Thursday, September 16, 2010

Taiwan's Southern Cross-Island Highway: Day 1 - Tainan to Laonong

Rare are the mornings in Taiwan when I do not eat breakfast at our table out on the balcony of our apartment, overlooking the few blocks between us and the harbor to the south and the coast to the west.  If we are in Tainan then you can be pretty sure that I will break each night-long fast with a bowl of oatmeal at that balcony table.  It is a nice table, wholly wooden, comprised of sturdy pine without any varnish or sealant.  The table is flanked by two swiveling bar stools.  The balcony is modest but clean and decorated with the natural greens and browns of the many potted plants which hang and sit about, doing nothing much besides photosynthesizing and softening what would otherwise be an austere and lifeless space.  I sit, eat my oatmeal, admire the views of the harbor, the ocean in the distance and the sky above us, the sounds of the birds flitting about on errands to which I am not privy, and the cars and people crawling about on the ground ten floors below.

The horizon to the east usually vanishes in a haze of unknown composition - pollution, humidity, and dust are all prime suspects.  But just occasionally the air will be clear in the morning and when I gaze out from our balcony to the eastern horizon I see the mountains - quite a distance away but imposing and compelling.  I don't know why but I am drawn to them.  When I see the mountains dominating the skyline, they make the sprawling city of Tainan seem diminutive by comparison and I want to throw everything else away and be off, moving towards those valleys, peaks, gorges, inclines, and declines.  But inevitably I prepare for another day of work and head instead to my school where life is lived not so much as an adventure as a mundane ordeal of noise and attention. 

This terrible situation could not be allowed to go on forever, my yearning to be amidst the mountains stymied by the exigencies of day-to-day life.  And so during my one-week long vacation at the end of April (2010) I was finally able to pursue the distant but persistent quest that had grown from a seed of an ethereal vision to a real plan built on intent.  I intended to take the Southern Cross-Island Highway over the central mountain ranges of Taiwan to the eastern coast.

Andrea rode with me on the first day of the journey.  Here we are about to begin cycling from outside our apartment block.

Bathroom and orientation break at a gas station north-east of Tainan.

The much anticipated first ice-tea shop stop on the journey.  This one is one instance of a franchise called Tea and Magic Hand.  That might sound a little strange on its own but the title sits comfortably among other tea-shop franchises in Taiwan with names like Jack Boy, Tropical Fish, Three Tea House, Ah-Z, Black and White Drink, Lingo, Red Sun and so on.

No matter what length, thickness, diameter, or variety of bamboo you are after, you'll find it at Uncle Chou's Bamboo Shop somewhere on Country Road no. 178.  And that's all they sell - bamboo poles.  I don't think I will ever see a store like this one back in Australia.

On a lonely stretch of Expressway 84 between the townships of DaNei and YuJing, you can find an awesome shaved-ice shop.  They only do two flavors - strawberry and mango.  But it is some of the best shaved-ice you will get in Tainan County.  The shop is connected to the greenhouse where they grow the strawberries themselves and for all I know they also grow the mangoes themselves somewhere nearby.  As the next photo taken just down the road demonstrates, YuJing is Mango's Hometown.  Apparently.  The shaved ice and the ice-cream are both awesome anyway and after riding for a couple of hours in the sun they are even better.

YuJing - Mango's Hometown.  It's official.  Mango has certainly done well for herself since she moved to the city.

At a small park just before the intersection of the Expressway (84) and Provincial Highway 20 we ate all of a small watermelon we had bought at a fruit shop earlier in the day.  And then it was time for us to go our separate ways - Andrea back to Tainan to prepare for work the following day, and me onwards along route number twenty towards the central mountain range.  No sooner had I embarked upon my solo tour than a light rain began to fall and I donned my cheap plastic raincoat and pedaled on.

Provincial Highway no.20 is an amazing road.  From an unassuming beginning at the Nanmen Rd/Gongyuan Rd traffic circle in downtown Tainan it runs all the way across southern Taiwan: eastwards across the western plains of southern Taiwan, over the central mountain ranges, passing through the Maolin National Scenic Area, Yushan National Park, and the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area, and then joins Provincial Highway no.9 near the west coast for the last stretch to the city of Taidong.  From now on I will be calling the no.20 the Southern Cross-Island Highway (SCIH).

A little further along the SCIH this old collapsed bridge prompted me to wonder about what lingering typhoon damage I might encounter crossing the mountains.  It had been eight months since Typhoon Morakot hit the island and Tainan City seemed to have largely forgotten about it.

The town of JiaXian and the JiaXian bridge.  I don't know whether the old bridge was destroyed or damaged by Typhoon Morakot but I know that they were working on this construction project for a long time*.

