Around the world by bike
(1 261km - 33days)
25 – 27 December - Taipei, Taiwan
It was a short flight and we arrived in Taipei at around 2h00. Everything went smoothly and my entire luggage came out the shoot!! I decided to sleep at the airport and take the taxi into town in the morning. The hostel where I booked was not open at night and the reception desk only opened at 9h00. I also had to drop my bike at the bike shop (so they could put it all together again), and fortunately the bike shop was right next door to the hostel. As the bike shop only opened at 10h00 I did not want to arrive before that time.
I slept soundly on the soft airport couches and by morning I was ready to go into town. It is always easy to find a taxi at the airport, albeit a bit expensive.
Taipei is a totally different cup of tea!! It is a large, busy, and modern city with highways, freeways, flyovers, fast moving cars, and even faster moving trains, all situated in the folds of lush green hills. Capitalism and consumerism is alive and well and I cannot understand, read or speak a single word. It rained steadily from the time I arrived and I’m wondering if I made a mistake in coming so far north.
The following day I took to the streets and found myself a much needed Ortlieb handlebar bag and I’m now convinced that if one cannot find it in Taipei then it does not exist! I also bought some warmer clothing as I was freezing my backside off.
I explored the alleys and wondered around the markets, sometimes getting myself completely lost and strangely landing up exactly where I started!! What an amazing place Taipei is with its busy alleys, shopping malls, markets and crowded streets. In-between the madness one can still find a temple dating back to the Qing dynasty, a peaceful place where the smell of incense mixes with the chanting of devotees and where the Koi is king.
I cycled to Ximending, another part of the city, and the ultra-consumerist heart of Taipei. It is young and trendy, and if it can be inked or pieced it can be done in Ximending.
After finding a hostel I set off to the night market and, as usual, it was rather interesting. I tried a few things and whatever it was, it was very tasty!! I visited a few temples and finished off my spiritual tour with a visit to the remarkable Longshan Temple.
28 December - Taipei – Shimen - 50km
Although it was not raining it was still bitterly cold outside. I dressed as warm as I could and left the city via the very scenic bicycle way along the river. It was a fascinating ride past beautiful temples and with the city slowly disappearing behind me. The cycle path is very popular and I met a few very friendly cyclists, all interested in where I’m from and where I’m going. I cycled with William for a while after which he bought me coffee before I continued on my way again.
It became bitterly cold with a slight drizzle and I was cycling straight into an icy wind. Once I reached Shimen I found a room and food and settled in under a thick duvet.
29 December - Shimen – Keelung - 40 km
I once again set off in rather miserable weather. It was drizzling and a cold wind was coming off the ocean. I continued on, past more temples, one being the rather interesting 18 Lords Temple or “Dog Temple”. The legend goes that 17 fishermen went on a mission. A loyal dog pined for days for the return of his master until, unable to bear the suffering any longer, he leaped into the foaming sea and drowned himself. Local people were so impressed by this act of loyalty that they build a temple in honour of the dog.
I arrived in Keelung to be greeted by a very large version of a giant yellow rubber duck. I found this quite bizarre but it seemed that thousands braved the cold, all bundled up in scarves and jackets, to see the rubber duck floating in the bay. Besides the duck there were thousands of duck items being sold - from T-shirts, hats, umbrellas, even duck-themed food!!
Keelung is famous for its night market and the food is well-known throughout Taiwan. The streets were crowded and one could hardly walk, but I joined in the madness and pushed my way around the delicious looking and smelling stalls. Steam was rising from large pots of soup – just the thing for a cold night.
30 December - Keelung – Jiaoshi - 85 km
Again it was wet and cold as I left and followed the coast past the small old mining towns of Jiufen and Jingush; they say there’s still gold in them hills! I found Taiwan a fascinating (and sometimes contradictory) country. It’s both modern and traditional, it’s hectic and yet organized. It is easily the country with the best street food and snacks, and the scenery is out of this world. I passed Bitou Cape with sea-eroded cliffs and found myself on a bike path running all along the coast. In my mind the bike path has rocketed Taiwan into the No 1 cycle touring destination.
I stopped in the small town of Jiaoshi, well-known for its hot springs. Most hotels have natural hot water in the room and I was keen to try it out. I found a hotel in the main road and was soon soaking in a tub of hot water. The town is also known for its cuisine (it is said that they grow the vegetables in hot spring water) and I thought it extremely tasty – to such an extent that I had supper twice!!
31 December - Jiaoshi – Suao - 40km
I left at leisure and stopped at the National Centre of Traditional Arts. The centre occupies 24 hectares and is well-known for its folk art. I was a bit disappointed and thought my mother’s garden more interesting than the centre!!
