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.


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pumpkinslayer said...

Dude, this is wicked. I was looking at the road on Google maps and it looks like an easy cruise over the hills. But I guess it's not (duh).

On most roads here there's always someone around, but in your case you really did have it all to yourself.