Saturday, November 11, 2023

Taiwan, Take 2

Way back in February, Sarah and I booked an October trip to Taiwan, as a fitting way for me to celebrate my 50th birthday.  We had been there once before, though in the sweltering summer months, and despite the heat, had been really impressed with what the island nation had to offer.  We thought the occasion warranted company, and were delighted when Brendan and his partner Viv accepted our invitation.  

Little did we know how much needed - and well timed - the trip would be.  This has been an incredibly challenging year at work, and our somewhat regular breaks have provided essential R&R (it is tempting to say, in the M*A*S*H sense).  

To avoid a somewhat brutal start to the trip, we flew up to Auckland on the Friday evening, staying (sans one bike) at the Ibis Budget hotel 10 minutes walk from the domestic terminal.  Before we hit the sack, Sarah's steed had been located in Wellington, and we were assured by Air New Zealand that it would be on the first flight up in the morning.  When we did successfully collect it the next day, it seemed that the zip tie the baggage tag had been attached to must have snagged on something, and the whole shooting match had torn off, leaving the bag untagged.  We breezed through check in and emigration, and were joined soon after by Brendan and Viv in the lounge.  It was exciting to be underway! 

It was still daylight when we began our approach into Taoyuan International Airport, some hours of slightly underwhelming in-flight entertainment later.  It was fascinating to see so many windmills along the north-west coast, and a huge number of small lakes in the area south of the airport that befit "the land of a thousand ponds".  It was a bit of a mission to get to our hotel, but we managed to wrestle two bike bags and a couple of bike boxes on and off a fairly packed metro, and negotiate a short suburban walk.  

A few of the thousand ponds

Respective work demands had slowed our planning down a bit, and it was useful that we'd booked two nights' stay.  That gave us a lay-day to spend a bit of time in Taipei, and sort out bag and box storage.  The latter turned into a head-ache when our hotel said they had no space for them.  After considering a bunch of options, the least bad seemed to be to take them back to the airport and leave them at a storage facility there.  This was charged based on the sum of the dimensions per piece, and was eye-wateringly expensive, particularly for a couple of cardboard boxes which you can often pick up for free at a bike shop.  Before leaving them, Brendan checked box availability with a couple of airlines upstairs, to whom the notion of selling a bike box was completely foreign, and the call was made to bundle them together and left as a single piece.  In hindsight, we should have taken the time to put both bags inside one box, and tape the other flattened box to the first, thereby storing a single "Super Large" item.  

We'd been a bit aimless in Taipei, but when everything is novel, there was no shortage of fascination.  We spent a short amount of time in a museum, and it was bemusing to discover that the migratory bird exhibition included a couple of kiwis (one skeleton, and one stuffed)!

Permanently mounted child seat

Before turning in for the night, Brendan and I did our first of many missions, to pin down accommodation a day's ride south.  The site seemed to have pretty good saturation, but we did get an early heads up of one of the main challenges of travelling with others!  I took the lead on pinning down a rough destination, putting Strava's route builder to good use, while Brendan was responsible for the finer details (i.e. hotel), Sarah and I following suit once a place had been picked.  

Day 1 - Taoyuan to just north of Taichung

We had breakfast at a nearby cash-only Family Mart convenience store.  I'd quickly come to prefer the 7-Eleven chain, which accepted credit card, but also didn't have an incredibly annoying door chime.  Frustratingly, 7-Eleven also tended to have a slightly inferior range of food.   

The first couple of hours riding were messy, and that was on me as Brendan hadn't had a chance to install the Taiwan GPS base-map from  I was struggling to get the zoom level on my screen right, and was not always leading us in the right direction.  Brendan was doing a much better job with only a broad outline of the island on his unit, supplemented by the wind direction!  To add insult to injury, I picked up a bit of glass in my tire and had to mend the tube before resuming the torturous ride!

"Are you sure about this?!"

I hoped that when we finally hit the coast, things would get more straightforward.  They did, but not before a promising road running parallel to the main highway was blocked by sand forcing a brief battle against what was usually a sweet tail wind.  

The ride was not without its upsides though, including a toilet and sunscreen stop alongside an impressive statue.  

Navigational stress vanished just before noon, when we stumbled upon the Xinfeng Coastline Bike Path, which would connect in with Cycle Route 1 (CR1) a bit further south.  

One of the more curious stretches was alongside a multilane tunnel which had us wondering what was going on above.  There was at least two kilometres of covered road, all of which was open on the seaward side, along which ran a glorious cycle path.  

For the most part, we had the route to ourselves, with a notable exception being a peloton of similarly clad folk, on a mix of road and e-bikes.  We didn't attempt to overcome the language barrier, but waved regularly as we made our way past.  

Land-based windmills had been a regular sight along our route, but later in the day we started seeing dozens of massive off-shore windmills.  These well and truly implied regular strong wind, so it was very nice to be heading with it, rather than against it!

Wind+solar energy harnessed

After a long stretch on dedicated cycle paths, we ended up on a huge but empty road.  I'd advertised the day's ride as 110km, but we'd blown through that milestone at the 8 hour (elapsed) mark, and we would end up with almost 145km on the clock!  Even now, it is hard to see where all the extra distance came from.  As our destination neared, the road was completely transformed, and for the last hour or so we were joined by a seemingly endless supply of commuters heading home after a day in the factory (including at least one for Giant Bicycles, judging by the clothing being worn).  