It was New Year’s Eve and I did not feel like camping next to the road all by my lonesome self! I cycled into Suao and found the little village quite attractive and decided to stay for the night. Not much happened as here people celebrate Chinese New Year instead of “our” New Year. There were, however, a few fireworks just to mark the start of 2014.
1 January 2014 - Suao – Taroko National Park - 80km
From Suao the road lead straight up the mountain and in no time at all I was high up on the mountain side, overlooking the coastline with Suao way down below. It was a rather mountainous stretch and the going rather slow. It was, however, not that difficult as this is the home of the master road builders and the gradient therefore not that steep. It was a stunning stretch of coast as the road climbed high up along the side of the mountain, cut through tunnels, and crossed large valleys, all while the coast stretched for miles to both the north and the south.
It gets dark quite soon and by the time I reached Taroko there was no time to cycle up the gorge, so I took a room, found some food and watched a bit of TV.
2 January 2014 - Taroko Gorge - 40km
I left my hotel and cycled to the hostel I saw the previous night. It was much cheaper and once I off-loaded my stuff I cycled up the gorge - what a pleasure it was. Although it is said to be uphill I did not notice the gradient as I was not carrying any luggage. It was an unbelievably stunning ride and it took me nearly half the day to cycle the 20 kilometres to the next village. All along the way one can stop and walk up the mountain! It has now become my No 1 favourite ride!
It is a stunning gorge with sheer marble cliffs, reaching 1000 metres into the air. The narrow road runs through winding tunnels, always with the Liwu River way below. I cycled passed what is known as the “Swallows Grotto”, where the road runs through tunnels carved into the marble vertical sides of the gorge. I believe there are 38 tunnels, including the Tunnel of Nine Turns with its endless series of turns - this is a stunning part of the gorge and where numerous hiking trails begin. I stopped and walked up to the Eternal Spring Shrine. These little temples were built to commit to memory those that have lost their lives in the construction of the central cross-island highway.
3 January - Taroko – Shimen - 92km
I could not make up my mind whether to stay one more day or not. In the end it was after 10h00 that I finally got on the road. I followed the coast south and it was another stunning day. From time to time the road ran close to the ocean and other times it climbed up the mountain side for stunning views.
As it was winter it got dark fairly early. I reached Shimen at around 4h30, and although it was still quite early I was not sure if I would reach the campsite I saw on the map before dark. I found a roadside room and it conveniently had a restaurant downstairs. I ordered the Sailfish and was surprised to get a large plate of raw fish!!! What the heck!!! I suppose it was Japanese owners as the bed was a box-bed on the floor.
4 - 5 January - Shimen – Dulan - 80km
It was another varied and interesting ride, the road was hemmed in by the mountains and the coast and I cycled past many small fishing villages. The rich Kuroshio Current runs close to the coast here and the main income is from fishing. I also passed the Tropic of Cancer Monument and was officially back in the tropics. There were many interesting places to stop along the way and I took my time and stopped for a multitude of photos. I was surprised at the amount of tour busses along the way; I did not realize that Taiwan was such a popular tourist destination.
I falsely believed that it was going to be a flat ride (don’t know where I got that from). The road climbed steadily up to the Baci Observation Tower and then sped down to lower ground. I stopped at the Caves of the Eight Immortals. Although this is the site of the earliest human inhabitation of Taiwan, the caves have sadly now been turned into shrines which distracts a bit from the archaeological importance.
Dulan looked an interesting place and I found a good room above the Dulan Café with its Mexican theme and famous English breakfast and Quesadillas. The old Sugar Factory (now turned into a bar / music studio / art gallery) is what put Dulan on the Taiwanese travel radar and I found it a good place to spend the day, do some laundry and update my travel log.
6 January - Dulan – Dawu - 95km
Again it was a surprisingly varied day. My first stop was at “Water Running Uphill”, where the water was clearly running uphill! I continued on past small fishing villages, eventually turning off to the hot springs. I cycled up the valley but was disappointed as the entire area was very touristy. I therefore did not stay but carried on past indigenous villages with interesting art. The road was still hilly as the mountains came right down to the coast and not an easy way for a road. At Dawu I found a roadside room, and had a bite to eat next door, which was interesting, as usual.
7 January - Dawu – Linyan - 105km
Shortly after I left, the road turned inland and headed over the mountains to the West Coast. It climbed steeply away from the coast and after 10 kilometres I could see the coast way below me. Eventually, the road started heading downhill and once I reached the coast I turned north, heading back in the direction of Taipei. That was the mountains done and dusted, and I could see the mountains slowly disappearing in my rearview mirror.
In Dapeng I cycled to the Scenic Area and along the famous bicycle path that (I understand) is the most expensive bicycle path in the world??
8 January - Linyan – Tainan City - 74km
I don’t know if I took the wrong road or if I was actually on the right one, but it took forever to cycle through Kaohsiung City. I cycled and I cycled, and eventually cleared the city limits and was on my way to Tainan City.
