Today marked a change of direction as we turned north along the west coast on Highway 26. It was very hot and humid and despite the fact that we seemed to have had a head wind all the way down the east coast, there was still a stiff northerly breeze making progress a bit slower. The highway from Henchung to Fangliao runs between the mountains and the sea, but then enters the broad western plain of Taiwan where the main population and industry is found.
We were now on Highway 1 with it's fast and, consequently, noisy traffic and decided to find a quieter route along the minor roads on the east side of the highway. The agricultural here is mainly fruit orchards, which stretch for miles, with flat, straight roads and the heat was intense. There were few towns and even fewer places to eat. At a scruffy roadside eatery we brought some drinks and were given a bunch of bananas to eat.
|Automated roadwork dummy|
In Taiwan it seems that it used to be standard practise to have a man waving a flag to warn motorists of roadworks ahead. With increasing wages it appears that it's now too expensive. Instead they go to great trouble to dress up shop dummies, using small motors to move the arms up and down.
Further north the roads passed through intensive chicken and pig rearing buildings, with their stomach churning odours, and fresh water prawn farms. Chaozhou was the nearest and largest town and by 2pm we were ready for a fast food lunch at the 7-11. Because we entered on a minor road we found it really difficult to identify where the town centre was and seemed to search around for ages before finding it.
After a long tour around we identified three, mouldy, downtrodden hotels. Choosing the least bad of the three, Steve was sent to examine the rooms. The two old ladies in charge could not seem to understand what two strange foreigners on bicycles could possibly want in their establishment. After a lot of sign language, copious Chinese symbols scribbled on scraps of paper and a bit of translation on the phone app, we couldn't face sleeping in the horrible room so headed off towards the by-pass in hope of something better.
Asking for directions to any alternative accommodation realisation suddenly dawned on her. "So you want a room for the WHOLE NIGHT? Well then we do have a vacancy." Obviously most people rent by the hour.
|The mystery chair|
The most puzzling item of furniture was the enormous leather chair thing which had a control panel attached to make various parts of it lift up and down, tilt, or move backwards and forwards at any speed of choice. We couldn't imagine what anyone would do with that.
To add a bit of fun there was a catalogue of saucy outfits and 'appliances' available from reception. We felt quite guilty that all we wanted to do was sleep. We did have a lovely spa bath though to relax the muscles.
Chaozhou to Tainan - train
For the last two days we had watched CNN predicting a typhoon developing south of Taiwan and yet none of the on-line weather forecasting sites seemed to be very bothered about it. But today the local news stations were broadcasting news of emergency plans to deal with the arrival of Typhoon Soulik. It didn't sound like it was going to be much fun for cycling in so we looked for somewhere to spend the weekend in safety and comfort.
Tainan, the old capital, was well south of the predicted risk area and looked like a good bet. We just had to get there. As both Chaozhou and Tainan have a railway station we hoped it would be easy to jump on a train.
|Waiting for the train|
This encouraged the first man to study his timetable book more closely and confer with a second colleague. Then they made some phone calls and eventually sold us four tickets (two for us, two for the bikes). We had to get the first train from there to Pingdong, then change trains.
|Tainan at night|
Tainan station was easy to get out of and we booked into the Kindness Hotel,Min Sheng for three nights to give the storm time to clear. This was a good find with clean rooms responsive staff, reasonable breakfast and free ice cream and coffee all the day.
Tainan - Three days typhoon break.
Tainan to Zengwen Dam - 68km
With the forecast for better, but still unsettled, weather for the next week we needed a new route plan. Before the weather interruption the plan was to go via Highway 20 (the south cross-island highway) back to the east coast rift valley and then climb the Taroko Gorge and head back to Taipei on Highway 7. But we had now learnt that Highway 20 is closed indefinitely following damage from a previous typhoon.
Riding out of Tainan we stopped at the railway station to see whether we could get a train back to Taitung and ride up the rift valley from there. The answer was a definite no as there are no local trains on the section of track between the west and east coast. Bikes can only be taken on this line if they are bagged and we had left the bags at the hotel in Taipei.
So with only a vague idea of where to go we set off on Highway 20 through Tainan. The first 20 km was through endless concrete suburbs but suddenly we were in green valleys again. At the rather unique police station we stopped and asked, just to make sure, that highway 20 really was impassable.
|Helpful Police Officers|
The hillsides here are covered with mango orchards and the developing mangoes are each carefully enclosed in a bag to stop them falling to the ground when they are ripe. These are the beautiful big bright pink skinned mangoes, very different from those grown in the Philippines.