At check-in, I felt confident that wherever our bicycles ended up, they'd be well watched.  In the end, we were told to take them to our rooms, which happened on many of the nights.  Other times, we were more than satisfied that they would be safe (or too pooped to care).  

The hotel had an adjacent laundromat, which we put to good use.  In the end, Viv, Brendan and I ate out, while Sarah nursed a bad headache back in our room.  Fortunately, she was feeling a lot better when I returned with some dumplings, though a long day in the saddle and that relatively light meal did not set her up well for the next couple of days on the bike.  

Stats:  144km ridden.  Many more windmills and ponds passed.  Temperature 25 to 36 degrees, average 30.  

Day 2 - into the foothills

With an eye to Days 3 and 4, our target for the second day was Caotun, about 20km inland, and in the foothills of the mountain range that separates west from east.  Between us and Caotun lay Taichung, the largest city in Taiwan by population (2.8 million people).  We could have got there in about 50km, but instead headed south along CR1, both to make a day of it, and to avoid passing through the city.  

Curious road-side emporium

On the face of it, the highly industrialised area we rode through that morning should have been a nightmare.  There were a huge number of trucks on the road, and factories are hardly "good scenery".  On the contrary, the drivers were awesomely courteous, and the glimpse into this side of life in Taiwan was actually really interesting (in suitable moderation!).  

I caught a glimpse of something behind a fence that deserved a closer look, and comedy ensued.  The solid fence was too high for me to see over, so I snapped a photo at the top of a jump, much to my companions' amusement, and to poor effect.  I asked for someone to volunteer to be hoisted up, and Viv kindly put her hand up, kindly removing a shoe before using me as a ladder of sorts.  The photo of us was much better than her photo over the fence, due to a second fence that we didn't anticipate.  

That triggered me to fire up the flying camera, with which I got the shot I was after - of various windmill components (and its platform) being loaded onto a ship for installation out in the strait.   Of course, 200m down the road, both fences ended, and we could have got a perfectly good shot from the roadside, but no-one seemed bothered by the novel use of the past 10 minutes, least of all this blogger.  

Progress continued to be slow when not 5 minutes later, Sarah announced a flat tyre.  We stopped to fix it, and that done, I enjoyed finding segments of a Screw Pine cone littering the ground - still on the tree, the cone resembled a ball, but when that falls apart it reveals beautifully flat surfaces with a crystalline and mathematical vibe to them.  

The day was heating up, and we stopped for a while at a 7-Eleven just down the road from the Taichung Power Plant (apparently the fourth largest coal-fired power station in the world).  Once underway, we soon crossed the Wu River (which we would follow into the mountains the following day), and continued south for a while longer on large roads.

Taichung Power Plant

I'd planned to head inland at the next major river, to approach Caotun from the due south, but the day had worn on a bit, and plan B was enacted.  There now lay a fairly grand ridge between us and our destination.  Circumnavigating it to the north and south were both possible, but these would both add unwelcome distance, and the northern approach would likely take us into the edges of Taichung and heavy traffic.  The ridge seemed to be gaining altitude from north to south, so I plotted a route a little to the north of "as the crow flies", that would cut out 100m or so of climbing.  

Hill-climb ahoy!

A nifty series of small roads took us slowly but surely towards the start of the climb.  Passing through one village, we got to watch the rubbish collection service in action - the truck played a loud jingle, not unlike Mr Whippy's, and residents would line up along the route with their trash.  We witnessed this time and again, and it seemed like a very effective process!

The 200m climb turned out to be not too bad, and if anything I enjoyed it much more than the descent, during which time I was alerted to the fact that my rear tyre was not fully seated in the rim.   The slight deformity in the tyre profile wasn't overly apparent at 25km/h, but at 50, it was a nightmare!  Whump, whump, whump, whump...

Once down in the valley, we had 8km or so to get to our hotel, during which time we passed an impressive statue just away from the main road.  We deviated to check it out, but the closer we got, the harder it was to see.  

Checking in was somewhat confusing, as the facility was actually two separate places (a hotel and a motel with the same name), and the staff's english wasn't much better than our mandarin.  It turned out that Brendan and Viv were in the hotel, while Sarah and I had a motel room.  We'd worked up a bit of a lather during the day, so we were all keen to find a laundry.  Alas, our hotel compendium turned out to be a sex-toy catalogue (among other things), and we had to resort to a more traditional search process.

Our dinner outing was relatively benign, and after a longish walk, we found a nice road-side stall selling loaded pancakes.  I ordered the "comprehensive" one, and was not disappointed!  

Stats: 100km ridden, our first hill climb, and plenty of weird and wonderful things seen.  Temperature 24 to 40 degrees, average 33.  

Day 3 - Caofen to Ren'ai Township

In the morning, my rear tyre was completely flat.  Since I'd ridden in on it the previous day, I figured I must have a slow leak, and removed the tube to find the hole.  I couldn't locate one passing the tube past a wet lip, nor past an ear, and even a basin of water back in the room was bubble-less.  There seemed nothing for it but to replace the tube, and a bit of brute force later, both it and the tyre were back in their rightful positions.  I was half expecting to have to deal with it a few kilometres into the ride, but it held air all the way back to Taipei, and the source of the leak remained a mystery.  (My personal theory is that it was an anonymous "I could have stolen your bicycle but didn't" message...)

Getting out of town was a terrible mess on account of some roadworks, but this was tempered by fantastic views of some rather serious looking mountains, and it may have been less annoying to the cyclists being led, than it was stressful for the navigator. 