This part of Taiwan is fairly flat and therefore also into the wind. It is not as interesting as the East Coast and I just had my head down and got on with it. Tainan is the first capital of Taiwan and also the oldest city in the country, with the result that it is steeped in history and tradition.
9 January - Tainan City
I did not intend to stay another day in Tainan but it was such an interesting city with plenty of fascinating temples and shrines that it warranted another day. I set off on foot and first up was the Confucius Temple which oozed calm, grace and beauty, like any good Confucius Temple should.
I passed narrow alleys with traditional street food, and the old city gate, on to more interesting temples, some with quite terrifying deities and others where they still cast moon blocks to determine the best course of action. Every now and again I sat down for a cup of Taiwanese tea, and then headed off again. There appears to be different temples for different things. At some you go to ask for good luck with impending exams and at others people pray for the protection of their children.
In the process I handed in my laundry and collected it again before returning to my hotel room dead tired (I’m just not used to walking). It was a good day.
It was interesting to see so many swastika symbols. Hitler, unfortunately, gave the Swastika symbol a bad name. It is a symbol that remains widely used in Indian religions, specifically in Hinduism and Buddhism, as a symbol that invokes Lakshmi - the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity. I understand that the word "swastika" comes from the Sanskrit swastika - "su" meaning "good" or "auspicious", combined with "asti”, meaning "it is", along with the diminutive suffix "ka." The swastika literally means "it is good." I also believe that during World War I, the swastika could even be found on the shoulder patches of the American 45th Division, but don’t quote me on that one.
10 January - Tainan City – Beigang - 100km
The wind picked up as I headed north. It was slow going and there was not much I could do but get it over and done with. There is nothing good I can say about cycling into a headwind, it is slow going, frustrating and energy sapping!!! Although the road passed various wetland reserves it was not a good day to explore and I carried on without stopping.
At around 16h00 I started looking out for a place to camp or stay but did not see anything that looked the part. Eventually, I asked and was pointed in an easterly direction. Again I cycled and I cycled and it was easily 20 kilometres before I cycled into Beigang, leaving me way off my route and not quite in the direction I was heading. It did not matter as I’m not set on any route, so I will make another plan in the morning.
The town is known for the Chaotian Temple, a place where people go to cast moon blocks. Although it was late I set off in search of the Temple. Once inside the Temple I 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 is curved and called the yin, while the other is flat and called the yang.
I understand that the Gods’ fate is revealed in the way these blocks fall to the floor. One yin and one yang is 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 was not as windy closer to the coast. It was an agricultural area and it was a pleasant ride past vast areas of farming activities. It was a short ride and soon I cycled into Lukang.
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 in around 1895. Forgotten, the town continued on in its own way and was rediscovered when people realized that 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
It was an unpleasant day on the road. The wind was howling and I was straight into it. The best part of the day was meeting two guys walking around the island, one dressed as one of the Chinese Gods. In Taiwan, Nezha, the Third Prince (san tai tse), has become a Taiwanese icon.
Embodying the figure of a child, Nezha is considered intelligent, clever and playful. He has a strong rebellious streak, leading him to frequent fights with his father. As the story goes, one day Nezha fought and killed the son of the Dragon King of the East China Sea. The Jade Emperor of the Heaven scolded the North King. Nezha, fearing that his parents would suffer for his actions, committed suicide to prevent his parents from being punished. In Taiwan, there are over 300 temples that worship Nezha. With his boy-like appearance, he is considered a god especially good for protecting children.
I battled along, feeling surprisingly strong and did not even lose my sense of humour along the way. Once again, it was the people of Taiwan that impressed me most. Twice people stopped and offered me water – how nice of them!!
I was surprised that I actually made 100 kilometres; some days I can and other days I can’t. I found myself a hotel, and what a fancy place it was - sometimes I live in utter luxury!!
13 January - Miaoli City – Xinfeng - 55km
I was sad to notice that the wind did not ease off at all, but was in fact even stronger than the previous day. I battled on. At times I felt that it could even be dangerous to be out on the road. The wind gusted sideways, nearly blowing me off the bike. Again, a friendly lady stopped and offered me a cup of coffee - wow, how nice was that!!
As always, I knew that all I had to do was keep going forward, and I will eventually get there!! Nothing stays constant and this wind will have to change some or other time. It may, however, only be when I have already left Taiwan, but change it will change, that is about the only thing in the world I am sure of.
I persevered until I reached Xinfeng and realized that with 65 kilometres to go I was not going to make Taipei this day. It started drizzling and that was enough encouragement to make me find a room.
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, was not very far. I was extremely happy to find a room at Taipei Hostel for 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 just about anywhere.