By Nanxi we'd had enough riding but there was nothing we could recognise as accommodation. A Google search came up with the' Hibiscus Resort', about 8km north, so we booked a room by phone and set off. It was a large place, in the valley just below the dam. We got a suite: hallway, sitting room and huge bedroom with a balcony.
The room price also included an evening meal. There seemed to be very few guests staying so we felt slightly lonely in the immense dining room with only one other occupied table. The meal was supposed to showcase the local cuisine but it was a strange affair, ham fritters served with a very sweet yellow mango flavoured sauce and a tea flavour jelly for dessert.
Zengwen Dam to Chiayi - 92km
With no definite decision on today's route, we got to the resort gates and stopped for a vote, left or right? Left would take us back the way we had come and on the easier route north. Right took us up to and over the dam and then onto highway 3 along the east side of the reservoir. A much more demanding but scenic ride. Of course we picked right.
|Looking to Zengwen Dam|
This area, around Alishan, was reported on CNN news as having had over 900mm of rainfall as typhoon Soulik passed over. The clean up effort was at full tilt with numerous teams of workers removing fallen trees and clearing landslide debris. Everyone assured us that the road was passable.
There were more mango trees along the way, with groups of pickers using nets on long sticks like big fishing nets. We brought a couple to taste and they were fabulous. By lunchtime we were at Dapu, a small town at the north end of the reservoir, and had lunch in the 7-11.
From here we began the long, 700m climb out of the valley. It was quite steep in places, needing 1st gear. The sun disappeared behind a blanket of cloud which helped, but the sweat was dripping off. The views back over the reservoir were wonderful and the small vans with the road workers in them kept passing us with the occupants shouting encouragement.
|View from the top|
As the road flattened out we turned off Highway 3 to take a minor road through small villages towards Chiayi. This is an enormous conglomeration and we seemed to go many kilometres before we found the centre of the city and the hotels. Being tired, hungry and hot makes us both cranky, so we stopped at a little bar to rest, have a beer and review what the city had to offer on the map. It was now quite late and the traffic was heavy so it was still a struggle to find the hotel.
|Our table chef|
Chiayi to Douliu - 40km
The breakfast was pretty bad, the hotel was full of Chinese tourists, and we could hardly get out of the lift in the reception because of the piles of luggage and noisy guests. The coffee shop over the road was a much more peaceful place.
|Lizard on a rope|
A couple of hours of this quiet riding through industrial estates and housing estates required concentrated navigation and it was easier to go back onto Highway 1 at Dalin and follow this through Dounan to Douliu. .
|Praying mantis in the ladies toilet|
Heading out to eat that evening, we asked the hotel receptionist if she could recommend somewhere good. She arranged a taxi to take us to a place called 'Tasty'. It is one of a chain of restaurants which offer a choice of several 'set meals' which are very popular in Taiwan. You get about four courses, including a drink for a set price. It was very popular because the food was very good and reasonably priced.
Douliu to Shuili - 50km
At the far side of the dam is a viewing platform and cyclists rest area, built some time ago. Now the trees have grown high, there is no longer any view and the seats and shelter are falling to pieces. But we were very grateful for them as another heavy rainstorm started, forcing a thirty minute break.
|Planting rice in the rain|
|Braided river near Shuili|
Dropping down from there into the town we missed the centre and rode right round the edge in a big circle before getting into the centre where the accommodation was. The options were mainly bed and breakfast places with a couple of shabby hotels.
At the side of the river there was a little cafe run by a lady who spoke quite good English. She told us we could get bed and breakfast in an apartment on the other side of the river, owned by the cafe next door, and helped us to secure it as the owner spoke no English.
Shuili to Itashao - 35km
Originally it was a small lake but in 1934 a dam was built which increased its size. With an altitude of about 900m it offers a cool retreat from the heat of the coast and some beautiful mountain scenery.
There is a new, four lane road which climbs from just outside Shuili and in the early morning ,before the tourist buses, it is very quiet. The gradient is very gentle and we gained altitude without much effort. Halfway up the hill was a temple with this huge statue.
|Sun Moon Lake|
There are four temples and a pagoda but all of them have been built since the dam construction, to replace those lost in the valley flooding.
|Form a queue for photos|
Because it was weekend again we had pre-booked a bed and breakfast in Itashao and dropped off the bags there so we could continue riding around the lake.
|Who's got the best smile?|
|In the butterfly garden|
|View from the chair lift|
Itashao to Puli - 25km
|Prayer steps from the lake|
|Old tea plantation|
They were carrying wooden structures on poles over their shoulders containing some sort of idol. Progress was slow as they performed an intricate sort of side-stepping dance and bobbed up and down as they went.