The road network looked somewhat confusing on the map, with a major highway heading into Puli Township, so I was glad to find the route I'd plotted was indeed appropriate for bikes.  From time to time we would see the main road, as we each criss-crossed our way up the river valley. 

SH6 from the B-road

Distance-wise, Puli lay roughly at the half-way mark for the day.  We had a good break at a convenience store on the edge of the city, before passing through a built up area to pick up our mountain road.  We had a bit of a giggle upon noticing the branding on one of the many busses that passed us...

When scoping out a route the previous evening, I'd noticed we'd pass "the geographical centre of Taiwan", and sure enough, google translate confirmed a likely-looking stone, reminiscent of Asterix cartoons, as "the Stele that marks...".  

Thereafter, we found ourselves on the main road, and we soon discovered we were sharing it with dozens of Aston Martin sports cars.  At a few hundred thousand dollars a pop, it was kind of crazy to be passed by millions of dollars worth of cars in the span of a few seconds.  It was quite the convoy!  Fortunately, much of the traffic stopped at Puli, as had the freeway, so riding conditions were not bad.

Two of very many...

As we made our way further up the valley, we began to see the scale of the task that lay ahead.  We'd been climbing all morning, but slowly, and it was clear that gradients were about to get sterner.  Our accommodation was 2000m above sea level, and we gained about 1200m of that in the last 20km of the day.  From below, it was incredible to see villages clinging to the hillsides above.  

When booking the previous evening, accommodation appeared abundant along a 10km stretch of road, and I was glad I'd pushed for the upper-most options.  Every metre we ascended today was one less to climb the day after.  Sarah was struggling a bit, which I put down to the light meal two nights earlier, and I did my best to offset that by confiscating most of her luggage.

There were regular convenience store options as we crept up the hill, all the better to keep ourselves hydrated, fed, and to otherwise recuperate for the next push.  The views were also incredible, and at our relatively low speed, they were easy to savour!

Wanta Reservoir, looking less than full

There was the occasional quirkiness to keep us entertained, not least a couple of buildings that looked more suited to European mountain roads.  

Qingjing Farm and Sky Walk had been prominent on the map, and I had wondered whether we would want to stop to partake in some more traditional tourist activity.  This turned out to be an extensive walkway, which often ran just along the road.  We didn't feel compelled to stop and take a closer look, forgoing both the inevitable admission fee, and a long walk.  

As we neared our turn off, I did a bit of a shop for the next morning, fearing we might not have a simple opportunity to do so (without peeling off a whole lot of elevation by riding back down the mountain).  As it turned out, we passed no fewer that three 7-Elevens subsequently (and a Family Mart, with its dreaded doorbell), one of which we'd walk to after checking in.  Never mind, hauling the stuff up the hill was all good training!

All sorts on offer, but what exactly escaped us!

Check-in was a bit of a palaver, in part because while we'd booked separately, we'd ended up on the same hand-written booking invoice (small country?).  We got there in the end, and soon enough were heading out on foot to find dinner.  We settled on a Roasted Chicken place, which seemed to be a thing in these parts (we'd passed a bunch of similar places on the way up).  Sarah and I ordered a three-course set menu, which turned out to include a whole chicken.  We were given the option to carve it ourselves, but when we signaled for the alternative, the waitress donned one pair of gloves to deal with the heat, and a second pair to keep things hygienic, and within moments, had torn the bird apart! 

Dessert, water for our bottles and snacks for the morning's climb were all acquired after dinner, and then it was time to hit the sack!

Stats:  76km ridden, 2000m climbed. Temperature 16 to 34 degrees, average 28.  

Day 4 - Ren'ai to Taroko Gorge

We woke relatively early, all the better to savour the day ahead.  In many ways, it was the one I'd been most looking forward to, and boy oh boy, did it look like we'd gotten lucky with the weather. 

Looking south over Ren'ai

The guesthouse breakfast was traditional Chinese, and consisted of a rice porridge and scrambled eggs with chopped bacon.  That down the hatch we suited up and got ready to knock off the morning's 19km climb up to Wuling Pass, ascending from 2000 metres above sea level, to a hair over 3200m.  We would likely feel the altitude, and I hoped it would merely slow us down a bit.  

A nifty ramp to warm the legs up

Not far up the road, a sign led me to conclude that we'd dodged a bullet with our route choice, despite most of it being in Mandarin.  It seemed clear that the Taiwan KOM event was the following day, completely unbeknownst to me.  We would ride most of the route, but in reverse, and I could only assume that we'd not have been able to ride down at all had we been riding through a day later.  

We saw a few riders finishing their preparation for the event, as well as one guy with lightweight touring kit, who turned out to be on a mission to climb Wuling Pass from all three sides (a feat he nailed)!  When we weren't admiring others on their bikes, the road was a thing to behold, perched as it was on a narrow ridge that would steadily climb to 3275m above sea level.  

The views were amazing, though it was kind of gross to see nasty haze engulfing the mountains to the south - presumably blown eastward from Taichung.  Fortunately, we had our backs to it for the most part.  

Even though we were riding at high altitude, none of us had any issues with the thin air, and nor did it get cold enough that the riding effort was insufficient to keep us comfortable.    

Wuling Pass just behind Brendan's head

The pass itself was packed with an eclectic mix of folk.  There were a handful of other cyclists, plenty of motorcyclists, and a good number of bird watchers, who clearly knew something the rest of us did not about the nondescript birdlings that were hanging around.

