After three weeks of relaxing in Taipei (and me being totally slack with this blog), we finally managed to drag ourselves back onto the bikes for a 5-day test run of the island nation. Is it weird that I find it easier to write posts when we’re really busy traveling, but completely procrastinate when we’re being lazy?
Day 1 – Taipei to a farm near Hsinchu
When we caught the ferry from Xiamen to Keelung, we met an American who was about to cycle through Taiwan. He told us that compared to China, Taiwan was “easy mode”. We didn’t quite know what he meant at the time, but we learned very quickly.
Once you’ve found the cycleway in Taipei, you will officially have your first taste of easy mode. There are three main rivers which intersect in Taipei, and running along these rivers are over 100 kilometres of various cycle paths. They are wonderful sealed roads and bridges, and come complete with painted markings and signs in Chinese and English. There are no cars or motorbikes to worry about. Rest stops are dotted at regular intervals with drink sellers and bike hiring stations, and they supply (for free) bicycle pumps, phone charging stations, and benches in the shade. It’s all too easy, and the bliss of having no cars to worry about lets you simply enjoy the ride. The first 40 km on day one was on the southbound cycleway, and it was wonderful. Eventually, though, we met up with the highway.
Honking is not standard procedure in Taiwan. The only time people honked was to encourage us – friendly beeps with waves and thumbs up and the occasional, “Jia yo!” which means ‘go for it!’ or ‘you can do it!’ This encouragement helped, but it was hot. Extremely, oppressively hot. June marks the start of summer in Taiwan, and the temperature typically hangs around the high 30s with dense humidity. A Taiwanese summer is a burning sweat factory and it isn’t the most pleasant time to be thrusting many kilograms of gear up hills with your legs.
Prior to the cycle we had been staying with Caroline’s aunt in Taipei, and during that time my mum had flown over to visit. When she asked if I wanted anything from NZ I said, “That really good Cancer Society sunscreen. And Whittakers chocolate. And pie.” She brought all of the above (the pies were taken off her at Taiwanese customs. Damn them!)
So we had sunscreen made for NZ sun (SPF 50) to protect us, but even with that on I still managed to get burnt on the nose. We took regular breaks at 7 Eleven to bath in the sweet air conditioning, and as we sat drinking cool beverages the sweat would dry and the salt would crystallise. “Eww,” said Caroline as I scraped white grains of salt from my neck and showed her.
Which brings me to the another reason that Taiwan is easy mode for cycling: they actually seem to want you to cycle there. There are numerous cycle friendly stops along the roads. Petrol stations, temples, and police stations sometimes have pumps, basic repair tools, or even just clean water to refill drink bottles, but none of these places are quite as magnificent as the many hundreds of 7 Eleven stores. The air conditioning is a godsend, and they also contain toilets and indoor seating areas. Food is cheap and pretty damn good; a bento box of cold soba noodles costs about 50 Taiwan Dollars ($2.50), and the people behind the counter supply utensils and heat up the meals if you ask. The staff always seem to be friendly, and they serve tea-flavoured soft serve as well as about 200 different kinds of cold drink.
Thanks 7 Eleven, you beautiful, corporate monopoly of happiness. Thanks for dominating Taiwan and spawning other competitive establishments like “Family Mart” which are almost the same but don’t give out Doraemon stickers with every purchase.
For the first time since getting our bikes, we didn’t really know where we were going. We had a vague idea of the direction we wanted to head in, but that was it. We were fairly certain that we’d be camping somewhere since even the cheap hotels in Taiwan are rather expensive, but we weren’t sure if that would be at an actual campsite, or at a police station (yes, some of them let you camp there for free), or a ‘wild’ camp.
So we stopped at the Hsinchu police station and spoke to a friendly officer. He gave us some good directions to several different camping areas, and then we rode out to find one of them on a small road away from the highways. There was a campsite listed on Google Maps and so we biked up a very steep hill to find it. When we got there we found a private house, and as we tried to decide what to do next, frustrated because it was almost 5.30, the owner came out and stared at us in surprise.
“We are looking for a place to camp,” I typed into a translator.
“Oh. Around the corner,” he replied and pointed around the side of his house to a nearby farm. He then hopped on his motorbike and told us to follow him.
He reached the farm house before us and was chatting with the apparent owner – a kind-looking Hakka woman – as we approached. The situation was relayed to her and she seemed bewildered, but eventually she generously allowed us to camp for free on her field. On top of the place to pitch our tent, we were fed dinner and shown where to shower. The woman lived with her smiling father and husband, and we were joined for dinner by a neighbour. An Indonesian woman also lived there to help with the father (he’d had a couple of brain operations), and so Caroline could speak to her in Bahasa. She’d lived in Taiwan for five years, she explained, and had been on the farm for two.
After dinner we all sat in the lounge and watched TV, occasionally attempting to chat and being offered a lot of tea and snacks.
