Thursday, September 16, 2010

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

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