Thursday, September 16, 2010

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

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