A panoramic view of the under-construction JiaXian bridge over the CiShan River.

After a meal of fried rice and soup in JiaXian I continued along the SCIH to the town of LaoNong.  In Laonong I found the local elementary school and set about finding someone to ask for permission to pitch my tent on the school green space.  After poking around empty classrooms I found some teenagers who gave me the go-ahead I needed.  As I began to empty bits of tent and bedding from various bags I was approached by two of the teenagers I had met earlier and another young woman.  It turned out that they were all teachers at the school and the friend had been brought along to meet the foreigner because her English was held to be better than any of the others.  During the course of the conversation I asked about the condition of the SCIH and was told that it was closed, prompting in me a sense of panic and uncertainty, a sinking feeling that this endeavour was going to be over before it had begun.  After our exchange of pleasantries was over I finished pitching the tent and headed across the road to the local 7-eleven.  Sitting at the bench next to the window, eating my cold noodles with vegetables, I attracted a small horde of local kids who put my Chinese language skills to the test, not to mention my capacity for dining under intense scrutiny while being interrogated.  Eventually a 7-eleven employee shooed them away and I was left to contemplate my plans for the following day.

Lying alone in my tent that was barely long enough for me and which did not block the light from the powerful flood-lights installed around the green space, I uncomfortably found my way into sleep while the local stray dogs barked and scampered around the school.

 I have mapped my entire route on the Bikemap website.  I've included some photos and comments along the route.  Go to

*Writing now in July I can say that the new JiaXian bridge has been completed and finished in a stylish shade of pastel purple (the color of taro ice cream - JiaXian is Taro's Hometown after all) with a dynamic lighting scheme that can be appreciated after nightfall.

Taiwan's Southern Cross-Island Highway: Day 2 - Laonong to Tianchih

On Monday morning I woke up in my tent at one end of the green-space inside the running track at LaoNong Elementary School.  I could hear talking, some laughter, and a lot of clapping.  While I started to pack away my things inside the tent, somebody turned on some lively modern dance music that mixed with the other sounds that I could hear.  Upon emerging from my tent I saw that at the other end of the running track a morning aerobics (dare I call it 'dancercize') class was in full swing.  I gave them a friendly wave to indicate that my sudden appearance didn't imply that they had woken me up.  It was good to see the old folks (one man looked particularly old) beginning their day in such an energetic way.

The young teachers I had chatted with on the previous evening had told me that I should move off the green-space before the students began arriving.  As I loaded up my bicycle and trundled over the highway to the local 7-Eleven I saw that there were already assorted girls and boys milling about with more students gradually trickling in from all directions.  I availed myself of the store's bicycle pump to inflate my tires; it really is hard not to be drawn to 7-Elevens for the wealth of conveniences that they concentrate in one small building.  I had been planning to eat some kind of breakfast food in the store as well but was thoroughly put off by the amount of attention I was already receiving from various young onlookers.  Had I purchased any foodstuffs and begun to eat in front of them, I felt sure that they would have broken out into a paroxysmal frenzy fueled by intense curiosity and so I left the packet of instant oatmeal on the shelf where it slouched and headed off towards Baolai.

As I rode I tried one of the bananas I had picked up the previous evening on a stroll around LaoNong.  I bought them from a stereotypical little old Taiwanese lady in a stereotypical little old Taiwanese general store.  When it came time to pay for my fruit she amazed me by picking up her abacus - HER ABACUS - and doing abacus things with it to produce a price.  I couldn't read the abacus, this skill having been phased out of the Western Australian educational curriculum fifty-or-so years ago, a little while before I existed, and so I had instead to rely on her interpretation.  The bananas were too far from being ripe anyway and joined the other agricultural detritus on the side of the road between LaoNong and Baolai.

Arriving in Baolai, looking across the river to the town.  Baolai was (and still is) yet another casualty of Typhoon Morakot.

In Baolai I found a Mei and Mei breakfast shop and helped myself to a big breakfast that would fuel my aspirations for the rest of the day: a fish burger, a tuna omelet, a soy milk, and a coffee.  Not being conspicuous enough to inspire a crowd of prepubescent onlookers, it was very soon time to move on.

This is as far as I had gone before.

Less than a minute after leaving the breakfast shop in the center of "downtown" Baolai I had reached the edge of the community and where I wanted to stop to appreciate the moment.  This was as far as I had been along highway 20.  Last time I was here I came with friends and we went white-water rafting down the river nearby.  In the sheds at the end of the highway we had been jostled by the throng of other rafters-to-be as we nabbed equipment in preparing ourselves for the excursion.  The whole place had been buzzing with an orderly chaos.  Now, as I looked at the sheds at the end of the highway, I could see signs of dereliction.  There hadn't been any white-water rafting here for a while, probably since Morakot.  Nonetheless, I was about to cycle onto an unfamiliar roadway and I felt that my adventure was only now about to begin.