After putting on jackets, we dropped down what must be one of the hardest race finishes on the planet!  It isn't always easy to tell what something will be like ridden in the opposite direction, but at over 3000m, the climb to the saddle from the north would be very intense, particularly if at the end of an 80km climb!

While we'd passed only one "shop" since leaving our accommodation (actually a vege market), only a few minutes from the summit was a cafe, which we stopped in for coffee and something to eat.  The coffee cups required a deposit, which was kind of odd, since they didn't exactly seem to be the sort of cups one would want to walk off with.  

After a short climb, which made it awkward to know what clothing to set off in, there was a nifty descent (including a couple of super steep corners) through to the tunnel that Sarah and I had gone through on our 2019 tour.  We regrouped there before descending a little further to a service station that was exactly as I remembered.  

There, Sarah used the loo, before we skirted around a sign and kept descending.  

Skirted, untranslated

The significance of the sign became clear 5 minutes later.  It turned out we'd just missed an hour-long chance to pass through a work site.  The body language of the fellow manning the barrier suggested that the 12:00-13:00 period was a literal one, and that 13:09 was not "close enough".  We knew better than to try to convince him to let us pass, and somewhat frustrated but resigned to our fate, headed back up the road to the service station for an extended lunch break.  

That did give us a chance to try a rice ball that another cyclist had recommended to us, claimed to be world famous in Taiwan.  Despite it being one of the few things available to buy, it wasn't the easiest transaction to conduct, but I got there in the end.  It was worth the effort, and the pork and mushroom laden rice was indeed delicious, and quite possibly worthy of its reputation!  

Making the most of the unexpected down time

We joked about missing the 10-minute opening at 3pm, but had we done so it would have been no laughing matter - the next chance was at 5pm, which would have been not long before sunset.  We arrived 15 minutes early, and got a fair bit of attention from various drivers who also had been caught out by the closure.  

I'd thought it would be really cool to ride this road in reverse.  From the coast, I'd billed it as a strong contender for the best one day ride I've done.  As a descent, there were a few disappointments.  One, I couldn't have anticipated, and on this day, cloud cover masked from us a thousand metre drop to the valley floor below.  The other I might have predicted, and that was at descending speed, you have much less time to focus on the scenery, let alone (safely) photograph it.  

Sarah and I descended together for the most part, and every 10 minutes or so we would stop to regroup with Brendan and Viv.  The cafe near the giant tree was closed (temporarily or permanently I couldn't discern).  

The Bilu Giant Tree

The descent seemed endless, and even though we were moving quickly, with photo stops, regrouping, and the occasional flat or uphill section, it still took us a couple of hours to descend 50km.  

Even though it was fun to be hooning down the road, I still forced myself to stop for photos when something caught my eye, including someone's unusual water supply station.  

The true cost of the road closure became apparent when we got down to Taroko Gorge itself, and we really had no time to marvel at the surroundings.  Once again, Sarah missed out on visiting the monastery, and even the incredible Tunnel of Nine Turns was more like a mid-race aid station raid than a meal savoured, as it should have been. 

I'd had no intention of riding anywhere in the dark, so only had packed one rear and one front light.  I had both on my bike, and Sarah and I rode two abreast so we could each benefit from both.  

Several billion dollars of tunnels and bridges later, we emerged from the national park, and rode the few kilometres south to find our accommodation.  It had been a long day, and the last hour or so had been somewhat stressful with the failing light.  We weren't inclined to add dinner stress, so made do with what we could scrape together at a nearby 7-Eleven.  This wasn't all bad, as they were well set up with instant noodles, microwavable meals and other goodies, plenty fit for hungry travelers.  

Stats:  115km ridden, almost 100 of them downhill!!! Temperature 12 to 32 degrees, average 20.  

Day 5 - Taroko Gorge to Luodong

The "notorious Suhua Highway" had been another highlight from 2019, and I was looking forward to taking another crack at it given that some of the construction work (on tunnels bypassing the old highway route) had been completed in the intervening period.  

After convenience store breakfast, a series of near-deserted back roads took us through to our first stretch of highway.  

When riding with Sarah, from time to time I feel guilty when what looked promising on a map, was unpleasant in reality.  But, as it turns out, when playing host to others, these feelings multiply!!!  The first two tunnels we came to, in very close succession, had prominent "no bikes" signs at their entrances.  With no alternative, we proceeded through them, safely enough, but I got the distinct impression Brendan was wondering what the hell I was getting them into!

It seemed likely that there had been cycling and walking bypasses of these tunnels, but each was closed by rockfall or some such, and the authorities hadn't bothered taking the signs down.  A saving grace from the point of view of my credibility, were the prominent "Cycling Route Number 1" signs painted on the road, literally metres after forbidden passage, and despite there being no apparent way to reach them while cycling!  

Fortunately, the next major tunnel was the newest one, and we peeled off onto a spectacular stretch of retired main road which had very little traffic on it whatsoever.   Exceptions were typically motorcycles, very slow moving cars, and at least a couple of petrol tankers (maybe banned from the tunnels).  Each and every one gave us a generously wide berth.  

These tunnels were a work in progress in 2019

Despite the rough start, the merits of the route slowly but surely became apparent, and my feelings of guilt began to abate and were soon forgotten completely.  

The road was often clinging to a cliff, but from time to time it would enter a bay, where typically would be a small settlement.  At our first such place we pulled in for a cold drink.  I took a punt on a bottle of "Green Asparagus Juice" and was pleasantly surprised by how palatable it was.   

In the same fridge were small baggies of betel nut, which none of us chose to partake in, even without reading up on the ill-effects of this local "delicacy".  

