Monday, June 29, 2009

Cycling down the east coast: Pt3

Saturday morning began with light, dazzlingly bright and impossible to ignore. In erecting our tent the previous evening I had managed to orient it so that the first rays of the morning sun to strike from over the sea would pass straight through the flaps on one side of the tent and into my face, slowly charring my retinas.

I think I feel the joy of being alive! Oh, I'm mistaken: it's a stick I can feel, underneath the floor of the tent. I guess it's easy to confuse existential joy with a stick if you've just been prematurely woken by the sun, painfully searing your retinas.

The usual routine followed with minor variations allowing for character and circumstance: pack up and stow tent and other equipment, shower, eat breakfast, pack up bicycle and perform minor maintenance. I think we all pumped our tyres up.

Down the road a while we detoured a very short way to the beach. Here we danced our cares away, worries for another day, let the music play, down at Chung-yun beach. Actually I made that name up. However, we did have a long-jump contest and take some jumping photos. My mp3 player was saved from being immersed in the salty water of a freak wave by John who acted fast and plucked most of our few belongings from the sand which was soaked a second later. My sandals got a rinse in the brine but they probably needed it: long-distance cycling can really enhance your personal odors and and do terrible things to your sex-appeal.

One of the best things about Taiwan is the fruit. We reached Taitung in the afternoon and found ourselves a hotel. That night we watched the new Star Trek movie (surprisingly good) and ate a Sushi Express dinner. And of course we paid a brief visit to the local night market to pick up a few supplies for breakfast and the train journey home.

[technical note: we dropped our bicycles off at the local Giant store on Sunday morning and they were somehow shipped to the Giant bicycle store of our choice by Tuesday of the following week. We paid a fee for the service but it was not expensive and freed us of the terrible inconvenience of transporting our bicycles on the train again.]

This last shot was taken by John while waiting for our train back to Tainan. We purchased our tickets and sat down on the expansive green lawn in front of the facility. I had started the trip unnecessarily grumpy and obstinate and had slowly come around to something like revelation in the sense of reveling in the simple pleasures offered us by our temporary circumstances, like being out in the fresh air and sunshine. Inevitably and predictably the return to work was upon us faster than we would have liked and before long we were all in a taxi heading back to An-ping, bereaved at the loss of the sea, the mountains, the fresh air, and new sights. A predictable return to predictability.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cycling down the east coast: Pt2

I like waking up early. I like the feeling of being there at the start (or close to the start) of the day, as if I didn't want to miss any of it. I don't like getting up late; it makes me feel as though I have been robbed of my time.

The room we rented in the guesthouse in Fongbin didn't have any windows and so when I woke up and arose to partake of a quick shower it was without the benefit of any natural light to wake my brain up. As far as I knew it was still overcast and, possibly, raining outside. When I had readied myself I walked out through the front of the guesthouse past the racks of pipes and the doorway to the hardware store (I guess the proprietor's husband is in the hardware business) and out into a world lit up by a brilliant blue sky. Not a cloud. And it was already getting hot. It was going to be a great day for cycling down the coast.

The manager of the guesthouse. Note the incline.

Ah-ha! Blue skies, mountains, and a big blue sea.

Andrea poses for a photo while John takes the photo and Adrian struggles to get some air into his tyre.

Small fishing village.

The Tropic of Cnacer! Uh? I guess this must be one of the lesser tropics, along with the Tropic of Cup-o-Corn and the Tropic of Tribbles.

Ah, it's embarrassingly phallic.

This could almost be a commercial shot for the P advertising campaign. When we stopped at a restaurant for lunch, John helped himself to a nice, cold can of P.

... and then I drank some of John's P. John enjoyed the experience a bit too much; I don't trust John anymore.

In An-ping you can watch the sun set over the ocean but here on the east coast, of course, the sun sets over the mountains. In the late afternoon shafts of the sun's light project themselves across the mountain-tops and down into the coastal sea.