Behind them came more men in giant god-like costumes. There was accompaniment on drums and cymbals with another group blowing long silver horns.
Puli is sold to tourists as a 'cultural and historical gem' but except for that wonderful parade we found little to delight us. Even finding a bar for a strengthening beer ready for tomorrow was a struggle and a good restaurant out of the question.
Puli to Clingjing - 33km
Don't for one minute think that a 36km day was a cinch. It was tough, tough, tough, hot, hot, hot and the traffic was continuous. But it was a fabulous climb on Highway 14.
We were not sure what services we would find on the route but we needn't have worried, there were frequent 7-11's all the way up to Clingjjng as well as frequent (expensive) fruit stalls. The first 20km was a pretty easy gradient, following the river valley. The traffic was constant, mainly lorries loaded with fruit, vegetables and gravel coming downhill, and empty lorries returning. Later in the morning the tourist buses and cars were pretty much nose to tail.
|Old England Hotel|
From the 25km mark the going was much tougher, with short sections of at least 10% gradient and, because of all the traffic hemming us to the side of the road, a couple of the right turn hairpins had to be pushed. It was slow, first gear for the next 10kms.
But the sights were amazing and took our minds off the toil. We began to understand why all these people drive up this road.
There are lots of expensive houses and hotels. One of them, called The Old England Hotel, had a tower which closely resembled Big Ben, and a Tudor style building. There is a large area of grazed pasture, called 'Mountain Meadow', teeming with tourists, and a sheep farm.
On the ascent we had met a cyclist called China, who owns a cycle shop called Cyber2 in Taipei. He took our photos and advised us that we needed to get to the summit tomorrow by 12md, as the clouds often roll in during the afternoon and there can be thunder storms.
Cingjing to Xincheng - 103km
In readiness for the long day ahead we were up at 6am and off by 6.30 with a packed breakfast. We were blessed with the most perfect of mornings for a mountain climb, with clear blue skies and not a breath of wind, one of the first settled days since the typhoon.
|Agriculture in the cool valleys|
The traffic was lighter than yesterday but still many lorries laden with fruit and flowers and also crowds of morning joggers heading downhill.
|Alpine scenery at the top|
Climbing higher, we left the broad leaved trees behind for massive pines, which could have been over 1,000 years old given the girth of their trunks. A stall at the side of the road tempted us with juicy peaches but charged a fortune for the pleasure.
A couple of men in a little van were unloading boxes of tiles onto the side of the road as its engine was also struggling to climb the hill. A couple of the steepest sections saw us pushing. But we didn't feel too bad as some much younger cyclists, with unloaded bikes, were doing the same.
The gradient of the initial descent was even steeper but there were still some cyclists slogging their way up ( carrying balloons but not any bags).
Not far down the slope the young man with the folding bike had stopped with a puncture. We offered help but he refused it. That was the end of his ride and he thumbed a lift down the mountain, passing us in a car, waving out of the window.
|Unstable mountain side|
We whizzed on for about 20km before starting another 200m climb at the start of the Taroko Gorge. It was very difficult to get the legs moving and we were now desperate for more food, having consumed all our carried supplies.
Towering peaks above, plunging to a narrow valley, so far below the bottom is out of sight and the road following a narrow ledge, blasted out of the sheer walls about 50 years ago. More than 450 workers lost their lives in the process. There are plenty of tunnels and higher up, with no electricity supply, they are unlit and have bends, a bit scary.
|Looking down to the road far below|
|Bilyhu Sacred Tree|
|The little black patch is the road tunnel|
There are lots of tourist attractions along the way but we were anxious to get to our accommodation before dark and more importantly, to get through the road works at 6.10pm.
We finished at 6.30pm, exactly 12 hours after setting off from Clingjing, one of the most memorable mountain days ever.
Xincheng to Datong - 37km
For the return to Taipei we planned to follow Highway 7 from Yilan north through the central mountains. So this meant we needed to get the train from Xincheng to Yilan to avoid the heavy traffic on the coast road. Having brought the tickets we had to get the bikes from the ticket hall to the platform.
|Tricycle in Yilan|
With only a few minutes before the train, we dashed down and a man helped us by carrying the unclipped panniers and pushing the back of Karen's bike. But we went up to the wrong platform so had to repeat the whole process a second time. At least the 90 minute train ride let us have a rest and we arrived in Yilan for lunch.