The next dose of civilisation seemed to be some sort of industrial complex.  As we passed, it became clear it was about to rain, and when we pulled up to get coats out, I noticed a 7-Eleven sign.  We rode into what seemed like a parking lot for factory employees, only to find a well equipped rest stop teeming with travelers, which was so weird given the unlikely location.  We'd had a few experiences with whistle-toting officials, and I attracted both the attention and ire of one when I deigned to ride my bike across a wet courtyard to get to the loo.  

It didn't actually start raining properly until 30 seconds after we'd set off without coats, and we were promptly forced to stop again.  

UFO parking across the road?

Following Sarah's wheel in the wet, I may have missed an arrow, and then a (figurative) coin flip didn't go my way and we ended up riding towards the next main (and this time actually forbidden) road tunnel.  Once at the portal, we could clearly see the road we wanted to be on below us, but there was no way to get down there, even on foot.  A highway worker ushered us towards a turnaround bay, and some 7km later, we were passing the spot again, just 20m closer to sea level!  

A view of the factory we shouldn't have got!

The correct road continued to dish up treats, and while we'd got used to the impressive commitment to road building, it was still quite remarkable that engineers had tamed this landscape (not once, but again).

One section of road took us quite deep into a gully, and it was cool to see the pair of tunnels briefly become exposed between and below the sections of road we'd taken.  I wondered if the traffic therein would have had any clue they were briefly crossing a bridge out in the open!

We made our next stop shortly after being held up at a level crossing.  The barriers were interesting - instead of the lowered arm we are used to in NZ, these remained parallel to the ground and were raised up a pair of pylons either side of the road.  

During this stop I read some horrible news about the death of a young colleague, and this required me to briefly put a work hat on.  The individual was never far from my mind for the rest of the trip, though far from being intrusive, if anything it made me appreciate what I was doing all the more.  

As our destination got nearer, the rain intensified, and we started to have some proper (though tiny in comparison to the previous days') hills to deal with.  At least one section of roadworks was to our benefit, as what would have been a fairly busy stretch of road was pleasant riding alongside a queue of jammed up cars and trucks!  It also guaranteed a long descent with the road to ourselves, so all in all, felt like a great win.  

While wet, the temperature was cool enough that we weren't pickling in our coats. 

At a brief stop on the outskirts of Su'ao, we discovered that while climate control was going well, our fingertips were all looking very prune-like, all the better to grip things in the rain...

I was fascinated by wildly varying memory quality.  I recognised some parts of the 2019 ride very well, including random things like the correct side road to our accommodation in Su'ao, but there were other features that I couldn't pick (because things had changed, or because I'd misremembered them I cannot say).  

We'd booked accommodation in Luodong very close to a night market.  After showers, we struck out for the local laundromat, before spending a good hour sampling various delicacies at the open air market. Loaner umbrellas from the hotel were put to good use, and it was a lot of fun buying random things to try.  To that end, I even spent 20 minutes in the longest queue on the street just to see what all the fuss was about.  (It was delicious enough, but we couldn't really work out what the food was!)

We shared a dessert with Brendan and Viv, in no small part because we could enjoy it seated at a table.  We were all a bit walked out, and the cost of the dessert might as well have been table rental for all we cared!  

Stats:  102km ridden. Temperature 18 to 32 degrees, average 22.  

Day 6 - Luodong to Jiufen

For our 6th day, I'd lined up a very wiggly road in the direction of Taipei, but accommodation options and the ride length they necessitated, combined with a collective weariness and a wet weather forecast, had us set off along a Strava route I'd titled "Day 6, Plan G"!  

We made a slow start to what was my 50th birthday, and I even got a message from Brendan screenshotting a train timetable!  None of us were in a hurry to start riding in the rain again.  

One delay tactic was to check out a "gambling den" across the street.  In NZ, these coin operated scams (???) seem targeted towards children, but in Taiwan, whenever we saw them in use it was by grown men.  We were intrigued to see some relatively high-end electronics, as well as secret-Santa type prizes, but these did not encourage us to partake.

Brendan borrowed one of the hotel umbrellas and went off to do some shopping, but eventually there was nothing for it but to roll out.

We correctly predicted that the various towns at the foot of the Lanyang River valley would flow into one another, and sure enough, it was impossible to tell when one ended and another began.  

On the other hand, we well and truly knew when one block ended and another began due to the incessant red lights we'd stop at.  Pretty much all of these would have a counter showing how long the wait was, and it was hard to tell whether this made things better or worse.  Motor scooter riders seemed very law abiding, and so we generally weren't tempted to slip through "on the footpath", even when crossing the top of a T-intersection.  

A cycle path did give us some respite from these stops, but when we were forced back onto the main road, we didn't quite make it, stopping instead to mend a puncture in one of Viv's tyres.  That gave a good opportunity for a coffee run, and these were downed while order was restored.  

There were very many election posters, and very many different power-poses

We passed more than one cyclist riding with an umbrella.  These, and rain ponchos, were readily available, but none of us were game to find out at what speed they were more hassle than they were worth.  

Heading south a few years earlier, I'd snapped a photo of a building sinking into a lake.  It had seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, but it turned out to be a museum building on a main road.  We stopped there briefly, and then had coffee and cake at a nearby cafe.  The coffees came with impressive latte art, drawn by a world-famous artist, judging by the price of the drinks!

