Sunday, June 30, 2019

Taiwan, a cycle tourist's paradise?

I don't recall exactly when Taiwan fell onto my radar, but the Taiwan KOM event was definitely the catalyst.

The last few years have shown me the benefits of a mid-year bolt north, and that my mood through winter is definitely more manageable with a shot of sunshine and warmth.  An extra incentive this year was August's Mongolia Bike Challenge, and a getaway would double as a nice endurance booster that wouldn't be quite so hard-won as equivalant miles at home.

The deal-clincher was Air New Zealand announcing a new route to Taipei and a $1 sale on their Economy Skycouch.  My credit card was ready and waiting...!

As always, the planning was a lot of fun, and started with a bit of map-gazing - Sarah's friend and my colleague, Ivy, had recently been to Taiwan, and had been shopping for us!   The airport and Taroko Gorge (route of the Taiwan KOM race) were our only constraints on the ground, and we had nine days to use. 

A few weeks out, after an evening flurry of hotel booking, our route had taken shape:  two days of riding between Taipei and Hualien on the east coast (map 1), followed by a 3-day ride down the East Rift Valley and back up the coast (map 2), and then two days to get back to Taipei's doorstep via Taroko Gorge, and a short morning ride back into the city on the 8th day.

Day 1 (purple), day 2 (red), day 6 (yellow), day 8 (green)

Day 3 (blue), day 4 (beige), day 5 (brown)
Prep was pretty straightforward - I'd recently returned from a shake-down ride with Brendan, so the stuff on my tried-and-true gear list was mostly still sitting in one spot.  Sarah would be sporting a new bike - our most recent cycling trip together had landed her in hospital (something I was too traumatised to write about), so a priority had been getting her on fatter tyres and disc-brakes.  Both packed nicely into our recently acquired bags, though Sarah's required a bit of customisation to make it work - nothing a few hose clamps didn't sort...

The rear dropout spacing was 5mm more than the bag's default 130mm, and front was setup for 9mm QR rather than a 12mm through-axle
The flight to Taipei was excellent, not least because we ended up with not one but two Skycouches.  Getting to our hotel was also pretty straightforward with a train into the city, followed by a short metro ride.

After a good night's sleep, it was time to hit the road.

Day 1

First order of the day was bike assembly, the most tedious part of which was pumping the tyres.  (Travel floor pump, here I come...!)

Street-side reassembly
In hindsight, it would have been better to book a hotel adjacent to the Taipei Main Station, thereby avoiding the need for a metro ride, and also positioning us closer to the river.  It was there that I hoped to find a cycle path, and sure enough, once we'd negotiated both the inner city traffic, and a tall concrete wall, we hit the jackpot!

The two sides of this wall were like cycling heaven (to the right) and hell (to the left)
We followed the cycle path for as long as we could.  It was lovely being on dedicated infrastructure, even absent the umbrella toting unicyclist we saw.  Once back on the streets, we were soon crossing onto "Cycle Route No.1" which circumnavigates the island, and is marked every 500m or 2km, depending on whether you're in a built-up area or not!

In between towns, the route was a mix of separated path and massive shoulder.  Constants were the smoothness of the surface (very) and the atmospheric conditions (hot and humid).

Elevated road offered many advantages, including great views
We got our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean at Fulong, where we inadvertently stumbled upon a spectacular temple.

Beachside temple at Fulong
Our navigational issues at Fulong were largely due to a brief departure from Cycling Route No.1.  Strangely, it did not take in one of the most delightful bits of cycling infrastructure we saw during our trip, the repurposed Caoling Tunnel, a 2.1km long respite from the heat.

Northern portal of the Old Caoling Tunnel
At the far end, we reconnected with the marked route, and soon after stopped at a small fishing port for lunch, which turned out to be a Taiwanese take on greasies - deep fried, lightly-battered whole fish and sweet-potato chips.  After a quick pass through the market, we were rolling again.

