km

Once again, the weather was miserable. It drizzled, a drizzle that lasted all day and a frigid wind blew in from the ocean. My path continued, past more interesting temples, one being the 18 Lords Temple or Dog Temple. Legend has it that a man went out fishing but never returned. His loyal dog pined for days until he could bear the suffering no longer, and it is believed he leapt into the foaming ocean, drowning himself. People were so astounded by this act of loyalty they build a temple in honour of the dog.

 

In Keelung, an exceptionally large version of a giant yellow rubber duck graced the harbour. Quite bizarre, but it seemed thousands braved the cold, all bundled up in scarves and jackets, to witness this rubber duck floating in the bay. Besides the duck, there were plenty duck items for sale - from T-shirts and hats to umbrellas, even duck-themed food. Who would have thought a massive rubber duck could be that popular?

 

Keelung was famous for its night market and the food well-known throughout Taiwan. The streets were crowded and one could hardly walk but, joining in the madness, I pushed my way around delicious-looking stalls. Steam rose from massive pots of soup – just the thing for a cold night.

 

30 December - Keelung – Jiaoshi - 85 km

Again, it was wet and cold on leaving Keelung. The route headed along the coast past the small, old mining towns of Jiufen and Jingush; they say there’s still gold in them hills. Taiwan was fascinating (and sometimes contradictory) as it was both modern and traditional; hectic yet organised. It was easily the country with the best street food and snacks, and the scenery unsurpassed. At Bitou Cape, with its sea-eroded cliffs, a bike path ran flush next to the coast, a bike path which I thought could rocket Taiwan into the number one cycle touring destination.

 

The small town of Jiaoshi, well-known for its hot springs, was a good place to call it a day. Most hotels had natural hot water in the rooms and keen to try it out, an abode on the main road was just the place, and soon I was soaking in a tub of hot water. The town was also known for its cuisine (it was said they grew the vegetables in hot spring water). It must have been really tasty as I ate supper twice.

 

31 December - Jiaoshi – Suao - 40km

After leaving at leisure, the first stop was at the National Centre of Traditional Arts. The centre occupied a large 24-hectare site and was well-known for its folk art. It was a bit disappointing and I thought my mother’s garden more interesting.

 

It was New Year’s Eve and I didn’t feel like camping along the way, all by my lonesome. Suao was quite an attractive little village and made a good place to spend New Year’s Eve. Not much happened as this was Taiwan where people celebrate Chinese New Year instead of the Gregorian New Year. There were, however, a few fireworks to mark the start of 2014.

 

1 January 2014 - Suao – Taroko National Park - 80km

 

From Suao, the route led straight up the mountain, and in no time at all I was high up, overlooking the coastline with Suao far below. This was a mountainous stretch and the going slow. It, however, wasn’t difficult as Taiwan was home to master road builders and the gradient not steep. It was a stunning part of the country as the road cut through tunnels and crossed massive valleys, all while the coast stretched for miles to both the north and the south.

 

At that time of year, it got dark early and, on reaching Taroko, there was no time to cycle up the famous Taroko Gorge, but better to locate a room, find food and relax.

 

 

2 January 2014 - Taroko Gorge - 40km

It was more cost-effective to return to the hostel spotted the previous night, leaving enough time to cycle up the gorge.

 

The Taroko Gorge was stunning with sheer marble cliffs, reaching 1,000 metres into the air. A narrow road ran through winding tunnels, always with the Liwu River way below. The path led passed what was known as the Swallows Grotto, where it ran through tunnels carved into the sides of the gorge - thirty-eight tunnels, all in all, including the Tunnel of Nine Turns. It was a beautiful part of the canyon and an area where numerous hiking trails began. I only walked to the Eternal Spring Shrine. These little temples were built in memory of those who lost their lives in the construction of the cross-island highway.

 

Although it was uphill, the gradient was gentle, or so it felt as I wasn’t carrying any luggage. It was an extraordinary ride and it took the best part of the day to cycle the 20 kilometres to the next village. The gorge was littered with interesting sites and walks up the mountain.

 

3 January - Taroko – Shimen - 92km

My leisurely start was, mostly, due to my indecision whether to stay another day or not. In the end, it was after ten o’clock before hitting the road. The coastal highway ran south and it turned out another beautiful day of cycling. From time to time, the route ran close to the ocean and at other times it climbed up the mountainside for stunning views.