Day 2 – A farm near Hsinchu to Miaoli
It was a rough sleep in the heat, and we woke at 6 a.m. to a very damp tent. It hadn’t rained, but the moisture in the air had condensed over everything and was dripping onto us. Never mind.
Our host had prepared some coffee and a kind of soft, bready cake thing, and we enjoyed looking out over the rolling hills as we ate. After packing, we took photos together and thanked her profusely. Caroline and I talked about whether or not we should offer any money, but decided that it might be awkward to ask – especially since she had another friend over for breakfast. She certainly didn’t act as though she was expecting payment, waving us away cheerfully.
The cycle was mostly light on traffic, and we followed a reasonably quiet few roads over hills on perfectly sealed tarmac. At one point we checked the map and decided to take a little detour to a lake. The detour passed by a small village with a lovely Confucian temple, and we expected there to be a few stores selling drinks by the lake. What we weren’t expecting to suddenly appear around a corner was the world’s tallest bronze Maitreya Buddha statue. But there he was, grinning his Buddha grin and clutching the earth in his right hand.
The Maitreya Buddha, for those who don’t know (I certainly didn’t), is kind of like the Jesus Buddha. He is expected to return to earth sometime in the future, when Pure Dhamma has been forgotten by humans, to act as successor to Gautama the Buddha. He will then teach the world to completely detach from everything (including family) and then all humans will lead a holy life free of suffering. In that way he isn’t really very Jesus-y, because the entire world will be at peace, whereas humans can choose to ‘believe or burn’ in the Christian version.
This sort of leads to one of Buddhism’s mind-boggling paradoxes: to speed up the coming of the Maitreya Buddha, people must forget about Dhamma which means stop doing things like erecting 72-metre-high bronze statues. But or course, if they want the Maitreya Buddha to come, then they are craving it and craving will make them miserable; craving is not the Dhamma way. The whole ordeal is one glorious loop of confusion.
Interestingly enough, although this fat, laughing Buddha is the one who seems to be the most commonly recognised in western culture, he’s the only one who isn’t based on a real person.
But there he was, towering out of the valley as part of the recently built Nature Loving Wonderland. When I did a little bit of research about the complex, I learned that the temple was constructed by a sect of Buddhism called “The Great Way of Maitreya”. It was founded in Taiwan in the 80’s by a guy named Wang Hao-te, who, according to his sparse Wikipedia page (that seems to have been written by somebody who holds him in high regard), died of CO2 poisoning in Thailand on Christmas day 1999. Many of these Maitreya-believing sects are regarded as cults and demand tithes (does 10% of your income sound familiar?) as a passage to happiness. I did wonder how Buddhists, who typically shy away from material possessions, could afford to build the world’s tallest bronze statue and a huge, glass-roofed complex.
Life is funny.
A couple of hours later, halfway up a hill under a particularly hot, cloudless sky, a man on a black and white motorbike rode up and began chatting to me.
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know. We’re just going to find somewhere to stay.”
“Where are you from?”
“New Zealand is very beautiful!”
“Taiwan is very beautiful!”
“You are beautiful!” he said, and rode further forward to chat to Caroline.
After a while he rode off, but ten minutes later he re-appeared and began chatting some more. He rolled alongside us from about half an hour, stopped at a 7 Eleven with us, then carried on with us for another half an hour.
“I’ve finished work and now I am going home.”
“What is your work?”
“I’m a chemical engineer.”
“What do you do?”
“I make the, uh, wrap for the wires. To wrap around the wires to prevent from fire.”
Since we were vague about where we were staying, he decided to show us where a good, cheap hotel was in his hometown. Never wanting to offend kind strangers by declining their offers, we agreed to follow him. He led us into the town of Miaoli through some lovely back roads filled with neat rice fields. It was a wonderful time in the rice-growing season: still luscious green but tall enough to be almost changing to gold. The grains of rice visibly danced as winds gusted through the expansive fields.
Soon, we reached the hotel as promised, realising that we’d probably have to accept it in whatever condition at whatever price. The price was 600 Taiwan Dollars, or about $30. More than we’d paid anywhere else in our two years traveling (including some pretty luxurious spots in China), but rather cheap by Taiwanese standards. The room had air conditioning, a shower, a fridge, and a bed. All excellent things after a two full days cycling through intense heat.
Day 3 – Miaoli to a temple in the Taichung mountains
We’d often see teams of spandex ninjas as we rode south through Taiwan. They were humans disguised as advertising billboards on light-looking racing bikes flying team colours; their extremely muscular legs making dainty points of their feet. They all overtook us easily, and most of them offered encouraging words. Taiwan is a small island, and these ninjas have extensively explored it then reported their findings back to the internet. Not a road in the country seems to have gone undocumented, and all the interesting locations show up as little camera icons on Google maps.
We decided to pull away from the hot, straight, gentle rises of the main road and take a detour into the hills to see some camera icon spots.
