A usually uneventful hop from Melbourne to Sydney was spiced up when the plane started to buck and shudder passing through heavy turbulence. I caught the young girl next to me finger the rarely used sick bag in the pouch in front. Not much later she was clawing to find it and wrenching violently into it. Her recently finished breakfast and sour stomach juices had an immediate reaction as the stench wafted around the cabin. Immediately there was a sympathetic chorus of deep-throated strains all around me. An aborted descent didn’t help the situation only triggering my fellow passengers to dip their collective heads once again into the hopefully double reinforced sick bags. The trip to Taipei was with China Air, a new, quiet plane which landed on all wheels and barely a murmur from anyone aboard, I’d call that a win.
Taipei airport is easy to work out and a dedicated train has you in the city in forty minutes add ten minutes to have a guy set my phone up and the whole airport exercise has me walking into my hotel within an hour. If I couldn’t have seen the hotel from the station it would have been two hours so I’m not beating my chest just yet.
Awake early, far too early for the locals who seem to be slow to get going. Anyway I share a coffee with nonchalant cleaners and dozing mall guards then return to my room to build my bike ready to roll. I point myself towards the Tamsui river but first I must fight my way through the now chaotic clogged streets of belching, farting motor scooters. They are like a swarm of pesky mosquitos, filling my nostrils with toxic fumes causing me to gasp. My eyes sting and my throat becomes raspy, no wonder most wear face masks all day, I don’t call this living I call this surviving. I hear the earth sigh under the strain.
The river bike paths gives me some solitude and cleaner air, the river also hide the ugliness of the overpowering surge for progress elsewhere. Elderly are swinging their arms in morning exercise, ok call it Tai Chi whilst a few dangle a fishing line into the murky waters hoping to catch something, food poisoning is my bet. I just ride until I run out of river then re-enter the chaotic traffic. Eventually I have no choice but to start climbing the surrounding mountains. They are steep and show no pity on a flatland rider from Melbourne. My legs burn but eventually a rhythm starts. No that’s not a rhythm that’s my heart pounding like it’s about to pop. It’s cool up here and the greenery is slick with morning dew. I spot a lookout down onto the city but all I see is a murky swirl of yellow and purple carbon monoxide that the sun can’t penetrate.”
The next morning I am more confident at getting to the river but this time with my pannier bags on the back. I’m not returning. I love cycling off watching everyone wearing a workday face whilst I’m peddling the other way. Today I should be free of the city except it never really finishes. My cycle path gets quiet for a while before rebuilding into another industrial city. I remember my childhood when everything was stamped Made in Taiwan. Well it still is except now it reads Made in China. A sore point here but don’t argue with the label. I cop a bug that makes my eye sting and feel myself slowly caked in the grime of a very dirty world.
Hsinchu is a modern Taiwan city and I roll my bike across polished marble floors and up to my room without blinking my good eye. I wash away the day under one of those shower heads the size of a tropical storm. Watch as the murky water runs off me. My eye has blown up like Igor the mutant and I search for a chemist, ask with my raspy traffic fume effected voice. I’m already starting to ask myself why I chose Taiwan.
And the next few days aren’t much better. The names changed Taichung, Chiayi City, Kaohsiung but the swirling pollution didn’t abate.
There was one highlight though but it meant climbing high into the mountains. Sun Moon Lake, yes a lake named by a dithering committee. Nestled high up in the mountains away from the industrial grime sits this magical lake with a thirty klm road around it. Sounds surreal and almost is except the lake is VERY popular. I battle with an army of tour buses and an equal number of long gravel trucks carrying away a nearby valley. It left this cyclist feeling a little under protected as they squeezed past me.
The day’s highlight was the old fella who gave me wrong directions to my small hotel. Unbothered as hey, what can you do ? I’d already asked two others when alongside me wheezes his scooter. He gestures, follow me and we do a blockie of the town’s market lanes. Finally he stops and point with his toothless beetle nut grin at the hotel sign. I smile broadly too, we are almost brothers. “
I’d met an expat a day earlier in the traffic, Andrew Kerslake a keen cyclist who gave me good advise on leaving Sun Moon Lake. Try route 63 it’s quiet and beautiful. It was a sweaty climb for an hour and worth it just to meet a local jogger / nutcase who demanded we have photos. A crazy karate kid lookalike he was, I wobbled away thinking he was up here burying a body, why else was he here ? I soon forgot about him because I was to experience forty klms of flying down the back of the mountain range then turning and following a series of rivers all the way back to the sea. What a ride, almost thrust my legs out like a nine-year old. Weee….”
About now things started to go off the rails for me. I had been doing one hundred klms / day and little, ok, no stretching afterwards. My body rebuffed. My right buttock felt like a knife was in there and it wouldn’t go away. I lay on my hotel floor of a morning trying to stretch it free but the nerves were sending bad signals to my brain. I continued to ride until I got to Kenting at the Southern tip of the island. I’d done seven hundred klms in seven days and wasn’t getting better. I needed a rest.
