This entry details the epic trip that Tanja, Michael, Markus and I made around the south of the island over Chinese New Year. 350km. 7 days. 1 puncture. Countless random events.
Map of the tour
The whole island gets its annual winter break in this period. The feeling was certainly festive at work, even if I felt a little detatched from the revelry. There is also an apparent innate desire to drive around the island in massively over-specified 4×4 vehicles and celebrate your annual holiday stuck in a traffic jam with 5 other cars from family members in a train of cars hours long, all attempting to reach the same pin point on the map … and return to the same origin at the same, synchronised opportunity.
I managed to hastily avoid packing on Friday night and left it ’til literally the last minute of the next day to select my clothes for the week (limited), load my bike (wonky) and mentally prepare myself for a 6 day physical ordeal (recovered from hangover).
Saturday 5th February 2005
Taipei – Tainan (bus)
Tainan – Camp site (bike)
Our rigorously prepared German plan called for us to arrive completely disorganised, late at the bus station, completely aware that we would be arriving in Tainan in the night without any camping organised, or even knowledge of a site’s existence.
We slotted the bikes under the bus (with help from the formally-attired bell boys) and were astonished to see the incredible interior. Where you found 2 seats in Europe (or 4 in Mexico) you had a huge, business-class arm chair clad in green faux-leather with huge, phallic LCD screens emerging from the base. After a few minutes of fiddling, we found the controls to adjust the seats electrically in all the directions you could desire (and several you certainly do not). And then we found the magic button … massage. The seats vibrate, kneed, pound and press with varying degrees of severity, dependent on several completely deciperable, illogical controls.
At this point, we saw that several people on the bus were watching movies on the screens and begin exploring the menu. Unbelievable quantities of music, TV shows and movies were available for us, but I was quite pleased to find 7 channels of porn, which suited the vibrating chair quite well. However, Tanja and Michael looked a bit strangely at me, so I settled for The Matrix 3 with no sound instead.
Arriving in Tainan 4 hours later, we unpacked the bikes and, much to the locals’ amazement’ cycle off into the darkness to find our bed for the night. Apart from noticing incredible numbers of pubs compared to Taipei (my favourite of which was the ‘FBI Bar’) we really did not find anything remotely like a campsite. We settled on a community nature reserve (scarce on this island) after several minutes of justifying to ourselves ‘well this is Taiwan’. We pitched up behind a bus and spent some of the night terrified that we would get busted by a group of school children with fishing nets and clip boards.
Sunday 6th February 2005 (Chinese New Year’s Eve)
Camp site – Tainan
Tainan – Kaosiung
We got up early to see where we had camped. The dawn light was a really pleasant start to the day. That, and the happy realisation that nobody really minded that we were camping in the middle of a town.
Our first hotel
A bus man’s holiday
Our bike’s – shiny and unabused before the trip
Bus company logo
In the end, Markus could not join us in Tainan, as he had spent 6 days in Europe on business with most of it spent travelling or waiting to travel. We had arranged to meet him early in the morning in Kaosiung the next day.
We had heard some nice reports about Tainan from various people and I was certainly very pleasantly surprised by the town. It had been the capital from 1663 to 1885 and you can see the influence of the Portuguese, Dutch and Japanese occasionally. My two favourite things (apart from the number of pubs) were the relaxed cafe atmosphere and the beautiful and numerous old temples in the city. We saw a decent selection of them, including Taoist, Confucianist and then specced-out standard ones. They were considerably older than many of the places I had seen so far in Taipei.
An intricately carved pillar at Matsu Temple
Interior view of Matsu
This guy was hilarious – he had a very famous and traditional tea next to the temple. He encouraged the kids to help stir the pots and the amount of work that went into it was quite impressive … right up to when we walked back past and saw his powerdrill! And incidentally, it still tasted of sweat.
View through a temple door at Kuankung Temple
Incense at Kwankung Temple
An incense urn at Kwankung Temple
When we returned to our bikes we found the Temple’s chicken (we assume) sitting on Tanja’s bike. We took this as an incredibly good omen for the year ahead (it is now the year of the Chicken) … and yes it did shit on MY handlebars (spot her fat husband in the background)
The cock was obviously none too pleased we were checking out his lady on his own turf, so did a lap of our bikes – chest puffed out. Dinner, mate.
The Pagoda at the beautiful Confucian Temple
After seeing the temples and having some lunch along a delightful lane of cafés we pedalled out onto the first leg – Kaosiung. The road
was quite slow-going, since we decided to take the coastal path. The Taiwanese army being the Taiwanese army, they made sure they had totally blocked the path with regular turrets, although eerily now abandoned.
We decided to get up on to the main road and get some serious K’s under our belt, seeing as we were making particularly slow progress. The urban sprawl never really broke, and as we approached Kaosiung proper it merely just went up a notch or two in density. We arrived in some dakness and headed for Lotus Lake, where we planned to meet Markus the next morning. I was not really prepared for the sights, since it was barely mentioned in the Lonely Planet – though as ever there were comprehensive culinary guides to all the McDonalds in the area.