My next big destination would be the Meishan Visitor Center situated just inside the boundary of Yushan National Park.  I discovered that the way there had been broken by Morakot and since repaired.  There were construction vehicles and construction projects and reconstruction projects underway at intervals along the highway.  I rode on a lot of new road although I didn't know if it was supposed to be a permanent or temporary route.

At the Meishan Visitor Center with Formosan Black Bears (taxidermified)

I arrived at the Meishan Visitor Centre after a long ride through a landscape that felt to me like a testament to the ultimate power of natural forces over all the schemes and devices of humankind.  My main priority in the visitor center was to establish exactly what kind of condition the SCIH was in.  Was there still a continuous route across to the other side of the island?  Was it open?  Were there still sources of food and water available along the way?  I had heard conflicting reports from people on my way here and I thought that the staff at the visitor center held out the best hope for an accurate assessment of the chances of success of my aim of cycling the SCIH.  I was dismayed when the girl working at the counter told me that the road was closed.  Closed?  But what did this mean?  When I pressed her for details she asked me to wait while she called for backup from somewhere upstairs.  Meanwhile, I wandered around the visitor center admiring the displays, reflecting on how few people would now be coming to see them.

The girl at the counter seemed to forget about me and after some time I approached her again to prompt her to call for somebody else.  This time her call for action brought a short middle-aged man trotting down the stairs, still wrangling with the buttons on his shirt.  This man told also told me that the road was closed.  When I seemed doubtful he took me to a free-standing noticeboard that displayed a rather official-looking notice.  He interpreted the notice for me - the road is closed - and pointed out the official seal of the Government of Kaohsiung County printed (or stamped?) across one corner of the notice in a wonderfully vibrant shade of red.  I was, by now, starting to think that the road was really closed.  I engaged the man about the specifics of the SCIH's condition and at some point during our conversation his attitude suddenly changed from "You cannot" to "Maybe you can try" after which we discussed the finer points of my proposed undertaking.

Upon leaving the center I asked Mr Visitor Center if I might pick a couple of the peaches from the trees growing outside the center.  Throwing profuse gratitudes at Mr Visitor Center and with my free fruit securely stowed in my backpack I headed up the hill into the somewhat unknown.  Around the first corner I came upon a roadblock consisting of two freestanding traffic barricades, the kind with diagonal black and yellow stripes.  After hesitating for fear of crossing some kind of boundary separating the legal from the illegal, I rode around them and onwards up the hill.  My first intended stop was a restaurant that Mr visitor center had told me was about twenty minutes along the road.  After about thirty minutes I couldn't see any signs of food or beverage provision and was beginning to suspect that Mr Visitor Center had confused 'minutes' with 'meters'.  A small blue truck, only the second vehicle that I had seen on the road (the first being a policeman who looked at me as he passed on his motorcycle, inspiring in me an anxiety attack because I thought he was going to get angry at me and tell me to turn around) appeared, coming from around the next bend, and when I stopped the driver he confirmed that the restaurant was indeed about twenty minutes behind me.  I cursed a bit and headed back down the hill to the restaurant twenty meters from the visitor center where I had started.

At the restaurant I ordered a big noodle soup and called Andrea to update her on my progress.  I thought that I had better call now as the availability of cellphone coverage in the mountains seemed so uncertain.  I bought another bottle of water before getting back on my bike and on the road.

The road was scarred and torn open in places.  Some stretches of the road way had been repaired with a mixture of dirt and rocks compacted to create a hard but rough surface.  My ride up into the mountains became a ride and walk up into the mountains as I hopped off my bicycle for the rough stretches and rode on the original smooth stretches.  Off.  Walk.  On.  Ride.  Off.  Walk.  On.  Ride.  Off.  Walk.  And so it went on.  There were not so many construction vehicles and no tourists at all and I couldn't help thinking that I was lucky to have the road all to myself, quiet and peaceful.  At one point I had to stop and wait while a grader operator moved rocks and dirt around on the way ahead until he saw me and allowed me to pass safely.  The damage here looked recent and as I trudged past the idling machine in my thin, yellow, plastic raincoat with a light rain falling everywhere around me, I wondered just how stable this landscape now was.

Somewhere between three and four o'clock in the afternoon things suddenly got foggy.  The clouds seemed to have descended on the mountains and visibility became quite bad in places.  The moment had taken on a surreal quality and I swam through the misty silence along the highway.  And then the silence withdrew as the air was filled with the sounds of a large truck and some other large vehicle and I pulled into the public carpark and restrooms at JhongJhihGuan.  It quickly became apparent that the construction workers were leaving, that the carpark no longer saw a lot of tourists, and that the restrooms were no longer connected to a water supply or power supply.  A signboard told me I was now at an elevation of 1,930 meters.  After a brief stop during which I considered the current state of things along highway 20 and let myself worry a bit about what I would find (or not find) up ahead, I pressed on, hoping to find a suitable place to put up my tent for the night.