Sunset. We were cycling for a while after sunset, looking for a place to make use of the camping equipment we had brought along with us. Eventually we set up camp on the grassy oval of a school, surrounded by the running track. It had been a long and beautiful day and I slept satisfied that I had made the most of it.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Cycling down the east coast: Pt1

At the end of May, Dragon Boat Festival enlivened the canals of old An-ping and many a salty squid snack was sold to the observant masses who chose to mass in old An-ping. However, we were nowhere near old An-ping. We were on our way to Hualien to begin our cycle trip down to Taitung. This is the story of that journey...

We had started talking about the trip at least a month before it happened. At the end of May Taiwan rewarded itself for its long toil and labor with a long weekend so that its citizenry could rejoice and leisure themselves. Thursday and Friday the 27th and 28th of May were designated public holidays this year, creating a four-day weekend. Being the prescient foxes that we are, we decided to make the most of the four days to get away from it all... the western part of it anyway, and tour the east coast of Taiwan on our bicycles. A few days before departure Andrea purchased a brand new road bike, the kind with thin tyres (or tires if you are North-American) and very light weight. This purchasing decision was probably a wise one given that her other bicycle has a basket on the front and was not designed for speed or distance.

We decided to leave Tainan as soon as possible, and it was possible to leave Tainan on Wednesday evening after school. We had packed the day before, of course, so it was just a matter of heading straight home after work and getting on our bicycles. When I say 'we' I mean the usual, predictable trio: John, Andrea and me. We had packed light and I was the only one to bring a backpack; we were all using our panniers (bike saddle-bags) but I brought the backpack so that we had somewhere to put temporary items like fruit and snacks we would buy along the way, and items of clothing or other gear that would be used intermittently. We cycled together from our neighborhood in An-ping to the Ho-shin bus station downtown. We stopped just around the corner from the bus station and made preparations for the bike-to-bus transition. John had brought a pack of ten large bin-liners with him and we used these to bag our bikes with: one black bin-liner for the two wheels which we detached from the bike frames; two bin-liners for the rest of the frame. And when we were ready we carted all of our bulky, black bags into the bus station and laid them down around the water machine while we waited for our bus to arrive. The bus was over half an hour late due to the mad rush of people moving at the start of the long-weekend but it did arrive eventually and then we made a mad dash of our own, loading all the awkward bits and pieces into the cargo bay under the main cabin of the bus. Once aboard we ate our dinner (bought at the bakery down the street from the bus station) and discussed our course of action.

It was almost midnight when the bus pulled onto the side of the road half-a-block from Taipei Main Station. Another forty minutes was spent in search of a connection to Yilan or Hualien at the train station and then the bus station but it was just too late. We were tired, it was after midnight, we had been carrying our bicycles around in garbage bags that were starting to tear, and we couldn't find a connection of any sort to the east coast. Thus Plan B took effect and we carried our stuff to a large building across the street from Taipei Main Station where we knew we could get a room for the night at the Holo Family House. Upon arrival at said House we found ourselves negotiating our stay with some guy who had been drinking and he encouraged us to make our enquiries with a picture of a man in a poster on the wall. The man in the poster turned out to be the same guy we were standing with, the same man we were attempting to communicate with, and after expending some more of our time and patience (which were in ever-shorter supply) we ended up in a nice room containing about ten beds and zero other occupants. John and Andrea re-assembled their bikes while I got to bed as quickly as possible.


My travel alarm clock beeped. It was only about 6:30 in the morning but we were very keen to get going. In the dining room we helped ourselves to toast and hot drinks before checking out and riding our (temporarily assembled) bicycles across the main road to the train station. There we got ourselves tickets, took our bikes apart again (we were getting good at it now) and found our way down to the platform where we would be able to board the train to Hualien. As we walked along the platform carrying our big, black bags full of stuff, looking entirely suspicious, we noticed several vaguely bicycle-shaped carry bags propped up against a structural column. Thus we discovered the existence of bags designed to make transporting bicycles easy and convenient. Thus I discovered that we must have looked like complete amateurs to the owners of those bicycle-bags, waiting close by on the platform. When our train pulled in we made another mad dash to get all of our stuff on board. I think the train we caught was a special one; the last carriage seemed to be set up just for bicycles. John stayed with the bicycles and chatted to the few others minding their equipment while we settled in for the ride in the passenger cabin.