After a bit of time on the coast, we were treated to more variety, including a modern building which appeared to be sinking, and more temples.  Every place we passed seemed to have a temple, and while the sizes varied, the colours and intricacy rarely did.

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 2
Our overnight stop was in Suao, by virtue of it being half way between Taipei and Hualien.  Our accommodation was on the outskirts of town, and because we couldn't be bothered riding to find dinner, had our one dud meal of the trip (expensive, and unsatisfying).

Stats:  117km, 740m climbed, 5h25 ride time, 36 degrees

Day 2

We'd had a brief conversation with a couple of ex-pat cyclists at the end of the Caoling Tunnel, and one had warned us against riding the so-called Suhua Highway - between Suao and Hualien, and our planned route for today.  A closer look at the Route No.1 brochure had also startled me, with "the easiest day of the trip" featuring a 100km train ride to bypass the road.

After a fretful evening scouring the internet for advice, we'd decided to scope out the railway station after breakfast.
Fried egg, cherry tomatoes, and unidentified delicacies
I had to pop into Suao for cash, and noticed that the Route No.1 markers continued past the railway station.  I was also feeling inspired by one blog in particular that I'd read, which described the "notorious highway" (as described by the rest of the internet) as "one of the toughest and most beautiful of the whole trip."  The combination sealed the deal, and after consultation with Sarah, we were soon beginning the climb out of Suao.  We figured that if the conditions were truly horrible, we could double back to the nearest town and jump on a train.

Looking back over Suao
Despite being early in the morning, it was already baking hot.  Luckily, there was provision for that...

Mongolian head-cooler (see our New Caledonia blog for the foot-cooler)
While Sarah was struggling in the heat, I was loving it, and of course the climbs also generally come with great views.  This was no exception.

Looking south towards Wushihbi Coastal Nature Reserve

And from the south, 2h20 later
Until Nanau, we were on a secondary road, and the traffic conditions were light.  And, as far south as the Heping River, we were wondering what all the fuss had been about.  While narrow in places, and spectacular throughout, even the frequent tunnels hadn't been a bother.

The Heping Power Plant in the distance
In fact, the road had been a regular source of delight, both due to the commitment involved in building it, and the effort currently going into extending the tunnels south of Nanao.

No fewer than three tunnel portals in this rock face
Sure enough, the tunnels did get a bit narrower along the final section, but our expectations having been set very low by the abundant dire warnings, we were pleasantly surprised.  We were fortunate that there were roadworks near the entrance of one of the longest tunnels, so after waiting until we were at the end of the queue, we were afforded traffic-free riding, for not only that tunnel, but a couple following it (once we'd waited for the next wave of cars to pass).

Blissful riding on the Suhua Highway
On the approach to Hualien, we ducked off Cycling Route No.1 onto local highway 193, giving us the road virtually to ourselves right into the outskirts of the city.

Our accommodation was within walking distance of a much-needed laundromat, and also the fantastic Dongdamen Night Market.  As a result, our dinner was infinitely better than the previous night's (at a quarter of the price), our riding kit was clean, and we'd successfully negotiated a wonderful bit of road that we'd almost not seen at all.

Stats:  118km ridden, 1370m climbed, 5h40 riding time, 33 degrees

Day 3

A second breakfast was definitely needed, and we found it soon after rolling out, in the form of a dumpling house chokka with locals (a good sign if ever there was one).

Zhongshan Road, Hualien
Stomachs full, we made our way out of town to pick up county highway 193 again, before starting our foray into the East Rift Valley.

Looking back across the Hualien River
The downsides to the quieter road seemed to be a lack of 7-Eleven convenience stores and rolling hills.  While our map had no towns marked on it, we would regularly pass through villages, during which time we'd keep our eye open for shops - a drinks fridge was the most reliable signal.

We stopped for lunch at one such place, where our purchases were typical:  cold, canned coffee; bottled water; instant noodles; pringles chippies.   We didn't buy any recreational drugs, though it appeared that they were on offer...!!!!