Lotus Lake, although not quite located in the mountains with Kung Fu masters training in the mist (it was more a brief break in the food stalls and night markets), was seriously impressive. Sometimes the Taiwanese obsession with all things LED pays off, and this lake was lined with some amazing Pagodas, enourmous dragons, tigers and gods. All ablaze with light and fire. Truly memorable. Utterly hilarious.
We had some difficulty again finding a camp site (see previous day for the reason). We considered camping in the grounds of the grand Confucious Temple, but knew we would be woken at early doors by curious strollers and Tai Chi-ers. Instead we headed for high ground and gradually left the city behind us. The first really suitable plot came between two huge abandoned steel works, and made for the most bizarre scenery. A couple of beers later, and after staring at the stars for a while, we retired to bed – again slightly stressed about being kicked out or crushed by a truck – but clearly camping next in a steel works is normal in Taiwan.
Monday 7th February 2005
Kaosiung – Fang Shan
We awoke early to see the industrial landscape we had chose for our camp site – certainly the stangest accomodation I have ever had. It was, however, completely deserted and deeply atmospheric – the result perhaps of the Chinese New Year Holiday.
Hotel Chez Asus
We set off and waited at Lotus Lake for Markus to arrive from the city, joining us for the rest of the tour. He arrived, we drank coffee and got on our way. We knew the day was going to be quite hard going because we had to negotiate Koahsiung – a notoriously busy and polluted city (the second city of Taiwan). Still, seeing the amazing pagodas in daylight and drinking perfect fresh-squeezed orange juice was a fantastic start.
Morning at Lotus Lake
It took us a while to negotiate the city. Based around a huge harbour, we had to trek a fair distance inland to get access to the road south again. The roads were busy and the weather hot, but we pushed on and managed to make it to a small town of Fang Shan for the evening – only a few hours ride from Kenting, the beach and foooood.
Fang Shan shone. Initially, we had some trouble finding a suitable camp site. Within minutes the whole village knew we were there and the local teenagers took us uner their wing and invited us to stay in the local Elementary School. Now, this sounds strange, but in Taiwan it is usually acceptable to pitch a tent on school property (you may slowly picking up the pattern that strange things are often the norm in Taiwan). After breaking in, we found a perfect spot and breathed a collective sigh of relief when we found that all the facilities were kept open for visitors’ disposal.
Breaking and Entry
After eating, we gradually attracted the attention of more of the youngsters. Several of the teenage girls chatted merrily with us for quite some time, and they told us about life in the village and some introductions to local aboriginal life. Meanwhile, the local lads set off torrents of fireworks in the school, providing a pleasantly noisy backdrop to a relaxing with few beers under the stars.
Tuesday 8th February 2005
Fan Shan – Kenting
After waking up and brushing our teeth in the school’s wash room, we stepped / pedalled out. It was pretty hilarious seeing the situation we were in, but breakfast was good, coffee better and the weather looking warm.
Fan Shang EuroCamp – spot our site on the left
It was a short hop compared to previous days, but the wind had really picked up and unfortunately not in our favour. A blustery head wind made getting a rhythm hard. We split up and agreed to meet in the resort town, which may have been a mistake, but it worked out okay. After quickly scoping the place for camp sites we found a decent one – but not before eating our way through the menu in a small Mexican restaurant.
An essential extended dip in the sea was precisely what we needed. Unfortunately, like much of Taiwan, they really enjoy trying to ruin what is perfectly good, and we were greeted with a legion of jet skis, ridden by people with no skill, and who probably could not swim. It was fascinating watching the fathers take their boys into the sea – most of them seemed petrified by the water, and a major conrast to Europe.
Running from the waves
The camp site was one you actually had to pay for this time. It was okay, but ironically the school was better, and certainly quieter. By this point, much of the main new year celebrations were over and the islanders were eagerly heading for the warm bits of the island – along with everyone else. Thankfully for us, camping is still not really mainstream, and the over-specced 4x4s with beautiful bikes mounted on the roof remained in the resorts.
In the evening we headed back for round 2 – Thai food. Exceptional quality. This time, all the holidaymakers had turned out to walk up and down the strip, and I realised it was exactly the same as the night markets we had just left behind us in Taipei. Clearly, this is their natural environment!
Kenting Night Market / Resort
Wednesday 9th Fe
Kenting – Undisclosed Location
Day 5 saw us enter the bit of the ride we had been looking forward to. We knew it was likely to be hard, with some respectable climbing and a tough distance to cover, but we knew the views would be fantastic of the east coast. However, the wind had other ideas and made sure, while the climbing made us sweat, the descents had much of the fun taken out of them with a stiff breeze blowing against us all the way.
Good dentail hygiene is essential for any epic tour
However, the day started marvellously and we saw the southern tip of the island, plus the limits of where commercial development had stripped the west of much of its charm.