Hualien. Get bikes off train. Re-assemble bikes. Ride into town. Find bicycle shop. Replace rear brake pads (on my bike) and perform minor tune up. Eat lunch. And then... we started riding. Hualien is on the coast and we rode from the downtown area to the coastal highway, and when we got there it started raining lightly. However we were not deterred (having only been on our bikes for ten minutes) and headed down the highway, glorious in its asphaltness.

You can see on the map above that below Hualien there are two major highways heading south, one inland and one hugging the coast. We opted for neither of these, instead taking road 193, a smaller road that swaggers between the two larger highways on a less straightforward path southwards.

On the 193. Andrea the navigator.

The road slopes steadily up and passes through small towns and villages and a lot of farm land. Nice.

Mountains, trees, fresh air. Nice.

At the end of the day we cut across the mountain range to the coast, meeting the coastal highway at the small town of Fongbin. The small guesthouse across the street from the 7-11 was good enough for us and we settled in for the night. We particularly enjoyed the bath; the tiling reminded me of the bathroom my grandparents used to have; all those little colored tiles. And so ended the first day of our cycle down the east coast of Taiwan.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Xiou Liouciou 2: The Second Coming

On a fine Saturday morning of a week not long ago, four companions (the fellowship of the riding) set off on an amazing journey that would take them to the edge of their experience and the edge of their country (of temporary residence). Then they got thirsty and had to stop for ice tea, before setting off again on the long ride to the town of Donggang. With the wind in their hair and in their faces they rode like the wind that was in their hair and faces until they needed to use the bathroom and they stopped at a gas-station which housed a surprisingly nice bathroom. And as soon as they were able they ripped out of the gas station and tore down the road towards Donggang until they got thirsty again. This stop-starting went on for a little while until they really did reach Donggang and headed straight for the ferry terminal. Arrangements were made by John (the chief interpreter in our party of four) for our scooters to travel with us on the ferry to the island and tickets were purchased accordingly. Supplies were bought for the overnight stay, mainly fruit. The ferry trip finally began and we left the mainland.

So who were we? There were Andrea and me, of course, and John, our often-times travel-companion. We were joined on this trip by Liza, an Australian girl working in Tainan and a friend of John's for some while.

I think our overnight vacation really began the moment we crossed the threshold from the river outflow to the waters of the ocean. There is a very distinct edge of the water outflow. As the ferry passes over the line where the water from the river stalls against the wall of ocean water, you can see on one side the dirty, brown, murky river outflow and, on the other, the clear, bright blue water, transparent to the sea floor. A transformation occurs: from living in Taiwan to holidaying in Taiwan.

Aboard the ferry, experiencing the vacation vibe.

One of the nicest beaches fringing Xiao Liouciou. Interestingly, the sand on this beach is noticeably whiter than the sand on the beach in An-ping where we live. The sand on An-ping beach is a grey color and strewn with garbage. This nice beach on the island presented its own assortment of garbage but was still much cleaner than the main(island)land beaches.

Here we are down on the beach, sheltered in the sun-shadow of the rocks at the end of the beach. At this point in our vacation, some of us had already had enough sun and ultraviolence done to our collective skin.

We also went snorkeling about the reefs around the island. I somehow ended up with a mask that did not admit water and require emptying every minute or so. This has always been a big problem for me and is probably the main reason that I haven't done more snorkeling.

Back at base, consolidating energy reserves and cultivating positive indolence. Altogether, this trip was a much better experience than our last one. We might even go back again...