Cycling tour of Taiwan, continued

Day Nine, Feb. 16

Kaohsiung, Kaohsiung County to Baisha Beach, Kenting National Park via Prov. Hwy 17 (Note: the bridge crossing into Pingtung County is completely not there) to Prov. Hwy 21 to Hwy 88 to County Road 189 to Prov. Hwy 1 to Prov. Hwy 26 to Country Road 156
Departure time: 7:30ish   Arrival time: 6:40
Riding time: 7:06   Average speed: 18.8 kph

Distance: 139.1 km   Odometer: 629 km

We crawled out of our hostel dorm room as silently as possible and had a quick breakfast in Kaohsiung. I was hoping the mountain medicine five something drink I had with my egg sandwich would sustain me through what I knew would be a grueling day of making up for yesterday’s lack of mileage.

It started out pleasant but cold. We sped along the 17 until hitting a serious detour. The bridge over the river we had to cross was missing. With no other choice, we headed up river, first coming across an oil pipeline stretching across the river. I think could have made it across on that, but it probably shows good judgment that we didn’t try. Instead we cut up to the 88, almost parallel to Kaohsiung, costing us about 20 extra kilometers.

Would it have made the story better? I think so

At the 1 we joined a huge movement of vacationers heading to Kenting. We saw a few other bicycles, but the traffic was overwhelmingly motorized in nature. We skipped the packed, over-priced restaurants and opted for the simple noodle and fried rice shops that we’d been dining at for most of the trip. My chicken noodles came with pork on top and, according to Colin, no chicken, but the cook fixed me up just right. We also stopped at one of the stalls lining the road with a poster of a thick black mustache out front. The lady told us they were ling jiao, and one English translation is water caltrop. They’re a bit like giant boiled peanuts, but not quite as soft. They’re supposed to be a lucky food because they also kind of look like a bat and bats are lucky animals.

'ello Govna

Colin suggested a picnic dinner, so we picked up Pringles, tuna, cow tongue cookies, peanut butter, and a bunch of bananas outside of Kenting. By this time the wind was gusting pretty hard and we got a few drops of rain. More than once I was pushed off the shoulder of the road by the wind. Sometimes we rode headlong into it, occasionally it pushed from behind. It was all rough going.

We pulled into a 7-11 for some relief and while Colin grabbed a snack, I got a hot caramel tea next door. Thinking we were almost to Baisha, I slid the bag onto my handle bars.

We kept riding and riding; the rain stopped and the poncho was just acting like a sail, so I stopped to pull it off, knocking my warm, not-yet-tasted tea to the ground where it smashed open and spilled all over the sidewalk. Sure, there’s no point in crying of spilled milk, but spilled caramel tea? Meanwhile, a few blocks down, Colin had pulled into a rest stop so I could drink my tea there before it got cold. Wicked irony.

We rolled through Hengchun to find another tea and picked up some hot baozi (buns with savory fillings) to add to our picnic. We missed the turn off to Baisha and didn’t realize it until getting to the bottom of a good-sized hill. It was nearly dark, but I chose climbing back up the hill and searching for Baisha anyway, not knowing there was a different campsite just a block or two further from where we were.

Some 10 km later, fighting hills, wind, hunger and cold, we made it to the campsite at Baisha. It was before 7 p.m., but the manager had already gone home for the night. At the advice of another camper, we set up camp on an empty, flat area of sand right at the edge of the campground. It wasn’t until 10 minutes later that we figured we were in some sort of pathway, when huge groups of Taiwanese campers filed past us, shining their lights into our tent, on their way to set off firecrackers on the beach. No one told us to move, so we didn’t.

Day Ten, Feb. 17

Baisha Beach, Kenting National Park to Syuhai, Pingtung County via Country Road 156 to Prov. Hwy 26 to County Road 200 (with box) to Prov. Hwy 26
Departure time: 8ish   Arrival time: 8:50ish
Riding time: 5:58   Average speed: 15.1 kph

Distance: 90.35 km   Odometer: 716 km

Almost 5 km out of Kenting the next morning, we turned around when Colin realized he needed to take a test for his online economics class. I left him at an Internet café and found a spot of beach to enjoy a pineapple shake. We had a Western lunch at Amy’s Cucina before leaving the Kenting chaos behind.