The Lanyang Museum

We then began riding along the coast, and after seeing the rockforms there, the museum suddenly made a whole lot more sense.  I'm not sure the angle exactly matched the clear dip of the layered rock, but the similarity was obvious.  Chapeau to the local council.  

We focused on the riding for a spell - although we had a relatively short distance to cover for the day, the late start, puncture, red lights and sightseeing had made for incredibly slow progress, to the staggering tune of 10km/h for the first three hours!!!!  OMG.  

We were good for double that in the next hour, and that was enough to get us to the start of the Old Caoling Rail Tunnel.  As previously, this was busy with cycle tour groups and other punters like ourselves.  Sarah and I both vividly recalled the tunnel being respite from the heat of June, but this time there was no discernible difference between in and out.  

We had a bit of afternoon tea just before picking up the coastline again, passing by the mothballed Lungmen Nuclear Power Plant en route.  If it is never finished (as anticipated), the impressive chimney could be repurposed as a bungy tower, with a couple of strange protrusions resembling diving platforms.  

Lungmen Nuclear Power Plant

I made a bit of a menace of myself stopping for photos along the coast - Sarah and I have ridden together now so much that she typically knows to give me plenty of space, but I also leave a fine draft, and it was all too tempting for Brendan despite the inherent risks (which I should have managed better).  

A cute harbour on the north coast

Along the road side were fisherfolk of all descriptions - boats, and rods abound.  

The geography was also spectacular, with great big rock outcrops, and it demanded regular stops.  

Places always look so flat on the map, and I was intrigued to discover our approach to Jiufen.   At the turnoff was a tourist facility, which appeared to be access to remnants of an old mine.  The carpark and the ruins were blindingly obvious, but the actual "tourist activity" was less clear.  

Our road took us up a steep gully, past the "Golden Waterfall", presumably named after the mineral stain it left on the rocks, rather than a town fetish.  

The road we took offered occasional tantalising glimpses of the main route on the other side of the gully, and it was a good case of the grass likely being greener on the other side.  To add insult to injury, while I thought I'd mapped the route to our accommodation quite carefully, in the end Brendan and google maps both cut out a bit of climbing, and saved me an embarrassing retreat.  

Based on the look on our hostess's face, Brendan and I committed a cardinal sin by taking off our (wet) riding shoes when checking in, but we were admitted to our lodgings despite this.  Sarah and my room had come with dinner, which turned out to be possibly the most grown-up meal I've ever had.  It was a hotpot, with a couple of broths (spicy and not) in which to cook various meats and veges.  The spicy broth came with blocks of congealed duck's blood, and lengths of something's intestines.  Brendan was impressively game, and while I had a few bits of blood, I was lucky to get a single bit of intestine down, and had no interests in seconds.  

Before photo...

Our host assumed we'd want directions to the Jiufen Old Street, which we'd been oblivious to when we booked.  It turned out to be "a popular day trip from Taipei" and a genuine tourist attraction.  We did a little bit of shopping, but things were winding down and so we didn't get the sit-down dessert I was craving, not least to obliterate the last of the aftertastes from dinner.  

A small stepped "side street" seemed to be attracting a crowd, so we queued up and got a pair of couples shots.  

The walk back to our digs was relatively short, and we all took care not to disturb the hugest and gnarliest spider any of us had ever seen in the wild.  Its web was above the path, and high enough that even I would have struggled to walk into it, but the spider's body was like a stout finger, it had long legs, and even its colours made it look like it packed a real punch!

Stats:  76km ridden.  One 50th birthday celebrated!  No spider contact. Temperature 18 to 25 degrees, average 20.  

Day 7 - Jiufen to Taipei

As our return to NZ was getting closer, Brendan and Viv were keen to spend a bit of time in Taipei, and we agreed to part ways for a night.  In my accommodation survey I'd stumbled upon a place up a river valley in the hills behind Taipei which touted in-room thermal pools, and so Sarah and I had an exciting target.  

Rather than drop straight down to the coast, we decided to head uphill towards the old street.  It was threatening to rain again, so we hid in a Family Mart for a wee while, during which time I did a bit of running repairs on my handlebar bag (it may have dropped onto my front tyre a few too many times and was sporting a short slit...).  

Looking towards Keelung from Jiufen

In theory the short climb should have saved us some riding, but once underway, I missed a turn, and we ended up dropping into a valley behind the hills adjacent to the coast, necessitating some correction. Nonetheless, before too much longer we'd reached the port city of Keelung, and it was fun to cruise along the wharves getting yet another slice of Taiwanese life.  

We found ourselves back in the land of the scooter as well.  They hadn't seemed quite as popular in the mountains and on the east coast as they had been on the western side of the island, though that might have been because of the weather as much as anything.  

Just before we turned away from the coast for good, we stopped for a short toilet break.  There was an impressive flock of what looked like some sort of eagle circling above the harbour.  

Coast guards

We soon rejoined Cycle Route 1, and eventually we were able to turn onto a dedicated cycling and walking path along a river.  The path was small initially, but as we neared downtown Taipei, both the river and facilities alongside it increased in size.  I couldn't pick the section of path that Sarah and I rode in 2019, but it came and went.  

A downside of being in the river corridor was that we weren't passing convenience stores every few minutes.  We were all peckish, and there wasn't much on offer.  We stopped at a small collection of food trucks under a big sale, buying some fried food from one, and drinks from another (aka table rental fee).  While we were eating, the heavens opened, and we got a laugh out of the fact that while we were dry and sheltered, we'd left our bikes under an open gutter!  It wasn't so bad that any of us could be arsed moving them.  