I finally reached the police station at Tianchi and was relieved to find it open and occupied.  I was really glad to know that there were still people in the area, just in case the road collapsed under me while I was cycling and I was forced to drag myself, semi-conscious, up a ravine and seek assistance.  I chatted with the three policemen at the station and got some more water.  One of them was munching on a cob of corn and, now sure that I wasn't going to find any restaurants or shops open, I tried not to think about dinner.  The friendliest one of the bunch told me that the temperature would drop suddenly at nightfall.  He checked the thermometer inside the station and returned to tell me that it was currently 14 degrees centigrade.  I wondered what these men spent most of their time doing now that the highway was closed and they only had construction workers and monkeys to contend with.  When I asked them if I could pitch my tent next to the station they suggested that I try what I assumed was a campground about fifty meters down the road.  I expressed my gratitude for their warmth and welcome and moved on, my body temperature having dropped enough so that I had begun to shiver.

At an elevation of 2,280 meters I reached my home for the night: the abandoned public restrooms and carpark at the Tianchi trailhead. A pair of symmetrical stairways flanked by white railings climbed from the highway upwards and out of sight somewhere above.  On the other side of the road a small building housed the public restrooms, now abandoned, lacking electricity or running water.  The clouds wafted in and out of the area and promised rain soon.  I decided to set up my tent in the restrooms.

Abandoned public restrooms at the Tianchi trailhead.

Everything set up for a very quiet night.

I managed to anchor my tent pegs by directing them through the metal grates and into the wall of the ditch below the floor of the bathroom.  Before getting into my sleeping bag I walked back up the ramp to the carpark (at highway level) and tried one of the two peaches I had picked from the trees outside the visitor center.  I had no other food and only limited water.  I was a little disappointed to discover that the peach was only really ripe on one side and I was forced to throw away half of it.  It had begun to rain in a light yet drenching way and the sky was darkening.  As I lay in my sleeping bag inside the tent the silence was a little disquieting when combined with the thought that, in one of the most densely populated countries in the world, I was all by myself on an abandoned highway with only an unripe peach to look forward to for breakfast and I couldn't be sure that the road I was following would carry me over the mountains.  I was not going to sleep well.

 I have mapped my entire route on the Bikemap website.  I've included some photos and comments along the route.  Go to

Taiwan's Southern Cross-Island Highway: Day 3 - Tianchih to Taidong

On Tuesday morning I awoke to a still and silent world, the sun not yet having broken the night.  I immediately began packing my belongings away, keen to make the most of the day but also having little to do and not wanting to hang around for long at Jhongjhihguan with only the wind and the spiders and slugs for company.  Breakfast consisted of my only food stuff - the other equally unripe peach - and equal to its predecessor, it was similarly bitter on one side and after eating as much of it as I could I found a new and final resting place for it somewhere at the bottom of the gorge.  My water was quite cold but as much as I dislike drinking very cold water I drank half of what remained, leaving a few mouthfuls to get me over the mountain.  When everything was ready I rolled my bicycle out of the bathrooms and up the ramp and back onto the Southern Cross-Island Highway (SCIH).

The tipping point of the SCIH is the Yakou Tunnel.  It is the highest point of the journey and if you can get that far then the rest is downhill - except for the uphill bits.  Generally, any speed demon will get a thrill out of coming down from the Yakou Tunnel.  But it still lay eleven kilometers ahead of me and so I put one foot in front of the other and made my gear wheels turn and, slowly, I began to move up along the road.

The stretch of the SCIH between Jhongjhihguan and Yakou proved to be the hardest part of the journey, for reasons apart from the incline: I hadn’t eaten a proper dinner or breakfast; I was running out of water; I was feeling the fatigue brought on by the previous day’s cycle; and I was also rather cold and alone.  The road was in a terrible condition in places: broken, torn, pock-marked, or just plain absent.  In most of the places where the road had been washed away by heavy run-off, construction workers had filled in the gap with dirt and rocks to form a rough and ready surface.  It was still too rough for me on my bicycle with thin tires however, and just like on the previous day, my progress consisted of a series of episodes of walking alongside my bicycle while pushing it uphill, punctuated by very short stints riding it on level roadway (but almost never any more declining roadway).

My best photo of a monkey.  They're quite skittish.

On a couple of occasions I rounded a bend and caught monkeys disappearing into the jungle.  Sometimes I would hear them scampering around in the trees up on the cliffs above the highway.  I was hoping that they hadn’t learned to throw things at people.