Not entirely sure what this was, but it had an illicit air to it!
The irregular cold drinks and complete lack of air-conditioned bolt holes, plus the undulating roads and hottest temperature yet, had us on the lookout for a stream to jump into.  We spotted a likely looking one, and eventually found our way into it.  Not only was it wonderfully refreshing...

... but it had a very nice view, too.

It was quite remarkable how invigorating the 10-minute bathe had been, and we both set off feeling much stronger than we had all day.

The back road continued to dish up treats - very few people were farming animals, but almost everyone seemed to be growing some sort of fruit or vegetable (many of which we couldn't identify).

Who knew pineapples grew in brown paper bags?!  (And, only a few centimetres off the ground)
At about the halfway mark, the road got very big all of a sudden, and we soon after arrived at Ruisui.  Curiously, the river seemed to be flowing up the valley at this point, instead of down.  As it turns out, the East Rift Valley was no longer draining to the coast via the Hualien River, but down a valley that passes through the Haian Mountains directly to the ocean.

After a cooling down in Ruisui (via a/c this time), we began our final push through to our lodgings in Fuli.  We opted again for route 193, which actually looked like a flatter route than the main drag.

As well as great scenery and road surface, we enjoyed a stonking tailwind, and even a bit of decommissioned railway.

We'd stumbled on lovely accommodation at Fuli Stay, and while browsing the cable TV stations, even found Eurosport were screening the Tour of Croatia live!

Stats:  119km ridden, 1140m climbed, 5h25 ridden, 38 degrees!

Day 4

One exciting aspect of the day's ride was being able to do so without our touring bags.  It seemed inconceivable that we'd get cold, so phone, map and wallet were the only things I had in my pockets.  (Tubes and tools and a couple of one square meals were stashed in the frame bag.)

We began climbing almost immediately, and after a quick stop for a canned coffee (ah, and no drugs), we began the 15km climb in earnest.

Virtually every corner on the back roads had a mirror on it
Once again, we had the road pretty much to ourselves, and while the climb wasn't long in the context of what we had coming up in a few days time, it was still solid.  Fuli had given us a great head start too (the town sits at about 300m above sea level), so the descent to the coast was long and a real hoot.  Sarah even saw a snake on the road, while I was busy admiring a wall...

Snake > wall :(
Our noses led us to a morning tea stop in Donghe, just before we met the coastal highway.  As was common, the menu had english translations, so we were able to order steamed buns without wondering what the filling would be!

Sarah had craftily carried her bikini bottoms, so while I watched enviously, she was able to take a wee dip in the ocean.  I saved my bike the ignominy of having a salt-water-laden chamois drain onto it, and the few locals enjoying a Saturday morning trip to the beach, the sight of a strangely-tanned man skinny dipping...

Sarah in the Pacific Ocean
A 7-Eleven just shy of Taitung spared us a trip into the city, and then I spared us a small climb by bypassing the first section of County Highway 197.  To achieve that, we crossed the Beinan River twice.

Even in the bush, the power pylons were typically on one of these platforms
We should have taken the third opportunity to cross the river, but didn't.  After too much of our 10km climb to double back, the road turned to gravel, and stayed that way for almost 15km.  My companion was less than impressed, but her slight grumpiness was the limit of her displeasure.  Impressive in hindsight, since we really were out in the wild, and a panic attack wouldn't have been completely unreasonable!!!

Fires burning down in the valley below showing us we could have been enjoying a tailwind!
Eventually, we'd left the rough road and sounds of monkeys in the trees behind, and soon after, we were able to finally stop and get some cold drinks.  We were down to about 250mL of water, despite our 4-litre combined capacity.

In my defence, the road was marked on the map as at the same level as the 193 we'd enjoyed the day before (sealed, and with regular shops despite no towns being shown).  Ironically, the day was our hardest yet, despite the lack of luggage, though at least the scenery had been well worth the effort.  With the benefit of hindsight, I would have given the gravel road the swerve though, and taken Cycling Route No.1 and the main road instead.