After eating and shopping we set off on Highway 7, north west out of the city. The river plain here is vast and flat between steep, tropical jungle clad mountains. With its rich alluvial deposits the river banks are used for growing vegetables and water melons.
|Baby swallows at the b and b|
We had expected to find a shop on the way from Yilan, and buy food supplies for the next day's climbing, but there was nothing. The kind b and b owner gave Steve a lift to a 7-11 to do the shopping.
Datong to Ming Chih - 33km
|Ethnic minority sculpture|
There was a 12 kilometre warm up, gently climbing the side of the wide river valley. It's flat alluvial shingle floor was being used for agriculture with long rows of vegetables growing in the stones. There is a unique bed and breakfast place here, a modern, circular building with a top floor that slowly rotates.
|River bed agriculture|
Immediately after the turn off we started to climb on a narrow, quiet road, through jungle forest, in a towering river valley. The first 5km was steep and difficult with some sections over 10% gradient and being only 400m above sea level the heat was intense. We stopped to rest at least four times and every single piece of Karen's clothing was drenched, with sweat dripping off the hem of her leggings onto the road.
|Hairpin mirror reflection|
After 10km the gradient became easier, mostly between 7 and 9%, around many hairpins, each with a mirror because the road was so narrow. The mountains still towered high above and we thought we must have about 5km more climbing.
Sitting down for another snack we were passed by a local road cyclist who told us that in fact we were only a hundred meters away from the summit, with the road then contouring around the mountain bowl to reach the descending valley.
Having to drink so much on the ascent meant we were critically low on water by now and searching for a supply to fill the bottles. The small National Park office at the summit let us fill them from their water dispenser, but the water was too hot to drink.
|Road round the mountain|
|Another ancient sacred tree|
Because the hotel was so full, the only time available for the evening meal was 5.30pm. We sat outside and for the first time since leaving the UK we needed fleeces on. The food was very good.
Ming Chih to Sanxia - 71km
|Avenue of trees, Ming Chih Lake|
There was a pagoda built on a small island and inside was a man playing haunting melodies on a clarinet. In the still air the music echoed around the water and was quite mesmerising.
The road was narrow, following a small valley downstream through beautiful forest. On this side of the hill there was very little traffic, just an occasional car. The woods were teeming with life.
Flowers,dragon flies, butterflies, honey bees, fish and frogs in the stream, and the constant deafening calls of the cicadas.
As we dropped down the valley widened and more tributaries joined it, with views down to the water and rocks below.
|.....that's a BIG rock|
Beyond the national park boundary there were some houses, built up on the hillsides, and trees cleared to grow tea and bamboo. We stopped for lunch at Baling. Setting off again we were soon held up at a traffic control for 40 minutes due to road re-surfacing.
|Waiting at the roadworks|
|Climbing skills required for this|
There was more work being carried out further down the valley. This climber was repairing the netting to prevent rockfalls onto the road.
Only another 5km further it started again, much more seriously. It was obvious this was not going to be short and sharp so with 15km left and time pressing we had to use our ponchos and surf down the road, praying not to have to stop suddenly. It was oddly pleasant when the faster traffic passed, spraying us with the warm surface water.
Sanxia is a sprawling city and with the heavy rain and busy roads it was difficult to find anywhere to stay. The Google map showed a motel in the new town area which had much better reviews than anywhere else. Arriving there it was obvious it was just the same as the last place, just lacking the special chair.
Sanxia to Wulai - 40km
|Sanxia Old Street|
For our last night on tour we had booked into a hot spring hotel at Wulai, one of the closest hot-springs to Taipei. The plan was to cycle along NR101, which looked, on our map, to be a quiet country road, avoiding the busy Highway 3. In fact it was a very busy road running through several suburbs of Taipei with high rise buildings, some complete, some being constructed. The highlight of the morning was a wonderful temple where we were given tea to drink while we took photos of the amazing interior.
It was a rolling ride, nothing steep, but the high humidity following yesterday's storm meant that it felt very hot. The halfway point was Xindian which is the last station on the MRT. It lies on the river which the hot springs flow into and our route continued up the valley. It is a popular cycle route and, as it was Saturday, was busy with bicycles. The long rolling hills had some of the less regular cyclists, on their light MTB's pushing, wimps!
|Follow this advice.....|
Wulai to Taipei - 45km
|Playing baseball in the river park|
We had a couple of days before our flight back to Manilla to do a bit more sightseeing and pack the bikes.