Thursday, September 16, 2010

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

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