The concrete shoulder of the road is still in place, marking the level of where the road used to be.  The temporary road of rubble and soil is not a good surface for bicycles with thin tires.

The falling water looks nice but you can see the broken road at the bottom of the photo.  I think the course of this runoff was changed by typhoon damage and now it runs onto the road.

The lack of food and water, the cold, the hard sleep I had had, and the weight of all the small uncertainties gathering at the back of my mind all took their toll and I began to feel quite vague and not quite my normal self.   I began to hope that the Yakou Tunnel was just around every next bend and was consequently frequently disappointed.  But more than anything I just kept going.  There was nothing over on the left side of the road but clean mountain air filling the void above the valley far below.  On the right, cliffs and mountain sides loomed over me, jutting out and receding as I traced the highway up into the sky.

 Lichens and mosses.

A particularly bad landslide.  This one must be very recent.  The road had been made passable after earlier damage and then further land slippage has made it impassable again.  Note the black and yellow concrete barrier in the distant bottom-left of the photo.  I had to pass it so I took the rack and panniers off my bicycle and carried them across to the other side.  Then I returned to carry my bicycle across.  On the other side I put them together again and plodded on.

The western mouth of the Yakou Tunnel.

At last I wearily turned a tight corner of the road to see the black mouth of the tunnel gaping at me from under the top of the mountain.  I approached and paused before the portal.  It was pitch black inside and I couldn’t see the other end.  The electricity for the lights inside had either been turned off or cut off and what remained was a permanent black void where people no longer came.  It may as well have been a black hole.  Of course, turning back was not an option and so, after completing the pause to gather my thoughts, I took the first few tentative steps into the darkness and uncertainty, suffused with the keen sense that all of the journey that had come before had been merely preparing me for this leap of faith.

I stared into black nothing.  Small, strange noises echoed around inside.  Water dripping, trickling from somewhere to somewhere.  After a short while I remembered that I had lights with me and I turned on both my LED head lamp and my front bicycle light but they made a negligible improvement.  I adjusted the bicycle light to point at the ground directly in front of my bicycle, hoping to see and avoid walking into a pool of nasty black water.  The ground felt uneven in places and I walked on rubble.  Would animals take shelter in a quiet, abandoned tunnel.  How long had it been since human feet had left their mark on this pavement?  The darkness continued on and I passed through an eternity, lost to the world outside.

The end of the top: the eastern mouth of the Yakou Tunnel.

When the end came it blinded me a little at first.  And as the world outside was revealed I saw... piles of rubble.  But no road!  I froze and looked about me.  Behind me, the mountain-side above the tunnel mouth was naked, stripped of its greenery but wearing a mist into which it receded out of sight.  The scene was post-apocalyptic, nothing but rocks, rubble, boulders, and dirt, all cast in a grey light.  As I moved forward I saw a cleft between two walls of rubble and there I found my road.  I was hugely relieved to know that it too had not been swept away in some landslide.

Downhill now.  It didn’t take long for me to see that that the SCIH on this side of the mountain was generally in better condition than on the other side.  I saw my first human being for the day, a man in a hard hat moving large pipes about a broken section of the road way.  Suddenly I knew that I would be okay.  I let myself go a little and sped down the mountain-side faster than I should have.  It was cold but I didn’t want to stop.  The road went on and on and I was braking a lot.  Sometimes I saw the rents in the roadway with only enough time left to skid to a halt on their edge or even over the edge onto the gravel and dirt.

I enter the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area.  It says so on the big marble thing behind me.

It was at either Lidao or Liyuan that I came upon my first opportunity to buy food or water.  Across the road from expansive fields of tea there was a roof covering some large tables; the kind of place that people go to eat and drink mainly for the sake of eating and drinking after a hard day’s work; definitely not fine dining.  I looked in the refrigerator longing for something hot, trying not to shiver.  A woman was preparing some green leafy vegetables in the corner.  I turned to her as I gathered a question together but she beat me to it.  She asked me (in Chinese), “Do you want something hot?”.  I left her with no doubt that I did and agreed on a bowl of hot soup.  She warmed up some Winter Melon Soup and I have to say that that bowl of hot Winter Melon Soup was the best soup I can remember having in Taiwan.  I was blissfully happy.

The SCIH goes through a couple of tunnels in the Wulu Gorge area.

It was still quite cold but very slowly warming up as I descended the mountain.  As I passed through Wulu I saw someone cooking something and stopped to order some Chao Fan (fried rice) which I thoroughly enjoyed.  Before leaving I purchased some milk-tea and cookies for the road.  The road was busier now and punctuated with construction projects, teams of men and women in hard hats busily sculpting the landscape.  I passed through Wulu Gorge and wished I had more time to stop and enjoy it.  Place names came and went - Chulai, Haiduan, Guanshan (where I bought some fruit), and onwards to Taidong.  By this time I had abandoned my plans to travel north and then westwards over the Central Cross-Island Highway.  I had done enough for now.

Back on a flat landscape again.

At about ten kilometers before Taidong I suffered a flat tire.  Upon inspecting my tires I was a little shocked to realise how badly scraped up and damaged they were.  I attempted to fit a new inner tube myself but had problems getting my air pump to work.  It occurred to me then that I had come close to disaster in the mountains: if my tire had blown on top of the mountain without a working air pump and without anyone around to help me, it could have been a very long and hungry walk to the nearest human beings.  I asked a man in some kind of mechanical workshop if he could help me but he didn’t seem to recognise or understand the high-pressure valve on my tube.  I walked my bicycle down the road until I saw a police station where I borrowed a pump and inflated my tire.  Something wasn’t quite right and after a few kilometers, at the edge of Taidong, my tire popped with a hiss and I limped the rest of the way into town, dragging my forlorn bike along beside me.

Hotel, hot shower, tuna-sub-sandwich for dinner, laundry in the bathroom sink, and finally, the ultimate in post-trauma therapy, a comfortable warm bed.

 I have mapped my entire route on the Bikemap website.  I've included some photos and comments along the route.  Go to

Taiwan's Southern Cross-Island Highway: Days 4 and 5 - Taidong to Tainan

Breakfast in Taidong.

Days four and five were spent cycling from Taidong to Danlu and then from Danlu back to Tainan. I took the South-Link Highway back across the island. After the drama of crossing the central mountain ranges of Taiwan, my return journey makes for a rather anticlimactic tale. I woke up, packed up and prepared myself as usual, breakfasted in a small breakfast shop downstairs, and headed off along the main highway out of Taidong.

The start of lesser road number 199 is a good landmark on the South-Link Highway.

Things only really got interesting when I stopped in the aboriginal township of Danlu for the night. If travelling westwards across the South-Link Highway, Danlu can be found about two-thirds of the way to the western coast.

I asked my way to the township's elementary school and then set about finding someone to ask for permission to pitch my tent for the night. I found the music teacher in the middle of some kind of special class and she took time out from eating cake to talk to me. She was extremely welcoming (no surprise in Taiwan) and tried to dissuade me from camping on the school grass and make use of the school hallway instead. But I was resolute and, despite the palpable threat of rain, I set my tent up on the grass to the amusement of a group of local children. Everybody, including a random elderly lady walking down the street by the school, had some kind of snake-related warning for me. The school oval ran right into the side of the jungled hills and so I had no doubt about the prospect of snakes joining me during the night. There was also something about the way that they told me about the snakes, a kind of flat by-the-way-ness, that left me in no doubt that they sometimes had snakes come down to the school.

Camping on the school grounds of Danlu Elementary School.

While setting up for the night, I made friends with the local kids and when I asked them where I could find a restaurant they told me to follow them. We walked up the street a couple of blocks from the school and then turned left and stopped at a very nondescript building. It didn't show any signs of being the kind of place where dinner could be gotten but when I stepped inside my perceptions changed. Half of the small room was occupied by a cluttered kitchen while the other half contained a few tables and chairs. Various aboriginal knick-knacks decorated the walls. To my great relief and delight there was a menu hung up on the wall above the kitchen space, confirming that this was indeed a restaurant. A middle-aged woman was busying herself in the kitchen and I bothered her to ask about dinner. It turned out that she was closing up for the day so that she could make an appearance at the local church. With the help of the kids translating for me, we established that she would be happy to make up some kind of noodle dinner for me before closing. That sounded wonderful and so, after a short wait, I was presented with a plastic container full of noodles with meat and vegetables; a hearty meal at the end of a long day. The kids took me to what must have been their parent's or relative's shop and sat me down outside it so that I could eat my dinner. I was getting along quite well with them and my Chinese was really getting a workout. The two boys went away and returned suddenly with their Nintendo Gameboys and kept me company with their beeping, shooting, racing, and exploding. I kept up a conversation with a young girl of about seven years, doing my best to keep up my end of the conversation through a mouthful of noodles. She wasn't a great conversationalist and everything suddenly began to wear on me. The kids had to go home and I was left to finish my dinner and then return to my own home, temporary though it was. I read for a while before going to sleep, infused with a sense of satisfaction from adventures had and challenges overcome. It had been a good day.

I found this monster bug in the school bathrooms.  It was about eight centimeters long from the end of its tail to its mandibles.