 

As it was winter, it got dark fairly early and unsure if it was possible to reach the campsite indicated on the map, Shimen came just at the right time. A conveniently located roadside guesthouse and restaurant turned out another interesting experience. My order of sailfish was served raw and the bed a futon - I assumed it was a Japanese-owned establishment.

 

4-5 January - Shimen – Dulan - 80km

fishing hamlets. The rich Kuroshio Current ran close to the coast at this point and the main income, not surprising, therefore from fishing. The route passed the Tropic of Cancer Monument, and I was officially back in the tropics. The many interesting places made good exploring as well as for a multitude of photos stops. Unaware that Taiwan was such a popular tourist destination, the many tour busses encountered came as a surprise.

 

The assumption that it was going to be a level ride was clearly incorrect. The coastal highway climbed steadily up to the Baci Observation Tower and then sped down to lower ground. The Caves of the Eight Immortals, and site of the earliest human inhabitation of Taiwan, had sadly been turned into shrines which distracted a bit from its archaeological importance.

 

Dulan looked worth exploring and Dulan Café and rooms came with a Mexican theme, famous English breakfast and quesadillas. The old Sugar Factory (turned into a bar/music studio/art gallery) put Dulan on the Taiwanese travel radar and it was a good place to spend the day and do laundry and update travel logs.

 

6 January - Dulan – Dawu - 95km

Again, it was a surprisingly varied day. The first stop was at “Water Running Uphill”, where water was clearly running uphill after which the route continued past rural fishing villages, eventually turning off to hot springs.

 

The area was disappointing as it was immensely touristy, and I, therefore, didn’t stay but carried on past indigenous villages all with interesting art. The entire stretch was hilly as the mountains came right down to the coast and it couldn’t have been an easy place to build a highway. A roadside guesthouse at Dawu made a convenient overnight stop as it had a restaurant next door.

 

7 January - Dawu – Linyuan - 105km

Shortly after leaving, the road turned inland and headed over the mountains to the West Coast. It climbed steeply away from the coast and after 10 kilometres one could see the ocean far below. Eventually, the road started heading downhill and, on reaching the ocean, it turned north along the South China Sea, heading back in the direction of Taipei. With that, the mountains were done and dusted, and they slowly disappeared in my rear-view mirror.

 

The route led past Dapeng and through a scenic area along a famous bicycle path said to be the most expensive bicycle path in the world.

 

8 January - Linyuan – Tainan City - 74km

 

 

It took forever to cycle through Kaohsiung City but, eventually, the road cleared the city limits from where a less congested road ran to Tainan City.

 

That part of Taiwan was pan-flat but it was also straight into the wind. It wasn’t as interesting as the East Coast and best to put one’s head down and get on with it. Tainan was the first capital of Taiwan and the oldest city in the country and, therefore, steeped in history and tradition.

 

 

 

9 January - Tainan City

The initial intention wasn’t to spend the day in Tainan, but it was such an interesting city with plenty of fascinating temples and shrines, it warranted another day. It was a place best explored by foot and first up was the Confucius Temple which oozed calm, grace and beauty like any good Confucius Temple should.

 

Narrow alleys with traditional street food led to the old city gate and on to more interesting temples, some with quite terrifying deities and others where people still cast moon blocks to determine the best course of action. Now and again, I sat down for a cup of Taiwanese tea and then headed off to the next temple. There appeared different temples for different things. At some, you go to ask for good luck, and at other people prayed for the protection of their children.

 

It was interesting to see many swastika symbols. Hitler, unfortunately, gave the swastika symbol a bad name. The symbol remains widely used in Indian religions, specifically in Hinduism and Buddhism. It’s understood the word “swastika” came from the Sanskrit swastika - “su” meaning good or auspicious, combined with “asti”, meaning it is, along with the diminutive suffix “ka.” The swastika, therefore, literally means “it is good.” It’s also believed during World War I, the swastika was found on the shoulder patches of the American 45th Division.

 

10 January - Tainan City – Beigang - 100km

The wind picked up and it was slow going, not much one can do about it but get it over and done with. There is nothing good one can say about cycling into a headwind: it is slow going, frustrating and energy-sapping. Although the road passed various wetland reserves, it wasn’t a good day for exploring.

