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.

No comments: