This is the big one: 248km, 5,072m of climbing, peaking at a mighty 3275m. Taichung to Hualien by bike, with my friend and colleague Tony.
Bisecting the ridge of mountains that run down the centre of the island, the most direct route leaves Taichung and follows Route 14 up to Puli, through Renai, and switches onto the old Route 8 before reaching the peak and dropping down into Toroko on the way to the coast.
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Step one was therefore to get the bikes down to Taichung on the HSR. There is an good guide to travelling with bikes on the train network here at Taiwan in Cycles. I have travelled with both road and mountain bikes on the HSR, but only in a large, padded bag. This time, we had heavy-weight rubbish bags supplied by Alljack Models. We planned on recycling them, carrying them with us to use on the return trip (more on that later).
Spicy, greasy food and one too many beers was not the finest foundation to getting a good night of sleep, so I awoke the next day feeling pretty depleted when we met Joel and Diego. They offered to show us some more interesting back roads out of the back of Taichung, avoiding the overcrowded route 14 up to Puli; screw the most direct route.
Day 1 – Taichung to Lushan, via Guosing
The morning light pouring through the trees and the beautiful scenery was an effective pain-killer substitute. Tony and I were treated to some strenuous climbing and sinuous descending before the guys peeled off back for base. Therefore, by the time we got to the lunch stop at the beginning of the climb up to Renai, we had already done a serious 75km ride, and still had 40km of climbing to our accommodation in Lushan.
With my Garmin GPS merrily chirping each time we passed a km marker, and with an eye on the altitude, we slowly winched ourselves up the hill to Renai. It is pretty well graded, and we were lucky with a pleasant temperature and mild tail wind, but still, crawling up through the 1000m altitude barrier seemed to take an age. A stop at a kindly fruit seller was sorely needed to recharge our batteries and push trough the final 12 km.
Call it lack of research or planning, but I had accommodation booked in Lushan that was about 150m further down the valley. I had to tolerate the harassed stare of Tony, as I cheerfully pointed out where we were staying: it meant a steep descent that we knew we had to climb again the following morning.
A relaxed evening of eating dinner (twice), and hot springs, meant I slept much better, and was in much better shape the next morning (be aware that the Family Mart is not 24hr, so buy breakfast the night before). For reference, we stayed at the Minglu Hotel, and they were fine with us having bikes in the room.
Day 2 – Lushan to Xincheng
The opening climb dispatched (and insults swatted away), we again reached Renai and the start of the climb proper. Keeping a decent cadence, we passed increasingly unlikely hotels and resorts, themed to resemble Swiss chalets, German villages, and imagined English mountain-top castles. The GPS chirping less frequently than I would have liked, we slowly winched our way up the hill, stopping at the 7-11s that we passed to keep the fluids topped up and energy maintained. There were plenty of other cyclists on the road – many that we bumped into multiple times on the climb – but we were humbled when we chatted to two guys on folding bikes (sporting speakers and huge luggage panniers) that said they woke at 2am to ride up from Taichung to the peak in one day. Respect.
Altitude definitely begins to become a factor when you hit 1500-2000m, and it became increasingly difficult to keep the momentum up steep sections and keep from hyperventilating. But still the kilometres passed by (bleep!), and the good weather and increasingly beautiful views kept the motivation boiling. But things were beginning to get difficult, and it was clear we were beginning to dig deeper and deeper to keep the cranks turning; I lost count of the number of times I looked down to check I really was in my lowest gear.
Leaving behind the last of the tourist honey pots, the tree cover receded, the road narrowed and the conversation dropped. We had reached cycling purgatory, and the last minutes of climbing were among the hardest physical ordeals I have ever been through. Cadence had dropped to a level where it was a challenge to even stay upright. Finally, we broke through the throng of cars and people, less than gracefully dismounted, and climbed the steps up to the 3275m sign; we had done it. Chirp indeed!
One Tony’s riding buddies in Austin is in charge of a battalion of army attack helicopters. His reaction to our climb was as follows:
You likely experienced hypemic hypoxia above 10K’ as do pilots. The lack of partial pressure of O2 degrades your motor skills and vision. We’re only aloud to fly above 10K’ for 30 minutes, then back below. Stay safe.
So that’s nice.
And so onto the descent – how does 100km sound, through some of the most stunning scenery in Asia?
Suitably fuelled with hot food and tea at the mountain-top restaurant, we pointed our bikes downwards. The euphoric high of reaching the top probably meant I lacked some self control, and I had to remind myself to slow down to avoid disappearing over a cliff edge into oblivion. With the GPS merrily chirping away, we descended back through the tree line, the train station a solid 100km away. The descent is actually less steep than the climb, and for that reason it seemed to take an age to drop back down through each successive 100m attitude mark.
Stopping occasionally to allow my hands to unfold (my ring fingers welded themselves shut), and recompose ourselves, we hugged cliffs, shot over bridges, squirted our through endless switchbacks, cyclo-crossed our way over landslides, and bounced over pot holes caused by rocks smashing into the road. Seasons shifted and temperatures dropped as we dropped through misty clouds, and we had to hold on for grim life as we went through blind, completely unlit tunnels, with the only light bouncing off the reflectors on the walls to show the way. Hint: whatever you do, bring lights.
We passed over original Eiffel bridges, imported from Vietnam after the communists took power, circled past thousand year trees and slowly the km markers began to show we were coming within shooting distance of Tianxiang – the town at the mouth of Toroko Gorge. I had tickets booked on the 17:30 train (I thought this would be generous), but with light just beginning to fade it was clear time was limited; we were to be descending for a full four and half hours.
I was positive that Tianxiang was a town at some altitude, but it turns out it is at a lowly 600m, a mere 30km from the mouth of the river feeding into the Pacific Ocean. Tony and I upped the pace, surging through the marble rock formations and past the throngs of day-trippers staring up the vertical canyon walls. I had actually imagined that we would stop to take it all in, but like horses running quicker as they approach the stables, we found the energy reserves to steam through it with nary a backwards glance. Streamlining buses, we shot through the last of the tunnels and emerged onto the flood plain and rolled into Xincheng train station: we had done it.
We had soundly missed our original train at 17:30, so I went to buy tickets for the 18:00 train (luckily they still had seats). We went to buy some beer and nosh, and then walked up to the gate with out tickets … our bikes were not allowed on! Arguing didn’t help, so we went to talk to the ticket seller; he suggested we take the ‘bike train’ (didn’t he see my bike helmet earlier?). We were delighted to see that they had actually laid on dedicated carriages for bicycles, with their own seating. Never has an Asahi tasted so good.
Route & Map