Stats:  149km ridden, 1900m climbed, 7h35 riding, 33 degrees

Day 5

We were in need of an easy day, and luckily, one was available.  We had some elevation to lose, and direct options at hand.

Initially, I'd planned to ride down-valley towards Yuli (not to be confused with Fuli), before cutting across the mountains to the coast.  Neither of us felt this was a good idea, so I was tasked with a Plan B, and suggested we take the valley towards the coast at Ruisui instead.

Our ride to there was a mix of retracing our "steps"...

e.g. the Yufu Lake cycle path, where some kids happened to be dancing on an old rail platform
... and new (to us) road from Fuli to Ruisui.  The latter was surprisingly shitty, and made me hanker for route 193 for the duration.

After a recharge at one of Ruisui's many 7-Elevens, we crossed over the river and immediately turned right onto the Ruigang Highway.  After a gentle start, we rapidly gained elevation on a nifty set of switchbacks, giving us a beautiful view back into the valley (and over the bridge we crossed a few days earlier - 193, leaving Ruisui).

The next 20km or so were fantastic, not least because they were spontaneous.

We weren't the only ones enjoying the river valley
We rode through Qimei without stopping, our last opportunity before we hit the coast.

One of many indigenous artifacts that reminded me more of indigenous Americans than anything I'd seen in NZ
Once at the coast, we had about 70 mostly flat kilometres to ride to get us back to Hualien.  Several things kept us motivated:

lovely sights...

a cold, roadside shower...
... and the thought of hitting the night market again for dinner.  By virtue of our tired legs and relaxed approach dragging the day out, as soon as we'd showered, it was time to eat!  Which we did.  With gusto!!

Stats:  143km ridden, 1330m climbed, 6h50 ride time, 30 degrees

Day 6

The "Queen Stage" was finally upon us - today was the Taroko Gorge day.

We'd stayed at the same place as night 2, so knew not to expect much for breakfast and made a beeline straight for the nearby dumpling spot.  The weather forecast had been accurate, and while the light rain was a bit of a drag, at least we figured it would keep the temperature down.

The first 20km were basically pan-flat, and we stuck with Cycling Route No.1 along the main drag.  And then the 70km climb began!

Passing through Tailuge at the start of the climb
No sooner had we left the town, we were presented with an option to cross the river.  We decided to head through the gate on our side of the river, and we got our first taste of what was to come.  First, there was overhanging rock

and then tunnel...

Meanwhile, we could see that the road on the other side of the river was mostly tunneled.  I'm always astonished to see tunnel emerging onto bridge, under the assumption that that sort of thing is incredibly challenging to build.  We saw at least one example of that on the other road before crossing the river ourselves and disappearing immediately into a tunnel. 

The bridge/tunnel interface turned out to not be the highlight.  Soon after entering the tunnel, we discovered that the intersection with the "main road" was inside it!

At the far end of the tunnel, there was a queue of traffic, and it turned out the road was blocked by a crane.  We were told the road would be closed for another 30 minutes, which gave us the opportunity to do a quick lap of the pre-tunnel road (now one way, downhill).  By the time we got back, the road was open, and we were back into the climb.

No need for us to stop.  BYO for us
Only a few kilometres in, the road had already been jaw-dropping in its cost, and the level of commitment to build it.

And that was before we'd reached the pièce de résistance, the Tunnel of Nine Turns.  Here, the main route once again had its own tunnel and bridge system, while the original route was reserved for tourists, and was truly spectacular.  Tunnel, tunnel with holes in the outer wall, tunnel with no outer wall at all, overhanging rock, it had it all.

At the far end of this engineering masterpiece was the small town of Tianxiang, and the turnaround point for many of the tourists.  We'd barely got going though, and still had over 2000 vertical metres to ascend over the next 50km or so.

And ascend we did.  Usually with a spectacular drop on one side or other, as we snaked our way up the valley.  The road builders had been careful, and while the gradient was never unpleasant, it had been achieved using brute force as well as cunning.