The new light of the following day threw the zeitgeist of the previous evening into a skew. Things became very ordinary and a little disappointing. I packed up and started on my way to the restaurant I had been to for dinner. I hadn't gotten very far when I was caught by a woman from the shop I had eaten outside the night before and encouraged in for a drink. I shared a drink with a middle-aged woman and her aunt.  From what I could gather through a haze of half-understood Chinese, the aunt seemed to be keen on having children with me and attempted to charm me with her vision of how beautiful they would look with our combined features. I wasn't really in the mood for fostering an illegitimate love-child in a small aboriginal village in Taiwan and as things got progressively more awkward I made my excuses and left to find breakfast.

While at the restaurant on the previous night I had learned that she would be open again for breakfast and I intended to return in the morning to patronise her fine establishment. I also wanted to spend some money, having received my dinner for free. But things were different in the morning. She was busy and preoccupied with several other people who seemed to be sitting around more because they wanted to socialise and less because they needed to eat. I felt like a chore. I had some toast and some ice-tea, paid up, thanked her, and departed to the bemusement of the other patrons.

Upon leaving Danlu, I decided that it was a great place to visit but that I probably wouldn't want to live there.

On the west coast I headed inland and along the foothills up the 185.

In the middle of nowhere I came upon a gambling machine and video game graveyard.

Sega Rally was big in 1995.  I remember seeing it in the arcades.  Now it sits forlorn in the wilderness, slowly decomposing, like so many other memories from my childhood.

We may be impressed with a lot of what modern technology makes possible but when everything is finished it will all be swallowed up again by the forests.

The rest of my journey home was straightforward; a series of highways and roads that took me up along the foothills and then westwards back to Tainan. I suffered from a badly-worn tire and another puncture which slowed my progress considerably. Andrea rode her bicycle out to meet me and we rode the last leg home together.

In hindsight I have come to see my journey over the mountains as something more significant than a simple bicycle tour. For me it was a personal challenge in which my supports were removed and then, at the end, I was forced to make a leap of faith into darkness and uncertainty without being able to see where I was going. Mountains come very naturally as a metaphor for challenges, be they personal, logistical, financial, spiritual, or otherwise. I will finish this post with an excerpt from an email I wrote to a friend not long after I finished this journey across the Southern Cross-Island Highway:
 I have realised in hindsight that it all felt like a big metaphor.  Andrea was there to support me at the start but the real work (climbing the mountain) was something I had to do by myself. There's just something about mountains and getting to the top.  It's such a common metaphor for any kind of big challenge.  You know, I guess it was like Heart of Darkness, wherein the journey took me further and further into the wilderness and away from humanity and civilization; the road was closed and after a while I didn't even see any construction workers.  It was just me and the broken road.  And I got focused on getting to the Yakou Tunnel at the top.  I knew that I just had to get up there and through the tunnel and then I would be okay because it was all downhill from there on.  The road got pretty bad.  At one point I had to take the rack off my bike and carry it across a recent landslide and then come back and carry my bike as well (too many big rocks).  I saw monkeys up there.  And it's funny how circumstances conspired to take away so much.  Although the road exists on maps, maps tell me nothing about the state or condition of the road and different people told me different things about it.  Some said it was open and some said it was closed so I was really heading into uncertainty.  And (partially) because of that I had to put my tent up in a bathroom near the top on the mountain when the clouds descended and visibility was severely reduced as night closed in and I hadn't brought any more food so I missed out on dinner and breakfast.  So it was funny the way that so many important things were stripped away from me so that if I was going to get over the mountains it was going to be with minimal support - no companions, no food, no way of knowing whether I would be able to go all the way over, no idea what lay ahead, no fresh water, no electricity, no phone reception.  And when I did finally make it to the Yakou Tunnel I was faced with one last challenge before being free of my predicament - the tunnel was unlit and pitch black and I realised that it was not being used because the road was closed and even the construction workers had no reason to go there.  I couldn't go back and so, like all good adventures, getting through to the other side required a leap of faith into the darkness without being able to see the other end.  I had a light on my bike and a head light but they didn't help much and there were all sorts of strange sounds being made by water inside the tunnel.  Of course, I did make it through and from then on the rest of the journey was just logistical, getting back to Tainan via the South-Link Highway down by Kending.  In hindsight I had been drawn to do what I did and I'm glad I did it.  It was just something I felt I had to do and it all has a strange sense of something intangible and special about it.
POST SCRIPT:  At the time of completing this series of posts the Southern Cross-Island Highway appears to be closed indefinitely although I have seen something on the net about it possibly re-opening next year.