 

At around 16h00, it was time to start looking out for a place to camp or stay but there wasn’t anything that looked the part. Eventually, a friendly man pointed me in an easterly direction, and it was easily 20 kilometres before cycling into Beigang.

 

There is always something interesting in any town and Beigang was known for the Chaotian Temple, a place where people went to cast moon blocks. Although late, it was something I wanted to see. Once inside the temple, one could hear the clackety-clack, clackety-clack of devotees throwing moon blocks. Both men and women of all ages clasped identical blocks, whispered something to themselves, paused, and let the blocks fall to the ground. One side of the block was curved and called the yin, while the other flat and called the yang.

 

I understood the gods’ fate is revealed in the manner these blocks fall to the floor. One yin and one yang are a yes; two yins facing up with the flat surfaces against the ground means the gods are mad, and it’s a no; two yangs with the curved surfaces swaying on the ground shows the gods are laughing, which means either the question was unclear or the inquirer already knew the answer. The gods told me to stay on Route 19.

 

11 January - Beigang (Beikang) – Lukang - 70km

 

As the gods told me to stay on Route 19, I did. It was a good idea as it wasn’t as windy closer to the coast. It was an agricultural area making for a pleasant ride past vast expanses of farming activities.

 

The small town of Lukang came as a pleasant surprise. Once a thriving harbour town, Lukang became a backwater after the harbour silted up and closed altogether around 1895. Forgotten, the town continued in its own way and was rediscovered when people realised not much has changed since 1895. Today, it comprises of the oldest and most beautiful temples, narrow, curvy streets, excellent traditional food, and old lantern and fan shops.

 

12 January - Lukang –Miaoli City - 100km

What an unpleasant day! The wind was howling, and my path led straight into it. The best part of the day was meeting two young men circumnavigating the island on foot, one dressed as the Chinese God, Nezha. In Taiwan, Nezha was an icon. The story goes that Nezha fought and killed the son of the Dragon King of the East China Sea. Fearing his parents would suffer for his actions, he committed suicide to prevent his parents from being punished. At the time, there were over 300 temples worshipping Nezha. With his boy-like appearance, he was considered a god especially good for protecting children.

 

I battled the wind but felt surprisingly strong and didn’t even lose my sense of humour. Once again, it was the people of Taiwan that impressed me most. Twice people stopped to offer me water – how nice of them. Surprisingly enough, I made 100 kilometres; some days I could and other days I couldn’t.

 

13 January - Miaoli City – Xinfeng - 55km

Sadly, the wind didn’t ease off or change direction. In fact, it appeared even stronger. There’s nothing one can do about it but battle on - at times it felt downright dangerous as the wind gusted sideways, nearly blowing me off the bike. Again, a kind lady stopped and offered me a cup of coffee - wow, how nice was that.

 

As always, all one had to do was keep going forward, and you will eventually get there. Nothing stays constant and the wind had to change sooner or later. I feared it would only be after leaving Taiwan, but change it had to change; it’s about the only thing in the world one can be sure of.

 

On reached Xinfeng, there were still 65 kilometres to go to Taipei. It started drizzling and that was enough encouragement to start looking for accommodation.

 

14 January - Xingeng – Taipei - 65 km

 

 

The rain-streaked windows told me that it was going to be another unpleasant day on the road. It, fortunately, wasn’t very far and I was extremely happy to find a bed at Taipei Hostel at NT$600. Although small, it was all I needed and I stood under the hot shower forever. It was a very convenient location close to the main train station and, therefore, a short hop to about anywhere.

 

 

 

15 – 23 January - Taipei

A ferry from Taiwan to mainland China made it a no-brainer where to go next. The only problem was getting a Chinese visa. Taiwan and China weren’t the best of friends at the time resulting in no Chinese embassy in Taiwan. The day turned out to be a total waste as absolutely zero got done. The place organising Chinese visas wasn’t where indicated on the map and Giant Bicycles not behind the train station as expected. The helpful staff at the hostel helped locate the address of the visa office and suggested another bicycle shop down the road.

 

The following day the visa service office was located close by and within easy walking distance from the hostel. ST International Travel Service (www.sttvisa.com) made it extremely easy and did everything. They had been in business for 20 years and knew the procedures well. The only problem being that it took five days as the passport had to be sent to Hong Kong. It was not a big deal as there were a whole bunch of things to do in Taipei and plenty to keep me busy for a few days.