We'd briefly spoken to another cyclist at the road closure, and caught up with him at what felt like lunchtime.  He was from Hong Kong, and helped us request a couple of bowls of noodle soup!  (Thanks Steve!)

He set off just before us, and we never had the opportunity to ride with him.

This switchback seemed worthy of wet shoes
Our progress was marked by road signs marking every 500m climbed (after 1000m), and telling us how far away the next two markers were.  There were odd treats in store for us too, including a couple of sets of greenhouses perched above the road, and someone's radio played so loud that we could hear it for about 20 minutes...!

We caught Steve just as he was stopping for coffee (which we did too), and shared a pack of crackers with him.

He was planning to do the full climb to Wuling Pass (the highest sealed road in East Asia), but we discovered later that he'd decided not to ride any more that day and had stayed at a backpackers just up the road from the cafe.

Nearing our turn off, we found the road perched on the side of a cliff.  This road never would have been built in New Zealand, that's for sure.

We passed a petrol station just before our turnoff to Lishan, but didn't feel the need to stop.  We had a 30km descent ahead of us, followed by 10km on the flat, and felt like we could knock that out on our reserves.

The wet roads slowed us down a bit on the descent, and we were under lights by the time we got to the flat section.  A mere 2km from our destination I heard Sarah hollering at me, and turned to discover she'd punctured.  We'd both successfully negotiated many tears in the asphalt (caused by the road slipping down the hillside), but this was one too many for Sarah.  After getting the rear wheel sorted, we set off, only to realise the front had also succumbed (just not as quickly).

The last 10 minutes were uneventful, and we managed to find our accommodation without overshooting in the dark.  We'd certainly earned our hot showers and shitty convenience-store microwave dinners!!!

But even the double-puncture and associated last minute stress, and the day's rain, couldn't take the shine off what will quite possibly remain the most remarkable road I'll ever ride.  The engineering feats I'd seen in the French Alps and Pyrenees were quite something, but pale in comparison to this incredible stretch of pavement, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Stats:  133km ridden, 2660m climbed, 8h40 ride time, a mere 16 degrees

Day 7

Absent the previous day's ride, our penultimate would probably have been the most spectacular, but relative to the epic Taroko Gorge, the "wow" moments were relatively few!

We'd slept at about 1900m above sea level, so had a lot of altitude to lose. Despite an immediate 10km descent, at the 30km mark we'd regained our elevation twice!

Looking back over Huanshan with Lishan visible on the far ridge.  Two river crossings deep in the valleys between us and our most recent beds
The final climb was curiously benign, so much so that at times it seemed sure that the stream was draining the wrong way.  But, sure enough, we emerged at a saddle overlooking the Laniang River Valley, and marking the start of a 45km descent, during which time we'd lose 1500 vertical metres.

After a series of switchbacks, we were down in the valley floor, whereupon we found some serious local water collection efforts.

Each local farmer seemed to be grabbing water from the same side stream and independently piping it down the road...!

The basemap I'd downloaded from showed the river looking much like a lake, but in reality it was more like a trickle.  And it looked like it was expected to stay that way, given the cabbages that were being grown in the river bed!

Coming soon to a dumpling near you!
Even a 45km descent is hunger-inducing stuff, and we were disappointed to find there were no obvious dining options before our the turnoff onto the "North Cross-Island Highway".  Just as we'd given up hope, we rounded a corner to find a wee restaurant, and were soon after chasing down an omelette and plate of dumplings with home-grown coffee.

The next hour was my least favourite of the trip.  It started off hot and sticky, and became wet and cool.  Also, my left pedal had been clicking sporadically up until this point, and there'd been a bit of play in it.  Now, it clicked on virtually every pedal stroke, and as each minute passed, I was becoming more and more fixated on it.

Rather than dig myself in to an emotional hole, I chose to do something a bit weird.  I know Sarah has a great tolerance for her bike making strange noises, so asked her if it was OK for me to switch the pedal onto her bike.  She said it was no problem, so that's what I did.  My pedal-related stress vanished, and I also figured it was also less likely to shit itself under Sarah's pedalling force than mine.