 I have mapped my entire route on the Bikemap website.  I've included some photos and comments along the route.  Go to

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Two-day cycle: Tainan to Chiayi and back

Just a quick one - and no photos for a change.  Andrea finished up at Sharefun English school last Friday and left early the following morning for Vietnam.  There she will meet up with a friend and they will experience the experiences of experiential Vietnam.  I, on the other hand, will not finish at my school until the 14th of August; these are private schools and they schedule their academic calendars differently from one another.  And so I will have the next three weeks all to myself.

The van arrived to pick Andrea up at 5am on Saturday morning.  I arose around 7am, breakfasted while poring over a map of Southern Taiwan, packed up, and headed out for two days on the road.  I felt I really needed to get out of Tainan and to go exploring.  I chose to cycle to Chiayi because the distance suited me for a two-day tour and because starting off from Chiayi on Sunday morning would allow me to return to Tainan via the foothill roads through the hot-spring mecca of Guanziling and southwards behind Wushantou Reservoir.

For some reason (perhaps related to the she'll-be-right,-mate attitude I inherited as an Australian by birth) I neglected to apply any sunblock to my surfaces, believing that my tan made me immune to the effects of prolonged exposure to ultra-violet radiation.  Despite making amends by applying some sunscreen several hours into the journey, I could feel that I was sunburned by the time I arrived in Chiayi and I still had a return journey to make!  This presented me with a tough choice on Sunday morning: catch the train back to Tainan to avoid further burning; or do my best to minimize any more skin damage and cycle back to Tainan as planned.  I decided to cycle back and accept some level of skin damage.  However, I used all the strategies available to me to protect myself including: buying some strong (SPF50+) sunblock cream and applying liberally; riding on the wrong side of the road (in places where there was shade on the other side); alternating between walking in the shade and cycling in the sunny stretches (I only did this in the hills to avoid having to walk up any inclines in the sun), timing my rests in the shade to coincide with full sun; cycling anytime there was any cloud shadow; altering the position of my hands and arms on the handlebars to spread out the sun's effect; and when I got back to Tainan, I steered a course through the city to keep me in the shade of large buildings.  It all seemed to have worked and I suffered no noticeable additional burning.

Altogether I covered just over 200km in the two days and arrived back in Tainan weary but satisfied with my effort.  Finally, here is a map of the route compiled on the Bikemap website.

Bike route 599966 - powered by Bikemap 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Cycling around Taiwan: Prologue

Taiwan is an island. So is Australia. One day I'd like to ride all the way around Australia but right now I don't have the essential luxuries I need to attempt that. However, Taiwan is much smaller and cycling all the way around it is much cheaper and won't take six months. In fact, depending on how fast you are able to cycle (which in turn depends on things like your physical condition, the weather, what kind of bicycle you have and how much gear you need to take with you) you could cycle around Taiwan in as few as four days. You might be able to do it in fewer days but I don't know what the record is. However, most average people attempting this feat will probably take around 7-14 days.

It would be a terrible shame for someone who loves riding their bicycle (i.e., me) to have lived in Taiwan and not spent a long week just traveling around the country only as fast as their two legs carried them on two wheels. The island really does offer a diverse landscape of different terrains, climates, local specialty foods, cultures, and random encounters with its inhabitants. My desire became a reality in February and March of this year when I cycled with my two friends, John and Andrea, around the country. Our big break came with the Chinese New Year vacation of 2010. We were all freed from our employment obligations for two weeks; Good time in which to make the most of brakes, chains, gear levers, handlebars, pedals, spokes, tires, and saddles. We started out from our home base in the city of Tainan on the south-western coast on the 9th of February and started cycling anti-clockwise around the island. Unfortunately a series of three cold fronts was on the way and it was only a matter of time before their paths crossed with ours. After three days of wind and rain we were forced to abort our peregrination in Hsinchu, within one or two days of Tainan. We were despondent.

Almost one month later we were in Hsinchu again, setting off to complete our circumnavigation of Taiwan. We rode all through the night and into the morning until once again we were standing outside our apartment building having our photo taken by one of the security guards: A 'finished' photo to mate with our 'before' photo. The photo showed the three of us looking more or less the same as we had over five weeks earlier. What it failed to capture was how we had been enriched by our experiences: the people we had met, the time we friends had spent together, and all the beauty of this remarkable place that we had been steeped in.

This series of thirteen posts and the accompanying map at describe our journey. We hope that it may inspire other ordinary people wanting to experience something extraordinary.

My friends on this journey:

The beautiful and very capable Andrea.

The dashing and charismatic John.

Me. That was a stupid idea.


  • John has also blogged this trip although he has included edited video sequences on his page here.
  • I have retraced our route and left remarks and photos on the Bikemap website here.
  • I have written up some useful advice for anybody touring around Taiwan by bicycle. You can find that information on my page about cycling in Taiwan.

On the eve of the first day of the big ride, I do some last-minute packing in our living area.