15 – 23 January - Taipei
The day turned out to be a total waste as I got absolutely zero done. I could not find the place that organises the Chinese visas and could not find Giant Bicycles that was supposed to be behind the train station. The friendly staff at the hostel helped me locate the address of the visa place on the map and also suggested I try another bicycle shop just down the road.
Getting a Chinese Visa in Taiwan involves the services of a travel service, as there is no Chinese Embassy in Taiwan. The following day I was surprised to see the visa service office was close by and within easy walking distance from the hostel. St. International Travel Service (www.sttvisa.com) made it extremely easy and virtually did everything for me. They know their business well and had been doing this for 20 years! The only problem being that it takes 5 days as they have to actually send the passport to Hong Kong to get the visa. It was not a big deal as there were lots to do in Taipei and plenty to keep me busy for a few days.
I also found the bicycle shop just 4 blocks down from the hostel and asked the friendly owners to give my bike a good overall!
It was, however, a bummer that the ferry boat running between Taiwan and Mainland China (Xiamen) only departed from Taichung on a Wednesday and from Keelung on a Sunday, meaning I will have to take a bus to Taichung or wait another 5 days for the Keelung ferry.
Once again, I liked the hostel and the people who stayed there - they were from all over the world, most of them looking for teaching jobs in Taiwan. I even met a South African girl!! It is quite amazing that I very seldom meet South Africans and I can count on the fingers of my one hand the ones I have. The other consisted of one Dutch guy (Martin), who did not look or sound Dutch at all, a British guy, who looked and sounded British but has been working teaching English for more than 10 years, a New Zealander, who has just spent 8 months working and travelling in China etc., etc……. Always a fascinating world in a hostel.
I also met Borut Kocar, a cyclist from Holland (Yugoslavian by birth), who spent 7 weeks cycling Taiwan. He was an extremely interesting man who worked as a dance/movement therapist in a small psychiatric hospital in Holland. Borut left on the 20th and on my return to the hostel I found a small box in front of my door. It contained a lovely message from Borut and a small porcelain clog, how sweet and thoughtful was that!!
There was plenty to do in the city and I kept myself busy by visiting some of the tourist attractions. One being the famous Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world from 2004 to 2009. It apparently was (or is) also the tallest and largest “green building” in the world. It is said that Taipei 101 is one of the most stable buildings ever constructed, and besides various piles and reinforced foundations, it is fitted with a 660-ton steel pendulum that serves as a turned mass damper. Suspended from the 92nd to the 87th floor, the pendulum sways to offset movements in the building caused by typhoons and earthquakes.
I also went to visit the Martyrs’ Shrine; not so much for the aesthetic grandeur or to pay respect to the fallen service men, but more to watch the straight-faced military guards and as they change shifts every hour, followed by an elaborate marching ceremony. Exactly on the hour, the changing of the guards ceremony begins - the expressionless faces, the synchronized arms and legs movements, and the composure is truly amazing to witness.
Yay, got my Chinese visa and now just have to wait for the ferry boat which is only due on Sunday. My poor old tattered and torn passport is filling up quickly and I will have to replace it fairly soon.
China’s Coffee Industry is brewing, something I’m not opposed to. Starbucks seems to have targeted the upper income levels and coffee drinking seems to have become a fashion. Nowadays, you see the young and the hip sipping their brew (which I’m not even sure they like) in trendy cafes. There are plenty of tiny and intimate coffee shops and even a few “hole –in –the-wall” type places that roast their coffee right on the pavement, making it quite impossible to walk past.
The interesting thing is that there is a strong Japanese influence when it comes to brewing coffee. Japan has a long-established coffee culture. The key is the specially designed kettles and filter cones, which allows water to drip through one or two drips at a time. This results in brewing coffee, one cup at a time - it isn’t exactly a ceremony but it is ceremonious. The beans are weighed, grounded, emptied into a filter, and cups and saucers are warmed. A small swan-neck kettle is used, the narrow spout produces a thin, precise stream, instead of flooding the filter and letting it drip, they deliver a measured amount of water over a period of several minutes. I sat watching in fascination and once my cup was placed in front of me I felt like I should savour the moment.
24 -26 January - Taipei – Keelung - 90km
I finally left Taipei for the 90 kilometre ride to Keelung. The ferry boat to China is only on 26 January but I had itchy feet and wanted to move on. It was a beautiful day, the sun was out and I picked up a bit of a tailwind, so it was a good day on the road. Along the way I passed rather odd rock formations, created by aeons of wind and sea erosion. I arrived in busy Keelung in good time and there was more than enough time to explore the night market, famous for its wide variety of food.
I had no problem passing the time until the 26th. Around 16h00 I cycled to the harbour, bought the ticket, and waited for the boat. Although the boat has been in the harbour since I arrived, we all sat waiting for hours before we were finally let on board.