Little did she know, but she was about to have her pedal stolen
There was a bit of thunder in the hills, and around about the time that we knocked off the 1000m climb (huge by NZ standards, but tiny compared to the 2600m whopper we'd done the day before), the heavens really opened.  And the taps stayed open for much of the remaining 80km.

Cowering under a bit of overhanging rock.  The only bit of dry road we had for hours!
While Gore Shakedry jackets are fragile (so much so that it's not recommended to wear a backpack over one), and a very shitty colour for riding in wet conditions, they are the fucking business when it comes to keeping the rain out.  (They are so good, that I've even had a sweaty shirt dry out during a rainstorm.)  They were the saving grace really, and without them I expect we both would have been in horrible moods by the time we knocked off for the day.

Very close to home, with the rain finally abating

It was a real ride of two halves, and despite losing 1000m over the 80km, we took over 4 hours for it by virtue of the wet roads, and conditions more generally.  The final 20km or so were consistently downhill, and under lights, we rode into Sanxia, only a stone's throw from Taipei.

Stats:  166km ridden, 2115m ascended, 8h35 ride time, 21 degrees

Day 8

Our final day was so short, it almost didn't seem worth gettting suited up for.  Within a few minutes of leaving our hotel, we were on a river-side cycle path, and we spent the majority of our ride on it.

Things got a little tricky the closer we got to our destination.  At one point we climbed up onto an elevated road, only to be dumped back down to river-level a few minutes later.

Photography, plus trying to work out a plan of attack!
Once we were lined up with Zhongxiao Rd (which our hotel was on), we made our way across the river.  It was there that the left pedal I'd been worrying about finally gave up, but luckily we literally only had a couple of flat kilometres to ride, and Sarah managed without problem.

Finally realising she'd been tricked!
The last riding we did was among the slowest of the trip, and we even overshot the hotel, despite having stayed there at the beginning of it all!

Once at the hotel, we retrieved our bike bags and got stuck into cleaning and loading the bikes.  Once that was done, our room was available, and we showered before spending the afternoon making like tourists.

Stats:  29km ridden, 110m climbed, 1h40 ride time, 31 degrees

Summing up

Our wee Tour of Taiwan was an amazing experience.  Our route seemed to have a bit of everything, and while we finished a couple of times in the dark, the distances felt about right.   Off the bike, our accommodation was all easy to organise (all booked on and regular use of "ni hao" and "xie xie" seemed to compensate for a sizeable language barrier.

The food on offer was cheap, plentiful, and from the point of view of a cycle tourist, nourishing.

June was perhaps the only bad call, since it really was very hot and humid, and there were periods where it had me running a loop on quotes from my One Day Ahead team-mates!

Mike: "She's like riding in a sauna out there today.  Well as soon as you start going up, the speed drops, there's no wind, and it's like, WOOOAARRRR"
Aaron:  "As soon as you start to climb, and it hits the mid-30s, it just takes all your energy.  Your legs can tick over, but ... it just saps you"
And when we found a bit of shade:

Stu:  "Thank god it's cooler, that's all I can say.  My prayers have been answered"
Sarah was a great companion - totally up for the task, and very photogenic to boot.  While I take the lead on the bike, she finds plenty of wonderful experiences for us off it, so together, we feel like we're getting a more enjoyable holiday than we would alone - the measure of a great team, I guess.

In total, we covered 970km over the eight days, so we definitely made the most of things.  Looking at the map, I realise the 4-day northern loop really had everything, so if you happen to have an excuse to go to Taipei and don't have a lot of time to ride, that wouldn't be a terrible route!  With regards the Suhua Highway, pack a decent rear light and ride sensibly (and don't let people put you off)!

With a slight tweak to my parting shot in the New Caledonia write up:  Go to Taiwan.  If you like riding in beautiful places, go there.  Do it!