Sarah and I said goodbye to Brendan and Viv there.  We were due to ride about 40km further than them, so needed to press on.  As lovely as their company was, there was something strangely comforting about being alone for a while - Sarah and I have now done so much of this that the ebb and flow of the ride is so very familiar to both of us.  

Taipei 101 ahead, which would be visited by B&V that evening

I enjoyed the cycle path, and enjoyed noticing the occasional gates through the otherwise impregnable flood walls.  We did feel very well catered for indeed, and I really enjoyed seeing (in English) "Bicycles can be brought in" on a toilet door or two.  

Nearing what seemed like the end point of the river trail I lost Sarah for a bit, and had to double back before I'd seen her various messages telling me she'd punctured.  We got that sorted, and rolled on ahead, passing a cute park with swan-like pedal boats before busting out onto the road for the rest of the ride.  

At our hotel, Sarah wasted no time in filling the bath with thermally heated water.  It definitely had an alkaline feel to it, and while I think I'd have preferred a few degrees hotter, we enjoyed soaking for a bit.  

Dinner turned into a bit of a mission as we were low on cash (and no-one seemed interested in our Visa card), but we eventually found an ATM and a restaurant packed with locals.  We ate well, before slipping back to the convenience store for dessert.  We even could have bought some Whittaker's chocolate, which was a real surprise, especially given that we felt a bit off the beaten track.  

Stats:  96km ridden, four temporarily became two. Temperature 19 to 27 degrees, average 22.  

Day 8 - reuniting in Yingge

Our final night in Taiwan was booked in a neighbourhood called Yingge, which had a couple of things going for it.  For one, it was within easy ride of the airport, but the reason we were heading there was because of its status as a "pottery town".  Over the last couple of years, Sarah has developed incredible skills with a pottery wheel and an assortment of accessories, and had been excited for months about this leg of the journey.

After checking out we rolled to the nearby Family Mart to scrape together some breakfast.  That done, we headed back down the valley, but this time on an incredibly nifty little road on the true left of the river.  

I regretted Brendan and Viv not being with us, as to some extent, it was one of the strangest (and therefore most interesting) stretches of road on the trip.  It was very narrow, had nice views over the river, and even included a tunnel that, if the warning sign was accurate, I'd have struggled to walk through without stooping.  I regret not waiting to watch a vehicle (carefully) pass through it.

The next curiosity was a line of up about a dozen photographers, and associated onlookers.  They were set up with huge telephoto lenses, and were all peering across the river towards a jungle-clad slope.  It was impossible to see what they were looking at with the naked eye (an eagle according to one fellow), so I made do with watching them!

Eventually the minor road took us into the edge of the city.  Once there, over a second breakfast, we debated the merits of dropping back into riverside cycle paths, or riding down another valley which would take us more directly to Yingge.  Sarah opted for the shorter valley route, all the better to get there sooner!  

What looked like it mightn't have much traffic on it turned out to be a fairly major route, and I was surprised to find ourselves back on Cycling Route 1.  Despite being an eight lane urban road to begin with, vehicles were soon funneled off onto a Freeway, and we had the valley much to ourselves.  

Not often you see a crane depot!

I hadn't had a chance to look back at our 2019 route into Taipei, but felt that we were likely to cross paths with it at some point.  Out of character, Sarah made another great suggestion about visiting the Sanxia Old Street, and on our way there, we stopped for some amazing dumplings.

From there it was a short but hectic ride to a very cute old street, that was well worth the detour.  We rode its length, and then retraced our tracks, stopping briefly at a small bakery for a croissant each.  Sarah queued for a wee while, and we watched people leaving with dozens of the things each.  We developed high expectations, which were not met, but it was still a nice stop.

Sanxia Old Street

From there we took big roads to cross the Dahan River, and rather than turning right on the cycle path towards Taipei, as we'd done in 2019, we turned left towards Yingge.  We soon started seeing ceramic sculptures, and in eagerness to check one out, Sarah buried her front wheel in a hidden grassy drainage ditch and had an awkward low-speed spill.  Fortunately, all the blood remained on the inside, and the ground was dry so there was no mud to contend with!

These two were really taking their time over the perfect shot.  This was after five minutes or so of waiting...

Our hotel's booking system had made quite a fuss about check-in being from 4pm, but we took a punt turning up just after noon, and were checked in as if the time were irrelevant (neither we nor they mentioned it).  That was a very welcome turn of events, as it gave us a chance to shower before setting out on foot to explore the neighbourhood.

We made a beeline for a tool shop, which Sarah assured me was the biggest distributor of specialised potters' tools in Taiwan.  Before we got there, we shared some dragonfruit, which is one of my few favourite fruits, alongside rock melon, but one which I rarely eat.  

Soon after, we found a coffee shop, which had a few tables for coffee drinkers, and sold beans, coffee making equipment, and had an eclectic assortment of grinders and machines behind the counter.  The coffee we each had had the both of us zinging for a good couple of hours, testament to the quality of the fellow's brew, and also the lousy (often milky canned or bottled) coffee that we'd been drinking for well over a week now.  

After shopping up a storm, we returned to the hotel and were able to connect with Brendan and Viv.  We made the mistake of prioritising laundry over food, so when we did set out for dinner, we were possibly less discerning than we might have been with lower hangriness levels.  

The "highlight" of dinner was trying stinky-tofu, which tasted very unpleasant, but fortunately didn't smell too bad from the confines of its spicy broth.  The taste did confirm that the occasional roadside waft of what could be mistaken for open sewage was actually a local delicacy! 