Kenting's main drag: this is inside a national park

We were climbing hills even before leaving the incomplete coastal highway. Around 5 we were only to Jialeshui, and Colin asked if I wanted to call it a night there. I voted to push on until dark and see how we felt then. Almost immediately I found myself in a bad mood, not helped much by a dead iPod and a dropped bag of trail mix (Noooo! Peanut MnM!). The weather, at least, was cooperating, but we were fighting up steep hills and slightly inclined valley floors.

A rare sighting of the Kenting highway goat! There were water buffalo too

Near Gangzi and in the pressing darkness, we again discussed continuing on to the campsite some 15 km further. With the alternative being setting up camp along the road with no showers or bathroom, we wearily rode on. The 199 abruptly forked down a long, steep, unlit hill. We coasted, riding our brakes, for minutes. Colin compared it to Space Mountain. Cars went past, momentarily blinding me or lighting the way. When we finally returned to the ocean and the street-light-lit 26, we finished the remaining uneventful 8 km.

The campsite was bustling with children and small dogs; adults were laughing around heaps of food. Two ladies from the neighboring camp befriended Colin while I was in the restroom, inviting us to their site for dinner. They were part of a hiking club of about six couples, and they found us quite interesting. Colin answered their questions for about an hour before we retreated to our tent, which we would learn later that night is not actually rain proof.

Day Eleven, Feb. 18

Syuhai, Pingtung County to Jhinluan, Taitung County via County Road 199 (with a box) to Prov. Hwy 9
Departure time: 9:00   Arrival time: 4ish
Riding time: 4:36   Average speed: 14.5 kph

Distance: 67 km   Odometer: 783 km

The Taiwanese hiking group invited us back for breakfast the next morning, so we were off to a nice, full start. The sky held rain, and within an hour of hitting the road, it was dumping down on us.

We climbed 500 meters to get to the end of the 199, where there was police station acting as more of a rest stop, especially for cyclists. Everyone was soggy, but the mood inside was cheerful.

It was all downhill from there, literally and figuratively. With the rain momentarily stopped, we started our coast down the 9, me in front, with no shortage of cyclists or vehicles to keep me nervous. Presently, I heard the clank of bicycle hitting road behind me. I stopped and turned to see Colin sitting on the road, his bike in the rain ditch, and another cyclist going to his aid. He was fine, somehow, after sliding about 10 feet on the asphalt. “忙忙起” the other guy said, “Slow down.”

We started again, me in the rear, and not 20 minutes later I felt my back tire slide to the right and out from underneath me. I hit hard against the road, knocking the wind out of me, but bounced immediately out of the road and slammed against the mountain-side retaining wall. Colin rushed back, and cars backed up behind my fallen bike. Save a sore elbow and a bruised hip, I was fine even before Colin made it all the way to me. I gave the drivers behind me a thumbs-up, and they replied, “忙忙起.”

The rain started again as we returned to the coast. We foolishly didn’t stop for lunch, thinking we were close enough to Jhinluan to make it. Around 3 we finally reached the town and sat down for plain fried rice. We had come for the hot springs—finally made it to a hot spring with time to enjoy it—but it turned out the spas were kind of pricey. After calling the handful with signs along the road, we found the closest thing to the public bath—NT$100 for unlimited bathing. We’d been really eager to sleep on a mattress that night, but it wasn’t in the cards. A worker at the pool suggested camping at the elementary school right across the street, and when we found a few other tents tucked away in the hallways, we agreed it was an unbeatable deal.

The black-sand beaches of the east coast

The pools were lovely and exactly what we needed after the rough day. No matter that they were possibly filled with just heated water and not water from a hot spring. It was a nice soak.