“It’s going to rain!” cautioned a man and woman as we approached the foot of our final mountain. We knew it was going to rain because the clouds were black and there was lightning, but we stopped to let them finish their warning. The man pointed up, shook his head, and crossed his forearms. He convinced us to take shelter in a nearby temple.
Soon, the rain came down hard, and four men who had been chatting in a circle had to stop due to the noise. A couple who were about walk up the mountain to watch the sunset rushed in half soaked with inside-out umbrellas. Everybody waited out the storm, and afterwards we asked whether or not we could set up our tent somewhere. Yes you can put it here, just make sure you leave before 7 a.m. because of the morning prayers. But since our tent was not freestanding (the pegs need to be hammered into something), we couldn’t set up on the stone floor next to the shrine where they had offered, but rather on a slightly muddy incline by the side of the road that was still temple owned property.
The people who first helped us, plus an old lady and another man with reddened teeth from betel-chewing, watched us set up our tent. Suddenly betel-man rushed over and grabbed a large snail.
“Hao che!” he said happily. Very delicious.
After that, all of them went poking around in the bushes for more snails. When they had a full shopping bag they waved a cheery goodbye and took off on scooters.
Truth be told it wasn’t the most comfortable sleep. The air remained humid and there was some more rain. I managed to break one of the tent zippers meaning one side was less waterproof. We were still very salty and disgusting from a day of cycling with no shower, and there was a streetlight shining in through the flap. But after the rain stopped, a nice breeze came up the mountain and helped to eventually bring us sleep.
Day 4 – Taichung mountain temple to Liuying district
The alarm went off at 5 a.m., but I was already awake because I heard someone shuffling up the road. I peered out of the tent and saw a very old man walking a very old dog up the hill. Satisfied that it wasn’t zombies, I lay and waited for the alarm, scratching at the bites I had received by leaning on the mosquito mesh in my sleep. Yes, mosquitoes can’t get through it, but their evil little blood-sucking needle-faces can, and every bit of exposed flesh that touched mesh was fair game.
It turns out that old people love walking around at unholy hours of the morning, and we had many chats with passers-by while we packed up the tent. The old man and his old dog who had been shuffling up the street earlier now shuffled back down. He spoke a few words to us while his jittery little mutt had a sniff. A few minutes after they disappeared down the hill, the dog returned being led by an old woman. She was talking him to poo, she explained, and he always looked up at the sky as he did so, possibly praying to dog god for satisfactory bowel movements.
We left at 5.40 a.m. and rode for about 12 hours, making it our longest cycle to date in terms of time and distance. The beginning was a lovely little bush path down to the city, and once we were back in the urban jungle we found ourselves almost alone on a road under the overhead highway. At about 7.30 the sun began to get hot. By 8.00 the earth was cooking once more, and the roads leveled out, making the ride almost completely flat and straight.
The last couple of hours veered off the highway and into the countryside. It was hotter here in the south, and the rice fields had already been harvested leaving brown stumps and new green shoots. Our destination was Holland Park, a camping area at a reservoir in the Liuying district 40 km northeast of Tainan. We arrived early evening, tired and sticky, and managed to eat some pumpkin and cheese puffs for dinner before the site’s little shop closed for the night.
We read that the site was free to camp in, but upon arriving realised that it might not be the case; there were hot showers and power outlets at each camping spot. Sure enough, the price was 400 NTD per campsite. The sheer volume of mosquitoes at Holland Park meant we took no photos, but it was a lovely site set next to the reservoir, and would be a wonderful place to camp in one of the other, more mild seasons.
“New Zealand?” the owner exclaimed, “I like the All Blacks. I play rugby!” He grinned and told us to set up anywhere. It didn’t particularly matter, since we were the only people camping on this sticky, humid Saturday evening in June. Once were were safely enclosed inside the tent, cowering from the swarms of mosquitoes, the owner wandered by to offer us tea and give us a “jift” – a packet of onion chips. We accepted his jift, but declined the tea on the grounds that we were furiously itching and our faces were already melting enough from the heat without pouring more hot liquid into ourselves.
Day 5 – Liuying district to Tainan
Once again we set our alarm for 5 a.m. to get a head start on the sun. By 6 a.m. we were cycling through the country roads past cramped chicken and pig farms towards a photo icon on Google maps which promised a Totoro bus stop. I had only watched the movie for the first time a few days before we cycled on this trip, but for Caroline it was childhood staple. Murals depicting the giant cat (?) thing had been painted through a certain alleyway in Danei, and when we arrived on this early Sunday morning there were already several groups of people snapping photos. The locals went about their business, no doubt still adjusting to the fact that their once quiet alley was now a tourist attraction. The murals were only painted a year before our visit.
The ride into Tainan was relatively flat and easy, and arriving at the hotel in the centre of town concluded our short but eventful cycling trip. Even after such a short time, the shower + bed + air conditioning combination was very much appreciated.