Stats:  40km ridden, one potter like a pig in muck, and four friends reunited. Temperature 22 to 32 degrees, average 28.  

Day 8 - Yingge to Taoyuan International Airport

Our flight wasn't until early evening, so we were in no rush to make the short dash to the airport.  

Sarah wanted to pop back to buy a few more tools, which meant we got to do the coffee/dragonfruit double again, both of which had similar incredible effects on our brains as they had the previous day.  We lamented not having Brendan and Viv with us!

Sarah and I visited the nearby ceramics museum, before suiting up and reconnecting with our companions and spending literally our last new dollar on some cinnamon buns, which had smelt insanely good the evening before, and slid down fairly neatly.  

We were relatively close to what looked like it would be a riverside path, and sure enough, that's what we soon found.  

Some road crossings were mitigated by underpasses, and there was one exquisitely designed and executed bridge, which made us all feel quite wonderful about the Taiwanese (and Asian, more generally) investment in good cycling infrastructure.  

Insanely expensive, no doubt, but a treat to see and ride

It looked like the path on our side of the river would take us almost all the way to the river, but after 50m of gravel, we ended up riding along the top of what can only be described as a wall!  We pushed ahead, but after a few minutes, that abruptly ended, forcing us to back track to a bridge across the river.  

We had another deadend due to some roadworks, but were soon at the edge of the airport precinct.  We had plenty of time, so made ourselves comfortable in our final air-conditioned 7-Eleven of the trip, and had a spot to eat and drink.

I'd hypothesized to Brendan that we might find it difficult to ride the final kilometre to Terminal 2, suggesting that our recourse might be to head to the nearest metro station and catch the train one stop.  On the other hand, Strava's heatmap overlay suggested plenty of people had either ridden or walked to the terminal, which was promising.  

On our approach, the road was big but not overly busy, and we didn't feel out of place.  At an underpass, there was an obvious no-bikes sign, but we were able to take a frustratingly narrow walkway along the edge of the tunnel.  I never really got out of scooting mode, and ricocheted between the barrier to my left and the tunnel wall on the right.  Both were covered in soot, which added insult to injury.  

We had a cross a few lanes of traffic to get to the terminal, and once inside we were reprimanded by a policeman, who told us we shouldn't have been "on the freeway".  Glad not to be locked up or fined, we walked our bikes through the arrivals hall to the left-luggage facility.  There we attracted the attention of airport security.  I tried to quickly pay for the bags, boxes and get out of Dodge, but they were intent on challenging us, presumably knowing fair well we shouldn't have ridden to the airport, and presumably that the local trains wouldn't have accepted the bikes either.  Fortunately, when we stressed that we were heading back to NZ, they relented and let us get on with our packing.

That took a while, and Brendan and I both worked up more of a lather doing that than we had on the ride!  The bags were slightly quicker to pack, so we agreed to regroup at the lounge after passport control.  There, the food was great, but the best perk from everyone's point of view was the shower facility.  

Just when I'd assumed the novelty was over, the walk to our gate dished up a few nice extras, the first of which was a coffee "vending machine", the likes of which I've never before seen.  It was a crying shame we neither had time nor appetite to test it out (and may not have had the necessary cash even if we had).  

Not 20m down the concourse was a gift shop, with an incredibly ironic welcome mat, given the challenges we'd had in the last kilometre of our tour!!!

Stats:  27km ridden, a couple of them illicitly. Temperature 26 to 33 degrees, average 29.  

* * * * *

Last time, I'd nominated Taiwan as a cycle tourist's paradise, and yet again, it delivered a spectacular and stimulating experience along a 780km route which had a bit of everything.

Late October was a very nice time to visit, climate wise, and a far cry from the hot and sticky June days.  When it wasn't raining, we all rode in short-sleeved riding jerseys, and even in the mountains, it was warm.  

Our bikes ran beautifully, a few punctures aside. We'd managed to get each to Oli for a good old fettle, and it showed!  Sarah was sporting a new Shimano drive train, which sorted out some nasty friction in her bottom bracket, among other things.  I've developed a practice of disconnecting the Di2 battery when the bikes are packed, and that (plus warranty replacement batteries in both bikes) seems to have sorted out the discharge issues.  

Riding with Brendan and Viv was a real treat.  Their company made for interesting conversations, and it was nice to watch and photograph three, instead of my usual one.  Of course, there's additional complexity when travelling in a group, as accommodation, food, and activities have to meet the needs of all, but we navigated that fairly easily.  It was also nice to realise just how in sync Sarah and I are when doing this alone - I think we've both been conscious of how lucky we are that we click doing this, much as we click at home, but riding with others went to show just how simple it is when we are alone!

As route designer and navigator, I was chuffed with how things worked out, and sensed that Brendan, Viv and Sarah were all delighted with the experience.  With our two 23-year-old adult children, Sarah and I have a ton more ability to travel, but I do look forward to signs that we might have inspired others to spread wings a wee bit, and get out amongst it.  I also look forward to getting the band back together in the future, here in NZ or somewhere more exotic, to explore once again.  

Celebrating my 50th birthday in this place, with those people was great, though it didn't happen in a vacuum, and my return to work forced me to confront that environment, and the tragic loss of my colleague.  Great memories faded abnormally quickly, but I'm trusting that they will freshen up again, once this current emotional onslaught eases.  I guess the hard times make the good times all the more precious, and worth savouring while you can.