Day Twelve, Feb. 19

Jhinluan, Taitung County to Taitung, Taitung County via Prov. Hwy 9 to Prov. Hwy 11
Departure time: 10ish   Arrival time: 2ish
Riding time: 2:28   Average speed: 16.2 kph

Distance: 40.32 km   Odometer: 824 km

We awoke to a drizzle that continued as we broke down camp. Colin checked the Internet at breakfast and the forecast said rain for the rest of the trip. Time to throw in the towel.

The train ticket guys said we’d have to catch a south-bound train and go back the way we came if we wanted to leave from Jhinluan. However, they said, if we ride up to Taitung, we’ll be able to catch a north-bound train to Taipei tomorrow. At that moment, I got a text message from Pascal saying he and Andy would be in Taitung for the next two days and we should meet up if possible. Taitung, it is.

The 40 km ride felt so long, in part because of the rain but mostly from exhaustion, I think. The rain and wind provided a helpful reminder of why we were taking a train the rest of the way.

The man at the Taitung train ticket window told us there were no tickets to Taipei for the next two days. The man at the Taitung train information window hurriedly told us there was a train and demanded our money in a way that caused me to wonder if he’d return. But he did, with tickets and change, and the last leg of our trip was officially going to be completed by rail.

We met Pascal and Andy and walked through Taitung looking for a teashop and then dinner. It was cold and drizzly, but nice to be with friends. And then for only the second time in six nights we went back to a room and crawled into bed.

Day Thirteen, Feb. 20

Taitung, Taitung County to Taipei via train

We cycled to the train station in cool but rain-free weather. We had a tense moment as we said goodbye to the bikes, and we didn’t see a drop of rain the whole ride back.

In conclusion:

Dividing this trip into two halves, with Shannon’s departure in Kaohsiung being the ideal divide, it’s easy to see the two parts were remarkably different. Not only did our party shrink from three to two, eliminating the unique dynamic that a triad has, but Kaohsiung also marked an end to the west coast, as our next stop was at the southern tip of Kenting.

With Shannon, on the west, the days were relatively scenery and the scenery relatively ugly. We had sunny, 18-kmh days through graying towns with cabbage left out to rot. Almost every night we were in cities; the convenience of a 7-Eleven was never far but neither was the city traffic. Of course the exhilarating stop-and-go of cars was only in the city centers, but the smell of exhaust was a constant.

The date of Shannon’s leaving was also significant—February 15. February 14 was Chinese New Year, and in the days leading up to it we passed countless families sending pulp money and gift fruit to their ancestors. It felt very private. We sought people out in the temples of Tainan, but found them empty. The Altar of Heaven was the clear exception, with the masses lined up to wait for midnight and ask for luck for the New Year.

After I hugged Shannon for the last time in maybe three years, things changed pretty quickly. Shops were still closed but people were in the streets. We stumbled upon a real fireworks show and the remnants of what looked like a concert in Kaohsiung. Families and couples walked along Love Rive, snapping photos of the light displays. That feeling of merrymaking and being on holiday continued through the rest of our trip with beach fireworks in Kenting and rowdy banquets at the Syuhai campground. People had been friendly (rail employees excluded) for the entire trip, but they were especially festive after the 15th.

Our days in the saddle changed once it was just Colin and I. The southern tip and the east coast brought more mountains to climb, but we were also pushing for more mileage (kilometerage?) for fear we wouldn’t have time to finish the trip. These exhausting days were followed by nights of sleeping on the ground at campsites or schools because, with fewer cities on the east coast, there were fewer options that included a bed for the budget traveler.

Finally, with nothing but rain forecast for the remaining days of our trip and both of us daydreaming about curling up on the couch in front of a movie, we sought out a non-cycling mean of getting back to Yonghe. Colin and I agreed to return to Taitung to finish the last leg up the north-east side, and it’s looking like a long weekend in April will be our chance. (Side note: I forgot to bring my camera battery charger, so there are fewer pictures from the second half of the trip too. The differences just keep on coming.)

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