 

A bicycle shop was located four blocks down from the hostel and the friendly owners gave the bike a good overall.

 

Unfortunately, the ferry boat running between Taiwan and Mainland China (Xiamen) departed from Taichung on a Wednesday and from Keelung on a Sunday, meaning one had to take a bus to Taichung or wait another five days for the Keelung ferry. After collecting the bicycle from the bike shop, it was onto the camera shop where they gave the camera a good cleaning.

 

Once again, I liked the hostel and the people who stayed there - most of them in the process of looking for teaching jobs in Taiwan. I even met a South African lady, quite amazing as I very seldom meet South Africans and I could count on the fingers of my one hand the ones I had. The others consisted of one Dutch guy (Martin), who didn’t look or sound Dutch at all, a British guy, who looked and sounded British but who’d been teaching English for more than ten years in Taiwan, a New Zealander, who’d spent eight months working and travelling in China, etc. Always a fascinating world in a hostel.

 

I also met Borut Kocar, a cyclist from Holland (Yugoslavian by birth), who spent seven weeks cycling Taiwan. He was an extremely interesting person and worked as a dance/movement therapist in a small psychiatric hospital in Holland. On my return to the hostel, I found a small box in front of my door. It contained a lovely message from Borut as well as a small porcelain clog - how sweet and thoughtful.

 

There was plenty to do in the city. One being a visit the famous Taipei-101, the tallest building in the world from 2004 to 2009. It, apparently, was the tallest and largest “green building” in the world at the time. It is said that Taipei-101 was one of the most stable buildings ever constructed, and besides various piles and reinforced foundations, it was fitted with a 660-ton steel pendulum that served as a turned mass damper. Suspended between the 92nd to the 87th floor, the pendulum swayed to offset movements in the building caused by typhoons and earthquakes.

 

I also paid a visit to the Martyrs’ Shrine; not so much for the aesthetic grandeur or to pay respect to the fallen servicemen, but more to watch the straight-faced military guards as they changed shifts every hour, followed by an elaborate marching ceremony.

 

Yay, I got my Chinese visa and then had to wait for the ferry boat which was only due on Sunday. My poor, old, tattered and torn passport was filling up and needed replacement.

 

Taiwan’s coffee industry was brewing, something I wasn’t opposed to. Starbucks seemed to have targeted the upper income levels and coffee drinking was fast becoming a fashion. The young and the hip were sipping their brew (which I wasn’t even sure they liked) in trendy cafes. Tiny and intimate coffee shops, as well as a few “hole–in-the-wall” type places roasted their coffee right on the pavement, making it quite impossible to walk past.

 

The interesting thing was there appeared a strong Japanese influence when it came to brewing coffee. The specially-designed kettles and filters allowed water to drip through, one or two drips at a time, resulting in brewing one cup at a time. The beans were weighed, grounded, emptied into the filter, and cup and saucer warmed. A small, swan-neck kettle was used, but instead of flooding the filter and letting it drip, the lady only poured a small amount of water in - a process that took several minutes. I sat watching in fascination and once my cup was placed in front of me, I felt it should be savoured.

 

24 - 26 January - Taipei – Keelung - 90km

I, finally, left Taipei for the 90-kilometre ride to Keelung. The ferry boat to China was only in two days, but having itchy feet, it was time to move along. It was a beautiful day, the sun was out with a nice tailwind, and it was a good day on the bike. The route ran past odd rock formations, created by aeons of wind and sea erosion. Arrival in busy Keelung was in good time and there was more than enough time to explore the night market, famous for its wide variety of food.

 

Around 16h00, I cycled to the harbour, bought a ticket and waited for the boat. Although the ferry had been in the port since arriving, all sat waiting for hours before finally let on board.

 

27 January - Keelung, Taiwan – Xiamen, China - By boat

The Cosco Star was much larger than expected and appeared more a cargo ship than a ferry, with the result there weren’t many people on board. The interior was quite luxurious. Cabins had six bunk beds to a cabin, but I was the only person in my cabin. There wasn’t much one could do, as the ship rolled wildly, and it was best to stay put.

 

Arrival in Xiamen, China was around 9h30 the following morning and it was an uncomplicated entry into China. I changed my last Taiwanese money, drew a few more Chinese yuan at the ATM and was set to see what the area held.

 

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