I know a couple of massages will fix me up. The hotel receptionist who was also everything else suggested a nearby massage shop. Just remember tell them you want real massage, no happy ending and fell about laughing at his own English joke. I limped up the road. The only person who spoke any English was a boy girl so I explained I had a knot or something in my butt. He spoke quickly to the woman running the place. She spat out a handful of Chinese and up stood Bubba. Why Bubba wasn’t wrestling sumo in Japan I don’t know instead he was about to fix ? me. I walked in his shadow into a tiny room. He grunted and waved his arm just like a sumo. I waited for the sand to spill from his hand. I nervously stripped and lay with my head in the hole and waited for the end. His hands were like dinner plates but he was firm, decisive and regularly said ok ? My eyes clenched shut in the breathing hole and I thought whatever happens in this room will never get out. Soon it was over and I felt better. I still limped but I felt better. I went back the next day for more of Bubba, you can never get enough…
I had to move on. I got back on my bike and began taking small bites of getting up the East coast. It’s notorious at this time of year for strong Northerly winds and that’s what I got but at least it was a bit cooler.”
I stayed in the tiny seaside town of Dawu in a three room B&B run by an older lady who lit up the room with her smile and then fired lightning fast phrases into her phone for google translate to explain. She got me sorted for dinner and I peddled off towards town in the pitch black sure to get lost later. The other customers were full steam, heads down into their bowls when I walked in. I pointed at someone’s bowl and nodded in approval. Whilst I started to drink my beer I watched each customer finish, push back their chair and walk out. This place was for eating and that was that. In fact I found this in many places, eat and leave immediately. Breakfast was at another tiny open air shop, two fried egg in a salad sandwich and a coffee got my day started. But waking to roosters calling is always a sign you’ve escaped the city, I inwardly smiled.
I’ve been following the East Rift Valley for a few days. A bit of protection from the winds and such a lush fertile region. They pride themselves in producing rice good enough for the Japanese to buy. Truth is everything grown in this valley looks fantastic and I’m sure it’s very important to Taiwan. I finally see some livestock, a piggery with monstrous pink and grey animals heads down in the trough. I turn back to the road as the smell hits my nostrils only to spot a pineapple plantation next door. Oh I chuckle inwardly. The original ham and pineapple marriage made in pizzaland.
Whilst on the bizarre I must mention the streets of every city filling with Mr Whippy “Greensleeves” type canned music. I almost get the urge to rush out like a child, keen to get an ice cream. I find that it is the local garbage truck calling residents to bring out their rubbish and yes they must toss it into the truck themselves. I’ll never hear that tune and think a cone of dribbling ice-cream again. “
I reach Hualien and feel that I have broken the back of the ride. I celebrate by taking a bus up into the famous Taroko Gorge and walk some of the trails. The bus drops me at Shakadong and I climb down a steel staircase and begin walking upriver. The gorge closes in around me with towering marble cliffs patterned in swirls and scoured by huge boulders washed and tumbled from further up the river. The natural force is hard to fathom but this mountain range climbs over 3000 metres so there is plenty of momentum and typhoon quantities of rain to help it ravage the countryside. The engineering of the road is amazing too with roads dug deep into the cliff and tunnelled through where necessary. Regular earthquakes and typhoons ensure the engineers never quite finish trying to conquer the gorge. Proof comes the following morning at 5.30am when the bed starts shaking violently like your mother wants you outta bed for school. But no it’s an earthquake and I cannot return to sleep on the third floor. “
The coastal road narrows after Hualien and the tunnels haven’t been enlarged but the trucks keep getting bigger. All information tells me to catch the train further up the coast to Sa-ou or risk being roadkill. Like Chinese stations its wait with the multitudes at the gates before a stampede of a couple of hundred storm the platform just prior to departure. My bike and I sway along on the local train with a handful of local riders all covered from head to foot in Lycra protection. I ride a bit further North and call it a day my leg still giving me grief.
This piece of coastline from Toucheng to Keelung is by far the nicest riding of the whole trip. Around each headland is another protected fishing port full of cowering rusty fishing fleets waiting for the North wind to stop blowing so they can get out and fish. I’ve been swallowing this Northerly for days I don’t think it ever stops in Taiwan’s Winter. The coastal rock formations are impressive, equal to The Great Ocean Road but with a seriously good road to enjoy it on. Amateur fisherman hang off the cliff faces with rods cast out and one eye on the thumping waves. Not a sport for the weak hearted and many must get washed away. “
I feel the traffic build as I near Taipei the rapid pace of general living and the scooters are all around me again. I’d noticed blood-red stains on the road at each intersection. It took me a while to get it. Beetle nut spit. Many think it’s fazed-out as it causes high levels of mouth cancer but from the blood red stains on the roads it’s obviously still popular.
In total I’ve ridden just on 1300 klms around Taiwan much of it with a sore leg which probably dampened my view of the country. It really is a country of split personalities. Industry on the West coast with one polluting city after another. By comparison the East coast is sparsely populated, has regular typhoons but rich farming land for intense agriculture. The difference is amazing one side takes your breathe away in its beauty the other side has you wheezing coughing and spluttering like a two pack a day smoker.
I’m no prophet but something has to / needs to change. I’m glad I came and saw it for myself. Yet again I met many amazing local people young and old who showed me that the worlds people are mostly good, caring, honest souls. Yes honest. Not once did I have to lock up my bike it’s accepted that it will not be taken. Wouldn’t happen at home.