The Pacific coast is really beautiful. As soon as you round the point, marked by a light house, cliffs drop into the ocean and the whole hill side is painted with dense vegetation. The first hour or two reminded me of Australia (though I have never been there), winding through billabongs and creeks, over crests and down dales.
The beautiful east coast
The weather slowly deteriorated from here on in, and riding against the wind quickly turned very dull. The ride was occasionally broken up with disused army check points and bases – these must have been quite unpopular places in the winter with the squaddies. Given a few years of decay to let the paint peel, however, and they become very interesting places to wander around.
Old army bases
Clash between nature, man and Lexus
Originally, we had planned to finish the day with a fairly big climb to a few hundred metres elevation. We were perfectly happy, however, to stumble across a couple of camp sites where the road left the coast. We pitched up, set up food, and bought enough food and dodgy fireworks to amuse ourselves for the evening (narrowly avoiding igniting both of our tents).
Michael enjoys a beer
We all enjoy pyrotechnics
Thursday 10th February 2005
Undisclosed Location – Jhiban Hot Springs
We had not made quite the mileage we wanted to the previous day, so we had left ourselves a very tough day. We aimed to reach Jhiban Hot Springs for a relaxation session, but had the biggest climb of the tour, plus 85 km or so of tough coastal road work along the major artery. We made sure to leave early, however, and the weather seeing us off was fantastic.
Markus, packing his bike and obviously feeling the pressure of 5 days in the saddle
The climb was a steady hour or two to a few hundred metres above sea level. Although it was not easy, it was satisfying to settle into a rhythm and feel strong after a few days in the saddle. The sun was shining, the views were amazing, and we knew we aimed to get to a hot spring – always a pleasure.
After the main climb, and riding through Aboriginal villages, thoughtfully decorated by the Taiwan Government
After reaching the main lip of the hill, we had quite a treat descending into Ta-Wu – fast, sweeping descent mixing it up with the cars and holidaymakers, returning to the coast for the final leg. Unfortunately, this final leg was a leg of immense length. The weather deteriorated and motivation slipped as the kilometre markers slowly counted down. I had spent several hours fantasizing about reaching a 7-11 and demolishing the candy bar section. We needed to really look after eachother on this section, and made sure to stick together to slip-stream away as much of the wind as possible. Finally, finally, we reached a 7-11 and were within spitting distance of Jhiban.
Keep going! – only 10 more minutes…
Jhiban had the same completely commoditised feel as a French ski resort. Beautiful scenery, but with huge concrete buildings dropped from alien space craft. The whole place was packed with tourists following us around the island, and the first camp site we reached was fully booked (even though they had put tents on the roofs of some of the buildings). The second one we reached was available, but disappointing, but we fortunately kept going for a couple more minutes to find a pretty nice site. No spring water left, and a steep £15 per night rate, but we had no choice and went off to find a public spring.
This actually turned out great. The spring we found – part of one of the resort hotels was a huge, sprawling complex of spas, water jets and saunas. I think I contaminated the water quite badly after several days without a shower (just ask Markus who I shared a tent with), but we stayed there until hunger got the better of us.
Jhiban Hot Springs – strangely serene
Shattered, but with good food and a beer.
Friday 11th February 2005
Taidong – Hualian (bus)
Hualian – Taipei, via Ilan (train)
The weather treated us to some beautiful sun. We still had another 20km to go to get to the airport and home, but this was doable after the previous day’s efforts. The wind was with us and we rolled along with bluebirds in our hair.
We arrived at the airport, and of course all flights were booked out. Finally, the lack of planning falls over. After taking a look at the long waiting list we decide to head for the train station, where we are happily told there is a two day waiting list. Riiiight. Finally, we head for the old bus station in the middle of town and get our revenge by buying KFC.
Again, our lack of planning turns into gold-plated fortune. The journey up to Hualian was stunning, hugging the coast line and driving beneath cliffs a thousand metres high. I am
now really looking forward to returning to the region with my parents and seeing more.
A quick ciggie stop on the coastal tour
A brutal environment for farming
Finally, and late, we rock up to Hualian. There were no immediate buses, but we decided to try our luck again with the trains. We could buy tickets to Ilan, which is a convenient hop to Taipei – either that night or the next day. Not ideal, but it meant we could get close.
However, we first needed to pack our bikes up, since we were not sure about loading them onto the train. Dozens of black bin liners, reams of tape and countless bemused expressions from the locals as we stripped the bikes down in front of the main entrance and wrapped them in black plastic, Shallow Grave style.
Disposing of the body
Bikes? What bikes?
Our plan was to get on the train, at least make it as far as Ilan and then see what happened from there. We had the rather inspired idea of asking the conductor if it was possible to extend the ticket we had bought from Hualian to get as far as Taipei. He agreed, but informed us we would not be able to get seats. We jumped at the offer, when we realised we could get back to Taipei the same night.
A few tense minutes
… but we made it! And in time for the last tube home as well! Shattered, but mighty pleased I had seen the island – by bus, train, bike, blood, sweat and gears.